Soul Notes: Christian & Rock

Soul Notes:  Christian and Rock

by Jacob Souček

I’ve always been intrigued with Christian rock bands and even considered forming one myself.  That being said, for the first edition of Soul Notes I wanted to talk a little about the different degrees in which certain bands distinguish themselves as Christian rock.  There were many to choose from, but for me, the following four bands came to mind first.

Stryper
I know I’m probably dating myself when I bring up the band Stryper, but these guys were one of my favorite rock bands growing up and still are. Their music is heavy and melodic, coupled with the fact that they boldly talk about Christ in their lyrics is inspiring to me both as a rock musician and Orthodox Christian. Stryper was a pioneer of the heavy Christian rock music scene and some would arguably call them the first of its kind!  Many groups have since followed their example.

Songs like, The Way, which included the lyrics; “Oh – what did you say? / Oh Christ is the way, Rockin’ for the One who is the rock” and  Soldiers Under (God’s) Command; The battStryper Concert 1986.jpgle that’s waiting is fought so easily through Him, without sin there is victory!”

Stryper’s ten plus albums all have the same straight forward Christian themes, unapologetically proclaiming Christ as God and Savior in almost every song. I give them a lot of credit, while they were breaking into the scene in the early 90s other “heavy metal” bands such as Motley Crue, Ratt, and Poison were also widely popular, making names for themselves in an era of “wine, woman, and song.”

Regardless, Stryper gained popularity both in the mainstream and Christian markets and still enjoy a very loyal following today.

U2
Although I used to be a larger fan of U2 in my younger years, I grew to appreciate a bit more of a technical and heavy sound these days.  I still enjoy a lot of their music and respect them as musicians.  I’ve heard them described as a “semi-secretly Christian rock band”.  Because they reference the Bible in over 50 of their songs, I would say that the secret is out! Though their crossover appeal is also extremely evident as a secular band.

So, is U2 a Christian rock band?

I think we would first need to look to their lead singer to gain some insight into that question.

In an interview, Bono said; “The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put oU2 on Joshua Tree Tour 2017 Brussels 8-1-17.jpgut did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death.”   

Although Bono is obviously a man of faith, the band’s lyrics lack that kind of boldness.  They have more of a “feel good, you fill in the blanks yourself” if you want them to have a Christian vibe or just a spiritual one.  I leave it up to the listener to perceive for themselves if they are a Christian rock band or not.

Petra
To be honest, I don’t know a lot about Petra and haven’t listened to a lot of their music, but to not include them in this conversation would be a big oversight. Their group is all Christian all the time!  Every song has a clear theme and focus.  They have been around since 1975 and are regarded as a pioneer of the Christian rock and contemporary Christian music genres. I would think that Petra has no issues with being labeled as a Christian rock band.  With songs like “Hallowed Be Thy Name”;We will worship the Maker of all things Almighty God, to You our voices sing Hallowed be Thy Name”, it is evident in their lyrics that Petra clearly has a strong Christian message.

Switchfoot
Love this band! “On Fire” is the song my wife and I used for our first dance at our wedding reception and holds a special place in my heart. Not necessarily a song full of bold “Christian” lyrical content, but it does allude to love as a “mystery.” As an Orthodox Christian, I thought it to be a poignant and appropriate theme for marriage.

Much like U2, Switchfoot has both a secular and Christian fan-base. Again, I will defer to the band’s lead singer (Jon Foreman) to explain in his own words, how he perceives Switchfoot’s message. Taken from an interview, Jon explained; “You see, a song that has the words: ‘Jesus Christ’ is no more or less ‘Christian’ than an instrumental piece. (I’ve heard lots of people say Jesus Christ and they weren’t talking about their redeemer.) You see, Jesus didn’t die for any of my tunes. So, there is no hierarchy of life or songs or occupation only obedience. We have a call to take up our cross and follow. We can be sure that these roads will be different for all of us. Just as you have one body and every part has a different function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each of us belongs to all the others. Please be slow to judge ‘brothers’ who have a different calling.” Switchfoot live in Myrtle Beach, SC, 3 April 2008.jpg

Both Jon and Bono’s comments about their faith are bold statements and a testimony to their Christian beliefs, which is carried over to their music. I can’t help but feel uplifted when I hear U2’s “Where the Streets have no Name” and Switchfoot’s “On Fire.” But there is also something to be said about groups like Stryper and Petra whose sole purpose is to minister to their fan base through bold Christian-focused lyrical content.

