Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Ann Arbor Saint - Our Spiritual Responsibility

December 12. This is a date to put on your calendars. Why? We have been given a HUGE privilege in that the Lord saw fit to allow St. Mardarije (Uskokovic) to repose in Ann Arbor. That is right - we have our own Ann Arbor saint! How many Orthodox Christians all over the world would LOVE to have their own saint! A saint that reposed in their city! And our response to this incredible gift that the the Lord gave us is: YAWN. Nothing. No response. No interest. Really? Have we become that cold to spiritual life that we look at the gift that the Lord gave us and our response is to be simply dead? Where are the newborn boys in our parish named Mardarije? Where are the molebens being served to OUR SAINT? Where is the personal veneration of the big and lovely icon we have in our parish church? Perhaps our issues stem from not knowing the life of this favorite of God.

Did you know that St. Mardarije was born in Serbia but received his higher education in Russia? Did you know that he was such a gifted speaker of Russian and preacher that he was appointed to be the diocesan preacher of one of the dioceses in Russia? Did you know that he was such a talented man that the Russian Church sent him to America in 1923 to organize the Serbian parishes here (remember - all Orthodox Christians in North America were part of the Russian Church at that time no matter their nationality)? And that he was consecrated the first Serbian bishop of North America in 1925? In only 10 years he went to his eternal reward, giving his soul into the hand of his Savior at the University of Michigan hospital when finally succumbing to Tuberculosis.

Nonetheless, in his short ministry here in a strange land he was able to establish many Serbian parishes and to attain favor in the Lord’s eyes as one of his saints. This is an important lesson for us: spiritual greatness is not measured in length of years, but in rising to meet the challenge the Lord gives you - no matter whether He calls you to Himself after a few or many years. We must work for the Lord on His terms - not on our own. And when the Lord sends us a ministry we must trust in His mercy and grace and do all we can to answer His call. This is important for us in our days - and St. Mardarije is an example for us to follow. The Lord did not give him many years, but He gave him what he needed to fulfill His call of service to those made in the Lord’s image. We are also called to serve, since we bear the name of Christ. The Lord said “...I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister...” and since we bear the name of Christ as Christians we are likewise called to this service. A few of us in ordained ministry but most of us to service outside of ordained ministry. Whether we are ordained or not we must serve...

It is time, dear brothers and sisters, for us to embrace our Ann Arbor saint! To emulate his selfless service to God and man, and to call upon him to pray for us before the throne of the Lord - the Lord that he served and that we also serve and the throne that he stands before. The saints are close to God, and of course our Ann Arbor saint is close to us. It is FOLLY to not take advantage of this relationship! May this be the year that we see St. Mardarije’s feast day as a day like our St. Vladimir Day! When we take the day off work and are in the parish church unless we are simply physically unable to be there! And, by the way, with the blessing of Patriarch Irenei of Serbia, Archbishop Peter, and Bishop Longin our present parish church will be fully remodeled and named in honor of St. Mardarije as soon as we are able to build our new church. How can there not be a church in honor of St. Mardarije in the very place where he blessedly reposed? The answer is - there cannot NOT be! And with St. Mardarije’s prayers and the Lord’s mercy we will do it! But we cannot be hypocritical - we must learn to ask St. Mardarije’s prayers before the Lord NOW if we expect to receive the fruit of those prayers later. Let us begin by being present at his annual commemoration at St. Vladimir’s: 12/11/19 at 6:00 p.m. and 12/12/19 at 8:00 a.m. Join us! Learn more about St. Mardarije HERE.

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Divine Services are Evangelism

The Divine Services of the Holy Church are maximally educational in their nature. This is especially true of Vespers & Matins. The All Night Vigil that is served in parish churches in the Russian tradition is composed of Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour and is the most educational Divine Service that the majority of believers are regularly exposed to.

A common part of catechism at St. Vladimir’s is attending Sa
turday evening Vigil. Both Fr. Moses and I mandate that those who are pursuing being joined to the Holy Church attend these services.

At the Vigil we hear each week about the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as the feast or saint being celebrated on the Sunday. We can learn much at the Divine Services, but only if we can understand what is being read or sung. That puts a big and important burden on our choir and readers. They are not just reading and singing for themselves, but for the faithful who are present (as well as those listening or watching on the live stream). This is why it is important to pray for our choir and readers, just as we would pray for the priest before he hears our confession or before he gives a sermon, or for our teachers before they instruct us, or our doctors before they operate on us. We must ask God to help those who strive to help us so that they can help us well.

