Author Archives: Andrew Boyd

School Shootings and the Evil Within Ourselves

by Fr. Nicholas Roth

I’m sure that by now everybody knows about the most recent mass shooting that occurred last Friday at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston, TX, in which a 17-year-old fatally shot 10 people and wounded 13 others.

Unfortunately, as shootings become increasingly common, it seems as though it’s almost impossible to even keep count of such horrific tragedies anymore. Indeed, it’s hard to even remember the names of all the places where they have occurred: Santa Fe, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, Orlando – sadly, the list goes on and on.  And all those have been within the past two years!

When the news of this latest atrocity first broke on Friday, our initial reactions might have varied, ranging from sadness to anger, or maybe even outrage, thinking “Again? What is wrong with people these days? Our society is sick!”

Perhaps our thoughts turned to the political, wishing for either more gun control or more police officers in schools. Hopefully, as Orthodox Christians, we at least paused to pray for both the victims and the shooter. In many ways, we probably felt powerless, thinking that there’s nothing we can do to help or to stop these events from happening. Many of us might have thought, “Thank God, I could never do anything like that!”

But as news slowly emerged, we learned the most recent shooter has a Greek name, and then we found out his family attended an Orthodox Church in the Houston area, raising the question of how did we THEN respond?

It’s likely that we were still shocked and saddened, of course, but it also presents itself as more of a challenge to who and what we are as Orthodox Christians. After all, if one of our own could do such a terrible thing, what does that say about us?

We might have become a bit defensive, thinking, “No real Orthodox Christian could ever do such a thing! He’s not really one of our people.”  Yet, notice that our initial reactions actually have quite a bit in common with how we felt when we heard the rest of the story.

In both cases, we put distance between him and us: in the first instance, blaming outside forces for what happened, such amorphous concepts as “people,” society,” and “culture.” In the second, not wanting to see him as a true part of our group, we possibly cast him as not really “one of us.”

Because the reality is that if we admit we have something in common with the shooter, then we also have to admit that each of us also has the potential to commit a similar atrocity. Instead, it’s much easier to think of the problem as something “out there,” something that is “other” or “foreign,” instead of something of which we are a part.

The distances we apply protect us from having to face the darkness within ourselves – that part of us that we refuse to acknowledge and we pretend doesn’t exist. It’s much easier to believe that we are “good” and others are “bad.”

In his famous work The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrestles with just this concept as he reflects on his own arrest and imprisonment, realizing that if things had worked out slightly differently, he might have been the one arresting people in order to protect himself:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?[1]

Yet, isn’t that exactly what we are all called to do? Just last week, during the Saturday evening Great Vespers commemorating the Holy Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council, we heard the words of Moses to the Israelites – and, consequently, to us: “You shall circumcise your hardheartedness and shall not harden your neck any longer.”[2]

We are called to destroy everything within us that incompatible with faith in Christ in order to allow His light to shine fully within us. We all have those things that we think are “ours” instead of God’s, the things that we choose to be blind to instead of confronting and driving out, because to acknowledge that they exist is to accept the reality that we have not entirely given ourselves over to God – that the line dividing good and evil cuts through our hearts, too.

Many of us tend to view evil as something lurking “out there,” something that is “other” – something in which we, the “real” Orthodox Christians, could never have any part.

But to view evil this way is to try to distance ourselves from the truth: that we, like everyone else, have evil lurking within us, in the dark places in our hearts, where we refuse to let the light of Christ shine.

Any time we are tempted to think about evil this way, we should remember the words of Archbishop Averky, Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery from 1960-1976:

A Christian should fight every type of evil wherever it appears, but this battle with evil should, in the first place, be a battle in his own soul. The battle with evil should begin with oneself, and only then will it be correct, reasonable, and sound…

‘A battle with evil in my own soul’ is a true Christian’s fundamental motto, and it is the one true principle, the one sound and reliable foundation on which one can build the well-being of humanity.[3]

So, we must ask ourselves: What are we blind to in our own lives that is incompatible with being a Christian? What do we choose to ignore or leave hiding in the dark instead of dealing with it, rooting it out so that our lives can become living witnesses to Christ?

