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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

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.

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.

================

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

ProjectoMexico-1Young adults from St. Paul’s Church in Las Vegas, Nevada recently returned from a week-long house building mission at Project Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico.

For some, this was a return visit while others were traveling south of the border for the first time.

But for each of the 19 team members, the visit provided them with an opportunity to draw closer to God by helping those less fortunate.

Let’s hear from three participants about their experiences this year:


While I was at Project Mexico this year I made it a goal to journal my everyday experiences / encounters. And I wanted to share this particular experience that I wrote about on one of my journal entries.

On the last day of our time at Project Mexico, I reflected about the first morning service of Project Mexico, I felt like I was being cleansed. Something about the service felt like a breath of fresh air.

Maybe it was the different prayers that made me listen and pay more attention, but all I know is on that first day, I immediately knew that my soul needed this. And while I was following along with the lovely service, I was joined by God’s presence.

On my first day of being in Mexico, I was able to find God so easily. It was truly beautiful, I felt at peace. And this experience made me wonder how I found God in a third world country so much easier than I did when I was back home in the States. I always thought it would be the complete opposite.

And after a week of being here, I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the answer. Something about the quietness here due to the lack of technology and all the distractions we are so accustomed to, makes it easier to find God.

ProjectoMexico-5I remember reading bible verses about how it is in the stillness and silence where God is found. So it makes sense! But then I also realized that this quietness that is a big part of Project Mexico almost left me feeling a bit vulnerable those first couple days of the week.

Because not only I, but most of the youth here are so used to using noise to distract themselves from the quiet. So much so that it led us to almost in a way fear it, by avoiding it. In the silence is also where our own troubling thoughts come in, and also temptations from demons because they know that in the quiet God is found.

They do their best to keep you away from the silence. So many people feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in the silence. But I learned that barrier could be crossed.

At first keeping quiet and meditating on God’s words was hard, especially for a talker like me! I was tempted with troubling thoughts but I continued in that silence. And by staying silent through the temptations I found myself, once again in God’s presence.

Because of this experience in Project Mexico, I learned that one must be vulnerable before they can become strong. One of the many things that makes Mexico amazing is the effect it has on your spiritual life.

Being here points out your weaknesses and true self which allows you to change and become strong. And all this is achieved by doing the work of God.
– Lidya Abraham


“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in… Then the righteous will answer him ”˜Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink, when did we see you a starved and invite you in?.. The King will reply ”˜Truly I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
– Matthew 25:35-40

ProjectoMexico-3Wow.
I wish I could put into words how magnificent Project Mexico actually was. Building a home for a beautiful and humble family of 8 was honestly a life-changing experience.

There is truly an unexplainable feeling you get whenever you do the work of God, and Project Mexico is that feeling in a nutshell. This year was my second year at Project Mexico, and it definitely will not be my last.

I would recommend it to anyone any age or size. What other opportunity do you have to build a home straight from scratch in 4 days for a family in need?
– Ivy Tesfay


Project Mexico, in itself, is not only a non-profit organization but a long lasting experience. This summer I had the pleasure of returning to Tijuana and continuing my Orthodox basic training for a second year.

ProjectoMexico-4Like many others, I felt a rush of depression and attachment to the city when forced to leave. These feelings derive from the immense love I felt towards the orphanage, the family I had built the house for, the interns, and lastly feeling God’s presence within each and every one of us.

We were fulfilling His work and spreading His words by simply building this house and serving those who are living impoverished lives.

Not only that, but I was surrounded by people who share a common faith and with this my faith grew stronger. I learned how to consistently maintain my daily prayers by attending the morning and evening prayer services. I also learned how to humble myself and once again serve others.

These are basic humane qualities that so many people deny here in the States.

As a citizen of a first world country, I too was once subject to this denial. By living a materialistic life, I was in a way ignoring my purpose as an Orthodox Christian.

One could say, I found my purpose at Project Mexico. It’s almost as if I found the light at the end of the tunnel and am no longer subject to darkness.
– Eden Tesfay


Share your memories of Project Mexico in the comments section below!

