26 August 2007

Our Lord does not withhold His mercy

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Following the lectionary for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Pentecost XIII.

Our Lord does not withhold His mercy from those who seek Him. We may be slow to seek Him, but He is quick to have mercy. We may slide into the same pit again and again, but He is quick to extend His hand and to pull us out of the pit we have dug. We may turn from Him or even turn on Him, but He is quick to embrace us when we return. We may forget Him, but He is quick to remember us when we return. We may not pray, but He is quick to hear whenever we speak. We may not listen, but He is quick to speak His comforting and soothing words. And we may question and doubt Our Lord’s presence, His desire, His wisdom, His justice and the effect of His blessings and life in us, but Our Lord nevertheless gives; He nevertheless blesses; He nevertheless comes through for us. He never forsakes us even though we may, for a time, forsake Him. Just as He never questions our desire to pray, even though we may question His eagerness to hear. For Our Lord is headstrong and stubborn about one thing—His love for us.

Yet there is more. Our Lord’s mercy comes with no strings attached. He does not give in order to get. He does not love because He needs our love. He does not live for us in order to validate His own life. Rather, Our Lord loves us because He loves us. While He tells us to love only Him, Our Lord does not withdraw His love when we refuse. While He commands us to pray to Him, Our Lord does not eliminate our daily bread or choke our every breath when we will not pray. While He instructs us to live solely for Him, Our Lord does not seek to destroy us when we live for ourselves. While He requires us to follow the disciplines He has established, Our Lord does not deny us all hope when we refuse. And while He urges us to offer everything back to Him in thanksgiving, Our Lord does not deny His mercy, His love, His kindness whenever we are ungrateful.

Our Lord does not withhold His mercy from those who seek Him. Rather, He continually reaches out to us, inviting and enticing us back to Him—back to His warm embrace and His fatherly caress and His loving kindness which exceeds all that we can ever imagine or desire.

25 August 2007

Evangelicals on the Constantinopolitan Trail

This story, which appears in the latest issue of the New Republic, may be of interest to some. It is about one of my colleagues, Fr David (Wilbur) Ellsworth.

Here are a few paragraphs from an earlier edition of the story.

The ministry is a calling, but it is also a career, and, in 1987, a Baptist minister named Wilbur Ellsworth was given the career opportunity of a lifetime. After nearly two decades of pastoring modest congregations in California and Ohio, Ellsworth, at the age of 43, was called to lead the First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Illinois--one of the most prominent evangelical churches in what was then the most prominent evangelical city in the world. Often called the "Evangelical Vatican," the leafy Chicago suburb is home to Wheaton College--the prestigious evangelical college whose most famous graduate is Billy Graham--and a host of influential evangelical figures, a number of whom worshipped at First Baptist. "I was now preaching to these people every Sunday," Ellsworth recalls. "It was all sort of heady and exciting."

From a professional standpoint, Ellsworth thrived. He oversaw the construction of a majestic new building for First Baptist with a 600-seat sanctuary and a 100-foot steeple that towered over Wheaton's Main Street.
And, due to the prominent evangelicals he now ministered to, he became something of a prominent evangelical himself--routinely meeting with the many evangelical leaders who constantly came through Wheaton. "I was at the very center of the religious world that I'd been a part of for most of my life," he says. "It was quite a promotion from where I was before."

From a spiritual perspective, however, Ellsworth was suffering. Over the past 20 years, a growing number of evangelical churches have joined what is called the "church growth movement," which favors a more contemporary, market-driven style of worship--with rock 'n' roll "praise songs"
supplanting traditional hymns and dramatic sketches replacing preachy sermons--in the hope of attracting new members and turning churches into megachurches. First Baptist of Wheaton was not immune to this trend:
Ellsworth increasingly found himself fighting with congregants about the way worship was being done. "They wanted to replace our organ with a drum set and do similar things that boiled down not to doctrine, but to personal preference," he explains. "I said, That's not going to happen as long as I'm here.'" It didn't. In 2000, after 13 years as the pastor of First Baptist, Ellsworth was forced out.