What do we not see about ourselves? What parts of our lives have we not yet given to God? This is obviously much harder than simply blaming external forces for the problems in our society, but it is the only necessary and real work of a Christian.

Fr. Nicholas Roth is the Priest-in-Charge of the SS. George and Alexandra Mission in Fort Smith, Arkansas.


[1] Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol. I-II (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 168.

[2] Deut 10:16, NETS.

[3] (Taushev), Archbishop Averky, The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Publications, 2014), 111-12.

Personal Reflection: In Honor of Brain Cancer Awareness Month

By Elias Hodge

May is Brain Cancer Awareness Month. 

In 2013, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. When I was first told the news, I felt as if all the breath was taken out of me. I didn’t really know what to think. I was 14 years old at the time. Her prognosis was not good because her tumor was in the midbrain. The best way to describe where it was is by taking your finger and putting it just past the top of your head, and then imagining a line to the center of your head.

The midbrain is very difficult to operate on, mainly because it is close to the brainstem. One wrong cut in that area and the patient may no longer breathe, speak, or any number of awful things.

After consulting a number of neurosurgeons in the Twin Cities, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of Minnesota’s medical department(s), she learned about Dr. Robert Spetzler, a neurosurgeon from the Barrow Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Interestingly, one of the priests at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis was a doctor who had worked with Dr. Spetzler. He told her about the Barrow and mom set up a consult to see what could be done for her.

My dad, an Orthodox Christian priest, explained to me what the church does for people who are sick. But I never thought anyone in my family would be sick enough to need services like Holy Unction or a special service asking for strength before a major operation.

I remember going to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis before my mom left for surgery in Arizona. I was standing on the side facing an icon of Christ on the iconostasis, watching what was going on in the middle of the church. My mom was receiving Holy Unction from Father Andrew Morbey, while my dad was standing next to her.

My grandma was trying to take photos of the service on her outdated iPhone for her scrapbook. I didn’t really know what to think at that point. I knew what Unction was, the holy oil used for anointing the sick, but wasn’t sure what it might do. I was feeling really numb until went I went with her for the second surgery.

My mom needed a second surgery because the cancer came back. It would be the same surgery as the first time, and she needed a second craniotomy slightly to the left of the first.

Afterwards I began to read more about the teachings of the church. It was not an intensive study, as I was going to be finishing high school soon, but I had this desire to learn more about God and our Faith.

I think my experience around my mom’s surgery pushed me closer to the church and to learning more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian in America.

I began to be more aware of what I needed to do to become more disciplined, both in my studies and in the spiritual life. I learned from going to the divine services and from Orthodox web sites and getting closer to my dad, when we would talk about these things.

My mom’s brain cancer also made me appreciate the funeral services and better understand the services during Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) recounting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thankfully, my mom didn’t die from the cancer, but this understanding of how the church supports its members and provides services of healing, to remind us that the threat of death is not as far away as I thought it was. Yet, in that, we have the hope and promise of the Resurrection – so death does not overcome us or destroy our hope in God.

I think I came to that appreciation from participating in the services throughout the year after my mom’s cancer returned. It certainly was more poignant than before the cancer. And it made me much more grateful for what and who I have in my life, keeping me from becoming impatient at minor things, like when I can’t find a matching pair of socks after doing a load of laundry.

I found myself being much more invested in the life of the church afterwards. The experience of potentially losing my mom so quickly and in such an awful way, showed me that the right way to faith in God through prayer was right in front of me.

 

Leaving the Orthodox Church

by Fr. Richard Rene

 

As a priest, I am always concerned about why people leave the Orthodox Faith. Over the years, I have noticed that the problem may have to do with the very modern ways in which we think about our spiritual lives as personal journeys.

In pre-modern societies, a person’s identity was forged almost entirely in relation to his or her tribe. As a member of the tribe, your ‘journey’ was well-defined through rituals of birth, coming-of-age, marriage, the making of war and peace, and death. Your ‘journey’ was not your own, but one that your ancestors had taken before you.

In the modern world since the 18th century, the ties between individuals and communities have largely been severed. As a result, the sense of life as a journey has come unmoored. While your journey to maturity used to be well-defined for you by your tribe, now you must invent not only the destination (whatever constitutes ‘personal fulfillment’), but also the route and the markers of meaning along the way.

