Faith and Trust

Faith and Trust

Part of the “How Shall I Live?” Series…

Growing up, I loved loved loved math and science! Calculus was one of my favorite classes in high school… please don’t judge me. Anywho, I eventually attended Butler University and graduated from their School of Pharmacy. As I think about my youth, much of it was geared towards learning as much as I could about a particular subject and applying that knowledge.

I, probably like you, want to KNOW. Ambiguity is not my friend, and I appreciate certainty. I love black or white, and struggle with grey. 

And then there’s God. Does He exist? How do I know for sure?

Truth is, we can’t really know. For those of us who tend towards facts, knowledge, scientific proof, reasonable conclusiveness, and the like, this understanding can pose a challenging hurdle. 

When I say that I have faith or believe in God, what I’m really saying is that I trust in God, or I trust that God really exists. It cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that God actually exists. Re-read that last sentence. There’s no black or white, just grey. Yet, even without 100% certainty, I can trust that God exists and live my life in such a way that reflects this trust.

If I believe/trust in God, then what? Is it just a mental exercise or a thought that I have? Certainly, there must be more, something next that would follow. Trusting in something or someone implies that we do or act in a manner that reflects this trust. Simply put, our choices and actions- that which we do- must be in alignment with our trust.

If I say that I believe, then I’ve got to step up to the plate. I can’t say and not do. I can’t tell myself or others, “I trust in God”, and not act accordingly. And it’s how we act, it’s what we do, that will be our subject matter moving forward. So, til next time… how will you live?

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.
How Shall I Live?

How Shall I Live?

A priest posed this question during his sermon recently, “How shall I live?” I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, this is a really good question!”- and I decided to start a blog. How would I answer? Was I paying attention to how I was living, or simply going through the motions? Did I realize that my choices each day- how I spent my time, who I spent it with, what I ate, what I read or watched- might be indicative of what’s important to me?

I found myself thinking about what he asked for the rest of the day. What is my purpose? For whom or for what am I living my life? What do I value? His question really sparked a desire in me to consider how I was living each day.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of possible answers to the question, “How shall I live?” We all know some of the most common answers people might give- for God, for family, for sports, for friends, for entertainment, for power, for wealth, for material possessions, for others, for retirement, for pleasure, for __________.

My three-year old son loves trains. He builds a train track, reassembles it in different configurations, plays with the blue train then switches to the green one, makes train noises, and even just sits and stares at a small, wooden train as he slowly rolls it back and forth. He doesn’t stop to think about how he’s living his life. Not yet. He just likes trains. I have the capacity to think about how I spend my time though. You do too.

Consider it for a moment: How shall I live?

We all face moments in our lives when we wrestle with this question more earnestly, especially connected to faith, our belief in God, and our understanding of who Jesus Christ is and why it might matter. Frankly, it’s just a good question to think about.

In future blog posts, I’ll explore the question “How shall I live?” in a way that is relevant to our lives. I’ll address topics such as faith and God’s existence, the path that He lays out for us, forgiveness, repentance, our ego, feelings, thankfulness, and much  more. My hope is that you and I will both learn something along the way that might help us better answer the question, “How shall I live?”

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.

Coronavirus: A Faith Perspective

Coronavirus: A Faith Perspective

Wash your hands! Buy Clorox wipes! Disinfect! Stay at home! Don’t touch! No hugs! Be safe! Virtual courses and classrooms! Fear, fear, fear! Overwhelmed by the onslaught of information? Not sure what to believe? Not sure what to do? This is serious stuff, all kidding aside…

How does all of this relate to our faith? It most certainly does, by the way.

As Christians, the central message of the gospel is to love our neighbor. No matter what the headline of the day is- Coronavirus, Spring Break, March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day, and the list goes on- nothing takes precedence over our effort, attitudes, care for, and love towards our neighbor.

Wait, you mean I shouldn’t worry about this virus? Let’s be clear, that is not the message being conveyed. We should all be mindful of the latest news about the virus and recommendations from trusted sources, and seek to follow their guidance. Yet, the reality of the matter for Christians is that no virus, nor anything else, should prevent us from actively loving our neighbor. What might this look like practically? 

For all of us, a first step in loving our neighbor includes taking the necessary precautionary measures to ensure that we are not exposed to or continuing the spread of the virus.

Perhaps it means that your classes are cancelled and you have free time. What are you going to do with that free time, or better stated, how will you serve your neighbor(s) with that extra free time? 

Do you know someone who is sick, or immunocompromised, or considered to be more “at-risk”? They likely wouldn’t mind a volunteer going to the grocery for them, running errands, even spending time with them since they likely are greatly reducing time spent in public spaces.

There are many who struggle with loneliness, and no one wants to feel alone. Chances are, with the fear and lifestyle modifications due to this virus, many of us are more likely to feel alone today and in the upcoming weeks, thus what can I do to share time and love with someone who might be struggling?

Prayer, like the one below, is important as well- for those who are sick, for sound discernment, for those who are traveling, and more. Let’s not skip the above though and just pray. Our faith is one of action, and no doubt that God is calling each of us every day to do something which is in service to someone else.

“O God, our help in time of need, look down and have mercy upon us and deliver from the troubles we face. Grant your divine helping grace, and endow us with patience and strength to endure this hardship with faith. I flee for relief and comfort, trusting in your infinite love and compassion, that in due time you will deliver us from this trouble, and turn our distress into comfort. Amen.”

Dn. Marek Simon

Dn. Marek Simon

Executive Director

Dn. Marek is the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is passionate about serving and mentoring young people, helping them explore their faith, and growing the ministry of OCF so that all college students have the opportunity to participate. Dn. Marek lives in the Nashville area with his wife and two children.

6 Qualities of a Great OCF Spiritual Advisor

6 Qualities of a Great OCF Spiritual Advisor

We asked our students what makes for a great spiritual advisor for their chapters, and here’s what they had to say:

Campus ministry is a priority for you.

Perhaps surprisingly, the number one theme among responses was simply being available, dependable, and enthusiastic about OCF. Students want a spiritual advisor who is a constant presence, who is available for counsel, who is consistent in their participation, and who shows up with enthusiasm and passion.

You know what you’re talking about and how to talk about it.

OCFers are seekers. They want to learn, and their desire for knowledge runs the gamut. They want a spiritual advisor who knows the Bible, the Church Fathers, and current events. They want you to see no topic as off-limits, encourage questions, and be bold in giving answers. They want to be in the presence of wisdom and intelligence–but they also want you to be intentional about your pedagogy. They long for discussion that is engaging and focused, and they know that a spiritual advisor who is a good listener and loves to teach will be able to offer them one.

You’re approachable and welcoming.

Unsurprisingly, college students want to connect with their spiritual advisor. They want to be treated respectfully and without judgement. They want to hang out with you, text you, and hear your story. They expect you to relate to their experience and be knowledgeable about college culture and demographics. They’re hoping you’ll find a place for them in your parish. And they want to bring their friends to OCF and know that new people will be welcomed with open arms.

You genuinely care about the students.

To be a great spiritual advisor, campus ministry can’t simply be another to-do on your checklist or approached like a class you must teach without getting to know the students. Students want to experience your love for them. They want a spiritual advisor who exudes kindness, compassion, understanding, gentleness, humility, and patience. One student used the word “nurturing” to describe this quality–they want you to know them and help them grow as if they are your own children.

