Standing on the Word of God Alone?

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Most Christians in our world today really have no idea where the New Testament came from or how it came to be known as Holy Scripture.  Most folks don’t even ask that question, they simply refer to it as God’s Word and they loudly proclaim that they “stand on the Word of God alone.”  That phrase comes from the one of the battle cries of the Reformers of the 16th Century: “Sola Scriptura!”  If one reads the statement of Faith of many of the Christian Churches today, often the first thing mentioned has something to do with this concept of “Sola Scriptura.”

Standing on the Word of God alone can sound like the right thing to do.  In fact, who could argue against such an ideal?  The problem that immediately arose and continues to plague Christendom since the 16th Century is not the Holy Scriptures being God’s Word.  The problem is with the interpretation of that Word.  On one intersection there can be 4 different Christian Churches all proclaiming that they stand on the Word of God alone:  “Sola Scriptura” they will shout.  Sadly, each of them will be in serious disagreement with the others on matters of very important beliefs, doctrines, and practices.

In today’s world, some have estimated there are now over 60,000 different schisms within Christendom…looking very much like a shattered mirror.  People may shout “Sola Scriptura” but the truth of the matter is that they are really proclaiming “Sola Interpretation!”  The Holy Scriptures are not to blame.  It comes down to the interpretation of those Holy Scriptures.  Many Churches spring up every day because someone decided that the Bible says something different than what the Church they are currently in believes.  The picture of Christianity begins to sound much like the last verse in the Book of Judges:  “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  That didn’t work out at all in the Book of Judges and it certainly isn’t working out in today’s world with the interpretation of the Bible.

An understanding of where the New Testament came from is really foundational to how we interpret it today.  It didn’t simply fall from the sky one day.  The extent of the Canon of the New Testament is not a matter of Direct Revelation…God didn’t write the list on the wall!!!  Here is a very brief summary of what happened in history to bring us the Canon of the New Testament.

For the first hundred years or so of the Christian faith, documents like the letters written by Paul and the four writings about the life of Jesus, which we call “the Gospels”, had been circulated and copied throughout the Churches for use in teaching. Very quickly, these documents came to be regarded as Holy Scripture, of equal importance (or more, in the eyes of some) as the Jewish scriptures, which are referred to today as the Old Testament.

Around 140 A.D. (Over 100 years after Jesus’ death and His Glorious Resurrection), a man named Marcion began teaching a version of Christianity which viewed the God of the Old Testament as a wrathful God incompatible with the loving God of the New Testament.  He therefore rejected the theology of the Old Testament. To support his teachings, Marcion published a canon – a list of documents which he considered to be Holy Scripture – which included only an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters (along with his own writings). This brought to light the need for a consistent understanding in the Church of what documents (or books) were indeed Canonical (i.e. accepted as Holy Scripture).  It is important to note that Marcion did not actually start this process of forming the canon, rather the controversy he started simply accelerated an already existing process.

At the time of Marcion, two sets of documents had already been assembled and circulated among the Churches. The first set was called the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The second set was the collection of the letters by the Apostle Paul.  Both sets were quoted as Scripture by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, around 115 A.D.  They had no doubt been in circulation for quite some years before that date. A collection of other letters,  those of Peter, John, James, and Jude –along with the Acts of the Apostles (which had been separated from the Gospel of Luke), were eventually included.

By 200 A.D., the majority of the New Testament was established.  A document called the “Muratorian Fragment” refers to Luke as the third Gospel (assumedly listing Matthew and Mark before it), then lists John, Paul’s 13 letters, Jude, two epistles of John and the Book of Revelation as Holy Scripture.  In the early 300’s, Origen lists the four Gospels, Paul’s 13 letters, one letter each of Peter and John, and Revelation. He also notes that Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, and Jude, amongst other documents were debated by some. Around that same time, Eusebius lists all of the New Testament documents except James, Jude, Peter’s second letter and John’s second and third letters, which he says are disputed by some, but recognized by the majority.