I think of myself as a typical example of this modern situation. When people learn that I’m an Orthodox priest, they often asked whether I am Russian or Greek. The assumption is that I entered the priesthood because it is my tribal religion.

In fact, I was born in the Seychelles, raised in southern and eastern Africa, and emigrated to western Canada. I chose to attend an Orthodox Church independently of my family, who found my decision strange and alienating. Entering the priesthood was very personal for me. It was my journey, one that I undertook for myself, rather than as a part of the well-worn path that the members of my tribe had followed before me.

In this sense, then, the modern breakdown of the tribally-defined journey has been a good thing. It has made it possible for people like me, who are outside the Slavic, Greek, and Palestinian tribes, to discover the riches of our Orthodox spiritual heritage.

But there’s also a dark side to these personal spiritual journeys. When the tribe no longer defines your journey into spiritual maturity, then every path and every destination is equally valid, because you chose it, and it’s right for you.

This assumption can be very dangerous. If every path you choose is right as long as it’s part of ‘your personal journey,’ then Orthodox Christianity, which considers itself the way to human salvation through Jesus Christ, is no more right than any other spiritual path. Worse yet, Orthodoxy may become just another stop along your way to something ‘more fulfilling’….

In short, when we uncritically adopt the modern understanding of the spiritual life as a personally-defined journey, we allow for the possibility of reducing Christianity to a purely subjective faith, dependent on our notions of ‘personal fulfillment.’ While the modern sensibility has broken down barriers and allowed people outside tribal boundaries to journey into an encounter with the fullness of the Gospel, it also has a dangerous tendency to make the journey away from the Church just as valid as the journey towards it.

If we have to talk about a ‘personal spiritual journey’ or a ‘journey of faith’ (and it would be hard not to do so), we need to remember that as Orthodox Christians, our journey and the destination—the fullness of Christ in the tradition of the Orthodox Church—are not self-defined, but a given.

However personal our journey to Orthodoxy may have been, once we arrive, we are called to do something profoundly anti-modern: to conform the rest of our journey to that of the spiritual tribe to which we ultimately belong—the Church.

While Orthodoxy may have been a choice we made because it ‘felt right,’ our choices as Orthodox Christians cannot be made using that same approach. Rather, we must continually make our spiritual decisions within the context and understanding of the Church, asking how we can choose a path that is consistent with that of our spiritual ancestors – the apostles, the saints, martyrs, evangelizers and the Mother of God, herself – those who have walked before us.

Only then can we avoid the pitfalls of modernity, which too easily leads us away from our hearts’ true home.

Prison Ministry: A Service to Others

 

Christ the Prisoner

“I’m going to prison,” is something I say with joy every week. I am part of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry in Shakopee, Minnesota (https://theocpm.org/ & http://www.ocpm-mn.org/)

Each Monday evening after work, I meet up with my fellow volunteers at a local Culver’s for dinner and discussion. Then we drive to the only women’s prison in Minnesota. We go through security and enter a classroom. We retrieve our bibles and rotate who teaches each week. I have been a part of this group of volunteers for 2.5 years.

We always start with a brief introduction to the Orthodox Faith. Since many people are unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, prison ministry allows us to expose prisoners to our ancient faith for the first time. We lead a general bible study – this can include music, video, hand-outs, art, poetry, games, and icons. Each volunteer has a slightly different teaching style and emphasis. I joined this ministry a few months after I was chrismated into the Orthodox faith. Through my fellow volunteers, prisoners, and preparation for leading studies, I’ve been able to deepen my new faith and understanding of Christianity. It is a thing of beauty to share our faith with women starving for truth and goodness.

Prison ministry is difficult to contain in words. It is an experience. Here are some revelations I’ve discovered through my ministry:

  • Often women are grateful, very grateful, to be in prison. They note, “Prison is the best thing that’s happened to me because I would be dead if I didn’t have this time out to focus on myself and change.”

 

  • Most women are in prison for substance use/misuse charges. There are many treatment programs in prison. Most of these programs (AA, NA, etc.) have a strong religious focus in them. This allows a synergy between growing in faith and learning to live substance free for the women who participate in both religious programs and treatment programs.

