Thursday, December 29, 2016

Special Needs Ministry at St. Vladimir's

I have been thinking about this issue for some time. Since I have a child with special needs I am allowed to think about such things. I should think about such things. I am required to think about such things. But as a priest I WANT to think about such things. I need to think about such things. It is my job to think about such things. How can we bring more people to Christ? How can we avoid excluding people from the God's Church? How can we make St. Vladimir's a place that is a spiritual home for those with every kinds of child? This is a big deal. This is a rather large pink elephant in our room, so to speak. And if we are honest with ourselves – we are mostly ignoring this pink elephant. Sometimes if we ignore a problem it will just disappear. Especially pink elephants. At least that is what I often tell myself. It doesn't happen nearly as often as I hope it will. And I don't think there is any way it is going to happen here. We have to address this important issue.

Certainly our first reaction is likely to be something along the lines of “we are not chasing anyone away.” That is true. Undoubtedly true. We ARE a welcoming community. There is no doubt about that. We are welcoming to those like us and those not like us from a social, racial, ethnic, political, and pretty much any other point of view. But not with those who have special needs, mental illness, cognitive challenges, etc. Does this mean we hate them? I have no doubt that we do NOT hate them. Not by any means. But let's be honest with ourselves: we just don't know what to do with these people. Or their children. Or their adult children. We don't know and thus we hope that if we ignore the problem it will solve itself. That is not going to happen. Passivity is not going to ensure anything except that we are excluding many from the Lord's Kingdom. That cannot be. We must affirmatively welcome all – and find a place for all.

It is not easy to deal with people with special needs. It can be scary sometimes, although these folks are very rarely violent. But they are different. They are not like us. And since we have little or no exposure to these kinds of people we don't know what to do. And they can be loud. Or act out. Or fidget. Or not sit still. Or act in any number of ways differently than the expectations we have for our faithful during the solemnity of the Divine Services.

So what do we do? Allow chaos to reign during the Divine Services? That obviously won't work. But can we have some compassion, some understanding, some flexibility? I cannot answer for anyone else. I can say, however, that I feel as the parish priest I need to do more. And I can also say that part of my job as the parish priest is to challenge the parish family to grow spiritually. Thus, I'm going to jump to the next pronoun and state that WE need to do more.

The Lord said: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” You can find that in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5. It is true that He said this in the context of repentance. We have often used the same metaphor as the Holy Fathers: the Church is a Spiritual Hospital. We are all sick. Why is it that we accept some (mostly hidden, often denied) illnesses as OK for church attendance and relegate others to banishment from the temple? The Lord also said: “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.” That is called the Great Commission. We know this as the end of Matthew's gospel. There are related versions of it in Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. We are being called to teach and baptize all. I've read the Great Commission lots of times. It was a pretty important part of my doctoral work, so I've studied it pretty intensely. Nowhere have I read in the Holy Fathers that this can be interpreted as affirmatively excluding those with special needs from the Christian Community.

I don't have the answer here. Well, maybe better put is that the answer is obvious. It is just not clear to me how we get from where we are now to executing the obviously correct answer. We have to have a ministry for those with special needs. It needs to be authentically Orthodox. It needs to integrate all into the Body of Christ. Those are over-arching strategy sort of statements. That is fine – these must be said. But what are the tactics? How do we execute this strategy so that it is effective in every meaning of that word?

Below are a few blog posts that I read in preparation for writing this note. Clearly we have some legitimate arguments about some of the theology stated or implied in these, but they still give us a very good look into concerns of special needs parents and what some other parishes are doing to execute this important ministry. The point here is not to get you to think like a Protestant – the point is to expose you to the reality of those with kids with special needs – and I think these posts do a good job of that in a broadly Christian context.

What are the Stats on Disability & Church

Why Church Is a Burden for Special Needs Parents {And What You Can Do About It}

Why You Should NOT Welcome My Special Needs Child to Your Church

7 Reasons Why Churches Fail Special Needs Kids

I have some tactics I think can work to get us moving in the right direction. But I'm going to reserve sharing those right now. Why? Because I have found over the years here at St. Vladimir's that if I put a problem out there the parish, which is replete with smart people, the parish often comes up with a better solution than I could have ever concocted myself. So I have my ideas. I'm not going to poison the well of good ideas by sharing mine just yet. Will you share yours? Please comment below. Or send an email to info@stvladimiraami.org. I look forward to this conversation and putting together a solid set of tactics that can serve our strategy of establishing a solidly Orthodox Christian ministry for those with special needs and their families.