The present reality at St. Vladimir’s is that our catechumens are 100% native English speakers. That is the usual situation and has been such for some years now, although there are of course those that begin to come to Church who are native Russian or Ukrainian speakers. And there are those who are native Russian and Ukrainian speakers who attend Vigil regularly too. So we are going to continue to serve that service as a mix of Church Slavonic and English. But as a rule we are going to start using some more English in these services since it is especially important that the catechumens be spiritually nourished by the Divine Services. Remember - they cannot partake of the Holy Mysteries of the Church and receive God’s Grace in this way. They are dependent on the Grace they can receive from the Divine Services (and however else the Lord deigns to enlighten them of course). In short: it is sort of counter-intuitive to send non-Russian speaking catechumens to a service that they can, at best, understand only half of when the main point of them being sent to this service is to learn.

Most people probably wouldn’t even notice this upcoming change since the vast majority of our parishioners do not, unfortunately, attend Vigil on any regular basis. And even those who are present every Saturday will hardly notice. So why not just “sneak in” more English and be quiet about it? Although the temptation is great to do just that, this is not the way the Church works. We do things for a reason - and that reason needs to be explained and it needs to be defended and it needs to be understood. And thus there will be no sneaking. :)

For those services where we get a big number of native Slavic language speaking folks we will keep the same 50/50 split we have had for some years at Vigil. I mean services like the Nativity of the Lord, St. Vladimir’s Day, and whenever a hierarch leads us in prayer. So again - since most folks AT BEST only attend Vigil on these rare occasions the change on Saturday nights won’t be very noticeable. But it will be happening so that we can continue to bring new people to the Church. Because: the Divine Services are Evangelism. They are not an empty rite or some sort of odd old tradition - they exist to educate us and strengthen us in our faith, as well as, of course, to provide us the opportunity to partake of the Mysteries of the Church and to spread the Gospel. This article by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) is required reading in my Dogmatic Theology class in the Pastoral School. I think it does a good job explaining the significance of the Divine Services for the faithful - the key place the services have in the Church and why that is the case. I strongly recommend this article to all our parishioners.

There is no plan to deviate from our usual Sunday Liturgy schema. But Vigil is changing because we have to react to the reality of those who are consistently attending. If more Russian and Ukrainian folks start coming to Vigil - and I very much hope they will - we will make changes again then. But for now, with the catechumens needing to be educated in the faith, we will treat Vigil for what it is: an educational opportunity that they need to understand to the greatest extent possible.

We hope you will come to be educated too! This is something we ALL need: clergy, laity, Orthodox of 50 years, Orthodox of 50 days, and everyone in between. The Divine Services are not served for the clergy and choir alone, but for everyone. The Divine Services have developed over the centuries of the Church as a refined, accurate explication of our faith. They are a GIFT. Right now, sadly, only a few of our people accept this gift.

The Church has never made people learn a new language to be Christians. Neither the Greeks did this to the Rus, nor did the Russians do this to the Alaskans, nor has any missionary group done this to those they were evangelizing. And we will not either. Please join us for the Divine Services - come learn your faith - the authentic faith our Lord brought us for our salvation and that our friends and neighbors are seeking in our midst!

May God grant that this change to using more English causes us to have more discussions about this! Not because one group wants to impose one language on another and doesn’t want to attend the services they mandate in that language, but because so many people will be at Vigil every Saturday that we will have to revisit this question for the sake of all the great number of those who are present: both catechumens and baptized Orthodox Christians!

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Second Pascha of the St. Hilarion Parish - Our Third Pascha!

Our St. Vladimir parish is not the first that has existed in Ann Arbor. There was a Russian Orthodox parish in Ann Arbor in the 1950s named after the Venerable Hilarion the Great, (commemorated on October 21/November 3). This is why we have the icon of St. Hilarion on the far left of our iconostasis - so that there would be a sort of continuity between the first community and our community, which was started in 1981. The St. Hilarion parish closed when no priest could be found to replace Fr. Peter DeMett after his repose. Fr. Peter and his wife Riasa are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in the Russian Orthodox section, as are many of the parishioners from that first parish. We visit them every year on Radonitsa, but this should not be the extent of our communion with them. We are working not just to bring new people to the faith, to strengthen ourselves in the faith, and to train our children to be saints. We are also working for them - continuing the good work that they begin with their nascent efforts here.

We have lots of plans to do lots of things in our community: to build a school, to build a new church, and to fill that church to capacity. Not for our glory, or even for the glory of those who came before us, but for the glory of God. We should keep in mind that we need to work if we hope to succeed. We need to provide clergy for the Church so that when our priests die there will be new priests to serve us. We need to bring new people to the Church so that the Lord will see our zeal to share His love with others. We need to sanctify ourselves, so that St. Mardarije will not be the only saint who died in Ann Arbor. We have lots to do, and sometimes that can be tough. We feel sometimes like our parish, as big or as little as we think it is, is swimming up stream. We feel like we are climbing a mountain. And we sometimes feel like we are doing that alone. First: we are swimming upstream. That is the life of a Christian: labor until death. We rest in the next life. Here we work. Second: we are NEVER alone. The Lord, the angels, and the saints are always with us, even if we are the only one pulling weeds, shoveling snow, scraping wax, cleaning the bathroom, or doing any number of things that need to be done in our parish for God’s glory. Let us never forget that! Most parishes only have one patron saint. We can rightly say we have two: St. Vladimir AND St. Hilarion!

