Saturday, December 28, 2013

Congolese Refugees Become Orthodox Christians!

Family from the Congo joins the St. Luke family

Family from the Congo joins the St. Luke church family

Photos by Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News
Nuru Idris, 4, is baptized Sunday at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene. The Idris family are refugees from Congo, the family of eight all became members of the church in a ceremony of baptisms and chrismations, an anointing of oil for those previously baptized.
Photos by Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News Nuru Idris, 4, is baptized Sunday at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene. The Idris family are refugees from Congo, the family of eight all became members of the church in a ceremony of baptisms and chrismations, an anointing of oil for those previously baptized.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News
The Idris family and their sponsors ceremoniously walk in a circle around the baptismal Sunday at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News The Idris family and their sponsors ceremoniously walk in a circle around the baptismal Sunday at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News
Illunga Idris is anointed with oil after his baptism by Father Philip LeMasters at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene Sunday. The Idris family are refugees from Congo, the family of eight all became members of the church in a ceremony of baptisms and chrismations, which is an anointing of oil for those previously baptized.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News Illunga Idris is anointed with oil after his baptism by Father Philip LeMasters at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene Sunday. The Idris family are refugees from Congo, the family of eight all became members of the church in a ceremony of baptisms and chrismations, which is an anointing of oil for those previously baptized.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News
Augustine Idris, 13, is blessed by Father Philip LeMasters at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene Sunday. The Idris family are refugees from Congo, the family of 8 became members of the church in a ceremony of baptisms and chrismations, an anointing of oil for those previously baptized.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News Augustine Idris, 13, is blessed by Father Philip LeMasters at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene Sunday. The Idris family are refugees from Congo, the family of 8 became members of the church in a ceremony of baptisms and chrismations, an anointing of oil for those previously baptized.
Two-year-old Ziyada, the youngest member of the Idris family, locked her knees when she was placed in the baptismal Sunday at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene. Father Philip LeMasters uses a measuring cup, rather than immersing the child’s head, to perform the rite while Lisa Maikranz holds her hand. Below: LeMasters blesses Augustine Idris, 13.
Two-year-old Ziyada, the youngest member of the Idris family, locked her knees when she was placed in the baptismal Sunday at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene. Father Philip LeMasters uses a measuring cup, rather than immersing the child’s head, to perform the rite while Lisa Maikranz holds her hand. Below: LeMasters blesses Augustine Idris, 13.
Every year, members of St. Luke Orthodox Church adopt a family for Christmas through the International Rescue Committee’s Abilene office.
This year, one of those families turned the tables and adopted St. Luke. On Sunday, just three days before Christmas, all eight members of the Idris family, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were received and/or baptized into the Orthodox Church.
The parents, Ilunga and Maria, don’t speak English. Four of the six children are enrolled in Abilene schools, Lee Elementary and Craig Middle School, and are learning English. The two other children aren’t old enough for school but are learning English from their siblings and people around them.
It doesn’t matter. A spoken language wasn’t necessary for what the family discovered at St. Luke. They connected with the icons in the church, the incense, the gestures such as making the sign of the cross, and the touch of the priest, Philip LeMasters, as he offered a blessing.
Most of all, they connected with the love of the congregation at St. Luke.
“God led us over there,” Ilunga said through an interpreter, James Mpawenayo. “Our heart followed.”
As it turned out, the Idris family didn’t have far to go to St. Luke. They live only a couple of blocks away, but they didn’t know that when they connected with church members a year ago at an Adopt-a-Family Christmas party that the IRC sponsors each year.
The main contact at the church is Lisa Maikranz, who has traveled to Africa and fell in love with the people and culture. She was thrilled when a part of Africa showed up in Abilene. She met the Idris family at the Adopt-a-Family party in 2012, just a month after the family arrived in Abilene.
“When I saw the little ones, I immediately fell in love,” she said.
Maikranz and her husband, Edward, are the primary caregivers for the family. With assistance from the church, they provide necessities and sometimes take family members to doctor’s appointments or other places. The couple also are the godparents for the three girls now that they have been received into the church.
It seemed almost like a Christmas miracle a year ago when the Idris family realized they lived a little over a block from St. Luke, the church that had shown them so much love. Members attended the IRC Christmas party and presented gifts to the Idris family.
“A couple of weeks later, they showed up at our parish,” Maikranz said. “They have not missed a service since.”
A year later, that bond has grown even stronger and now the Idris family and the St. Luke family are one.
That bond made the connection between the Idris family and their new home complete. Through the interpreter, Ilunga said St. Luke has proved to be such a welcoming community of faith that his family is delighted to be a part of it.
“We will be happy to stay there a long, long time,” he said.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!: A Homily for Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 4:4-7
The Gospel According to St. Matthew 2:1-12

