Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Pandemic of Grumbling

“If you are constantly angry and complaining, it is indicative of a proud soul. Humble yourself, reproach yourself, and the Lord is powerful to give you comfort and a helping hand.” St. Anatoly of Optina (“Living without Hypocrisy”, p. 35)

First, I have to plug this really wonderful book: “Living without Hypocrisy”. If you are thinking about summer reading now, and we hope you are, then please consider picking up a copy of this book. I would argue that this might be one of the most important books you could own if you are seeking guidance towards the Heavenly Kingdom, and I sincerely hope that we are all seeking that!

But this piece is not about books. It is about grumbling. It is interesting that the pandemic has given us many ancillary pandemics besides the medical pandemic. There is the pandemic of self-will that we have talked about on various occasions here and also in church. But there is also the pandemic of complaining. That one seems to have gotten worse as we have gotten closer to the end of the pandemic here in America. I’m not sure why. But the reason is inconsequential. It is the symptom we have to treat. And if we treat the symptom with some diligence and effort we will also cure the disease. And as St. Anatoly points out above: the underlying disease is pride.

Pride is something we all struggle with. This is nothing new.

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

This is only one of 46 instances of the word “pride” being used in the Old Testament according to the King James version. I include this particular quote because I think it is a good one to memorize. This one is good to memorize too:

“God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5)

I think most people will read up to this point and think something along the lines of “I don’t grumble – this is about others and not about me.” If we are going to embrace that delusion then at least let us add to that “...and I hope it helps them!”. But it is probably better not go down the path of delusion. Rather, let’s look at ourselves straight in the mirror and see there the grumbler that we are talking about. Me first – I’m a bad grumbler. I am WAY to soft on myself, WAY to obsessed with my own personal comfort, WAY too focused on me and my wants and “needs” (most of the things I consider needs are really just selfish wants if I am honest about this). Maybe I am projecting my own fallenness on the rest of the parish family. I was pretty certain that was the case. Until I began to hear about this one complaining about that thing in the parish, the other one complaining it is too cold in the barn, the other one complaining it is too hot, the other one complaining about the early liturgy, the other one complaining that the late liturgy has all the sinners attending, etc. Ad naseum. 

We’ve got to understand dear friends, according to the Lord’s own words:

“...we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

That doesn’t mean that the parish is striving to give everyone as much tribulation as we can. But there will be difficulties in our lives. As Christians we have to embrace that reality and decide now: will I grumble as a pagan when there is some tribulation, whatever that may be, or will I accept this humbly as a Christian and let it be for my salvation and God’s glory? Every time things are not just as we want them and we DON’T grumble: we gain treasure in Heaven. And the opposite is true too. When we grumble we feed our pride, which keeps us from God’s Kingdom.

“You do not just suddenly leap into heaven, but you enter it with humility. The worst of all sins is when we are overwhelmed by our pride and our own opinion about everything.” St. Macarius of Optina (“Living without Hypocrisy”, p. 34)

I appeal to you now dear parish family: let us struggle against grumbling! For this is nothing more than a manifestation of pride. And pride will deprive us of the Heavenly Kingdom. Rather, let us trust God that those things we cannot control, like the temperature in the barn, are according to God’s will for our salvation. If we can give these things to God, if we can trust God that He understands what is best for our salvation, then we win. Humility wins. Humility give us the Kingdom (along with repentance, but the humble man is also repentant of his falls). The parish will do the best to make our worship as comfortable as possible during these few weeks until we get to July 1 and all services will then be in the church proper. We are almost at the end! We have almost won the race! Let us not throw away our impending victory as we approach the finish line by our grumbling! We need to learn not to grumble now – the Lord has given us a GREAT OPPORTUNITY in this regard. Is worship in the barn super comfortable? No – it is not. Did our ancestors manage to worship without air conditioning? Yes they did. And many of them attained the Heavenly Kingdom, in large part by not grumbling and accepting that those things they could not control were according to God’s will, and thus best for their salvation.

If we don’t deposit our grumbling ways in the pandemic they will accompany us as we exit. We’ll complain about this or than incessantly – until we complain ourselves right out of the Kingdom. We have a special penchant for grumbling about the weather in Michigan for some reason. It doesn’t matter if it is warm or cold, wet or dry. No matter the weather: we grumble. Perhaps this is where we begin to turn away from grumbling and towards the Heavenly Kingdom? Let us actively curate our thoughts around this weather grumbling and fight it with all our might! If we do that, and we ask the Lord’s help, then His words about tribulation (although being a little uncomfortable about the weather is not really tribulation – but we have to start with “milk” before we can be read to endure the “meat” of tribulation as the martyrs did) will ring true in our ears and drive our actions:

“In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

AND

“In your patience possess ye your souls.” (Luke 21:19)

May the Lord help us not to grumble – about anything – that we may attain His Kingdom!