The bands that I chose to highlight above are groups from my era, but there are several modern bands that also fit into this conversation.

Groups like:

Sons of Leon, composed of 4 brothers whose father is a Pentecostal preacher. Many of their songs deal with the topic of redemption. Their lyrical content is a bit more vague than groups like Stryper and Petra who leave you inspired and are very intentional in their message.

Mumford & Sons, band leader Marcus Mumford’s parents are leaders in the evangelical Vineyard Church in England, and he’s a member of that church to this day. Most of his songs reflect his spirituality, some more directly than others.

The Avett Brothers, a hugely popular cult band in the indie-folk world, they have been accepted as basically a secular act even though a lot of their lyrics are very clearly about their Christian faith.

I find it to be a special calling and commend all the groups and artists, labeled either Christian, secular, or mainstream, who recognize their platform as an opportunity to share the message of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ with people who may have never had heard the good news if it were not for their music and personal testimonies. I encourage you to explore these groups and others keeping in mind the message of Jesus Christ. Are there some that speak more loudly to you?

The Prophets Speak to Us

The Prophets Speak to Us

by Michael Lotti

In this Nativity season, you’ll probably hear how the prophets foretold the birth of Christ. But if that’s all you hear from the prophets, you are missing most of what God wants you to hear.

The prophets weren’t primarily concerned with predicting the future. They had three main messages that people – including us – usually don’t want to hear.

Message #1: I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me.

The First Commandment seems easy to keep, right? But it’s not.

When we delight in something forbidden by God’s law, we put ourselves before God.

When we scramble after security in an unpredictable world, we put our trust in things and earthly powers instead of God.

For the Prophet Isaiah, this is idolatry:

For you said in your mind, ‘I will ascend into heaven; I will place my throne above the stars of heaven. I will sit on a lofty mountain, on the lofty mountains toward the north. I will ascend above the clouds; I will be like the Most High.’Isaiah 14: 13-14

Only when we forsake our pleasures and securities and completely trust in God do we become true followers of the first commandment.

Message #2: Repent and love your neighbor

“But no one can be completely free from idolatry, then,” you may say. This is true. So is our situation hopeless?

Not at all. The words of the Prophet Joel sum up God’s invitation to repent:

“Now says the Lord your God, ‘Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting and wailing and with mourning; rend your heart and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for He is merciful and compassionate. He is longsuffering and plenteous in mercy…” Joel 2: 12-13.

There’s more. In a famous passage, the Prophet Micah answers, “What really pleases God?”

He has shown you, O man, what is good. Or what does the Lord seek from you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to be ready to walk with the Lord your God?Micah 6:7-8

God will hear your prayer of repentance and forgive you. Then he’ll command you again: love your neighbor.

Message #3: Care for the poor

The prophets repeatedly tell us to have a special concern for the poor – and by “poor” they mean anyone who is vulnerable.

The Prophet Malachi warns against an uncaring attitude toward the poor:

’And I will draw near to you in judgment, a swift witness against…those who exploit wage-earners, those who oppress widows and afflict orphans, those who pervert the justice due foreigners, and those who do not fear Me,” says the Lord Almighty.’Malachi 3:5-6

So you must always ask yourself: Do I notice the poor and vulnerable around me? Do I actually love them the way God loves me?

