Sunday, January 8, 2017

10 Questions for an end-of-the-year Spiritual Checkup (Part 2 of 3)

10 Questions for an end-of-the-year Spiritual Checkup
(Part 2 of 3)

In the last installment of this series we looked at the first three of ten “checkup” items for our spiritual health:

1.      Are you more aware of sin in your life? 
2.      Do you have a growing list of questions regarding the faith? 
3.      How is your generosity?  Or, does your budget reflect a commitment to funding God’s work in the world?

Today we will look at three more:

4.      Is there someone in your life who knows everything about you or, are there things you are hiding?  There are two thoughts behind this point.  The first thought comes from the saying of the dessert fathers that reads, The one who chooses himself as a spiritual guide, has chosen a blind man, and a fool.  As much as we would like to think that we can be objective in evaluating ourselves, we simply can’t.  And we can never really know our own spiritual inner workings without another set of eyes helping us.

Secondly, God made us to be with other people.  We are not really healthy outside of a healthy community.  And to the degree that we are sick (and, like it or not, we are all spiritually sick to some degree) we can only gain health with the help of others.  Alcoholics Anonymous gives us a good example of this point.  Step number five in the 12-step process reads as follows: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.  For all of us as human beings, health/sobriety/sanity (whatever you want to call it) can only be found in healthy community.

5.      Are you actively involved in a local church?  Or, how’s your Divine Liturgy attendance?  When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit down on the disciples (Pentecost) what he was doing was empower the church to do the work that he had done while in the world.  To put it differently, the church is now God’s primary vehicle of operation in the world. 

It’s through the church that grace is primarily given out (through baptism, chrismation, holy communion, and all of the other sacraments).  It’s also the church that guides us to (and helps to shape within us) a Godly life – through the life that she calls us to live.  To the degree that we aren’t plugged in to the church, we are sailing the oceans without a compass, a map or a rudder (because the church is all of these things for us).
6.      Think of the person that upsets you the most/causes you the most grief in your life – what are you doing to love that person as would ChristThis is the hallmark of a Christian (because it’s so difficult to do).  But Jesus Christ is very clear in his teachings that we are not only to forgive those who wrong us, but to love them:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:27-28).

And from the cross, Jesus leads by example with his final words to those who have placed him on the cross, Then said Jesus, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  Is there a place in our lives where we need to offer more of God’s forgiveness?

- Offered by Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis

Saturday, January 7, 2017

10 Questions for an end-of-the-year Spiritual Checkup (Part 1 of 3)

10 Questions for an end-of-the-year Spiritual Checkup
(Part 1 of 3)

Once a year it’s wise to get a physical check-up – to make sure we are physically well.  The reason being that we are not static beings – we change from year to year.  Sometimes (usually when we’re young) we get stronger and healthier.  Other times, our health declines.

Our spiritual health is very much like our physical health in this respect.  There are periods in our lives when we are growing – even flourishing – spiritually, and other times when we are suffering setback after setback.  In the next three installments of my Sunday offering, we will go through a 10-point checklist to evaluate how our spiritual life is right now and offer some possible remedies in the areas where we could use some help.

1.     Are you more aware of sin in your life?  At first glance this may seem counter-intuitive.  Most of us think that spiritual progress means we have fewer sins, and this is true with one important caveat.  The testimony of the saints is that, as we mature in our walk with Christ, we do commit fewer and less “grave” sins, but we also become more sensitive to and repulsed by those “smaller” sins.  A passage from The Prologue from Ochrid makes this point well:

The more a man advances in spiritual knowledge and in purification of the heart, the more it appears to him that the depth in which he finds himself is even lower and that the height to which he strives is even higher. When one spiritual giant on his death bed heard that his companions were praising him because of his great asceticism, he began to weep and said, "My children, I have not even begun my spiritual life".

2.     Do you have a growing list of questions regarding the faith?  This shouldn’t require much explanation.  If we are studying the scriptures, reading the lives of the saints and trying to put all of this into practice in our lives, there will be questions.  If we aren’t then there won’t (it’s that simple).
3.     How is your generosity?  Or, does your budget reflect a commitment to funding God’s work in the world?  The only resources that God has (think time, talent and treasure) are our resources.  And it’s not coincidental that Jesus talked about stewardship and money a lot.  Depending on how you count, roughly half of the parables in the gospels address the topic of money.  Some of the strongest statements we hear out of he mouth of Jesus are on the topic of money (Where your treasure is there your heart will be also (Matt. 6:21), and You cannot serve God and money (Matt. 6:24)).

