A Glorious End to A Glorious Race!

And so, it comes to a close…Great Lent for 2021 is ending. As we look over our journey, it is important to do a self-evaluation.  Did I draw closer to the Lord during these 6 weeks?  How disciplined was my prayer life?  Was my fasting truly unto the Lord?  Did I spend time in God’s Word each day?  Was it a spiritual success?  If I had it to do over, what would I change?

The truth is that we cannot do it over.  We cannot change the Great Lent that is coming to a close, but we can certainly learn from this journey and apply it to our lives immediately.

Consider our reading from Genesis today.  It begins with the death of Jacob in one brief verse:  “When Jacob finished charging his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.”  Our reading ends with the death of Joseph, also in one brief verse: “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”

Our Lenten Journey had a beginning date and an ending date.  So too, the lives of Jacob and Joseph had a beginning date and an ending date.  And, though some of us may want to deny it, we also have a beginning date and an ending date. “I will think about that tomorrow.”  That can work on some things, but it will not profit us one bit to avoid thinking about our own ending.  In fact, many of the very great Christians of the past encouraged people to think about their death every day, not to be dark and gloomy, but to inspire them to live that day to the fullest.

St. Paul tells us that we are running a race…this race is our life.  Would we enter any kind of race and not have a goal to finish that race?  If I enter a 5k race and only run 3k before quitting, what would I win?  Our race is indeed a marathon.  To run this race, we will enjoy the gentle down hills we come to and we will struggle up the hills we find along the way.  We may have aches and pains; we may grow thirsty and weary.  Thankfully, there are many aide stations along the route where we will find spiritual food and drink to fuel us on. And so we continue toward the finish line, running with others of like mind and remembering those who have run before us and finished their race.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

My dear brothers and sisters, we have finished another part of the marathon (Great Lent 2021). Now let us continue running the race that is our life, with the challenges that each day brings.  There may be hills or even mountains in our path, but God will give us strength as we put one foot in front of the other.  Our ultimate goal is to cross the finish line, hand in hand with the Lord, to the cheering of the great cloud of witnesses…what a glorious end to a glorious race!

With much love in our Lord Jesus Christ…Fr. Stephen

To Fast or Not to Fast? Is That the Question?

In our reading from the Holy Prophet Isaiah today (Isaiah 58:1-11), God reminds us of what He really wants during a fast…to also stop doing bad things and do good by helping those in need. He says if we will do this during our fasting:  “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’”

Jesus established fasting as a normal part of the life of those who would follow Him as He said: “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16-18).  He didn’t say “If”, but rather “When” …showing that fasting is to be a normal part of our Christian lives.  Why would the Lord ask us to fast?  We know that He loves us and desires the very best for our lives.  The Lord’s very best and our idea of what is the often seem to disagree.  But when we obey, we may find ourselves blessed in ways we never could have imagined.   

Listen to what St. Athanasius has to say about fasting in his treatise, “On Virginity”: “Fasting cures ills and dries up bodily tumors, casts out demons, and turns away evil thoughts; it makes the mind brighter, the heart clean, and the body holy; and it presents man before the Throne of God.”  Wow, that is quite a list of the benefits of fasting for the Christian.

St. John Cassian writes: “Self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation.  No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity.  Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection.”  Fasting is not a cake-walk…pardon the pun. We are being called to a discipline that involves effort on our part.

St. John Chrysostom reminds us that our fast is not simply about food and drink: “The honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices…Do you fast?  Give me proof of your works!  If you see a poor man, take pity on him!  If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, do not envy him!  If you see a beautiful woman (or a handsome man ladies), pass her (him) by!  For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.” 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (+386) in “The Catechetical Lectures” tells us: “For we fast by abstaining from wine and meat, not because we abhor them as abominations, but because we look for our reward; that having scorned things sensible, we may enjoy a spiritual and intellectual feast.” 

