Giving Thanks

We Orthodox are a thankful bunch; we give thanks to God when we wake in the morning and before we go to sleep, during our hours of prayer and during the Divine Liturgy. Our whole lives are a time for us to offer thanks to God. That doesn’t negate the fact that I love Thanksgiving, the day that we as a nation take some time to pause and reflect on the many blessings we each have.

This year has been a big year for us in our house and I’d like to take a few moments to share my gratitude. In February, our sweet little Elise was born, a healthy beautiful baby girl. For the past nine months, we have been blessed to watch her grow, learn and develop her personality each and every day. I’ve watched her laugh, crawl, talk, stand, wave, point and learn to make everyone around her laugh. She’s the single most precious thing in our lives, and I can’t begin to offer any thanks to God that would be worthy of the most incredible blessing I have in my life. I get to share this experience with my best friend, my beloved companion, my partner in crime, my wife. We wouldn’t have her if it weren’t for her birth mother and father, to whom we are also grateful.

By the grace of God, I was ordained to the holy diaconate. I am thankful every week when I stand in front and kiss of the altar and when Father George places the body of Christ in my hand. It is a great responsibility, and I thank God that I can serve our parish and the Holy Church.

I am blessed to have a loving and supportive family, on my side and Christine’s. Our friends and church family add to our lives and help us as we help Ellie grow up to be the amazing girl I know she will be. They are so much more than I deserve.

I know we offer thanks every day, but today, I’m taking the time to share my thanks for everything God gives me.

Everlasting King, Thy will for our salvation is full of power. Thy right arm controls the whole course of human life. We give Thee thanks for all Thy mercies, seen and unseen. For eternal life, for the heavenly Joys of the Kingdom which is to be. Grant mercy to us who sing Thy praise, both now and in the time to come. Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.

Forget Being Politically Correct

I wish I could claim originality in my inspiration for this, but I can’t. An author and blogger I follow Angela Doll Carlson shared a thought on a Facebook group we’re both a part of that caused me to pause and think - “Stop talking about whether or not something is politically correct. Ask instead whether if is kind. Let’s aim for kindness.” For some reason, this struck me - if we could just focus on showing kindness, how much better would things be?

Love is Kind

We’re all familiar with what Christ taught in Matthew 22:36-40:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

What is love? Among other things, it is kind, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s something we as Christians are called to, kindness. Political correctness, in theory, centers around the idea that all people deserve respect and honor. We don’t use terms to describe people that they consider offensive, we don’t marginalize or demean someone based on their ethnicity, gender, age, intelligence, disability or other traits. And yet I count the number of times I’ve heard statements like, “I know this isn’t politically correct, but…” from Christians and non-Christians alike.

Angela’s post left me thinking about kindness in our everyday lives. Is it kind to discriminate, make sexist or sexual comments, to demean another person, to use terms that would offend someone? No, it most certainly isn’t. If it isn’t kind, then it isn’t love. If it isn’t love we are showing others, our neighbors, then it’s probably a safe bet to assume we are not living up to the call of Christ, we are not being strong ambassadors of Christ. I’m sure there are exceptions, but as a good rule of thumb, they go hand-in-hand.

It’s sad that in today’s society, I see so many people espousing hateful rhetoric, racism, sexism, and childish name-calling - Christians and non-Christians alike. There is no regard for political correctness, much less kindness. As a matter of fact, the word “political” is so divisive and polarizing. This election has, in my opinion, brought out the worst in people, on both sides of the aisle, and our society has taken a step back, or perhaps opened a door that had been shut for awhile. People say hateful things; others return in kind (I have had to repent for my words over the last few months). I found encouragement in reading the words of the Elder Thaddeus who taught:

It is not good when we return the love of those who love us, yet hate those who hate us. We are not on the right path if we do this. We are the sons of light and love, the sons of God, his children. As such we must have His qualities and His attributes of love, peace, and kindness towards all.

In any case, we as Christians are called to a higher standard, to be more than that which is around us and now is a great time to work together to forget political correctness and focus on what we as Christians are called to do, and that’s to show love as Christ commanded. We can be a light in the world because, as St. John of Kronstadt tells us, ”Evil and faults are corrected by good, by love, kindness, meekness, humility, and patience.” St. Paul lays out what love is very clearly for us:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

May we all look to all of our neighbors and find kindness in our hearts, offering prayers for those we agree with and those we don’t and answering the call Christ has set before us, to walk in love.