 

  • The women are filled with shame especially around being separated from their children. There is a real struggle to accept God’s forgiveness for the hurt they have caused their children. Mother’s Day and holidays are always really hard days for the ladies in prison.

 

  • There is a real hunger for truth in the ladies. Finding God and opening up to His love and truth provides peace and meaning to their lives. The ladies always knew that there was “something more to life” than how they previously lived.

 

  • They love to hear definitive, black and white distinctions, and become animated when talking about Satan and evil forces, likely because they’ve experienced so many of these forces in their lives.

 

  • Women often talk about ‘county’ (county jails) where they are held until sentencing. After sentencing, they are sent to prison. County jails can vary tremendously. Many have little programming but prisoners are always provided a bible. Often it is during this time when the women turn to God and start to read the bible, typically starting with the book of psalms. There is quite a lot of programming at our prison. When we are at the prison Monday, we enter with Catholics, AA, yoga, university writing classes, and occasionally Wicca. They are most grateful for our time and efforts and pray for us. It’s a powerful thing to be prayed for by these women who are actively being transformed by the Holy Spirit. As with all volunteering, you to reap more than you sow.

 

  • One of the hardest things about prison is living in community. The women are told, “You enter prison alone and you leave alone.” As someone on the outside, that sounds horrible, but it seems to reinforce an idea that prison is a time to reform yourself. When in prison, the ladies are not able to choose their roommate. Some roommate pairings are great, some are awful – oil and water situations. This tends to be quite stressful for the women and they really feel the loss of control over their lives when they have to switch houses or roommates.

 

  • Don’t ask me about Orange is the New Black type of drama. I hate when people ask me for sordid stories of prison life. I don’t watch this show, but have an idea of what it depicts. I don’t know and do not want to know why the women who attend our bible studies are in prison. It doesn’t matter other than my own interest. As volunteers, we focus on the present and future. That is what matters: change, reform, repentance.

 

  • One lady shared that when she takes her morning shower she thinks of it like a baptism and it gives her strength and renewal for the day. What a lovely way to incorporate God into her daily routine!

 

  • We also hold a short vespers service complete with choir and deacon quarterly at prison. This is a real treat for the women. Most have never been to a liturgical religious service. The sensual nature of the Orthodox worship really appeals to and often moves the women to tears. Hearing the psalms sung/chanted, seeing the beautiful vestments, smelling the incense which clings to the icons and vestments transforms a small prison chapel into a heavenly place. The icons are a gateway to understanding our faith for the women. Many do not know the bible or theology, but they can easily comprehend a sorrowful Christ in prison.

 

In summary, prison ministry is place where lives are transformed. It is powerful, but requires responsibility. The ladies we encounter have often been victimized and are in need of love and understanding. We cannot fully understand what they have experienced. When I think that I have always had a place to call home, food to eat, people who love me, I feel rich and spoiled. It reminds me to be continuously grateful for what I have been given, because I certainly haven’t earned my cosseted life. I could so easily be one of the prisoners I visit on Monday. Prison ministry has taught me to treat others with greater charity and love. May your lives also be transformed by serving others!

 

Anna Dapper attends St. Mary’s OCA in the Twin Cities

The 8 Reasons Why YOU Should go to Church Camp

1. Church, Twice a Day
At camp we celebrate a morning prayer service to hear the Word of God as our first activity of the day. With this spiritually centered start of the day, it is more possible to remember God’s providence as we go about our activities and when the day is complete, we can give heartfelt thanks at evening prayers.

2. The Amazing Friends
The friends you make at camp are essential to developing a full and healthy spiritual life. The support your friends give you during times of difficulty can help just as much as your own family, because camp friends are like your family. Visiting with them throughout the year feels just like you are at camp with them, and you pick up where you left off.

3. Helpful Counselors
The counselor-camper relationship is potentially one of the strongest friendships that can develop from the camping experience. Counselors are like an older sibling with whom you can share everything. If you have a problem or just want to talk, you can always expect a wise word from your counselors.

4. The Clergy
The team of clergy and monastics tasked with the spiritual care of the camp, work hard to lead everyone towards Christ. Their invaluable insight during Question and Answer sessions or any other advice they offer can increase knowledge regarding the church, and further guide the camper through their spiritual life.