These are not easy messages to hear, for they remind us that God’s judgment is upon us. But that’s why God sent the prophets – to wake us up and challenge us to more fully participate in his gracious covenant.

 Michael Lotti is a freelance writer. He and his family attend Holy Orthodox Church (OCA) in St. Paul, Minnesota.

St. Nicholas’ Shoes

St. Nicholas’ Shoes

By Fr. Dustin Lyon

It’s that time of year again.

Christmas lights are up and plastic lawn decorations of that old jolly man in a red suit have appeared. Yet, that jolly old man is more than a cartoon caricature that we hope brings us the new iPhone in our stocking this year. In fact, the real Santa Claus was the Orthodox bishop of Myra in the early 4th century.  We know him as St. Nicholas and he reminds us about the importance of giving to others.

Why?

Because when we give, we have the opportunity to significantly change other peoples’ lives for the better – and there’s no better example than St. Nicholas himself.

In the time of St. Nicholas, there was a man who was once very rich, but times became tough and finances were so hard that this man had to think of creative ways to earn money just to put food on the table.  This man was so desperate to feed his family that he decided the only way he could get enough money was to sell one of his three daughters into slavery.

Yikes!

This may sound very harsh to us, but in this time and place, this happened often.  People who came upon hard times were forced to sell family members into slavery just to make ends meet.

When St. Nicholas heard of this man’s plan to sell one of his daughters, he decided to help. Late that night after the family went to sleep, St. Nicholas stopped by and threw a bag of coins into the man’s home. The money landed in one of the girl’s shoes, which was set by the fire place. The next morning, the man found the gold coins which allowed him to buy food and host a wedding for the daughter he had planned to sell into slavery.  As the story goes, St. Nicholas helped this man with all three of his daughters, providing money to cover wedding expenses that allowed all the daughters to marry good husbands instead of being sold into slavery. St. Nicholas’ generous gifts helped change this man’s world (and his daughters’ world) for the better.

In this story, St. Nicholas’ gifts all landed in the shoes of the daughters, so it has become an Orthodox tradition to lay out our shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) in hopes of finding gold coins in them when we wake.

The story of St. Nicholas reminds us that we should do more than look for gold coins in our shoes. We should look to walk in his shoes by giving to others to make a difference.  Our gift may not be saving someone from slavery, but a gift as simple as a smile to a stranger or buying a coffee for someone can still make a big difference in their life.

When we follow in St. Nicholas’ shoes – loving others by sharing our gifts and talents with them, we become people who make a difference and spread Christ’s love. This is when we truly embrace the meaning of St. Nicholas’ name, “victory of the people.”

Fr. Dustin Lyon is a priest at St. Elias the Prophet Greek Orthodox Church in Dubuque, Iowa

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

Freely Open Your Hand

Freely Open Your Hand

by Vera Proctor

There are poor people; there are rich people, and everything in between. We, all of us, want and hunger for something.  Sometimes even unbelievably, in our own communities regardless of size and resources, it is for food. And with food come feelings of comfort, stability, strength, satisfaction, health, delight, memory, replenishment and rest. This dilemma of physical and emotional hunger is among us, has been with us, and will likely remain in humankind until the end of the world.

“For the poor will neverTrinty cease in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:11)

In the New Testament, in each of the four gospels, there is reference to the poor and Christ’s relationship to them. The famous line: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me,” appears in some form in Matthew (26:11) Mark (14:7) and John (12:8), and in the Gospel of Luke we see many examples of where the tension between the rich and the poor is inverted so that the marginalized and the unimportant – those who hunger and thirst – are precisely those whom the Lord seeks. Jesus Christ, in word and deed, taught how important it is to consider the poor.

In an age of plenty, in a highly developed country as our own, there are still problems surrounding access to good, affordable food.  I would go on to say that hunger and homelessness are inextricably tied. Furthermore, homelessness – the instability and inconsistency of basic housing, can be tied to any number of social problems. It very often means, what are we going to eat? Can I have a shower? Where will I do my homework? Are my clothes clean for the coming day? What if I get sick? Where can I play or hang out? Not knowing where you’re going to sleep on any given night, or knowing that where you’re sleeping is temporary and not your own bed night after night, is most especially burdensome for children and adolescents, school aged kids.