Sharing the Faith

I like to consider myself an amateur Orthodox apologist focusing on modern religious movements - amateur being the operative word in that sentence. When I’m traveling and I see the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a busy thoroughfare or in an airport, I always stop to pick up their newest Watchtower literature which I give a cursory read on the plane. While in Seattle a few weeks ago, I drove by the Mormon Temple and saw a group of missionaries in their perfectly pressed white shirts and ties and their Elder name badges. This got me to thinking about how we about something I don’t usually - at what we can learn from these groups and how they try to reach people.

Knock knock

I realized that both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses have a special passion for outreach and missionary work. This should seem obvious since they come to my house a few times a year and leave literature, but I had been so focused on where they were off on doctrinal issues, that I didn’t see an area where we as Orthodox Christians are missing the mark.

Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness members all commit to missionary work. It looks different for both groups: young Mormon men and women receive training before devoting themselves to missionary work - young men go for two years, young women for one year. They are assigned to a certain geographical area and given a partner to work with and make themselves busy going door-to-door sharing their faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses volunteer to go out in groups from their local Kingdom Halls (what they call their parishes). Some go out with friends, some with their whole family, children included. Even Prince was known to go knocking on doors in his home town of Minneapolis. What is most troubling to me, is the effectiveness these groups see from these efforts.

And what do I do?

While thinking on the level of commitment they give to sharing their faith, I was troubled my own personal lack of missionary mindedness for outreach and spreading the Gospel. I’m not advocating that we as Orthodox Christians need to develop hard and fast rules for going door to door throughout the world knocking and going through a rigid training program or using books with appendixes that we can flip to and give a textbook answer for any question that could come up. That’s not what Orthodoxy is about and that’s not how historical Christianity has gone about witnessing the Gospel of Christ, but I do think we need to look at the great commission we have from Christ to,”…..” and find how to live that call.

When is the last time you invited a friend to Church? How about a friend who isn’t religious? It’s easy for me to talk to my Evangelical friends about Holy Orthodoxy and share the fullness of the faith, but I’m not usually the best about sharing as deeply with the unchurched, the agnostics or the atheists I know. Part of this is from my background as an Evangelical where, at least in my Church, we militantly talked about Christ’s sacrifice and how our decisions here on earth affect the afterlife, without carrying the grace needed to have those conversations. That’s at least part of the reason so many people are turned off from Christianity.

So what’s the answer?

In short, I don’t have a quick and easy answer, but I have some ideas we could use as a starting place for a bigger dialogue together. I know there are wonderful members of the faithful who are reaching out and would be far more suited to lead this discussion and I hope to find some who would be willing to teach the rest of us. We also have a wonderful missionary effort through groups like IOCC and men and women who give up everything and move their families to work throughout the world sharing the Gospel. But what about those of us here at home - what can we do?

Invite friends to Church

This seems simple enough. I try to bring many of my friends to our parish. I find services like the Pashca Rush and Liturgy, the blessing of the waters at Ephipany, feasts that don’t fall on Sundays, Vespers and Lityas to be nice intros to Orthodoxy. It’s great to bring friends, but it’s also important to prep them for their first visit. An Orthodox service can be overwhelming, many people aren’t use to the sights, sounds and smells of Orthodoxy so a little additional time spent explaining these things is helpful. Point out examples in the Scriptures of how we worship (singing of the Psalms in Collasians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-20, incense is used in Heaven throughout the book of Isiah, Daniel and Revelation, the Apostles prayed “the prayers” in Acts 10:2-3, the Early Church used a liturgical calendar as we see in Acts 20:6 and 1 Corinthians 16:8).

Pray

As Christians, we are called to “pray without ceasing,” and we try to do this as we pray for friends and family, follow our daily prayer rule, remember the Jesus Prayer all throughout the day, but there are times where we can easily pray with our friends. When we are eating out at a restaurant, ask if your friends will pray with you. I have yet to have anyone object to praying for a food blessing with me. In our house, we pray before each and every meal so this isn’t unnatural for us, as it won’t be for most of you.

