Thursday, April 09, 2009

Perserverance and Love

Despite the swirling discussions of the byzantine machinations surrounding the Antiochian Patriarchate's Synodal decision related to Bishops, the positioning of various jurisdictions in anticipation of a possible meeting this summer regarding the 'Diaspora,' and equally interesting maneuvers, I am calmed by words of +Joseph given in a few speeches within the last year.

May these words be edifying for you as well, dear reader:

Although religion has played a major factor in shaping the identity of the American Culture, the secularization of the society is inflicting evil on the American mindset. The attempts of de-Christianizing the American culture are ruthless. These malicious attacks are driving the new generation to forsake their centuries-old culture for the sake of self-gratification and alleged compensations.

Whereas the American population is still manifesting religious observances, the genuine characters of these observances are not for the most part worthy of acceptance. Many Churches are undergoing the worst predicament of Faith and Morals in their History. The fragmentation of American Churches into conflicting bodies has uprooted the Christian ethos from the Churches.

For this reason, many individuals and groups are changing their religions and their denominations, inasmuch as they are changing their jobs, their habitation, and their spouses. Many adults leave their cradle faith for another one. Becoming a highly competitive marketplace, religion is a buyer's market where many groups dilute their traditional beliefs in order to compete.

Likewise, basic relationships that we took for granted 50 years ago are now becoming abstract theory. For example, young people are having severe impairments in relating to necessary authority, as their parents abdicate their roles as mother and father. Many children cannot even plainly state who their parents are, listing step-parents and foster-parents, their parents latest dating partners and even gang leaders as the authority figures in their lives.

Now, we see what was meant by God when He proclaimed through the Prophet Isaiah:

"O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths." (Isaiah 3:12)

When true, and so I mean spiritual fatherhood is removed, human society collapses into decay and disintegration. Transformative spirituality is truly a longing for union and communion with God, the Most Compassionate Father. The capacity to live spiritually is the foundation of our Orthodox Tradition. Therefore, Orthodox genuine spirituality has a sacramental, pastoral and communal dimension which brings about the inner change in the spiritual children of the Church.

As a Bishop in the Church, I would like to address the way authority is exercised in the Church, and the relationship among the faithful and the clergy, in order to make others see and taste how our koinonia, is a koinonia with the Father and His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Having a spiritual communal tradition, the Church in this unique koinonia reflects the sacramental dimension of our Orthodox Christianity. Above all it will give testimony to our spirituality and show stability of faith and doctrine.

Although Orthodox priests are “men set apart,” their priesthood is not a hindrance in creating true Christian community. On the contrary, their status will create an indissoluble bond between them and their parishioners, as a reflection of the uncreated bond between the Heavenly Father and His Eternal Son. Without spiritual fatherhood, spirituality is not authentic, nor viable. In this spiritual relationship which stems from the communion with the Holy Spirit, the children’s behavior is transformed, as selfish desires are transformed into selfless love, kindness, compassion, mercy, and wisdom.

Loving fatherhood brings peace and order. Fatherhood, especially the fatherhood shown by the Bishop, the Priests and the Deacons, is not tyrannical, coercive or repressive. Sadly, those who have not experienced a good father, or are possessed by the immaturity of the passions, have no idea what real fatherhood is.

So, when we speak of a priest as ‘father,’ does anyone even understand what this means anymore? When a priest carries out his ordained duties in a parish, is he acting as a spiritual father to spiritual children, or is he merely a character in an exotic game of charades?

As a bishop of the Church, it has been very difficult to get Americans to comprehend that their cultural understandings of pastoral authority are at odds with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Sometimes it can be a source for despondency as I watch good men throw away the blessings of God because they were ordained too quickly, before they had a chance to deeply experience their God-given role within the Church.

Even now, the confusion in American Orthodoxy is a direct result of the failures to understand this problem, and to make this teaching a priority. We have neglected the fruits of the Holy Spirit attained through spiritual struggle.

The parish priest is at risk of becoming relegated to the work of being a task-master, frequently battling unruly parishioners who refuse to take even the most elementary steps towards being actual Orthodox Christians. Instead of being a place of koinonia with the Holy Trinity with each other, the parish itself may become a spiritually squalid place, stinking of egoism and the lust of power. In this case, clergy and laity alike forget the divine call of love.