So what does this all really mean to us? If there will always be poor people what can we do about it? How can we solve the tension between poverty and wealth when the causes seem pretty big and complicated? And pretty ingrained in society?  We start by simply seeing, recognizing, and accepting the poor and from that point not turning back.

I will give you two principles to consider, a “never” and an “always,” to turn over in your mind and to keep in your heart for reflection:

Never, ever, judge. The causes of homelessness and hunger can be complicated and are completely out of the control of the kids in a family. Never judge. Accept that you can’t know or perhaps even understand what people in this reduced and impoverished state must deal with. Being poor is stressful  – a relentless balancing act of getting to the next day, or week, or the next month.  To judge, especially if you confuse judging with “figuring out the problem” doesn’t help the person suffering in this state, and it is spiritually unprofitable for you.

Always, without hesitation, do something. The world and all that is in it is ours to consider. Open your eyes my friends to this knowledge and do not turn back from the opportunity, that is any opportunity, to do something. One thing, or maybe lots of things. May I suggest that you do not seek to “make a difference.”  Let your actions no matter how simple or humble be the difference.  Collect some cans of food, serve a meal to the hungry, and pray for the poor and needy; become a social worker or a policy expert on social issues, or run for public office; whether you are an electrician, or a daycare teacher, an insurance salesman, banker, barista, or barber , worker bee or a dreamer – give, offer, donate, gather, feed, work, volunteer, and again, pray. Once, twice, countless times, whatever you can do. Take the opportunity. You don’t have to save the world; you simply have to be prepared to be in this world fully, and with love. It is what Christ asks of us all.

Vera Proctor is the director of FOCUS Minnesota, an Orthodox charitable non profit providing basic-needs assistance to homeless and low income individuals and families.

 

Calling All Angels

The Synaxis of the Archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and all the Heavenly Hosts:  November 8th

Mother Macrina

Those of you named after the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, or their feminine counterparts, no doubt realize the importance of the date November 8th when we celebrate the Synaxis of the Archangels and of the other Bodiless Powers of heaven.

As Orthodox Christians, however, this date should be equally significant for all of us as the holy Archangels and angels play an integral role in our lives.  That is, if we want them to.

What do we know about them?  We consult the Bible for the answer.  Beginning in Genesis to the last book of Revelation, angels are mentioned over 200 times.  We know nothing of their creation, nor when it occurred.  They are not the cute, baby-faced cherubs often depicted in Western art.

On the contrary, from scripture we know that they are imposing and powerful.  They are celestial beings, bodiless spirits who can move with great speed.  “So the living creatures came and went, vivid as lightning flashes” (Ezek.1:14).  An angel has character, intelligence and a will of his own, just as we do; but naturally they do not resemble us.

Unfortunately, we are not often aware of their presence because we seldom think of them, pray or talk to them.  Yet our services are replete with the presence of angels.  There are numerous prayers, canons, and akathists devoted to them; however, they are often ignored or dismissed as unimportant.

For the monastic, though, angels are extremely significant.  Our goal is to lead the angelic life, continually praising God as the angels do, and to implore them to intercede for our protection and guidance, not only for ourselves but for the whole world.  Every Monday is dedicated to angels hence monastics fast on this day and one of the canons read at Matins is devoted to them.

Both the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church teach that there are guardian angels of nations, countries, churches, monasteries, families, as well as individuals.  “He set the boundaries of the Nations by the number of God’s angels” (Deut. 32:8).  “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write….” (Rev. 2:1).

The fact that each individual has a guardian angel is based on the scripture Matt. 18:10, “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.”

Origen says, “We must say that every human soul is under the direction of an angel who is like a father.”

