25 June 2017

The healthy parish family

Some years ago, when we adopted our two daughters from Russia, I was searching for an Orthodox parish our eldest might go to. (She had been baptised Orthodox.) I was concerned for her smooth assimilation into American life, so I wanted to find a parish with a good youth program. I phoned the local Romanian parish and spoke with Fr. Anton. I explained the situation and told him, “I’m looking to find a parish with a good youth program.” There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Then Fr. Anton answered, “We don’t shop for churches in Orthodoxy.”
Over and over again through the years, the wisdom of Fr. Anton’s remarks has remained with me. The church is not a commodity. It is not selling anything. Parishes are not in competition with each other.
What, then, is the church? Rightly understood, each parish is a family. What are the keys to a family’s health and success? It isn’t rocket science. Here are a few:
·      Healthy families are always open to gaining new members. When a baby comes home from the hospital, or a new member is added by adoption or marriage, healthy families open to make room for the new person. They are willing to undergo the temporary discomfort or awkwardness that comes with new life, and they give thanks to God for the new life. They are flexible, yet retain their own identity.
·      Healthy families aren’t focused on gaining new members at all costs. Growth should be natural. Those with problems where they are should be told to go back and work on those problems first, before coming. No one should be received without the blessing of their priest. Baggage must be left at the door.
·      Members of healthy families are committed to share a common life. Cal Ripken Jr., the man who broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak, was asked the secret of his success. “The key,” he said, “is mostly just showing up.” Joining a parish is committing to sharing a common life. That requires engaging with all sorts of different people. Some are outgoing, some are shy; some take part in lots of things and others mostly pray. All are essential; none is superfluous.
·      Healthy families commit to work through problems and challenges together. Everyone gets teary-eyed when they read of long-married couples who die on the same day. But stories have those endings only because the couple worked through many problems and challenges throughout the years.
·      Healthy families have differences. The goal, in a healthy family, is not to make everybody to be the same. The variety of persons is revealed in a variety of gifts and, sometimes, on a variety of viewpoints. Diversity is no threat, when we are all agreed to journey together.
·      Healthy families are ordered. There are husband and wife, parents and children, older and younger siblings. These roles are distinct and not interchangeable. Each lives for the other. Love is given and respect is returned.

Perhaps you can think of other things that healthy families share. I'd welcome your thoughts in the comments.

10 March 2017

The scandal of the cross

     Some years ago I attended a wedding between a man who had been raised as a Christian and a woman who had been raised as a Jew. The wedding was held in a nondenominational chapel. When the bride's father entered the space, the first thing he did was go to the altar and remove the cross. He could not abide being in a place that featured the cross--even if it had practically no theological significance in that place whatsoever.

     A few days ago I saw photos from a new Protestant 'church' building, posted on Facebook. The building is beautifully decorated; it has almost everything you could want. It even has beautiful art, like large poster-sized paintings of a lion and a lamb. But it's missing one thing which, to my mind, is the most important: it has no cross. It made me think back to that Jewish father. If his daughter were to be married now in most newer Protestant churches, it's likely he wouldn't have had to remove the cross. It was never there to begin with.
     What a contrast with apostolic Christianity. "God forbid that I should boast," said St. Paul, "except in the cross of Christ, by which I was crucified to the world, and the world to me." And again, he said, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."  In a little over a week, the Orthodox Church marks the third Sunday of Great Lent--the Sunday of the Holy Cross. Our little parish is blessed to have a relic of Christ's cross, given us by our bishop. Still today the cross is a scandal--a stumbling block--but now, not only to Jews but also to many who claim to be followers of Christ.

     We Orthodox glory in the Cross of Christ. We even speak to it in one of our prayers:

Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say with gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His honorable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me with our holy Lady, the Virgin Theotokos, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.

11 December 2016

Homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers, 2016

            Today we celebrate the Sunday of the Forefathers: those men and women of the Old Testament who, in the words of the apolytikion, were “justified by faith.” There was Adam, the first-created and his wife Eve; and Abel the righteous, and Enoch who walked with God. There were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Rahab, and Ruth; David and Solomon, Daniel and the three holy children—all of them, and many more besides, who were justified by faith.

            What does it mean to say they were justified by faith? Nothing but this: that they were justified by Christ. He is their life. They looked forward to him, longed for him, loved him, wanted nothing more than to sit with him at his banquet table in the Kingdom.