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Prayers after Meals at St. Vladimir’s

We have developed a somewhat odd habit at St. Vladimir’s. We pray before meals, but not after meals. There is a good reason for this of course. It isn’t that we don’t WANT to pray after meals, it is just that the nature of our meals lends itself to folks leaving at a time that is best for them and their families. That is, there is a clear START to our meals, but there is not a clear FINISH.

Still, it is important for us to pray before and after meals, whether we be at home, at church, or somewhere else. But I think it is especially important for us to model the best practices in this regard at St. Vladimir’s. And so, after 35 years as a parish, I think it is time that we establish the good habit to pray both before and after meals at St. Vladimir’s.

How will we do this you ask? Certainly it is true: folks sort of get up and leave when it makes the best sense for them each Sunday. And that is fine! But we will simply put a little structure into this part of our parish life. About 30 minutes after we bless the food we will say the thanksgiving prayer. And we may find that 45 minutes makes more sense. Or 60. But let’s start by trying 30 and see how that goes. We will only find the right time if you give me feedback though – so please do! It isn’t that I haven’t thought about this in the past. Of course I have. But it never sort of rose to the point of being actionable. Well, one of our young families asked me about our practice and I had to say that we simply are not doing the right thing and we need to. This is what giving feedback can lead to – improving the spiritual life of the entire parish family! So please do give feedback – this will be VERY welcome!

To be clear, just because we say the prayer does not mean that you are expected to leave! You are welcome to stay just as long as you do any other Sunday. It is just that we will pray at some point. This is not the end of the meal – it is just the time of our prayer. So please do not feel any pressure to leave after the prayer!

As with all prayers in English there are many, many translations. None is right or wrong, but we have to use one. So we’ll use this one from the Jordanville Prayer Book:

PRAYER AFTER MEALS

The melody is the Tone 8 Troparion melody – the same as the Kontakion for St. Vladimir (which we all hear just about every Sunday – so we know it). :)

There will be fits and starts here. I will likely forget from time to time. After being here for almost 20 years as a priest and 5 more before that as a student this practice of NOT saying the prayer after meals is pretty well burned into my conscience. But I know you will lovingly remind me if I forget!

Now for the advanced portion: sometimes we will sing this prayer in English and sometimes in Slavonic. Yikes! How will we know which one to use? Simple! If we sing the Lord’s Prayer in Slavonic we will sing the thanksgiving prayer in English. And vise versa too! :) That’s right – we’ll sing the Lord’s Prayer in English sometimes going forward. Don’t worry – we’ll announce which we will use before we start and we’ll try to be as equitable as possible.

Please let me know if you have questions. And please feel free to comment here too.

Fr. Gregory

Friday, December 9, 2016

Why do we accept vandalism in our parish church?

Vandalism might be too strong. When invoking the Vandals one probably has to be a little more precise. We are not talking about widespread destruction and looting. We are really talking more about mischief. Mischief that kids sometimes engage in. I did. I bet you did too. Kids do dumb stuff sometimes. Especially when parents aren’t looking or when other adults don’t step in to a situation because it is not their kid that is engaging in mischief.

Every person on my block knew my name when I was a kid. Every person on my block knew that if they called my parents and told them that I was doing something stupid or dangerous that I was going to hear about it from my parents when I got home and that I was likely going to be punished. And that I would know not to do it again. The reporting adult was not questioned. It was assumed that the adult was telling the truth despite any protestations on my part. We don’t live in that time anymore. I suppose we are all nostalgic for our youth. Even if that nostalgia is in regard to limiting our behavior. We can’t change the fact that those days are gone. Adults have learned to look the other way if it is not their kid. To pretend that it is not happening. To not overstep in trying to correct someone else’s child. Whether I think that is a good idea or not doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: we can’t accept that our children will be allowed to engage in mischief in our parish church. This teaches them disdain for God’s House. And when we get to that point it is time for me, as the Rector, to step in.