St. Basil says, “An angel is put in charge of every believer, provided we do not drive him out by sin.  He guards the soul like an army.”

In the Holy Liturgy and other services, we hear repeatedly the petition, “An angel of peace, a faithful guide, the guardian of our souls and bodies.”

Claim this petition, thread it through your brain and heart, implore your angel to aid you on your path, to protect your soul and body from all danger and harm.

Call him to mind throughout the day, build a relationship with him so that not only on November 8th, but every day you will feel the presence of your guardian angel and all the hosts of bodiless beings.

Learn more about the feast of the Synaxis of the Angels and Heavenly Hosts.

by Mother Macrina, Holy Dormition Monastery

Soul Notes

Soul Notes

An interview with Jacob Souček, a new regular writer for this blog.

Q:   Tell us a bit about your background in music.

A:  My dad, who was an OCA priest (may his memory be eternal!) among many other things, was a prolific musician and composer. When it was time for me to choose an instrument to play in grade school, without prompting from my father, I chose the violin, not realizing how the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Before entering the priesthood, my dad was a semi-famous violinist in Czechoslovakia and was a big influence on me musically. I progressed quickly with my violin studies through grade school and High School and was soon taking private lessons with a professor at our local college.  My dad also worked at home preparing me for entrance into the Juilliard School of Music.

Ah, High-School, that’s when things got interesting. I loved violin, but also loved rock ‘n’ roll! I started listening to all the 80’s hair bands with screaming guitar solos, and thought to myself, that’s what I want to do! I taught myself to play guitar, retiring the violin to pursue my passion. My dad wasn’t on board at first, but soon realized my talent for the guitar and how I was growing as a musician. He was completely supportive of me being a rock musician and playing gigs with local bands. I could play shows on Saturday nights as long as I made it to Liturgy Sunday mornings, as I was the head altar boy.

After high-school I moved to Hollywood, CA and played in a band called Souls on Fire for many years. We recorded several albums in major recording studios, one of which was where Metallica and Aerosmith also recorded. We even worked with Steve Gallagher the engineer for Sugar Ray’s album, “Floored”.  We played at world famous venues and had a large, loyal following. Our band didn’t make the big time, but I feel we did make it in some capacity.

Q;       How do you bring your love of music to your Orthodox Faith?

A: Music is a gift from God! It is deeply rooted in our everyday lives and church life as well. The Cathedral where my family attends has an outstanding choir and the layer of beauty they add to our worship is something that is other-worldly. It helps us to connect with God and His angels who endlessly praise Him by singing “Holy, Holy, Holy!” Music has been such a blessing in my life as a Christian, a fan, and musician.

Q:  What kind of music do you prefer to listen to and why?  What inspired you to seek out that type of music?

A:  I can listen to pretty much anything that has a good beat and melody, but it also must be intelligent and thoughtful. I prefer listening to artists that tell a story and I can feel the life experience they are expressing through their music which is real and relatable. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been my passion. Recently, I’ve been getting into some heavier rock artists and am intrigued with the complexity of their song writing, musicianship, and lyrical themes. It inspires me to possibly start a new project, we’ll see what happens.

Q:      What kinds of music should Orthodox Christians listen to?

A:  Well, I guess that’s up to each person to answer for themselves. I for one say, Rock on and listen to whatever you want, whatever uplifts you. Of course, try to avoid music that contradict church teachings.

Q:      How can others seek inspiration from music? 

A:  Music is a personal journey and what might be inspiration to some may not be relatable to others. That being said, I would say try to recognize the diversity of music in different settings. Listen to your choir at church and feel God and His angels surround you. Listen to your favorite song that fills you with hope taking comfort in the fact that the artist is going through the same things you are. This, to me, is the gift of music!

Q:  Why is finding inspiration in music such a personal journey?

