School Shootings and the Evil Within Ourselves

by Fr. Nicholas Roth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Deut 10:16, NETS.

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

Personal Reflection: In Honor of Brain Cancer Awareness Month

By Elias Hodge

May is Brain Cancer Awareness Month. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leaving the Orthodox Church

by Fr. Richard Rene

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prison Ministry: A Service to Others

 

Christ the Prisoner

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The 8 Reasons Why YOU Should go to Church Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Marriage as a Transformation: A Reflection and Book Review

 

 

by Rebekkah Moll

As Valentine’s Day and the season of Great and Holy Lent are soon approaching, I offer a recommendation for a recently published book titled Building an Orthodox Marriage:  A Practical Commentary on the Eastern Orthodox Marriage Rite by Bishop John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey.  This book explains the theology of the Orthodox Marriage sacrament and describes the reasoning behind each part of the service.  The authors use numerous biblical, traditional, and societal connections and reasonings to explain the fullness of the service.  For those wanting to have a deeper understanding of the marriage service, this book is very accessible.  Its organization makes it easy to look up one part of the service for those times when you need a quick review or reminder of a particular section.

In a somewhat brief, but thoughtful ending to the book, the writers include a part that offers “Helpful Thoughts for Strengthening Marriages to be Further Explored” and an appendix with a list of “Questions for Orthodox Courting or the Newlywed Game”.  These sections instantly brought me back to my own marriage counseling experience for our wedding preparation ten and half years ago.  I remember the nerves while taking the test…..will we fail?  How can our many flaws gain our counselor and priest’s marriage approval?  My husband had just recently converted, having grown up with a Protestant background.  In addition to having different faith backgrounds, our approach to faith itself was very contrastive, reflecting the way we were raised in our families.  My husband approached faith with a critical and questioning mind, and I was raised with more of a mindset to accept the faith with a “leap” of trust.  Discussing our faith with a counselor brought many of our different opinions to the surface!

The book mentions, “The mystery of marriage and its sacramentality are found in the grace of God, which is granted to the participant for the ability to bear the intense experience and inexplicable transformation of, and participation in, becoming one mind and one flesh with another” (35).  In addition, there are some references throughout the book to the idea that man and woman, although are created in a certain order, are very much equal, “In the Genesis account, man is created last, but woman comes from his side or his rib.  The formula is brilliant!  Woman is of equal substance as man and is neither above nor below him [Gen 2.21]”  (93).  Reading these passages and reflecting on my own experience within marriage, the mystery of unity that happens was revealed to me as an extension of each other.  Although our differences are challenging to work through sometimes, it has also been one of my biggest blessings as I am able to extend my understanding of the faith through his eyes and see it from a more critical angle that leads me to explore more of the faith.  I am thankful to be united with someone who challenges my view of the world and the faith in a loving way and gives such insight to life.  Together, on an equal standing before God, we have been united and are continually transforming.  I pray that we will grow in a way pleasing to God.

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching…..along with Lent!  I highly recommend this book as a good Lenten read to anyone longing to understand the marriage ceremony – perhaps you are engaged, or simply dating and want to look deeper into what entering that part of your life may mean.  Or you are already married and are wanting to reflect on your own experiences in that journey. This book held some surprises for me as I read it, things I never realized about what God offers us in this holy mystery, and it also helped me to see the awe in how uniting with another is continually working to transform me!

Rebekah Moll is a member of St. Mary’s OCA in Minneapolis

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