But I can’t be in the kitchen during the Vigil. I have to serve or hear confessions while the kids are in there ransacking the place, eating food there without any permission from anyone, and leaving victuals out to feed the mice. And I can’t be in the kiosk area to keep every poster that is put up from having the edges of the paper creased and folded so that something we spent hours preparing is ruined and our parish looks trashy to visitors because we can’t put up a decent flyer. Or to keep pamphlet holders and other things there from being broken. And I can’t patrol the memorial table and the other candle stands that have sand in them during the Divine Services while the kids play in them like sand boxes.

That is just the obvious stuff. That doesn’t even include things like carving in the wood furniture or dripping wax on the floor or the icons.

I get it – no one wants to be scolded by another parent for overstepping their bounds with that person’s kid. But I am telling you now that this is all inappropriate and that it is your Christian duty to step in and say something. You don’t have to (and you should not) punish the child. We are not hereby forming a branch of some secret police force. But children do silly things. Sometimes dumb things. Sometimes destructive things. They are kids. They don’t always think things through. This does not mean they are bad. They are learning. But they will become bad – and disdain the House of God – if we don’t do something about this. That is why we adults have to help them to do the right thing. They need to love God’s House and want to care for it as a Christian obedience – and we get there with some structure and a lot of love.

Here is how this will work. If you see a kid engaging in mischief and the kid’s parent is not around say something. If the kid doesn’t heed your words tell the parent. If the parent doesn’t do anything about it tell me. Easy. This is not a threat to anyone’s parenting. This is not overstepping bounds. This is seeing to it that “... all things be done decently and in order.” (I Corinthians 14:40). Any punishment necessary is at the hands of the parents, as it should be. This is not a call for punishment – this is a call for reasonable structure that will guide kids to the right approach to the parish church as God’s House. God’s House is a sanctified space – it is not just some old building. If kids engage in mischief at school or at someone else’s house you as a parent want to know about it and correct it. SO MUCH THE MORE SO IN GOD’S HOUSE!

Mischief in the church is unacceptable. Ignoring mischief so that a child begins to disdain the church is even more unacceptable. This must end beginning this weekend. People work hard to clean the church. People work hard to prepare flyers. People work hard to donate to the church so that nice things can be purchased to glorify God in His House. If we ignore our children when they engage in mischief we assure that they will never care for God’s House. And we will answer for that. And as your priest I will answer for it more than anyone. And thus, today’s note. Let’s do this with love. Let’s do this with cooperation. But let’s – we must – do this. For the sake our kids and for the sake our own souls.

Fr. Gregory

Monday, November 28, 2016

Sunday Morning Confessions by Appointment Only beginning January 1, 2017

For some years we have struggled with Sunday morning confessions ending on time at 9:45 a.m. It is understood that those who are very ill/infirm, the very young, the very aged, and those who live more than one hour away from St. Vladimir’s almost certainly cannot participate in person in the Vigil (or come to church from 3:00-5:00 p.m. when we have scheduled open time when confession could take place) on Saturday nights and will need to confess on Sunday mornings. However, for as long as anyone can remember, we have struggled to start the Liturgy at 10:00 a.m. sharp due to the need to hear confessions not just after 9:45 a.m., but even after 10:00 a.m. As we have grown as a parish this has become more of an issue. Thus, beginning on Sunday, January 1, 2017, it will be necessary to schedule one’s confession on Sunday morning.

Is the message here that we want less people partaking of Holy Communion? OF COURSE NOT! Ideally every believer should partake of Holy Communion every Sunday having worthily prepared by attending the Vigil the night before, having read the pre-Communion prayers, and having fasted from midnight. But that is not reality and that is fine. Perhaps some day we will attain to that, but that day is not likely to be anytime soon. We want to encourage folks to partake of Holy Communion to the greatest extent possible! But we need everyone to be responsible, to prepare themselves appropriately, and to make this a high priority in their lives.

Let me restate clearly: those who just cannot come to the Vigil service but wish to partake of Holy Communion and who wish to confess on Sunday morning (and who fit the criteria outlined above in this regard) may do so. We are HAPPY to have you do so. But those who don’t fit those criteria will need to reorder their priorities so that they attend Vigil on Saturday nights if they desire to partake of Holy Communion on a given Sunday.