A:  We are all different, thank God! He made us all unique with unique personalities. The kind of music one listens to is unique to themselves. Even though, generally, we can all say that music makes us feel some kind of emotion, individually deep down inside only we know why a certain song, lyric, or riff inspires us.

Q: “Can you give us a sneak peak of what you plan to share in your music blog?”

A: I wanted to start by saying, I’m very excited to be afforded this opportunity to connect with other Orthodox Christians and share my love for music. You can expect many different topics from this blog. Ranging from my thoughts on the music, music industry, and artists of today as well as the past, to what inspires me personally as a musician and Christian. You might even see some album, song, or artist critiques and reviews of bands I went to see live. It’s pretty much wide open, I don’t have a set theme. It’s going to be a diverse music forum. I’m also open to topic suggestions from my readers, or even a reader Q & A. I’m looking forward to taking this journey!

 

Is This the End of the World?

Fr. John Dresko

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?

Surely you know.
Or who stretched the line upon it?

To what were its foundations fastened,
Or who laid its cornerstone,

When the stars were made
And all My angels praised Me in a loud voice?”

“Will anyone pervert judgment with the Mighty One?

He who rebukes God will answer for it.”
(Job 38:4-7, 40:1, NKJV)

Recently, we have endured a rather traumatic and lengthy series of catastrophes. At a glance, one could look at a map and see the Western United States on fire; Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean were flooded and destroyed by hurricanes with such friendly names: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Mexico suffered the strongest earthquake in over 100 years, followed by another large one in Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world.

On top of that, we have continued war in the Middle East, genocide of Christians in that same area, and North Korea has now joined the club of nations with nuclear weapons pointed at us. And now my town, Las Vegas, suffered the worst mass shooting in US history.

Is this the end of the world? All the things happening are described by the Lord Himself as having to happen before He comes again at the end of time. The answer, of course, is yes, it is the end of the world…and no. Since the coming of Jesus Christ and through His death and resurrection, the world has ended.

Nothing new will come, because He has done everything. But all the calamities have happened and will continue to happen and God will use them all to either bring us closer to Him or to the realization that we do not want Him.

Every person ever born into this world, even if alive for but one day, knows suffering. Hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes all are but what happens to every single person, only on a grand scale. We have our own hurricanes spiritually, even when we are standing in sunshine. All suffering is a result of sin and weakness. But suffering is not necessarily given by God as a punishment.

Job was the most righteous servant of God, but God allowed Satan to take everything from him as a temptation. Then we spend 36 chapters trying to figure out why He allowed this. The verses quoted above essentially say, “I am God. I know what I’m doing. Trust me.”

Our world is “death- and suffering-denying.” We do everything we can to avoid suffering and death, which, in a human sense, is rational and right. No one, even a faithful Christian, is called to be a masochist, seeking out pain, suffering and death. But a Christian can, and must, find meaning in suffering.

And the meaning can only be found in the Cross, and in the Kingdom of Heaven.

If we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, then we know from His own words that we will suffer. Because He suffered. We are called to share in those very same sufferings. But His suffering was redemptive — it was for the salvation of the world. When we suffer, or are assailed by the images of those around us suffering, we can do one of two things. It is the same choice offered to Job.

We can curse God and die, or we can keep our eyes fixed on the Lord and heaven. If we trust God, we are purified in our suffering. If we are purified, we are ready not for the restoration of “good things” in my life, but are ready to leave this life for the Kingdom. If we are ready to leave this life right now, when we do leave, even if many, many years from now, we will find only what we have been waiting for: Paradise.

Why does the Lord give Himself to us in the Church? Isn’t it precisely because it is in the Church that we know Him, see Him, and can then receive Him into ourselves in the Sacraments?

Isn’t it because in the community of the Church we can hold onto each other, support each other, and in that mutual care and love find the strength to seek Him and trust Him? Only by keeping our eyes on Him and trusting in Him, and not the “solutions” of the world, can we see through the tragedies of life and hope in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Witnessing the events of the past weeks should inspire me to look deeply into my own life and ask myself what I really think is important.