5. Christian Ed
The spiritual education at camp is always centered around a different curriculum each year; allowing campers to explore different theological concepts and lessons. It also provides well-rounded knowledge to help equip the camper to live a richer spiritual life.

6. Fun Activities
When we aren’t going to church or in Christian Ed, camp offers a wide array of activities just for fun. Field sports with your cabin help to build a team dedicated to serving one another as well as fellow campers. Free time gives an opportunity to spend time with friends; participating in any camp activity you could think of. Finally, all camp activities like ethnic dancing night or karaoke allow everyone to enjoy each other’s company.

7. No Phones
Wait what? No phones are a good thing? Giving up electronics is a very healthy and concrete way to follow God’s command to “lay aside all earthly cares.” At camp we can focus on the fellowship and community in Christ rather than the news or Instagram or Snapchat.

8. Living in God’s Creation
The appreciation of nature is a powerful practice which can aid us in understanding all God has, is, and will continue to do for us. We can temporarily forget passing worldly concerns found in the media and in our daily lives while focusing instead on Christ’s message of love.


Explore the various summer camp programs available throughout the Orthodox Church in America’s summer camp programs.

Join us at the Youth Program of the 19th All-American Council in St. Louis, MO – Monday, July 23 – Friday, July 27, 2018. (open to youth ages 5-17, 18+ can serve as counselors)


Viktor and Liam Boris live in Minnetonka, MN and are members of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, MN. They have been attending church camp for as long as they remember and are looking forward to going to church camp this summer.

Registration Open for 2018 Youth/Camp Workers’ Conference

Registration Open for 2018 Youth/Camp Workers’ Conference

Atlanta, GA – The 17th Annual Orthodox Christian Camp and Youth Workers Conference will take place Thursday, February 1 – Saturday, February 3rd, 2018. Registration is now open. <<hyperlink: http://orthodoxycc.org/register/ >>

“This is a great opportunity for anyone involved with or interested in camp and youth work to come together with like-minded people,” said David Lucs, director, OCA Department of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries. “This annual event provides clergy, camp, and youth workers with opportunities for engaging conversation, making connections, and the sharing of ideas to help with their programs and specific needs in their home parishes.”

A number of OCA clergy and laity will be leading workshops and discussion groups including Father Daniel Hickman, Longwood, FL, and Deacon Gabriel Aldridge, Atlanta, Georgia, and others. The OCA last hosted the 2016 gathering in Dallas, Texas. The keynote address will be presented by Father Alexander Gousettis, director of the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

“This year’s conference theme focuses on the Place of Gratitude in Youth Ministry,” said Natalie Nixon, director, Office of Youth & Young Adult Ministry, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. “We encourage camp and youth workers from all Orthodox parishes across North America to join us for enriching presentations and discussions for their benefit and application in their home parishes and camps.”

The theme will help camp and youth workers discover a key element of ministry that often eludes us:  the “gratitude of St. Paul”, who while struggling to establish and maintain churches, was in fact thankful for everyone and everything.  Conference organizers hope that the theme will provide the inspiration and spiritual nourishment for youth workers to “abound in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:7) in the midst of the beautiful, but often difficult field of youth work.

The two day event is being co-hosted by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and the American Capartho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A., with the blessing of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America.

A discounted early bird registration rate is available until December 15, 2017, along with a discounted hotel rate. Registration and more information are available at the 2018 Conference website: www.orthodoxycc.org/register

What Role Does God Play in Your Life?

A homily on Mark 8:34 on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross¹
By Deacon Jason Ketz – September 17, 2017

I was recently reading a research report, the National Study of Youth and Religion², where a few pastors interviewed several hundred Christian teenagers about their faith, hoping to see if they could link attitudes, feelings or thought patterns with behavior patterns.

Connections such as: do teens who go to church more often describe God differently.

Overwhelmingly, the teens surveyed described a nice faith.  God is nice; churches are nice. Churches help us learn important social, moral values; God is kind and loving, helps people when they really need it, and certainly thinking about God can help us through tough times.

That was the prevailing sentiment in this survey.  Nice. Maybe even “Minnesota nice.”

