Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Back to School Time

In our parish many, many people are heading back to school now. Whether as students, or teachers, or staff, or home schoolers, many of us live our lives around the academic calendar. For someone like me, the son of a professor, this is "normal". I've never known any other way. And this cycle continues for me with my kids in school and as the Dean of our Diocesan Seminary. This is what life is supposed to be as far as I understand, and although I still get a bit anxious every year at this time, I also find myself highly motivated from an academic point of view. Let me take a moment here to congratulate everyone on the beginning of the school year!

But there are many in the world who do not have access to education the way we do here in America. We are spoiled and most of us don't even know it. On one hand this is the public school paradigm, but this goes for those who home school as well. In countries with compulsory education it is somewhat unusual for it to be legal to school one's kids at home, and in Michigan it is a rather novel phenomenon that we have the opportunity to choose home school education for our kids if that is the best choice for our family. Just a few years ago this was not a legal option.

Speaking of home schooling, I do not like the sort of soft but growing divide in our parish between those who send their kids to public school and those who don't. This is something we really need to work on - on both sides of this discussion. Our problem here seems to be that we are quite excellent at critiquing the parenting decisions of others. This is a manifestation of pride and something we really have to address as a parish family. The only family that never makes bad decisions about parenting is my family. When you read that sentence of course you balk - that is simply ridiculous. But if we are honest - isn't that what we really think deep down inside ourselves? That everyone makes less than stellar parenting decisions - except for our own family?

Are the decisions that Liza and I make for our kids "correct" or "right"? Who is to say? Are the decisions that others make for their kids, whether that be regarding education, or bed times, or access to technology, or any other aspect of parenting "right"? For my family maybe the choices of others don't fit well - but the decisions they make might be just right for their family in the context of their personal reality.

There is an old saying: before you judge someone else walk a mile in their shoes - then you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes, so you should safe to judge them then! That is a joke. Sorry - not a very good one. But it conveys a message which we have heard many times as Christians - we are not to judge. Even a cursory reading of the Gospel makes that point very clear - judging is God's to do and not ours. Do others make the same decisions that we do? Of course not - and frankly speaking that is healthy in that only a cult would have everyone thinking and doing everything exactly the same way. But that doesn't mean that the decisions other parents make are wrong, and moreover, and more importantly for our salvation, that doesn't mean that the decisions we make as parents are RIGHT. We really all - each and every one of us - need to humble ourselves in this regard.

Rather than spending a lot of time debating the parenting choices of others I would like to suggest that we pray to the Lord for wisdom for ourselves as parents. And wisdom for the many other parents in our parish that we are tempted to judge. Every time you find yourself tempted to judge, try to push yourself to pray for the person you are judging. At first this is hard. In fact, virtually impossible. We go very easily down the wide path of judging others. But if we can be watchful - and this starts with asking the Lord to help us to be so - make a sincere effort, and critique ourselves at the end of every day regarding how we have dealt with, thought about, and judged others - then we will begin to acquire the beautiful habit of praying for others rather than judging others. Is this easy? Not at all! We have spent YEARS training ourselves to judge others quickly and harshly - almost as a spiritual reflex. It takes time and effort to pull out that spiritual weed that has tapped a very deep root into the garden of our soul. But if we are diligent gardeners - if we make a sincere effort and ask the Lord to bless that effort - then we can have hope that our effort will be fruitful in the end and that weed with its deep root will die. Success only comes before work in the dictionary. In life success only comes after work. So let us get to work! Let us pray for our parish parents, that through their sincere efforts and the Lord's blessing we may raise the next generation of saints. This is our charge - may the Lord grant it!

Fr. Gregory

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fruits of the Festival

The last two days we executed our festival – and we executed it amazingly well! But of course, the festival has been planned and worked on so diligently by so many for so long. Really the planning for this year began during last year’s festival. And that is true this year too – we learned a lot at the festival over the last two days that we can use to make next year’s festival even better!