Let us fervently entreat the prayers of the favorite of God, St. Hilarion the Great, that the work begun by those first Russian Orthodox Christians in Ann Arbor will be continued worthily by us sinners, the parish family of St. Vladimir Church! And that what they were unable fully to complete, through no fault of their own, we will do in their memory! May the Lord grant us the strength, the wisdom, and the zeal to do it! Happy third Pascha to our entire parish family!

Fr. Gregory

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Value of the Church

We have been talking about Evangelism and Stewardship lately at St. Vladimir’s. At first glance we may consider that these are two issues that don’t really overlap. But I will submit in this piece that indeed these are almost two sides of the same coin, or put another way without having to mix metaphors: they do indeed overlap. One depends on the other and they both depend on us understanding that the Church adds value to our lives. If we understand that the Church provides us value then we will work hard to bring others to Christ and we will support the Church at the same time, for, as the scripture says: “...for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)

And here is where we have missed something. That miss is my fault. People always praise the priest too much when things go well and criticize too much when they don’t. But this one is squarely on me. I somehow have not been able to convey to a large number of our parishioners that the Church adds value to their lives. And the way I gage that is this: our Treasurer tells me that we have many parishioners that do not give to the parish - at all. On any level. That means that they do not see the parish as adding value to their lives - at all. On any level. I do not know who these parishioners are of course - I just know that they exist. I don’t know who gives what and I don’t want to to know - I never want that to be a consideration in my service to our parishioners. Still, we tip the waitress at the restaurant because she adds value to our dining experience. If we never support the parish with time, talent, or treasure that means we simply do not see a value in the Church or our parish family. Note please that we include in Stewardship TIME, TALENT, and treasure. It is understood that not everyone has treasure to give. If that is the reality in your life now that is perfectly fine. That will change some day, and at that point you should reconsider your stewardship. We should strive to give to God first, before all other financial responsibilities, but sometimes we just can’t make that happen for various reasons. For now, give the time and talent that you can. Visit our Volunteer Page to learn more about how you can do that. But apparently, from what I am told, some folks give neither time, talent, or treasure. What that means is that somewhere along the line I didn’t fulfill my role as pastor of the flock.

This is one of those things that I was blinded by because it was so obvious to me. And because I feel so strongly that the the Church adds value to my life (let’s be honest, the Church and our Orthodox Faith GIVES value to my life) I couldn’t fathom that this was not the case for everyone in our parish. My wrong and my bad! Twenty five years as a priest - one would have hoped that I would have learned something by now. May God forgive me and grant me humility - the humility to understand one day that not everyone thinks the same things or the same way that I do. I mean, I do hypothetically understand that. But obviously not well enough. May this be the last mistake in this regard for me! Sadly, I doubt that. But one can and must hope as a Christian!

Now we come to the crux of the thing: how do we help people understand the value that the Church provides? Not because we need their money - but because the Church DOES provide value. And people need to understand that value so that they can order their lives correctly. Without this understanding people’s priorities will be completely upside down, and that will hurt their striving for salvation. Maybe people understand that the Church (big C - that is the organization founded by Jesus Christ for our salvation) adds value, but don’t see that same value in the parish? I’m walking through this with you because I am trying to figure it our myself. Sincerely. I don’t get it. I WANT to get it, but I don’t get it. And that is bad. I need to get it, and I need your help to get it so we can fix it together.

Evangelism and Stewardship are two of the main ways that we can measure the quantity of the variable we will call here “value”. Value = “the value the Church/parish provides to each parishioner’s life.” If the variable of value is high in our lives, I would argue, our efforts at Evangelism and Stewardship will also be correspondingly high. And if we see little or no value in the Church/parish, then our efforts at Evangelism and Stewardship will be between low and zero.