But when the study asked whether the students’ faith in Christ, their belief in God, actually weighs in on serious decisions or situations in their lives, nearly 80% of these students admitted that, no, they do not consult God when making decisions.

God is not involved in decisions about future college or career choices, about where they want to live, who they date or marry, how they vote, or any significant, but positive life event.

Jesus is there when they are struggling; ready to boost their self-image, assure them of a better tomorrow, but when life is clicking along, the students happily imagine that God is elsewhere, helping those who really need him. So God and Church are nice, it seems, but usually absent and largely irrelevant.

Now, I suspect that this faith the teenagers describe is largely the faith that they see around them; their faith is a rough imitation of the faith we portray to them.  To a greater or lesser extent, we are all guilty of seeing God as nice, but not always relevant or present.

I know we’re constantly guilty of trying to manage our lives ourselves; guilty of compartmentalizing our faith, so that we conduct ourselves with good morals and ethics, we live wholesome, charitable lives, but we save our big prayers for ‘emergency use only.’  And this strategy works very well to get along in 21st century America.  Very well, in fact.

There’s just this one little problem: it’s lukewarm; neither hot nor cold. Such a passive, lukewarm, nice faith is entirely the opposite of what God expects. God hates lukewarm. It’s useless and gross, like cold chicken noodle soup.

In fact, God spat out the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:16), whose works were lukewarm. And he will spit out this 21st century polite Christian piety for the same reason: Lukewarm, pragmatic, convenient faith it is not what is taught, exemplified, and requested by the crucified and risen Christ.

Not even close!

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”  (Mk 8:34-35)

He doesn’t say “check in every once in a while” and he doesn’t say “I’m there if you need me; otherwise, I’ll keep out of the way.”  And why doesn’t he say either of those messages?

Because those ways of thinking place not God, but us, at the center of our own universe. This light, lukewarm Christianity that I suspect we’re all guilty of at least once in a while, and that came out in the study of American teens is very ego-centric at the end of the day.

It hinges completely on our own belief that “I can handle it.” I will decide if and when I need help, and then I’ll ask for it.

That’s really very self-centered.  Well intended, of course, but self-centered.

But authentic faith in Christ is exactly the opposite of that – it is a decentralizing experience, and today’s gospel is a decentralizing message.  “Deny yourself, take of your cross and follow me.

For whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

Or maybe a better translation: “whoever wastes his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

What a curious phrase that is – to waste our lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

Christ never expected our faith in him to be a mark of pedigree, to be a sign of good citizenship or social maturity, and if we feel our Christianity is entirely compatible with our daily experiences, then either we’ve achieved real holiness, or we aren’t quite sure who it is we claim to worship.

We aren’t quite hearing our Lord’s decentralizing message.  Right now, we’re just sort of smiling and nodding along.

So what, then, is the solution?

How can we hear and process our Lord’s decentralizing call to discipleship, his call for us to deny ourselves and follow him?  The way forward begins with a serious reflection on the significance of the cross.

Because the cross is the perfect expression of God’s love for the world.

The faith I described earlier, that lukewarm Christianity, is very measured, and pragmatic, and rational.

But the faith of Christ in the Gospels is driven by love. True love. Young love. Heart on fire, head-over-heels, Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love. It’s combustible, passionate, dangerously spontaneous, maybe even reckless.

What do we see in the scriptures?
Christ dining with prostitutes or tax collectors – bad optics;
The shepherd leaving 99 sheep alone to find just one who is lost – risky;
The man who sells all he has to buy a field with a buried treasure – foolhardy;
The father who rushes to embrace his son who just came home from the pigsty – messy.

And that perfect expression of God’s reckless, passionate, burning love is in the cross.
Christ gave up everything to come and find us; to save us.

Not even death could stop God’s love for us.

What incredible, overwhelmingly passionate, and incendiary love!
For us.
For me.
For you.

And it’s this passionate love of Christ that is decentralizing.  None of us want to share the spotlight with somebody else for no good reason.

But any of us who have felt our hearts burn for another, or break for another, know exactly how to move out of the way and let somebody else, somebody we truly love more than anything, be the most important person in our lives.

Lovers, parents, long-time friends.

Deep down, we get it; we know that feeling.