Visit Food and Ethnic Festivals

We have two festivals here in Tulsa, Greek Fest at Holy Trinity and Hafli at my parish, St. Antony. I love bringing friends to the festivals. It’s a fun, non-threatening way to introduce people to Holy Orthodoxy and you’re helping to support a parish since these are usually fundraisers. Check the schedule and see if there are tours that you and your friends can go one because there is always something that we can learn as well. Our priest does amazing tours and I always walk away with something new. If there aren’t tours, or a tour time doesn’t work for you, ask if a deacon, subdeacon, reader or someone else at the parish can lead a tour or get a blessing from your priest to do a tour for your friends.

As an aside, our temples are powerful witnesses to Christianity and Orthodoxy. I had been reading about Orthodoxy while at college. When home for Christmas break, I visited St. George Houston and met now Khouria Gigi Shadid. My friends and I were supposed to meet with the priest but there was a miscommunication on what time we were coming, so we were blessed with a tour for Khouria Gigi. She explained the layout of the parish, the icons, the altar and how these come to life and engage Christians during worship. When I left, I told my friends I was home. I came back to college, met my now spiritual Father and told him I wanted to join the Church. These can be powerful.

Offer to Host an Event or Talk

If this doesn’t work, talk to your priest and see about doing a community event. When our bishop came to visit a few years ago, His Grace Bishop +BASIL did an enlightening talk on the Theotokos that was great for the Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. After the movie American Sniper came out, it inspired our priest to do an amazing talk about the movie and how it applies to our spiritual life. Father George, who is a combat vet from Vietnam, talked about his experience and the work of spiritual warfare, pulling things from the movie that most of us never would have caught. We had a few talks because the community was so interested in the presentation.

Share something from Ancient Faith Radio

Here in America we are blessed to have Ancient Faith Radio. They have podcasts on almost any topic you could imagine. You can send a friend a link or download a podcast and put it on a thumb drive. Their blogs are great too. I would love it if friends would read books, but that’s a commitment and if they aren’t yet interested in Orthodoxy, that can be tough. AFR has great blogs that you can share that can be read in 5 or 10 minutes, something most people are willing to commit if you offer it to them.

Be the Light

We as Orthodox have a great opportunity to be the light of Christ, to show His love in our daily lives. We do this by not engaging in gossip or hateful conversations, helping those around us, praying for and with those in need, practicing Christian hospitality and countless other ways.

If we all try some of these, I think we could easily bring Orthodoxy to more people, sharing the faith in a practical and real way. We don’t need to engage in arguments or debates, Bible thump or anything like this. St. Paul calls us ambassadors of Christ, and this is what we are called to be, meaning we are to act as Christ, preaching and living the Gospel in love.

Welcome to Parenthood

I’ve been jotting down notes periodically about our new life with Ellie and am now starting to take those random notes and write about our experience. Here’s the first one I’m ready to share.

Day 6

As Elise awoke, at 1:00 am this morning, the third time already tonight since I laid down at 11:00, I got up and went through our usual routine. She’s only been home for 4 days, but we’ve begun developing a new normal together. I’m new to parenting and I’ve already learned it’s trial by far because newborns aren’t the most patient creatures on the planet.

I picked up our precious baby to check and change her diaper. After that, I stared into her little eyes, darting around trying to take in everything around her before becoming fixed on my face. I smiled and kissed her. Her precious little mouth pursed and she stuck her tongue out a few times. She was telling me she was hungry the only way she knew how. So we walked to the kitchen and I made her a bottle. We came to the couch and sat down together, letting my wife sleep so she hopefully felt better the next morning. I turned on my phone and we listened to some chanting of the Psalms as she ate. Once done, I burped her and walked her back to her bassinet. We had been sleeping in our living room to get our two dogs use to the idea of this new furless puppy that they didn’t understand. Christine thought of placing her bassinet in front of our icon wall so Christ along with the Theotokos and the angels and saints could watch over her as she slept. As I looked at her there so peacefully asleep, it hit me, I had been praying for Elise, but hadn’t prayed with Elise.

I knew it was late, we were well past the setting of the sun, but I grabbed our prayerbook and, holding her in one arm and swaying, Elise and I prayed Vespers together. Sure she slept and made tiny human sleep noises in my ear, but I held her close and prayed out loud. I love Vespers, it’s a service that really resonates with me everytime, most likely because of my deep interest in the creation story. I can read the first three chapters of Genesis 1,000 times and still feel like there’s more that I’m not getting it.