In 367, Athanasius is the first to list the 27 documents of the New Testament as we know it today, and he is quickly followed by Jerome and Augustine in the church in Europe. At the councils of Hippo Regius in 393 and Carthage in 397, the Church in the west as a body approved the 27 documents alone as Holy Scripture. The process farther east took a little longer; it was not until 508 that 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were included in a version of the Syriac Bible in addition to the other twenty two books.

All of that history is important because it reveals to us that the Holy Scriptures did not give us the Church.  The Church was established by Jesus Himself and that Church, over the next 300-500 years, identified those 27 Books of the New Testament that we have today.  Indeed, it is the Church that gave us the New Testament!  That is worth repeating:  It is the Church that gave us the New Testament!

It is this same Church which also handed down the correct interpretation of that New Testament.   Seven times the Church had to come together in what is called an Ecumenical Council.  These Seven Ecumenical Councils came together because of the great heresies which were attacking the Church. Often these attacks were not simply debates, but the heretics were actually torturing and killing those who held firm to the Truth. True Christians shed their blood to hand down the correct interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, as it had been handed down to them from the beginning.

These Councils did not come up with some new doctrines but they only sought to identify that which had always been believed…that which was handed down from Christ to His Apostles, then to their disciples, and then to each generation.  These Councils took seriously the words of Jude 3:  “Beloved, while eagerly preparing to write to you about the salvation we share, I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”  Today, the cry goes out to all of Christendom to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints”… not some new doctrines that sound nice…but what has always been believed and taught from the beginning.

“Sola Scriptura” or “Sola Interpretation” was never a part of Christianity until the 16th Century.  Truth was never some subjective thing that changed with every breeze that drifted through Christianity.  The Bible is God’s Word and the interpretation of it has been handed down from the beginning of the Church.  If someone comes up with a new interpretation in the 21st Century, we should run…not walk…away from them.  There is no new truth…the Truth has not changed for almost 2000 years.  May we seek it out and walk in it alone:  ”Sola Truth”…which has been handed down and is available to each of us.

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Living in a Post Christian Era—NOT!

Living in a Post Christian Era—NOT!

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Over the past few years the media has been asserting as “fact” that we are living in a post-Christian era. Christianity has had its day and it is over. What is so very disturbing is that some Christian clergy and laity have been saying the same thing. If something is said often enough, does it really become fact?

How many times has the world proclaimed the end of Christianity? It was proclaimed right after the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus Himself. That of course didn’t last long, three short days in fact. When Constantinople was attacked by Muslim forces and defeated, don’t you know that many folks thought that was the end of Christianity. Marx and Lenin thought they had ended Christianity with the Communist takeover of Russia. Today, Christianity is proclaimed loud and clear in that country.

Much of the world today is embracing the “religion” of secularism. It is this movement that seems to shout the loudest that Christianity is over. They may believe that with all their hearts, but so have others throughout history. The secular movement will eventually crash and people will be looking again for some meaning to their lives. The only real meaning to life is found in Jesus Christ and that will never go away.

Brothers and sisters, we are not a part of a dying religion. We belong to the Living Lord and to His Living Church. Remember His words from the Gospel of Matthew:  “I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  If the very gates of hell cannot prevail against His Church, why would members of that Church tremble at the rantings of mere men and their meaningless philosophy?

Throughout history the Church has survived persecutions, martyrdoms, heresies, and false philosophies. Over the past 2,000 years all of these things come and go on a fairly regular basis. Sometimes they last for a few centuries, but they do end. True Christianity will be here long after the secularist movement has become a note in a history book.

Indeed, the Church will be here to offer solace to shattered lives and to bring meaning to lives that have lost hope through meaningless philosophies. It is the calling of all Orthodox Christians to carry the Faith to the next generation and not to get caught up with the proclamations of this world. A good thing for us to keep in mind comes from Hebrews 13: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Do not be carried away with various and strange doctrines.” 

