Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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An Ordinary Saint

Back in November 2014 I came to Patra, Greece, for the funeral of my mother. Father Andrew at my mother’s parish church ushered me into the sanctuary and gave me vestments to wear so I could preside at my mother’s funeral service. So there I was, a clean-shaven priest from America between two local priests, both sporting typical long beards. Not for one moment did I feel out of place.

The funeral service was followed by a procession to the cemetery where the burial took place. There I encountered Father Mihalis and another priest, who preside at gravesite services. When they learned that I was a priest, they immediately insisted that I do the gravesite service. I didn’t have a book with me, so I went from memory, and they helped when I stumbled on a word or two. Again, a study in contrast, and again total acceptance, accommodation and priestly fellowship such as I have never encountered back home.

The two cemetery priests in 2014. Father Mihalis is on the right, with white beard.


Today I was back in my mother’s home parish for morning Liturgy. At the end of Liturgy we had a memorial service for her. Father Andrew was as kind as in 2014, though I chose not to put on vestments and participate in the Liturgy and memorial prayers. Later in the afternoon we drove to the cemetery, and there was Father Mihalis making his rounds. I immediately accosted him and asked him to come to my mother’s grave.

He showed some signs of recognition. I took out my iPhone and showed him the pictures of the Nov 2014 gravesite service. We started walking to my mother’s grave and he began to introduce me to other people that we passed. I at one point told him to stop doing that, and he was surprised. Why are you nervous? You’re an Orthodox priest and it’s a blessing for people to know you! A woman went to kiss my hand – something very common among Orthodox people – and I pulled back. Don’t be like that, he gently said to me.

I completely surrendered to his loving care. Both in 2014 and today I worried that people would think less of me because I’m from America, clean shaven with short hair, looking nothing like a Greek Orthodox priest. And yet not a single person in 2014 or today even remotely looked at me with any disapproval. So who was more caught up with external appearances – I or Father Mihalis and the people he was introducing me to? The answer was clear!

Father Mihalis is very special. He is an ordinary saint. I couldn’t stop embracing him today. The church canonizes extraordinary men and women and calls them Saints. They might be martyrs for the faith, ascetics and great spiritual masters, renowned bishop theologians, etc. Father Mihalis is not extraordinary in any of the usual senses. He is a simple cemetery priest, making his rounds, responding to every call to go to a grave for a prayer service, and humbly accepting whatever small payment he might receive for his services. His priestly garments are old, worn out and not recently cleaned. His hand are brown from the sun and from handling incense and being close to the earth at every graveside. If Jesus were walking around the cemetery today, he’d probably look a lot like Father Mihalis, but probably younger and with a shorter beard.

He wanted to get vestments for me so I could do the service. I told him, No, I wanted him to do it! When we finally got to the graveside, where my wife and aunt were waiting for us, he immediately included all three of us and even pointed to me to do some of the priest’s prayers, though I was dressed in regular street clothes. Such a spirit of openness and inclusiveness I have never encountered in America. And here I was in conservative Church of Greece and I’ve been blessed to have experienced the love and welcoming spirit of Christ in the persons of Father Andrew and Father Mihalis. They are true priests in the service of Christ, not of worldly appearances.

Today with Father Mihalis I felt in the presence of a saint, an ordinary saint. We need more ordinary saints in the church. They are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek who will inherit the earth. Which earth? The earth that Father Mihalis touches in his gravesite services and in which he will join his wife Ismene who died this past January? Or the earth that can still be made holy by men and women like Father Mihalis? I pray that he will continue to make the rounds of the cemetery for many years so I can meet him again and be touched by his gentle spirit. 


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Finally, our Archbishop speaks

Statement from His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America     

Feb 4, 2017

As Greek Orthodox Christians and as Americans, we express our sadness and pain for our brothers and sisters all over the world who find themselves in tragic circumstances of hostility, violence and war, where families have been torn apart, displaced and where people are denied basic human rights.

Following the example of Christ, we are called to offer unconditional love to our fellow men while starting immediately to pray for them.  In our great country, which has historically and practically welcomed people of every nation, tribe, and tongue, we have the distinct privilege and honor to offer philoxenia – love of the stranger – to humans from all walks of life.