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Splitting our Parish – Why Speculative Gossip is not Helpful for Salvation

 


Christ is Risen!

Several times in the last few weeks I have heard people say to me something along these lines:

“We must cease the evil early Divine Liturgy because it is splitting our parish!”

Well, no one said “evil”. But that was the clear implication. And it makes the statement both more interesting and more accurate based on what usually came next, a sort of speculative gossip or critique of the early Liturgy by those who do not attend it, but have decided that they want those that do attend it to come back to the late Liturgy. To be clear: no one has said they want the early Liturgy canceled for any other reason than because the complainer wants what the complainer wants. Care for those who attend the early Liturgy has been lacking in each and every one of these interactions. And no one who is complaining – not one person – has talked to those who are attending the early Liturgy to see what they want – why they are attending the early Liturgy. It seems that what they need and what they want are not important – important is only what the complainer wants. 

This is not how we “do” Orthodoxy. God is first. Neighbor is second. We are third. In the waxing poetic about the terrible and horrible parish-splitting early Divine Liturgy we have gotten the last two of these priorities mixed up. We are focusing not on our neighbor and our neighbor’s needs, but on our own selfish needs. The early Divine Liturgy exists to serve those who would not otherwise be able to attend the late Liturgy. Those who attend early have various concerns ranging from Covid, to the petroleum smell in the barn causing migraines, to the peace and quiet at the early Liturgy, and so on. People who attend the early Liturgy are people too, and they have their own concerns.

If we had just one priest we would have one Liturgy. One priest can serve one Liturgy on one altar on one day. That formula is set canonically – this is not a local decision or even a diocesan decision – this is a Church decision. But we are blessed to have two priests. At least we are blessed to have Fr. Joseph. My presence as a blessing is still a bit in dispute…. And that means we can have two Liturgies on Sunday. And that means that we can serve those who would not come to the late Liturgy – no matter their reason. What is interesting is that those that attend the early Liturgy do not say “I feel like I am not part of the parish.” On the contrary, to a person they are thankful that we provide this option for them and they feel MORE a part of the parish. Those who are complaining have decided many thoughts for those who attend the early Liturgy, including that they are not part of the parish.

Let us get our priorities straight. God is first. Neighbor is second. We are third. And let’s think before we speak. If those who feel called to make sweeping generalizations about things they know nothing about continue their speeches in this regard maybe those who attend the early Liturgy really will start to think we don’t love them. But because they are not obsessed with trying to manage other people’s lives, or trying to manage things they are not responsible for, they thankfully don’t seem to feel that way. Perhaps soon the early Liturgy will become the place that those go who do not want to hear such empty words spoken by those that should be mature Orthodox Christians. Only the Lord knows. But as your Rector I answer for the souls of ALL in our parish – not just those that want to attend the early Liturgy or the late Liturgy. And this is exactly why I am writing this post. Let us assume that those who attend the early Liturgy do not have ulterior motives to do evil to our parish family – until they prove otherwise. That is how we live as Orthodox Christians: assume that others are good until they prove they are not. And let us assume that our Rector has at least some sort of plan in his head and has made the parish schedule with the hope to provide the most people possible the greatest access to the Divine Services of the Holy Church – until he proves otherwise. And if he does that, let us pray that the Lord will help him. That is how we live as Orthodox Christians: we pray for those that we see are trying their best, but making decisions we disagree with.

The Parish Council decided at its meeting on May 24 to continue the early Liturgy through the summer to try to better understand the needs of all our parish family members.

LET ME BE CLEAR: your feedback is always welcome! But please reflect on the three main priorities listed above before providing that – this will make your feedback valuable and actionable, rather than just a complaint that you are not getting what makes you happy. The Lord did not become incarnate to make us happy – He became incarnate to provide us a path to the Heavenly Kingdom. Let us emulate Him in valuing salvation about our personal proclivities! This will assure that we care for our neighbor’s salvation even more than ours. In that light, we hope that the silliness about splitting the parish with the early Liturgy can be put to rest and replaced by our collective rejoicing that our brothers and sisters that cannot attend the late Liturgy have the opportunity to participate in the early Liturgy!

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Annual Meeting 2020 Preparation


Our parish annual meeting is set for Sunday, May 3/16, 2021. We moved this a bit later in the year than we usually do it so that we could perhaps hold the meeting outside to cut down on the potential to spread the virus. The weather looks good for Sunday, so that is almost certainly what we will do.

