Saturday, November 17, 2007

Our Great Denial

Last week I was attending the vespers for the Archangels at Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church. Although His Grace Bishop Christophoros was presiding, Fr. Peter Mentis (the parish priest) was asked to deliver the sermon.

Among the many excellent points that Fr. Peter made, one struck me as very insightful. He said, while talking about the spiritual realm, that many of us become so wrapped up in our earthly lives, that many times we forget to acknowledge that there is a spiritual reality as well. Furthermore, since man is made up of both the physical and the spiritual world, to deny the existence of the spiritual side is to deny a part of ourselves and in essence to deny God, who is ultimately part of that spiritual reality. This denial is what Fr. Peter called the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Now this got me thinking; "I never thought of it that way." But in essence he is 100% correct. In the Scripture, Christ says that the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This statement has perplexed theologians and scholars for many centuries because it seems that it goes against the rest of the New Testament which clearly states that all sins are forgiven through repentance. So what does it mean that this sin cannot be forgiven?

What Fr. Peter is trying to say is that in order for repentance to happen, one must realize that what they are doing is wrong in the first place. How can one seek a cure if they do not even know they are sick? And it is this point that I wanted to emphasize; by denying the spiritual realities of life altogether, we deny God. If we deny God, how can we ask Him to forgive us?

We become so focused on the day to day problems but we are not guided by the Word of God that is taught in His Church. Therefore, we do not even know what is right and what is wrong. If we cannot even distinguish the good from the bad, than how can we know what to be sorry for? It is for this reason that by denying the Holy Spirit, denying the enlightenment that it can bring to our lives, we effectively cut ourselves off from God. Therefore, we cannot be forgiven because we do not even ask for it.

This mentality is rampant in our society today, where most of us are content in living out our lives according to whatever we believe to be true. Our egos do no allow us to hear the voice of Christ, the voice of the Church. We do not listen because the Good News, to those who do not heed the Word, is really Bad News. And as we know, it is much easier to convince ourselves that we are good people, than to actually stop and look at our lives and deal with the scary possibility that we are not good at all; to face the fact that we are not perfect, or holy, or even moral. Most of us are broken, scared, depressed and spiritually diseased and we need help that is not of the world if we are to recover. If we cannot come to this realization and begin the long process of forgiving ourselves, how can we ever expect God to do the same?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


George Macdonald said, "The Son of God suffered onto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his." (Unspoken Sermons, First Series)

The above quote I found in the preface of C.S. Lewis' "The Problem of Pain." I was struck by the profound truth in this saying. I found myself reflecting on it throughout the whole day.

I thought about how we presently view death and suffering and how we are supposed to view it according to the teaching of the Gospel. When dealing with pain and suffering, it seems that today's society offers us one of two options; 1. We attempt to avoid the subject all together and concentrate on health, vitality, superficial beauty and youth, or 2. Many religions (even those professing to be Christian) attempt to pass off their "spirituality" as a way to somehow magically escape from pain. Not one of these attempts to deal with the problem head on.

Perhaps the reason for this is that we are all afraid of pain; and rightfully so. We are human and it is natural to attempt to avoid pain at all costs. Physically, our bodies gain nothing from experiencing it (except discomfort) and, without the proper spiritually training, psychologically, we are many times damaged by it. All in all pain is something to be avoided.

It is this great misconception that leads people to question why God allows pain to exist. This questioning is exceptionally poignant in those purported believers who have been duped into believing that Christianity would deliver them from all pain and sorrow. What they fail to realize, and indeed what most of the world fails to realize, is that deliverance from sorrow is very much different from deliverance from pain and suffering.

This is evident throughout scripture. If we pay attention, we will notice that Christ deals with pain in a very different way than most of us would picture Him doing. Although Christ does heal the sick and the suffering, we notice that he first inquires as to the state of their souls and then remedies their bodily ailments. In many instances, Christ continues to give spiritual advice even after the bodily illness is cured. This tells us two things; 1. Christ is more concerned about the well being of the soul, 2. Healing is only a by-product of a strong and healthy soul. However, the healing itself is not the object of the lesson, repentance is.