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!
            The glorious feast of Christmas is finally here, and what a wonderful and miraculous blessing it is.  For the Eternal Word of God has become a human being, a helpless babe laid in a manger.  Angels sing in His honor.  The lowly shepherds and the foreign wise men worship Him.  A young virgin becomes a mother, not simply of a Son, but of the Son of God.   And kings tremble, for this baby brings to earth a Kingdom not of this world.
            The good news is that Jesus Christ is born this day, not to judge or to destroy us, but to save and bless us.  He is the Second Adam in Whom the corruption of the first Adam is healed.  By becoming one of us, He brings us into the life of God.  We are made holy, we are fulfilled, we are raised to life eternal in Him.
            Our Lord brings His great joy to the world humbly and peaceably.  He does not arrive in the earthly splendor of a king, with the military power of a conquering general, or in the material comfort of the rich. Instead, He takes the lowest, most vulnerable place for Himself:  born in a cave used as a barn to a family that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the cruelty of Herod.  Soon Joseph would take the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt by night, fleeing for their lives from a wicked, murderous king.       What a difficult, lowly way to come into a dark and dangerous world.
            But when we pause to consider the glory of our Lord’s Incarnation, we shouldn’t be surprised at all.  For what does it mean for the Immortal One to put on mortality?  What does it mean for the One Who spoke the world into existence to become part of that creation?  What does it mean for the King of the universe to become subject to the kings of the world?  Let’s be clear: it means humility and selfless, suffering love that are beyond what we can understand.  For our Lord, God, and Savior is not a rational concept to be defined, but a Person whose life we are to share.   And so that we could share in His life, He entered into ours, sanctifying every bit of the human experience, every bit of our life, literally from the womb to the tomb that could not contain Him.
            The wise men and the shepherds show us how to respond to the unbelievably good news that God has become a human being:  they worship Him.  Let us follow their example this Christmas season by worshiping Him with our lives, by opening ourselves to the glorious transformation that the Incarnate Son of God has brought to us.  For Christ is born, and the peace and joy of God’s kingdom are ours even as we live and breathe in this world.  Christ is born, and we encounter Him in every human being, especially the poor, needy, weak, and outcast.  Christ is born, and we are made participants in the eternal life for which we were created.
            Yes, this wonderful news really is true.  And the only limits on the blessing of Christmas are those that we place on ourselves.  For the One Who comes as a humble, meek, peaceable baby in a manger never forces us or anyone else.  He is the Mystery of Love made flesh for our salvation.
            This Christmas, let us be like Mary the Theotokos who received Him with joy, like the elder Joseph His steadfast protector, and like the strange combination of shepherds and Persian astrologers who first worshiped Him.  Let us welcome Him into our life, for He has already brought us into His.
Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Advent is a Time to Accept the Invitation to the God's Great Banquet in Jesus Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers in the Orthodox Church

                                                                     Luke 14:16-24
     Today is the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, when we commemorate all those in the Old Testament who foretold or prefigured the coming of Christ, from our first father Adam to the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. We remember today that the Incarnation of our Lord did not simply occur one day out of the blue, but was the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan to bring humanity into His divine life. No one was forced, of course, to prepare for our Lord’s coming. Today we honor those who responded in freedom to God’s calling, who accepted His invitation to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. And in this season of Advent, we want to be like them, which is sometimes a struggle. For we all face powerful temptations to excuse ourselves from the blessing and joy of the Kingdom.

     Today’s gospel text reminds us of what is at stake. For when a great man invited people to a great feast, they all had better things to do. They turned down the invitation because they had land to inspect, oxen to test, or family responsibilities. So their places at the banquet were taken by the most unlikely of party guests: the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame. Strangers from the highways and hedges came to the celebration, but none of those who were originally invited tasted of the supper.

     The Lord often used the image of a great feast for the Kingdom of God. This parable reminds us that many of Jesus Christ’s own people, the Jews, refused to accept Him as the Messiah, refused to accept His salvation, while many of the Gentiles—the mostly unlikely people—did accept Him. But we would miss the meaning of this passage for us if we think that it refers simply to what happened long ago to other people. For we too have been invited to the Heavenly Banquet, to the life of the Kingdom of God. And unlike the people of the Old Testament, we have more than the Law and the Prophets to foreshadow the coming of Christ. We have Him, living in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit; nourishing our souls with His Body and Blood; we are members of His Body, the Church; He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride. The Incarnation has already occurred. Christ has united our fallen, corrupt humanity to divinity. He has brought us into the life of the Holy Trinity. We could not ask for more.