Your leadership style is collaborative and communicative.

While a few students expected spiritual advisors to be creative event planners, most simply expected servant leadership that allowed for the students to be co-laborers in the ministry of OCF. They want to have input in the direction of their chapter, and they love spiritual advisors who are willing to serve in whatever manner is needed. And to make that happen, they’re hoping you’ll communicate with them regularly and consistently, listening to their ideas and guiding them to strengthen the whole OCF chapter.

Your own spiritual life is authentic.

Finally, college students want a spiritual advisor who is himself working out his own salvation. They want to be in the presence of someone who is prayerful, faithful, honest, discerning, and spiritually wise. They want to have evidence that you practice what you preach and are striving to live an authentic Christian life.

We are so grateful to the many clergy who serve as spiritual advisors on campuses across the United States and Canada, and we hope that having a student perspective on your work will be a reinvigorating reminder that college students are yearning for meaningful, spiritual relationships and that you can offer them precisely that.

So You Want to Join the Student Leadership Board…

So You Want to Join the Student Leadership Board…

Student Leadership Board applications just opened, and we hope you are thinking about applying. Every year, we get lots of questions about the SLB, so we thought we’d help you out as you’re making your decision to apply (but really, you should).

What does the SLB do?

The students who serve on the SLB are the eyes, ears, hands, and feet of the ministry of OCF. You will get an opportunity to improve existing and develop new projects and programs that will impact your peers throughout the year. Ever used There’s a Saint for That? That’s the SLB. Been to a retreat, a College Conference, or a Real Break? The SLB had their hands in that, too. What about Orthodox Awareness Month, the OCF blog, the OCF podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, our social media accounts? Yep, you guessed it. SLB. You can read more specifically about each role on the applications here.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of work. What’s the time commitment?

While we do expect that SLBers will treat their role in OCF similar to an internship, most roles require 1-5 hours per week. There are times during the year when the time commitment is less and a few times when it might be more (especially leading up to or during an event), but this is a general guideline.

So, the SLB just runs OCF? How would I know what to do? Are there any non-students helping?

You are not alone as an SLBer! First off, if you are accepted to the SLB, you will attend free-of-charge the Summer Leadership Institute August 13-18. The first three days are dedicated entirely to preparing the SLB for their roles while the second half of the week will help you explore what it means to be an Orthodox Christian leader with other Orthodox students like you. You will also have mentoring relationships with OCF staff, clergy, and other leaders from major Orthodox ministries to guide you through the year. Finally, you will find that the SLB is like a little family–there to support you in your work on the SLB and your life in general. And, thanks to technology, your peers and mentors are always just a Slack message, video chat, or phone call away.

I’m super-stressed about after graduation. How does being on the SLB prepare me for my future?

In addition to receiving Orthodox leadership training at SLI and being a part of a community of peers and mentors to support you in your personal development, you will find that the work you do for the SLB will prepare you for life after graduation in a number of ways. Past SLBers say that their positions helped them develop and hone skills like time management, event planning, professional communication, conflict resolution, teamwork, and people management. SLBers receive letters of recommendation from the OCF staff not only for Orthodox internships and camping programs, but for jobs in a variety of fields. It’s not uncommon for an SLBer to have more to say in a job interview about their work on the SLB and how it has prepared them for life after college than they have to say about any other aspect of their college career.

Of course, we hope that first and foremost, being on the SLB prepares you for your future by helping you put Christ at the center and as the foundation of your life no matter what life brings you after graduation.

I’m not a theology major, and I don’t plan on working in Church ministry. Is the SLB for me?

YES! While some SLBers have gone on to pursue full-time ministry, many are now working as teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, Peace Corps members, social workers, and more! The SLB relies on a diverse combination of everyone’s unique God-given talents and interests. We need students invested in engineering, business, psychology just as much as those in religious studies. In fact, it’s typical that the majority of our board is not in an academic field related to ministry. We’re looking for Orthodox students with a heart to serve the Lord, no matter what career or academic path you are pursuing.

Are there any areas of study you are looking for on the SLB?

While we are primarily looking for students who love the Lord and are willing to serve, there are a few positions where area of study can be beneficial. For example, graphic design, marketing, and communications majors may want to consider applying to be the Media Student Leader; English, journalism, and communications majors may consider Publications.

I don’t like how OCF is run. Why should I be a part of the SLB if I don’t agree with what they are doing?

We are always trying to prayerfully discern how we can best serve Orthodox students like yourself. We hope that you will apply and bring your perspective, ideas, and energy to the SLB to improve campus ministry for the glory of God.

Can I apply for more than one position?

YES! But you will need to fill out separate applications for each position as they each have their own requirements and expectations.

I’m not even on my own chapter’s executive board. Can I still apply?

YES! In fact, we encourage (but not require) SLBers not to be on their chapter’s executive board during their term on the SLB. It’s a good way to share the responsibilities of OCF and make sure you can manage the SLB role appropriately with your course load.

My school doesn’t have an OCF chapter. Can I still apply?

YES! While Regional Student Leaders require a more intimate knowledge of OCF chapter life, the programming and outreach positions do not. Being on the SLB is a great way to join the OCF community if your local school can’t yet sustain its own chapter (but we’ll try to make that happen while you’re on the board, too).

I’m new to Orthodoxy/just rediscovering my faith. Would the SLB be a good place for me?

YES! We truly believe God often calls us to serve as a means to draw us nearer to Him. Serving on the SLB might be just exactly where you need to be right now.

I’m not perfect. How could I ever represent a ministry of the Church?

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”- 2 Cor 12:9

 

Have more questions? Email us at studentleadership@ocf.net.

The Liturgy Is for You

The Liturgy Is for You

You know how some churches have a sign out front that says, “Come as you are”? I think it’s usually sort of code for, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to dress up.” But really, “come as you are” should mean just this. Come as you are–not only in your external appearance but in the core of your being. How beautiful it is that the Church truly means this when she says it! The Divine Liturgy does not require you to be in a good mood or to be happy with God or for you to completely understand every teaching of the Church or for you to be a “good” person.

But I know how it works. We listen to all sorts of excuses that pass through our minds of why we can’t or won’t or shouldn’t go. Well, to counter those temptations, I’d like to give you some reasons to come, of why the liturgy is for you.

Did something wonderful just happen in your life? Come, rejoice! The liturgy is for you.

Are you having a horrible week? Come, and like the psalmist, ask God, “How long will you forget me, Lord?” The liturgy is for you.

Are you struggling to concentrate during prayer? Come, breath in the incense even if the words rush pass you. The liturgy is for you.

Have you overcome temptation even once this week? Come, give thanks to God for giving you strength. The liturgy is for you.

Are you bearing a heavy cross or a deep fissure in your heart? Come, let your weight be lightened by Christ’s love. The liturgy is for you.

Have you been at church every week? Come, let your heart beat in sync with the rhythm of prayer. The liturgy is for you.

Has it been a long time since you’ve come to worship? Come, let your heart be reformed by the patterns of praise. The liturgy is for you.

Do you feel like you can never be or do enough? Come, to Christ you are precious and beloved, and He desires to make you whole. The liturgy is for you.

Is your life hectic and busy? Come, set aside all earthly cares and just for a moment, enter into the eternity of the Kingdom. The liturgy is for you.

Have you experienced loss and are grieving? Come, Christ joins you in your sorrow and weeps with you at the tomb. The liturgy is for you.