The choice is totally ours when it comes to fasting.  No one is forcing us.  We are free to fast or to eat steak and ice cream for every meal through each fasting time.  That’s the way God is…our relationship with Him is a matter of our free will.  Even if you haven’t fasted at all through this Great Lent, it is not too late to begin if your health allows it. If you can’t fast, there is still time to increase your devotional life. Holy Week awaits us…and the choice is ours to make. Perhaps “To Fast or Not to Fast?” really is a question before us.

Journeying with you to the empty tomb of Christ…Fr. Stephen

Suggestions from God

“I am the LORD your God…Who leads you in the way you should go. O that you had hearkened to My commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea!” (Isaiah 48:18)

The Lord gives us lots of great suggestions on how we should live this gift of life He has bestowed on us.  Oh wait; did I say “suggestions”?  Well, that’s often how I take His commandments.  I mean, some of them are great ideas, but often I trust my own opinions more that those “suggestions” from God.

We can take a look at most any “suggestion” from God and see the results of not following His ways.  The issue of gluttony comes to mind, since that is one that I seem, by my actions, to know better than God.  The Scriptures are pretty clear about avoiding gluttony.  But, when I decide that I would rather listen to my own guidance, what happens?  Well, I don’t sleep very well because my stomach is extended beyond belief and I try most of the night to find peace in the midst of gurgling. I hate it when that happens.  And yet, like the dumb dog licking the hot stove twice, I keep repeating my over-eating.  Do I really expect a different result?  Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

If we want our bodies and minds to operate well, it would make sense to follow His instructions. The big problem for most of us is that it is a whole lot more fun to do what we want, when we want, and how ever we want to do it.  It is pleasurable at the moment to over-eat, over-drink, to gossip, to get angry, to lie, to cheat, to steal, to cuss, to … the list seems endless. These may even feel good at the moment, but later we regret them.

The promise from God is that if we implement His commandments (not suggestions) into our lives, we will experience this incredible peace (like a river flowing through us) and that we will be righteous in His eyes (becoming men and women of God).  Is it any wonder that the enemy of our souls is constantly whispering in our ears “suggestions” that we do what we want to do because it will feel good and bring us pleasure? Is this really what we want to do with our lives?

In all honesty, this is no laughing matter.  This verse from our reading in Proverbs 19 today indicate its seriousness“He who keeps the commandment keeps his soul, but he who is carelessof his ways will die.” This is not about some legalistic keeping of God’s commandments because we want to appease an angry god (that is a serious false doctrine!).  Rather, it is about developing a life-style that is in line with God’s ways, because His ways are truly the best way for us to live. When we decide that we should be “lord” of our own lives, we open ourselves up to a world of hurt.

Today is a good day to implement some of the commandments of God into our life style. When we try even a little, our loving God is there to help us and give us strength. Who knows? Maybe tonight I will go to bed with a stomach that is a little hungry rather than over-extended and the result will be a peaceful night of rest.

Journeying with you to the empty tomb of Christ…Fr. Stephen

Can We Talk About Mary This Morning?

Can we talk about Mary this morning without someone thinking we are about to worship her?  Can we call her the most “blessed” woman to ever live without being accused of Mariolatry? I say that partly in jest, but at the same time, I have heard that so very many times from well-meaning Christians who cringe when they hear her called the “Mother of God.”  In some segments of Christianity, Mary is almost totally forgotten except at Christmas when the story of our Lord’s Birth is read. Our daily reading today is Luke 1:39-49,56 and it is about Mary.

The knee-jerk reaction some folks have over calling Mary the “Mother of God” is usually because they don’t understand that the title is really about Whom Jesus is and not about worshipping Mary. The Early Christians called Mary the “Theotokos”, meaning the “Bearer of God.” She is the one who gave birth to God come in the flesh, indeed the Mother of God.  In the 5th century a leader of the Church named Nestorius began to teach that Mary was not “Theotokos” but was “Christotokos” (the bearer of Christ, not God).  The Church came together in Ephesus in 431 to take a look at what Christianity had believed from the beginning.  What did Jesus teach; what did the Apostles teach; what did their disciples teach? 