If you become concerned about us living in a Post-Christian Era, remember that word “forever” from our Lord. He is not leaving us nor is He going to change. He alone remains the same and He will still be transforming lives long after this secularist movement has crashed. In fact, He will welcome with open arms all of those who rejected Him for the pleasures of this world. One day there will be many “prodigal sons and daughters” coming home to the Father. That home is the Living Church of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

What If?

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What if you hadn’t lost your temper last week?  What if you hadn’t told that lie?  What if you had  taken that other job?  What if you had married that other person?  What if you hadn’t quit the high school football team?  What if you had just gotten that one break you needed?  What if you had finished college?  What if ____ (you fill in the blank).

How many times do all of us relive certain past events, saying: “What if I had done that differently?”  Sometimes we daydream about how good life would be if things had gone differently.  Sometimes we try to make wrong things right, finding a “loop-hole” so that we can justify our actions.  There is the very real danger for many of us that we do it so much, we become consumed with the past.

Think about “What ifs”for a moment.  “What ifs” are always the beginning of a false story.  We have our story, our life.  I didn’t become the shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No matter how much I “What if” the past, I will never be that shortstop.  That is not my story!!  That “What if” seems innocent enough, but it can lead to dissatisfaction with my life.  I can end up blaming my “failure” to reach the Big Leagues on others, like my wife or my children.  My real story can end up being trashed by a false story.

There is a great quote from C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian (from the Chronicles of Narnia) when Lucy is confronted by the lion, Aslan (who represents Jesus), because she didn’t obey him. First she tries to justify her actions and then she asks about what would have been had she obeyed him. Alsan answers her: “To know what would have happened, child? No. Nobody is ever told that.”

“What ifs” can seem innocent, but they are always false and they will cause us problems as we chew on them.  “What if I had married that other person” will not help my marriage!  It is not my story!  “What if I hadn’t gotten divorced” will not change the divorce!  It is not my story!  “What if I had never had a baby” will not help me raise my children!  No matter the “What if”, we will never know what might have happened and the false story will likely do us harm.

The Holy Scriptures advise us: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward…let us live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians 3:13-16).  God is saying: “Don’t ‘What if’ me with the past, but press on toward tomorrow with who you are today.”

All of us are in a place right now that our past decisions have put us in.  We can questions those decisions for the next 10 years (beating ourselves over the head with “What ifs”) or we can see where we are right now and press on toward the future that will eventually be “our story”!  Sometimes we will need to forgive others or seek forgiveness from God and others, but then we need to forget it and get on to what will become “our story”.  Going back to Prince Caspian, Alsan tells Lucy that “anyone can find out what will happen” if they just begin obeying Him now. May the Lord bless your “real story” each and every day!!

Saint Anthony: How Is Your Soul Today?

                                        Saint Anthony: How Is Your Soul Today?

Today, January 17th, the Orthodox Church always remembers the life of Saint Anthony the Great. He was born in 251 and lived a remarkable 105 years. His life was so amazing that he is known as “The Father of all Monastics.” The book on his life was written by St. Athanasius who actually knew Anthony.

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As we celebrate the memory of the life of Saint Anthony, this UpWord Glance concerns some simple quotes from him:

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

Please ponder these words of St. Anthony and then consider the priorities we have set in our lives. Human beings are complex indeed. We have a physical body, a mind that thinks and reasons (perhaps too much at times), and we have a soul. So then…

  • How much of our lives do we spend on improving our bodies through exercise and proper diet?
  • How much of our lives have we spent on improving our intellect?
  • And finally, how much of our lives have we spent on our souls and matters of eternity?

Here’s another quote from St. Anthony concerning our need to be concerned about our souls:

“Men are often called intelligent wrongly. Intelligent men are not those who have great knowledge of the sayings and books of the wise men of old, but those who have an intelligent soul and can discriminate between good and evil. They avoid what is sinful and harms the soul; and with deep gratitude to God they resolutely adhere by dint of practice to what is good and benefits the soul. These men alone should truly be called intelligent.”