This is not a reason for us to despair. In fact - we should rejoice! For the Lord is clearly showing us that we have more work to do in the parish family AND showing us clearly what that work is. We need to help our parishioners see the value that the Church/parish provides them. I can’t improve on the Gospel, so that part (the content of the teaching of the Lord) can’t be changed. All of the scripture actually - I can’t change that of course. Ditto the Councils and Dogma of the Church. That is also way above my pay grade to change, and it would not be Orthodox by any means to attempt to do so. So the value of the Church is set - we can’t change that. And that value is high. It is eternal. It is the most important thing in the world. Through the Church we can gain salvation - and nothing is more important than that.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we have been CONVEYING that value adequately. My guess is that we have in fact fallen short here. We have the cure for death. It is kind of difficult to improve on that! But if we somehow don’t teach our parish family that truth very well then the teacher needs correction - not the content being taught. And that teacher is me. So going forward we will work more on trying to help folks understand the value our Lord Jesus Christ brings to them, along with the Church He founded for the salvation of all. I would be very open to ideas in that regard since clearly what I have been doing has not conveyed adequately to our parishioners what I had hoped it would.

Now on to the parish. The parish is not the same as the Church. The parish is part of the Church, but every parish is a little bit different. Some are a lot different, but I think deviating too far from the norm in this sense just makes us abnormal. So I wouldn’t be very open to radical changes in our parish life. And just so everyone is aware, we are having a clergy retreat in the parish before the end of the year to discuss how we might increase our offering of Divine Services in the parish. I think more Divine Services = more value. But given my recent track record of understanding our parishioners I’m not really trusting myself fully in this area. My “value meter” seems to be kind of broken based on the data we have regarding participation in Stewardship. So please share thoughts with me so I can fix that. A priest has to lead. A priest has to challenge. But a priest has to learn too. And I’m thinking that I need to focus a little bit more on the learning side going forward. Do not worry - I will not stop leading and I will not stop challenging. In fact, I won’t lie - I’ve got a big challenge for all of us: my goal (which has Archbishop Peter’s blessing) is to see us get to the point of having the full cycle of Divine Services at St. Vladimir’s daily. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year. Until the Lord comes again. I don’t think (I HOPE!!) that anyone would say to me: more services = less value. I get it if everyone doesn’t UNDERSTAND the value of the Divine Services (again - my fault if this is the case), but I don’t get it if folks feel that more services actually DETRACT from the value the parish provides them. If that is the case please tell me. I will be happy to talk this through with you. The Divine Services are the theology in action of the Church. If we could hold all services every day and one could attend all services one would never have to open another spiritual book. One who attended all the services would know the theology of the Church, would hear almost the entire Bible read each year, would know the lives of the saints, and would even breathe as an Orthodox Christian - would understand the “fragrance of the Church” as the Holy Fathers write. That is what we were taught in seminary. That is what I have always been taught by my superiors in the faith (bishops and senior priests). I don’t think they were wrong or that they tried to mislead me. As we walk this through I’m coming to the conclusion that here too the problem is not with the actual value the parish provides our faithful, but with the teacher. The value is clearly not being conveyed! And I need help to do this better. So please give me your ideas. We have LOTS of great ideas at St. Vladimir’s - but most remain in your heads. SHARE THOSE IDEAS and I hope that together we can improve on our ability to convey the value of the Church/our parish to our parishioners.

I have been the Secretary of our Diocese for lots of years. I figured it out once. I think it is something like 15 years now. I know most of the parishes and their issues pretty well because of that. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t and obviously I try to apply those things that work and avoid those things that do not work in our parish. And I thought we were doing pretty wellwell. Of course, like all families we have areas where we need to improve. But to find out from our Treasurer that we have many parishioners who do not give at all or entirely irregularly has shaken my paradigm that we are directionally correct in our parish. OK - that is an exaggeration. But it has challenged that paradigm. It seems that we may not be exactly on the right track. And If this is the case: we may need to make adjustments.

But adjustments do not equal blowing the thing up and starting again from scratch. In fact I KNOW (unless we are wildly divergent from every other parish in the diocese, and I do not believe we are that odd) that we are mostly on the right track. Be certain that I believe the scripture is absolutely true in this regard: “Where there is no vision, the people perish...” (Proverbs 29:18) And that I believe that the priest provides the vision as the leader (under the tutelage of the ruling bishop of course). But I am not opposed, and in fact I invite, your advice on tactics on how we accomplish our strategy, or better put, how we live our mission as a parish. Here is our parish Mission Statement as approve by our Parish Council - everyone should know this and act accordingly:

“The mission of St. Vladimir Orthodox Church is to gather Orthodox Christians of all nationalities and backgrounds, as well as all those desiring to embrace the Orthodox Christian Faith, as a parish family for mutual spiritual support and the salvation of our souls. We strive to emulate in our lives, and especially in our parish family, the relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity as the highest and most profound example of love.”

The fact that we have a good number of folks that do not support this mission by not donating time, talent, or treasure means we have work to do. Not that these folks are bad or wrong - no! That we have work to do to help them understand that the Church and the parish add value to their lives and that we should look to ourselves to improve: me first of all.