In order to make the meeting go most smoothly we ask you to review the annual meeting reports BEFORE the meeting so that the 5 minutes allotted to each of the reports can be spent asking questions and giving answers, rather than presenting a report. Below are the reports that are already prepared. Please check back here often for additional reports that you can review before the meeting.









MEMBERSHIP REPORT - THIS WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR REVIEW AT THE MEETING



If you would like to ask a question before the meeting you can do so by emailing info@stvladimiraami.org or by visiting this GOOGLE DOC.

Please print off copies of the reports if you would like to have copies to refer to at the annual meeting. Copies of the reports will not be available at the meeting.

Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions - I am always happy to hear from you!

Fr. Gregory

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spiritual Reading During Great Lent

During Great Lent it is the practice of Orthodox Christians to less often engage with secular entertainment. In our days we can count the news media as entertainment, at least broadly, and although we do probably need to have an idea of what is happening in our state, country, and world, it seems like 15-30 minutes per day of consuming the news media is more than enough for us - even outside the fast. Certainly during the fast we wouldn’t want to regularly exceed that moderate limit as a rule. But if we turn off the television and YouTube, what do we do with ourselves?! Of course it is understood that we should be making a concerted effort to be more often at the Divine Services during Great Lent, but even if we attend every Great Lenten service we still have a lot of time left over!

That last little fact, that we spend SO MUCH time engaging in media and entertainment, is probably a good spiritual data point for us. That really is not in line with the life of Christians who came before us, and as Orthodox Christians it is important that we follow the time-tested path to the Heavenly Kingdom that our fathers have trod. So maybe this Great Lent is the beginning of something good for us all? That is, to spend less time locked into media. If we are going to do this, though, we have to find something to do with ourselves! Below are a few suggestions that we might all consider for the great fast – and beyond.

First – silence is a very good teacher. It is good for us to hear the birds outside our window at the time of year. Second – God’s creation is a good teacher. It is good for us to go for a walk, pray, and observe the beauty that the Lord has given us in which to work out our salvation. Third – hungry people are still hungry. Matthew 25 is an action-oriented challenge. Of course – we need to pray for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless. But we also need to take action. With all the extra time on our hands now that we have untangled ourselves from the nets of the media, let us consider doing the Lord’s work more often. Fourth – read more. Much more. Read the scripture. Read spiritual books. Read other things too, of course, but read things in support of Christian values. It makes no sense to turn off the trash on our screens only to open a trashy book. Especially during Great Lent: get started on a spiritual book. And then try to make it your habit to be working on one or two spiritual books all the time. Every day we should read the Gospel reading appointed for that day. We can find that on the calendar that the parish sends to our home annually, on our home page, in Sunday Reading (page 2 – every issue), and other places too. During Great Lent the Gospel is not appointed to be read during the Divine Services except on the weekends. It is good for us to the Old Testament readings of the day. This helps us to follow the cadence of the Church – and little things like this can help strengthen our faith.

I’m reading “The Sunflower” by St. John of Tobolsk now. Actually, he translated and Orthodoxized (this is a new word that I am copyrighting here and now) the book. Just like St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain did with “Unseen Warfare”. These books were authored outside the Church, but these Orthodox saints saw redeeming qualities in them and edited them to be theologically correct. “The Sunflower” has a subtitle: “Confirming the Will of Man to the Will of God”. It seems to me that this is a big part of our Great Lenten struggle. Probably because this is a big part of our human struggle: to conform our will to God’s will. But that is a hard struggle. Because we are proud. And if we are honest, we are very happy to do God’s will – as long as that conforms to our will. But our task is not to conform God’s will to ours – it is to conform our will to God’s. 

St. John of Tobolsk

We have little peace in our lives. And most of that lack of peace comes from the fact that we live upside down lives. If you went around walking on your hands all day with your feet in the air you would have little peace in your worldly life. We aren’t designed to have all the blood in our heads all the time. And we’d look a bit odd too. But we live spiritual lives upside down all day long every day: because we try to get God’s will to conform to our will. And that is why we have little spiritual peace. A book like “The Sunflower” helps to challenge us to stop living upside down. It helps point out where we could do better. It gives practical tips about how we can start, and how we can excel.

We have this book in our library – you can borrow it. You can buy this book in our kiosk. We buy it from Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. You can buy it there too if that is more convenient. In Russian the book is called “Илиотропион”. You can find that:

Here – Full Text

Here – Audio

It is free on Kindle and $3 on Apple Books. If you are reading this in Russia the cost is 250 rubles. It was recently republished by Sretensky Monastery Press.