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Except Through Prayer and Fasting

EXCEPT THROUGH PRAYER AND FASTING
An early lesson for the (so-called) “other authors”

Fr Richard Flom

Before Peter, James and John were apostles, and long before Peter or John ever composed their epistles, these men were the closest three disciples to our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry also contains several passages of critical and formative lessons for these soon-to-be apostles, preachers, and evangelists. One such lesson is found in Matthew 17:14-21

In the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, have come down from the mountain top where Jesus was transfigured before them. When they had came to where the other disciples and a crowd were gathered, a man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and said: “Lord, have mercy on my son for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly…. I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”

jesushealsAfter Jesus had cast out the demon and the crowd had dispersed, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast it out?”

This question arises from their past experience of healing the sick and casting out demons at the instruction of Jesus recorded in Luke 9:1, “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.”

Upon their return to Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:17, they were excited! They proclaimed: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

If the disciples had previously cast out demons in the name of Jesus, why could they not cast out this demon?

Jesus explained to the disciples that because they had not spiritually prepared and strengthened themselves by prayer and fasting, they could not cast out this demon (MT 17: 21).

Prayer and fasting are two of the basic spiritual tools necessary for our Christian way of life. Prayer and fasting are necessary for us to overcome the demons in our own lives ””our passions.

What is prayer? As lungs are our body’s breath; prayer is our soul’s breath. We cannot have life, if we have no lungs; we cannot have spiritual life, if we have no prayer.

Prayer is a continuous appeal of our heart in the presence of God. It is willingly being humble before God, willingly opening our heart to Him, willingly laying our life in His hands and recognizing Him as Lord of our life and of our death ””to have complete, total trust in Him as our Lord, Master and Savior.

Prayer is not bringing before God a “laundry”list of wants, wishes and desires. Many saints have prayerhandswritten that these types of prayers are in fact themselves sin.

The Church fathers and saints have identified many tools to aid us in our growth in prayer. These tools include: the services of the Church, including Vespers, Matins, the Divine Liturgy; an Orthodox Prayer Book and the Psalter; recitation of the Jesus Prayer or short memorized prayers from the Psalms while using a prayer rope; as well as the reading and study of Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels and the Psalms.

What is fasting? Is fasting only the avoidance of animal products, dairy products, fish, wine and oil (olive) on those days the Church prescribes fasting? The saints write that if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself. Fasting isto be adenial of self-indulgence, an abstinence from sin.

f we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.

“…if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.”

“Scripture does not forbid anything which God has given us for our use; but it condemns immoderation and thoughtless behavior”(St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia). Fasting is to struggle against our passions in order to control our unreasonable biological desires and instincts. It is abstaining from the attractions and distractions of this world ””yes, even from our smartphones, computers, TVs and the many other forms of entertainment, etc.

By the tool of fasting, we become more transparent and more receptive in our communication with God; we become freed from a particular passion, whether it be greed, gluttony, lust, pride, etc.

Neither prayer nor fasting are an end in themselves. They are only a means of reaching out to God Who is our Life and our goal.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said: ”[…] prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices … do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although … they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, [they are only the] means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.”

Our goal is God himself! Prayer and fasting are merely tools to assist us in achieving our goal.

JesusTemptedintheDesertIconPrayer and fasting are hard work; they require much effort and diligence.   But modern Christianity all too often does not consist of struggle, hard work and diligent effort. Rather, it teaches an easy, feel-good, cheap religiosity of recent creation. It is a belief in a salvation without struggle or sacrifice; a salvation without holiness or righteousness. It is a belief that one can be secular all week, except the time allotted for church on Sunday morning. It is a belief in an easy “cheap”grace without any cost.

Sergius Nilus, in 1831, wrote the following introduction to a book of the notes of a meeting between Nicholas Motovilov and Saint Seraphim: “people have forgotten the fundamental truths of Christian life and are immersed in the darkness of materialism or the exterior and routine performance of ”˜ascetic labors…’”””in secularism and false spirituality.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nor is this your personal life experience. You have not succeeded or excelled at anything without hard work, effort and struggle. If you are an athlete, you did not reach your level of excellence, without considerable and diligent effort and work. If you are a professional, you did not reach your level of expertise without much diligent effort and work. So too is the Orthodox Way of Life ””the way of Him who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Orthodox Christian way of life is a continuous struggle toward His righteousness and His holiness! Therefore, as St. Paul wrote (Eph. 5.17): “Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”But, (Col .3.1-5) “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. […] Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…”

Bothers and sister in Christ Jesus, the Scriptures and Holy Fathers tell us that we are to “be holy, [because He is] holy”(Lev 11: 45; 1 Pet 1.16).

prayfasthandsThe spiritual tools to aid us in growth unto His holiness and righteousness are prayer and fasting. There is no communion with God without prayer; there is no over-coming of our passions without fasting ””not just from certain foods but from our uncontrolled passions ””our demons.