I want to take a second here, without naming names, to thank those that have been breaking their necks to make this festival happen for all these months. You know who you are if you are in this group. And the Lord knows who you are – which is even more important. These unsung heroes, who sometimes we don’t like at this time of year because they encourage us so strongly and consistently to participate in this incredible missionary activity, have provided an example for us of what a Christian should be: a lover of labor who desires sincerely and zealously the salvation of his or her fellow man. May the Lord reward them for their efforts!

But it isn’t just the leaders of the festival committees that deserve our praise and our thanks – all those who worked so hard these last few days deserve it too! Your heroic and inspiring Christian work ethic made it possible for thousands of our friends and neighbors in Southeast Michigan and beyond to be exposed to Orthodox Christianity in a positive, family-friendly atmosphere! Hundreds and hundreds of people had the chance to visit the church and many asked about coming back to learn more. Baptisms and marriages were planned. And more! This is it – this is why we have the festival! To expose the population around us – those who don’t know who we are and are a little concerned about what we might be doing here – to our faith in a positive, friendly atmosphere. Once fear dissipates (and the festival drives away this fear) we can connect – and people are naturally drawn to the beauty of the True Faith. With God’s help we will have new parishioners join us again this year as a direct result of the festival!

I also want to thank those who did not participate in the festival. We felt your prayers – even if you couldn’t be with us. And that is what a family does – a parish family – we support the family’s efforts in any way we can. And prayer is something – something powerful and real – and your prayers carried us when we didn’t think we could take even one more step or stand for one more minute!

One of the things that we learned from last year’s festival is this: we will have new people in church with us after the festival. Those who are inquiring – who want to learn more about our faith – who are seriously considering joining our parish family and adopting Orthodox Christianity. That is great and something we need to thank God for!

Here is another thing we learned from last year’s festival: if you treat these inquirers rudely they will leave. And they won’t come back, even if the priest sends them emails and letters begging their forgiveness for the inappropriate and unchristian behavior they experienced when visiting us. Let me be clear: it is ridiculous to expect that people who are just starting to come to church will know exactly how to dress, exactly when to stand, how to venerate an icon, and so forth. To be rude to them because of their ignorance is not “teaching” – it is a manifestation of evil. And those who drive others from their salvation will answer to the Lord for this. However, in order to make sure that this year we do not repeat last year’s inappropriate behavior towards newcomers we have instituted a new rule in the parish: if you see anyone doing anything that is not “right” - anything that bothers you so much that you feel you have to say something: STOP! You are not here to teach others. Close your mouth and report this “transgression” to one of the parish council members, or one of the Brotherhood or Sisterhood officers. These leaders will help the newcomer to understand what is expected in a way that is positive, affirming, welcoming, and loving. For the rest of us, our main task is to greet inquirers with a kind smile and a warm word. Below are the Brotherhood and Sisterhood officers for your information.

Head Brother: Konstantin Poplavsky
Treasurer: Vasiliy Golubets

Head Sister: Ksenia Nikulshina
Assistant Head Sisters: Zhanna Skalitzky, Elena Golubets, Irina Verdiyan
Treasurer: Marina Edwards
Assistant Treasurer: Justina Chwastek

If we can do this – if we can resist the temptation to “greet” others in such an unchristian way – then it is very likely they will stay. It is not a guarantee. Orthodox Christianity is a struggle – we all know this. But if we begin with love then the outcome can only be positive. From our festival experience we know that a shared struggle towards a shared goal brings the parish family closer together. The greater struggle – the struggle for our salvation – which we also all share in common can and will and does attract others – for they too want to experience Christ’s love. But if they do not first experience Christ’s love in us they are unlikely to persist long enough to feel it directly themselves. We only have one chance to make a first impression! Let’s us work doubly hard this year to make up for last year’s hiccups in this regard. If we do that, and if we repent as a parish family for our less than stellar performance in this regard last year (which is principally MY FAULT because I did not make this clear enough in the past) we can have great hope that the Lord will again bless us to welcome others to His Church - to His parish that He has entrusted to us!

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Festival Weekend – Our Biggest Missionary Effort of the Year!

