October 16, 2017 Length: 52:32
One of the extremely complicated issues with which Orthodox parents must contend these days is that of homosexuality. How do we talk to our kids about same-sex desires and relationships and how do we do so with the sensitivity, nuance, and frankness that the topic requires? At the request of Carole Buleza, the Director of the Antiochian Department of Christian Education, Bobby Maddex once again interviews Dr. Philip Mamalakis, an Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, about how to talk about marriage, intimacy, and homosexuality with your children. This is part two!
Mr. Bobby Maddex: Welcome to Ancient Faith Presents. I’m Bobby Maddex, Operations Manager of Ancient Faith Radio. You may recall that in April of 2016 I had the distinct honor and pleasure of interviewing Dr. Philip Mamalakis. He is, of course, an assistant professor of pastoral care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and we talked a little bit about how we should talk to our kids about homosexuality. Well, that ended up being an extremely popular episode, and we decided to do a follow-up program featuring the specific questions that children might ask on this topic, and these were presented to us mostly by our listeners. I should also point out that Dr. Mamalakis is also the also the author of the recently published and acclaimed Ancient Faith Publishing book, Parenting Toward the Kingdom. I think this is going to be a very fruitful discussion. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Mamalakis.
Dr. Philip Mamalakis: Great to be back for part two.
Mr. Maddex: All right. Well, let’s get right into it. My idea here is to submit one of these possible questions that were framed for us by our listeners, these things that a child might ask about homosexuality and about a child’s relationship to homosexual people, and you just go ahead and answer it. How does that sound?
Dr. Mamalakis: That sounds good.
Mr. Maddex: All right. Let’s start with number one. The first question is: If two people love each other, why shouldn’t they be allowed to be together or to be married? Isn’t Christianity about love?
Dr. Mamalakis: That’s a great question because, yes, Christianity is about love. In fact, love is our defining feature as Christians. John 13:35, we know: “By this that all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is central to who we are. They’ll know we’re Christian not by if we fast or go to church, but by our love. In fact, the reason we go to church and fast is to grow in love, being filled with the Holy Spirit and becoming like Christ, who is love. People can misunderstand the Orthodox Church as being about rules, and really the goal of the Christian life isn’t to obey, but to love, and the reason we obey is an act of love and an expression of love. We know 1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”
So we notice that it is all about love, but like we mentioned in our first podcast, that Christ reveals to us through the Church the difference between love and attractions and desires. What oftentimes people will be asking about is: They love each other, it means, well, they might want to be with each other, they might have attractions and desires. But in fact we actually have our desires and drives and attractions transformed when we walk the path of faith in Christ in all our relationships. And that path of walking in Christ oftentimes doesn’t feel loving; it actually feels like a real sacrifice. So we want to help our kids understand that love has a lot more to do with self-sacrifice than about feelings, and that absolutely we should pursue love in all our relationships. That means that all our relationships are centered on Christ.
Then the second part we want our kids to know is—we want to teach our kids about what God has revealed to us about the nature of marriage. Marriage is about a lot of different things. It is a building block in our society. It’s like an economic center for a good economy. It’s about raising children, or really about forming children. It’s a partnership between a man and woman who journey through life. But most deeply we want our kids to know is that Christ reveals that marriage is an image of Christ and his Church, that it’s actually all about Christ himself who unites a man and a woman, and that path of marriage is that path of being transformed in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
So I would want my kids to know that actually I think one of the best icons of marriage is that icon of Christ’s descent into Hades. If we know that icon, that image of Christ going down and grabbing Adam and Eve by their wrists and lifting them up—that, in my mind, is an icon of marriage. Adam and Eve are connected to each other, but really they’re connected to each other through Christ. Their marriage is that union, that re-unification of Adam and Eve in Christ. And we can no more change the nature of marriage than we could re-draw that icon. It was Adam and Eve, a male and female, who were created through a division that are reunited in Christ.
So it becomes a great opportunity to help our kids understand that they might hear a lot of different ideas about what marriage is—falling in love, spending your life with one another. Well, those aren’t actually the heart of marriage. It has way more to do with learning to live your life for Christ, pursuing righteousness and actually being transformed from our desires.
Mr. Maddex: Well, the second question is one that I have heard asked very often, and that is about Christianity and judgment. Christians are not supposed to judge, so how can any Christian tell someone else that homosexual behavior is somehow wrong?
