Friday, November 30, 2018

'He is Life itself and, therefore, my life...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

We concluded this year's Fall Adult Education Class last Monday evening. It was one of our better classes, in my humble opinion, primarily based on Fr. Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World. The discussions were lively and helpful for everyone in the group.*

Of the group, we had many participants over the course of six weeks, and for the most part everyone was quite impressed by the range and depth of Fr. Schmemann's "vision" for Orthodoxy in the contemporary world. I have brought that vision to our parish for the course of almost thirty years now, and I hope it will continue well into the future. 

Fr. Alexander helped us understand the centrality of the Eucharist for each and every Orthodox community, and how that eucharistic experience is the foundation for our mission to the world. That ascension to the Kingdom on the Lord's Day is what sets us apart from being just one more "religious community." It is the very content of who and what we are.

One particular paragraph stood out for me from the final chapter, "Trampling Down Death By Death." I would like to share it with everyone in the parish:

To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a trans-rational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. "In Him was life; and the life was the light of men."
All Christian doctrines - those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement - are explanations, consequences, but not the "cause" of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become "valid" and "consistent." 
But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that "proposition" about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. "For the life was manifested and we have seeing, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us" (I Jn. 1:2). 
In this sense Christian faith is radically different from "religious belief." Its starting point is not "believe" but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. "For we know in part, and we prophecy in part ... be tongues, they shall cease, whether there is knowledge, it shall vanish away." Only love never fails (I Cor. 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the "content" of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life. (p.104-105)

If you have yet to read For the Life of the World, put aside your other reading for the moment, and immerse yourselves in a "classic" of Orthodox writing that will open up all kinds of new insights into the meaning of the Christian faith and life.

* Links to order the book, plus Fr. Steven's extensive class notes and discussion questions, as well as special resources on Fr Alexander Schmemann and related texts may be found on our parish website.

Friday, November 23, 2018

A Brief Reflection on Black Friday

Dear Parish Faithful,

There is something almost "metaphysically unsettling" about "Black Friday."

The very name of this day has an ominous ring to it. It may just be the sheer "nakedness" of the open, unapologetic, unflinching - and idolatrous? - materialism that pervades the day. (Last year, a staggering five billion dollars were spent in less than twenty-four hours). 

Or, is it the sight of the steely determination of compulsive consumers camping out overnight before the store of their choice that offers that ever-enticing single word: Sale? 

Perhaps it is the frantic mayhem of the rush to the doors once they swing open like insatiable jaws leading into a modern-day Moloch awaiting to swallow its victims. 

Could it be the unneighborly pushing and shoving for a product on the shelves or a place in the check-out line? How about an uneasy sense of potential violence hovering in the atmosphere if competitive tempers and nerves begin to fray? 

Perhaps it is more the rapid devolution, in a veritable "twinkling of an eye," from a day of peaceful thanksgiving, into a day of rampant consumerism that is nothing short of unnerving in its effect. (Once upon a time, this Friday after Thanksgiving was a day of rest and relaxation.) As if it is now that Thanksgiving Thursday has become a mere prelude to the Black Friday to follow. 

Or is it, finally, the disheartening havoc wrecked upon any vestigial remainder of "Christmas" that has miraculously continued to linger within our secular culture two millennia after our Savior's nativity in the flesh? We seem to be witnessing a juggernaut that continues to pick up speed and strength as it careens into an unrestricted future with no end in sight. 

There is "Great and Holy Friday" and now there is ... "Black Friday."

Am I exaggerating? Please let me know. Of course, one can show the virtue of patience and simply wait until "Cyber Monday" in the quiet of one's own domicile. Not very certain that it will be spiritually healthier ... but it will be far less chaotic and perhaps even safer!

If only we loved God with the type of fervor displayed by our neighbors and co-citizens on Black Friday and rushed to the Church with such energy for the peaceful and prayerful services of this sacred Season!

What a witness to a spiritually-starving world we could make! But, alas, just when will that happen? Then again, with God all things are possible!

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Abundance of Our Possessions

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possession."  (LK. 12:15)

Icon of the Parable of the Rich Fool: He dines like a king at the table in the center, while servants build his new barns on the left. At right, an angel is seen coming to his deathbed to receive his soul.