This is not a punishment. We want to be as flexible as we possibly can – we want to help everyone who wishes to partake of Holy Communion to do so. But we can only do so much. And making everyone who has come on time to the Liturgy wait, and making the live audience on Orthodox Christian Network and the others listening to our Live Stream wait, is not reasonable. And so we will change. Everyone hates change. I hate change. But I too am going to put some more “skin into the game” so to speak, since we are going to move the moleben that used to be at the end of the Divine Liturgy to 8:00 a.m. every Sunday. That means I’ll be there about an hour earlier than I am now. That is OK – this is a good thing for me. And that means that there will be time for Proskimide to be served (the preparation of the Holy Gifts that will become Holy Communion during the Divine Liturgy) and still be ready to start Confession at 9:00 a.m. sharp.

Exceptions will be made, of course. But ONLY in the most dire of circumstances. We are not doing this to be mean, or to exercise power, or prove that we can do it. We are doing this because the present system simply doesn’t work for us anymore. Let me be very clear: you can confess at any time during the week during open time. That is 10 hours that I set aside each week so that we can meet for any reason. And that time can certainly be used for confession in preparation for the partaking of Holy Communion on the coming Sunday. Confessions will be held before, during, and after every evening Divine Service during the week, as well as after every Divine Liturgy during the week. If you are at church and would like to confess, but don’t intend to partake of Holy Communion on a given day, after Liturgy is the perfect time to do that. Just let me know you’d like to do that and we can make it happen as a rule.

Certainly some folks are thinking: how will this possibly work? People who do not have an appointment will try to go to Confession on Sunday morning. Or those who have scheduled at 9:00 a.m. will arrive at 9:45 a.m. Indeed – that almost certainly will happen. :) We will post the list of those who have made an appointment on a stanchion in front of the confessional so that that there are no questions about this. And again – if someone is in a dire need to confess and to commune on Sunday that will be allowed of course!

Here is the new schedule that we will follow beginning on Sunday, January 1, 2017:

8:00 a.m.: Moleben to St. Vladimir

  • Asking St. Vladimir's prayers before the Lord for our parish family, our building project, and our school project

9:00 a.m.: Confessions by Appointment

9:45 a.m.: Confessions End

10:00 a.m.: Divine Liturgy

Here are important resources for preparing for Holy Communion:

Schedule a Confession with Fr. Gregory

Preparation for Confession & Holy Communion

Подготовка к принятию Святых Тайн

Please share thoughts and especially concerns with me. Change is not easy. I absolutely acknowledge that and find change difficult myself. But, I do not see another reasonable option. If we all stick together and support each other lovingly – as brothers and sisters in Christ – I believe once we adjust to this new schedule we will all be much happier, since we will KNOW that the Divine Liturgy will start at 10:00 a.m. every Sunday.

I will begin making announcements in Church and on our web site and social media soon. That way everyone – even those who don’t have internet access – will be aware of this change well in advance. Thank you for your support and understanding!

With Love in our Lord Jesus Christ,

Fr. Gregory

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veteran's Day is Today

On the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th hour the "War to end all Wars" ended. Today. 98 years ago. Sadly, that hope of the end of war that was manifest on that day has not yet come to pass. Perhaps it never will. But we should pray for that. Not just on this day - but always. Being thankful is an Orthodox way of life. Today let us be especially thankful for our veterans for their sacrifice on our behalf.

I would like to call to your attention the picture we are including here. We thank all our veterans for their sacrifice. This almost goes without saying. But note the diversity of the soldiers and sailors depicted there. America is a land of immigrants. Sadly, some of the older immigrants are reacting to the newer immigrants in a racist way over the last few days. This is completely inappropriate from an Orthodox Christian point of view and we must speak out strongly against it - openly and with zeal. Racism was condemned by the 1872 Council of Constantinople. We are fully bound by that decision. Not only should Orthodox people not be racists - they simply cannot be. It is theologically impossible:

“We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.” (Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople)

Let us pray for our country - and let us be a shining example of tolerance towards our fellow man - both the "old" immigrants and the "new" immigrants. This is the Orthodox Christian way. This is not to say that we should not have an opinion or weigh in on the immigration policies of our country. As noted previously and recently here - this is not inappropriate. But if we choose to comment our contributions should RAISE the level of discourse, neither falling into racism or the other extreme: disdain for the "lower classes" or the "uneducated" or the "uninformed" that exercised their right to vote in Tuesday's election and may have played a large part in the election of Donald Trump. Both of these extremes are completely inappropriate for an Orthodox Christian. Every human is made in the image of God - no matter his or her color, ethnic background, or for whom he or she voted in this year's election.