Dr. Mamalakis: First of all, one of the challenges of this issue is that if a person believes that they are a homosexual and that certain behaviors are part of their identity, we have to be careful, because they will not understand if we tell them that their behaviors are wrong but we still love them. What they will hear us saying is that you are wrong, which is not actually what we believe. We believe that God madly loves each person. So if we approach this issue with an attitude of loving the sinner and hating the sin, what they hear is: you just hate me. As an act of love, we want to watch how we speak. We can focus on loving the sinner and loving the sinner.
Oftentimes we have to be careful about commenting on sin and commenting on people’s behavior. God reveals the path of life to us personally, and it’s only in his love that we can see our sinful ways and pursue righteousness. So it’s oftentimes not the most loving behavior to point out and comment on people’s behavior. We focus on love, and it’s like the prodigal. The father did not focus on the prodigal’s sinful behaviors; he just wrapped him in love. And when we encounter that love, we’re actually free to see our sinful behaviors.
It’s a lot like parenting, that when you see a child misbehave, it’s a really good idea to connect with them before you correct their behavior, because that communicates “We’re more concerned with you as a person than just about your behaviors.” In fact, the only reason we’re concerned about sinful behavior is because it’s destructive to the human person. Christian life is not about behaving the right way; it’s about being in a relationship with God.
So the second part is: there are actually a lot of behaviors that we learn are wrong as Christians. There’s a lot of behaviors that Christ teaches and the Church teaches that are wrong—lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, fornication, gossip, jealousy, hatred towards others—and it’s really important that we hear that message in church, because these are the types of things that we get tempted by with our thoughts and our emotions or our drives. Christ reveals to us a path of real life: how to thrive as persons, growing closer to him through the Holy Spirit, which means putting off all those things that are contrary to that path of real love.
I am reminded of Colossians 3:5: “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly within you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” It goes on to say:
But now, put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices, and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.
So really, one thing that Christ revealed to us, by revealing to us the path to thrive, it’s really important that we hear these behaviors are destructive. Was Christ judging us? No, he’s not judging us. He’s just pointing out that if you go in that direction, that leads to death; that’s a dead-end road. We see St. Paul struggle with this, where he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” So we see in the Christian life, it’s really clear that we distinguish between: “Listen, I’m struggling, but there’s some behaviors that are just destructive, and some choices I make that are life-giving.” And that’s way different [from] judging a person.
But consider: the Christian life isn’t just avoiding the bad. We’re invited to pursue the good, pursue purity, kindness, gentleness, self-control. Our fallen desires, our distorted desires, are to be replaced or overpowered by a desire for Christ. We think about Philippians 4:8:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
So what we see is that the life in Christ is a life of re-orienting toward the good. In order to do that, we need to know: what is the good and what is the destructive? We don’t really need judgment, and Christ reveals that, that this is the path for us to thrive. So I’d want my child to know the difference between how much God madly loves us and actually these behaviors and acting out in these ways are destructive.
Mr. Maddex: Let me follow up on that a second. So, as you said, everyone would acknowledge that we all engage in destructive behavior in some sense, and yet many Christians would also say—including myself—that I still have a relationship with Christ. Can the homosexual individual, even a practicing homosexual individual, can he claim to have a relationship with Christ?
Dr. Mamalakis: Well, I know two things. I know that no matter how much we sin, no matter how we lose our way, no matter how much I act on my broken desires or my desires and impulses, I never lose the image of God in me, and that the Orthodox Church understands that God is always pursuing me. So what we see is: I can turn my back on God, and he pursues me. The other thing I know is that no matter how close we draw to Christ, I’m never going to be free of sin. I’m never going to be perfected until the next age. I’m always growing.
What does it mean to have a relationship with Christ? Can someone have a relationship with Christ? As Orthodox, we’re pretty slow to start judging the inner workings of someone’s heart. What I am called to do is focus on my relationship with Christ through the life of the Church, and I turn around and love everybody.
Mr. Maddex: Okay, so I think we can all agree here that the Church does not condone homosexual behavior, but by doing so are we not just pushing people away from the one, true faith?
Dr. Mamalakis: Well, I think that there are two parts to that answer. Are we pushing people away from the faith by how we talk about this issue? On one hand, it might be true, because we can be so focused on someone’s behavior or react to it or making statements against that that we lose sight of the person. Christ approached people who were lost, who were behaving in ways that were not okay, we might say. And he created a little scandal with the religious leaders. How could he hang around those people? Now, was Christ condoning their behavior? Well, in fact, we believe that Christ, when he encounters someone, in that love, there’s that invitation to see your sin and to repent.