Recently, I was speaking with someone about sin and the person was complaining how easily they ran after certain sins. I explained to them that sin was usually pleasurable and that we enjoy it greatly at the moment. It isn’t until later that we realize what harm it has done to our souls. It is when we recognize this truth that we can actually begin to purposely avoid these things. These sins can be very small or they can be gigantic in nature. Either way, they should be avoided. This, Saint Anthony would say, is true intellect…to be concerned for our souls. So then, how do we care for our souls? Saint Anthony said this:

“The truly intelligent man pursues one sole objective: to obey and to conform to the God of all. With this single aim in view, he disciplines his soul, and whatever he may encounter in the course of his life, he gives thanks to God for the direction and depth of His providential ordering of all things. For it is absurd to be grateful to doctors who give us bitter and unpleasant medicines to cure our bodies, and yet to be ungrateful to God for what appears to us to be harsh, not grasping that all we encounter is for our benefit and in accordance with His  providence. For knowledge of God and faith in Him is the salvation and perfection of the soul.”

Is it humanly possible to actually give thanks to God for all that we encounter in each day? Obviously, Saint Anthony though it possible and actually put it into practice as a way to care for the soul. We can indeed begin caring for our souls each and every day. It can begin with our prayers. Here is a simple prayer to begin each day (The Morning Prayer of St. Philaret):

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.  Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will.  In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me.  Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.  In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You.  Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.  Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray Yourself in me.  Amen.

If you have never read The Life of Saint Anthony, it would be well worth your time. There are good copies online and books for sale at most great reads type bookstores. You can read a very nice copy it for free at: http://www.orthodoxebooks.org/node/213

The Invisible Church: A Doctrine That Has Come of Age

The Invisible Church: A Doctrine That Has Come of Age

By Fr. Stephen 

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Have you been around people who proclaim a faith in Christ, yet totally reject the idea of Church? It seems to be a growing belief among folks in our country. It really has its beginnings with a doctrine that came out of the Reformation: “The Invisible Body of Believers.”

The Reformation began with some noble ideas to get the Roman Catholic Church back on the right track with some beliefs the Reformers thought had gone astray. What began as a desire to correct led to a full scale “protest” and a breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church.

Alas, the Reformers couldn’t agree on what doctrines were correct and so the “protest” carried on against each other. As group after group began to separate themselves from other groups, the divisions began to take on the look of a shattered mirror.

As these groups (which became known as denominations) multiplied, they also called themselves by the name: “church”. The shattered mirror sadly continued to grow as more and more splinters took place. Each splinter group believed differently than the one the left behind. So it was that the number of differing “churches” grew enormous with people having friends and family in differing belief systems.

Each group proclaimed loudly that they used only the Bible to prove their beliefs. But, in fact it was their interpretation of the Bible that was really at the core of their differences. Each group believed they were the ones that held to the “Truth” and that the other groups were in error. Some of them simply condemned others and said those who didn’t hold to their beliefs would wind up in hell. Whew…that was a pretty serious belief!

The majority, though differing in beliefs, sought to find a belief that would unite the various groups. Thus was born the doctrine of the “Invisible Body of Believers”. Anyone who believed that Jesus is Lord would be a member. Differences in doctrine were given second place to this wonderful belief. People in differing groups could now be close friends and joint services could be held where doctrinal proclamations would be limited to just “Jesus is Lord.” This became the most important belief that anyone could hold and it was thought to be the doctrine that united all believers together.

Thus was born the concept of the “Invisible Body of Believers” where it was irrelevant which church one attended. The Lordship of Jesus was the key to belonging to the Invisible Church. Over time, most folks continued to attend their own church, but some began to drop out. As the “shattered mirror” continued to splinter, some people either became confused or discouraged. When there are 30,000 to 60,000 groups (hard to pin down the number) proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” but holding to much different doctrines (all supposedly proven by the Bible), confusion or discouragement are certainly possibilities.

People who made the decision to not attend any Church were often asked why this was so. Many folks found this answer seemed to work well and defuse any arguments: “I am spiritual, not religious!” That phrase spread like wildfire as no one seemed to have a good response to it. It grew to the point that many people could confidently say: “I choose not to attend a church, but I am a Christian and Jesus is my Lord! I worship Him when I am outdoors, in fact, up on a mountain is best!” Because membership in the true church of Jesus, that invisible church, requires only belief in the Lordship of Jesus, then all of these people must be “saved” too.