Like it or not, how we use the resources God has lent to us speaks directly to the health of our soul.   God has promised us through the scriptures, he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you (Deut. 31:8).  Do we believe this?  Do we believe the words of King David, I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread (Ps. 37:25).

Its impossible to be serious in our walk with God if we aren’t proving that seriousness by committing our time, talent and treasure to God’s work.

- Offered by Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The "E" Word: (Relatively) Simple Ways to be more Evangelistic in our World (Part 5)

The "E" Word: 
(Relatively) Simple Ways to be more Evangelistic in our World
(Part 5)

In the last article in this series we offered the first three of six suggestions that we can apply in our lives and in our churches to be consciously more evangelistic.  These first three suggestions were:

1.     Begin with prayer
2.     Build relationships with non-believers
3.     Invite someone to church

In this article we will conclude this series on evangelism with three final methods to become more evangelistic as a Christian and as a parish.

4.  Become accountable to someone else for sharing the gospel.  If sharing God's message with the people around us is something we value (even if it's something we don't currently do), then accountability can be a great help.  That which is accounted for is much more likely to be done.

This accountability person can be a likeminded friend, a family member or a priest.  Ideally, it would be a mutual accountability where both parties would be looking for the other to support and encourage (and, of course, hold them accountable) in this effort to spread the gospel.

5.  Have a meal with a non-believer.  This point is related to point number two above ("build relationships with non-believers"), but is more specific.  The goal here is, with people we know well who are not Christians, and with people we know less well, to open our lives to them - to let them into our world and if we are in fact struggling to live the Christian life, to have Christ's words from the gospel of St. John take affect - Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).

St. Paul had this same idea in mind as he went about his missionary work.  He tells the church in Thessaloniki, So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves... (1 Thes. 2:8).  Real evangelism is much more than just convey the content of the gospel (that’s just the start).  It’s also about walking along-side other people in their varying levels of spiritual maturity to help and guide and grow them in their faith (i.e. we were ready to share with you… our own selves...).

6.  Create a line item in the budget for outreach/evangelism.  This applies to both individuals and parishes.  If we as individual Christians are serious about evangelism, we should invest some money in buying good books that we can then give to people we meet who might be fertile soil for the message of the gospel.  And, as a parish, we said above, that which is accounted for is much more likely to get done.  The same rule applies here.  If no money is put towards any given ministry we (1) show that that particular ministry isn't important to us (For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matt. 6:21)) and (2) make it more difficult for that ministry to accomplish its work (anything we do well is going to cost some money).

For many of us, evangelism is unchartered water.  We often don’t know where to begin – but to that question, Jesus’ words in the book of Acts can give us some guidance.  Just before His ascension, He tells the apostles, … you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Note that the first place where they will be witnesses is Jerusalem (which was where they were when Jesus said this).  The point being – we are to begin where we are – in our neighborhoods, in our schools, at our jobs, with our friends.  And may the Holy Spirit guide us in this sacred and God-glorifying work!

- Offered by Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis

Saturday, December 31, 2016

By Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis

When we think about the Christmas story we typically focus on the heroes and “good guys” of the story – the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Christ child, perhaps also the shepherds and the wise men.  All of these characters are important to the story and give us much to think about.  But it can also be helpful to look at the villains and “bad guys” of the Christmas story to see what they can teach.  That’s what I’d like to do right now.

Bad guy #1 – Herod
We read the following about Herod:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him….

And after the wise men left, “by another way” (not returning to Herod because of the warning they received in a dream) we are told:

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.

Why did Herod do all of this?  Or, put differently, why is Herod bad guy #1?  Herod’s fault is in his exceeding desire to be in power and to hoard that power.  Accordingly, anyone who might be a threat to Herod’s reign must be taken out.

What can we learn from Herod?  We can learn that if we seek to have power in ourselves (apart from God) then we too will seek to remove anyone who competes with us for that power.  But, if we are humble enough to recognize that everything belongs to God, and, as the prophet Job once said,

The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).

Then we can live in fear of nothing and no one – since God is in charge.

Bad guy #2 – the innkeeper
We don’t hear directly about the innkeeper, but we read the following about the impact he had on where Jesus was to be born:

And she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Perhaps the innkeeper represents those who, as Jesus says in the gospel, have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear (Mark 8:18).  The savior of the world was right in front of him (albeit in the womb of Mary) and he missed it. 