The New Testament is replete with an ethos of philoxenia – love of the stranger – based not on fear but on care and on gratitude.  Welcome one another, says Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, even as Christ welcomed you (Rom. 15:7).  Christian philoxenia must not only be extended to those close to us, but must be extended to those near and far away, and even to those who will not reciprocate—to the poor, the stranger, even those who hate us.  For Christ says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? (Luke 14:14).

As a vital expression of love, we must continue to fervently pray for peace for the entire humanity, especially for those affected by difficult circumstances.  Our fellow humans who are suffering under terrible conditions and ordeals all over the world are expecting justice and begging for our love and prayers; even the least among them.  As Christ said, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).  In these most difficult times, the strongest expression of our philoxenia becomes a very urgent matter.

United as one people, as one nation under God, let us proceed courageously, prudently, and lovingly.  Always with the help of the Almighty God!


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The Church is Boring, You Say?

There is a false and pernicious idea that Liturgy is boring; that church is boring and irrelevant; and that is why people, especially young people, are staying away.

Personally, I’ve never been convinced of that argument. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Perhaps people find church and Liturgy boring because they are bored, and because their lives are boring! I’m not saying this to put anyone down or to imply that nothing about the Orthodox Church is boring. Far from it, I’m the first to point out the deficiencies in Orthodox church structures and ways.

But look around. People are bored. That is why we run to every new gadget, why we bury our faces in small and large screens, why we communicate with text messages and emojis and YouTube and Facebook. Because we are bored. Nothing Apple can produce will satisfy people’s boredom; we will always want more. That is why Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Sony, and other behemoths, are constantly updating their products. People need something new every day: because they are bored!

So should the church join the racket of the weekly updates? Is that what will bring people to Liturgy? Don’t be fooled. Why are there so many revolving doors in evangelical and non-denominational churches? They look full every Sunday, but how well do they retain people? These churches change their songs and videos every week, they look like they’re catering to the market obsession with “the new”; but they don’t retain members any better than we do, they’re actually doing worse. But they look full because there is a constant movement of people from one “relevant, up-to-date” church to another. It’s the secret of evangelical success in this country – the revolving door of “believers” who are often nothing more than bored consumers of religion.

Look at your own habits, as I look at my own habits. I don’t go anywhere, even inside the house, without my iPhone in my hand or in my pocket. How often in any 5-minute span do you/I look at the notification screen of your/my phone or tablet? Why? Because we are bored.

So don’t tell me church is boring. That’s a cop-out. But let me say it more clearly: Church is boring, you say? I agree that it is! But it’s boring only because WE ARE BORING!

So let’s get off our boring and bored lifestyles. Let’s turn off the electronic devices that are turning us into carriers of attention-deficit disorder. Take a sabbath rest from the market empires that rule our lives. That’s what two hours on a Sunday morning can be for you: an entry into a new kingdom, a kingdom of beauty and peace and attention-fullness. If all of us could come to Liturgy with such awareness and such need for healing from our scattered, bored lives, then the Liturgy will becomes more alive for us.

There is nothing more “relevant” in our lives than the need for release and freedom. God ordained a sabbath for good reason. God has known from all eternity that a sabbath rest from the daily forces that feed on our boredom and lack of freedom is the most basic need of human beings. But for the first time in human history, the sabbath has been eliminated and it has been replaced by enslavement to the Now of computer screens and smartphone notifications. Don’t be a slave to boredom. Join the battle for holistic, authentic living, rather than the fakery that aims to claim every moment of your life with false promises of “something new” but only makes you more bored and hungry for more escape from boredom. Reclaim your life from the machine of boredom! And then church and Liturgy will cease to be boring as well. It’s a good goal to strive for in 2017. HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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The movement beckons!

Meet John Doe is one of a groups of films that Frank Capra directed in the late 30s of the past century. The others are You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. And a few years later Frank Capra also made that Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. All of them are classic examples of how movies can inspire at the same time as they entertain us. No one makes movies like that any more, and I recommend all four of these films especially to families with children. The messages and values are timeless.

mv5bmtq2ndc5nzi4ov5bml5banbnxkftztgwodgxotyymje-_v1_sy1000_cr003951000_al_John Doe is a homeless hobo played by Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck is a newspaperwoman who involves John Doe in pretending to commit suicide on Christmas night as an act of protest against unemployment and economic hardship. A national movement grows around the figure of John Doe, but behind the scenes D. B. Norton, memorably played by Edward Arnold, is using the movement for his own political purposes. When John Doe overhears Mr. Norton plotting with other big wigs how they will use the movement, John Doe decides to go through with the suicide after all. On Christmas night he goes to the top floor of an important building and prepares to jump off. The Barbara Stanwyck character has a gut feeling that he will do it and finds him just in time.