More and more people are seeing the advantages of “being saved” without need of a church: extra sleep, golf, football on television, freedom to do as one pleases… The doctrine of the “Invisible Church” may be reaching the pinnacle of its evolution with an unbelievable growing membership.

But here are some thoughts for reflection:

  • Why would the Bible talk about ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons for an invisible church?
  • Why would the Bible mention that we should never forsake the assembling of ourselves together?
  • Why would the “doctrine” of the invisible church never be mentioned for over 1600 years after Jesus established His Church if He intended it to be invisible?
  • Is there any authority except “self” for proclaiming “I am spiritual, not religious?” Did Jesus desire a “do-it-yourself” belief in Him?
  • For those who prefer to worship the Lord up on a mountain, when was the last time this honestly took place in your life? This cannot mean simply being in awe of God’s creation, but real, true worship of the Lord.

This article is not merely an issue about how someone may spend their Sundays. What is at issue here is the matter of salvation and how people will spend eternity.

Jesus did in fact establish a Church on this earth. It was never meant to be invisible, but it is meant to be a visible witness to the entire world. This Church has been passed on to each and every generation without fail. Christ passed it on to His Apostles, they passed it on to their disciples, and each generation of disciples passed it on to the next.

It is a place where each and every person is meant to be an important part of an overall Body, with each part playing a role. A thumb by itself, not connected to one’s body, is simply dead flesh. Jesus is the Head of a Body, not of individual parts scattered about by their own desire. “I did it my way” should never be the theme song for how we live our lives.

The Church is the very place where all the aspects of salvation are found. All of the Sacraments of the Lord are found within the Church. It begins with Holy Baptism and Chrismation. Confession of our sins takes place within the Church. It is the place where members receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, which then nourishes every cell within a person. Prayers for healing and being anointed with Holy Unction come from the Church. Marriages are blessed by God within the Church; it is something God does, not we through our vows. Ordinations of clergy are done within the Church. And at the end of our earthly life, prayers are said at our funeral which takes place in the Church. Our whole life is meant to be lived as a member of the Church, not as a self-ruled, individualistic journey.

The Church is the place where people come to offer corporate worship. The earliest documented service of the Church comes from the hand of an Apostle of Christ: The Liturgy of Saint James the Apostle. This service and all of the services after him reflect the corporate sense of worship and not some individualistic endeavor. The Church in the Book of Acts also reflects this same corporate sense of worship.

The Church is here today for each and every person. Salvation is truly found within the Church. This we affirm and proclaim to the world today. And with God’s help we will pass this Faith on to the next generation.

 

Why Should I have my House Blessed?

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In my Orthodox parish we will be celebrating Holy Theophany (The Baptism of our Lord) on January 6th. The celebration of this Feast of our Lord actually begins on January 5th, a day known as the Forefeast of Theophany.

Together with the other services celebrating this Feast of our Lord, there is a service of the Blessing of the Waters. This is usually conducted in the church. However in many places throughout the world services are conducted near open bodies of water. As a sign of blessing as Christ blessed the Jordan, Holy Water is poured into the body of water. A cross is then thrown into the water to be retrieved by young folks diving into the water.

Here in Colorado, many Orthodox gather on the Continental Divide for a special blessing of the waters of both sides of the Divide. Frozen crosses of water are placed in the snow on each side. In this way, the water flowing to the Pacific and the water flowing to the Atlantic are both blessed.

The holy water from the church is given to the faithful to consume throughout the year and to use in blessing their homes. In the weeks following the Feast, Orthodox clergy visit the homes of parishioners and conduct a service of blessing using the holy water that was blessed on the Feast of Theophany.

Someone asked me a very good question last year at Holy Theophany:

“Why should I have my house blessed every year? I mean, come on, I had it blessed several years ago and that seems good enough for me.”