Our festival takes place this weekend - in just a few days. Every year we struggle to get folks to pitch in and help. It isn't clear why. If someone could share with me the reasons for their recalcitrance in this regard I would be really appreciative - I need to learn. It seems completely counter-intuitive to me. This is not to scold anyone, but to confess my abject ignorance here: why do we not want to participate in the most important annual parish missionary effort? I am sure there are very good reasons. I just don't understand – but I am willing to learn. And I want to learn so we can make good decisions about the festival going forward.

The first few years of the festival were a bit mixed as far as success goes. Overall we did well, but we were learning, and we made some mistakes too. That is not a criticism - that is just the way we learn. Mistakes help us get to the solution faster and more precisely than we otherwise would. There is really no such thing as failure in an endeavor like this - it is just a matter of getting more quickly and efficiently to success.

Last year the festival was successful by any possible measure. Except perhaps that we weren't ready for so many people! Thousands of people got to meet us, were exposed to Orthodox Christianity in a positive way, and some stayed and are now our regular parishioners. Thank God! This is exactly why we execute the festival each year. And we made money too - although that is a secondary (but not unwelcome) goal, as we always state.

I think our parishioners do understand the necessity for each and every one of us to engage in ministry. We talk about this rather regularly, and the Gospel is quite clear on this. Christ Himself stated that "I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." That is nice King James English and I like it. But another way to put this would be: I came to serve, not to be served. And the obvious corollary is: if we bear the name of Christ - and as Christians we do - we need to emulate Him and to serve others. I don't read a lot of equivocation there in His words - He is rather clear that we are called to serve.

Again - I think folks get this. But I may be wrong. If so - that is on me. It means that I am not doing a good job of conveying one of the basic Gospel precepts. If this is the case I sincerely ask your forgiveness and hope this post will clear things up a bit.

I've thought about this and talked to my wife and a few other folks about this a lot lately. And maybe the issue is that we try to do too much as a parish. As most everyone knows, I struggle with saying no to just about anything, and I tend to be a bit insistent about our parish being an active one. We are active - there is no doubt about that. And that is good. But is there a point of diminishing returns? Do we do too much? Those are more or less rhetorical questions really. Why? Some will read those words and say: YES - of course we do too much! Others will read that and say no - it is important for us to engage as many people as we can in as many ways as we can, along the lines of St. Paul's admonition that we "be all things to all men so that by all means some may be saved." Is there a right answer? I don't think so - it seems to me that it just depends on each person's own personal perspective.

I think it is important to also share something here that isn't a secret, but not something that I always scream from the housetops either: part of my job is to challenge you. If people do not ever feel challenged spiritually then they are never going to grow spiritually. And if the parishioners do not grow spiritually then how will I give any kind of good answer to the Lord? I have to answer for every soul in our parish - this is the vow I took on the day of my ordination. For me then the real struggle is this: where is the sweet spot? How do I spiritually challenge the parish appropriately? Where is the golden middle between driving folks away and facilitating spiritual lethargy?

I cannot say this for certain, but I am pretty sure that if I asked 50 different parishioners to speak absolutely on this subject I would get at least 50 different answers - if not more! This is not me complaining by any means. I am absolutely thrilled to be the Rector of this thriving community! I think our parish is great! But - I must say that I fully subscribe to the philosophy of our first Rector, Fr. Paul Karas. That is, a parish exists, as it were, on a steep slippery hill. It can go forward or slide backwards - but it can never stay in one place. Given this is true, and 20 years of experience on my part and 30 on the part of Fr. Paul indicate pretty strongly that it is, we have to move forward. If we try to stay where we are we will slide backwards. That cannot be our path - that cannot be our future. So we need to move forward! The man question is: how and at what pace do we do this so that we do not lose folks on our climb?

This is not to say that I am not committed to an active parish. I am - unwaveringly. Our activity attracts new people to the faith. Our activity engages our present parishioners in their faith. But our activity challenges us sometimes - sometimes a bit more than we would like to be challenged. However, I am going to propose that this is EXACTLY the time that we need to be challenged - this is exactly the level on which we must be challenged. Not when we are challenged only in our comfort zone (since this is not a real challenge at all), but rather when we are challenged to get out of our comfort zone - when we have to push ourselves a bit. To go above and beyond what we'd really like to do if we had our druthers, and more often than not, to learn that we can really do MUCH more than we thought we could - WHEN WE ASK GOD'S HELP.