That Ecumenical Council proclaimed the Truth that had been handed down through each generation from the beginning of the Church: Jesus is indeed God come in the flesh, very (true) God of very (true) God and that Mary gave birth to God come in the flesh for our salvation.  It condemned the false doctrine of Nestorius.  The title Theotokos was indeed the correct title for Mary because of the true identity of her Son. It is about Jesus that the title was bestowed on her and that title is still true today.  Mary is the Mother of God…truly the Theotokos.

For those who also cringe when they hear Mary being called “Blessed” here are a few words today’s reading in the Holy Gospel of Luke:

“And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

Anyone who truly believes and tries to follow the teachings of the Bible should definitely be calling Mary “Blessed”.  “All generations” certainly includes us today. In fact, she is without doubt the most blessed woman to ever live. Through her obedience, she gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, God come in the flesh for our salvation.

Journeying with you to the empty tomb of our Lord…Fr. Stephen

An Amazing Symbol in Abraham offering Isaac as a Sacrifice

Take a moment to read the story in Genesis 22:1-18

Throughout the Old Testament there are amazing images of New Testament truths.  The Cross of Christ is an image that is found many, many times in the OT.  The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden depicts the Cross…whoever eats the fruit of that tree will have eternal life.  The “fruit” on the Cross is Jesus Himself. The angel of the Lord places a “mark” (Taw in the ancient Hebrew alphabet) on the foreheads of those who would be spared. That mark (Taw) was a cross (Ezekiel 9). The image of the Cross is found in the story of the Bronze Serpent being lifted up in the wilderness (John 3 and Numbers 21).

In today’s reading from Genesis, we also find the image of the Cross of Christ and His sacrifice.  Here is what one Father of the Church had to say:

“As you contemplate the sticks that Isaac was laid upon, reflect on the cross. As you look on the fire, meditate on the love.  Look too on the sheep hanged by its two horns on the plant that is called ‘Sabek’.  Look too on Christ, the Lamb of God, hanged by his two hands upon a Cross.  The plant called Sabek means ‘forgiveness’, for it saved from slaughter the old man’s child.  It foreshadows the cross that forgives the world its sins and grants it life.  The ram hanging on the Sabek plant mystically redeemed Isaac alone. While the Lamb of God hanged on the cross delivered the world from Death and Hell.”   ~St. Ephrem the Syrian

There are many, many more images of the Cross that can be found, but what is the point for our lives today? The early Christians all felt the Cross was a most powerful weapon against evil and a wonderful blessing for the believer.  The early Christians made the Sign of the Cross over themselves, not in some superstitious act to ward off vampires as depicted in movies, but in a prayerful and meaningful way.

“In all your travels and movements, in all your coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the Cross.” ~ Tertullian 145-220 A.D.

St. John Chrysostom told those early Christians of his day that they should not rise from bed without making the Sign of the Cross over themselves and that they should not go to bed each night without making the Sign of the Cross over themselves. It is a most powerful prayer that we can use in our lives anytime throughout each day.

Journeying with you to the empty tomb of Christ…Fr. Stephen

Saint Mary of Egypt

This Sunday is called “The Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt.” What an amazing Saint of the Holy Orthodox Faith to have an entire Sunday of Great Lent dedicated to her commemoration. Her life story is read every year so that it has become well known to all Orthodox Christians. You can easily find it online if you would like to read it. Here’s one site:  http://ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/reading/st.mary.html

In her life story, we can find some wonderful applications for us during our continuing journey in Great Lent. The early part of her life would be an “x” rated movie even with today’s loose standards:

“Our holy mother Mary was born in Egypt. She had left her parents at the age of twelve to go to Alexandria, where she spent the next seventeen years in debauchery and prostitution.”