Did it not ever strike anyone that Christ deliberately waited for Lazarus to die before raising him. The scripture says that he waited in the place where he was for two more days before even setting out to heal his friend! If God was only interested in relieving his friend Lazarus from his pain, he would have hastened to spare him the torment of dying. However, when asked about Lazarus, Christ told His disciples that Lazarus was dead and that He was glad for their sakes that he wasn't there, so that the grace of God could be manifest. This is the true teaching that the gospel account conveys. There is a deliverance that can only be found at the other end of suffering. Just as Christ endured crucifixion, so pain has it's medicinal properties as well.

As Bishop Kallistos once said, "Never did Christ promise that he would deliver us from pain and suffering. However, He did promise to walk by our side as we go through it." This is accomplished in Him suffering and dying as we do. The cross exists not so we do not suffer, but so that we do not suffer needlessly! The difference between a true Christian and a none believer is that the Christian sees pain and suffering as a source of learning and spiritual enlightenment, while the non-believer sees it as a source of sorrow. Christ's death and resurrection gives our death purpose just as the Martyrs' deaths gave them joy in emulating their Lord. It is this faith that delivers us from sorrow in the face of pain and suffering!

In today's world, such a message is not a popular one. Humility does not sell and patience, fortitude, perseverance and hope are in short supply. To deny the reality of pain is to deny our own capacity to move past that pain. In essence, we deny our potential to face and overcome our own mortality and in doing so, we deny the hope of the resurrection.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Those Who Are Lost

In "The Problem of Pain" C.S. Lewis writes,

It may be that salvation consists not in the cancelling of these eternal moments [moments of sin] but in the perfected humanity that bears the shame forever, rejoicing in the occasion which is furnished to God's compassion and glad that it should be common knoweledge to the universe. Perhaps in that eternal moment [even] St. Peter - forever denies his Master. If so, it would indeed be true that the joys of Heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, 'an acquired taste' - and certain ways of life [sins committed] may render that taste impossible of acquisition. Perhaps the lost are those who dare not go to such a public place.

I find this view of heaven and hell quite insightful because in emphsizes "our" choice in whether we experience eternal bliss or eternal torment. It is true that both heaven and hell are filled with sinners. However, as Lewis points out, those in heaven are the ones who are not afraid to face their sins. They are glad to have them exposed so that they may learn from them and move beyond them.

The alternative is for those who attempt to cover their sins. In essence, they deny their wrongdoings and attempt to hide their shame. They cannot come to terms with the evil they have done and fear that they will be exposed. In this way, they hide in the darkness where even more evil can grow. It is no wonder that when faced with a future in a place of pure light and love, such people prefer the outer darkness.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Building the Building

A good friend of mine and fellow seminarian recently said to me, "The generation of priests before us built buildings, but our generation has to build Churches."

This struck me as very wise and insightful. Actually it is one of the most insightful things I have heard in a long time. Although it may sound derogatory to the older generation, implying that the churches they built were not really "churches," I do not believe it is meant in this way. However, I do believe that the statement is a very accurate observation of the cultural divide between the "old" and "new" generations of priests in Canada.

This mainly stems from the fact the we, the "new" generation do not respond to the type of ministry that previous generations responded to. Now, I am not talking about cultural conditioning, new world mentalities, or even language barriers. I am talking about a very different understanding of how the Church should be proceeding into the new millennium. What we are seeing is a shift in the most fundamental beliefs of progress and ministry within the clerical ranks.

This is happening for two reasons: 1. The "new" generation did not grow up in a village type environment where religion was not questioned and the social norm was being Greek Orthodox. 2. We are neither illiterate nor stupid, and this is a dangerous combination in a multicultural society like Canada, where we are bombarded by multiple philosophies, religions, and the latest trends.

