Friday, January 23, 2015

Christ and the World

The world cannot be served from a place o f power, but it can be served from the cross. On the cross the world stabs its own heart, but the cross is a school and to run away from it is to run away from the future. Fr. Bishoy Kamel
Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said that Christianity is not a religion but a way of life. We have failed to understand this statement because of the way Christianity has engaged the world. Christianity has engaged itself in "bigger" churches "more" activities resulting in the reduction of the church. The church is meant to give life to all who seek it. The church is the place where one learns how to become a human being. Church activities are good and Sunday School is great however, if these acts are done in isolation of Christ and what it means to live in the body of Christ then the focus has turned away from the body of Christ to "things" that need to be done to satisfy the needs of the individual. Father Matthew the Poor during one of his sermons said that the church today is dead because Christ is not present in the church. We must learn to be engaged with the world as Christ was engaged with his community. The church must move away from being "another" institution and become the place where true life is given to all. The church never seeks to serve those who serve it best but rather the church seeks that which is lost and to bring it back to the body of Christ. When Christ is not present in the church the church becomes nothing more than activities done in order to find meaning in this life. The true meaning of life lies in the person of Christ and if we move away from making the church the enterprise and making Christ the goal then and only then can we truly live a life in Christ.    

“When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”
+ Fr. John S. Romanides

"Nowadays, especially in the U.S., the Church is perceived as an enterprise, an activity. The priest constantly harasses people to do something for the Church. And their activism is measured in quantitative criteria: how many meetings, how much money, how much “doing.” I’m not sure it is all necessary. 

What is dangerous is not the activity itself, but the reduction of the Church, the identification of this activity with life in the Church. The idea of the Church, the sacramental principle of its life, lies in taking us away from activity (“let us put aside all earthly cares”), in making us commune with a new life, eternity, the Kingdom. 

And the idea of the Church, the principle of its life, also demands that we would bring into the world this experience of a new life so that we would purify this world, illumine it with the non-worldliness of the experience of the Church. Quite often the opposite happens: we bring activism into the Church, the fuss of this world, and submit the Church, poison its life with this incessant fuss. What happens is not that life becomes Church, but the Church becomes worldly."
+ Fr Alexander Schmemann, Journals, Thursday, February 18, 1982

"A group of Orthodox seminarians came to visit the mission...One of them very upset commented that there is no point in what the mission was doing, unless we made people became Orthodox. Later reflecting on this father commented that this future priest difficulty comes from "his anthropology. It is not patristic." God's love for us humans has no agenda. What a privilege it is that we love and exist in the same way God does."
+ Memories from an Orthodox Urban Mission

"The first thing that must be said about acquiring this spirit of service is that it will not happen by simply reading about Christ’s acts of service in the Gospel and trying, with no preparation, to imitate Him.  The fact of the matter is that the Lord did not simply perform acts of service; rather, His deeds of love flowed naturally from His gracious character.  His deeds reveal His identity.  If we try to analyze the activity of Christ in the Gospel with a view to implementing a programme of Christ-like service to others, we will fail.  Acts of service that do not have their origin in a gracious character are not credible and are often undertaken for the wrong reasons.  Unfortunately, the wounded human heart is capable of sin even in performing good deeds if it is not being purified, enlightened and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.  We come face to face with a fundamental problem: we cannot act as Christ acts through observation and implementation alone.  We cannot acquire the spirit of service as we would a skill or a discipline.  We must instead receive Christ’s life and then struggle to allow His character to emerge in us.  This is why the Orthodox Church carefully distinguishes between the imitation of Christ and the life in Christ.  The former allows us to learn about Christianity; the latter allows us to become Christians."
+ Very Rev. Maxym Lysack, Serving Through Outreach

"We are taught that we must seek success individually, for we are in a society where we must compete, or die. This means that we are obsessed by efficacity, by work and by recognition. We want to be recognized, not necessarily for the value of what we are doing, but rather to be promoted. This is success. Success is evaluated in money and power. This is what we are continually being taught right from childhood. Thus, in every field, we are all pushed by the sense of promotion. We must get on, must have success, power and riches....

We...have the cult of liberty and of liberalism, with some innate and phobic fear of anything that might smell of socialism and of community in the larger sense. We are told that we must have the signs of success in the quality of our houses, cars and various other ornaments or furniture inside our houses. The whole aspect of prestige and recognition by the neighbours is very, very fundamental in our society which has pushed us to a very individualized culture.