Spiritual reading is key to our Great Lenten struggle. A book like “The Sunflower” can help a lot – and it seems geared especially to Great Lent. I recommend it highly. But if it doesn’t “hit the spot” do not fear. There are many other things that you can read to edify yourself spiritually. Please ask me or Fr. Joseph about this. We would both be happy to discuss spiritual reading with you and provide recommendations.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Fr. Joseph Towne is Among Us

 We were very happy to have Fr. Moses and his family with us during their time here. And very happy that Archbishop Peter gave them an opportunity to move to Austin, Texas. For those who do not know, the parish there has purchased a new building since Fr. Moses arrived and they will soon be turning this building into a traditional Orthodox Temple. Thank God – it seems that this move was in accordance with God’s will!


And we are very happy to have Fr. Joseph Towne join us now that Fr. Moses and family have moved to Austin. Many of you know Fr. Joseph – after he was ordained a few years ago he spent significant time with us here in Ann Arbor. He then went on to serve in several parishes in our diocese. We needed help in our busy and growing parish after Fr. Moses left, and Fr. Joseph had the flexibility to move to us sinners again and take up a permanent position here. This is a great blessing to our parish! Fr. Joseph likes to serve the Divine Services, and we here are thankful to have frequent Divine Services since they are so helpful in our spiritual formation and the deepening of our parish spiritual life. This makes Fr. Joseph a very good fit for our parish! And Fr. Joseph’s arrival essentially gives us two full-time priests in our parish, which is also a great blessing!


Most of the time priests are either married or monks. But not always. And Fr. Joseph is neither married nor a monk. And this is allowed. If anyone has questions about this I urge you to ask them of me – but there is no need to interrogate Fr. Joseph in this regard. :) He is comfortable with his situation and Archbishop Peter has blessed him to serve in our parish and in our diocese. And thank God for that!

Please join me in welcoming Fr. Joseph to our parish family! It is my hope that he will serve us for many, many years. And I know that he will add great value to our parish family. I am personally very thankful that he has been able to come to us and I very much look forward to working with him for as many years as the Lord gives us in His Vineyard, the Holy Church. 


Fr. Joseph is named after the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, and celebrates his name’s day on the Sunday following the Nativity of the Lord. Please add Fr. Joseph to your prayer list, as I hope you have added me. For we both need your prayers, as do our Deacons and our other clergymen, and we all appreciate your prayerful support!

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Our Faith, the News, and Pandemic Fatigue: Less Bitter Food and More Combs Filled with Honey

I’m tired of Corona virus. Of the quarantines. Of the infection control measures. Of the conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic and the vaccine. Of the selfishness of those that don’t care that the weak are dying and the medical personnel are pushed to the edge of sanity due to impossible work loads and can’t be bothered to inconvenience themselves in any way to help alleviate the medical crisis. Of those that look with disdain at someone who doesn’t wear a mask outside or alone in a car. Of the hyper-politicization of the entire thing. Of the divisions the devil has been able to sew in our society and the response of Orthodox people zealously joining his efforts in dividing humanity into enemies and allies (forgetting the key Christian teaching that there is only one enemy, and he is the one promoting all these divisions). Of those in power that are taking advantage of the crisis to attack those they inexplicably perceive as dangerous (read: those who have faith in New York, California, and other similar jurisdictions). Of those who have faith and act as if faith will magically save them when they violate infection control measures. And just everything about the pandemic generally. I’m tired of the news media on both the left and the right and its apoplectic reaction to those that don’t virtue signal incessantly (both the left and the right have their virtue signals – unless you can signal in both directions at the same time you are going to be castigated as evil and stupid by at least half the media). Of those who dismiss as ignorant extremists anyone who raises even the slightest concern about the long-term health effects of the vaccine. Of the elites that are so out of touch that they don’t understand that the economy is not a hypothetical construct (that is, that real people are really suffering real and serious economic harm because of the pandemic and the quarantines). I’m even tired of writing about it, and not many folks with an English minor ever write “I am tired of writing...” about anything. :) 