The "old" generation comes from an experience of the church that is much out dated for today's society, and ironically out dated for even the Byzantine times. I say this because the type of Orthodoxy that many of the "old" generation know and love, is the type that is fit only for peasant Greece under Turkish occupation. By this I mean simple, sometimes blind, faith based mostly on the sayings of monastic writers (who were the main influence during that time) with little regard for high theology or an ecumenical attitude. Namely, they are in many ways as far from Byzantine Orthodoxy and Zoroastrianism is from Christianity.

Again, let me repeat that I do not say these things to belittle our older generation. I have the highest respect for them and their traditions. It's just that they have great difficulty realizing that many of "their" traditions are not "our" traditions, and furthermore, they are not the "churches" traditions either. This is because during Turkish occupation the Greek nation lost most of its literacy and understanding of high theology by descending into a world of fear, oppression and superstition. It is only in the past century, and really the last 60-80 years that we have the patristic writers at our disposal again! They were lost to us for nearly half a millennium and yet we believe that what our grandparents practised only 60 years ago is the most important witness to authentic Orthodoxy.

Chrysostom said that "bad traditions, even if they have existed for many years, should be disregarded if they are found to contradict the faith." This is the situation we are in now. The "old" generation is set in its ways. It has a vision of what the Church is and where it should be heading. This vision mostly revolves around building large churches, filling them with expensive iconography, establishing Greek schools and dance groups, and having Sunday schools running during Liturgy to keep those pesky children out of the way of the real adults who want to do the real praying.

Conversely, the "new" generation is a seeking culture. It wants to know and learn and be engaged in its faith. It is well educated and willing to participate in worship. It does not want to accept things "just because" or on "blind faith." It demands more from it's teachers, it's clergy and parish councils. It does not want to be tucked away in some church basement, colouring icons and reciting the Creed until it is blue in the face. It does not take hypocrisy well, nor does it simply accept explanations that are not only shallow, but illogical.

To minister to such a generation, priests must turn their attention away from the fundraising, the gold plate dinners and the enormous preoccupation with having the biggest dome in Canada. They must begin devoting resources to the Church's most precious commodity; its people. They should not be wasting 95% of the their time on buildings that will be empty in 20 years because they were too busy to write a sermon on Sundays. It is time to stop building buildings and start building Churches! We must focus on congregations, knowledge and spirituality, not icons, domes and paving parking lots. Those will come in due time. Seek ye first the Kingdom of heaven and everything will be added to you.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Whole Lot of Nothing

I just finished a very gruelling weekend of sacraments. We actually had 11 weddings and baptisms over two days! Very tiring and definitely a good example of the "Burger King Parish" phenomenon. Still, through all these events, in which people have come to the church to either become Orthodox Christians through baptism or to be married in the eyes of God, I cannot help but worry about the future.

Over the years I have participated in hundreds of weddings and baptisms and in over 95% of the cases (this is NOT an exaggeration) the participants did not know the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, or even how to Cross themselves. It is very disconcerting to see young couples, their wedding parties, and even their parents, come to the church and not even know the basic elements of their faith.

In Baptisms we can gleam the reason for this spiritual bankruptcy that is infiltrating our church. In the last 5 years, I do believe I can recall only one Godmother who knew and could recite the Creed by heart. Only one among hundreds that I witnessed! We have gotten to the point where the Godparents not only read the Creed out of the priest's book, but they cannot even pronounce the words properly, which indicates this is their first time reading it!

If we ask ourselves why young adults do not know the basics of the faith, it is easy to accept this knowing that they had no guidance or spiritual education when they were young. These days, the role of the Godparents is seen as a honorary role that only requires one to buy nice gifts for the child on special occasions. Most believe that such things are left up to the parents, to raise their children in the Orthodox Faith. However, the parents know even less.