For Ellsworth, his departure from First Baptist triggered both a professional and a spiritual crisis. But, before he could deal with the former, he felt he had to address the latter. He devoted himself to reading theology and church history. At first, he seemed headed in the direction of the Calvinist-influenced Reformed Baptist Church or the Anglican Church, which are where evangelicals in search of a more classical Christian style of worship often end up. But, as Ellsworth continued in his own personal search, his readings and discussions began taking him further and further past the Reformation and ever deeper into church history. And, gradually, much to his surprise, he found himself growing increasingly interested in a church he once knew virtually nothing about: the Orthodox Church. "I really thought he'd go to Canterbury," says Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College English professor and Anglican who is friendly with Ellsworth. "But he took a sudden right turn and wound up in Constantinople."

Ellsworth began reading more and more about Orthodox Christianity--eventually spending close to $10,000 on Orthodox books. By 2005, he was regularly visiting an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago (the Antiochian Orthodox Church is Middle Eastern in background and the seat of its patriarchate is in Damascus). By late 2006, Ellsworth realized that he wanted to be Orthodox himself. On the first Sunday of the following February, an Orthodox priest in Chicago anointed him with holy oil and he was chrismated--or formally received--into the Orthodox Church. A month later, at the age of 62, he was ordained as an Orthodox priest himself.

Ellsworth's story is hardly unique. Most of the approximately 150 members of the Orthodox parish he now leads are former evangelicals themselves. Even Ellsworth's transition from evangelical minister to Orthodox priest is not uncommon. Of the more than 250 parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, some 60 percent are led by convert priests, most of whom are from evangelical backgrounds. And, according to Bradley Nassif, a professor at North Park University and the leading academic expert on Evangelical- Orthodox dialogue, the Antiochian Archdiocese has seen over 150 percent church growth in the last 20 years, approximately 75 percent of which is attributable to converts.

While it's unlikely that the Orthodox Church--which, according to the best estimate, has only 1.2 million American members--will ever pose any sort of existential threat to evangelical Christianity in the United States, it is significant nonetheless that a growing number of Southern Baptists and Presbyterians and Assemblies of God members have left the evangelical fold, turning to a religion that is not only not American, but not even Western.
Their flight signals a growing dissatisfaction among some evangelicals with the state of their churches and their complicated relationship with the modern world.

18 August 2007

Attaining the Lord's Promises

Using themes drawn from the Collect, Epistle and Gospel from tomorrow's Mass, here is a summary:

Only our merciful Lord gives us the gift that we offer Him faithful and laudable service. He gives this gift so that we might strive, without stumbling, to obtain the fullness of His promises. This is our prayer, particularly in the Collect at the beginning of this Mass. The glorious promises for which we strive are then mentioned by St. Paul; namely, the abundant glory the Lord ministers to us. And how does He minister to us? As the Good Samaritan ministered to the man left for dead on Jericho Road. Without hesitation, without condemnation, without scolding, without reproach, Our Lord mercifully ministers to us in our need, bringing us back from the brink of death to the vitality of true life. Not only does He rescue in our need, He also sets us up in His Church so that, with the support of the faithful and the saints, we might together attain His glorious promises. Let this, then, remain our prayer both today and throughout the week.

16 August 2007

Colloquium Update

Below is a news release concerning "Faith of our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans."


DETROIT St. Andrew House -- Center for Orthodox Christian Studies will host "Faith of Our Fathers: A Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans" Sept. 10-11 for Lutheran clergy and their spouses and Lutheran lay leaders from the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada.

The colloquium is the second in an ongoing series sponsored by St. Andrew House to present the basic precepts of Orthodox Christianity to clergy and lay leaders of other Christian faiths. St. Andrew House conducted its first colloquium, for Anglicans, in January of this year.

The colloquium will begin with registration at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 10 and conclude with a farewell reception at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11. It will feature a Great Vespers service on Monday evening at nearby St. Raphael of Brooklyn Orthodox Church celebrating the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos.

After Vespers, there will be a buffet dinner at the retreat center, with the colloquium's keynote address by the Most Rev. Nathaniel, Archbishop of Detroit and the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America, and founder and president of St. Andrew House.

Among other speakers will be the Very Rev. Patrick Henry Reardon of All Saints Orthodox Church, Chicago; the Rev. Dr. Hieromonk Calinic Berger of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary; and Deacon Gregory Roeber, professor at the Pennsylvania State University.

The registration fee for the conference is $75 per person. It includes meals and refreshments at the retreat center. Rooms at the center may be reserved for one to three nights, Sunday through Tuesday, at the rate of $95 per night.

