February 12, 2022

February 13, 2022

As we begin to approach Lent the Church has provided us with texts to lead the way into this holy season of renewal. This Gospel is the first.

Jesus is presenting a parable, a story whose details aren’t meant to be taken literally but whose larger point is meant to be taken to heart. The setting is familiar to His listeners, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the characters involved would be ones they see in everyday life.

The first is a Pharisee, a person whose distinct dress and exacting observance of the Jewish law would stand out in the everyday crowds. While Jesus often has harsh words to say about them, there was a certain admiration for them in the general populace even though most had neither the time nor the inclination to follow the Pharisee way. Despite being rather small in number they were politically powerful and many high positions both in government and religion were held by Pharisees.

The second is a publican, a person contracted by the Romans to ensure the required taxes were paid. They did this, essentially, by bidding for the rights to do the job with the Romans giving the task to those who were able to promise the highest return. Any income above and beyond the required amount they kept for themselves. To Jesus’ followers they represented an evil, two headed, monster as both collaborators with their oppressors and swindlers of their own people.

In the temple the Pharisee’s prayer is basically a rehashing of his own accomplishments, which, as a Pharisee, were probably accurate. His description of his life compared to the publican’s was also accurate. He wasn’t like him, he was ritually pure, observant of the law to the smallest detail and more, and he was apparently okay with reminding God about that in case somehow, He had overlooked it, even giving God something to compare his life to, namely the Publican with his eyes facing the floor and beating his breast.

By the way, the Publican was also correct about himself. He was a sinner and had more than enough evidence to prove it. Having nothing, really, to give God other than to throw himself on God’s mercy he, in his humility, beat his breast in a gesture of mourning with the hope that somehow, somewhere, God could find a way to overlook all that he had been and done.

Guess whose prayer was answered?

The Pharisee left the Temple and went back to his life, but the publican left forgiven.

The American evangelist, Billy Sunday, who ministered in the early part of the last century was once quoted as saying, “Hell is going to be so full of “Christians” their feet are going to be sticking out of the windows.”  He was addressing those of his time who were so sure of their religiosity, so confident in their works, that they considered themselves “Shoo-ins” for heaven or at least a few spots in line ahead of their less than like them neighbors. Even Jesus Himself said there would be many at the Last Judgment who would share all the things they had done for our Lord and all their accomplishments only to hear Him say “Depart from me, I don’t know you.”

We must be careful, and the Church was wise to give us this passage as a warning on the road to Lent. We Orthodox can sometimes fall into the trap of spiritual pride. Having been blessed with such great riches of Faith there’s always a strong temptation to see them as our due, our possession, and something which makes us more than others, especially other Christians. This can be a particular challenge for those who’ve journeyed through other communities of faith to this place.

We sometimes forget that everything we have here is nothing about what we deserve or are entitled to but, in fact, a gift given to us by grace, as the Apostle says “Not of works lest anyone should boast…”  If we ever think that what we have as Orthodox is somehow about us being special or entitled we put ourselves in grave risk of one day being outside the doors of the wedding feast, desperately knocking while those we never thought would make it walk past us with invitations in hand.

It would be good to also remember there will be those who come to us, to this Faith and to this parish, who like us in more ways than we can imagine, have been made weary and broken by the sin of this world. Here they must find a place of rest and not a court of justice. Here they must find not the “enlightened” condescending to those in darkness so much as those who had been thirsty showing another dry soul where to find the living water.  We can and should keep the standards high and the goals lofty, yet essential to that is having mercy for those within and without our community who, like us, can be caught in the jaws of spiritual wolves.

We must also be careful, as well, about our own personal pride, our potential for arrogance, and our willingness to keep our eyes on everyone but ourselves, especially in this coming season of Lent. Outside of the very few who may be gifted with great spiritual insight you and I simply don’t know the heart of someone else and, quite frankly, as the late Fr. John Khoury of blessed memory would say, it’s none of our business.

Are they fasting in a way we approve of? Who cares? Keep our eyes on our own plate and God will honor the humility more than the specifics of the menu.

Is someone else praying or worshipping in a way we don’t think proper? Keep our face and heart directed to the floor in humility and our worship will be accepted, and our prayers heard in the temple.

Does someone have a fault we feel obligated to correct? Look in the mirror a hundred times for each flaw we presume to observe in someone else and we’ll find mercy in the day when all the deeds of everyone will be exposed to the light of the eternal Son.

And, by the way, our life will be happier because one of the easiest ways to become bitter, cynical, and unhealthy in soul and body is to try to correct everybody and everything in the world but ourselves. It’s why we have so many politicians with darkened hearts and pinched faces and Christians who can’t see the Light because their eyes are everywhere but on Christ.