In this country, parishes die because the people love only their own opinions, and will consciously drive out those they disagree with, from inquirers to Hierarchs. Some priests feel they are fighting against the parish community simply for their own survival. Others think that, after ordination, they owe their bishop nothing more on account of his failure to do the priest’s bidding.

I am speaking to all of you in the hope that you will come to understand that the pastorate of the Orthodox Church cannot be taken for granted. The pastorate is a cross, a burden borne for the sake of others. It is borne with our human weakness and God’s strength.

Unlike the worldly leadership styles of the non-Orthodox, who seek to exercise brute authoritarianism and subtle deception in order to trick people into doing what the pastor wants, the priest’s first task is to exercise his authority with love. He must love God first and foremost, and become co-worker with the truth (3 John 4 & 8: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellow helpers to the truth.). This is as much a duty as it is a drive within his spirit.

After all, there are times when our love wanes and we grow cold. During such periods, the priest must continue to act lovingly until the awareness of God returns to him, and draws on himself the grace of the all-Holy Spirit. He must never forget that love is a verb, not a noun. If he does not love, he has no love.

Through the priest’s love of God, he receives the grace to love his people. He bears with them and encourages them, “not reckoning to them their trespasses.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). He also realizes that his love for them is not based on their cooperativeness or piety. They come to him broken, and they always desire to be healed. However, because we do not know the depths of their hearts, we must patiently endure their assaults and injustices in the hope that they will repent.

We must be spiritually ready to deal with their multi-faceted tribulations. If a doctor does not recognize the sickness of his patient and its causes, how can he prescribe the proper medicine? In the same way the priest who does not recognize the spiritual sickness of his parishioners, and how the enemy has captured them under sin, how can he expect a delivering power from the Lord and how can he offer the sacraments as a remedy and a treatment for them!

It is a powerful temptation to despair, since it feels like we are not doing anything for them. Yet, if we think in such a manner, we are using our human abilities rather than God-given grace. We must also never forget that only some people, even within the Church herself, will respond favorably to the Gospel. The Scripture proclaims the word of God:

"Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:14)

This necessitates a deep and abiding humility. We must accept that we cannot change the world, as we can hardly change ourselves. Look within, and you will find the same resistance to change that you will encounter in others. Our fallen nature resists change, because we have not yet renounced our selfish pride and accepted the protection and care of God. In fact, we doubt or even forget God in our daily lives, relying on our own limited powers.

. . .

If you are loving and humble, this ought to extend to your relationship with your bishop. Loving and obeying your bishop is not synonymous with always agreeing with him, and the same is true of your parish community and you. Just as you want the people to listen to you and obey, so you must heed your bishop and remember that he is the father and the Archpastor.

Humble obedience is a necessary part of the priesthood, because it is a sign of our love for God when we abandon ourselves to His care through obedience. True obedience is the greatest tool for spiritual development, as it is an active confirmation of our trust in God. Saint Peter says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Most of us practice carnal obedience, in that we obey those we already agree with.

Carnal obedience has become very popular because many people have not yet been healed of the Protestant mentality regarding the Faith. This mentality consists of the notion that obedience is only bestowed to those with superior intellectual prowess. In a word, if I can prove you wrong, I do not have to listen to you.

Therefore, people set about studying with the subconscious drive to ensure their being answerable to as few people as possible. They read and read and read to find answers that get them off of the hook for having to do things they don’t want to do, including the taking of orders from others. This is the pridefulness of religious intellectualism, which is rampant in American Orthodoxy.

Obedience in the Church is not bestowed through superior learning. Read St. Paul. Does he appeal to his superior grasp of the Scriptures as the reason he was to be heeded? No, rather, he appeals to his suffering for the sake of the Gospel and for the people he brought into the Faith.

We are received into the Church through the ultimate sign of obedience: Baptism. We are to die to ourselves, and are given the Holy Chrism symbolizing the Apostolic Succession of obedience that conveys the Gift of the Holy Spirit. When the Bishop lays his hands on the priest, God is calling him to obey his commandments especially in converting the un-baptized, and the Christians who have lost the benefits of their baptism, and in assisting those who are disqualified from the joy that derives from the presence of God in their lives.

