Thanksgiving 2017

A prayer for Thanksgiving Day

O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, the God of all mercies and compassion,
Whose mercy cannot be measured and Whose love for mankind is without limit: As unprofitable servants we bow down in reverence and fear before Your gracious majesty, and we humbly offer You this Thanksgiving for all the benefits You have bestowed upon our nation and our Church.

We glorify, praise, hymn and magnify You as our Lord, Master and Benefactor.  We bow down before You in Thanksgiving for Your immeasurable and priceless loving-kindness.

We pray that in the same way that You already blessed us, heard our prayers and fulfilled them, so also in the time to come as we flourish in love and virtue as a result of Your blessings grant always to accept our thanksgiving supplications and grant that we may bring glory to Your Holy Name each day that we walk on this earth.

Deliver our Church and our nation from every evil circumstance, and continue to accept, bless and prosper the work of our hands.
O Lord, grant us peace and tranquility so that we may live in godliness all the days of our lives. Count us always worthy to offer you thanksgiving, to tell about your wonderful blessings, and to sing praise to You for all the benefits you bestow upon us.

In humble gratitude we praise Your Name together with Your Father who is from everlasting and You Most Holy, good and consubstantial Spirit.  Amen.

Thanksgiving morning, 23 November 2017, there was a rainbow in the sky just at day break. A beautiful sight for Thanksgiving morning.

 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”    (Genesis 9:12-16)

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A Separation of Church and State

The state is, to be sure, wholly  of “this world.” It belongs to the level of the reality which in the light of the Kingdom “fades away.” This does not mean, however, that it is either evil or neutral, an enemy to be fought or an entity to be ignored for the sake of “spiritual values.” On the contrary, it is precisely the experience of the Kingdom that for Christians gives the state its real meaning and value. The fall consisted primarily in the disconnection of “this world” from God and in its acquiring therefore a pseudo-meaning and a pseudo-value which is the very essence of the demonic, the Devil being “the liar and the father of lies.” To redeem the world, or anything in the world, is then to place it in the perspective of the Kingdom of God as its end and ultimate term of reference, to make it transparent to the Kingdom as its sign, means and “instrument.”

…The essence of all that exists is good, for it is God’s creation. It is only its divorce from God and its transformation into an idol, i.e. an “end in itself,” that makes anything in this world evil and demonic. Thus, as everything else in “this world,” the state may be under the power of “the prince of this world.” It may become a vehicle of demonic lies and distortions, yet, as everything else, by “accepting” the Kingdom of God as its ultimate value or “eschaton,” it may fulfill a positive function. As an integral part of “this world,” it exists under the sign of the end and will not “inherit the Kingdom of God.” But its positive and indeed “Christian” function lies in this very recognition of its limit, in this very refusal to be an “end in itself,” an absolute value, an idol, in its subordination, in short, to the only absolute value, that of God’s Kingdom.

It is well known that from a purely legal point of view the crime for which Christians were condemned and denied the right to exists (“non licet vos esse”) was their refusal to honor the emperor with the title of Kyrios, Lord. They did not denounce, reject or fight any other “defect” of the Roman Empire be it, to use our modern “fixations,” injustice (slavery), colonialism (the regime of imperial versus the senatorial provinces), or imperialism (expansion at the expense of other states and nations). Yet what they denounced and fought by denying the emperor the divine title of Kyrios implied in fact much more than all this, for it challenged once and for all the self-proclaimed divinity of the state, its claim to be an absolute value, a divine “end in itself.” And it implied therefore not only a negation, but also an affirmation. (Alexander Schmemman, Church World Mission, pp. 30-32)

Opposing Racism: Commending OUR LIFE to Christ

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“Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!”   (Psalm 146:5-10)