Help me figure this out! Please contact me. The only stupid ideas are the ones we don’t share. All ideas are welcome! That doesn’t mean we’re going to USE every idea. :) But this is your invitation: help me understand how we can do this better. Because I am absolutely certain that if we can improve on conveying the truths of Orthodox Christianity to those entrusted to us that we will fulfill our mission, our flock will understand the value the Church/parish provides them, and Evangelism and Stewardship will be in full swing in our parish. That is where we need to go if we want to build our school, our new church, and FILL that new church with new people coming to Christ! Everyone is part of the parish family and thus everyone is part of the answer: help me by sharing your thoughts with me. And please pray for me that the Lord will help me to do a better job as your parish priest.

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Crisis Management is Evangelism

Over the course of the last few weeks we have discussed at some length different approaches to Evangelism and our need to really make an effort in this regard. Today we will discuss crisis management (from a spiritual point of view) and how this, perhaps surprisingly, can be an opportunity for Evangelism.

Given: St. Seraphim of Sarov was correct when he said “acquire the spiritual of peace and 1000 around you will be saved.”

Given: Into each person’s life the Lord sends the blessing of a crisis from time to time.

Why call a crisis a blessing?! That just doesn’t make sense to most folks. Crises are BAD. Well - that is one way to think about crises. That is the wrong way, but that is a way we can think. When we say wrong there is good reason for that: a crisis is a reality of life. Most people are only blessed to experience a true crisis a few times in a lifetime. There are those rare people who seem to have a crisis a few times per week, but that is the exception and probably belies other underlying spiritual issues that need to be worked on. That is a topic for another posting. But the main point here is: a crisis is an opportunity. Most of the time we are pretty static with our spiritual lives. We make a bit of an effort and we don’t really regress too much. Sometimes we take a step or two forward. Sometimes a step or two back. But by and large we don’t have much spiritual movement, for lack of a better word. However, in the case of a crisis we have a great opportunity in that we are more spiritually “pliable” then we are at other times. This means we can move closer to God if we choose to, or move further from God if we do not take advantage of the blessed crisis we have been gifted.

There is no reason to seek out crises. And I would argue that doing so is sort of trying to put our will above God’s will. He sees what we need and He knows when to send to us what we need. When we are ready in God’s eyes He allows us to struggle. And if that struggle is on the level of a crisis (what a crisis is varies from person to person of course) we are sort of freed from our static spiritual state and can move closer to God by working with Him during the crisis. A crisis gives us the opportunity to trust God more, to love God more, to more positively affirm that God knows better than we do what is best for our salvation and the salvation of everyone around us. We don’t deny those things outside of a crisis, but we honestly don’t think about them very much either. During a crisis we are faced with a choice - the choice of Job. Curse God and die (spiritually at least), or trust in God’s providence and love for us. If we chose to trust God and to persevere with His help then we will draw nearer to Him. When we complete the crisis we will find ourselves with a stronger faith. Thus we see that every crisis gives us a much needed opportunity: to free us from the fetters of our static spiritual life and potentially move closer to God. That is, if we choose to do that. If we do not embrace the crisis and work closely with God to strengthen our faith, hope, and love in Him, then we will regress. Let us welcome the crises the Lord sends us as opportunities for spiritual growth!

But that isn’t Evangelism is it? If we just grow spiritually in the corner how do help spread the Gospel? The world is replete with crises. Some authentic. Many contrived. Mankind suffers from these crises - seemingly continually moving further from God. There seems to be no exit! The crises keep coming, trumpeted “helpfully” by our mass media, keeping us in a constant state of crisis management. But that kind of crisis management is not management at all - it is rather the kind of crisis management that just makes us lose hope. Is it a grand conspiracy? Who knows? And for that matter, since we can’t really do anything about that, who cares? What we can do is be a good example to the many who are suffering from this tidal wave of crises.

We often discuss how to help families with rambunctious kids participate in worship without driving others out of the temple. But if we really prayed we wouldn’t even notice the kids. That is not to say that the problem doesn’t need to be managed - of course it does. But if we REALLY prayed, we would not be distracted by anything. We all hope to attain to that sort of prayer some day. And the same is true of our continuous societal crises: if we REALLY lived an Orthodox life we wouldn’t even notice these things. We would be focused on Matthew 25, on the Beatitudes, on the Divine Services and all that is offered there for our salvation, and other pious Christian pursuits. But even IF we could live such a life, perhaps the Lord allows us not to attain to such heights so that we can engage our neighbors in their time of crisis and not seem aloof to their suffering. And offer the hope that only comes from a life lived closely to the Lord. To be an example of one who lives in the world but is not consumed by the world. To engage the world where we find it and raise it just a little bit towards the Heavenly Kingdom by our example of peacefulness in the face of the latest crisis the world offers to us to distract us from what is most needful - the pursuit of our salvation.