So really we have to be careful the way we love and the way we talk about this particular issue, because we can be pushing people away, if we’re preaching about certain sins and not about others, if we’re preaching more about sin than about the path of righteousness. When we preach the Good News, it’s called Good News for a reason: it’s an invitation to the path of life. When our message is that, then each person, they hear it, their hearts hear it to the degree that they’re open—that’s kind of their personal decision. So we can push people away by the way we talk about it.
The other part of the answer is: Not everyone is really interested in following Christ, not everyone believes; that people turned away from Christ, and they can be turned off or turned away by Christ’s invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and “follow me.” This is an invitation, and by the nature of an invitation and by the nature of God’s love, we can choose to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Many people I’ve encountered look at the Orthodox Church and say, “Well, it’s too hierarchical” or “Only men are priests” or “You don’t celebrate this or that,” and they just say they have no interest. Well, I understand that. It doesn’t change my response to them as love. But people walked away from Christ, and we should expect people to either misunderstand or not understand or simply choose to walk away.
Mr. Maddex: Okay, let’s tackle this very difficult question. A child says: One of my friends told me that he was different [from] his brothers when he was five years old. He realized at that age, that young age, that he was gay, and he can’t help it. God made him that way. What can you possibly say to an individual like this, and what do you say when they claim: How can your Church possibly look down on my behavior?
Dr. Mamalakis: I think we’ve all had similar experiences. That’s a great question, because all of us know every child is different, and you can notice unique behaviors even from a young age. That is normal. This is God’s creation. We live in a fallen world, and every child is distinct and different. To call the child “gay,” well, that’s actually a label we put on that child. This child has these certain interests; he doesn’t fit a certain standard stereotype of what a boy should like and how a boy should behave; or a girl, she doesn’t follow the stereotypes of how a girl should behave or what a girl should like.
And we have to be careful what we see and how we interpret that, because what we should see is: that’s a girl, and she has a name. She’s going to have her path of intimacy with others, close relationships, and a relationship with Christ. Based on her unique gifts, her unique interests and unique desires, she will have her course. She never stops being a female, but she’ll be a unique type of female, like each one of us. The same thing for a boy. If the boy tends to have different interests and different desires that don’t fit what we consider a “normal male” stereotype, rather than trying to fit the child into a stereotype, which isn’t respectful, or label the child as “gay,” which, from the Church’s perspective, is inaccurate—that child is a boy; he has a name, and he’s called to have his own path of closeness to God and others. If we don’t allow the child to have their free path, it’s actually disrespectful, and oftentimes they react to that.
So what we need to do is we need to celebrate the gift of each child: not label them “gay” or “straight,” and not confine them to any sort of rigid gender stereotypes, but invite each child into this life of Christ in the Church such that they know what we talked about earlier on this call and in the last call: that actually to thrive as a boy or a girl and grow into a man or a woman is to be close to Christ, to put off the old man with its desires and to seek Christ: new life, righteousness, to acquire the virtues, to be transformed in relationship with Christ.
That’ll manifest itself, it’ll turn out each person in a different way. They may or may not get married, but we know that if they’re close to Christ and the Church, they’ll actually thrive in life, and the most beautiful part is they’ll make a unique contribution that only they can make. The goal of the Christian life is not to get married, have a couple of kids, and live in the suburbs. The goal of the Christian life is to be fully devoted to Christ. Each person, when they’re free to chart their own course on that path, beautiful things happen.
Mr. Maddex: Here’s a more practical sort of question. Does the Church allow homosexuals to attend the services? Are they allowed to take Communion? What are the rules here?
Dr. Mamalakis: Well, when we think about it, we have to be careful, again, how we define or label someone. Someone with same-sex attraction is a person, again, with a name. To receive Communion, what we need to do is we need to believe, because when we receive Communion, that’s a proclamation that I subscribe to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. What’s required for that is baptism and oftentimes a confession, because we’re really never worthy to receive Communion or pure enough to receive the free gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. So really, when we think about it, we should be encouraging people to prepare to receive Communion, no matter what internal desires or struggles they might have.
If, however, someone turns away from Christ and his Church—and there are many ways to do that: through sin or through breaking one of the canons of the Church—that would require that, in order to receive Communion, we would need to have some sort of confession. The Church provides a means of restoring that relationship to receive Communion. Again, the beauty of Orthodoxy is that one of the images is that it is a hospital. Who should go to hospitals? Anyone with struggles. Anyone who’s sick goes to a hospital. What we realize is my internal struggles don’t preclude me from receiving Communion. It’s when I reject Christ and his Church that I have excommunicated myself.
So the Church is there to teach the path, to invite people to struggle on the path, and to restore us when we fall off the path. It really doesn’t matter what I struggle with: it’s that same invitation to everybody.