In many Orthodox churches, it is customary to sing the above Psalm 146 at the Eucharistic Liturgy.  The Psalm expresses an ideal for the life of the people of God and how we are to be godlike, and to act toward the stranger, the sojourner and the oppressed with the same intention as God Himself: executing justice for them all.  In fact, we are to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12).  It is for this same reason, this same vision, that the Orthodox in America need to stand together with those who oppose racism and bigotry.  It is why we believers need to oppose white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups: such ideology goes against the very understanding we have of God, of what it is to be human and of Christianity.  All humans are called by Christ into a holy unity.  It may be natural to us to identify with people like us – same ethnicity, or race or social class.  These may be the people we spend the most time with, marry and live with in our neighborhoods.  Scripture itself has a great deal of “us” and “them” thinking.  We can choose to live with and marry people like ourselves, but in Christ, we are to treat all others – the stranger, the alien – as we treat people like ourselves.  St. Paul writes forcefully:

12801397374_0fe3e55abb_n“… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”   (Ephesians 2:12-22)

Our vision as Orthodox calls us to this peace in Christ – to live at peace with those who are our neighbors.   As Christ taught, the real question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather “how can I prove myself to be a  neighbor to those I meet?”  (Luke 10:29-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan).  We Orthodox in America need to prove we are Christ’s neighbor by standing against violence and racism and hatred, by siding with those we think of as the stranger, the alien, the sojourner.  Many of us Orthodox came to America as strangers and aliens (or our ancestors did), and many Orthodox as immigrants encountered prejudice and hatred for no other reason than our names, our languages, our Orthodox Faith.  Our message within our parish communities is to be Christ’s message of being neighbors, of love, of caring for the oppressed.  Our Communion is with Christ, not with those who practice or preach hatred and violence nor with those who teach any form of racism.

We would do well to remember our scriptures and the story of the great flood, and what prompted God to want to drown evil and send it back to the depths of the sea out of which it came:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”  (Genesis 6:11-13)

Those promoting violence and hatred embrace a way of life which God has hated (Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 11:5-6; Proverbs 6:16-19) throughout the existence of the human race.

We Orthodox Christians are called to be one race, a race united in Christ, not based on genes but on faith and holiness:

4263457299_d973374b2e_n“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  (1 Peter 2:9-12)

If we pay attention in the Divine Liturgy, we realize all of us share in the same life.  The Liturgy doesn’t speak about “lives” but life (in the singular, one life shared by all of us):

let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life.

May the Holy Spirit Himself minister together with us all the days of our life.

 I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful;

To You we commend our whole life and our hope, O loving Master.

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We all share the same life given to us by God which is why we need to stand with those whose life is threatened by those who rant and rail for violence, hatred and racism.  Life is precious and sacred.  Racism precisely denies “our life” – our common humanity which Christ took on in the incarnation – the one human life given to us all by our Creator.

[The Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America has issued a statement regarding the events which took place  last week in Charlottesville, VA.  The statement deals with racism and violence in America and a call for all of us Orthodox Christians to adhere to the Gospel commands of Christ and to the Tradition of our Church.  You can read their statement at:

We Are Responsible for Our Neighbor’s Salvation

“Knowing as we do that we are responsible both for the salvation of our neighbors and their loss, let us so regulate our life as not only to be sufficient for ourselves but also to prove an occasion of instruction to others, so that we may draw down on us here and now the favor from God, and may in the future enjoy God’s loving kindness in generous measure, thanks to the grace and mercy of his only-begotten Son, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages. Amen.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Genesis, Homily 7, p. 104)

We are responsible for our own salvation and should live the life that corresponds to what we believe.  We are also responsible for our neighbor’s salvation which means we must live a life that witnesses to Christ in such a way that the neighbor will want to embrace what we have found in Christ.

Orthodoxy Celebrating American Religious Freedom

Wishing all my fellow Americans a safe and blessed Independence Day holiday.

“The theory that America is a melting pot no longer seems to be in vogue. Sociologists are pointing more and more to the pluralistic character of American society. Yet, while America is indeed a nation of many people of diverse racial, ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, who are free to hold and cultivate their customs and languages, no cultural tradition is able to remain completely autonomous or unaffected by the lure of the American Way. The process of Americanization is inevitable and inexorable. Indeed, acculturation becomes easier with each succeeding generation.