There is hardly a Christian who would disagree with this teaching of the Lord, as expressed in the words above, when it comes to our relationship with the "abundance of our possessions."  We know that our life does not "consist" in them.  In other words, these very possessions do not, and simply cannot, impart genuine meaning and significance to our lives. These possessions are external to our inner being; for they cannot define us as human beings made "in the image and likeness of God." And we can say that without dismissing these possessions as just so much "mammon."

There are things that we need and there are things that we enjoy.  Yet, I also cannot but arrive at the inescapable conclusion that even though we know this teaching to be true, we seem to pay such teaching just so much "lip service" because of the extent to which we are enamored and captivated (enslaved?) by "the abundance of our possessions!"  Who is the person that can claim otherwise? 

On one level - certainly not the highest! - our lives seem to be a steady progression of accumulating as much as possible, the only limit to this accumulation being imposed on us by the extent of our available resources.  This means that the abundance - or at least the quality - of our possessions will increase as our access to "purchasing power" increases.  (Thus, at Christmas, the extent and quality of the gifts that end up in the hands of children will depend upon the wealth - or lack of wealth - of their parents.  Those who have will simply have more once Christmas comes and goes).

As Christians, then, we find ourselves in the awkward position, indicative of a genuine tension, of accepting our Lord's teaching about the dangers of accumulating possessions as true, and yet unable to arrest the desire and endeavor of adding to this abundance.  The "consumer within" is a driving force indeed!

The Lord reveals the obviousness of His teaching about possessions through the Parable of the Rich Fool, found immediately after the words already cited above. (LK. 12:16-21)  This parable is relatively short and to-the-point, so I will include it here in order to refresh our familiarity with it:

The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?  And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; that there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample good laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'  But God said to him, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

Not only short and to-the-point, but almost brutal in its clarity and inescapable truthfulness:  You can plan all you want, but death will cut short the most well-conceived plans with an unexpected finality that makes a mockery of those very plans. When death comes, the rich man's wealth is shown to be a worthless form of security for his "soul." (This parable always brings to my mind the words of Tevye the dairyman, who once mused that the more man plans the harder God laughs!). 

The parable does not make a moral monster of the rich landowner. There is no hint of his being a particularly sinful person. Indeed, he is probably quite indicative of his "type:" at least outwardly decent and a man of status. And he may have attended his local synagogue with regularity.  It is his preoccupation with "the abundance of his possessions" - "what shall I do;" "I will do this" - that renders him a "fool" in the judgment of God; a preoccupation that was self-centered in its orientation, culminating in a blindness that resulted in forgetfulness of God, instead of pursuing the meaningful task of striving to be "rich toward God."  As a Jew guided by the Law, he had that opportunity but squandered it.

His careful plans to build larger barns in order to accommodate his ever-increasing store of crops had the immediate impact of making life easier and enjoyable - a time to "eat, drink, and be merry." This, in turn, was a self-satisfying expansion and investment of his time and energy. In the process he pushed the inevitability of his death into a vague and perhaps far-off future. (The saints teach us that the "remembrance of death" is a key component of our spiritual lives, precisely to protect us from any such foolish forgetfulness). It is an attitude/temptation as alive today as it was in the time of Christ.

As real as the barns the landowner envisioned may have been, they are equally symbolic of a choice he made with the direction of his life. And this choice toward wealth proved to be quite costly.  Is our present-day portfolio-building equivalent to the rich landowner's building of barns?  Are we more preoccupied with becoming "rich toward God," or simply with becoming rich in the accumulation of our possessions?  Will we have to suffer with being called a "fool" when that time comes?

Perhaps we can understand the rich landowner's pursuit of an abundance of possessions as an unconscious strategy toward finding and establishing a sense of security in life. 

We are all aware of the fragile nature of our lives, and the threats posed to our security on a host of fronts:  poverty, illness, death itself.  There is nothing quite so reassuring as the feeling of security that would protect us from such threats.  While to feel insecure is a cause of great anxiety. Civilization and technology are built and developed to provide security for human beings in an insecure world. 

