25 July 2014
Note: over the past few weeks, my wife and I were privileged to be in Europe, including western Ukraine, where we visited a number of exchange students we've hosted over the years. Last Sunday I was invited to speak after Liturgy at the Orthodox parish in Veliki Mosti, Ukraine. A number of non-Orthodox people from the town were present at the Liturgy to hear these remarks. (The name "Veliki Mosti" means "Big bridge;" I make a pun in the first full paragraph by speaking of "malinky most," or "little bridge.")
I have many fond memories of our time in Ukraine, and especially in visiting with Fr. Dmitri from Veliki Mosti. He is truly a good shepherd of his flock, and I am grateful to count him as my brother in Christ and in the priesthood.
The remarks I made were not profound, but I put them forward because they were very well received and because they will serve as an ongoing reminder of a very precious day in my life.
Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ the Lord,
I bring you greetings from your fellow Orthodox Christians in the USA.
My name is Fr. Gregory Hogg, and I am an archpriest in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. My wife and I are here in Veliki Mosti because we are visiting our former exchange student Olah Ruda and her family. In a way, we are building a “malinky most” between our parish and yours. Later today, God willing, we will begin our homeward journey.
You are members of the Moscow patriarchate, and we are from Antioch, but the delightful thing about being Orthodox is that all around the world we are one Church, one body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. The “Moscow” and “Antioch” are just adjectives; the important word is Orthodox—right believing, right praying, right teaching.
With you we grieve at the conflict elsewhere in Ukraine...a conflict that has the devil’s fingerprints all over it. In such conflicts there are no winners, only losers. What shall we seek in this conflict? Justice? When my children were young, sometimes one of them would complain that they were not being treated fairly, not being treated justly, over against their siblings. "Do you want to be treated fairly?" I would ask, and remind them of all that I did for them that I didn't do for the others. "If I treat you justly, I'll have to stop doing these things for you." So also with us. We don’t need justice. We need God’s mercy in this conflict and in the many other places that Orthodox Christians are threatened today, including the home of my church in Syria.
I am sad that some make use of this conflict to attack the Orthodox Church. They claim that to be Ukrainian is not to be Orthodox. But the Church is Christ’s kingdom, and Christ God told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” To belong to the Orthodox Catholic Church is to belong to the church that is right-believing and scattered through every country of the earth. Now more than ever we need the Orthodox Church to guide us through the troubled waters of the 21st century.
I was not born into the Orthodox Church. I was raised a Protestant, a Lutheran, and served as a Lutheran pastor and professor for 22 years. I came to Orthodoxy because, after an 18 year search in which I read Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox sources, I found here a faith that does not change.... A hope that helps people endure under persecution... A love that receives all people, even me.
Some of you come from Orthodox families. To you I would say that no one is born Orthodox. We are all converts through the water of Holy Baptism, the oil of Holy Chrism, and the sharing of Christ’s true body and blood.
Some of you may not be Orthodox. To you I would say, take the challenge to study what happened to the Church Christ founded. St Paul says, “Remain in that standard you received; and if anyone is otherwise minded, God will make it plain to him.” I am living proof of those words. It took time, but God made it plain to me.
Thank you for receiving us so warmly into your beautiful home!
06 July 2014
Some years ago I considered entering the Army Reserves as a chaplain, to help supplement my income as a pastor. Very quickly I discovered the difference between life in the Army and life in the Church. The chaplain I was talking to, needed a form of some kind. “Corporal Smith!” he called out. “Yes, sir!” the corporal replied. “Get me form such-and-such,” the chaplain said. “Yes, sir!” the corporal said, and went immediately to carry out the command. I remember thinking, “Wow, would church be different if pastors could get that kind of response!”
The man in today’s gospel understood the power of a word. Like any officer in any army from that day till our own, he needed only to express his will, and others would jump into action to make sure it happened. Armies rely on the power of a word.
So it was that when Christ offered to come to his house, to heal his servant, the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come to my house; but say the word, and he will be healed. For even I am a man under authority, and I say to one man ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come,’ and he comes.”
Consider his words. In the first place, he admits his own unworthiness. One of the other Gospels mentions that the Jews say, “He is worthy that you do this, for he loves our people and built us a synagogue.” He thought himself unworthy, and others thought him worthy. Most of the time, things are opposite: we think ourselves worthy, and others say, “Well, not so much.” What else explains how quickly we become angry?...how we complain when suffering is our lot in life?...when things don’t go the way we think they should?