There are those, however, who believe that the American Way is suspect and even corrupt. They maintain that to survive Orthodox people are obliged to live as a remnant in artificial islands, isolated from the mainstream of American life. This attitude is not simply myopic but also inherently wrong, because it constitues a betrayal of the Church’s self-understanding and mission. In fact, it is a prescription for the transformation of the Church into a sect and a sure way to erode her internal vitality and to dimish her role as a spiritual force in our society. In response to the moral and spiritual imperatives of the Gospel, we are obliged to rise above every fear, surmount every obstacle, and transcend every prejedice, which would deny the catholicity of the Church, seek to restrict her vision, limit her outreach and mission and seal her doors.

The Church is God’s eternal witness and the sacrament of his love for everyone. The Church is the sign and herald of God’s Kingdom in the midst of the contradictions and anomalies of the fallen world. The Church has no borders and knows no fences. She is the house of all, the universal community. As Orthodox Christians in America we need not abandon our roots nor be apologetic about the fact that we carry with us cultural values that have been hammered out in places and times other than our own. Indeed, this very fact acts to remind us of our responsibility and mission to be active and creative participants in the historical process. We have every right to hope and work for an American Orthodoxy because there are grounds for it in our collective histories.” (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy: Vol. 2, pp 52-53)

 

Unity in the Orthodox Church

As our Lord Jesus approached His death, according to the Evangelist John, He offered a prayer for the unity of His disciples (John 17:1-13).  We proclaim this Gospel on the 7th Sunday after Pascha as we commemorate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council.  At the beginning of the 4th Century, the time of that Council, the Church was in grave disunity, torn apart by theological controversy.  It was a time where the Constantinian peace for the Church was beginning – the persecutions ended, but disunity emerged writ large amidst the peace.     Our Lord Jesus Christ also prayed for the unity of all who would come to believe in Him through the work of His disciples and His Church.  Though we know Jesus spent long periods of time in prayer, this is one of the precious few prayers of His that we have recorded.    Here is part of what Jesus prayed for us before His crucifixion:

“I do not pray only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.  May they be one in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given me, I have given to them, so that they may be one even as we are one; I in them, and you in me. May they be perfected into one, so that the world may know that you sent me, and that you have loved them, even as You have loved me.  . . .  Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I knew you; and these have known that you have sent me.  I have made your Name known to them, and I will continue to make it known; so that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  (John 17:20-26, EOB)

Our Lord prayed that all of us who follow Him may share a oneness, a unity like that which is shared by the Persons of the Holy Trinity.   He didn’t further define what the oneness might look like – a oneness of heart and mind because we loved one another?  Or because we perfectly agree on all issues?  A monolithic faith?

Of whatever this oneness consists, the world would learn from that unity that God the Father sent Jesus Christ into the world.   A lot is riding on this unity!

And yet, we see already in the New Testament various kinds of disunity emerging even in the age of the Apostles – some fruitful and some perhaps not.  There are four versions of the Gospel.  Peter and Paul disagreed mightily over some issues.  The Jewish and Gentile Christians experienced serious tensions.  Paul and Barnabus parted ways after a disagreement.

Today the Orthodox Church is endeavoring to work on its unity by calling a Great and Holy Council this month for the edification of the entire Church and the world.  And in some ways Orthodoxy’s condition today is like the Church of the 4th Century: we are emerging from a long period of having to exist beneath the radar of the world’s notice.  We emerge with some sense of peace and the possibility of letting our light shine to the world, rather than remaining hidden beneath a basket.  And yet, just as in the 4th Century, the emerging Church found itself a divided Church and had to grapple with the issue of disunity.   Interestingly, one can read the history of the Ecumenical Council in two different ways.  First, one can decide the Council affirmed clear lines of where the Church was not and who could not be in the Church, that the goal was to exclude those who had a different point of view.  On the other hand, it is possible (and certainly the many Councils that followed seem to indicate this), that the Church was searching hard for a language that was inclusive and that all could agree upon.  That unity through language proved elusive in history, yet the Church continued to pursue that goal as shown in the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils.