It follows that very quickly the family is fragmented. What I mean by a fragmented family is that old people must be put in old people's homes; mentally handicapped people must have their own residences and physically handicapped people must too. Delinquents must have their place also. All those who are the marginal ones are categorically placed together in residences where necessary specialists can be hired to provide programs to govern their existence, and this permits the nuclear family, husband, wife and two children just to be together about their business.

The children of the family are taken up with children's activities, clubs and youth movements. The wife can join a bridge club, take a part time job or do volunteer work at the local hospital or for meals on wheels. The husband frequently becomes obsessed by this idea of promotion which is very deeply ingrained. He must go up the ladder or he just might go down, and this can be very serious, particularly when they have bought a lot on credit without any money. What if he should lose his job? So, he has to become a slave to the system because everything has been bought before he had the money. Sometimes the husband and wife will be so divided in their activities that there is an even greater fragmentation....We are taken up in a world of activities; we have to do and we have forgotten how to be. And because we are always doing, we get into a vicious circle, with the result that relationships begin to break down....

When there is despair, I begin to throw myself into activity in order to forget my pain. I do and I do and I do and one day, I retire. Then, having nothing to do, I fall sick. This is the story of many people who are caught up in the world of doing, because in reality, to do, can be to flee. Doing should flow from my being, but frequently I do, because I am frightened that I do not really exist sufficiently. Maybe in this world of intense noise, I am running away. Maybe I'm terribly frightened of silence, frightened because in silence I meet myself, and I confront myself. Maybe also in the silence I meet my God.'"
+ Jean Vanier, Excerpts from Monograph No. 4: Learn to Live. 
Edited by Sue Mosteller. (Richmond Hill: Daybreak Publications/PrintOne, 1978)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Minister and Inner Events: Discovering our Humanity


Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest and probably one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century. In this hope-filled and profoundly simple book, Henri Nouwen offers a radically fresh interpretation of how we can best serve others. Here he inspires devoted men and women who want to be of service in their church or community, but who have found some traditional practices of outreach alienating an ineffective. Weaving keen cultural analysis  with his psychological and religious insights, Nouwen has come up with a balanced and creative theology of service that begins with the realization of fundamental woundedness in human nature.

According to Nouwen, ministers are called to identify the suffering in their own hearts and make that recognition the starting point of their service. For Nouwen, ministers must be willing to go beyond their professional, somewhat aloof, roles and leave themselves open as fellow human beings with the same wounds and suffering as those whom they serve. In other words, we heal from our wounds. Nouwen describes wounded healers as individuals who "must look after their won wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others". The minister is the one who wants to serve others however, the minister is a wounded person.

I hope to present a few passages from the book in the next few entries that will help anyone who serves guide them on their journey.    

_____________________________________

This might sound highly theoretical, but the concrete consequences are obvious. In practically all priestly functions, such as pastoral conversation, preaching, teaching, and liturgy, the minister tries to help people to recognize the work of god in themselves. The Christian leader, minister or priest, is not one who reveals God to the people-who gives something to those who have nothing-but one who helps those who are searching to discover reality as the source of their existence. In this sense we can say that the Christian leader leads humans to confession, in the classic sense of the word: to the basic affirmation that humans are human and God is God, and that without God, humans cannot be called human.

In this context, pastoral conversation is not merely a skillful use of conversational techniques to manipulate people into the Kingdom of God, but a deep human encounter in which people are willing to put their own faith and doubt, their own hope and despair, their own light and darkness at the disposal of others who want to find a way through their confusion and touch the solid core of life.

In this context, preaching means more than handing over a tradition; it is, rather, the careful and sensitive articulation of what is happening in the community so that those who listen can say: "You say what I only suspected, you clearly express what I vaguely felt, you bring to the fore what I fearfully kept in the back of my mind. Yes, yes-you say who we are, you recognize our condition."

When someone who listens is able to say this, then the ground is broken for others to receive the Word of God. And no minister need doubt that the Word will be received! The young especially do not have to run away from their fears and hopes but can see themselves in the face of the one who leads them; the minister will make them understand the words of salvation which in the past often sounded to them like words from a strange and unfamiliar world.

Teaching in this context does not mean telling the old story over and over again, but the offering of channels through which people can discover themselves, clarify their own experiences, and find the niches in which the Word of God can take firm hold. And finally, in this context liturgy is much more than ritual. It can become a true celebration when the liturgical leader is able to name the space where joy and sorrow touch each other as the place in which it is possible to celebrate both life and death.