Now, in many parishes across Canada, these kinds of situations can easily be avoided. How? Education, education, education! We get angry at parents who choose unsuitable Godparents or unsuitable "koumbaroi" for their weddings, but we do not do a good enough job in educating our people as to what type of people they should be selecting for these roles. In most parishes there are no wedding counselling or marriage preparation courses, no baptism pamphlet given out or catechism held for those coming into the faith! There is virtually no preparation or education whatsoever!

The most common excuse that most priests give is that they have no time and no man power to perform all these ministries. Although being shorthanded is partly true, it is not a good enough excuse to neglect the spiritual education of the people. What can be more important? What is more crucial to the future generations of our church? Are our people less important that putting icons on the wall? Are our people less important than community centres and banquet halls? Are our people less important than all the materials things we put before them?

We spend so much time, effort, and money on all the material needs of the church and we forget that the spiritual needs are the most important. If parishes do not have a significant budget for religious education in their community, then it won't matter how many community centres they build, or how beautiful the icons are. In 20 years there won't be anyone left to look at them; the community centres will be empty. We boast about or buildings while our people do not know the Creed. We boast about our nice tiles and double headed eagle mosaic on the floor, but our people do not know the Lord's Prayer. We boast about the latest trip to the Holy Land, Greece, or any other European locale; whatever distracts us from God's calling to preach the Word, while our people do not even know what time Liturgy starts on Sunday!

And for some reason, we priests do not even mention this from the pulpit! We do not preach against this situation! We do not educate! We have learned the magic word; ACCOMMODATION! We accommodate our people. We accommodate their likes. We accommodate their dislikes. We accommodate their spiritual laziness. We accommodate their ignorance of the faith. We accommodate so much that we start confusing accommodation with LOVE! We start saying that we have to "love" people as they are and not push them too much because they "don't know" and cannot be faulted. It is out of so-called "love" that we intentionally avoid painful yet critical topics in our sermons. It is out of this so-called "love" that we offer "drive-thru" Communion out of the context of the Liturgy because we want those who "work" to be able to receive. Where were they the rest of the year!

Last time I checked, true Love is not letting your children do whatever they want! Parents discipline and guide their children so that they can grow to be well rounded adults. Is not the priest the father of his congregation? Where is it written that the father must spoil his children so that they will not cry or act up? I do believe that God did not do this in the Old Testament and we definitely should not be doing it now. Christ came to preach Love as the true spirit of the Law. This does not mean that he abolished the law altogether! The law remains, but the guiding force behind it is Love.

In the same way, the church must still teach what is right and even discipline when necessary. However, it must be done with love so it will always lead people towards God. If we do not stand firm and teach and guide with a firm hand, we are not practicing Love at all. We are really practicing self love because we look for the praise of our congregations instead of doing the right thing in the face of ridicule. We worry that if we do not offer "drive-thru" Communion, the people will go down the street to the other Orthodox Church and get it. Then we will lose business! Why not start thinking about what is good for our people spiritually and not what is only good for their worldly desires, because it seems to me that we worry much more about our quantity instead of our quality. However, if we keep going down this path, we will end up with a whole lot of nothing!

End of rant.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary. I think it is a wonderful response to the so called "politically correct" movement in North America. Enjoy!

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejewelled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.

It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship Nick and Jessica and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where Nick and Jessica came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" (Regarding Katrina) Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response.She said, "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

In light of recent events...terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found recently) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK.Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbour as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with "WE REAP WHAT WE SOW."Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell.

Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing.

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.Are you laughing?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards.
Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The "Otherness" of Worship

Recently I was having a conversation with my wife and it came up that statistically, most people pray in their "native" or "cultural" tongue. This is curious since this may not even be their first and most fluent language, and yet they instinctively use it when they pray and also when they count.