     But unfortunately, we often act like those who refused to attend the great banquet in today’s gospel lesson. That is, we get so fixated on the cares and worries of daily life that we become blind to the great blessing and glory to which our Lord invites us. The problem is that we make false gods of our possessions, work, family, relationships, and other cares. Instead, of seeing that these good things have their proper and healthy place only when we offer them to the Lord—and that they all provide opportunities to grow in holiness, we tend to choose them instead of God.

     So we would rather worry than pray; we would rather obsess about our problems and fears than serve our neighbors, forgive those who have offended us, and find healing for the damage that our sins have done in our own lives. Instead of making our life a Eucharist, instead of offering every bit of who we are to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment, we try to live on our own terms. And when we do, we turn away from the greatest blessing of all, from participation in the eternal life of our Lord and His Kingdom. And consequently we shut ourselves out of the great banquet of God and turn away from the unspeakable glory that is ours in Christ Jesus.

     The problem is not with our possessions themselves, or our work, or marriage and family life. These are all blessings from the Lord; no, the problem is with us. As we never tire of saying in the Orthodox Church, we have disordered desires and broken relationships that make it so easy for us to make false gods of other people, of our daily responsibilities, our hopes and dreams in life, and just about everything else. Envy, pride, anger, lust, greed, and other passions tempt us mightily to believe that satisfying our self-centered desires really is more important than loving and serving God and neighbor. And if we are not careful, these temptations will lead us to become like the people in the gospel lesson who really believed that they had better things to do than to share in the great joy of the Lord’s banquet.

     Christmas, of course, is a banquet, a great feast. It is a celebration of our salvation in the God-Man Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God Who became a human being in order to unite our fallen, corrupt humanity with divinity, to bring us from mortality to immortality. No matter how the Nativity Fast has gone for us so far, we all have a choice whether we will use the ten days to prepare to enter more fully into the blessed truth and reality of the Incarnation. And it’s clear what we need to do: to confess our sins and repent, as we do in the Sacrament of Confession that we should all take during Advent; to be generous to the needy and kind to the lonely; to fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances; to pray, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to God deliberately and regularly in prayer; to be mindful, refusing to dwell on unhealthy thoughts or to act in ways that do not show the love of Christ; and to say the Jesus Prayer as often as we can, especially when our minds are inclined toward something that we know is not pleasing to the Lord.

     No, these spiritual disciplines won’t make us saints overnight and we won’t do them perfectly. But that’s not really the point. Instead, these disciplines are our way of accepting the invitation of our Lord to the banquet of His Kingdom, of offering our cares, worries, and relationships for blessing and fulfillment. They are how we fight our passions, resist our temptations, and do what we can to prepare to receive Him at Christmas. They are what Advent is all about.

     We have less than two weeks left before Christmas. We could say that the shepherds, wise men, and angels are on their way to Bethlehem. We should be on our way also. The preparation for the feast will soon begin. Will we be ready? Will we accept the invitation to the feast? I certainly hope so. For we stand at the end of a very long line that goes back to Adam, the first-created; that extends through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Ruth, David, Bathsheeba; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; that includes Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos.

     The good news of Christmas is that in Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of all God’s promises are extended to people like us, who are blinded and sickened with sin, who suffer from the pain, weakness, and corruption of life in the world as we know it, and who are not yet perfect. In the Babe of Bethlehem, even people like you and me are invited to take our place with the Holy Forefathers and Foremothers of Christ in the heavenly banquet and to become participants in the Divine Glory.

     Now is the time to get ready for His coming, to put aside our excuses, to set right what has gone wrong in our lives, and to prepare to receive Him with the fear of God and faith and love at the great feast of Christmas. Unfortunately, some did not recognize Him at the first Christmas. King Herod tried to kill him, and so many who should have known better rejected the Lord during His earthly ministry, even crucifying Him as a blasphemer and a traitor. Yes, some really did turn down their invitations to the blessedness of the Kingdom, preferring political and religious power to Christ’s salvation.