It’s also the way the world we sometimes despair of will be made better as we choose to light our light instead of cursing someone else’s darkness, real or imagined, and, in doing so, start setting ourselves, and by our example others as well, on a better path.

Lent is coming and over the years I’ve come to love it precisely because I’m learning how much I need it and what good it can do for me and my sometimes-weathered soul. Let us all take the words of this parable to heart and find life.

And if I have sinned against anyone here, please forgive.

All Earthly Cares…

To realize that your cares are earthly, and that they will not and cannot accompany you into eternity is already a revelation. “Dust you are, and to dust you return” the priest will pronounce at your burial. All that is earthly shall remain in the earth. That includes cares you consider so momentous that your entire focus is on them. But like everything on earth, they will change, dry up and disintegrate in time. They are not of paramount importance—salvation is. Let your cares go the way of the world. You are among the people of God reaching upward to be with the Lord in the air. Your soul wants to rise like a helium-filled balloon; but your cares are weighing you down—all around you are ascending, but you are still on the ground. Why is that?

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Welcome Chreasters…

About this time of year (Orthodox Holy Week) we start seeing people in church who seem unfamiliar. Some, of course, are people looking in to Orthodoxy. Because the Western and Eastern Holy Weeks are often on a different  calendar people from other Christian communities interested in the Faith will take advantage of the opportunity to visit and learn.

Others, though, will be people who’s connection to our Faith is only partial, those who occasionally visit especially on days like Christmas and Easter (Pascha). Some of these “Chreasters,” the Christmas and Easter attenders, learned this from their own less than fully engaged families. Some have been hurt in the Church and can only bear to be present a few times a year. Others may have a hidden guilt or sense of unworthiness that contributes to a feeling of not being good enough. There are as many reasons as there are people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter.

As a Priest who sees these unfamiliar faces around this time of year I have only one thing to say. “Welcome!” I’m glad that you’ve  come to be with us even for these few holidays. Of course I’d  like you to be with us more often, there is a great blessing in regularly being with people seeking God, but however and whenever and in whatever place you are in I’m  glad you’ve chosen to be with us and we are blessed by your presence.

Something inside inspired you to come to church and you listened to it. That’s a beautiful start. Keep on listening to that still, small, voice calling you to seek God because that’s  the voice that’s been at the beginning  of many powerful human transformations. It can be the voice of Love calling you to discover love. It can be the greatest need of your heart seeking to find the only One who can help you find rest.

Whether you come a few times or often, from devotion or curiosity, in brokenness or vitality, God loves you and welcomes you to a journey of being taken from wherever you are to the good place He wants you to be. Our doors will be open as often as possible and our hearts as well. If the Easter service is your first of the year you are invited. If you only come to church when there’s  trouble, the invitation still stands. Of course we’re  open throughout the year but whenever you come you are still God’s, and our, honored guest.

Don’t  be ashamed. Don’t  be frightened. Don’t  worry about being perfect. Just come, and know that some of the greatest and most blessed things happen when you take walk in to an Orthodox church.

I Was Hoping…

for a perfect Lent, you know, the kind where everything lined up just as it was supposed to be, the food, the services, the plans for doing this and that.

Then life intervened.

There was family to take care of, extra hours at work, health issues of my own, snow storms, the list goes on. In the face of it all it wasn’t long before my well thought out plans to make all the services, read all the ingredients on the food boxes, and spend hours in spiritual reading sort of fell away. Whatever it is I thought I was going to accomplish came with a big stamp on the box that now reads “Not This Year”.

In looking back at it, as I try to make of Lent what I can in the swirl of things, the operative thing seems to be “My” plans. Now I’m not saying that it’s not good to plan for Lent. One of the great gifts of our Faith is the two Sundays prior to Lent when we can ponder the time to come and ease into its life. What I have discovered, again, is, however, that if it’s about “My” plans then it’s probably not going to work out so well.

There are two errors, perhaps, in observing Lent. The first is to simply ignore it as some kind of anachronistic ritual with little meaning in the real world. The reality is our American culture is a gluttonous culture, gluttonous for everything, and we and I need the spirit and reality of Lent now more than ever. The second trap may be just the opposite, that is to make Lent an end in itself, to keep its technicalities and miss the larger picture.

In my case I wanted a Lent with no “mistakes” where all the required observances were met with precision and I could look back on things with a sense of accomplishment. What I got was a busy, crazy, world of people who just needed someone to help them, tired days and nights, swirls of events beyond my control, and the reality that I’m going to be one of those “11th hour” people mentioned in the Paschal Homily.