Many of us can certainly relate to making mistakes in our lives at an early age. I have heard those years called “BC days”, that is “before Christ days.” “Prodigal Sons or Prodigal Daughters” are called by God to come back to Him. Mary experienced such a calling when she went to Jerusalem and wanted to go into a church to venerate the Holy Cross. She was prevented from entering the church by an invisible force. She thought that it was because of her sins that this was happening and she prayed in front of an Icon of the Virgin Mary (the Theotokos):

“Allow me to go into the church and prostrate before His Cross. As soon as I have seen the Cross, I promise that I will renounce the world and all pleasures, and follow the path of salvation which you will show me.”

In actuality, everyone entering that church that day were sinners. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). When the woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned, Jesus invited the person who was without sin, to cast the first stone and no one stepped forward (John 8:1-11). This was not just about Mary’s sin, it was her “calling” to follow Christ. Think about a time when you were called by God. Perhaps it was to become a Christian, to become Orthodox, to deepen your spiritual life, to step up in some ministry within the Church, etc.

St. Mary was allowed to enter the church and venerate the Holy Cross. From that moment on, her life was transformed. But it was not an instant transformation. The next morning, she crossed the Jordan River into the desert wilderness where she lived for the next 47 years. The first 17 of those years she spent in a spiritual struggle with all the wrongful passions that continued to come into her mind. This was a time of true repentance; a time of truly turning away from her past and embracing the path of the Lord.

For many us, that calling to follow Christ does not mean an instant victory over some of the wrongful passions that have directed our lives for a long time. It could be the lust (addiction) to buy things; to have more and more clothes, “toys” to play with, or the newest _____. It could be a different lust (addiction) that overwhelms a person such as pornography (internet, books, or just attacks in the mind). It may be other areas that we cannot seem to control: lying, cheating, stealing, cussing, etc. We do not have to be stuck for life with whatever it is that hinders us.

Nearing the end of Great Lent, may we follow Saint Mary’s example to enter a spiritual desert (the arena) and do battle with those wrongful passions we have not been able to overcome. It will take effort to do battle with them. How do we do battle? It begins by focusing our prayer and fasting, asking the Lord for victory over the issues that so often weigh us down. Today is a perfect time for us to draw closer to our Lord. May our struggle be blessed.

With you in the journey,

Fr. Stephen

The Humbling of Kingdom Builders

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

On March 30th, the devotional was about the arrogant king of Assyria and how God dealt with his prideful ways. If you recall, the king used the terms “I” and “me” 8 times in just two verses. Today we find such arrogance and pride, not just in one person, but in many. They are full of “us”, “ourselves”, and “we”.

This is in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people wanted to build their own kingdom; making their own “name” for themselves. Rather than looking to the Lord, they would look to themselves.

Is it possible that a group of Christian people could fall into a similar type of arrogance or pride? Could “we” build something that is all about us?

Several years ago, in my duties with Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, I was speaking with a precious person who was very supportive of this work. When I mentioned that I would be most willing to speak at his church, his response shocked me: “I am sorry father, but you would not be welcomed at my church. You are not of my ethnicity and the people would not welcome you. The service is all done in our language without a word of English.”

Another time, I was asked to speak at a church and noticed all of the people were of one ethnicity. I asked some of the folks if they were reaching out to the local community. Again, the answer shocked me: “Outsiders are not welcome here because we want our sons and daughters to only marry within our own ethnicity.”

When we build our own “kingdom”, we forget that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3:16). The Lord’s final words to His followers before He ascended was to take His message to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Oh, my dear brothers and sister, let us have churches that open up their hearts to love all who come through our doors and welcome them. The story of the Tower of Babel ends with God putting an end to the “kingdom” the people were building for themselves. It is a truth well worth remembering. If we try to build a “kingdom” that is only for “us”, it will ultimately fail. The true Kingdom of God is for everyone, not just “us”.

By your prayers…as we continue our Journey,

Fr. Stephen