I think about it a little bit like… I remember as a kid I was playing soccer, and one of the players on the opposing team, he completely fouled. It was really a dirty play, and the ref missed it. I became really mad. Right now, I have a choice: what do I do with my anger? Anger is a power of the soul that was given to me by God, but I have a choice: should I not go to church if I felt anger during my soccer game? Well, what if I chose—and this is a choice—in anger to retaliate and to hurt him, hurt that player. Well, I actually should confess that. But what if that same anger, I decide I’m going to play my hardest, and the revenge I’m going to extract is going to be: I’m going to win this game, so I’m going to put all my effort into playing. That’s what I chose in that situation, and I had more energy during that game than most of my games! That’s what we see. Should I go to church if I’m angry? God invites us in our anger not to sin. When I sin, when I act out on my anger, the Church gives me a path to confess and allows me to commune.
Mr. Maddex: The next two question, Dr. Mamalakis, are somewhat related, but I’m going to start with the [more] basic one first. Both of these questions are ones that I think most of our kids face, particularly if they go to public schools. I know my own kids have faced each of these questions. The first is: I have a homosexual friend. Should I tell him or her that I cannot be friends with them any more?
Dr. Mamalakis: When we think about it, what our kids need as they grow up is an inner circle of people—we think of it like a safe place; oftentimes it’s our family, our parents, our Sunday school teacher, youth director, and our priest, and our church community—where we can be close to people as we learn the path of life in Christ. And we need that. And the stronger connections we have there, the more we clarify our identities as we grow. So because we’re still developing our identities, it’s really important to have our kids have those types of environments, because kids have got to figure out who they are and what’s true, and what is that path of life that Christ offers. The more clear we are as we grow about who we are, the more free we are to interact with everyone.
So the question about having a friend is, well, we’re actually influenced by our friends. Is it okay to have a friend who doesn’t go to church? Well, it kind of depends, because if we’re clear about—well, to be a human being and to thrive means that I go to church on Sunday, and I have a friend who doesn’t go to church, all right, I’ll just tell my friend I can’t play Sunday mornings. That’s fine, but if I’m not clear about it, and I start hanging around people who either don’t believe in God or don’t understand church or maybe don’t know they have a soul, I would be cautious, because that type of thinking and worldview, if I’m surrounded by it, can start to affect my thinking about what’s true, because the fact is, as human beings, we’re influenced by the people we hang around.
So really, when I think about who the friends that I want my kids to have [are], there’s different levels, and I want to make sure that my kids’ inner circle are other kids from families who share this same understanding of Christ’s invitation of how to thrive with life in him. Just because we’re influenced by our friends.
Mr. Maddex: Okay. So let’s talk about a kid who’s in the outer circle: not in the inner circle; they’re an outer-circle friend at school, a kid from church has heard on a previous Sunday that they are to love the oppressed, love those who are victimized, and this particular student that they are outer-circle friends with has come out as gay and has been shunned as a result. The Christian friend, the Orthodox Christian friend, decides, “You know what? Out of a sense of love, out of my love for Christ, I am going to go and I am going to have lunch with this person and associate myself with him or her publicly.” If the kid does this, if the Christian child does this, will people think that he or she is gay as well? And does it matter?
Dr. Mamalakis: That’s right. People may think a lot of things. People may think that I am gay as well, which I am not sure why that matters, because, again, if I know who I am—I am a male with or without same-sex attraction or opposite-sex attraction—people can think I am all sorts of things. The goal is to know clearly who I am and how we see things as Christians. So we stay close to our “home base” to get that clarity.
Number one, they can misunderstand and think that, [to] which I would say, “That’s okay.” Number two, they think that, “Well, you must condone that type of behavior.” The child might get attacked from other Christians that said, “How can you sit with that person? That’s condoning their behavior.” To which I would want to help my child know that that’s actually what Christ did, and that’s the same thing Christ was attacked for.
I want my child to know two things. Number one, what is true: what is the true life in Christ that allows us to thrive, that intimacy and connection with God that transforms all our desires to live beautifully with him and with others. And, number two, how to reach out in that love to everyone in the world, because Christ’s love frees us to love everybody and anybody, to love our enemies, to love people who are lost and confused.
There’s a third thing that might happen. That child who came out, if you go sit with that child, that child might assume that I support your behaviors, and that child might even start reaching out to me as if I had an interest in that, that if you like me, maybe we should date! And I would want my child to know: Listen, I love you, I respect you, but that’s not what I do.