Are you lonely? Come, surround yourself with the great cloud of witnesses, both those who stand before the throne and those who stand beside you. The liturgy is for you.

Are you sick? Come, our Lord comforts and heals the weak in body and spirit. The liturgy is for you.

Don’t really understand what’s going on during the service? Come, for Christ desires all of you, not just your understanding, and in time, He will reveal to you His fullness. The liturgy is for you.

Have you sinned? Come, be reoriented towards the Orient from on High. The liturgy is for you.

I feel as though I could go on forever–there is not one emotional state or level of holiness or amount of intellectual understanding that is required for you to enter into the liturgy. The only requirement is that you are willing to actually face yourself, to let your heart be vulnerable and let Christ’s light reveal the dark corners–that you are willing to walk the journey of repentance and are open to being joined to Christ in love. So come as you are. The liturgy is for you.

Be Bold

Be Bold

Virtue is bold and goodness never fearful. –Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare

No one ever said being a Christian would be easy.

Jesus sets some pretty bold expectations of us in the gospel. He asks us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. He tells us whoever loves his father or mother or sister or brother more than Him is not worthy of the Kingdom. He tells us to lose our life for the sake of finding True Life. He asks Peter to put his trust so fully in Him that Peter is willing to step out of a moving boat and onto the waves of the sea. He tells His disciples (and us) to prepare ourselves, not for an easy life, but for rejection, persecution, humiliation, mockery, and ultimately death.

But sometimes I think we don’t really believe Him.

Image from Ted on Flickr

Sometimes I think we want the bold demands of the gospel to be for somebody else. As if only Abraham is called to leave the comfort of his home or only Elijah has to remain faithful in a faithless generation or only Peter has to trust God and step out of the boat. For the rest of us, rolling out of bed and muddling through five minutes of rote prayer is sufficient, right?

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. -Revelation 3:15-16

And sometimes I feel like we’re perfectly fine being lukewarm about God’s expectations. We’re not losing any sleep at night over whether or not we’re giving ourselves to God like Abraham and Elijah and Peter. Of course, we’d like to be seen by others as pretty ok people, and we’d like to tell ourselves that probably God is fine with us since we’re not doing anything terrible. Or we’re content with where we are spiritually since we’re at least busy–we go to liturgy, help out with a ministry, do service projects–all sorts of tasks that make it so we have no time to pray, read Scripture, speak to the saints, or examine our hearts (I think Jesus had a comment on this once…what was it…these you ought to have done without neglecting the others…yep, that’s it). We tell ourselves we’re giving it all we’ve got even when we know our efforts are rather half-hearted.

I know I spend an awful lot of time trying to convince myself that I really am giving God my everything, but in reality, it’s so obvious how little I am actually offering Him–how unwilling I am to repent, to be vulnerable, to make sacrifices, to take criticism, to stand up for what is good and holy, to bear the burdens of others. It’s very apparent whenever you scratch just the very surface of my life that I’ve made an offering a lot more like Cain than Abel, and I’m just as eager as Cain to get indignant when God demands more from me.

Now, I’m not going to try to guess what Christ is asking of you specifically–whether He’s calling you to sell everything you have to follow Him or to lay down your life for your friends or to drink from the cup He from which He drank–but I will venture to say that He wants so much more of your heart than you have yet given Him. Please, bother to find out. Listen for His voice by reading the Scriptures and being silent before Him in prayer. Take Him seriously when you are given a good thought. Be bold in virtue and fearless in goodness. Like the widow who put in her whole livelihood or the martyrs who were willing to die for the sake of the kingdom, don’t settle with lukewarm.

If you will, you can become all flame. -St. Seraphim of Sarov

Come and See the Empty Tomb

Come and See the Empty Tomb

Image from Ted on Flickr

Image from Ted on Flickr

Last week, we discovered that to respond to the gift of grace, we must ask Jesus to “come and see” the sins that lie within our hearts. And that, as He did with Lazarus, Jesus will call us forth into Life.

Incredibly, the final time we find “come and see” in the gospels, it is again at a tomb. This time, it is at the Lord’s tomb that an angel tells the myrrhbearers, “come and see where He laid” (Mt 28:6). They find not a dead, rotting body, but an empty tomb. They hear from the angel, “He is risen.”

This is the final destination of each disciple of Christ–to follow Christ unto death and to be raised again with Him.

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  –Rm 6:8-11

Once we we have come to Christ, learned who He is, and allowed Him to see our own brokenness, we spend a lifetime crucifying the flesh and its passions (Gal 5:24) so that on the day of judgement, we, too, will rise into eternal Life. We spend our lives becoming dead to sin and alive to God.

It is not an easy path to ascend the Cross, but it is a path that Jesus walked Himself first and which we walk by His strength (Phil 4:13). It is a path which we can have confidence finds its end not in the grave but in the proclamation, “Christ is risen!”

So when we tell someone, “come and see,” I hope we mean more than come and see the artifacts of our faith, the incense and icons and liturgical movements. I hope it is more than a cop-out to having an explanation for who we are as Orthodox Christians. “Come and see” is an invitation to dwell where God dwells, to know Jesus as our Savior, to confess our sins and be healed, and ultimately, to complete the race blameless, entering into eternal Life which comes only from the One Who is risen. It’s an invitation open to all and which we are compelled to share with everyone we can.

But first, we must answer ourselves.

So come and see. Find out where the Lord lives, desire to be in His presence, bring Him your doubts, get to know Him yourself in prayer, let Him see who you really are, confess your sins to Him, and unite yourself to His death and resurrection. Become a disciple of Jesus Christ. Come, dear ones. Come and see.

Come and See the Stench of Death

Come and See the Stench of Death

As we have seen, the first two callings of “come and see” are both directed toward a new disciple. First, to come and see the place where Christ dwells and then to come and see for oneself who He really is. The third “come and see,” however, is different.

As Jesus nears His own crucifixion, His friend Lazarus dies and is laid in a stone tomb. Lazarus’ sisters come to Him, weeping over the death of their brother. They doubt that His presence will do any good at this point because Lazarus has been dead four days and the sweet smell of the spices that were used to anoint his body have worn off revealing the real stench of death. They weep at His feet and reprimand Him for not coming sooner.

Jesus seemingly remains unconcerned as he gets nearer to the tomb, continually reminding Mary and Martha of who He is.

Finally, He asks them, “Where have you laid him?” and they respond, “Lord, come and see.”

The third “come and see” of the gospels is an invitation for the Lord to come and see the wages of sin, to confront the death and corruption that plagues humanity–that plagues each of us.

It is an invitation we must extend to Jesus knowing that we are Lazarus, dead four days and stinking from our own sins within the stone tomb of our harden hearts. Experience (the first come and see) and knowledge (the second) of Christ are gifts of grace, freely offered by Him to those who will receive Him.

What is required of us is to respond.

And we respond by asking Jesus to come and see the sins that bind us like Lazarus in the grave no matter how foul we may think they have become. What is asked of us is that we weep bitterly, like Mary at her brother’s tomb, over the death that is within us.

When they reach the tomb, Jesus, confronted with the death of His friend and the end result of humanity’s fallen state, joins Mary in her lament. And then, incredibly and in spite of the doubts and disgust of the crowd, He asked for the tomb to be opened, and He calls the rotting Lazarus out of the tomb and into Life.