     Nothing that we do will probably be so dramatic, but the same thing is at stake: Will we make our marriages, our finances, our work, our friendships, and our life plans points of entry into the joy of the Lord? Will we accept our Savior’s invitation not to be distracted from receiving the eternal life that He has brought to the world? Our response will be shown by what we do with the last next ten days of Advent.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jesus Christ is our Peace and Liberation from Captivity in All Its Forms: Homily for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Luke 13: 10-17
           Ephesians 2:14-22          
             Even as we hear the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle reading that Christ is our peace, we are reminded yet again by the conflict in Syria that our world desperately needs the Prince of Peace Whose birth we will celebrate in a just a few weeks.  We have prayed for months for the release of the kidnapped Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John, but this week we have added to the list Mother Pelagia and the nuns and orphans of St. Thekla Convent in Maaloula.  They too have apparently been abducted. Following the directive of our own Metropolitan Philip, we are now praying for them all in every service, and I ask you also to remember them in your daily prayers for safety and freedom.
          Even though they live far away and we do not know them personally, these bishops, nuns, and orphans are not strangers to us, but fellow members of the Body of which we are a part. We are one with them in the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ.   As St. Paul taught, the Lord has united both Jew and Gentile in His one Body, the Church.  People from all over the world are no longer strangers and foreigners to one another, but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”  No matter what language we speak or our national or ethnic heritage, we all “have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
          Our Savior came to bring us true peace, the fullness of reconciliation with God and one another.  His peace is manifest when we share a common life as “a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”  Of course, we are pleased when wars cease and enemies learn to live together without open violence and hatred.  But Christ came not simply to make our life on earth a bit more tolerable, but to loose us from the bondage and corruption that our sins, and those of all humanity, have brought about.  That is why He was born at Christmas.
          As the Lord was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, He saw a woman who was bent over and could not stand up straight.  She had been that way for eighteen years.  Just think how she felt, how limiting and frustrating that illness had to be.  He said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  Then He laid hands on her and she was healed, was able to stand up straight again, and she glorified God.
          There were those standing around just waiting to criticize the Lord, for He healed her on the Sabbath day, when no work was to be done.  Christ answered these critics by pointing out that everyone takes care of his donkey and ox on the Sabbath.  “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”  The truth of His teaching was so clear that those adversaries were put to shame and the people rejoiced.
          We see in this gospel text a beautiful image of what the Son of God has done for us by becoming a human being.  For every one of us is like that poor woman bound with an infirmity for eighteen years, unable to straighten herself up.  We see it so clearly in the captivity of our brothers and sisters in Syria, but it is evident also in our own lives in different ways.  For we live in a world of corruption, illness, pain, and death.  We do not like to think about it, but there are harsh, impersonal realities from which we simply cannot isolate ourselves. The horrors of crime and terrorism; disease, addictions, and other infirmities; cycles of violence, abuse, poverty, and brokenness in families and in society; and the inevitability of the grave. We do not have to look far to find ways in which we are all held captive.
          Of course, we all have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationships that cripple us, that keep us from acting, thinking, and speaking as “fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God.”  For we have all fallen short of God’s purposes for us, as has every generation since Adam and Eve.  We are all bent over and crippled in profound ways in relation to the Lord, our neighbors, and even ourselves.   
          Joachim and Anna knew all about long-term struggles and disabilities, for like Abraham and Sarah they were childless into their old age.  But God heard their prayer and gave them Mary, who would in turn give birth to the Savior who came to liberate us all from sin and death.  Tomorrow is the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos which we celebrate as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Lord to set us free from the infirmities that hold us captive and hinder our participation even now in the life of the Kingdom.
          The entire history of the Hebrews was preparatory for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah in whom God’s promises are fulfilled and extended to all who have faith in the Savior, regardless of their family heritage.  Christ did not come to privilege one nation over another, but to fulfill our original calling to be in the image and likeness of God; and, yes, that means to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons.          God breaks the laws of nature in order to do so, enabling elderly women to conceive and bear children and a young virgin to become the mother of His Son Who Himself rises from the dead.  Yes, this is a story of liberation, of breaking bonds, and of transcending the brokenness and limitations of life in the world in the world as know it.  
          Fortunately, the Lord did not treat the woman in today’s reading according to her physical condition as simply a bundle of disease, even as St. Anna’s fate was not to be defined by barrenness.  Instead, He gave her back her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham.  He treated her as a unique, cherished child of God who was not created for a corrupt, impersonal existence of pain, disease, and despair, but for blessing, health, and joy.  She glorified God for this deliverance, as did those who saw the miracle.
          The good news of Christmas is that the Lord is born to do the same for us and for the whole world, to set us free from slavery in all its forms, including the decay, corruption, and weakness that distort us all.  He comes so that we are no longer defined by our divisions from one another and can leave our bondage behind. He comes to restore us as living icons who manifest Christ’s glory and salvation in unique, personal ways.  Have you ever noticed that icons portray people as distinctive persons, that the personality and character of the Theotokos or St. John the Baptist or St. Luke shines through their icons?
          The same should be true of us.  We become not less ourselves, but more truly ourselves, when we open our lives to Christ’s holiness and healing.  In contrast, sin and corruption are pretty boring.  No matter how creative we try to be, there are only so many ways to hate, lie, cheat, and steal.  You can only say so much about murder and adultery.  Holiness, on the other hand, is infinitely beautiful and fascinating.  For the more we share in the life of the Holy Trinity, the more we see that the process of our fulfillment in God is eternal, that there is no end to it or to Him.  And since our fundamental calling as human beings is to grow in the likeness of God, we become more truly and freely ourselves—as distinct, unique persons-- whenever we turn away from slavery to sin and passion in order to embrace more fully the new life that Christ brings to the world.