So the first and most basic task of contemporary Christian leaders is to lead people out of the land of confusion into the land of hope. Therefore, they must first have the courage to be explorers of the new territory within themselves and to articulate their discoveries as a service to the inward generations.


Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry for a Rootless Generations, 43-44.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Christ is Born! Glorify Him! The Word Became Flesh

My dear brothers and sisters! From my family to yours I am wishing you a blessed feast of the nativity and may the feast of the incarnation bring you joy and happiness! The following is a sermon by St. John of Kronstadt. May these words bring us joy and happiness to our families and loved ones! May it be a blessed season for all! 


The Word became flesh; that is, the Son of God, co-eternal with God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, became human – having become incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. O, wondrous, awesome and salvific mystery! The One Who had no beginning took on a beginning according to humanity; the One without flesh assumed flesh. God became man – without ceasing to be God. The Unapproachable One became approachable to all, in the aspect of an humble servant. Why, and for what reason, was there such condescension [shown] on the part of the Creator toward His transgressing creatures – toward humanity which, through an act of its own will had fallen away from God, its Creator?

It was by reason of a supreme, inexpressible mercy toward His creation on the part of the Master, Who could not bear to see the entire race of mankind – which, He, in creating, had endowed with wondrous gifts – enslaved by the devil and thus destined for eternal suffering and torment.
And the Word became flesh!...in order to make us earthly beings into heavenly ones, in order to make sinners into saints; in order to raise us up from corruption into incorruption, from earth to heaven; from enslavement to sin and the devil – into the glorious freedom of children of God; from death – into immortality, in order to make us sons of God and to seat us together with Him upon the Throne as His royal children.

O, boundless compassion of God! O, inexpressible wisdom of God! O, great wonder, astounding not only the human mind, but the angelic [mind] as well!

Let us glorify God! With the coming of the Son of God in the flesh upon the earth, with His offering Himself up as a sacrifice for the sinful human race, there is given to those who believe the blessing of the Heavenly Father, replacing that curse which had been uttered by God in the beginning; they are adopted and receive the promise of an eternal inheritance of life. To a humanity orphaned by reason of sin, the Heavenly Father returns anew through the mystery of re-birth, that is, through baptism and repentance. People are freed of the tormenting, death-bearing authority of the devil, of the afflictions of sin and of various passions.

Human nature is deified for the sake of the boundless compassion of the Son of God; and its sins are purified; the defiled are sanctified. The ailing are healed. Upon those in dishonour are boundless honour and glory bestowed.

Those in darkness are enlightened by the Divine light of grace and reason.

The human mind is given the rational power of God – we have the mind of Christ (Cor. 2, 16), says the Holy apostle Paul. To the human heart, the heart of Christ is given. The perishable is made immortal. Those naked and wounded by sin and by passions are adorned in Divine glory. Those who hunger and thirst are sated and assuaged by the nourishing and soul-strengthening Word of God and by the most pure Body and Divine Blood of Christ. The inconsolable are consoled. Those ravaged by the devil have been – and continue to be – delivered.

What, then, O, brethren, is required of us in order that we might avail ourselves of all the grace brought unto us from on high by the coming to earth of the Son of God? What is necessary, first of all, is faith in the Son of God, in the Gospel as the salvation-bestowing heavenly teaching; a true repentance of sins and the correction of life and of heart; communion in prayer and in the mysteries [sacraments]; the knowledge and fulfillment of Christ’s commandments. Also necessary are the virtues: Christian humility, alms-giving, continence, purity and chastity, simplicity and goodness of heart.

Let us, then, O brothers and sisters, bring these virtues as a gift to the One Who was born for the sake of our salvation – let us bring them in place of the gold, frankincense and myrrh which the Magi brought Him, as to One Who is King, God, and Man, come to die for us. This, from us, shall be the most-pleasing form of sacrifice to God and to the Infant Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The New Year: The Mystery of Time

Now the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s. And as long as it strikes life for twelve short seconds stops and pauses, and everything as it were focuses on what is now to begin, posing and responding to the same torturous question: what is this – another step towards a meaningless end and disappearance, or the unexpected flashing of a ray of renewal and new beginnings?