So too it is with our hearts when we truly and honestly invite Jesus to come and see what lies within. He takes away the stony hardness of our hearts, and He does not flinch at the stench of the dead man who lies therein. Instead, He weeps with us, His own heart breaking to know what tragedies we suffer at our own hands, and then He calls forth the real man saying, “Loose him, and let him go,” freeing us from the grave clothes of our the sins which bind us and offering to us True Life in Him.

Come and See that Jesus Is the Messiah

Come and See that Jesus Is the Messiah

Last week we talked about the invitation of Jesus to “come and see” where He lived, and we established that to become a disciple is first to be near to the Lord and experience Him in His own home.

This week, we take a look at what happens right after this first “come and see” calling. Immediately after John’s two disciples spend the evening with Jesus, a Galilean game of telephone begins as Andrew goes to find Peter, and after being called by Jesus, Philip goes to find Nathanael. Andrew declares, “We have found the Messiah,” and Philip says, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Pretty hefty claims.

It’s perhaps not too much of a surprise that the testimony of Philip, no matter how enthusiastic, was not enough to convince Nathanael. He’s not only not convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, but he’s not convinced it is possible for someone that important to come from such a scripturally unimportant (and sometimes disreputable) town like Nazareth.

Amazingly, Philip is not taken aback by Nathanael’s doubts nor does he try to further convince him. He simply tells him, “Come and see.” He is neither offended that Nathanael may not believe him nor is he shaken in his own decision to follow Jesus. It’s as if he says, “You don’t have to believe me. I’m convinced. Come see for yourself and decide.”

As an aside, there’s an important lesson here about evangelism. First, it’s important to notice that “come and see” only follows Philip’s willingness to seek out his friend and boldly declare to him that he has found the Savior. But once he’s given the testimony of his own encounter with the Lord, Philip allows Nathanael the freedom to come and see for himself–or not.

Philip invites Nathanael to get to know Jesus, and Nathanael comes. Though he has heard the testimony of his friend, like Thomas after the resurrection, Nathanael needs to meet Jesus himself.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett. Used with permission.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett. Used with permission.

To meet Jesus and discover experientially that He is the Messiah, the Savior, is essential to becoming a disciple of Christ. No one is made a believer on the testimony of others alone. You have to meet Jesus yourself by coming to Him. And while we may not be able to walk down the road from our shady fig tree to find Him, we can meet Jesus in prayer. Even a tentative or doubt-filled prayer is a vehicle for encountering the Lord. Nathanael probably wasn’t walking down the road actually expecting to meet the Messiah; in fact, he probably thought the end result of his excursion with Philip would end in disappointment, in nothing. But he made the walk anyway just to see. He carried his doubts right to the feet of the Lord.

And when Nathanael got near to Jesus, while he was still a bit down the road, Jesus called out to him, praising him for his righteous doubt and for his willingness to meet Him anyway. He tells Nathanael that He already knows about his doubts because He saw him when he was under the fig tree.

So come. Don’t be afraid to carry your doubts and your questions with you, but come. If with authenticity and honesty you approach Jesus, He will honor you from far off, coming to you and offering you His salvation so that you of your own accord, with Nathanael, can declare, “You are the Son of God.”

Come and See Where the Teacher Dwells

Come and See Where the Teacher Dwells

A new school year means a new theme for OCF!

chalice

We’re centering this year all around these three words, “Come and see.” It’s a challenge to all of us both to follow these three words and to share them with others. We have a few ideas of how you can do that this month and all year round in our Orthodox Awareness Month manual. We hope you check it out and participate.

But what does it really mean to come and see? Toward what are we coming and what will we see? Well, for the next four Wednesdays for Orthodox Awareness Month, we’ll reflect on just that!

St. John points out Jesus to his disciples. Image from Wikimedia Commons

St. John points out Jesus to his disciples. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The first time the phrase “come and see” appears in the Gospel of John is right after John the Baptist calls Jesus twice “the Lamb of God” and says that he saw the Spirit descend from heaven and rest upon Him. A few of John’s disciples must have been intrigued by their master’s deference to his newly-arrived cousin because they decide to follow Him to see where He’s going.

I’m not sure they knew what they were in for when Jesus turned and asked them, “What do you seek?” But by some moment of inspiration, they asked Him where He was staying.

In his homily on this passage, St. John Chrysostom notices

They did not say, “Teach us of Thy doctrines, or some other thing that we need to know”; but what? “Where dwellest Thou?”

It’s an interesting question. Why not ask, “What do you teach?” or “Why does John call you the Lamb of God?” There’s something significant about knowing the place where the Lord lives and then coming to stay with Him in His own home. To come and see where the Teacher dwells is experiential.

This, I think, is why we prefer the invitation “come and see” over long-winded philosophical arguments about the validity of our Orthodox Christian beliefs. We know that Truth is beyond words–it must be experienced before it can be expressed, and no expression will ever do justice to the experience itself. The place to experience God, to simply come and see where He lives, is in the Church. The Church is the place where God’s Heavenly Kingdom is most clearly breaking through into the created realm.

Take the account of the pagan Slavs sent by St. Vladimir to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, for example. Upon returning to their king, the delegates declared

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there.

And it is not just the beauty of the Liturgy and the music and the icons that make known the place where the Lord dwells, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the beauty of Christian hearts being purified by God’s love.

So the first calling of come and see is simply to enter into the place where the Teacher lives, to follow Him and earnestly desire to experience the life of His Kingdom. This is the first step in the making of a disciple of Christ, to seek out where the Lord dwells and then stay with Him a while.

Who Will Take Up the Mantle?

Who Will Take Up the Mantle?

This week we celebrated the feast of the Prophet Elijah, ranked second only to John the Baptist among the prophets. Elijah was a man full of God’s grace who manifested the power of God in his prophetic witness to Israel and the peoples surrounding them. He healed the sick, defeated the priests of Baal through prayer, brought drought and then rain upon the land, and even raised the dead.

At the end of his life, God tells Elijah to find a young man named Elisha to become his successor. When Elijah finds Elisha, he throws him his mantle or cloak as a sign that he is being called to follow in Elijah’s footsteps. And even though Elisha doesn’t quite have the humility or grace yet needed to become a prophet, he devotes himself utterly to Elijah and learns all he can from him.

When Elijah is taken up to heaven in the chariot of fire, he drops his mantle down to Elisha. Elisha picks it up, and immediately it becomes his time to act. Just a few verses later, Elisha heals the bitter waters of Jericho.

On the same day as Elijah, we keep the memory of another great saint, St. Maria of Paris. If you’ve never heard of St. Maria, you should read her short biography, Pearl of Great Price. St. Maria had a complicated journey, one that ultimately found her as a Russian émigré turned nun in Paris serving the destitute Russians and street people. She was fearless and bold in her love for the poor in a manner only grace provides–the same sort of boldness that let Elijah demand that water be poured on his sacrifice before he prayed for it to be consumed by fire–a sort of reckless abandonment to the will of God and His mercy and love toward those who fear Him. Ultimately, St. Maria was imprisoned by the Nazis in WWII for assisting and hiding Jews, and it was there that she died in a gas chamber.

So what does St. Maria of Paris have to do with Elijah and Elisha?

When Elijah dropped his mantle down to the young Elisha as he departed in glory, he passed on more than a fancy cloak. He passed to Elisha his “spirit”–the calling, the grace, and the power that God had given him.