Thus, we find ourselves facing the same dilemma as the landowner of the parable in our own search for security; and often turning to the very means that he did in order to build up that ever-shifting sense of security:  the accumulation of an "abundance of possessions."  How ironic, though, that we tend to "secure our security" with the very means that cannot really provide it, while we neglect trying to get "rich toward God, the only true security! 

As the biblical scholar Timothy Luke Johnson has written:

"It is out of deep fear that the acquisitive instinct grows monstrous.  Life seems so frail and contingent that many possessions are required to secure it, even though the possessions are frailer still than the life"  (Gospel of Luke, p. 201).  

And, as another biblical scholar - Brendan Byrne - writes with a certain bluntness: 

"Attachment to wealth is incompatible with living, sharing and celebrating the hospitality of God" (The Hospitality of God, p. 115).

The impact of the Parable of the Rich Fool is precisely in the choice with which the parable confronts us between two very different types of "security:"  the abundance of our possessions, or being rich toward God.  It seems like a simple choice - especially for Christians - but somehow it ends up being a good deal more complicated.  We need to search our minds and hearts as to why this is true.

Christ did not deliver parables in order to entertain us with pleasant stories.  Neither to simply edify us with a moral story that remains within our "comfort zone."  The choice that the parable does confront us with demands a response - though it is possible that if we do not have "ears to hear," we can walk away from the parable with indifference.  ("Let us attend!" always precedes the reading of the Holy Scriptures in church so as to focus our minds on the appointed readings).

Let us, however, assume that we do have "ears to hear." If, then, the parable shakes us out of the false sense of security that possessions may give us, we then have to reflect deeply on how to become "rich toward God." 

Of course, we must begin by cultivating the gifts of God graciously bestowed on us:  faith, hope and love.  We can direct our prayer towards this. We need to un-hypocritically practice prayer, almsgiving and fasting. 

We further immerse ourselves in the "words of the Word" - the holy Scriptures.  It is essential that we confess our sins, and then wage a "spiritual warfare" against them.  The possibilities within the grace-filled life of the Church are many indeed.  We are neither predestined nor forced to avail ourselves of these possibilities.  We must choose to do so, supported by the grace of God.  This choice may very well determine whether or not, at the end of our lives, we will hear either "Fool!" or "Well-done, good and faithful servant."  As Jesus often exclaimed: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

*As a kind of footnote to the above, I would like to point to a tremendous story of great narrative power and psychological insight, that almost reads as an extended and artistic embodiment of this parable:  Leo Tolstoy's "Master and Man."  In the story the rich landowner of 1st c. Palestine is now re-conceived as a wealthy 19th c Russian landowner.  His ultimate fate is rather terrifying.  A great work of literature well worth the time and effort.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Dear Parish Faithful,

Here is a meditation from a few years back - and one that is also in my new book in a slightly different form - that I do not overly hesitate to send yet again, because the issues presented here for us to think hard about ("meditate"), are certainly with us today and are far from being resolved: "There is nothing new under the sun." I hope everyone is prepared to make a real effort to embrace the forty-day Nativity Fast on a level that works for you and your family and that commits us to the life of the Church in a meaningful manner. If we are not prepared, perhaps what you read here will alert you to the Season we are now entering. 

~ Fr. Steven


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas

Today, November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25.  (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared.  However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today.  This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously.  The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively.  Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres. 

Because of that tension between the two, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously.  To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world.  That is what it means to be ascetical. And to be an ascetic is not to be a fanatic, but to follow the words of Christ who taught us to practice "self-denial" (MK. 8:34). It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy!  From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross.  Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.   

Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming.  Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives.  Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.”  An awareness – combined with sharing - of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”

Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies.  To speak honestly, this is a difficult  and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies?  I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.  If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance.  Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. The Church directs us to fast before we feast.  Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach?  Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us  the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent?  Do we care enough?

The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days. In such a way, these forty days will result in a meaningful journey toward the mystery of the Incarnation rather than in an exhaustive excursion toward a vapid winter holiday. The choice is ours to make.