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

On New Year’s Eve we feel the mystery of time more powerfully than at any other time. We feel, in other words, that its flow – in which we live and in which everything constantly vanishes as the “past” and constantly places us face to face with the unknown future – essentially contains within itself the main question that everyone is called to answer with their lives. 

“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” asks the poet [Pushkin] in his immortal line. Indeed, it is enough for one moment to turn away from the cares that absorb us, enough mentally to stop the ceaseless waterfall of time, disappearing into the abyss, in order for the question “Why is life given and what is its meaning?” to rise from the depths of the subconscious, where we normally hide it from ourselves, and stand before us in all its implacability. 

I was not, now I am, and I will not be; thousands of years passed before me, and thousands will come after… On the surface of this unimaginably infinite ocean I am but a fleeting bubble, into which a ray of life flashes for a split second, just to be extinguished and disappear then and there. 

“Vain gift, chance gift – life, why have you been given me?” What, in comparison with this only honest, rueful question do all the loud theories mean that seek to answer this with tiresome theoretics of a “bright future”? “We will build our new world. He who was nothing will become everything” [from The Internationale]… The most na├»ve, gullible, and dull-witted person cannot but know that all this is a lie. For both the very one “who was nothing” and the one who “will become everything” will disappear from the face of the earth, from this hopeless mortal world. 

Therefore, regardless of whatever we were taught by pathetic prophets of a pathetic happiness, only one real question stands eternally before man: does this ever-so-brief life have any meaning? What does it mean, when compared with the boundless abyss of time, that this flash of consciousness, this ability to think, rejoice, and suffer, this extraordinary life that, however seemingly futile and random, is still looked upon by us as a gift? 

Now the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s. And as long as it strikes life for twelve short seconds stops and pauses, and everything as it were focuses on what is now to begin, posing and responding to the same torturous question: what is this – another step towards a meaningless end and disappearance, or the unexpected flashing of a ray of renewal and new beginnings? In response come words from an infinite loftiness and an infinite profundity: That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth… And of His fulness have we received, and grace for grace (John 1:9-12, 14, 16). 

These are the words of the Evangelist John the Theologian in the very beginning of his Gospel. They are thoroughly imbued with the joy, confidence, and love of a man who has seen the light of true life, about which it is said that it shines in darkness and was not overcome by the darkness (John 1:5). Listening attentively to them, the very same joy, the very same confidence, and the very same love begin to be kindled in our own souls. Time is powerless if this light shines above us. Life is not vain, life is not chance, but is a gift from on high, from God, about Whom the same John the Theologian said that in Him was life, and this life was the light of man (John 1:4). And every man that comes into this world is once again set alight, is once again gifted this life, and the love of God is addressed to each one of them, and to each one of them is addressed God’s commandment: “Live!” Live, in order to love! Live, so that your life will be filled with love, light, wisdom, and knowledge! Live, so that in your life darkness, meaninglessness, and eventually death itself will be overcome! For eternity already shines through this world and through this earthly life. This gift of life in the world and with the world is given us that eternal life with God and in God may become part of us. 

Yes, suffering, doubt, trials, the bitterness of separation – all these have fully become part of our lot. How often we are weakened in this battle, and give up, and fall, and change! How often we are scared and lonely, how often we lose heart when we see how evil and hatred are triumphing in the world! But the One Who gave us this life and granted us freedom taught us to discern good and evil; He gave us the loftiest of all gifts: love. For He said, and continues to say: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). We, too, can overcome in this very world, and in it our lives can shine with that same light that once flashed forth and continues to shine – that light that the darkness has not overcome. 

The clock strikes… Let this mysterious future come to us; for, whatever it might bring with it, we know and believe that God is with us, that Christ has not orphaned us, that He is faithful that promised (Hebrews 10:23). Here are the marvelous words of 

Vladimir Soloviev:
Death and time reign on earth,
Do not call them your masters;
Everything, whirling about, disappears in the haze
The only thing fixed is the sun of love.

Yes, this is our calling, our freedom as children of God: not to call “masters” those things whose dominions have been destroyed, and not to close ourselves from access to the Sun of love, faith, and hope.

The holiday will soon be over, and routine, labor, fatigue, and depression will begin. But let us not permit the daily routine to overpower ours souls! Just as sunlight penetrates through closed shutters, so too let the light of Christ, through this mysterious holiday, become present in our daily lives, rendering our entire lives an ascent, a communion with God – a difficult but joyful path to eternal life. For the Apostle John said: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life(John 3:16).