And Elisha, unworthy as he was, picked it up.

Now, St. Maria may not have left behind her monastic veil for us to put on, but she has left behind a legacy that we need to pick up and continue. Who among you will pick up the mantle of St. Maria and ask for a double portion of her spirit to serve the poor, the lonely, and the persecuted?

St. Maria of Paris. Image from Jim Forest on Flickr

St. Maria of Paris. Image from Jim Forest on Flickr

Or how about Fr. Andrés Giron of Guatemala who, before he recently died, stood up to the Guatemalan government on behalf of the native Mayan people? Who among you will continue to stand up for the poor and oppressed as a witness to God’s love?

Or what about Fr. Themi Adamopoulos in Sierra Leone? When one day God calls him into His kingdom, who among you will pick up his mantle to love and care for the lepers and the outcasts?

Who among you will take up the mantle of Archbishop Iakovos who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and stood at his side to proclaim that racial division are not of God and that justice for the oppressed is His will?

Who among you will ask for even a portion of the grace of Archbishop Anastasios of Albania who has improved education, health, social care, and infrastructure for the people of Albania, both Christians and Muslims alike?

Our world may be plagued with wars and hunger and illness and much suffering, but we have been called to be ambassadors for Christ, offering His healing grace and the soothing balm of His love and mercy to all in this hurting world. Let’s not leave the mantles of the great prophets and saints of our own era to lie on the ground gathering dirt.

Go, take one up. Soon our great lovers of mankind will all be called up to heaven, and we will be asked to heal the bitter waters of our world by God’s grace and power.

The Old Testament Canon

The Old Testament Canon

Today we continue to answer the question:

Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?

The canon of the Old Testament is a much more complicated collection than the New Testament. Unlike the New Testament that was written, collected, and pretty much standardized in the course of 300 years, the writing, editing, and collecting of the Old Testament spans at least eight centuries before Christ, and the decision about which texts should be considered canonical varies across Jewish and Christian traditions.

As a much older collection and one that is shared by Jews and Christians alike, explaining the full history of the Old Testament requires much more than a blog post! But probably the most common question you’ll face about the Old Testament is something like,

Why do you have ‘extra’ books in your Bible?

If you’ve never noticed, the Old Testament in your Orthodox Study Bible doesn’t quite match up with other English translations like the NKJV or NIV–it’s longer and the books are in a different order. Here’s why.

In the three centuries preceding Christ, Judea came under the rule of the Greeks and then the Romans. Because of this, many Jews were living outside of Judea and in other parts of the empire and many of them spoke Greek as their primary language. Thus, it became necessary for the Scripture (which, of course, at this time only included the Old Testament and did not yet have a set canon) to be translated from its original Hebrew into Greek.

A page from a 13th Century copy of the LXX. Image from Wikimedia

A page from a 13th Century copy of the LXX. Image from Wikimedia

According to early Jewish and Christian tradition, King Ptolomy II Philadelphus summoned 72 Hebrew scholars and asked them to translate the teachings of Moses into Greek to include in the famous library of Alexandria. The number of translators is what later gave this Greek translation its name–Septuagint being derived from the Latin for “the translation of the seventy”–and is why this version is often abbreviated as LXX.

Of course, modern scholars have all sorts of theories about if this ever happened or which books were translated when, but it is certain that by the time of Christ, the entire Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek and additional texts had been penned in Greek and were circulating alongside the translations.

Most often, when Christ quotes Scripture in the gospels, He uses the Septuagint translations, as do the authors of the epistles. It seems, then, that the LXX was certainly an accepted if not the primary text of the Jews at the time of Jesus.

Thus, the early Christians naturally adopted the Greek LXX, including the later books such as Maccabees and Sirach.

Later, in the 7th to 10th centuries CE, the Jews compiled an authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of their scriptures based on Hebrew-only manuscripts and adjusting for the need to include vowels in the written text. This version of the Old Testament became known as the Masoretic text and did not use the LXX as a basis for its creation. Therefore, it does not include the books originally written in Greek or the portions of certain Old Testament books that were included in the LXX. It also uses a different numbering system for chapters and verses and sometimes orders things differently in certain books.

It is the Masoretic text that Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers preferred for a variety of reasons, and thus, it has become the standard among Protestants for translations into vernacular languages such as English.

So there you have it–while the Protestants only accept as authoritative the Masoretic text of the Middle Ages, the Orthodox (and to some extent, the Catholics) continue to view the older LXX as authoritative while certainly understanding that some books hold more significance than others (for example, we read Isaiah and use it in our hymnology way more than we use Judith). If you never knew this or have only ever read from a Protestant translation into English of the Old Testament, now is a great time to get an Orthodox Study Bible and start reading from the LXX of the ancient Church!

How to Lead a Great Discussion

How to Lead a Great Discussion

Having a great conversation at your meetings is more than just having an interesting topic–it takes real leadership to facilitate discussion and make sure everyone’s voice’s are heard. Here are some pointers on leading discussion!

DSC_0019 (1)The Invisible Facilitator

Facilitators should not try to correct, teach, inform, and dominate in the discussion. The job of the facilitator is to invisibly direct the discussion to where it is fruitful and all participants are given the chance to speak. This takes some self-restraint (you may have something to say to correct someone…DON’T DO IT), humility (even if you know the “answer,” allow people to come to it on their own), patience (there might be some people who try to dominate, or who are long-winded; don’t cut them off immediately, they might just need a little time), discernment (on the same token, if people go on for too long, you need to discern whether it is harming the rest of the discussion, and find a positive, respectful, but abrupt and definitive way to end their commentary) and much more!

Silence Is Golden

It’s easy to be afraid of awkward silences after you have posed a question. You can surely restate the question in a different way if no one seems to connect, but also remember that silences are important in discussions. People need time to think about what was just posed, and asking them to respond immediately after you state a question is unrealistic. A silence, even up to ten seconds long, will enrich your discussion.

It’s All About the Question

Make sure when you ask a question, it is not leading. In other words don’t ask “So don’t you all think that talk/article/passage was all about…” This kind of question isn’t really a question. You want to broaden the possibilities for response. Often there is not just one right answer. Allow for different perspectives by asking something like, “What did you all think when [speaker] talked about…” or “How do you think [topic] relates to our everyday life?”

Manage Personalities

Specifically ask the quieter members what they think of the topic; and, as kindly as possible, rein in the unrelentingly verbal members who don’t let others speak. Make sure every participant has an opportunity to be heard.

Summarize as You Go

After discussing, for instance, different ways that a particular topic is applicable to our everyday life, stop and ask the group, “OK, what have we said so far?” Recap and allow time to breathe, to re-gather thoughts, and start thinking again. This is a very important role that the facilitator takes. In a sense you cannot engage in as much depth as the participants because you have to see a few steps ahead, and discern what the most fruitful avenue will be.

Tie It All Together

When the allotted time for the discussion is up (or when people are tired or ready to go), do a full summary of what you covered. “We said…We agreed that… But some of us disagreed with…and said that…” etc. etc. If you can’t remember everything, that’s OK. But it is good to re-cap most of the discussion in order to see the fruits of your labor.