What I had hoped for, the “ideal” Lent, isn’t going to happen. What I didn’t want to happen, namely that I would fall into Pascha all banged up, tired, and in tatters, seems to be the current trajectory. Yet since God’s power is manifest in my time of weakness and His grace is sufficient for me I still long for the banquet to come and the joy of saying, as frazzled as I am, “Christ is Risen”.

A Prayer…

Prayer at Daybreak

Eternal King without beginning, You who are before all worlds, my Maker, Who have summoned all things from non-being into this life: bless this day that You, in Your inscrutable goodness, give to me. By the power of Your blessing enable me at all times in this coming day to speak and act for You, to Your glory, in Your fear, according to Your will, with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love, gentleness, peace, courage, wisdom and prayer, aware everywhere of Your presence.

Yes, Lord, in Your immense mercy, lead me by Your Holy Spirit into every good work and word, and grant me to walk all my life long in Your sight without stumbling, according to Your righteousness that You have revealed to us, that I may not add to my transgressions.

O Lord, great in mercy, spare me who am perishing in wickedness; do not hide Your face from me. And when my perverted will would lead me down other paths, do not forsake me, my Savior, but force me back to Your holy path.

O You Who are good, to Whom all hearts are open, You know my poverty and my foolishness, my blindness and my uselessness, but the sufferings of my soul are also before You. Wherefore I beseech You: hear me in my affliction and fill me with Your strength from above. Raise me up who am paralyzed with sin, and deliver me who am enslaved to the passions. Heal me from every hidden wound. Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit. Preserve me from every inward and outward impulse that is unpleasing in Your sight and hurtful to my brother.

I beseech You: establish me in the path of Your commandments and to my last breath do not let me stray from the light of Your ordinances, so that Your commandments may become the sole law of my being in this life and in all eternity.

O God, my God, I plead with You for many and great things: do not disregard me. Do not cast me away from Your presence because of my presumption and boldness, but by the power of Your love lead me in the path of Your will. Grant me to love You as You have commanded, with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength: with my whole being. For You alone are the holy protection and all-powerful defender of my life, and to You I ascribe glory and offer my prayer.

Grant me to know Your truth before I depart this life. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer You true repentance. Do not take me away in the midst of my days, and when You are pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me of my death, so that I may prepare my soul to come before You.

Be with me then, O Lord, on my great and sacred day, and grant me the joy of Your salvation. Cleanse me from manifest and secret sins, from all iniquity hidden in me; and give me a right answer before Your dread judgment-seat.

The World We Live In…

is not the real world. Don’t get me wrong, its not an illusion its just not the world as God intends it. There is a brokenness in it that has distorted it from its original design, purpose, and reality and so there is a kind of unreality, a sense of it being skewed, that permeates it. There are markers of the real world in this world but the fullness seems always just out of our grasp.

The Kingdom of God is the real world, the world as it should be, a world restored to its design, purpose, and destiny by the One who created it in the first place. It is also real and can be experienced in time. The difference between the Kingdom of God and the world we experience is that the Kingdom of God, its values, its Faith, its vision, embody the fullness of what God intends and the fullness of what it means to be a human.

This creates a tension for the observant Christian. We live in a world that has an unreality to it because it is good, because it was created by God, but broken because it is tarnished by human sin and mortality. We experience this brokenness in so many ways and the power of it can often be overwhelming. Even if we are truly convinced there is more and better that more and better can seem far away and extraordinarily difficult to achieve. We also live in a another world, as it is, a world we call the Kingdom of God the reality of which sometimes intersects the world we experience every day but also has the potential to alienate us from it as well.

The result is that we are travelers in time. We live in places and share the common lot of those who share this time and place with us yet we also know that even in its best moments our experience is touched with the sadness, sin, and death that has been horribly inserted into this realm. And its hard to live that way, caught between two worlds, the world we were born into and the world we called to. Choices have to be made. Loyalties need to be discerned. Where, in the end, do we belong? To what world will our final allegiance be given? Jesus was so right when He said our heart would be where our treasure is.

In these times, when the veneer of respect for our Faith is rapidly wearing off in the public arena, where the times are growing dark as people in greater numbers seem to have cast their lot with this world, and where even people who were entered the Kingdom are now looking over their shoulders at the world they left behind, we will all be tested. What realm can lay claim to our true citizenship? What storehouse holds our true treasure? Which world’s thoughts will become our thoughts? And the stakes may be eternal.

The answer? All I know to do is to stay as close as possible to Jesus and together we’ll ride out the storm and make it safely home.

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