On the webpage of the Orthodox Church in America we read the following about this  month’s Great and Holy Orthodox Council and its noble goals:

“The convening of the Holy and Great Council as a sign of unity and as a witness to unity is a worthy vision for Orthodoxy pursued with patience and determination by His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The painful difficulties in realizing this vision have always been evident. The dangers on the road towards this vision are now seen in bold relief, yet the beauty of the vision is clear as never before. Today, the Orthodox Churches stand before the world unable to conceal the wounds of our fractured relationships. Yet vision of unity will not be denied, because it comes from the heart of the Orthodox Faith and is intrinsic to the Good News of Christ. Whatever the difficulties and wounds we bear, we are following the Risen Christ and are empowered by Pentecost to witness to the Gospel of Christ everywhere and at all times.”

Orthodoxy has not embraced a notion that the unity of the Church lies in the person of the Pope of Rome.  It has held to some ideas of unity based in consensus and conciliarity.  But there is also a reality that by not holding a Great Council for 1200 years, the various Orthodox have not tried to actually make unity work, or to work on unity or work for unity.  There was a more nebulous (mystical!) unity of faith that held it together, and because they weren’t working together the unity wasn’t tested.  The Orthodox didn’t get together to work the unity, and this may be the only reason the unity held.  Many marriages and communities are held together by a false sense of unity based in the people avoiding each other and avoiding the conflicts which abound like mines in a field.  True community – a common unity – though may be real only when tested by real life interaction.  The desert fathers pointed out that going off to live alone in a desert is no proof that one has overcome one’s passions of anger, irritability, and irascibility.  One can pretend one is a peaceful person if one avoids others.  But such peace is pretend.

Now we read this statement recently released from the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

 

“The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which bears the first responsibility for safeguarding the unity of Orthodoxy… “

The sentiment seems to be closer to the Papal notion of unity than to ideas of the unity being found in conciliarity and consensus.  But that may be reading more into  the statement than it intends. The statement only claims a “first responsiblity for safeguarding the unity of Orthodoxy” not that the Patriarch represents that unity in his office.    It would seem that Orthodox Tradition has held more to a notion that unity was found in the Councils, not in one Patriarchate.  But again, Christ did not specify how this  unity would be maintained or what it would look like.  The OCA’s Synod does think the idea of the Great Council is part of a worthy vision, a noble ideal, perhaps.   In this sense, Patriarch Bartholemew might be in his office upholding a great ideal for the entire Church, a vision of unity.

2016 Holy Synod

I agree with the statement of the OCA and appreciate its sentiment.  We don’t need to pretend there is unity where it doesn’t exist, but we all can work for that unity in the Church. [The OCA being excluded from the Council is the perfect sign that unity does not in fact exist in worldwide Orthodoxy!]  And if contentions arise or are obvious, as the Church of truth, we don’t need to hide from them or pretend they don’t exist.  Rather we can witness to the world about how we deal with differences as Christians, following the Gospel, loving one another, bearing our cross.   As Orthodox Christians we ought to be able in faith and love to acknowledge our disagreements and the need to discuss them.  We should be able to put everything on the table, to speak the truth in love, and to acknowledge where we disagree without forming into oppositional camps.  After all, Christ teaches us even to love even our enemies.

St. Paul did not shy away from contention, controversy, debate or disagreement with his fellow apostles.  Yet, he writes of a vision of unity as well as a unity of vision:

“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Unity does not mean the Church needs to be a monolith, with absolute agreement on every issue.  There can be unity as long as the leaders agree to respect each other and allow that bishops do have authority in their dioceses to do some things differently.  Bishops can respect each others abilities and authority to disagree without breaking the unity of faith, without ending a unity of vision or the vision of  unity.

In Acts 15, we see how the Apostles handled a painfully divisive issue which was tearing apart the nascent Church.

“And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: ‘Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.’

Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.  And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, ‘Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.  And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
‘After this I will return
And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down;
I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will set it up;
So that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD,
Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
Says the LORD who does all these things.’ …   Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.  For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”   (Acts 15:7-21)

Perhaps if we followed the Spirit and the logic, we might realize we need to work on a unity among us Orthodox.  We have to actually talk to each other in order to form, maintain and nurture the unity and to show that unity in the face of differences amongst us.  This is not to mention the possibility that we are to see worldwide Christianity as our responsibility as well, and that we are somehow to hold a unity even with all “Gentile” Christians as well – all those who are beyond the household of Orthodoxy.

We have to discern whether in fact all the issues we can possibly discuss in fact require complete agreement, or whether a consensus that allows differences is in fact within the bounds of unity that Christ Himself envisioned for us.  We actually fail if we demand conformity in thinking on issues that Christ Himself does not demand unity.  We end up imposing a uniformity by which we try to create our own tower to heaven, which we know ended in Babel.  A falsely demanded conformity in thinking will result in a multitude of languages as every goes off to interpret the monolithic idea in their own way.  Better that we recognize there is disagreement and work with that reality, finding the way to maintain the bond of peace and concord of soul.  That would be truthful at least, rather than a pretend unity based in avoidance.

Unity is not real if it is based in simply not talking with each other.  We Orthodox have had a unity based on our not being able to meet together to talk as well as based on avoidance of issues.  But the fact that there are disagreements doesn’t mean that there is no unity.  Unity can be based in respect and trust that it is OK on some issues for their to be variety, disagreement and variation.  Unity turns out to be a polysemous word.  If we have love for one another, and refuse to break the love, we don’t have to absolute agreement on all issues.  The Ecumenical Patriarch has a noble and worthy vision of unity, can all of the Orthodox primates agree on a vision of unity?  There is plenty of biblical and historical example for them to follow.

Sanctity of Human Life Sunday (2016)

Sanctity of LifeToday the Orthodox Church in America recognizes the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.  I want to mention a quote from President Obama’s 11 January 2016 State of the Union speech.   It’s not easy to find something from him to quote for this Sunday, but he said something which caught my ears:

So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.

The President called upon us to stand up especially for the weak and vulnerable, and to remember “that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”  That is exactly the sentiment we who are pro-life and who believe in the sanctity of human life are doing for the babies in their mother’s wombs.  President Obama said we should speak up and vote.  We do that, and we also pray.

Christ  Blessing the Children

 Here is the prayer that the Orthodox Church in America offers for the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.  It is a prayer for all, including the unborn babies and also for all politicians, even those who don’t respect the sanctity of human life in the womb.

O Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son, Who are in the bosom of the Father, True God, source of life and immortality, Light of Light, Who came into the world to enlighten it: You were pleased to be conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of our souls by the power of Your All-Holy Spirit. O Master, Who came that we might have life more abundantly, we ask You to enlighten the minds and hearts of those blinded to the truth that life begins at conception and that the unborn in the womb are already adorned with Your image and likeness; enable us to guard, cherish, and protect the lives of all those who are unable to care for themselves. For You are the Giver of Life, bringing each person from non-being into being, sealing each person with divine and infinite love. Be merciful, O Lord, to those who, through ignorance or willfulness, affront Your divine goodness and providence through the evil act of abortion. May they, and all of us, come to the life of Your Truth and glorify You, the Giver of Life, together with Your Father, and Your All-Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Rachel Lamenting the Loss of Her Children

Blessed Father Herman of Alaska

We remember the death of St. Herman of Alaska on December 13.  Here is one story from the life of St. Herman:

“Once the Elder (St. Herman) was invited aboard a frigate which came from St Petersburg. The Captain of the frigate was a highly educated man, who had been sent to America by order of the Emperor to make an inspection of all the colonies. There were more than twenty-five officers with the Captain, and they also were educated men. …  Father Herman gave them all one general question: ‘Gentlemen, what do you love above all, and what will each of you wish for your happiness?’ Various answers were offered … Some desired wealth, others glory, some a beautiful wife, and still others a beautiful ship he would captain; and so forth in the same vein. ‘It is not true,’ Father Herman said to them concerning this, ‘that all your various wishes can bring us to one conclusion—that each of you desires that which in his own understanding he considers the best, and which is most worthy of his love?’ They all answered, ‘Yes, that is so!’ He then continued, ‘Would you not say, is not that which is best, above all, and surpassing all, and that which by preference is most worthy of love, the very Lord, our Jesus Christ, who created us, adorned us with such ideals, gave life to all, sustains everything, nurtures and loves all, who is Himself Love and most beautiful of all men? Should we not then love God above every thing, desire Him more than anything, and search Him out?’ ”