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote that “Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons.” The demons, our passions, are cast out only by prayer and fasting.
Therefore, be strong in the Lord and pray without ceasing and fast.

O God, empty me of self, and make Thine abode in me! Amen.

AFTER YOU BELIEVE: Instructions from 1 Peter

AFTER YOU BELIEVE: Instructions from 1 Peter

By Fr. Dustin M. Lyon

In hearing the Gospels, many of you will have noticed that Jesus was known to have walked around asking, “Who do people say I am?” He got many different answers to this question, including some strange ones. The best answer he got was from his disciple Peter, who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). However good this answer is, a question still remains: what does it mean to be the Son of God?ST PETER

There are a few ways to answer that question. Jesus tells St. Peter that for him to be the Son of God means that he is the Savior, and he must undergo crucifixion on a cross, but in three days God will raise him from the dead (Matthew 16:21).  Jesus goes on to say that we should follow in these same footsteps (16:24).  St. Paul says the same thing in his letter to the Philippians. There, St. Paul tells us we should have the same mind of Christ, who humbled himself to die on a cross – that is, we should be willing to also put aside our pride in order to follow God, even if it’s hard for us to do that (Philippians 2:5-11).

Now that we have an image of Christ dying on the cross, what can we say about the gospel message? I believe we can say a few things. Firstly, this was a voluntary act. God did not force Jesus to die on the cross; and because it was a voluntary act, we can say that it was an act of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus, and Jesus so loved the world that he was willing to die for our sins. We can also say that this act of love, this death on the cross, and this resurrection from the dead, is an event in history that is so earth shattering that everything changes. It means that it is now possible for anyone, no matter what your background, to join the people of God and receive all the blessings that this entails.

cross_followHaving established this foundation, we can now turn to the First Epistle of St. Peter.  Many scholars believe that this epistle was originally a homily given at a baptism service. Because it was probably written in the 1st century, it is most likely that those who were baptized were adults. It is also to these ”˜newly illumined’ adults that St. Peter was writing. This makes sense if you consider that a large part of this epistle is about how to live life after baptism (chapters 3, 4, and 5).

St. Peter opens his epistle proclaiming that the good news is that Jesus Christ has regenerated us to a living hope through the resurrection (1:3). Through this hope, God has given us a promise, that through Christ we have an inheritance that is incorrupt, undefiled, and unfading (1:4). However, this promise will come to pass at the end of time – it’s yet to happen. In the meantime we must endure trials, which may lead to suffering (1:7). Though this won’t be fun, we should try to understand our suffering as a test, and if we pass this test – if we endure – then it will be to the glory of God (1:9). In other words, it will make us stronger and lead us closer to God. It will be an aid to our salvation.

Here’s where an understanding of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection comes in. It helps answer the question: how, exactly, does God call us to endure suffering? He calls us to endure suffering in the same manner that Jesus endured suffering. Jesus went to the cross willingly, out of love. We too should confront our suffering -whatever it is – with love (1:23). But it’s much more than that. It’s not just a way to confront suffering, but it’s also a model for our entire life. In everything we do we are to remember how Christ acted as a servant out of love for others. Our approach in dealing with others should also be out of our love for them. St. Peter gives many different examples in his epistle: wives, husbands, slaves, masters, presbyters (priests), people under authority, etc.

The key to all of this is that Christ’s suffering was earth shattering. His resurrection from the dead starts a transformation of the world, though it won’t be complete until the end of time. Through our baptism, we participate in this earth shattering moment; and because we have now “put on Christ” – as we sing at baptisms – we are united to Christ and become the people of God. This is why the cross becomes a model for our lives. Though it may be tough to live up to these standards, we are called, nonetheless, to try.

A royal priesthood; a chosen nation (1 Peter 2:9)

A royal priesthood; a chosen nation (1 Peter 2:9)

As Christians we are the people of God, and we should be honored. St. Peter says we are, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for a possession” (2:9). In short, when we practice being the people of God – dealing with others out of love – then they will know that we are Christians. In this way, we are to be a light in the darkness. We extend God’s love of the world into the world. In return, God continues to look after us, and take care of us. St. Peter ends his epistle very beautifully; he reminds us of the great love God has for us, “ And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (5:10).