The application to us is two-fold.  First, in Matthew 25 Jesus tells us that he is every hungry, thirsty, naked, lonely, sick and imprisoned person (vs. 35-36).  Do we have the eyes to see that in our lives and in our interactions with our children and family and co-workers and the homeless people we pass on the streets?  If not, we too are the innkeeper.

Secondly, Jesus Christ knocks at our door every time the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, and he asks if he can come in and dwell within us (in the form of Holy Communion).  Again, do we open the door and let him in, or, as the Christmas gospel tells us, is there no room… [at] the inn?

Bad guys #3 – the Jewish leaders
The most interest group to reflect on may be the Jewish leaders of that time.  The scripture don’t say much about their motives in the Christmas story, but there is something the scriptures omit that is, I believe, important.  The scriptures tell us that two groups were told about the birth of Jesus, the pagan Magi (wise men), and the (Jewish) shepherds.  But why weren’t the “establishment” Jews (the scribes, the Pharisees) informed about it?

While it’s hard to tell, the answer that seems most likely is that they didn’t really want the Messiah to come – at least not if his coming was going to change their comfortable life.  The scriptures say the following about the leaders of that time:

Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.

It seems that the Jewish leaders had a fairly cushy life, and they weren’t eager for that to change.

What’s the application for us?  If Jesus is going to come into our lives and be our Lord (which means he is in charge), it’s likely that much of life is going to need to change.  If his commandments become the law by which we live, then we’ll need to forgive (Matt. 6:12) and turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), and give to everyone who asks (Luke 6:30) and rejoice in our difficulties (Rom. 5:3).

Are we willing to do this?  Or, does Jesus ask too much?  The Pharisees seemed to think that Jesus indeed was asking for too much, and they were happier without him.  How about you?

So, this Nativity, may our Lord teach us what we need to learn about the “villains” of the Christmas story.  And may we invert their weaknesses – hunger for power (Herod), eyes but can’t see (innkeeper), too much comfort with the status quo (Jewish leaders) - into spiritual strengths – humility, eyes to see, and a willingness to change for Christ – in the year ahead.     

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The "E" Word: (Relatively) Simple Ways to be more Evangelistic in our World (Part 4)

The "E" Word:  (Relatively) Simple Ways to be more Evangelistic in our World
(Part 4)

Having examined in my previous articles five causes for our being less evangelistic than we could be, today’s article will begin our reflection on six (relatively simple?) ways we can strive to be more evangelistic in our lives.

1. Begin with prayer – This should be obvious.  In the book of Acts we see that the Holy Spirit had called out Barnabas and Paul to preach the gospel to the gentiles (non-Jews), and as a part of that commissioning, we read the following:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (vs. 2-3).

There are two sub-points to this.  First, we need to be spiritually growing and serious, or else we’ll have nothing to offer the people around us (and, if we’re not spiritually growing, it’s unlikely we’ll even try to spread the gospel because, why would we share something that’s not important to us?).  Secondly, we need to pray for the people in our world (ideally by name) whose hearts we are hoping the Holy Spirit will open to the message of the gospel (evangelism isn’t a manmade “project”, but the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart – and we need always to see it that way).

2. Build relationships with non-believers – If we don’t have non-Christian friends, it will be very difficult to spread the good news to non-believers.  We need to be pro-active in making friendships with people outside the church – whether that’s through volunteering on the PTA, coaching a local team, playing pick-up ball at the park, or serving at a favorite charity.

Everyone can do this.  We all have interests, and part of evangelism is simply seeing those interests as a means to spreading the gospel.  Perhaps the best scripture verse here is from the gospel of Matthew, Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (5:6).  As we enter into the lives of our friends and neighbors, ideally the gospel message will simply overflow from our life into our interactions with the people around us.

3. Invite someone to church – One concern that people often raise about evangelism is that they feel ill-equipped to answer questions that a friend might raise about Christianity and the church.  The best answer I would offer to that concern is, invite them to church and let the church explain itself.  In the book of Psalms, King David explains that the truth of the church in seen in the church, O taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8)!

We don’t need to have all the answers (and, indeed, thinking we need to have all the answers can be a trick of the devil, to keep us from spreading the gospel).  A good example of this comes from the life of St. Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, who, during his reign sent his envoys to see, first-hand, the great religions of his time, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Orthodox Christianity.  On enter the Orthodox church, they made the following observation:

We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth… We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.

If we are faithful in bringing the people, we can trust that God will do the rest.