So what I find that what we do as a Church in America and as Christians in the world is we go out into the world and help people understand what real love is, because the Orthodox Church is in a world where other Christian churches have open communion. As Orthodox, we might be afraid to go out to inter-faith events because we’re afraid, but that’s not really the Gospel. We need to go out to [this] inter-faith world, and people say, “Well, let’s all share communion,” and that’s where we raise our hand and say, “Well, we don’t participate in that way.” And that’s confusing, but we need to learn how to redefine love, that love as we understand it has boundaries. Just because I love you, it doesn’t mean that I commune with you or that I get involved in behaviors or activities that are contrary to what I know this path of life to be.
For many people, I have found, the rules of the Orthodox Church are confusing and might even offend people, because they don’t understand the story behind the rules. So I have friends who think it’s medieval and old-fashioned that the Orthodox Church does not allow marriage between an Orthodox and a non-Christian, because many Christian traditions in North America have adopted that notion that marriage is about love. So what I have to explain—and I’m happy to do it—is to say, “Well, the way we understand marriage is as a union of a man and a woman in Christ, and that’s a sacramental union. So how can you be married to someone who doesn’t believe in Christ, or maybe doesn’t believe they have a soul?”
Once people understand, “Oh, you have boundaries,” and the boundaries you have are an expression of your love—they may not agree with them, but they start to understand them. So it’s important for us as Orthodox Christians to know how it is that we love, that we sit next to that student, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to participate in a certain way and, whatever people think about us, we need to be grounded in truth.
The last thing I want to say on this is I know a young lady who is an Orthodox Christian and she has a very close female friend. One of her friends said to her that, “Gee, are you guys dating?” And the girl I knew said, “Actually, no. She’s just a close female friend.” But this other person thought if you’re a close female friend, you must be in a dating relationship. So I said, “Well, you’re going to teach people that, actually, you can have a close female friend and even sleep over at her house, because that’s what close female friends do, you know—they hang out—but that, no, this is not a dating relationship.” Increasingly as Orthodox, when we go out into the world, our boundaries that have been revealed to us as life-giving will be misunderstood, and what we want to do is to live this life and teach this life in love.
Mr. Maddex: Another hard question, Dr. Mamalakis, and one that faces mainly people who are in their adolescence, and I’m talking about high school here, and then also in their college years, it’s going to come up time and time again. What is a good way to respond when someone in this day and age asks you: What is your opinion on gay marriage?
Dr. Mamalakis: That is such a tough question, and I think it’s tough because we live in a culture where, when someone asks us that, they might not really be asking it and be interested in our opinion. They might not be interested in actually a dialogue. So when someone’s asking our opinion, sometimes it’s to get into a fight or to have a battle. I think we want to use discernment, so the answer to that question, in my mind, is: It depends who’s asking.
A daughter of mine, when she was in college, the teacher asked about people’s opinions, and she realized the teacher had a real strong agenda and was really advocating a position and they weren’t really interested in having a dialogue. So my daughter chose: I decided there was no reason to share my opinion, because it really wasn’t someone who wanted to understand. This was someone who had made up their mind and had wanted to convince me of something, and I chose not to answer.
If we do discern that someone is genuinely interested in our opinion—and really, if someone respects us, they will respect our perspective—the answer to what is our opinion on gay marriage is the same answer as: “How come you don’t let non-Christians get married in your Church?” The answer is: Let me tell you about how we understand marriage. And the way we understand marriage is: man and woman were divided at creation. Eve, if you remember, came out of Adam. Through the Fall, that division turned into conflict. What we believe, as Orthodox, is marriage is the reunification of the two genders in Christ, and that’s a transformation in love, in Christ, of our very desires and drives.
So I would want just that simple answer, to say: This is how we understand marriage and we always have understood marriage like that. We might add that it’s a marriage in Christ, just to help them understand. So everything we believe comes out of that understanding of marriage. What’s interesting and what I like about this answer is I haven’t said we’re against gay marriage; what I have said is this is what we believe marriage to be. If we have that answer, we’re not interested in a fight; I’m not here to change your mind. I’m here to walk in the light and to love.
Some people might call me a bigot or call me old-fashioned. I remember when I was a single guy—I was 24, and I had just met my now-wife, and there was a friend in my office who had just moved in with his girlfriend. They’re asking me, and I said, “That’s not what I do. We’re just dating.” They had a funny reaction, because immediately they said, “What, you think it’s wrong to live together? That’s so old-fashioned.” I said, “Okay. I understand that you believe that waiting until you’re married for physical intimacy and to live together is old-fashioned. What I just know is it’s actually the best way to prepare for marriage.”