She pleads with him not to jump so they could rebuild the movement. She convinces him with words that bring the meaning of Christmas to the heart of the situation:

“You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He’ll go on keeping it alive for ever and always – for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Have you ever thought of Jesus as a John Doe? But he was. He was not important in the eyes of the world. Even in the Gospels we read how many people considered him a fake. And there certainly have been many D. B. Nortons in the past 2,000 years who have misused and co-opted the name of Jesus Christ for their own egotistical purposes. The churches that carry his name have brought much shame to the purity of the gospel message. And yet, despite all this, 2,000 years later we still celebrate Christmas.

Yes, Christmas has been commercialized and turned into something often unrecognizable. And yet, it’s still Christmas; it’s still the celebration of Christ’s birth. And the movement is still alive, still changing hearts and minds and souls; still bringing healing and forgiveness to the many John Does and D. B. Nortons and Ann Mitchells.

I should also mention the other major character in the movie, another homeless hobo and friend of John Doe. He is known only as the Colonel. He is a cynic about human nature and he sees clearly long before John Doe what Norton and others are up to. There are cynics all around us, and there are plenty good reasons to be cynical. But cynics will never change any lives and they too need the healing that the Christ movement brings.

The four main characters in the film Meet John Doe - D. B. Norton, Ann Mitchell, John Doe and the Colonel

The four main characters in the film: D. B. Norton, Ann Mitchell, John Doe and the Colonel

Christianity is not an institution. It’s not a religion. It’s not a philosophy or a self-help course. It does not promote a feel-good narcissism. Christianity is a movement – an exciting, world-transforming movement. More than ever, today we need to recover the original vision of Christmas, the message of the original John Doe. Today the church needs to get off its comfortable place among the D. B. Nortons of the world and join the John Does who still have the naivety to believe that the world can be a better place, a holier place!

I want to be a John Doe. Do you? Let’s join the movement; it’s all around us; it’s in our hearts.

Merry Christmas!

CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!

Thanks be to God.


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From darkness to light

 

In today’s reading from Ephesians 5:8-19 Paul tells us to expose darkness and bring it into the light so it becomes light! This beautifully summarizes what was Jesus’ own customary way of healing and teaching, which was to bring people out into the open, where they could be healed and brought into communion with Christ. So in today’s Gospel reading. Was his purpose to destroy the rich man? No, his purpose was to expose him, to bring him into the light. The man walks away disappointed, but nowhere is it indicated that that was the end of the story. And after Jesus made is startling statement about how difficult it is for rich men to be saved, he followed up with more reassuring words: “With man this is impossible; with God all things are possible.” The rich man was brought into the light; we don’t know what was the result.

The gospel’s purpose is not to condemn people. The gospel’s purpose is not to separate people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. The gospel’s purpose is not to make some people puffed up because they are ‘saved’! The gospel’s purpose is to bring people into the light and to expose the darkness. And we expose the darkness not in order to humiliate people or to condemn them, but in order to make the darkness light – at least according to Paul in his letter to Ephesians (5:11-14).

Dear friends, the issue is not whether you go to heaven – however you visualize heaven. Like Jesus said, it’s impossible – but with God all things are possible. So let’s leave that business to God. Our purpose is not to worry about heaven. Our business is to be in communion with Jesus Christ, to participate in his life. As a matter of fact, participation is the way Orthodox theology likes to view salvation – participation in the life of Christ, becoming partakers of the divine nature, as 2 Peter puts – participants in the divine nature by being united with Christ, partaking of his life. Hebrews 3:14 calls us to be μέτοχοι τοῦ Χριστοῦ. I want to be μέτοχος του Χριστού. Don’t you?