And what we’re hearing today is that our God is moved, driven, by that burning love for us.  And he’s assuming we feel that way about him as well.  So do we? Do you?  Do I?  Maybe we think that we don’t know him well enough yet to make that decision.  But falling in love isn’t a rational act anyway.

is a leap of faith. Can we make such a leap of faith for Christ? Can we take a big chance on his love?

That’s the choice that is set before us today.

We have again been shown Christ’s love for each of us, God’s burning love for the world. Now it’s on us to take that fire, and kindle it within our own hearts, to carry the flame within us, to let Christ’s warmth into all the cold, dark corners of our lives; to not save Christ’s love for emergency use only, but invite him into the mundane, daily events, and especially bring his love to bear in the positive, significant life choices we make, so that we can then bring this incendiary love of Christ out to the world, where it will catch fire!

Our Lord makes no promises about our well-being either, but when you’re in love, who cares?!

All Christ promises is the one thing that a lover would want to hear: I’ll never stop loving you.

So may we all feel the heat of this burning love of Christ today. May it set ablaze our lukewarm faith, and drive us forth into the world as Christ’s disciples, to the Glory of God the Father.

Amen.


1 This reflection was presented as the homily on Sunday, September 17, 2017 at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, Minneapolis. MN. Dn. Jason’s writing style approximates his style of speech, with some fragmented sentences, repetitive statements and colloquial expressions. 
2 The study is even broader and far more incisive than the introduction suggests, but for the purposes of this homily, the summary statements are a reasonable distillation of the data.
Special thanks go to Kenda Creasy Dean, whose monograph Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. (Oxford: Oxford Univ Press, 2010), presents and discusses the data, and whose reflections throughout Part 2 of the book provide some of the basis for my own reflection on the Gospel of Mark.  

God and the Tiger

By Fr. John Cox

Tiger tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
what immortal hand or eye
could frame thy fearful symmetry?
-William Blake

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You are on a mission. You are deep in the mountainous forests of the Annapurna Conservation Area in northern Nepal. You are here to photograph the elusive and majestic Bengal Tiger. For hours you have been working your way, slowly and quietly, through a narrow, misty, crevasse with little light and little visibility. You push through a gnarl of conifers at the end of the crevasse just as a breeze carries the mist away. The full light of the sun dazzles your eyes and you gasp. You are standing on top of the world; tower upon mighty, Himalayan tower scraping the clouds around you. The ground falls away into a clean valley beneath your feet, and there, the hunt is on! He is stretched out, full speed, every muscle taught, 11 feet and 900 pounds of elegant power, gliding with silent, lethal grace over the valley floor. You stand enthralled, camera forgotten, in reverent awe of the mountains and the tiger. This is fear.

We commonly use the word fear to mean psychological terror; the kind of gasping, clutching feeling you have when a strange noise awakens you in the night. This kind of fear is a bad thing. But scripturally the word fear has more to do with reverence, respect, and awe than with sweat-inducing night terrors. This is important to know because fear is all over our scripture; in a good way.

In Proverbs we learn that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; (9:10) and that The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. (19:9) The prophet Jeremiah, speaking with the words of God, says, I shall give them one heart and one way so that they may fear me during all their days, so that all will be well for them and for their sons after them… so that they may never go away from Me. (32:39-40) Lest we think this is just an Old Testament thing, St. Paul says that, Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others…, (II Cor. 5:11) and St. John the Theologian, in his Revelation, asks in wonder, Who will not fear you, O Lord? (15:4) Clearly fear is an important part of our relationship with God. In fact, it is essential. If you do not fear God you cannot love him.
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Why? Because you meet God through the scripture and the services of the Church, especially in holy communion, and the One you encounter there is the Holy One who kills and makes alive; (Duet. 32:39) He is the source of all being; (Anaphora of St. Basil) He is beauty, truth, and love embodied; He is the One who hung on a cross, enduring the shame and pain – death itself – to give us eternal life and make us whole again. To meet this One and, in that encounter, refuse your reverence, your respect, and your awe is to behold the tiger and the mountains and yawn in boredom. The door to the heart of such a person is locked from the inside. Either they refuse to see God as He is, or, seeing Him that way, choose to pretend He’s no big deal. This is the opposite of love. This is a profound self-centeredness that makes love impossible. Love contains the capacity to be astounded, transformed, and humbled by another. You cannot love what you will not adore and refuse to be awed by.