So people won’t necessarily agree. They might even have a reaction. Our role is the same. We have an answer for why we do what we do, and we love those around us. In that love, we’re free. The challenge comes: it’s to live that path that’s been revealed to us, to live our marriages in Christ, to realize that marriage is a place where we’re struggling to give up our selfish desires and to learn to love selflessly within the sacramental life of the Church, because many of us Orthodox haven’t really been taught that and many of us have been really disappointed in our marriages and blame our spouses, and we really are stepping away from that path of life. So the challenge of the Orthodox is to live that path, and when we do, we actually receive the Holy Spirit. That really empowers us to go into the world and to live that truth and love.
Mr. Maddex: Well, Dr. Mamalakis, all of this information has been so insightful and definitely on par with our previous episode on talking to kids about homosexuality. I would like to conclude with a specific question that came from one of our listeners—one of our parent listeners—and what they ask is: How should we respond when our kids are exposed to things that are contrary to what the Church teaches? I would personally venture to say that that is the case for every single parent in the United States if not the world. So what do you do when the kids inevitably—inevitably, because even when they go to school, I know that my daughter, they do like a CNN student news show, where they sit in front of the TV the first five, ten minutes of the day, and they’re exposed to all the news of the day, whether it’s the Las Vegas shootings or whatever it is, things that I don’t necessarily want them to know, but there they are, being exposed to it. It’s going to happen. So what do you do as a parent when this sort of thing is occurring?
Dr. Mamalakis: First, the best thing and the gold ring we’re striving for as parents is that when our children experience something like this, and you mentioned it, like the Las Vegas shooting, or when they see something that affects them, they’re confused by, they can’t understand, they don’t know what to do with, they might be alarmed by—we want them to come back to us. That is like the gold ring. We want to have a relationship with our kids where they feel free to come back with us and say, “I saw this. I heard this. What does this mean?”
Because that’s one of the aspects of parenting, number one, that connection with our kids, but, number two, parenting is about exactly that: helping our kids make sense of those data points that they see, and specifically making sense of it as we understand it in the Orthodox Church. That is when we catechize our kids, is when they say, “Hey, how do these two things fit together?” And we say, “Well, we’re going to take it to another level. This is how these two things fit together.”
[Second], if you recall what we’ve just talked about today, there are two things that we need to know: how to live our faith, what is that true path that’s revealed to us, which we learned from hearing the gospels, being taught, being catechized, listening to the teachings and the hymnology of the Church—number one, learning the path; and number two, now how do we relate to others.
So how do our kids learn those two things? Number one, they learn the first one because we want to raise them in the truth. We want to raise them in the community. We want them to be learning about not hitting, not lying, you don’t steal, you learn to be patient, you learn to be kind. We want them in a community, and by “community” I mean home connected to the Church connected to the home, where they’re learning the path. And the second thing is they learn how to love the world by going out to the world and coming back, and going out to the world and coming back. When our kids see things, hear things, experience things—not if—we recognize this as this is exactly the second half of learning how to be a Christian: how we love the world.
So the answer specifically to this question is: I think it’s best to ask your kids what they think, first thing. “What do you think about that?” Because oftentimes they’re confused, but we want to develop their ability to use their discernment, their budding discernment, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit on their hearts. Sometimes they say, “I don’t know”; other times we might be pleasantly surprised that they actually have it figured out; they just want kind of that affirmation or confirmation that they got it right. Secondly, we help them understand exactly what we’ve been talking about all day. Not everyone in the world knows, understands, or agrees with and believes in this revelation of Jesus Christ. That happens to be a fact.
We want our kids to interpret these events in that way, that we know this path of life and love, but not everyone knows about it, agrees, and believes in it. That allows them to say, “Oh, okay.” I haven’t judged anyone. I haven’t diminished the path. In fact, what we’ve done is we’ve helped our children understand what it means to be a Christian in the world, that we’re going to go out, staying grounded in this truth of Jesus Christ, into a world that we actually know are no longer expecting that.
What’s interesting is it happens all the time. “How come all the families don’t go to church and we go to church on Sunday?” Well, we go to church on Sunday because this is how we thank God, the first day of the week, the first time of the day. This allows us to stay connected to God who sustains and holds all of creation together. This is how we offer that back and this is how we thrive. Not everyone knows that, not everyone understands, and not everyone believes.
Then when they see, let’s say, what my boys saw—a commercial with two men kissing—they’re like: “Oh!” And they’re looking for my reaction. Am I going to condemn those people? Am I going to judge them? Am I going to just remind them of what’s true? “What we know to be true is that actually we kiss our spouse. We kiss someone in an intimate relationship of the opposite sex within marriage. Not everyone agrees, not everyone knows, not everyone believes.” “Oh, okay. I got it.”