Here is my response:

That is a great question and one that every Orthodox Christian needs to ponder. House blessings are not just some cultural tradition, but a very spiritual and important issue for you to consider.

When I was a prison chaplain, I would go around the prison to the cell of each Orthodox man and bless their home. Often other men would see me or hear about it and they too would ask for their cell to be blessed. The reports back were always the same: “Father, I felt such peace after my cell was blessed and I slept so well!” It was something that many men looked forward to each year.

Many years ago when I was a fairly new priest, a family asked me to help them. They were seeing “ghosts” in their home on a regular basis and it had the whole family scared. Being a very inexperienced priest, I felt this was a definitely above my pay grade and called upon a wonderful monastic for his advice. He said he would come and together we would bless their home. We did the entire service for blessing the home and as we went through the house, he told me that he could see the demons were fleeing in front of us. I of course saw nothing. This man is holier than I could ever hope to be! He told me that the Holy Water stings the demons like fire and they flee from it. We continued to bless the home until he said every evil had been removed. The report back from these folks in the following weeks and months was of peace, no sightings of “ghosts”, and very good nights of sleep.

I share these two stories with you to show the need we all have for the peace of the Lord in our homes. I am not suggesting that your home is filled with demons and all kinds of evil. But, throughout the year we may end up bringing things into our homes that we really don’t want there: such as anger, gossip, slander, lying, lust, hatred, envy, covetousness, sloth, despair…you get the idea. Many of the Holy Fathers of our Faith tell us that there is a very spiritual aspect to all of these and they affect the atmosphere around us. So it can be in our homes and often it happens so very slowly that we do not recognize its impact.

So the question you asked really gets reversed: “Why would any Orthodox Christian not want their home blessed each year?” When Holy Theophany rolls around this year and the list for house blessings is made available, be sure to sign up. It may be the best “cleaning” you can possibly give your home.

A Different New Year’s Resolution

2017

2017 is right around the corner!!  Incredible!  With the New Year upon us, many people will be making their annual resolutions.  These usually range from what we eat, drink, smoke, and wear…to the shape of our bodies and what we plan to do about it.  With the vast multitude of resolutions that we have available, I would like to add one more for your consideration:  What comes out of our mouth!

“We all stumble in many ways.  If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.  When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts…With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers (and sisters) this should not be” (James 3).

Those words of wisdom from St. James tell us the importance of controlling what comes out of our mouths.  Our words shape our whole lives, who we are and what others think of us.  How we appear to others in the work place and in our communities is something that we should take very seriously.  Often however, my own tongue is wagging before my brain ever kicks in.

All people would do well to have control over their tongues.  If a person has no control over that area, it is difficult to trust them with other aspects.  What comes to most people’s minds at this point is cursing.  Certainly, this is very important as the Holy Scriptures clearly tell us in Colossians 3:8…”now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.

Would you want to go to a doctor who said:  “Stick out your @#&%#@ tongue, I want to take your @@#&%$#@ temperature” or “Listen you @#%$#@ @#&%$#@ you have the @#$&$#@ flu”.  Most of us would question that doctor’s professionalism and his character (he might have the skills but he would still lose the patients, especially my family).  So it is with each of us.  Our worth, our professionalism, and even our Faith are often measured by what comes out of our mouths (for good or for bad).

But controlling one’s tongue goes far beyond cursing.  How about what we say about other people?  Saying something bad about someone or something might feel good for the moment.  But, as we have all experienced, those words may just come back to bite us and that good feeling will be long gone.  Many times we do not find out that something bad we said about someone has gotten back to them, but we can guess that it did by the broken relationship we experience.

This is a problem that has a remedy. As we read in Colossians 3:8, “you yourselves are to put off all these”…we are to do these things ourselves!! We simply need to begin saying good and positive things about another person or situation.  If we don’t have good words to say then perhaps we would do well to be quiet.  In the same manner that negative words breed negativity, so it is that positive words are very contagious.  If one says:  “It’s a great day…I love my job…I’m happy to be here…_______ is a great person”, others will be finding ways to say positive things as well.