Is there a grand scheme to distract us from our spiritual lives? Maybe yes and maybe no. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we NOT take the bait. That we not fall into crisis after crisis. That we strive to draw near to the Lord during a true crisis AND outside a time of crisis. That we endeavor to acquire that spirit of peace that St. Seraphim spoke of. Grand scheme or not - this is the path that we must follow. And if we do that - if we make a sincere and honest effort to come closer to God when He blesses that - we will be conducting Evanglism. The world seeks the Lord. The world seeks the peace that only God can grant. The world is in pain. The cure can only be found in the Spiritual Hospital - the Holy Church. We can choose to share that cure through our good example, or we can choose to not share that cure through our poor example. We can be evangelists. Or not. Let us choose to be evangelists! Let us decide now - while we are NOT in a crisis - that the next crisis will find us ready, willing, and able take full advantage of that opportunity to grow closer to God. And when we grow closer to God our friends, neighbors, and loved ones see that. They feel that. They perceive our peace. And they want it. And when that is the case, we can begin to bring them to God’s House. “How do you have such peace in the face of this crisis?” “The Lord helps me - come with me to church this Sunday, or the next, or sometime soon to learn how you can have such peace too.”

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

From Strategy to Tactics - the Next Step in Evangelism


We have talked a lot in the last few weeks about how we need to prepare the parish community to receive new people as part of our Evangelism. It is not that this question is now put to bed permanently, but there is no need to talk about the same thing all the time. In fact, I would argue that it is counter-productive to do so. The first few weeks of this effort to post weekly on Evangelism has been focused mostly on over-arching strategy, rather than tactics. Today I think we should begin to focus a little bit on tactics: actual things that we do to reach our goal of:

1. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

2. “...thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

We are actually doing a lot of things right in this regard already. At least according to the author of the book I am reading now in this regard: “100 Natural Ways to Grow a Church – A Guide to Orthodox Evangelism in North America.” As I work through the book (and I would encourage everyone to pick up a copy – it is a light but informative read and free on Kindle) I am even a little surprised at how much we have already put in place to welcome new people into our community. I am thankful for this and for all who have worked so hard to get these things established. That is not to say we couldn’t do more/do this better. Of course we could. And we must. But we have a VERY good foundation already established. The founders of our parish had excellent vision in this regard! Now it is up to us to keep their efforts in place, to broaden them, to deepen them, and to strengthen them.

So we should look at some ways in which we could do things better than we already are. And maybe at adding a few arrows to our quiver, so to speak. Let’s make a little list:

A. I need help with this project! Our Volunteer Opportunities page has a ton of things that you can do right now to help your parish – ministries that you can be involved in supporting. Evangelism is one of these. Please consider volunteering – we can do A LOT with just a little effort and God’s blessing. And if we don’t care who gets the credit. The point is not who gets the credit – it is how we as a community can best spread the Gospel.

B. It is good that we have pamphlets to hand out to people that visit us. I’d like to up that game a notch and put together a welcome DVD. But that is going to take one or two helpers. In the last few weeks we’ve had some really good response to shooting our video live stream (we have 4 volunteers under the age of 20 doing this ever week now!) and with our Greeters (we are growing the number of Greeters too!). Thank God. But there is much more to do. I think a DVD to hand out to visitors is the logical next step. But we need volunteers to help – please consider whether you could help with this.

C. The Divine Services are key. This last weekend Vladyka Peter was supposed to be with us. He couldn’t come because he was sick. But WOW – what an incredible vigil we had on Saturday night! Full church. Full choir. Everything just beautiful! We need to do this every Saturday! And if we did – I guarantee the present church project would have to scrapped almost immediately because people would be coming to us IN DROVES. Why? Because of our authentic witness to authentic Christianity. The Divine Services are theology in action. We praise God, but we also learn. A lot. People are looking for authenticity. We have it! But we often hide it. We’ve got to stop doing that! And the Liturgy was no slouch either! 80+ for communion. 120+ kissed the cross. We can do this – even when the bishop isn’t there. But we have to want it. We have to be willing to work for it. If we are – our Evangelism will spike. If we aren’t – we’ll keep plodding along but obviously won’t do as well hiding our talents as we would if we actually used them.

That’s it. Short and hopefully to the point this week. Thank God Vladyka has recovered enough to be in Cleveland for their feast day this week (St. Sergius of Radonezh) and in Hiram for theirs (St. John the Theologian). Vladyka has asked me to join him so I am here posting from Ohio. We think we have a date for Vladyka to visit us in November. More to come on that. In the mean time, please think about A, B, C above. We shouldn’t think of Evangelism as some few huge leaps. Maybe it is that sometimes, but mostly it is lots of little things that add up to something great. Like A, B, C above. Maybe your ministry is in those points. I know people are consciously looking for their ministry because I keep talking about this incessantly. Pray about this – and help if you can. And if you can’t – keep looking. And keep praying. The Lord will help you find your ministry if you seek it sincerely and ask His help.