            We only understand the lives of the forefathers when we see their connection to Christ. To take but a few: Abel makes the proper offering and himself becomes a sacrifice. Rahab hangs the scarlet rope from her window, proclaiming in advance the blood of Christ. Ruth forsakes her own people to be joined to God’s people; her sorrow is turned to joy by Boaz. David, the man after God’s own heart, sings constantly of Christ, his Mother, and his Church; Solomon builds the Temple, which prefigures the Theotokos and the Church.

            Christ is their life. And that’s the most important reason we celebrate them. They looked forward to the coming of God in the flesh, according to his ancient promise. What he spoke, they trusted. That faith shaped the way they looked at life, and shaped the way they lived.

            We celebrate them, too, because they teach us a valuable lesson. They lived in anticipation of the Christ who would come; we live in celebration of the Christ who has come. They stood between the first promise and its fulfillment; but we stand between the fulfillment of the promise and its completion. While we look back on Christ’s conception and birth, his service and suffering, his dying and rising and ascending—we also look forward to his return. As St. Paul says in our Epistle, “When Christ, who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

            That hope, that anticipation of Christ’s return, shapes the way we live from day to day. Our life is not measured by the ebb and flow of politics, or the wars and rumors of wars, or the search for human justice. Our life is measured by Christ: his mercy and grace and love for mankind. I saw that life in action yesterday, as many people took time out of their busy Saturday to help Deacon Michael and Mary move to their new home. I’ve seen that life in action in countless other ways, and I could point to each and every one of you and give examples.

            So let us be encouraged, brothers and sisters; let us be inspired by the lives of those who came before and anticipated Christ. Soon, soon, our wait will be over, our faith will become sight and our hope will be fulfilled. “When Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory”: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

09 October 2016

Homily for 9 October, 2016

         In this life, everything is hidden under its opposite. That is a great mystery, and yet it is true. And if we learned the lesson, it would revolutionize the way we live. The sorrows we face could be tokens of mercy; the joys we experience could be calls to repent and return.

         In today’s epistle, St. Paul draws a remarkable contrast: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

         On the one side he puts the way that things seem. We seem to be imposters, unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful, poor and having nothing. On the other side he puts the way things really are. We are true, well known, live, are not killed, are always rejoicing, making many rich and possessing everything ourselves.

         We Orthodox have a category of saint, the holy fool, who embodies these words of St. Paul. St. Basil the Blessed, St. Ksenia of Peterburg, St. Andrew of Constantinople—all these were given the grace of Christ to live their lives as homeless, sometimes naked, always disconnected from the ‘normal’ life around them but profoundly connected to the life of the living Christ. If you’ve seen the movie OstrovThe Island—you’ve seen a depiction of a holy fool.

         It doesn’t matter to me which side of the political spectrum you stand on: liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican or Libertarian—every Orthodox Christian must see that if any time and place called for a holy fool to arise, ours is surely it. Look where we have gotten with our much-vaunted reason and education!

We have completely lost the human person. Women are treated as objects. The unborn are ripped from the womb and left to die. The poor are dishonored and disrespected. We identify ourselves with our greed and desires, and enshrine them in law. We are caught between slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” We talk, but don’t listen; we give advice, but don’t take it; instead of works of mercy to the poor, we give words on social justice about the poor. We try to make the rest of the world in our image, and do not deal with the problems at home. When Scripture pronounces God’s harshest judgment, it does so in these words: “And so God gave them up to their own desires.” Are we not there, friends? Are we not there?
This is no time for nostrums, or pious pronouncements. Nothing can save us now but repentance. We must give up trying to look respectable. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.”
With repentance there is hope, even in the midst of death. As we carry the corpse of western culture out to the cemetery…as we see its promise end in silence…perhaps we shall encounter Christ again, as did the widow in today’s Gospel. He raised up Russia after 70 years of atheist Bolshevism. He can do the same for us.
So let us live in repentance, dear brothers and sisters of Christ. Let us stop measuring with the world’s measure, and learn to measure all things by the wood of the cross—the only truly straight edge. Let us embrace, as we are able, the foolishness of him who foolishly gave himself utterly and completely to ungrateful slaves. Let us embrace, to the degree we can, the weakness and shame and scandal of the Cross. For as our Bishop reminded us a few weeks ago, there can be no resurrection Sunday without first knowing the pain of Great and Holy Friday.