          As we continue to prepare for Christmas by prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance, we should remember that these spiritual disciplines are ways of participating personally in our Savior’s healing of our sick and weakened humanity. We should welcome the deliverance that He brings into our lives.  And even as we do that, let us remember the kidnapped bishops, nuns, and orphans of Syria in our prayers.  His peace is for them every bit as much as it is for us.  For together with them, we are by God’s grace “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”   

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Regaining our Spiritual Vision During Advent: Orthodox Christian Homily on the Healing of the Blind Beggar (14th Sunday of Luke)

 Ephesians 2:4-10
St. Luke 18:35-43

           If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that there have been times when all that we could do was to ask from the depths of our hearts for God’s mercy.  When we have lost loved ones, when we or our family members have been sick or in danger, or when we have not seen a way out of a very difficult situation, our spiritual vision became focused.  Then we called upon the Lord for help, not as a reward for our merits, but because He alone is our salvation and our hope.  
As we continue preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ at Christmas, we are reminded by today’s gospel text of how we all stand before Him:  blind, weak, and in need of blessing beyond our own power or ability.  For our Lord was not born as a reward for humanity’s good behavior, but purely out of the divine love and mercy for human beings, and the rest of creation, deformed and suffering from our sins.   
That is why St. Paul taught that we are saved by grace through faith “and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.” The blind beggar performed no good work that earned the Savior’s mercy.  Instead, he simply called out persistently, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” as the Lord passed by.  Even though others told the man to be quiet and not to cause a scene, he continued to plead for healing.  He succeeded in getting the Savior’s attention, and He asked the beggar only a simple question:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  The blind man responded, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”  Christ said, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”  Immediately he could see again and began to follow the Lord and to glorify God.
One of the reasons that we practice intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Advent is to become more like that blind beggar, for we want to long from the depths of our being for our spiritual eyes to be opened by the healing presence of Jesus Christ.  We want our vision to be focused.  It is hard to cultivate that attitude, however, in such a busy time of year, when we are often surrounded by rich food and a cultural obsession with spending money.  So much in the media tells us that the season is about simply indulging ourselves in whatever we want.  Unless we are careful, we can easily be so distracted by our decadent culture that we will not even notice our spiritual blindness, much less want to be healed from it.  Like too many today, we will forget that Christmas is fundamentally about Jesus Christ and not about money, pleasure, or good times with our friends and family. Yes, we will celebrate Christmas as a season that begins on December 25 and leads to Epiphany, but unless we prepare by spiritual disciplines in these weeks of Advent to welcome the Incarnate Son of God into our lives in a new way at His Nativity, we will not have the spiritual eyes to behold the glory of His birth.   We will risk being blind to the salvation that He came to bring the world.
 Nothing that we could possibly do could ever earn or deserve the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but we must all do our part if we want to open ourselves to His healing presence, if we want to participate personally in His salvation.  For example, the blind beggar kept crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  He did nothing other than to persist in calling for Christ’s help, even when others told him to be quiet.  We do not know about this man’s beliefs concerning the Savior.  As a Jew, he probably thought that Jesus was the kind of messiah expected by his people:  a righteous teacher and leader who would bring God’s blessings upon the Jews, but not the Incarnate Son of God.  Christ does not require an elaborate confession from him, however, but took his persistent cries as evidence of his faith.  That is how the man regained his sight.
 On the one hand, we have great advantages over the blind beggar, because we have already put on Christ in the waters of baptism, been sealed with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, and nourished with the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist.  We have entered into His Body, the Church, and confessed Him in the words of the Creed. We are able at any moment of the day to show the humble faith of the blind beggar through the words of the Jesus Prayer.  
These advantages, however, may tempt us to laziness, for it is easy simply to take the Lord’s mercy for granted.  Remember that Christ said, “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.”  Our spiritual blindness deepens when we allow our faith to be merely a collection of abstract ideas or beliefs and not personal participation in the Divine Energies such that we become like an iron left in a fire that takes on the heat and light of the fire.  In other words, religious doctrines, practices, and traditions do us no good if we do not grow in holiness through them, if they do not become paths to our partaking of the Divine Nature.  Our souls, bodies, and minds must actually be sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our spiritual blindness must be overcome.  Otherwise, we simply judge and condemn ourselves by claiming the spiritual advantages of Orthodox Christians without actually embracing them or being transformed by them.    
The more we participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity, however, the more we will develop the deep spiritual insight and focus of that blind beggar.  He was certainly aware that he was blind and could not heal himself.  He had no illusions about where he stood before God or in relation to others.  But when he had his chance, he took it and no one could stop him. He zeroed in on the one thing needful; and then the mercy of the Lord healed him and transformed his life.     I wonder if the same can be said of us?  Given the teachings of our Church and the examples set by so many Saints, we should all be clear on the kind of faith and faithfulness that bring us more fully into the life of Christ.  Orthodox Christianity is not a Gnostic sect with secret teachings for an elect few, but a public witness for the salvation of the world.  As hard as it is to believe, we are all called to become holy.  Christ’s mercy is for you, me, and our neighbors just as much as it was for that blind beggar.
That is why we all need to use the disciplines of this season to help us become more aware of our spiritual blindness so that we will be able to regain our spiritual sight.  In other words, the first step in receiving the Lord’s mercy and growing in holiness is to recognize our sinfulness, as we do in Confession. Prayer, fasting, and generosity to the poor and needy are good teachers of our own spiritual sickness because we usually find them so hard to do and, when we actually do them, we often do them so poorly.  Of course, it is prideful to think that we should be the judges of our spiritual disciplines.  Better to follow this advice from St. Macarius of Optina, “Pray simply.  Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer.  Consider yourself unworthy of it.  Then you will find peace.  Use the empty cold dryness of your prayer as food for your humility.  Repeat constantly:  I am not worthy:  Lord, I am not worthy!  But say it calmly, without agitation.”