How can I just go about my life, thinking all the things I see as important are truly important?

How can I blow off the Church and the Lord, treating Him as a simple bystander in my life?

How can I live to eat, and drink, and procreate, acting like nothing will ever touch me, when I can see how quickly others have been touched?

There is a purpose to every single event in every single person’s life. We do not, and cannot, see the whole tapestry of God’s plan for the world, including my life.

But I do have to let Him into my life.

St. Paul said that no one is ever tempted beyond his strength. So why am I surprised when temptation or suffering enters my life?

Sometimes the biggest cross I have to carry is to actually decide that God has the right to allow a cross to come into my life and expect me to carry it.

If it’s a big cross, it’s because God knows I can carry it (and, surprise, surprise, God helps me carry it!).

Where was I when God laid the foundations of the earth? Not even in my mother’s womb. So who am I to question Him?


Fr. John Dresko is the Rector of St. Paul Church, Las Vegas, Nevada.

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.  

Can You Hear the Beauty of Nature?

If you’re wondering what you can do or should think about the environment, then what follows is for you. In fact, every teen and young adult should pause on a regular basis – look up from their phones – and appreciate the glory and majesty of creation which is all around us.

While we live in a world with amazing gadgets, less diseases, bigger houses, fancier cars and the latest handheld devices, we are also surrounded by wondrous flowers, trees, mountains, lakes, streams, birds, animals and the beauty of God’s creation.

I have to ask – are you as connected to God’s wonders as you are to your devices?

Being so connected to our devices comes at a cost, because the world around us – and the environment in particular – is changing now, dramatically, and quickly all around us. we can all take part in  caring for the beauty of God’s creation, but where do we start?

A professor and mentor from my days in seminary used to say, “Listening is love in action.” I have returned to this phrase many times over the years for a variety of topics and situations, but I think listening is also important when we consider what God’s creation has to say to us.

What should we listen to?

In preparation for September 1, the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation as established by His All-Holiness, Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople in 1989, here are a few suggestions:

Listen to the Scriptures

Genesis begins with the story of creation – God’s creation of the earth – make a list of the verses which speak directly to creation and our place within it. Read them with an open mind, on your knees, and ponder them in your heart. Don’t think of the act of creation as God’s gift to us to use however we see fit. The earth is not here for us to subdue, abuse or misuse. Remember, John the Evangelist tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”

Jesus Christ came for the salvation of all creation – to restore all of it to that full communion and beauty as it was in the beginning. The Book of the Psalms celebrates the beauty of God’s creation and reminds us that His works are wonderful, boundless, and intended to be good – shouldn’t we see nature in that same Light?

Listen to the Life of Christ

Jesus Christ – the second person of the Holy Trinity – entered creation, became part of it, and through it, saved us and entirety of the cosmos.

We not only proclaim, as part of our Gospel, that God became Man, but we also say that in doing so he took on the atoms, the water, the soil, and the stuff of earth which comprise the physical body. And after He took on our sins, was crucified and died, He destroyed death – resurrecting His earthly body and restored and transformed all of creation.

He then enthroned all this (and us) after His Ascension. There is no greater honour God can give the cosmos than to enthrone it in Himself. Think of what that means – God loves the cosmos so much, that he died so He could restore everything, so that we could be like Him in caring for those around us and the very planet we live on, so that we may walk in newness of life and one day, eternal life with Him.

Listen to the Saints

Read what the fathers and mothers of the church say about the Christian life, read their lives to understand how they saw the love of God in all things. Have you seen the icon of St. Seraphim with a bear? Or of St. Herman of Alaska taming the winds of the sea? These examples are not some exception to the rule, but should inspire us to think about how we can experience the love of God flowing throughout the cosmos.