Now you may live or work in a very tough environment, where you hear negative and even ugly things every day.  It is so easy to want to answer back with the same type of words.  Usually, this just escalates the situation.  Consider these simple words from Holy Scripture: “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).  Over the many years in my work as a Chaplain, I had ample opportunity to truly test that proverb.  I can tell you it does work; and it works very well.  I would encourage you to test it out yourself the next time you run on to someone being ugly and spewing forth wrathful words. It is amazing just how well it works.

So in addition to your resolutions to eat less and exercise more, I would encourage you to add this matter of what comes out of your mouth to your list for 2017.  One of the best things that any of us can resolve to do for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our work place is to speak words that are good and positive to those around us. Our words have the power to help make us be the very best people we can be.

May God bless you richly in 2017!!! 

A Closer Look at those Magi from the East

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Each Christmas, songs are sung about the Wise Men or Magi that came from the east looking for the one who had been born.  Their story can be read in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (2:1-12).  The story is an old familiar one to most of us.  Sometimes it’s easy to pass over some spiritual gems because we’ve heard the story so many times.  So let’s take a closer look.

The Magi had been given a sign from God, a star.  They heeded that sign, leaving home and country.  They came from a great distance traveling as much as two years. They came not as curiosity seekers, but specifically to worship the King that had been born.

The Magi had seen “His Star in the east”, but then the star disappeared.  They continued on without the star.  When they came to Jerusalem, they had to ask people where this King was at. Then after meeting with King Herod (who tried to trick them), the star miraculously reappeared.  Not only that, the star also moved, guiding them to the child.  The star is one of the great miracles of this story.  Many people have tried to explain this star:  “It was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn” or “It was the appearance of a new star which shines brighter”.  However, the star appeared for a time, disappeared, then reappeared, and then moved.  This was not some natural phenomenon; God intervened in His creation with a special sign to direct the Magi.

When the Magi arrived before the child, their first act was to offer themselves in worship.  Then they were able to offer their gifts.  Amazingly, they were prophetic gifts; Gold was given, the gift for a king (remember the Queen of Sheba brought 4.5 tons of gold to honor King Solomon – I Kings 10:10).  They brought this gift proclaiming the child to be the King of Kings.  Secondly, they gave him incense.  Incense was to be offered only to God and only offered by a priest.  The prophetic meaning was twofold:  that the child was fully God (which is what Christmas is all about – the Incarnation) and that he was to be the High Priest in Heaven.  The last gift offered was myrrh.  Myrrh was used to embalm the dead.  This pointed toward the ultimate reason the child had been born: to lay down his life for the world.  St. Gregory the Dialogist wrote the following about how we can apply this to our lives:

“We offer gold to the new-born King, if we shine in His sight with the brightness of the wisdom from on high.  We offer Him incense, if we enkindle – on the altar of our hearts – the thoughts of our human minds, by our holy pursuit of prayer; so as to give forth a sweet smell to God by our heavenly desire.  We offer Him myrrh, if we mortify the vices of our bodies by our self-denial.”

These are just a few of the spiritual gems found in this story, enough to give us some good food for thought.  The Magi had a star which guided them on the right path.  We all need something to guide us on the right path.  Our Church , the Holy Scriptures, our devotional studies, our rule of prayer, seasons of fasting, etc, etc…all of these and more can certainly be a guide for us.  BUT. just like the star disappeared for a time, we may experience spiritually dry times.  When this happens (not if it happens, because it will happen), if we remain faithful (going to Church, praying, studying, fasting…even when we don’t feel like it), we will find ourselves on the right path, growing in our faith.  We may feel that our prayers don’t even reach the ceiling…but we pray anyway!  We may feel that we are getting absolutely nothing out of Church…but we go anyway!  We may feel a blank wall as we read the Holy Scriptures, but we read anyway!  Notice the common word “feel”…that should never be our guide!!  Our spiritual life and growth are not based on how we feel.  The Magi were excited when they first saw the star, but they continued on their journey even when the star had disappeared.  Eventually, the star reappeared and they reached their goal…the King of Kings.  Let us have them same faith when those spiritually dry times come our way!!!