You see, brothers and sisters, we are in a constant struggle. A struggle with unseen powers as St. Paul says, yes - most definitely. But also a struggle with something almost as pernicious - our own zeal for comfort, relaxation, and entertainment. This is what our society values. In a word, directed laziness. Thematic sloth. Don't get me wrong - everyone needs some mind candy sometimes. Everyone needs to relax. We can't always be "on". But the opposite is also true: too much mind candy rots the mind, and if we are always "off" we really aren't living at all. And so, the Holy Church, as a loving mother, calls us to action. Action in prayer. Action in spiritual struggle. Action in spiritual reading. Action in participating in the Divine Services. And action in ministering to others - just as our Lord came to minister and not to be ministered unto.

So what is the answer? As with many of the seemingly unanswerable quandaries we are faced with in our lives the answer is prayer. Prayer for discernment. Prayer for wisdom. Prayer for moderation. Prayer for appropriate zeal. Prayer to overcome the oxymoronic zeal for laziness indicative of our society. And prayer for me too - that the Lord will guide me to lead our parish family on the right path - to lead together with the input of our Parish Council and all of you. This is your parish. This is my parish. This is everyone's parish. We are all part of the parish family. If we all pray that the Lord will guide us then we will do well. And we will happily volunteer for the festival. And we will thank the Lord that He has given us an opportunity to do His work, to serve others, and to bring more souls to the calm haven of the Holy Church for their salvation. Let's not be selfish! Let's zealously share the pearl of great price, our Orthodox Christian Faith, with as many people as we can, so that more and more and more people will join us in the Ark of Salvation, the Holy Church. The Lord has entrusted us with this parish - let us work diligently to make it grow and prosper for our own good, and for the good of all who struggle for their salvation here with us now and who will in the future! The festival is one of the best ways we do this - where we can really shine for the Lord. Join me and my family this weekend to do the Lord's work at our festival!

Please sign up now to volunteer at the link below!

Fr. Gregory

Festival Sign Up Sheet

Monday, September 5, 2016

Today is Labor Day - what does that mean to us?

Today marks the civil holiday of Labor Day. On this day we remember those who fought for workers' rights in America and founded the first labor unions to protect workers and organize to collectively negotiate with management to increase workers' pay, increase safety in the work place, and other similar labor advances. Although no doubt there is much debate among our parish family members about the efficacy of unions in our days this is not the point of this post. Rather, it is informative for us to understand that the nascent labor movement practically got its start here in Michigan in the auto plants of Flint and Detroit. There is no doubt that workers' rights – especially safety – were sorely lacking in those days.

As Orthodox Christians we thank God for the life He has given us. We must be lovers of labor and work diligently and sincerely as a Christian duty. This is not to say we should accept abuse – not by any means. But the Lord has kindly arranged the world that we would work for our daily bread. Let us thank God that He has given us this order, and that he has provided us the opportunity to work and to support our families in peace here in America. We are people of hope, people of love, and people of thankfulness. We have much to thank God for as regards our ability to work safely here in America. Today is a day that allows us to concentrate on that thankfulness. Let us take a moment today to do that and not forget that this is not just a day off of work, but a day to thank God for His love and mercy towards us.

On this day we also ended the second annual Diocesan sponsored Walk of Life Pilgrimage in our parish. Again - here we have something to be very thankful for - something we can and should and must thank God for. Was it easy for us to do this - only a few days before our annual festival? Of course not! But there was a need, and the Lord gave us the opportunity to fill that need. Let us all, on this day of reflection on the many things for which we should thank God, thank Him for allowing us to undertake this struggle. Success only comes before work in the dictionary - otherwise work must come before success. Thank you to all who make the pilgrimage possible by your hard work! And may this hard work be an inspiration and an example to others that they too may engage in good works for the glory of God in this short life!

Fr. Gregory