In other words, be like that blind beggar who knew that his only hope was in Jesus Christ.  Refuse to give up in prayer for the Lord’s mercy, as well as in whatever types of fasting and almsgiving you are able to do at this point your life.  Use your weakness in all of these endeavors as food for your humility, and get on with the daily life of faith and faithfulness as the Lord strengthens and focuses your spiritual sight as He sees fit.  Surely, there is no better way to prepare to behold the glory of our Savior when He is born at Christmas.  

Friday, November 29, 2013

New Book Makes Eastern Othodoxy More Understandable

Contributed Photo
McMurry University professor Philip LeMasters’ book, The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity,” was published recently by Cascade Books.
Contributed Photo McMurry University professor Philip LeMasters’ book, The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity,” was published recently by Cascade Books.
A glance at the table of contents tips readers off that what they are about to read isn’t a stuffy book on the history of Eastern Orthodoxy.
McMurry University religion professor Philip LeMasters, who also is a local Orthodox priest, set out to write a popular book about his religion that would be appealing to those with little or no background in the faith.
With chapter headings such as, “Salvation, Sex, and Food,” and “Football, Liturgical Worship, and Real Life,” he no doubt accomplished his goal.
LeMasters’ book is titled, “The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity.” It recently was published by Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.
During the academic year, LeMasters takes art and religion majors from McMurry, Hardin-Simmons and Abilene Christian universities on tours of his church, St. Luke’s Orthodox, explaining the faith as he goes.
He points out the icons, incense and other features that may be foreign to students at United Methodist, Baptist, and Church of Christ universities.
“The book grows from those talks,” LeMasters said.
But the book isn’t just a transcription of those talks. It contains a section on how LeMasters came into the Orthodox faith after growing up Baptist and attending an Episcopal church. And, LeMasters’ academic background comes through in tracing the faith’s roots and practices. A foreword by Everett Ferguson, a retired professor of church history at ACU, says it best.
“He writes with the fervor of a convert and the balance of a scholar,” Ferguson wrote.
LeMasters said the point of his talks to students and the book is not to make converts but to explain the ancient faith and its practices that may seem odd to outsiders.
LeMasters wears several hats at McMurry. He is a professor or religion and dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion. He also directs the university’s Honors Program.
Even with all those opportunities, LeMasters said he will resist the temptation to require students to buy his book as a textbook supplement. He didn’t rule out colleagues doing that, however.
“If some of my friends at ACU and Hardin-Simmons want to use it,” he joked, “that would be great.”