Descending on the priest, the Holy Spirit makes him like a pool of light to the people around him. As the Spirit regenerates him, it changes him from son of man into son of God, and into an icon of God the Father. Those of us who are ordained have been ordained out of mercy, not because we are particularly bright. We are ordained out of God’s love rather than our merits. We are not vessels of information, but vessels of God’s love and mercy. If we reduce obedience to intellectual performance, how are we any different from the Gnostics?

Therefore, obedience is an act of love, and humility of mind is the beginning of its illumination. It is not about power, but about active confession of God’s love. Love is the living Creed because it is ultimately divine.

. . .

To be a priest means to be crucified to the world, and by the world. Priestly obedience, then, must be followed to the point of martyrdom.

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20).

St. Paul described his death to the world, and thus he could call the Galatians to obedience to his word as one speaking for God. He voluntarily gave himself over to martyrdom for the sake of the Lord. Are we prepared to do likewise?

Do you stand up for yourself? Are you the executioner of justice? Who has appointed you to such a high office, when you have not suffered? If you want to stand up for what is right, then you must first practice patience in the face of evil, because true evil seeks to elicit passions from us. The devil knows how we think, and he will take advantage of our pride by sinning boldly before us and provoking us to act without consulting God first. Then, when we stray from God’s will, the devil will separate us from the flock and kill us.

As priests of a diocese, you will have to lock shields with your brother clergy. Some are good soldiers, others are not. You are taught here to become well-trained soldiers in the spiritual army of Christ. However, this is what you have volunteered to do. You must resolve not to abandon your bishop or your brethren just because you think you know better than they do. In the end, if you break ranks, chances are they will band back together and leave you to face Satan on your own.

Disobedience is, first and foremost the byproduct not only in one’s own lack of faith in God, but actual fear for one’s selfish desire for singular salvation. By this, I mean that delusion which convinces one’s self that his salvation does not involve his brother. We know from our Holy Tradition that salvation is a work of the Church, which means that I am not saved, but rather that we are being saved. My salvation, my very relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, is intimately connected with my fellow believers.

The heretic thinks his salvation is a matter of his own purity apart from others, and so he rebels when he thinks that his bishop’s mistakes will somehow drag him down. What he fails to see is that his tolerance of others’ mistakes is an ascetical work that will save him. It is a cross to be borne, one that leads to humble exultation.

The Neo-Donatism that has come to characterize our modern history has gelled from a faulty understanding of salvation, and a very distinct lack of love. It is like a sinking ship: the loving person remains to help others either to safely escape from the ship or keep it afloat, while the selfish person shoves others aside as he dives into a life-raft to save himself alone.

The rebellious man denies his cross because he fears being wrong more than he fears abandoning his fellows. For those of you preparing for ministry, I ask you to remain faithful to your bishop and your brethren. If your bishop commits sin, remember your own sins and beseech God on his behalf for the same mercy you would hope for yourself. I tell you, it will be easier for you to beg for mercy if you yourself have been merciful.

If you find yourself judging your bishop or your brother clergy, what can you do? The only thing that works is genuine repentance for your own sins and mindfulness of your own sinfulness. Never allow the evidence of your fallenness to depart from your mind. This way, you will always remember God’s love for you and His mercy. You will excel in gratitude, and obedience will come easily.

Once the bond of love is strengthened, then you can not only obey, but also genuinely pray. From the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, we know that God does not hear the prayers of the proud. He turns His face from the rebellious man who trusts in his intellect over God’s divine grace.

I think that one reason so many bishops have fallen into controversy and scandal is because they are virtually alone. They are not loved. They are feared, or perhaps admired because they conform to the opinions of their admirers, but they are rarely loved. So, when they err, they are treated without mercy. Therefore, the bishops live in fear of their people, and so become captive to the passions, the same passions that dominate the people they are supposed to be helping.

We are losing our love for one another. We are growing cold. We are in danger of abandoning the Faith in favor of empty rituals and Gnosticism. We no longer catechize converts through prayer and spiritual experience, but rote memorization of facts emptied of their love.

Virtue is becoming a stranger. Men no longer recognize courage and honor, because they have been effeminized to value covert aggression and superficial etiquette. We are now more interested in courtly behavior or political intrigues than the quiet strength of loving humility and patience.

This effeminate understanding of love as a romantic emotional state is patently and completely evil. We must not confuse love with false emotive states. Love is not mushy, it is pure light and fire. It burns within the heart turned to God, and empowers us to undergo extreme hardship without muttering. The heart, which is not the romantic emotional center the modern world now makes it out to be, must be filled with repentance and a sense of its own humble estate so that it can be filled with divine love.