One last food for thought:  Like the Magi, we should first offer ourselves to God in worship.  Then we will be able to present our gifts (good works, finances, serving in our Church, etc.).  Sometimes it’s easy to think that our acts of kindness and good works (even giving money) are enough.  The Magi remind us of the most important thing:  Worship of God! 

May your celebration of Christmas be filled with the worship of God.  And may it bring you great joy and blessings.  Let’s remember (as a bumper sticker I saw said):

“Wise Men Still Seek Him” (so do Wise Women and Wise Children!!).

Could you give back your best gift?

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We often call Christmas the “season of giving”.   If you are like me, most of that giving is in material things.  Toys for little ones, maybe nice clothes for older ones… maybe something really expensive for those precious ones.  And of course, there is always the receiving of these fine gifts from others who have entered into the “season of giving”.  Most everyone really likes being on the receiving end of a gift. 

Now this article is not about to condemn such activities.  In fact, I think it is really nice that we have a chance to give gifts to those we love and care about.   And, it’s really nice to be on the receiving end too!  At the same time, it is called the “season of giving” for a much different reason.  Perhaps this story will help shed a little light.

Wealth More Precious than Jewels (Author unknown)

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food.  The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and wanted it, so the woman gave it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. 

A few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.  “I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious.  Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.”

Even though this traveler had gotten hold of a precious stone that was worth a fortune, he realized that he was missing out on something even more valuable. The Giver of the gift had something of much greater worth than that stone. The traveler came back desiring that greater treasure.

We can be a lot like that traveler as we go through life.  We may suddenly find ourselves in a bad situation.  It could be serious, as in a health problem or divorce or death of a loved one.  It could be less serious, as in feeling depressed or stressed out or in need of some material thing.  Next thing we know, we find ourselves asking God for help.  I imagine every one of us can recount a time when God intervened to bring us that gift we asked for. 

Many of us have gone on our merry way after receiving His gift of help, forgetting that just maybe there was something far greater behind that gift.  Is it possible that the One, who could give us that gift of help we needed, might actually have something more valuable to give us?   Indeed, the real message of Christmas is not just that we have a God who is able to heal our broken health, or to bring comfort in the midst of great grief, or to bring peace of mind when our world is stressed out beyond belief.  The message of Christmas is far deeper and greater for those who would bring their gift of life back to God and seek the more precious gift. 

For those who would like to look further into that gift of Christmas , here’s some great reading from the Giver of Life Himself:

Luke 2:1-20; Galatians 4:1-7; John 1:1-13; 3:13-21.

God’s richest blessings to each of you this Christmas season!!

Put Christ Back in Christmas??

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Put Christ Back in Christmas?

For the past several years there has been a common cry go out in our country: “Put Christ back in Christmas!” Many of the people I know who send out that message on social media and share emails emblazoned with that phrase are also folks that quit going to Church a long time ago. If we are honest with ourselves, the truth is Christ never left…it is people who have left.

This year Christmas falls on a Sunday. If it is anything like the last time this happened, many, many churches will be closed. The most often reason given: Christmas is a family time, so people should be with their families that morning. The Holy Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of the great Feast Days of the year. It is not meant to be simply a “family time” for us to share presents. It is the celebration of God becoming man (the Incarnation) for our salvation. His Birth changed this world forever!

The word “Christmas” comes to us from two Old-English words: “Christ’s Mass”. It was a church service dedicated to the Birth of Christ. Christmas was a family time only in the sense that the entire family went to Church to celebrate His Holy Nativity.

Put Christ back in Christmas? No, we should put ourselves back in Christmas; worshiping the One called Emmanuel: “God with us!”

If you are looking for a Church that will be celebrating this great Feast Day of the Faith, check out your local Orthodox Church. They will all be open Christmas morning and they will all be worshiping the One Who became man for our salvation. And do make it a family time by inviting all your family and your friends.

Have a blessed and joyous celebration of the Holy Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ!!