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Holiness Instead of Legalism: Homily on the Rich Young Ruler in the Orthodox Church

            Though we may not have appreciated it at the time, many of us are surely thankful to have had people in our lives who set us straight, told it like it was, and challenged us to not to accept mediocrity.  At times, we can all fall into a fool’s paradise of thinking that all is well and we are fine just as we are.  It is so easy to rest on our laurels and sell ourselves short.   
            The rich young ruler who asked Jesus Christ what he had to do in order to find eternal life must have thought that he had already met all God’s requirements.  So when the Lord told him to keep the commandments of the Old Testament, the man said that he had checked them all off, that he had kept them his entire life. This is where the story gets really interesting, for the Lord then gives him a commandment that he could not imagine following:  Sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.  This fellow was rich and powerful and loved his comfortable lifestyle, so he became very sad and apparently walked away.  The Lord knew how hard it was for people who have it all in this life to enter the kingdom of heaven, for they are tempted strongly to love their possessions and status more than God and neighbor.  Still, as the Lord said His stunned disciples, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
            What did Christ mean by speaking in this way?  He certainly was not simply adding another law that the Jews had to obey.  Instead, he challenged this man to stop thinking about his relationship with God as a set of requirements which he could master.  Someone who responds to the Old Testament laws by saying, “Oh, I’ve always followed them since I was a child” has a very shallow understanding of what God requires of us.  That would be like someone saying, “I’ve always been a perfectly faithful Christian since childhood.”  Oh, please.  Get real.  We know that is not true of any one of us.
            The spiritual life is never that simple.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ showed us the true meaning of God’s requirements.  He said that we are guilty of murder if we are angry with others, if we hate and insult them.  He taught that we are guilty of adultery if we lust in our hearts.  And if we do not love God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves, we have broken the greatest of the commandments.  By these standards, none of us has anything to brag about before God, for we are all the chief of sinners and need God’s mercy and healing in our lives.  
            Christ jolted this man out of his delusion, of his false self-confidence, by giving him a commandment that He knew he could not keep:  giving away all his beloved money, possessions, and power.  Perhaps for the first time, this fellow was challenged to see that eternal life is not something that we can accomplish by our own ability.  If we cannot offer to God that which we love most in this life, then we obviously have not fulfilled all that the Lord expects of us.
            And since Christ came to unite our fallen humanity with divinity and to conquer sin and death, it is pretty clear that even the most law-abiding person still needs the mercy, grace, and love of our Lord in order to inherit eternal life.  By our own power, it is not possible to share in the life of heaven.  That is why St. Paul wrote that he boasted in nothing “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  With Him, all things are possible.   
            As we continue to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, we do well to remember that this great feast is not about the birth of a mere teacher, law-giver, or example.  Were our Lord simply another prophet with a strict teaching, we would not rejoice at His coming.  Instead, we would—like the rich young ruler—become sad and dejected, for the last thing we need is another law to fail to obey and make us feel guilty.
The eternal Son of God was not born at Christmas to add to the burden of the law or to give us the impression that all will be well if we obey a new set of teachings.  To the contrary, He became a human being to do what a mere law never could, to bring us into His holiness, to make us partakers of the divine nature, to heal and fulfill our fallen, corrupt humanity, to make it possible for us mortals to put on immortality.
            The Lord’s shocking statement about giving everything away challenged the rich young ruler to stop thinking of his life before God in legalistic terms.  Likewise, we should use prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines of   the Nativity Fast, of Advent, to be shocked out of our conventional and shallow assumptions about what it means to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  For Christ was not born to bring us what the world calls success. Neither did He come to make us strict legalists who think that holiness can be reduced to a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.”  And He certainly did not put on flesh in order to make His followers the self-righteous judges of others. 
            The eternal Son of God became one of us for completely different reasons.  Out of unfathomable love, He wanted to make possible for us to do what is impossible by our own power.   We may take pride in what we accomplish, but which of us can claim credit for the Incarnation?  There is no earthly prestige in a Virgin Mother giving birth in a cave to a baby who whose cradle was a manger, a feeding trough for animals.  The rich young rulers of the world cannot understand a Messiah whose human life begins in such lowly circumstances and ended on a cross.  Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are not simple human accomplishments or rewards, but truly miraculous manifestations of God’s eternal life in our world of sin, death, and corruption.  As St. Paul said, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails for anything, but a new creation.”  
             A religion that simply provides more laws to obey could never make us a new creation:  a new, holy people who love and serve God and neighbor with every ounce of our being.   Laws simply make things worse by giving us more opportunities to judge ourselves and others.  It is often when we are ashamed of not measuring up that we are most likely to shift our attention to putting down other people in order to make ourselves feel better.  Whenever we do that, we become like the Pharisees who rejected our Lord.
            The God-Man Jesus Christ operates in a completely different way, of course, making it possible for everyone, no matter their struggles or failures or social standing, to find true peace through faith, humility, and growth in holiness--In other words, through our ongoing acceptance of His mercy and healing in our lives.    
            We prepare to receive Christ at Christmas by opening our hearts and souls to His salvation—not by mastering laws—but by true repentance.  Both in our private prayers and in the sacrament of Confession which we should all take during Advent, we repent by honestly confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s mercy, even as we resolve to make a new beginning in the Christian life.  Yes, we must cooperate with our Lord’s mercy and grace by doing what we can to live faithfully.  But even the best life does not somehow deserve heaven.  In fact, the more we grow in holiness, the more we will begin to see clearly the gravity of our sins and how far we are from the full stature of Christ.  The closer we grow to Him, the less we will think of salvation as a reward for good behavior according to a legal standard.      
            So let this Advent be marked for each of us by humility, repentance, and spiritual disciplines, not as punishment because we have broken a law, but because we all have room to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our hearts and souls are not worthy of Him.  We do not serve Him in every poor and suffering person.  We do not seek first His kingdom and righteousness.   We are not perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect.  But unlike the rich young ruler, we must not give up and walk away in despair. Instead, we should say, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” as we press forward in the Christian life as best we can. For what is impossible with men is possible with the Incarnation of the God-Man Jesus Christ.  He is not a law, but our Savior.    