Listen to the Indigenous Peoples

As Orthodox Christians on this continent, we have the unique heritage of the native peoples of Alaska who adopted Orthodox Christianity from St. Herman and those early missionaries who arrived in 1794. The Aleuts, Tlinkit, Athabascan, Yupik and other Alaskan peoples have relied on the world around them for centuries to provide sustenance, shelter and their basic needs.

When the native peoples of Alaska were baptized and Chrismated, they understood more fully, the wonders of God’s creation – they already understood the value of taking only what they needed, sharing with their neighbors, but now they learned the value of thanking God for the gifts they received – appreciating what they had received as gifts provided by Our Lord.

We can learn quite a bit from these ancient people who don’t rely on limitless supplies of fast food and electricity, but live modestly and with an appreciation for the world around them. Their intimate knowledge of the natural world can also teach us to recognize how the earth is changing around us now.

Listen to the Scientists

There are some who say that science is at odds with the teachings of the church. Yet, just as we must read the scriptures and seek to grow closer to God, we must listen to the knowledge and experience of the scientists and climatologists to truly understand the earth’s complex ecosystems and how we are affecting them.

These people have devoted both their personal and professional lives to understanding the earth and how humanity’s limitless consumption and abuse of creation is accelerating transitions and creating extreme conditions. They deserve our respect, and most of all deserve our attention. Listening to them is not easy, but is necessary, because doing so will help us understand the true gravity of how we are changing our earthly home.

Listen to the Earth

The first time I realized that God had something to say to me, I was 12 years old and hiking in the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains to the west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. My family and I had spent a long weekend trekking to a remote lake high in the alpine, reached only by a steep shale traverse up a mountain pass. The pass presented itself only at the end of an already long day of hiking, and climbing it seemed to take forever.

When the trail levelled, however, and the view opened, my eyes widened at the sight waiting for us. An alpine meadow stretched as far as I could see, flanked by two snowy peaks, and crammed with red paintbrushes, purple crocuses, blue forget-me-nots, pink moss casinos, white Wedgeleaf, yellow varileaf, fuchsia and shooting stars. These wildflowers were bright with the sun under a wide blue sky and swooning this way and that in the haphazard breezes from the slopes.

I had seen such beauty before, but what I had stumbled into as a dorky pre-teen boy was indeed a new planet, not a different one, but this planet seen through eyes of wonder and awe. Thomas Treherne claims that, “if we would see this world as the angels do, we would be ravished and enraptured as the angels are.”

Those who have ‘ears to hear’ will discover the beauty, wonder, joy, and life-giving nature of the God which our earth, and the whole creation, proclaims in myriad ways all the time – and more consistently than we do, to be honest.

Indeed, the natural world is radiant, even symphonic, with the revelation of the living and loving God. And all this revelation is calling us continuously back to communion with God in and through the natural world.

Listening and Living … and Doing!

As Orthodox Christians, we need to live the way God intends, freely and responsibly.  It means picking up  a piece of trash, or recycling whenever possible.  We can honor the presence of God in the flowers and animals.  ‘We can live very well upon the earth,’ as the Akathist to God proclaims.  We can begin to uphold the love which God displays for the earth in our own lives and personal witness.  Each of us will do so uniquely, but we are each capable of it.

Knowing this and taking this journey requires listening – to God, and seeing His creation through His eyes, as wonderful, beautiful, holy and sacred.

In the words of the fourth century Christian father, St. John Chrysostom, “Creation is not evil. It is both good and a pattern of God’s wisdom, power and love of mankind…. It leads us to knowledge of God (and) makes us know the Master better.” And as St. Isaac the Syrian says, God brought the world into existence in love, and it is in love that God is going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state.

May we hear the beauty of nature all around us, and on September 1, give thanks to God for the wonders of nature all around us, to Him be glory, dominion, honor and majesty unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Fr John (Kaleeg) Hainsworth lives in Vancouver, BC and can usually be found exploring the sacredness of nature. His book “An Altar in the Wilderness” is available for purchase here: http://www.rmbooks.com/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781771600361