Further reflecting on this, I instantly remember a statement that Frank Schaeffer made in his last book, "Letters to Fr. Aristotle." In it, he defends the traditional use of Greek in Orthodox liturgical services and cautions against the conversion to modern English or even modern Greek translations. Although he does cite the most common problems associated with such a switch (issues with translations and politically correct influences), he does make an additional point. He mentions that it is important to have a "sacred" language. By sacred, he means one that is set apart from everyday speech and reserved only for the worship of God.

Now, at first sight, this point may seem rather insignificant compared to the enormous benefits that would arise from adopting the vernacular in our liturgical services. However, I do believer that Schaeffer is on to something here. And this is where I connect the earlier statistic, that most people instinctively pray and count in their "native" tongues. Perhaps there is a connection between this phenomenon and Schaeffer's statement.

Some may say that the practice of using the "cultural" language is a result of familial and societal conditioning. I would have to agree with this theory. Our sense of ethnicity largely stems from a sense of family and belonging. For me, speaking Greek is very comforting because it unites me to a much larger community of "Greeks" who share the same culture, history, and mannerisms as I do. It fulfills a sense of belonging.

Now let us look at the church. It too is a family which has many members. Furthermore, it's membership crosses gender, cultural and even political lines. The demographic is much more diverse. This means that there arises a great need for a common church "culture" to unite all these different types of people. Some would say that this is the gospel, however we know that this is sometimes not enough. In an age where one can find a church on every street corner (and no two are alike), how is one to distinguish one community from the other? Furthermore, how is the church to be a true family if it does not possess it's own unique traditions which identifies and differentiates it from all the others? The issue of language is interwoven into this complex matrix of communal identity.

Statistics show that most youth in our generation actually want more ritual in their lives. They are seeking it in large numbers. This is due to the human need to experience the sacred, the divine. For most, this means that such an experience must be beyond that which they experience in their daily lives. This is why we see such an interest in eastern mysticism (Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabala, etc.) in our current generation. It is of paramount importance to create a form of worship that is sacred, something separated from the everyday, and something dedicated wholly to God. This is why the Orthodox Church has maintained its traditional outlook throughout the centuries and has remained quite impervious to outer influence and trends of the time. It is because the truth which it preaches is eternal, and is so emphasized in the consistent form of worship it employs.

Getting back to language. The tendency to use our "native"tongue in prayer testifies to this need for all people to experience the "otherness" of spirituality. They unconsciously reserve their native language as something "sacred" and "set apart." They believe that they have to do this in order to give the holy event of prayer the respect and reverence it deserves.

Furthermore, in step with Frank Schaeffer, worshipping in an language one does not fully understand, forces the faithful to engage their faith in new ways. It demands one to dig deeper into their worship and it requires effort on our part. It is not an "easy" faith. In an age of "burger king" parishes that are known for their new, hip services, it is easy to see how this sort of traditional worship would be very unpopular. It is because it does not cater to people's spiritual laziness, but demands higher thinking and greater effort. It forces the congregation to take interest in what it is doing and how it is expressing it's faith.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to advocate abolishing the use of English in our churches. What I am saying is that we should take very small steps when considering the use of liturgical language because it may have the adverse affect on our congregations. In the states, Greeks are 3rd and 4th generation Hellenes who barely speak a word of Greek. They mostly use English in their worship. However, their churches are not devoid of problems. In reality, they face the same problems we face here in Canada; poor attendance, lax participation, low spiritual education, etc etc. The Roman Catholic Church, with the advent of the second Vatican Council, changed all worship services to the vernacular and actually dropped in numbers!

What does this tell us?" Does it mean that we should only use Greek in our services? No. What it does do is serve as a caution as to how quickly we embrace the cultural and political trends of the time. It could be that through our quest to "modernize" the church, we may inadvertently lose that sense of "otherness" and experience of the "divine " and "sacred" that the Orthodox Church has maintained since the time of the Apostles. In essence, we risk turning the spiritual Body of Christ into just another night out at the theatre.