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Thank you

I apologize I haven’t written much in recent weeks. It’s not because I have nothing to say, but rather I have too much to say. On any given day I can’t quite make up my mind as to what subject to explore, and very often I end up opting out of exploring anything. One thing I am realizing is that I need to go back to the sources and the roots of my own existence as a child of God. This means going back primarily to the Jewish background of Jesus Christ. We Orthodox – with our technical and philosophical doctrines of Trinity and Christology – have practically forgotten about the Jewish roots of Jesus. And yet, it’s there in our worship and prayers. Jews come to wedding services and are deeply impressed by how much our sacrament of marriage refers to the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. This morning I conducted a funeral service and once again I intoned the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the final prayer of our funeral service asks God to give rest to the departed “in the bosom of Abraham.” So with all these references to Abraham and the patriarchs, you would think that we would be more aware of the Jewishness of our tradition. I want to explore the Jewish character of Jesus – and more specifically, the actual social and economic setting of Galilee where he began and did most of his ministry. Look for some of these explorations in the coming weeks and months.

Today I want to thank the many people who do follow or occasionally visit this blog site. I started this blog site in July of 2014. In the thirteen months since, I have had about 11,000 visits from 125 countries! That’s right, 125 countries. It’s remarkable really, and it shows the power of the Internet to communicate and connect. Of course, some of these visits have been one-time hits, perhaps through a Google search or a link, but the majority of visitors to my blog site have made repeat visits, which shows there is an interest in what I write. I’m humbled by that, quite frankly, because when I started this I expected only people who know me would ever bother checking it out, and I thought that I would be writing primarily for my own interest. Clearly that has not been the case. And it shows how someone like me who is a total unknown outside of a small circle of church people can have a readership in 125 countries – all because of this thing called the Internet.

I encourage anyone who enjoys writing and thinking to get onboard and start your own blog. I use WordPress, but there’s also Blogspot and other providers. And it’s free! You’d be surprised what will happen, just as I have been surprised. From the very start last year, my second highest number of readers, after the US, have been in Brazil. Do I know anyone in Brazil? No, and yet, consistently day by day, week by week, I have people in Brazil who visit my blog site. Then come UK, France, Australia, Italy, Canada, Greece, Germany, and on down the list of countries. The only parts of the world from which I’ve had no visitors have been Iran, Afghanistan, much of Central Africa, and some of the countries in Central Asia, Quite amazing. Some of the countries from which I’ve had visitors I didn’t know existed. Actually, I shouldn’t say that; having grown up in Canada and gone through high school in Montréal I learned geography – but I’m still shocked at some of the obscure countries that show up in my stats page.

So I want to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU to anyone and everyone who visits this blog site and takes the time to read what I post. I will try to write more frequently and better!

You may also want to visit the two blog sites of my friend Mike Mair in Scotland. He is not Orthodox – and I don’t always agree with him – but he has a real biblical mind and writes beautifully, even poetically. I admire his gifts for bringing out the many meanings of Scripture. But be prepared to be challenged if you visit his blog sites. He is currently doing a daily commentary through the Book of Revelation. His two blogs are at:

http://emmock.com

http://xtremejesus.co


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A Prayer

After completing my post “It is good to be here,” I found this beautiful prayer that so wonderfully complements what I wrote. It is from the website Oremus. May it enrich your spirit and heart today.

Lord of glory, it is good that we are here.
In peace we make our prayer to you.
In trust we confirm our faith in you.
Help us to set our faces steadfastly where you would go with us.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on your Church,
proclaiming your beloved Son to the world
and listening to the promptings of his Spirit.
May your Church be renewed in holiness
that may reflect your glory.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on the nations of the world,
scarred by hatred, strife and war,
and crying out to be changed by the touch of your hand…
May they hear the good news like a lamp shining in a murky place.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on those in need and distress,
suffering as your Son has suffered
and waiting for the salvation you promise…
May the day break and Christ the Morning Star
bring them the light of his presence.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, it is good if we suffer with you
so that we shall be glorified with you.
According to your promise bring all Christ’s brothers and sisters…
to see him with their own eyes in majesty
and to be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.

To him be praise, dominion and worship
now and for all eternity. Amen.

O God,
in the transfiguration of your Son
you confirmed the mysteries of the faith
by the witness of Moses and Elijah;
and in the voice from the cloud
you foreshadowed our adoption as your children
Make us, with Christ, heirs of your glory,
and bring us to enjoy its fullness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Christ Jesus,
the splendor of the Father
and the image of his being,
draw us to himself
that we may live in his light
and share his glory
now and for ever. Amen.