While the colloquium is designed for Lutherans, it is also open to Orthodox Christians and members of other Christian faiths. Seating is limited, however, and priority will be given to Lutherans.

Ancient Faith Radio (www.ancientfaithradio.com), the online Orthodox radio station, will record colloquium presentations. Compact disks of the recordings, in MP3 and standard audio format, may be ordered in advance or at the colloquium.

To obtain further information, register for the colloquium, and order recordings, visit St. Andrew House's Web site at www.orthodoxdetroit.com. For further assistance, contact the colloquium coordinator, David Adrian, at (248) 322-9226 or david.adrian@adrianassoc.com.

David Adrian of Adrian & Associates for St. Andrew House -- Center for Orthodox Christian Studies

14 August 2007

St John Describes This Icon

It seems apparent that St. John has the icon of Our Lady's Dormition in mind, if not in view, when he preaches these words.

Make haste, Lord, to give Thy Mother the welcome which is her due. Stretch out Thy divine hands. Receive Thy Mother's soul into the Father's hands unto which Thou didst commend Thy spirit on the Cross. Speak sweet words to her: "Come, my beloved, whose purity is more dazzling than the sun, thou gavest me of thy own, receive now what is mine. Come, my Mother, to thy Son, reign with Him who was poor with thee."
Depart, O Queen, depart, not as Moses did who went up to die. Die rather that thou mayest ascend. Give up thy soul into the hands of thy Son. Return earth to the earth, it will be no obstacle.

Lift up your eyes, O people of God. See in Sion the Ark of the Lord God of powers, and the apostles standing by it, burying the life-giving body which received our Lord. Invisible angels are all around in lowly reverence doing homage to the Mother of their Lord. The Lord Himself is there, who is present everywhere, and filling all things, the universal Being, not in place. He is the Author and Creator of all things.

Behold the Virgin, the daughter of Adam and Mother of God; through Adam she gives her body to the earth, her soul to her Son above in the heavenly courts. Let the holy city be sanctified, and rejoice in eternal praise. Let angels precede the divine tabernacle on its passage, and prepare the tomb. Let the radiance of the spirit adorn it. Let sweet ointment be made ready and poured over the pure and undefiled body.

In Praise of Our Lady's Assumption

From a sermon by St. John of Damascus.

To-day the living ladder, through whom the Most High descended and was seen on earth, and conversed with men, was assumed into heaven by death.

To-day the heavenly table, she, who contained the bread of life, the fire of the Godhead, without knowing man, was assumed from earth to heaven, and the gates of heaven opened wide to receive the gate of God from the East.

To-day the living city of God is transferred from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem, and she, who, conceived her first-born and only Son, the first-born of all creation, the only begotten of the Father, rests in the Church of the first-born: the true and living Ark of the Lord is taken to the peace of her Son.

The gates of heaven are opened to receive the receptacle of God, who, bringing forth the tree of life, destroyed Eve's disobedience and Adam's penalty of death. And Christ, the cause of all life, receives the chosen mirror, the mountain from which the stone without hands filled the whole earth.

She, who brought about the Word's divine Incarnation, rests in her glorious tomb as in a bridal-chamber, whence she goes to the heavenly bridals, to share in the kingdom of her Son and God, leaving her tomb as a place of rest for those on earth. Is her tomb indeed a resting-place? Yes, more famous than any other, not shining with gold, or silver, or precious stones, nor covered with silken, golden, or purple adornments, but with the divine radiance of the Holy Spirit. The angelic state is not for lovers of this world, but the wondrous life of the blessed is for the servants of the Spirit, and passing to God is better and sweeter than any other life. This tomb is fairer than Eden.

Another Colloquium

In January 2007, St. Andrew House hosted a "Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Anglicans." Anglicans and Orthodox, especially in America, had a unique history. This colloquium provided an opportunity for "re-introduction."

On September 10-11, St. Andrew House will be hosting a "Colloquium on Orthodoxy for Lutherans." (See this link for more information.) This colloquium will take a different approach, providing the Orthodox to explain their faith and practice to Lutherans--particularly focusing on the question of ecclesiology.

More information will be forthcoming, but perhaps those interested might want to set aside these dates.