Friday, November 22, 2013


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The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity [Kindle Edition]

Philip LeMasters Everett Ferguson 

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Book Description

 November 7, 2013
There's more to Eastern Christianity than ethnic food bazaars, enclaves of immigrants, and clergy with beards. The mystical theology, spiritual disciplines, and rich liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church provide sustenance for anyone seeking resources for growth in the Christian life. Ancient teachings and practices persist in Eastern Christianity that hold together much of what Catholics and Protestants have separated. Believers of all stripes increasingly resonate with Orthodoxy's healthy synthesis of prayer, doctrine, liturgy, asceticism, and call to holiness in all areas of life. This ancient faith speaks with refreshing clarity to contemporary Christians who want to learn from a living tradition that is too little known in Western culture. This volume presents profound insights that will enrich, challenge, and inspire readers of all backgrounds. It invites everyone to encounter a spiritual tradition that is ancient, contemporary, and fascinatingly different.

"If you ever wondered what Christianity looked like in its early centuries and still looks like in the Orthodox Church of the twenty-first century, it would be hard to find a better starting point than Philip LeMasters' The Forgotten Faith."
--Jim Forest, author of Praying with Icons

"Drawing on his conversion to Orthodoxy, LeMasters introduces the mysteries that make Orthodoxy what it is with a gentle clarity befitting the great church. For anyone wanting to learn about the Orthodox faith there is no better place to begin than with The Forgotten Faith."
--Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Studies, Duke University

"Gracefully and without apology, LeMasters combines autobiography with evangelism in his review of ancient Orthodox teachings and their contemporary belonging. To say that this is popular and not serious theology does injustice to a narrative that is both scholarly and accessible. Buy it, read it, and give it to someone curious about Orthodoxy as an alternative in American Christianity."
--Harmon L. Smith, Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology, Duke University

"LeMasters knows both his subject and his readers intimately; yet there is not a hint of condescension. Written from heart to heart, there is a wonderful combination of telling anecdote and insightful commentary. The outcome is a book worthy of both prayerful pondering and critical appreciation."
--William J. Abraham, Professor of Wesley Studies, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

"This fine primer on the moral and spiritual life is no venture in ecumenical neutrality. Simply, clearly, personally, but never polemically, LeMasters lays out the basic doctrines and practices of the Orthodox East. Thus does he demonstrate why, especially here in the West, it should not become a forgotten [form] but a vital form of Christian faith."
--Ralph C. Wood, Professor of Theology and Literature, Baylor University

Philip LeMasters is Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University and the Corporate Secretary of the Board of Trustees of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary. A priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, he is the author of Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage, and Sex (2004) and The Goodness of God's Creation: How to Live as an Orthodox Christian (2008).

Product Details

  • File Size: 1562 KB
  • Print Length: 170 pages
  • Publisher: Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers (November 7, 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00GR782U0
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