As those around us lose their minds in this regard let us keep ours, and let us pray for our country - especially on this day when we remember the sacrifice of our veterans. Their selfless defense of our nation against those that would destroy it should be an example for us in our days. If we can emulate them and their efforts this can unite us as "one nation under God", as it is written in the Pledge of Allegiance. May the Merciful Lord grant it!

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Politics at St. Vladimir’s – our Party is Christ

People will know you are My disciples if you have love one for another. (John 13:35)

Yesterday Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States. Probably just about everyone is a little surprised about that. Be that as it may, if you are a Trump supporter you are happy today. If you are Clinton supporter (or a Trump opponent – these two stances are not necessarily equivalent), or a supporter of another candidate you are not happy today. This is how our system works: one person wins, everyone else loses.
In other words, follow the golden rule. As always...

Donald Trump gave a very magnanimous victory speech early this morning. He said many good words. Hilary Clinton gave a very magnanimous concession speech a bit later this morning. She said many good words. President Obama gave a very magnanimous transition speech this afternoon. He said many good words. Of course those who have lost are hurting. Of course those who won are rejoicing. But our leaders modeled for us the way our system works. Yes, the old adage may be true that you can tell if a politician is lying by whether or not his or her lips are moving. Still, perhaps even despite our basest instincts, we fight to the end, then we extend a hand of friendship and support to our opponents, and we stop the fight. The election is over. We support the winner and facilitate a smooth and peaceful transition of power.

The leaders are done fighting. We need to emulate them. The election is over. We need to stop. We decided at St. Vladimir’s some years ago not to do politics. This was in relation to the Ukrainian crisis. But I don’t remember ever rescinding that call to not do politics in our parish. We have Trump supporters, Clinton supporters, and supporters of other candidates in our parish. But our party is Christ. Elections have repercussions. This will be the case with this election, just as it was with every presidential election that has ever taken place. The President has great power. That is the system we have. But our party is Christ. We have a tradition in America of a vigorous democracy and a zealous press. And this is good. But our party is Christ. This post would have been exactly the same if Clinton would have won rather than Trump. Our party is Christ.

Our parish family is very diverse politically, ethnically, linguistically, and in just about every other way. Posting more about the evils of Trump or the evils of Clinton does nothing now except promote factions within our parish family. This does not advance the party of Christ. The election is over. The leaders are done fighting. We need to emulate them. Now our job is to pray. Just as it would have been if Hilary Clinton would have won, or any of the other candidates. Yes – today we are happy or sad, depending on our politics. But our party is Christ. We must be above the petty politics of the street and react in a Christian way – through prayer. Posting more now, writing more now, arguing more now – this provides heat to arguments, but does it shed light on anything?

This is not to say that we should not hold political feet to the fire. Our country’s ongoing political discourse is important for our republic to function. But if we will participate in this as we go forward: please consider your words in light of your parish family. Will you add heat, or will you shed light? And will you advance the party of Christ, or will you sully His name? The political discourse is not in and of itself sinful, but HOW we participate in it very well might be, if we hurt those we love most – at least those who we SHOULD love most – our parish family with whom we struggle together for our mutual salvation. Remember: we perish alone, we are saved together. If we isolate members of our parish family we make them “alone”, and we will have to answer for our unchristian acts.

To say we don’t do politics in our parish may not really be accurate, because of course most everyone has their political view. Better put, I think we can say: we don’t do politics that hurts our parish family. This is what it means when we say our party is Christ. If we want to say “we don’t do politics” as shorthand for that I think that is just fine. I am not asking you not to have an opinion. I am asking you not to use your opinion to hurt others. To think of others and the bonds within our parish family before you exercise political speech, if you decide to do so. I think that is the Christian way. I hope you will agree with me and act accordingly.


Fr. Gregory

Monday, November 7, 2016

Election Day - Prayers & Votes

Election Day is Tomorrow – Prayers and Votes We do not talk too much in our parish about elections and this is by...

Posted by St. Vladimir Orthodox Church, ROCOR on Monday, November 7, 2016