12 August 2007

Our Lord Deigns to Have Mercy

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Following the lectionary for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Pentecost XI.

Whenever Our Lord performs a miracle, the miracle is not that He proves Himself capable of healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, causing the deaf to hear, making the lame walk, giving speech to those whose speech is impeded, or even raising the dead. That is what consistently astonishes the crowd—as we heard once again in today’s Gospel. They are taken aback and awestruck that Our Lord Jesus could heal the man that was brought to Him. Yet if Our Lord God is all that we say He is, all that He claims to be, all that we expect or hope or pray of Him, then we should not wonder or be surprised when He does what we believe He can do. The miracle, then, is not that Our Lord is capable of healing. The true miracle is that He wills to do so. The miracle is that Our Lord chooses to extend His healing hand to those in need.

The miracle is that Our Lord positions Himself so that He can be approached; that He makes Himself accessible to us. The miracle is that Our Lord both desires to hear our prayer to Him, and in fact invites us to cry to Him for help. And so the miracle is that Our God of hosts turns toward us and looks down from heaven, and sees, and visits this vineyard which [His] right hand has planted; and upon the son of man whom [He] has confirmed for [Himself]. (Ps 79.15-16 lxx)

Our Lord deigns to hear us, to visit is, to heal us, because He is a God of mercy. He does not delight in our self-destruction, but yearns that we return to Him with our whole heart. His passion is not strictness for the sake of strictness, but strictness that leads to our soul’s salvation. And so He does not chide or rebuke or scold to prove how right He is, or to put us in our place; but rather so that we might both see and believe that His way and the disciplines He imposes is the way that pulls us out of the pit we have dug, and leads us into the warm and loving embrace that He is.

11 August 2007

Only the Devil is in Mourning

Tomorrow at Holy Incarnation will be what was once called "the Sunday of the deaf and dumb." It was given this name because of the Gospel which we will hear--the episode of Jesus healing the man who was unable to hear or speak.

Preaching on a similar episode, St Peter Chyrsologus offers an striking illustration--striking because it is so comforting--concerning the healing that Our Lord graciously bestows. For the miracle is not that Our Lord is capable of healing, but that He wills do to so. And the miracle is that His healing is good for both body and soul. Yet who would think--except one of the sainted fathers--that Our Lord's mercy also produces mourning?

Here is how St Peter Chrysologus puts it:

This one, therefore, was deaf and mute who was not able to hear the Law nor to confess God, but was being tossed about in the fire of Gehenna and through the waters of the ever bitter abyss (Mk 9.22), and was unable to be healed by the disciples or by any other human being, since Christ was at that time called the Hearing of faith (Rom 10.17), the Confession of salvation (Rom 10.10), the Redemption and Life of the gentiles.

In short, when the devil was put to flight by Christ's command, what had been shut is opened, bonds are loosed, speech is given back, hearing returns, the man is restored, and only the devil is in mourning that he has been forced out of the one he had possessed for so long. This is why the one who comes from paganism is first cleansed of the demon by the imposition of hands in exorcism and then receives the opening of his ears, so that he can acquire a hearing of faith, so that he can attain to salvation with the Lord accompanying him.

Preparing for the Upcoming Feast

On Wednesday, the Church celebrates with great joy and solemnity the Feast of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary (also known as the Feast of the Assumption).

In preparation for this grand feast, the Church prescribes the discipline of fasting for her faithful. Among Eastern Christians, this fast has been in effect since the beginning of the month. Among Western Christians, the fast is on Tuesday and consists of both a fast (one full meal that day) plus abstinence (no flesh meat).

Fasting, of course, should always be accompanied by prayer and meditation. To aid your meditation for the feast, I commend to you three sermons on the Dormition by St John of Damascus. For your convenience, they may be accessed here.

NOTE: The photo is of the final home and shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary near Ephesus, Turkey.

Local St. Moses the Black Chapter

The following appeared in this morning's Detroit Free Press.

Orthodox Christians open doors to brotherhood
Open house invites African Americans to learn about the Eastern church
August 11, 2007
By David Crumm
FREE PRESS Columnist

Later this month, a handful of Orthodox Christians will make a fresh attempt at changing the sad truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s description of 11 a.m. Sunday as "the most segregated hour in this nation."