Our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:29) When we approach Him in the fear of God, as the priest says when he calls us to communion, that holy fire, ensconced in bread and wine, consumes our sins and fills us with the Holy Spirit – eternal life. The primary quality of this life is love; love for God, love for others, and love for the whole world. St. John tells us that this perfect love casts out fear of judgment or condemnation. So, the healthy kind of fear drives out the bad kind and makes us capable of bearing a love so strong it cannot die This is why St. Anthony the Great says The one who fears God will live forever.

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Priest John Cox is Priest-in-Charge at Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church (OCA) in Norfolk, VA. He is originally from Knoxville, TN where he was brought into Orthodoxy at St. George Greek Orthodox Church.  Fr John is a 2011 graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, a husband, and father of four. 

What Does Love Look Like?

By Fr. Sergius Halvorsen

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Today we are practically drowning in images of so-called “love.” Attractive, athletic men and women, dressed in the latest styles, seductively enjoying each other’s company on the deck of sleek yacht, on a tropical beach, or at a snowy mountain resort. Images like these are everywhere, and the not-so-subtle theme is desire. We are tempted to desire the attractive people, desire the material trappings of success, desire the luxury lifestyle. All of these images tempt us to say things like, “Oh, I just love that!” But what it means is that we desire to possess or consume something, or someone. In other words, we live in a world where selfish desire masquerades as love.

This is not a new phenomenon. Herod had a passionate desire for the opulent wealth of impossible mansions like the one he built at Masada. Herod had a passionate desire for women that he wanted, like Herodius his brother’s wife. Herod also had a passionate desire for the absolute power of a monarch; the kind of power by which a man could be beheaded by a simple command, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mt. 14.8)Ioannis Herod was not alone. Pontius Pilate also had a passionate desire for power, wealth and influence. At Pilate’s word armies would march, at his word prisoners could be released for political advantage, and at his word troublemakers could be scourged and crucified. Herod and Pilate were men who used their power and influence to satisfy their darkest desires.

While many may claim that they “love something” or “love someone” it is often just greed and lust masquerading as “love.” As anyone who has ever been the object of someone else’s desire knows that desire ultimately fails. The person that once said “I love you” begins to regard you differently. As the newness of the relationship fades, as arguments come up more often, we may find ourselves less and less “loved.” When desire is the fundamental motivation in a relationship, there is no reason to be faithful, after all, if something or someone else comes along that is more desirable then why not go after what makes you happy? John the Baptist and Jesus suffered terribly at the hands of Herod and Pilate precisely because Herod and Pilate were men who were primarily driven by desire, and not by love.

So, what does love look like?

Love is commitment, and we see authentic love in Jesus Christ who loves us precisely when we are unlovable. As St. Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom 5.8) The Son of God came into this world, lived among us, taught, preached, worked miracles, cast out demons, and proclaimed good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. (Lk.4.18; Isa 61.1) And how was he received? He was rejected, accused of blasphemy, arrested, mocked, handed over to lawless men, unjustly convicted, scourged, humiliated and crucified. If ever God had good reason to turn away from his people, it was when Jesus was crucified. If ever God had good reason to decide that mankind had gone one step too far in sin and arrogance, it was when men decided to kill Jesus. 1493159_10101860540189431_7478368131723434096_nBut love is commitment. God’s perfect love is God’s absolute commitment to remain with his people precisely when we are unlovable. And the depth of God’s love is nowhere more perfectly evident than when Jesus prays for the very people who are killing him. “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23.34) This is what love looks like. When the bride of Christ, mankind, abandons Christ the Bridegroom, our Lord remains faithful. Love is commitment, and receiving this love from God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we love others with the same kind of love. We love our brothers and sisters not because they satisfy our desires, but because they are created in the image and likeness of God, and because Christ commands us to love, just as he loves us. (Jn13.34)

Rev. Sergius Halvorsen PhD. is Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is the associate pastor at Christ the Savior Church in Southbury, CT and lives in Middletown,CT with his wife and three children. He enjoys singing, reading historical fiction and watching his children perform on stage and on the baseball field.