- Offered by Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The "E" Word: Five Reasons Why we Don’t Evangelize as we Should (Part 3)

The "E" Word: 
Five Reasons Why we Don’t Evangelize as we Should
(Part 3)

Last week we looked at three explanations as to why the church is less evangelistic today than it could/should be.  They were:

  1. We’re not convinced that people need Jesus Christ;

  1. Our faith has become “routine”;

  1. Our churches have an ineffective evangelistic strategy of “you come” rather than “we go”.

Today’s article will look at two more possible explanations for the lack of evangelistic zeal in the church today.

  1. Church members often see the church as a place to get their needs met rather than a place to bring those in need of Jesus  Christ;

This can be a hard pill to swallow, but, we have to ask ourselves what the church is to us – because we are going to act in the church in accordance with how we see the church.  Do we see ourselves as continuing Jesus Christ’s ministry, which he defines in Luke 4 with the following passage from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed….
Or are we a club where, “I’ve paid my dues and I expect to have my wants taken care of” – whether that’s in the language of the service, the preaching style/length, the ministries offered, etc.?  If we see it as a place where God’s grace and healing is offered, we will bring others (so they can be healed).  If not (if it’s a club) then we likely won’t (and if we don’t get our needs met sufficiently, we may very well leave and not return).
  1. Church members may not be “converted” themselves;

What does it mean to be converted to Jesus Christ?  It means to have him as the center of our lives – his commandments govern our actions – our time, our talents and our treasure is his (not ours) and we’re just here to manage it for him and get him the best return on his investment.

To the degree that we believe this, we will make it a priority to bring others to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (if for no other reason than one of his commandments is to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19)).

To the degree we don’t, we won’t.  Why would we try to bring someone to believe in something that we’re not even fully convinced of?

In the next article we will look at four (relatively) simple ways we can be more evangelistic in our own lives.

- Offered by Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The "E" Word: Three Reasons Why we Don’t Evangelize as we Should (Part 2)

The "E" Word:  Three Reasons Why we Don’t Evangelize as we Should
(Part 2)

If we look at any organism, we see that the health of that organism is very much tied to the reproduction of that organism – both on a “micro” level and a “macro” level.  On the micro level if the human body (for example) doesn’t continue to produce new healthy cells, the body will die.  On the macro level if human beings as a group don’t produce more human beings, they will go extinct.

The church is no different.  The continued life and health of the church requires reproduction – in this case Christians producing more Christians (i.e. evangelism).  Where this isn’t happening, we can only logically conclude that there is a lack of health (and extinction in on the way?).  In this article I’ll examine three reasons that churches may be less evangelistic than they could be.

  1. We’re not convinced that people need Jesus Christ
 In John 14, Jesus makes a very strong claim about his role in salvation: I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me (v. 6).  We notice in this verse that there is no qualifier – Jesus never says, “except for….”  Which means that Jesus is the only way into the kingdom (there is no other road in).

Do we believe this?  Or, as we clergy will often hear, do we believe that “all religions lead to the same place” (I’ve heard this many times)?  And if we do believe that last line, we need to know that that’s not what the church teaches, nor is it what the Bible itself states.  Everyone needs Jesus, because He’s the only road to the Father.

  1. Our faith has become “routine”
 If you’ve seen children on Christmas day, you’ll know that every toy is exciting when they first get it.  But, as often happens, as time goes by, the excitement level also goes down.  This can be the case with our faith and with our evangelism.  When we first become converted to Christ, we want to learn and pray and read and talk about our faith all day long (just like the kid on Christmas morning), but as time goes by, we can come to see our faith as just one more event in the calendar – one more thing to get done that week.  What we need to do is consciously strive to keep that flame burning in our hearts for Jesus Christ through the spiritual practices of the church – prayer, fasting, reading the scriptures, etc.  If we aren’t living the faith daily, there’s little hope that we will have the grace or the interest to share it with the world around us.

  1. Our churches have an ineffective evangelistic strategy of “you come” rather than “we go”
 The gospel is rather clear that one job of a Christian is to go out and spread the gospel to the world: 

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

This applies not just to the individual Christian, but to the church as a body.  The “you come” strategy isn’t wrong, it’s just not enough.  Our churches need to be places where everyone feels welcome.  But we also need to be places where no one feels comfortable unless they are sharing the gospel with the people in their world (i.e. “we go”) – their neighbors, their co-workers, their friends.

How comfortable are we in sharing (or not sharing) our faith with the world around us?  In next week’s article I will reflect on three more reasons we aren’t as evangelistic as we could be.

- Offered by Fr. Panteleimon Dalianis