 

Original by Mike Tishel, adapted by Christina Andresen
How to Read the Bible & Where to Start

How to Read the Bible & Where to Start

Image from Ryk Neethling on Flickr

Just picking up a Bible and committing to read the whole thing can seem an impossible task. Where should you start? How should you make sense of the whole book? Here’s a little bit of advice for getting started:

  1. Everything must be read through the lens of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God is in a sense the beginning and the end of the story of salvation. As Christians, we understand all of the Scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is a good argument for not reading the Bible cover to cover the first time you are getting really acquainted with the Scriptures–the gospels are the primary key to the rest of the Bible (for more on this, see my reading recommendations below).
  2. Everything is not equal. The Bible is not a monolithic document–it contains history, poetry, letters, prophecy, ritual practices, and more. The gospels, for example, are their own genre of literature: neither history nor mythology nor theological teaching, but “the good news.” This means we have to treat different parts of the Bible differently. Now, this isn’t a judgment of validity, but a ranking of importance. The Gospel of John is just always going to be more important to the life of the Church than the Apocalypse of John (Revelation). Psalms will always be read more often than Numbers. The Church uses all of Scripture, but uses the different parts differently, in a manner appropriate to their genre, content, and context.
  3. Everything need not be read literally. Flowing naturally from #1 and #2, allegorical and typological readings of the Old Testament especially are completely the norm in the Church. St. Paul does it in his letters (for example, in Galatians and 1 Corinthians), and the Church Fathers continue this tradition, seeing Christ and salvation through Him as the most important point of interpretation. This has a lot of implications for our understanding of Scripture. For example, we don’t deny any of the “ugly” history of the Old Testament, but we also understand it in a spiritual context and in relationship to the coming of Christ.
  4. There are supposed to be bumpy spots. The Bible is a collection of thousands of years worth of a variety of texts meant to apply to every era, culture, and individual person to encounter it until the Second Coming of Christ. Obviously, then, it’s not exactly the easiest book you’ll ever read. Sometimes, we open it up, and the reading for the day is perfect for what is going on in our lives and draws us closer to God in an obvious way. But sometimes, we can get disheartened when a passage seems difficult to understand or jars us in a negative way. We shouldn’t give up, but should continue to ask God to reveal to us what we need and use the bumpy spots as opportunities to ask questions and learn how to interpret these difficult passages. Which brings me to my last principle…
  5. Interpretation is done through and in the Church. The Bible is the text of the Christian Church, and it is only in the context of the worshiping, Eucharistic, Body of Christ that it can be interpreted. This means we should read the Scripture in the context of a full life in the Church and should go to the Church Fathers and the whole communion of saints to help us understand what we read and how it should be applied to our lives. It also means we shouldn’t be surprised when those who are outside of the Church don’t understand the Scripture or misinterpret it or even try to use it against us. St. Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies warns us that some who are outside of the Church will even try to use Scripture to their own ends and lead people astray with our sacred Scriptures. We shouldn’t be intimidated by anyone using our Scriptures inappropriately, and we should always go to the Church with our questions as we read the Bible ourselves.

So now that we have an idea about how to read Scripture, here are a few suggestions for where to start (these are my personal recommendations):

  1. The Daily Readings: If you aren’t in the habit of reading Scripture at all, a great way to start is by downloading the OCF Connect App and just starting with the daily readings. This will help you not only get used to reading the Bible, but will make sure you are automatically following #1, #2, and #5 above.
  2. The Gospels: If you’re wanting to read the whole Bible, you have to start with the gospels. Start with Mark (it’s the shortest) then Matthew and Luke (which are similar to Mark) then end with John (the theological gospel). Once you have read all four gospels, you’ll have a better foundation for whatever you read next.
  3. The Epistles: After the gospels, I recommend reading through some of the epistles. My college student recommendations are 1 & 2 Timothy (how to be a young Christian leader) and James (faith and works, wealth and poverty, and controlling your tongue).
  4. The Wisdom Literature: If you are looking for a good place to start in the Old Testament, I recommend starting with the wisdom literature. For college students, I always recommend the Wisdom of Sirach (practical advice for young people), Job (how to deal with suffering), and the Psalms (the favorite book of the Church, the Psalms have a prayer for everything).

We also have this list of great resources for starting a Bible Study (on your own or in a group). May your reading of Scripture illumine your heart with the Light of Divine Wisdom.

The New Testament Canon

The New Testament Canon

Why are some books in the Bible while others were excluded and how was that decided?

This is a great question! Today I’m going to address the New Testament canon. Let’s start off with a little bit of context.

By the end of the first century or early in the second century, all of the texts that now make up the New Testament had been written. As early as AD 95 or 96, Clement of Rome alludes to multiple passages in the New Testament, though he does not name them as scripture yet (that is a title still reserved for the Old Testament at this point). In the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles” in his First Apology, and in the famous text Against Heresies of St. Irenaeus (c. 180), the saint firmly proclaims the authority of the four gospels.

At the same time, a number of other texts were circulated amongst the nascent Christian community. There are really two categories of texts outside of the canon of Scripture. First, texts whose teachings were accepted in whole or in part as edifying for the Christian community but ultimately deemed outside of the core texts which became the New Testament, and second, texts that were considered heretical.

Concerning the first category of texts, in the first and second centuries, many these early Christian writings were considered interchangeable with the four Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the catholic epistles. For example, St. Clement of Alexandria considered books such as the Didache and I Clement as part of the canonical list of texts while later in the early fourth century, Eusebius the historian points out that James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Revelation were sometimes disputed as parts of the New Testament.

Early manuscript of 1 & 2 Peter. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Early manuscript of 1 & 2 Peter. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Eventually which books were accepted and which were considered outside of the canon but still useful to Christians sorted itself out. The first full list of the current 27 books of the New Testament that we have is in a Paschal letter of St. Athanasios in 367. However, the Church continued to quote and learn from the letters of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas as well as the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. These works later became known as the works of the Apostolic Fathers, those who were typically one or two generations away from the apostles themselves and shared much of their worldview and theological emphasis.

The second group of texts that were being written and circulating at the same time as the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers were typically texts associated with gnosticism. Gnosticism was not a single heresy but a group of heresies identified generally by the rejection of the material world as evil and created by a lesser, created god (called a demiurge) and salvation as “enlightenment” or freedom from this completely corrupted or even simulated realm. Practices and beliefs amongst gnostics varied widely.

A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons

A schema of the complex system of Aeons in one gnostic tradtion. One can see the use of Christian terminology while also noticing the obvious divergence in belief. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Where things get tricky in the modern mind is that many of the texts associated with gnosticism were attributed to the apostles and used Christian terminology such as “gospel” to describe themselves, and even sometimes quoted Christian texts as justification for their clearly non-Christian beliefs. Unlike the canonical texts, however, most of the gnostic texts were written in the 2nd-4th century after the established circulation of the New Testament gospels. These include such titles as the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Peter, and many others. Unlike some of the Apostolic Fathers, the gnostic texts were rarely included in early lists of the New Testament and were most usually blatantly marked as heretical (for example, by Irenaeus and Eusebius).

Removed from the living Tradition of the Church, the modern era has resurfaced many of these gnostic texts and has presented them as if they are newly-discovered and were kept hidden by early Christian leaders for some nefarious reasons. From inside the ancient Church, we can easily see that line of reasoning for what it is: nonsense. The Church never accepted gnostic teaching or the texts associated with it, and the reason that these texts disappear or become rare and obsolete is because they were not important to the actual practicing Christian community. All one has to do is read a few passages from one of these books to see that the Church very easily discerned their heretical teaching and vastly different worldview.