All said, “Why, yes! That’s self-evident!” Then the Elder asked, “But do you love God?” They all answered, “Certainly, we love God. How can we not love God?”  Father. Herman replied, “And I a sinner have been trying for more than forty years to love God, I cannot say that I love Him completely,” Father Herman protested to them. He then began to demonstrate to them the way in which we should love God. “if we love someone,” he said, “we always remember them; we try to please them. Day and night our heart is concerned with the subject. Is that the way you gentlemen love God? Do you turn to Him often? Do you always remember Him? Do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments?” They had to admit that they had not! “For our own good, and for our own fortune,” concluded the Elder, “let us at least promise ourselves that from this very minute we will try to love God more than anything and to fulfill His Holy Will!” Without any doubt this conversation was imprinted in the hearts of the listeners for the rest of their lives.”

Of Rainbows and Pharaohs

“The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  (Genesis 9:16)

The view from my hotel window said it all.  There was a beautiful rainbow in the sky over Atlanta.  In the photo immediately above you can even detect it was a double rainbow – the 2nd is about 1/3 of the way from the right side of the photo.  The rainbow reminds us that God, according to Genesis 9:16, is looking at the same thing that we are at the same time.  For us Orthodox, it certainly means that outside the liturgy, in nature, we can focus our attention on something and realize God is gazing at the same thing we are at that moment.  We can meet God’s gaze in space and time.    Not that God is not paying attention to creation the rest of time, but in the rainbow we have a unique experience of looking at something that also catches the Creator’s attention and God remembers all of humanity and all creation in that experience.

Perhaps a good sign for the Orthodox Church in America which is holding its All American Council in Atlanta.  Certainly the infamous “days of trouble” (as they have been frequently dubbed) – scandal and failed episcopal leadership – are part of our past history.   And the OCA navigated those turbulent waters without the intervention of government (friendly or hostile) and without the intervention of a mother church in a foreign land.  The OCA, not a child anymore, has accomplished what an autocephalous church must do – deal with internal problems, apply appropriate discipline and fix the problems.  Other Orthodox jurisdictions may wag their heads as they look at the troubles the OCA has experienced and see us as weakened and on the verge of collapse, but we have gained by our experience.  We have been forced to deal with our problems and to overcome them.  We exposed our problems rather than denying them.  We have survived, which also lays a good foundation for our wrestling with the future.

I am reminded completely of the story form Exodus 14 of the Israelites escaping Egypt with Pharoah’s army in hot pursuit.  Trapped by the Red Sea, the people furious with Moses for getting them trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, Moses, confident that God will save them, cries out to his fellow Israelites:

 “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”

God will save us, He will do it all!  But, NO, that is not what God does.  For in the very next line, God puts salvation on the shoulders of Moses:

The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.

What is God going to be doing in this desperate situation?

He is going to be goading the Egyptians to attack!

That’s what He offers.   He asks Moses, “Why are you crying to me to save you?”  “You lead the people into the sea.”

Holy Moses!

I find this one of the best stories in the Old Testament.  Poor Moses sees the stage is set for God to miraculously save them, only to be told by God, “Why are you crying to me?  I appointed you as their leader, so lead them!”

The OCA has gone through a similar experience.  We had to rely on our divinely appointed leadership to get us through and out of the trap we had  gotten ourselves into.  Those were the times of trouble, and leadership has emerged, as has the OCA from the trap it was in.  A resurrection like the Israelites experienced in the Exodus.  We had to do it not by fleeing one land into another, but by affirming that in this land, we are the autocephalous Church and we have to deal with our problems, no matter how much we have been the cause of them.