 

We Shall See Him

“We Shall See Him”
Harrison Russin

Having moved recently to North Carolina, it was time for me to get a North Carolina driver’s license. It was an arduous process; finally, on my third trip to the license center, I had all the appropriate paperwork. Only one obstacle remained: the vision test.

I have terrible vision. I’ve worn glasses since I was in kindergarten, but with glasses my vision is perfect. So I easily glided through the first part of the vision test:

C G H D     E J F K     L P D R             

Got that.    Then, the road signs:

Road-Signs-Vol-3-Keep-right-no-text1

 

Easy. Keep right.

uturn

 

 

Got this. No U-turns.    Next:

rrnotext
Uh. So where are the words?

I have seen it before, hundreds of times. But I had no idea what it meant.  And again:

schoolnotext

 

These darn yellow signs.

In North Carolina, like many other states, you’re expected to know these signs just by their shape, regardless of the words.

This got me thinking about how I look at things. I was expected to be recognize these signs by their shapes; their meanings lay not in the X, not in the RR. The color and shape gave dim figurations of meaning.

More than half of our New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul, an apostle who never really “saw” Jesus in the way the other apostles did: in the flesh. Yet when we read the accounts of those who actually did sojourn with Our Lord on this earth, I don’t get the impression of the road sign; “5 feet, 5 inches, dark hair, blue eyes.” We don’t have much to go on about what Jesus actually looked like.

Reading the epistles of John the Theologian, I realize how important seeing is for him.  But it’s not seeing in the sense of physical description. It’s seeing in the sense of icons. With those road signs, the mere shape and color designates the meaning. In John’s writings, the fact that Jesus is both God and man gives us the color and shape. But he never fills in the interior: “hairy arms, bushy eyebrows…”

Our eyes, actually, tend to lead us in the wrong direction. “[E]verything there is in the world””disordered bodily desires, disordered desires of the eyes, pride in possession””is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world, with all its disordered desires, is passing away.” (1 John 2:16-17, New Jerusalem Bible).

We can see, though, with clear eyes, whtransfigen we recognize God’s work in this world. “You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children””which is what we are!” (1 John 3:1) And coming to know God””coming to read his signs, and be able to see him without seeing the interior of the sign””means seeing him: “We are well aware that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.” (1 John 3:2)

St John makes the point again: “No one has ever seen God, but as long as we love each other, God remains in us and his love comes to its perfection in us.” (1 John 4:12) Effectively, I think, St John is painting an icon here. St John, so often covering his eyes in the depiction of the Transfiguration, and so often covering his mouth in his own icon.

stjohn

And yet, through his words, he gives us an icon of what he saw. But St John did not see “flesh and bones,” he did not need to look into the interior of that sign; he gives us its meaning.

So why is St John, the beloved disciple, an eyewitness of the Lord, the last to write an account of the gospel, so reticent to show us a movie? A play-by-play of Jesus’ life? Why is he so cryptic and allusive, chiastic and literary in his structure and so intent on claiming his own vision of the Lord?

Or, posed another way: if Saint John the theologian had had an iPhone, would he have used it? Videos provide such reassuring visual proof and sedulous veracity to the facts. We’re obsessed with them now””the typical consumer can now purchase a dash cam for his car to support his side in any accident; YouTube nets about $1.5 billion dollars a year, and we all know how much we love watching crazy but true events caught on camera.

xcsuperstarSo why doesn’t St John give us a video? Why is he so evasive and elusive? Sometimes we just want a movie, like Jesus Christ Superstar.  Or Mel Gibson, or Franco Zeffirelli, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Martin Scorcese? Jesus obviously makes good fodder for Hollywood, but St John’s language and narrative is more poetic and literary than filmic and life-like.

In the end, St John leaves us with a seemingly scattered, impressionistic view. He’s painting an icon and not filming with his iPhone.  Our “disordered desires of the eyes” want that assurance, the knowledge of how Jesus appeared on this earth. But the reality is that St John never saw Jesus Christ as God while on this earth. After Jesus dies and is risen””after Jesus reveals the power and mercy of God””St John can see Jesus as God; and then those interior signifiers, like his face and diet and manner of speech, become insignificant. “We shall see him as he really is.” St John can’t really give us more information than that, because when we get there, we’ll look just like him.