Thus, those books which were apostolic in origin and central to to the message of salvation were selected to be the main texts of the Christian faith while others were identified as useful to Christians, but not central to life of the Church or as simply heretical. All this is to say that the texts of the New Testament were written, collected, and canonized over the course of the first four hundred years of Christianity, and that ultimately, it was the consensus of the whole Church, voiced through the Fathers and guided by the Holy Spirit, that ultimately determined the canon of the New Testament.

Single and Striving for Holiness

Single and Striving for Holiness

Last week we talked a little bit about marriage, monasticism, and what salvation is actually about. Hopefully, we’ve cleared up the fog a little bit about being single and can all recognize that God is present and calling us in every manner of life. But, if we are to hear and respond to God calling us, we have to recognize the particular struggles and blessings of being single.

Both married people and monastics have a particular calling to reflect the breaking through of the Kingdom of God in this world: the married through their ascetic reunification of male and female in love as a sign of the reunification of all things in Christ and the monastic through their ascetic dedication to purity and the angelic life as a sign of the life in the Kingdom to come. I think single people have a particular calling to reflect the Kingdom through an ascetic commitment to the present moment, reflecting that heaven and earth meet only in the present moment.

Of course, we all are called to love, purity, and meeting God in the now, but I think those who are single have a special opportunity to be an icon of the present to those around them because it is so tempting to sometimes treat being single and on your own like being in the waiting room for life to begin. If we give in to this temptation we can become anxious and worried on the one hand or so carefree on the other that either way, we become spiritually blind to the opportunities to meet God here and now. So here’s a little advice for those of you who are single and striving for holiness, trying to stay grounded and centered in Christ.

Spend More Time in Prayer and Study

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

An amazing way to take advantage of the present moment as a single person is to dedicate yourself to prayer and study. Set aside time to pray, to read Scripture, to read a spiritual book. Don’t miss Liturgy. Make it to weekday services as often as you can. Whether marriage or monasticism lies ahead for you or not, using your time right now to encounter Jesus will not only prepare you for the future, but more importantly, will make sense of the now and bring peace to your everyday.

Start seeing the control you have over your life as a single person as a blessing and an opportunity to form your life around what really matters. Which leads to my next thought.

Serve Your Church and Your Community

OCFers give back at the Fall 2015 WorkDaze

OCFers give back at the Fall 2015 WorkDaze

It’s true that college students and new graduates are busy with classes and adjusting to the adult world, but it is also true that you have a lot of control over how you spend your free time. In addition to prayer and study, make an effort to find opportunities to serve the Church and your community. It shouldn’t be that we wait until we are over 40 to make time for service to the Church (this is a weird trend I’ve noticed in a lot of our parishes).

Why not offer to teach Sunday School, coach a basketball team, serve at the local shelter, join your parish’s service organizations, serve on parish council, offer to update the website, run social media for the parish, or one of the other millions of things your parish could probably use? Call your priest and ask. If you’re part of an OCF chapter, these can be something you offer to do together. If you are a new graduate, it can be a great way to get involved now that you don’t have the automatic community of your OCF chapter.

By getting involved not only will you avoid the demonic temptation of single life that says life is all about me, but you will begin to form a habit of centering your life around the life of the Church. Then, no matter what job opportunities or potential relationships come along, you will have the right foundation for your life.

Look for Opportunities to Sacrifice Your Own Comfort

The number one temptation of being single in my opinion is to become overly-set in one’s own ways and to lose sight of the ascetic, self-sacrificing requirements of love. It can be pretty easy as a single person to get used to a way of living that only takes into account your own needs and desires. It’s a little less tempting if you have roommates because at least then you have to work out the dynamics of living with someone else, but even then, it can be a real struggle.

Thanks be to God, it is in struggle that we see who we really are and how God is calling us to grow. So be aware, and ask yourself often, “Am I living life with blinders on? Am I insisting on my own way in all things or avoiding situations in which I might be asked to compromise and sacrifice? Does all of money go towards making my life comfortable and easy?” If you are praying, studying, and putting service to the Church at the center of your life, it will be pretty easy to find opportunities to live sacrificially–God will put those opportunities in your way.

Build Spiritual Relationships

Everybody needs accountability and support in their life. If you want to do well in class, you go to the professor or to a tutor for help and you study with your peers. If you want to do well in a new job, you rely on your boss and your coworkers to help you get acquainted with the culture and expectations of the workplace.

Students at CCEast 2015

Students at CCEast 2015

Well, unsurprisingly, the same is true in the spiritual life. You need mentors to guide you and set an example and peers to keep you on track. Being single means these relationships don’t come built into the package like they do in a marriage or in a monastery, so you’ll need to make a concerted effort to find the right people for your life. Obviously, your local OCF chapter and your parish are the places to start. Find a spiritual father and other mentors to whom you can go for advice and guidance. Make friends with people you respect and trust with whom you can be honest about yourself.

Building an Orthodox community as a single person will help you in all other aspects of single life: you can support one another in prayer and study, you can serve the Church together, and you can learn to love one another with self-sacrificial love. Perhaps, then, the most important thing to keep in mind is that being single and Orthodox doesn’t and shouldn’t mean being alone.

Marriage, Monasticism, and the Way of Salvation

Marriage, Monasticism, and the Way of Salvation

If marriage is a journey to salvation, what happens to people who stay single and don’t become monks/nuns? What is their journey to salvation?

Many people like to point out that the Church has blessed two “ways of life”: marriage and monasticism. These are the two ways, if you will, that have a definitive beginning through a sacramental initiation and for which the Church prepares us.

But are they the journey of salvation? When we look at the grand story of salvation and the message of the Gospel, is the answer to, “What must I do to be saved?” “Go, get married or join a monastery,” or is it, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me. If you love Me, you will keep my commandments. Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself”?

I think the answer is pretty clear. The way of salvation is the way of the Cross, the journey of self-offering out of love for God and neighbor, of repentance when we fail, and of trust and faith in the grace of the Father which is given to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.  John 14:6

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Galatians 5:24

If anything, then, I think the claim that there are two “blessed” ways in the Church must mean that these are the two ways that are laid before us as obvious crosses which can lead to the crucifixion of our passions and selfish desires. We enter into them sacramentally as the Church recognizes the blessing of the struggle that is to come. But in of themselves, they are not salvific.

And just as fasting or prayer or almsgiving can be outward acts that do not penetrate our hearts and actually help us in the struggle against the flesh (and often become a foundation for pride and judgment of others who do not do as we do), simply being married or tonsured is no guarantee for holiness.

We can have faithless, selfish marriages where we seek only to have our desires met that are no more a blessing to us than adultery and harlotry. We can be prideful, arrogant monastics that look down upon lay people as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God and no more gain salvation than if we were the Pharisee exalting himself on the steps of the temple.

And it can’t possibly be the case that there is no spiritual life outside of marriage and monasticism–that would negate the entire Eucharistic life of a Christian from baptism until deciding to be married or join a monastery. Would we say that every communion, every confession, every prayer, every act of kindness or devotion to God was meaningless in the life of a child simply because they were not married or tonsured? Of course not.