Being a loving pastor means not succumbing to the temptations towards using one’s authority and power to fulfill one’s emotional needs. Personal preferences must not be the rule, but rather loving obedience to the greater Church. No bishop, no priest, no deacon is his own authority, for each has been given a place under the authority of others for his own sake. God loves us by setting others over us, and sometimes that love can be painful when our self-will is challenged.

The Scriptures say we are to be known by our love for one another. Yet, it seems that love is all but forgotten. For example, when people complain about the overlapping jurisdictions in America, Australia and Western Europe, we never hear about love. We hear about people’s anger, despair and frustration, but those who complain almost never speak of their love for others.

I believe that God has allowed this present situation to teach us lessons that need to be learned, the greatest amongst these is love. Until we learn to love one another, we will not be united. In turn, the synod of bishops that takes up the cause of love will receive God’s blessing to shepherd the people of America.

We have hope, because God has not abandoned us. Nor will He allow the Church to be overtaken by her enemies. We have hope because God loves us.

And, it is this love that is all that we really have to offer. Everything else found in the parish can be found somewhere else in the world of much higher quality: better music, better food, better preaching, better art… the only thing we have to offer is love.

- From His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s Address to the Faculty and Students of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, March 10, 2008, Crestwood, New York

And this:

Whenever we come together as a diocese we represent what is called in our theology, the Local Church. When the term “Local Church” strikes our ears, we tend to think that it means the parish that is nearby. This is not what the Local Church means in the Orthodox Tradition.

We may define the Local Church, in simple terms, in this way it is the diocese, with the bishop presiding at the Eucharist, surrounded by his clergy, with the laity gathered together with him. When we celebrate the Divine Liturgy at a Diocesan Parish Life Conference we meet this definition and we constitute the basic “unit” of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

When we come together in our meetings, either at the Diocesan Parish Life Conference we never fail to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, and other divine services with the Bishop presiding. Our worship is the foundation of our Church life, including our charitable work, our social and fellowship events, church administration and yes, our organization meetings. Thus when we gather from all points of the Diocese to discuss the work of the Diocese we can do this in one of two ways: We can either have “business meeting” in which we act like we are legislators or corporation board members and struggle with our various personal agendas to accomplish personal goals, or we can purposely strive to truly continue the work of the Divine Liturgy, as the Local Church, to seek and to do the will of God.

It is this “MO” (method of operation) that I exhort you to follow in your meetings. Be asking yourselves these kinds of questions: Is what I want to say going to further the Gospel of Christ? How can we make the action we are now contemplating one that will build up the Body of Christ? Is it something that is God-pleasing? Do I wish to speak in order to edify my brothers and sisters in the Lord, or do I just want my opinion to be heard?

This is the mindset we need to bring to the administrative and organizational activities of our diocese and our parishes. It is only the degree to which we as individuals and as a body submit our minds, hearts and souls to our Savior that we can work together as His Holy Body and truly bear witness to His Death, Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming.

Perhaps this approach sounds too “theological” or “spiritual” for mere meetings. I tell you that it is not. Recall the oft repeated phrase we hear in the services of the Church, “let us commend ourselves and each other and our whole life unto Christ our God.” The phrase “our whole life” indicates our common life the life we share as the Body of Christ.

Meetings and committees are necessary in Church life so that we can share ideas, formulate plans of action and gain from one another’s enthusiasm and talents. Good order and courtesy are needed so that all have a reasonable chance to be heard and at the same time that decisions are made in a timely fashion. What is needful for us, as believers, is to actively invite the Holy Spirit into our presence.

Let us therefore not treat lightly the prayers with which we open our meetings. These prayers should be more than the “first order of business” and then forgotten. Rather they should resonate in our ears as we go on to agenda items that follow. Just as the Holy Spirit created unity on the day of Pentecost, He will do so for us if we only actively invite Him to be in our midst.

Let us therefore proceed with the rightful concerns and activities of our Diocese seek to find the will of God and to faithful do it.

- From His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH’s Address to the 2008 Diocesan Fall Gathering, October 11, 2008, Riverside, California

May you, dear reader, be called forth, like a Lazarus, into the glorious light of the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Messiah. Pray also for me.


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