Friday, September 23, 2016

September: Faith Changes Everything

September is perhaps the busiest month of the year outside of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. As most people are aware, ideally the Divine Liturgy is served every day in a parish. However, in most parishes this is not possible, and in fact such a spiritual exploit only takes place in some monasteries and cathedrals in our days in the West. In Russia and Ukraine and other countries with larger numbers of Orthodox Christians this is a less rare practice, but even there, not every parish can serve Liturgy every day. Thus, parish churches in our days usually serve the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days. September is a month chock full of feast days!

The other day I saw a post on Facebook titled: "I think September is Trying to Kill Me". This post had to do with the beginning of the school year, but the point was clear: September is BUSY! And in our parish all the more so, since we host our annual festival this month too. And the last two years we have hosted the Walk of Life in September as well. In addition to Sundays we would normally serve Liturgy in our parish for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, the Church New Year, the Nativity of the Mother of God, the Exaltation of the Cross, and perhaps one or two other feasts (like the feast of Sts. Adrian and Natalia), plus one all-English cycle of Divine Services. WOW - that's a lot. And a struggle. And a challenge. Thank God.

That's right - thank God for September. On one hand it might seem like September is trying to kill us, but in fact, September is helping us to start the Church Year right - to build up some spiritual momentum rather rapidly, and to center us in our faith.

I was at a Board of Directors meeting of the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) this month (since there clearly wasn't enough to do already!) and we had a presentation from a great non-profit that has as its slogan: Water Changes Everything. The group's name is Charity Water. This is a super charity that helps those in developing countries find clean sources of water. Water Changes Everything. Great slogan. So true. So visceral. We can all completely get it. But it got me to thinking. On an every greater level: Faith Changes Everything! We have this faith. This pearl of great price that we are given. This precious gift. But there are so many that don't have it. So many that don't get to "almost get killed by September." Who don't get to experience Great Lent. And so many other spiritual struggles with the potential to bear spiritual fruit.

These are not bad people - these are just people who don't have faith. But Faith Changes Everything. When one finds faith one's life changes. Completely. Not in the way that someone likes peanut butter, but then they find faith and they don't like it anymore. But in the much more important way that the man of faith sees the world differently. He experiences life as a thankful believer, as a man of God. I heard an interview on National Public Radio the other day of a Pastor's son who noted almost in passing that he doesn't have faith anymore - and that he misses it. I felt bad for him. But I also thought - wow - this is something that we MUST avoid in our children.

So we have two things going on here in parallel. First, I would submit that we really need to be very intentional to teach our children (and teach ourselves to the extent that we can - but with God's help all things are possible) to see and experience the world as a person of faith. To filter everything as a Christian. To be thankful, to trust God, and to live as His children. To struggle to transform, and so on. When I heard that radio interview I reflected on my own kids and how we raise them - and how we need to be better at this in our house. I think that sometimes when parents are believers they think the kids will just pick it up by some sort of spiritual osmosis. It doesn't work that way. We have to MODEL what it is to be a Christian adult for our children. It is not our words that matter, unless our actions match those words. I think we all need to pray about this. As a parish. Yes - each family to be sure - but those without children too. We are a parish family - we all need to work on these sorts of things together.

But, as intimated above, there is a second thing going on here too that we have to manage even as we work to help ourselves and our families live intentionally Christ centered lives. As we work to inculcate that love of God within ourselves, we also have to let it shine out. Our Lord taught us to go forth and baptize and teach all nations. Surely He was not excluding our own nation! And a piece of this nation has been allotted to us - we need to do the baptizing and teaching around here. The ideal here is this: that the relationship among our parishioners will emulate the relationship of love that is found in the Holy Trinity. Take a second to ponder that idea. That is a rather high calling! But indeed this is our charge as a parish family. And sometimes we do well. And sometimes we do not. But if we do well we must thank the Lord for helping us to attain even a very small measure of this lofty goal. And if we do poorly we must repent and ask the Lord to help us do better. Forgiveness is an important piece of this struggle - not so much to forgive ourselves (that has a place, but generally we want to be strict with ourselves to try to overcome our temptation to self-justification), but to forgive others. To see ourselves as more at fault than the other (even if the other is clearly at fault). And to similarly live as a community as our Lord called us to: to live in love. And if we do that - then the planned for future St. Vladimir's is going to be WAY too small! Because the love that radiates from our parish family will be so attractive that all will want to participate in that love.

It is true: as a parish we are the largest in the diocese by membership. That is a good thing, but only a very small start. We are a big parish, but we are a mission. How so? Until every friend, loved one, and neighbor has joined us in the Ark of Salvation that is the Holy Church we have work to do. We can't be satisfied with making a cursory effort. We've got to really work! But not by knocking on doors or screaming at people in the streets. No - this is not the Orthodox way and thus it is not the Christian way. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly our work begins with the image we see in the mirror. We must begin with ourselves. To transform ourselves. To sanctify ourselves. And then we work lovingly with our spouse, and our children to this end. And when each and every family shines with God's love, and the parish family as a whole shines with God's love, then those around us will realize: Faith Changes Everything. And they will do everything they can to join us in our faith. And they too will enjoy the next September, and Great Lent, and the yearly liturgical cycle with its feasts and fasts, with its struggles and victories.

Fr. Gregory

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