In Christ,

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Worshiping Eucharistic Community is Evangelism

Dear Friends,

On Sunday our sermon was about Evangelism. This is because the Great Commandment was central to the daily gospel reading and it seemed like a good time to address this crucial topic in that venue. You can see the sermon here if you didn’t get a chance to hear it on Sunday:

It is important for us reach out to others via our example of having Christ abiding within us. So first and foremost – we must work on our own salvation if we hope to attract others to Christ. In fact, I would argue, the most important part of Evangelism is not focusing on intake (physically bringing new people into the parish), but on inner life – the inner life of each of our parishioners and the inner life of our parish as a whole. In order for people to STAY once they visit they need to find Christ abiding within. Within each one of us, and within our community. That is not to say we are going to put Evangelism on hold until we get this 100% right! That is to say, we need to spiritually walk and chew gum at the same time – we need to work on ourselves and our community while, AT THE SAME TIME, we are inviting others to join us.

Struggle is central to the Christian life. Success only comes before work in the dictionary. I know people don’t like it when I say that. I’m not sure why. That saying applies to me too. Maybe people don’t like it because it is so true and so contrary to the prevailing winds in our society. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. Whether we like that saying or not it is true and everyone knows it. :) We need to work. We need to struggle spiritually NOT JUST FOR OURSELVES, but for the good of those that we will influence. That is right – salvation is not just about our own reward – it is about how we can bring others to Christ too through our example. Theosis is not something that is ever finished. We don’t transform ourselves into the sons and daughters of God and then take a break for the rest of our lives! We LIVE our faith, hopefully in a more Christian way every day. And that process of struggle is attractive to others. If we invite people to join us and they find a bunch of “perfect people” in the spiritual hospital they are going to be discouraged. “How can I become perfect like these people here?” But thank God – I know that I have a long way to go to get to perfection and I suspect I am not the only one.

So let us struggle for our transfiguration in Christ! And as we do, others will visit the spiritual hospital which is the Holy Church and see that this is a place of struggle, but also of healing imbued with God’s love. For in the spiritual hospital we find the only true healing from the Physician of our Souls, our Lord Jesus Christ. Through our personal struggle we will inspire others to join us in the spiritual hospital. So the point is not that we don’t do Evangelism until we are all perfect – we do it by STRIVING for that perfection. That is the personal side of Evangelism – the seeking of salvation for ourselves, and through that process, helping others with their struggle for salvation.

Let’s now talk a little bit about how we move ourselves closer to the definition of a parish according to the Mission Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. A parish is, according to that document, a worshiping eucharistic community with God as the center and the faithful gathered around God’s altar, helping each other spiritually to attain salvation. For as we’ve said many times: we are saved in community and we perish alone. If then, we are striving to live this definition – EVEN IF WE NEVER PERFECTLY ATTAIN IT – others will want to join us. Why? Because that is what a parish has been since the time of the Apostles. We’re not making stuff up here! We are not doing something new! We are trying to live out the lives that Christians have always lived in community. That is a strategy that has brought new people to Christ by the hundreds and thousands since the Apostles went out to preach! We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here – but we do need to use the wheel that we’ve been given. Odd metaphor, yes, but let’s let it play out and see if it is helpful for us.

1. Worshiping: we do pretty good here by some standards. We serve a lot of services and a lot of folks participate in those services. We could do better however, and we should challenge ourselves in this regard. First – we don’t have nearly enough people who attend the evening services on a regular basis. The Vigil is not for the clergy – it is for the community! And it is the MOST educational of all the Divine Services. If you want to learn about your faith you can learn the most at the Vigil. If you plan to partake of Holy Communion then you NEED to be at the evening services the day before. That is the time to confess – not on Sunday morning. We allow folks to confess on Sunday morning out of economy – we understand that not everyone can get there for Vigil. But can almost no one get there? Not by a long shot. We should not be lazy here – but we are. We must be honest. And as for worthily preparing oneself to partake of Holy Communion, attending the evening services is a crucial piece of this. If you just can’t make it then please join us on our LIVE STREAM. But if you just don’t feel like, or it just isn’t convenient – then push yourself to do it and get there. Vigil is not optional! AND ALSO: we’ve got to do a better job of being to Divine Liturgy on time. I get it – if we started at 8:00 a.m. folks would trickle in. But we start at 10:00 a.m.! You get yourself to work and your kids to school by 8:00 a.m. every weekday. We visibly show that we don’t have God’s house as a high priority in our lives by coming late to Liturgy. Of course that will happen occasionally. But the church is not usually full until half way through the service. How would it work if the clergy came half way through the service? :) Remember: the clergy are not some special class of Christians. We are Christians just like you. Our ministry is mostly worked out in ordained ministry, but that doesn’t mean we are better! We come early to the services and frankly speaking so should everyone else. And if you aren’t there by the time of the reading of the gospel it really isn’t appropriate to partake of Holy Communion. WE DO WELL HERE BY SOME STANDARDS – but we can do better. And in order to really do Evangelism well we need to do better.