So why do we say it once someone hits the age of 25? Perhaps there is a sense in which as one is no longer under a rule of obedience to one’s parents and has more autonomy, the temptation to live a selfish and passionate life can increase. When the demands of siblings and family obligations diminish, certainly there is more opportunity for the demons to turn our lives inward and less obvious opportunities for acts of self-sacrificial love. But it is important to remember that every season of life has its particular temptations–that doesn’t make the single life devoid of spiritual value; it simply offers the single person an opportunity to recognize his particular temptations and repent when he falls prey to them.

I think talking about single life and also the decision to marry or join a monastery deserve their own posts, so I’ll save the practical advice for later, but for now, let’s set the record straight: the only “way of life” the Church blesses is a life in which we unite ourselves to Christ with self-sacrificial love. There is no other way.

A Firsthand Encounter | CC West Reflection

A Firsthand Encounter | CC West Reflection

Secondhand faith doesn’t get you anywhere.  –Fr. Apostolos Hill, College Conference West 2015

If there was one thing Fr. Apostolos drove home in his keynote addresses at this year’s College Conference West, it was that to witness to Christ, we have to have experienced His presence through the Holy Spirit in our own lives. We can’t merely be witnesses to something we’ve heard about but, like Thomas, must see for ourselves and believe of our own accord. There are no substitutes for knowing Christ ourselves. We will remain mute or, worse, be false witnesses without first encountering the Word to Whom we witness.

CCWest15 Participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon

CCWest15 participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon

But this is what amazes me and inspires me about College Conference West every year. While yes, the students come to learn more about the Orthodox Church, to visit the monastery, and to make new friends while reconnecting with old friends, it seems to me the real reason young people come to College Conference West is to meet Christ. In spite of the challenges the world presents–the denunciations of Christ, the pressure to conform, the temptations of the flesh–every year, a beautiful group of young men and women leave behind this empty and dissatisfying existence to encounter firsthand the One Who Is, the one who is Life Himself.

You can see this in the way the student leaders plan and lead the conference and attend with love and care to the needs of each participant–they are seeking Christ who washes the feet of His disciples.

You can see it in the way students eagerly line up for confession and counsel–they are seeking Christ the Healer of our infirmities.

You can see it in the way they pour out their souls in song in the Nativity Hymn at every meal, the Akathist Glory to God for All Things, and Paraklesis–they are seeking Christ who alone is worthy of our praise.

CCWest15 Paraklesis Service in the new chapel at St. Nicholas Ranch

CCWest15 Paraklesis Service in the new chapel at St. Nicholas Ranch

You can see it in the way they get to know each other, building friendships upon a common foundation, the Church–they are seeking Christ who calls us into His fellowship.

You can see it as they listen attentively to the speakers and ask brilliant questions–they are seeking Christ who is the Wisdom of God.

You can see it as they spontaneously decide to hold a service of forgiveness amongst the whole conference–they are seeking Christ who forgives us all our iniquities.

And most of all, you can see it in the way they strive to love one another even as we reveal our brokenness to one another–they are seeking Christ who is found in our neighbor, the wounded Samaritan.

And they may not know it, but as they seek to encounter Christ in all these beautiful ways, they witness to Him as well. The striving achieves the goal. I thank God every year, and this year perhaps more than others, that I am blessed to be a part of College Conference West. The witness to Christ’s love borne by the students there deeply inspires and humbles me, and for that, proclaim,

Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life…Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age.  -Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”

The What-If Demon

The What-If Demon

If there’s one thing that can be said for the demons, it’s that they are persistent. They never rest from their attempts to get us sidetracked from the Way, and they’re relentless in bombarding us with distractions of every type, anything to keep us from focusing on Christ in our hearts. If we’ve been decently formed by the Church and are earnest in our pursuit of Christ, we’re often quick to notice the big temptations they hurl at us, even if sometimes in our weakness we still fall prey to them. So, of course, the demons get all the more tricky (have you read The Screwtape Letters?), and find ways to worm their way into our hearts and minds disguising their nonsense as “normal” thoughts or even “godly” thoughts.

One of these demons I noticed running around at College Conference this year was what I like to call the “What-If” demon. This annoying beast spends his time making us ask ourselves, “What if this thing I want to have happen never happens in my life?” “What if I had done this one thing differently?” “What am I going to do if some-thing-in-the-future-that-hasn’t-happened-but-could happens to me?” It seems he especially likes to pester young Orthodox Christians with all sorts of what-if’s about dating, relationships, marriage, and monasticism. Illustrative to this point are some of the questions we received from students in our question box:

 

What if we do not come to the realization to be married or enter the monastic life?

What if I don’t know by the time I’m 25 if I should get married or be a monastic? Does that mean I should automatically become a monastic if there is no one I can marry by 25?

Likewise, many young people who do feel called to marriage wonder, “What if I don’t meet the right person? What if I never get married?” Now, this is not to say that it’s not important to answer questions of how one should go about discerning one’s vocation. But the nasty What-If demon twists this necessary and spiritual undertaking into an anxiety-ridden, paralyzing question filling us with guilt, worry, and fear.

The What-If demon does his best to keep us looking anxiously to the future or mulling over the past, and this murky cloud of what-has-been and what-might-be is his greatest weapon. It swirls around us, becoming so encompassing, dark, and ominous that we can’t see clearly–we can’t see the present moment. And it is only in the present moment that we can meet Christ, hear His calling, and answer obediently.

In fact, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters (really, you should read it) says it perfectly. Coaching his nephew on the ways of temptation, the demon Screwtape writes:

The humans live in time, but our Enemy destines them to eternity.  He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him), or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

The present moment is the place where time and eternity meet and where God enters into our lives. In an important way, the present moment is the only moment for the Christian. Do you say “yes” to Christ in this moment with this breath? Are you listening for His call in your heart right now? Can you see Him in the person or situation that’s right in front of you?

We must do battle with the What-If demon as we do with all temptations. First, we have to recognize him for what he is. We can’t confuse his what-if’s with repentance for the past or discernment about the future. Don’t let him convince you that his imaginary situations where he replays your past with anguishing regret are the same as contrition or the images he throws before you with terrorizing anxiety of futures that haven’t happened need to be addressed to find God’s will.

His cloud is just that: a cloud. A cloud that is blown away by the Holy Spirit when we call upon the name of Jesus Christ. And once we have recognized the What-If demon for who he is and called upon Christ to banish him away, we can be free to see clearly the present moment in which Christ dwells.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett. Used with Permission.

Icon by the hand of Dn. Matthew Garrett. Used with Permission.

If the What-If demon becomes too strong in our lives, he can wreak all sorts of havoc on our hearts, giving rise to anxiety, fear, and depression. If he is pulling too strongly, it’s important that we bring to light this struggle in the sacrament of confession. Confession is a time to be open and honest about the demons that pester us, especially when we feel convinced by their nonsense.

And watch out because just as you start to name the What-If demon and try to escape from his distractions, he’ll send in his cousin the Don’t-Repent demon who will try to convince you that you should feel shame for your anxiety, you are helpless, and you don’t deserve God’s love and forgiveness. Don’t listen. He’s lying.

The best thing we can do when we are tempted by the What-If demon is to remember that he is actually powerless as long as we refuse to give him any of our time and energy. When he comes to distract us, instead of letting him drag us away from Christ in the now, we can answer with the Prophet,

Behold, God is my Savior and Lord. I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. I will not be afraid, for the Lord is my glory and my praise. He has become my salvation. –Isaiah 12:2, OSB