In a sense, as we walk through the path, we say, “God revealed that that path is a dead-end road. Some people don’t know that, don’t understand it, and don’t believe that, and they go running down that dead-end path.” Life becomes the parents and the kids navigating, and the parents help them, I imagine, like the person who has the compass and the map: Here’s the path through. Notice that the map says that’s a dead-end road; we’re going to go here.
The last thing is that our kids need to taste the joy that comes from living in Christ. If they’re learning these truths about the beautiful path in Christ, but they’re not really experiencing it as a beautiful path, if they’re alone, if they’re lonely, if no one’s really attending to them, if their experience of church is rigid rules with no real intimacy and love and connection, and they go to their friends who are living all sorts of lifestyles but they feel welcome and free, that’s a problem. Their hearts are going to be drawn to where they are welcome and free, and that needs to be the Orthodox Church and our homes, where we are welcome to be free and to have any thoughts, any questions—in fact, we’re free to have any struggles—and this life in Christ points us to, actually: life in Christ makes you really free. As you transform your desires, you become really free.
So our children need to have that experience that “I like being at home. I feel fulfilled. I am actually growing.” When we get that experience it reaffirms essentially this life in Christ. So we don’t just teach the Church; we live as Church, and they encounter that internal conviction that this is a good place to be.
Mr. Maddex: You know, Dr. Mamalakis, as we’re getting ready to wrap things up here, it occurred to me that we really still haven’t asked the most fundamental question which is: Why does the Church condemn homosexual behavior? Why is homosexual behavior a sin at all?
Dr. Mamalakis: The answer to the question—and we kind of hinted at it earlier in this conversation—is that we are called to not act on our desires and our impulses. It’s a little confusing, because most men and women who get married in a male-female relationship imagine marriage to be a place where we act out our desires, when in fact when we think about how we understand this, we understand that whenever we’re acting out on our desires and not offering ourselves, that’s a dead-end road. What does it mean to offer ourselves? It means to follow Christ; it means to obey his commandments.
What does this have to do with sexuality and how we act out on our sexual desires? What we see is that God gave us sex for a purpose, and he made it very pleasurable. It’s a lot like food. Food he gave us for a purpose and it’s very pleasurable. There’s a good way to use food that leads toward intimacy and connection: when we share a meal together, when we break bread. In fact, God uses food—bread and wine—to manifest his Church, the body of Christ in the world. But it’s still pleasurable. I still love a hamburger; I just love a good hamburger. But there’s a difference if I’m going through a drive-through and shoving a hamburger down with a soda on my own in the car versus when I’ve actually grilled hamburgers and I have community and fellowship in the eating of the hamburgers.
The other thing is, I can like hamburgers so much I can have four of them. Clearly there’s something going on more than my biological need for food. It becomes this internal desire, that I’m looking for the hamburger to fill some internal desire. Well, we realize that God gave us food and made it pleasurable, but he said, “Listen, to thrive is you understand you’re not controlled by your impulse to eat, but you choose to use food the way God has revealed it: in community, not being controlled by your desires, but choosing to eat the right amount.” Because food is dangerous—most of us eat more food than our bodies need—they give us something like fasting. Now you’re going cut off this natural impulse for food so that you’re not controlled by your desires for food. What we see when we’re looking at food is that the path of righteousness is actually not being controlled by our impulses. Now we can turn to sexuality.
God created sex for a purpose: it has a place; and it’s really pleasurable. When we use, when we express this sexual impulse according to what God has revealed, within a marriage, a lifetime marriage, to someone we are already married to, then we find that this physical union is a powerful way to join two persons, body and soul. They are equally yoked, they are united as one, and it’s an offering of love. The fruit, the natural fruit, of this male and female being united in love in Christ is children. Now, it’s still very pleasurable. Some of us then have noticed: can we guide our sexual impulses to find their fulfillment in this way? Much like a hamburger, we might be eating for emotional and inner reasons.
Because sex is so powerful and I feel so connected, well, actually, I might feel that connected with someone through sexual activity outside of that path that God has given me. But what happens is, it becomes then an external act to fill an inner need. When we misuse that, it might really feel like this really feels fulfilling, but it’s not that oneness—it’s not a physical oneness, it’s not life-giving, and, if it’s between two men or two women, it’s by definition not unitive; it doesn’t reunite and it can’t have Christ in the center, because we’ve now turned away from Christ’s plan and path.