2. Eucharistic: we do pretty well here I would have to say. Many people partake of Holy Communion regularly in our parish. Thank God for that! Usually it is about 50% of those present for Divine Liturgy. That is good. But we could do better. Not by expecting those who regularly partake to partake more often, but by expecting those who rarely partake to partake more often. How often we partake of Holy Communion is an intimate question. There is not really a right or a wrong, but we should all strive to partake AT LEAST monthly, if not more often. Many people partake more often – but many partake very rarely. Let us encourage our parishioners to worthily partake of Holy Communion more often so that our witness to those we are evangelizing will be even better than it already is. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (John 6:54-56)

3 Community: we also do pretty well here. But we could do better. Our Greeter Ministry is a mess. We have one poor person struggling to welcome people while trying to take care of her family too. That is just silly! Where are our greeters!? This is the first and simplest piece of Evangelism: welcome visitors. Challenge yourself dear friends! And if greeting isn’t your thing, then pick one or two other ministries that you can help with from this list:

Everyone should have one or two things on this list that they participate in regularly and actively! Our Christian lives are a struggle. Not a struggle to avoid doing our fair share so that others are killed for having to pick up the slack from our laziness. Not that kind of struggle. A struggle to minister to others in the name of Christ. This is how we live out the gospel in our lives – by serving others in the name of Christ. “ For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) If we bear the name of Christ, that is, if we call ourselves “Christians” then we emulate Christ in this way: we minister to others. Our Volunteer Opportunities give you that chance. That crucial part of bringing the Liturgy into our lives outside the Liturgy. We need this! And this is why we give you these opportunities. Yes – we need help to do all that needs to be done as a parish. But YOU need the opportunity to live the gospel message. And when we all do that as a community our Evangelism will be incredibly strong! And when we don’t – our Evangelism will be weak because it will be hollow. Just like telling our kids not to do something and then doing it ourselves. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) WE NEED TO SHOW – TO LIVE – OUR FAITH BY OUR WORKS. The work of living the gospel. Then we will fully be a Community as envisioned by the definition of what a parish is.

There is a financial piece to this too. “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, ...” (I Corinthians 16:2) Supporting the parish is not an option if we want to call ourselves Christians. It has always been the case that those who can support do support. If you are destitute then know that you will find help here. But few of our folks are destitute. It is a matter of priorities – and we speak our priorities very loudly by how we choose to spend the 100% of our income that the Lord has blessed us with. He asks us to give Him back 10% for His House, the Holy Church. We won’t berate the point here. Please have a look at this page to learn more – but please do not forget – part of Evangelism is making sure that God’s House is in good financial order:

Evangelism is sharing the gospel with those who do not know it. But in order to share it we must fully embrace it ourselves. We have many positive aspects of this life in our parish now, but we all need to work on ourselves and our parish in order to be an example to those that we invite and who find us on their own. The news is good: we are moving in the right direction. And the news is good: we still have some struggle to get to where we need to go. And the news is good: if we continue to work on ourselves personally and on our community corporately the Lord will continue to bless us. And the news is good: we all know now that Evangelism is important and that doing nothing is not Evangelism. Doing nothing is not an option. Unless we want a museum for a parish. But I don’t think anyone wants that. I certainly don’t! We are called to be alive in Christ – not to preserve the past for the sake of the past. Museums are important! But parishes that are museums die. That is not why we have joined ourselves to this vibrant Christian Community – our St. Vladimir parish!

Let us thank God that He allows us to progress and that He allows us to continue to struggle! And if any of the words above pricked your conscience: thank God! The priest’s job is to challenge. Why? Because Christianity is a challenge. God’s challenge to us to not just be a good semi-pagan, but to be transformed into His sons and daughters. That takes work and we have to be challenged to do that work. Otherwise we’ll just waste the valuable time the Lord has given in this life – the time He has given us to work out our salvation. This is why we are given life – so that God might share His love with us. Let us put Him first and get to work in that regard. If we do – we’re going to have to redesign that new church – it is going to be WAY TOO SMALL!

In Christ,

Fr. Gregory