The adoption of the revised Statutes as this AAC, the implementation of strict rules of best practices in financial matters – transparency and accountability – and in dealing with clergy misconduct and sexual misconduct in the church, all are signs that the OCA has come through these rough waters in a more healthy fashion and much matured.  We have been battered, but we better understand what God’s love demands from us in North America in the 21st Century.

For me personally, there is also some relief and comfort in the sense that I can trust my Metropolitan and my bishop.  No longer do I feel the need to play the diocese against the central church, or to have to choose which is the lesser of two evils.  Those were feelings that were even cultivated by a former chancellor and seemed so necessary to survive as a priest.  I no longer feel hypocritical about asking many years for our episcopal leadership.  The raging wars are now in the culture, but in many ways these are outside the Church itself.

“Glory to You, building your church, haven of peace in a tortured world.” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”)

For a long time it seemed to me the Church was as tortuous as the world itself.  But what I have found at this year’s AAC is that I am at peace in my Church, the OCA.  Thanks be to God.  May God grant many years to Metropolitan Tikhon and Bishop Paul.

The AAC of the OCA

18thAACFrom my perspective, the 18th All American Council of the Orthodox Church in America is remarkable.  This is not because any new or groundbreaking ideas have been presented, adopted or accomplished.  On the contrary, the Assembly is doing little more than what it is expected to do administratively for the OCA.

What stands out in my mind is the irenic spirit exhibited in the plenary sessions in which the OCA Statute revisions were almost unanimously adopted (97% voted in favor) and the proposed budget and funding plan were so overwhelmingly adopted (92% voting in favor).  The spirit of the council is exhibited in the gentle spirit of Metropolitan Tikhon, whose opening address captured the tone of the Council, and I hope, the future direction of the OCA.

Met Tikhon AACThe Council, under the shepherding of Metropolitan Tikhon, shows every sign that the OCA is ready to move beyond the years of turmoil that marked the past decade.  Council delegates showed a willingness to trust and follow leadership that was in fact working with the Holy Spirit.  Metropolitan Tikhon gave a long opening address in which he skillfully wove in the story of the religious sojourn of his own ancestors into the history and current situation of religion in America today.  His talk was a vision of hope that Orthodoxy in America, which contributed richly to the melting pot which is America, now living in a country of even greater social diversity and heterogeneity, can in fact thrive.   The Orthodox ethnic experience was one in which the ethnic groups tried to maintain their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness in the midst of the melting pot.  The OCA is realizing a new experience – that we as Americans can also be Orthodox, and we as Orthodox can be Americans.  While there are some who feel this is purely accommodation – allowing American values to replace Orthodox values – others see that Orthodoxy has functioned as the salt of the earth in every culture into which Orthodoxy has moved.  Orthodoxy has functioned in many different cultures, even those completely hostile to its existence.  I’m reminded at least of the anonymous early 3rd Century Christian document, “The Letter to Diognetus” which among other things says:

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their peopleagapefatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world.

This seems much closer to Metropolitan Tikhon’s vision than any sectarian withdrawal from the world.  He is a monk, and though having withdrawn from worldly pursuits, he understands the words of Christ:

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. … But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:11-21)

Our goal as Church in America is to be a witness to the love, compassion and Good News of Jesus Christ.  We are to give opportunity to others that they might themselves come to repentance (we can’t compel or legislate repentance – it must come from the person’s heart).  We can’t force others to repent, but can invite them to repentance, to offer them good reason to choose a godly way of life.  Our message though is challenging – we invite people to know the love of God, not through self love but through loving others.  On the one hand our underlying assumption of free will resonates to independently  minded Americans.  On the other hand the call to love others is at odds with the self-centered and selfish ideals of total individualism.

My own sense of things is this vision is again being offered and proclaimed in the OCA in a time of uncertainty and in a constantly changing religious and moral landscape.  Our message doesn’t change, but the people to whom we speak are constantly changing.  We have to be steadfast in our love toward them.