They're organizing a first-of-its-kind Orthodox open house for local African Americans who are curious enough to spend a day learning about the domed, icon-decorated Eastern churches sprinkled across southeast Michigan.

"A lot of people would never expect to find African Americans in these churches," said Subdeacon Robert Aaron Mitchell of Detroit, an organizer of the Aug. 25 program. "But we have always been here. Orthodoxy has a huge history and saints of the church in Ethiopia, Egypt and other areas of Africa."

Orthodoxy is the term for the branches of Christianity across Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, most of which have been separated from the Rome-based Catholic Church for about a thousand years.

Earlier this year, Mitchell and Sharon Gomulka, a member of an Orthodox Church in Livonia, cofounded the Detroit Metropolitan Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black. It's a nationwide group that promotes an awareness of African branches of the Orthodox world.

Last year, both of them participated in the group's national convention held in Detroit.

St. Moses the Black, born nearly 1,700 years ago in Egypt, spent an early part of his life as a sort of Egyptian Robin Hood who hid in the desert rather than the woods. However, he eventually encountered the ancient Christian monastic movement known as the Desert Fathers. He converted, abandoned his life of crime and became a famous sage.

"In this new chapter we've formed, we're not encouraging people to separate people by race," Gomulka said. "Just the opposite."

Mitchell said, "We can't turn Orthodoxy into an exclusive, Afro-centric experience. That's not our goal."

Gomulka said, "What we're trying to show is that Orthodox churches embrace all tribes and nations and tongues. As African Americans, we have roots in this church, too."

That's the question raised in the title of the program: "Are There African Roots in the Ancient Church?"

One of the half-dozen speakers that day will be Mother Katherine Weston, an Orthodox nun and iconographer from Indianapolis who creates icons for churches across the country. She feels especially drawn to St. Moses the Black's story because as a pastoral psychotherapist she works with minors who are incarcerated.

"I especially turn to St. Moses and his story when I'm working with young people with difficult problems like addictions, because St. Moses' story is so inspiring. He was able to leave his old life behind," Weston said by phone.

Gomulka said she loves seeing a diversity of faces, including African and Asian saints, displayed in icons throughout the Orthodox year. She and Mitchell are converts to the church from other branches of Christianity. She was Lutheran; he was Pentecostal.

"The Orthodox church is such a broader family of many different peoples," she said. "I remember the first time I saw St. Moses' icon brought out and everyone in the church that day was venerating his icon."

Mitchell nodded and said, "What you realized was: Everyone was looking at someone just like you."

"That's right," she said. "That was such a pivotal movement in my life. Everyone in the church, wherever they came from, was looking at his face and using that icon, that day, as an example for all of us. That's when I truly felt that all of us could be a part of this fabric of faith."

You may read another news release about this chapter here.

05 August 2007

With a Humble Spirit & a Contrite Heart

The following is an excerpt from the sermon preached at Holy Incarnation Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. Following the lectionary for Gregorian Use parishes in the Western Rite Vicariate, the sermon is based on the Gospel reading for Pentecost X.

The hallmarks of godly prayer are two things: a humble spirit and a contrite, repentant heart. A humble spirit and a contrite heart indicate true faith, which is necessary for true prayer. A humble spirit and a contrite heart open the soul to hear what the body is saying and doing. And a humble spirit and a contrite heart give life to your prayer so that you both do and obey the words (Ex 24.3 lxx) you hear and say.

A humble spirit and a contrite, repentant heart are not attitudes, thoughts or approaches to prayer that you can muster or conjure on your own. These are gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are gifts He freely gives to all who invoke the Lord’s Name; to all who pray. Yet these gifts are of no use if they are not used. For the Spirit does not automatically impose upon you a new spirit. Rather, your spirit must not reject but welcome and serve the Holy Spirit. In the same way, your spirit must not simply receive the Spirit’s gifts, but must unwrap, use and enjoy whatever the Spirit gives. Those who leave the Spirit’s gifts unopened may say all the prayers in the right way, and do all that the Lord requires, and follow all the disciplines of the Church; but their spirit will never be animated by the Holy Spirit. For they have not lived in the Spirit, but according to their own spirit. But the person submits his spirit to the Holy Spirit—that person welcomes and uses the Spirit’s gifts and so will no longer strive with God’s Spirit (Gen 6.3) but will, with his spirit, serve in the gospel of God’s Son (Rom 1.9).