This was our routine for a few nights, but the prayerbook became cumbersome and difficult to navigate while holding a baby. That’s when I switched the Dynamic Horologion on my phone. It’s a perfect way to pray with a baby. I can easily hold it in one hand and, now that I wear her in her Boba wrap, I can use my other hand to caress her back. Plus, it has the current service available and all of the variable changes for the day.

I know she’s not old enough to understand what’s going on around her yet, but I can’t help but to feel that hearing the words of the prayers and the Psalms at a young age is just planting another seed we’ll continue to nurture over her lifetime, doing what we can to guide her in Orthodoxy towards Christ.

O God, our heavenly Father, who loves mankind and are a most merciful and compassionate God, have mercy upon Your handmaiden Elise for whom I humbly pray to You to care for and protect. O God, be her guide and guardian in all her endeavors, lead her in the path of Your truth, and draw her nearer to You, so that she may lead a godly and righteous life in Your love as she does Your will in all things. Give her Your grace, and mercy so that she may be patient, hard working, tireless, devout and charitable. Defend her against the assaults of the enemy, and grant her wisdom and strength to resist all temptation and corruption, and direct her in the way of Salvation, through the goodness of Your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and the prayers of His Holy Mother and the blessed saints. Amen.

A Living Liturgical Tradition

I feel like I should get this out of the way before we get started here: I love the liturgy. I really do. I’ve been a part of a liturgical tradition for 15 years now, nearly half of my life and I honestly can’t imagine not participating liturgically in my worship of God. With that out of the way, you’ve been warned.

I went to a crowning service last weekend for a couple of kids who joined the Orthodox Church a few weeks ago. For the non-Orthodox here, an Orthodox wedding is like something you’ve most likely never seen. The most striking difference for most first timers is that we don’t do vows. I’ll probably delve into the reasons and rationale behind that later, but I’m trying to stay focused. Instead, we have a betrothal, crowning (with literal crowns), a procession called the Dance of Isiah and drinking from a common cup. It’s really a pretty awe-inspiring service. I studied it in my grad work and then was asked to help put together an explanation for my godson and his wife when they got married and the more I learned, the more I loved the service.

Back on topic, I was serving at a crowning service last weekend. The couple had been married outside of the Orthodox Church before they joined and this was a service in which the pr

St. Paul tells us in the the wedding epistle that this is a profound mystery, the term we Orthodox use for Sacraments.

What struck me so much during the wedding, despite all of the Orthodox weddings I’ve attended, is what I didn’t remember, or, better stated, what didn’t jump out at me. This wasn’t a new experience for me. I gain a new perspective or new insight into what marriage means and what marriage is. As a side note and a personal soap box here, this is part of the reason I try to attend all weddings at our parish (baptisms, chrismations and funerals as well) - these are family events and we, as Christians, especially of the same parish, are a family, we are brothers and sisters in Christ and these events should be shared and celebrated with one another, with those of us from the parish praying for the couple, the baby, the initiate or the reposed.

That’s the beauty of the liturgical life. When I attend a wedding, I hear the priest pray over the couple and confer God’s blessing on them. The Epistle from the service reminds us that marriage is selfless. By attending weddings at our parish, the beauty of my marriage is continually reinforced as is my role as a husband. As I’m joining the Church in praying for this new couple, I am also praying for myself, my wife and our union.

This is true in all of the services and mysteries of the Church. When I attend a baptism or chrismation, I relive my baptism, my chrismation. The same is true for the Epiphany/Theophany service - with the prayers of the blessing of the waters and the rememberance of Christ’s baptism, my own baptism is brought to mind. This isn’t by accident. When we relive the events in the life of Christ, of the Virigin Mary, of the Saints and of the Church, these events are reminders of salvific experiences in our lives. At the Nativity of Christ, we are reminded that we are partakers of the divine nature because of Christ’s humanity; at Transfiguration, we are called to be Transfigured; at the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we are reminded that we too died with Christ in the waters of baptism that we may be raised with him; at the Annunciation, we are reminded of the call to choose Christ we answered; at Pentecost, we are reminded of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us at our Chrismation; at each and every Eucharistic service, we are reminded of the Eucharist we took when we became members of the Church. Not only are these things from the past that we remember or meditate on, they are recreative events that we participate in anew each and every time if only we are receptive.