Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Ann Arbor Saint - Our Spiritual Responsibility

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

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

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

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

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Divine Services are Evangelism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fr. Gregory

Saturday, November 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

Fr. Gregory

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Value of the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fr. Gregory