But my “I’m done with this – let’s just hold on until it ends and hope the divisions in society and the Church will not be permanent” attitude was pricked a little when I picked up “Unseen Warfare” last night for the first time in years. In fact, once I had the book in my hands I realized that I had never finished it. I probably stopped on Chapter 6 or 7. This is a very important book on the spiritual life for us as Orthodox Christians, although most people don’t know that this book was originally written by a Roman Catholic writer (Lorenzo Scupoli). It was then Orthodoxized, for lack of a better term, by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and then revised again by St. Theophan the Recluse before it was published in Russian. The English version we have is a translation of St. Theophan’s Russian version. Then I got to Chapter 9. And despite my attitude of wanting nothing more to do with the pandemic, having read this chapter, I felt I had to share it, or at least the gist of it, here. Because I think and I hope it will be beneficial for our readers. And maybe help us to step back from our self-constructed barricades and begin to see the “enemies” we have created as those made in God’s image and struggling to attain to His likeness: just like us. We are all scared, cranky, and tired of it all. We have forgotten that we are to strive for moderation and shun extremes. I guess at least I hope reading this chapter will help us to stop making our collective response to the disease worse than the disease itself. Because the disease will eventually go. Whether the fruit of our collaborative efforts with the Evil One towards division will disappear quite as quickly is less clear. But perhaps we can begin to work on that problem now, by being attentive to this spiritual classic.

The title of the chapter is “On protecting the mind from too much useless knowledge and idle curiosity”. What a great title! And the chapter does not disappoint – that is exactly what it covers. It seems to me that this chapter was basically written for our spiritual situation today. Spoiler alert: very few of us reading this blog post will in turn read this chapter and will NOT have our conscience wounded when we see ourselves and our  gluttonous consumption of useless information called out there. One might even argue that social media = useless information. But I leave that equation to you. I only suggest you consider it as a possibility.

You can find the chapter in full here. St. Basil the Great is quoted prominently in this chapter: “Let listening to worldly news be bitter food for you, and let the words of saintly men be as combs filled with honey.” That is beautiful. And something that I wish I read, memorized, and put into action daily starting in March. And it is condemning. At least of me. How perniciously and incessantly our society entices us with the siren’s call of useless knowledge. Or at least it does me. I can’t judge you because only you know you. Well God does too, and probably better than you know yourself, and I guess that is not something we should ignore. So I would like to humbly suggest that this is where we should spend some serious time in the coming weeks:

1. Reading Chapter 9 – likely a couple of times (it is not long, but it is dense)

2. Praying to God to help us to find a more moderate level of consumption of useless information

I don’t say NO consumption of useless information. We probably can’t live completely with no knowledge of the world, what is happening in the world, etc. But we can almost certainly spend significantly less time consuming that information (especially via social medial platforms, which seem to drive us deeper into our own custom-designed rabbit holes with each subsequent article in our feed), and use that time for things that are much more spiritually profitable. Like prayer. And spiritual reading. And participating in the Divine Services. And engaging with our Parish Family. And spending quality time with our own family, if the Lord has so blessed us.

I’m not sure what else should be written here. Probably little or nothing. Less bitter food and more combs filled with honey! May the Lord grant that to us all as we continue our pandemic struggle.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Election Day is Tomorrow - Let us Choose as Christians

The last two weeks Archbishop Peter has asked us to conduct a special moleben at the end of the Sunday Divine Liturgy asking the Lord’s help for our country as we approach election day. Sadly there is much dissension in our country now. It seems to me (and perhaps I am just being romantic, but I don't think so) that Election Day used to be a day when we would celebrate our democracy – our ability to choose our own leaders freely. It seems that this is no longer the case – at least not this year. We still have the ability to choose freely, but the overall tenor of the society is rather negative - not celebratory. 


So our response is to pray – and that is the right response for us as Orthodox Christians. To pray for our nation. And to pray for our vote, for if and when we vote we must vote first as Christians. We have the right to vote – to exercise the free will that the Lord has given us. And just like all instances in which we have the ability to exercise free will we strive to do this as Christians – understanding that we will answer for our choices. That sounds sort of ominous. It is not meant to be scary, but it is also the spiritual reality: the way we live our lives in this life determines our place in the next. So let us all pray and ask the Lord to help us to choose well, to choose in alignment with our faith to the greatest extent possible, and then let us choose. And then – let us again immediately take up the responsibility of praying for our country and our leaders. No matter who those leaders end up being based on our societal choice. St. Paul commands us to pray for our leaders, and he issued that call when the civil authorities were seeking to exterminate Christianity:

"I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (I Timothy 2:1-4)

Obviously we are not in such a situation as the early Christians were, so we all the more have the responsibility to pray. May the Lord bless us all and guide our leaders so that we can firmly establish peace in our society, for that peace makes it much easier for us to work out our salvation - and to help others find their salvation in Christ - than in any other non-peaceful context. This is the point of our prayers. That our leaders would make good choices that lead to peace. May the Lord grant us the zeal for this prayer, and may He grant our leaders to hear His call and facilitate peace in our land and our world!

Fr. Gregory