If I truly believed I was not worthy, I would not grumble under suffering…I would be slower to get angry and frustrated…I would see each day, with all it brings, as a gift…I would learn to call on God fervently, from the heart, for help in all things.
Note, also, that the centurion compares himself only with Christ. When he says, “Even I am a man under authority, and my words are obeyed,” here’s what he’s saying. “If I am under authority and men obey me, how much more will sickness obey you, who are enfleshed God.” His words powerfully confessed the power of Christ to do what he willed.
There wasn’t much that made Christ marvel. In fact, I could find only two such times. He marveled at the unbelief shown him in Nazareth, and he marveled at the faith of this Gentile centurion. With a word, he healed the servant.
The Greek word for ‘word’ is logos. It also means ‘reason.’ Careful observers of our country and world may wonder whatever happened to it. Where did reason go, when we try to fix the problems of other countries, and neglect our own? Where did reason go, when we are giving our children 17 trillion dollars in debt and at the same time admitting more wards of the state? Where did reason go when our so-called war against radical Islam has resulted in the destruction of Christianity in the Middle East? I could go on and on; the examples are endless, both in our nation and, if we look closely, in our own lives.
What, then, shall we do? There is precious little I can do with the world system as it lurches toward irrationality. But there is much I can do in my own life. To begin with, I can learn how precious and powerful is the Word of God. We Orthodox must be careful to cherish the written Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. If Protestants do no honor to the Scripture by a low view of the Church, it is also true that Orthodox do no honor to the Church by a low view of Scripture. Do we read it? Do we tremble at it? Do we seek to order our lives according to it? “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Further, I can learn from the centurion how to see myself. “I am not worthy.” As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, we were not put on this earth to become happy. In this brief time we live in the light, let us meditate on the love of God in Christ, how that he made us out of nothing, and when we had fallen he did not cease to do all things until he brought us to heaven, and gave us his kingdom to come.
In a few moments, he gives us that kingdom once again in the chalice. He who healed the centurion’s servant with a word, now comes under the roof of our souls to feed us and nourish us and heal us and forgive us. Let us not take this great gift for granted, beloved, but let us receive it in humility and thanksgiving. As St. John Chrysostom says in his pre-communion prayer,
“O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficiently pleasing that Thou shouldst come under the roof of the house of my soul for it is entirely desolate and fallen in ruin and Thou wilt not find in me a place worthy to lay Thy head. But as Thou didst humble Thyself from on high for our sake, so now humble Thyself to my lowliness.As Thou didst deign to lie in a cavern, in a manger of dumb beasts, so now deign to enter in to the manger of my beastly soul, and into my soiled body.And as Thou didst not disdain to enter and to eat with sinners in the house of Simon the leper, so now be pleased to enter into the house of my soul, humble and leprous and sinful.And as Thou didst not cast out the prostitute, the sinful woman who came to touch Thee, so have compassion on me a sinner who comes to touch Thee.And As Thou didst not abhor the kiss of her sin-stained and unclean mouth, do not abhor my mouth, worse stained and more unclean than hers, nor my stained and shamed and unclean lips, nor my still more impure tongue.But let the fiery coal of Thy most pure Body and Thy most precious Blood bring me sanctification, enlightenment and strengthening of my lowly soul and body, relief from the burden of my many transgressions, protection against every action of the devil, repulsion and victory over my wicked and evil habits, mortification of my passions, accomplishment of Thy commandments, increase of Thy divine grace, and inheritance of Thy kingdom.For I do not come to Thee in presumption, O Christ my God, but made bold by Thine unspeakable goodness, lest I stray far away from Thy flock, O Master, and become caught by the wolf of souls.Therefore I pray Thee, O Master, for Thou alone art holy, sanctify my soul and body, my mind and heart, my muscles and bones. Renew me entirely. Implant Thy fear in my fleshly members and let Thy sanctification never be removed from me.Be my helper and defender, guide my life in peace and make me worthy to stand at Thy right hand with all Thy saints.By the prayers and supplications of Thy most pure Mother, of Thy spiritual servants, the most pure angelic powers, and of all the saints who from all ages have been well-pleasing to Thee. Amen.”