It’s not just same-sex relations. How about if I’m sexually active in a dating relationship? Or with an adulterous relationship? I might feel the same longing to act out sexually—because it feels really good and it feels like I’m in love—but we’ve misplaced it from choosing to express our sexuality the way God has revealed will lead towards life. When we act out with food or with our sexual desires, we end up turning away from that path of intimacy and connection with Christ. That’s a much longer answer to “Why do we not bless any sorts of acting out of our desires?”
And that goes for slandering someone because we’re mad, or attacking someone verbally because we’re really upset, because when we’re guided by—or misguided—by our impulses and desires rather than what Christ invites us to [which] is to take up our cross, to deny ourselves—“Take up our cross and follow me”—we end up in a dead-end road. The invitation of Christ is to deny myself, and by that the old man, my fallen desires—take up my cross and follow Christ, which means everything from I need to deny my desire for a hamburger, I deny my desire to attack someone who gets mad at me, I need to deny my desire to have an affair, I have to deny my desire to engage in sexual relations that I have not committed to a lifelong marriage, I need to deny my same-sex attractions, and—it’s not just about denial—take up that struggle and follow Christ.
What he promises—and this is what I think is the most miraculous—is not only that it’s life-giving, but the fact is that his path and his yoke are light. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” So the way I describes it, it seems like, oh, that’s a real struggle! Well, it is a struggle, but the more we struggle toward Christ, the more free we become, the more we thrive in real, healthy, intimate relationships, and the more free we live. And that’s light.
The alternative—I am now enslaved to my desires for food, enslaved to my anger, and enslaved to my lust—that is a real struggle, because in all those cases I can’t thrive. I can’t thrive in relationships, and with food my body actually feels it. So really the message of the Church is that to follow Christ is the easiest path as it’s revealed, to take his yoke upon us, and we actually find rest for our souls, and to which I would add joy that comes, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and intimacy, which is what we’re created for and long for, in all our relationships. So we see the path to joy is sacrifice. This loving Christ becomes that self-offering, the fruit of which is joy and the resurrection.
Mr. Maddex: Boy, Dr. Mamalakis, that makes a lot of sense, and I really resonate with your love for hamburgers [Laughter], but really all that you’ve said so far has been very helpful, and I know that we had talked prior to the interview that we were going to try to keep this to an hour, and we are definitely getting ready to surpass that. So I’m going to let you go, but first I would like to know whether there is anything else that you would like to add before we conclude.
Dr. Mamalakis: The only thing I want to add is it’s an act of faith to believe that Christ’s path actually makes me free, and when we act in faith, we don’t wait till we die to see the results. But when we have a good spiritual father and people to guide us, we actually taste that joy and that freedom as we go. But there’s a struggle, and what happens in our country and in our culture is the message is: If there’s a struggle, there’s a problem. To which Christ and the Church say: No, there’s no problem that there’s a struggle; that is the path. It’s a little bit like being a dad. It’s a struggle to being a dad. I can’t solve that, but that struggle is how I grow and I express my love for my kids. I want to remind us of that.
The other thing I think that’s really critical is what the Church teaches and what Christ revealed through his Church is so different [from] some of the narratives and ideas that we hear in our world that it’s important to know, because when we live in the world and hang out in the world, things seem to make sense except for one thing. Look at the fruits of this path. The fruits of the path of following Christ we see in the lives of our saints, who are totally free, totally joyful. They’ve had 40, 50 years of struggle, and they have nothing—they’re like children: they’re joyful. The fruit of living according to these ideologies around us is just more confusion, more anger, and more division. But when you live in a world… If we don’t have a place to go to learn the light, to live in the light, boy, it’s really hard to make sense of this.
And finally, we believe what Christ said, that “in this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” that the light is not overcome by the darkness. So we don’t go out in fear, because Christ and his love is the strongest force in the universe. What we need to do is to walk in that light rather than in fear. That’s an invitation for us to be filled with the light and to go out. Thank you very much, Bobby.
Mr. Maddex: Dr. Mamalakis, this is a topic that is not easily exhausted, and it may very well be the case that we receive actually additional questions from our listeners. Would you be willing to come back and address those as well?
Dr. Mamalakis: I would be happy to. I appreciate the opportunity.
Mr. Maddex: Awesome. Well, I thank you so much for joining me today.
Dr. Mamalakis: Thank you.
Mr. Maddex: Once again, I have been speaking with Dr. Philip Mamalakis. He is the assistant professor of pastoral care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and he is the author of Parenting Toward the Kingdom, published by Ancient Faith Publishing.