Recently I was blessed to speak in Belleville, Ontario, at a seminar hosted by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. Lovely folks, lovely place. But, like many of us, they have their work cut out for them, keeping Orthodox Christianity alive in that little place. Here follows a few snippets from our time together.
Well, I may move around some, so I hope that’s okay. Good morning! How many of you were born and raised in the Orthodox faith? Raise your hand. How many of you came to Orthodoxy later in life, like as a convert? Well, that’s not bad! That’s not bad. I’ll probably offend all of you, so I ask your forgiveness in advance. It does seem at least ironic to me that a Southern boy from North Carolina, living in Houston, Texas, comes to Bellevielle, Ontario, to talk at a Greek Orthodox church about the relevance of Orthodoxy in society today. I probably will fail in many regards.
What I’d like for you to do at this point: if you have questions about anything that you would like answered before we’re done today, go ahead and be thinking of them, or maybe just write yourself a note—anything you would like to know—and we’ll try to tackle it as a group. There’s nothing worse than when a speaker gets finished and he says, “[Are] there any questions?” and everybody looks at their fingernails and look at their neighbor… And then the one person that you can’t get to shut up in the parish raises their hand, and everybody thinks, “Oh, no!”
[Voice from the audience]
Is that you? [Laughter]
But there’s always the one person. And the speaker doesn’t know it. The speaker thinks that person has a question, he calls on him, and everybody else is like: “Oh, brother!” So go ahead: write down your questions, any questions you might have. Even the young people—particularly the young people: if you have any questions, let’s wrestle with them today, because it’s a glorious thing, in my opinion, for Orthodox Christians to come together for something other than just the Liturgy or just a worship service or memorial service or a festival. Because St. Paul went out and he preached in the homes and he preached in the square and he preached in the marketplace, and all of these things helped to fortify the Church, not only to bring people to the Church, but to strengthen those who were struggling—we’re all struggling in the Church.
Anyone here not Orthodox? Everyone’s Orthodox? [Inaudible from the audience] I’ll probably offend you guys, too.
The first thing is: we have to appreciate the Church, its mission, and its presence in the world. I want to thank you all, all of you particularly who for generations your family has been Orthodox, for preserving the true faith for those of us who have come lately to the faith. No matter if you’re a every-Sunday, every-week church-goer or if you’re a nominal church-goer who supports the needs of the community or if you’re part of a family that has done that: those who have helped the Church throughout all these generations… As we mentioned last night, during Holy Week when we’re singing the Lamentations around the tomb, and we sing, “Every generation to the tomb comes bringing,” right? Every generation to the tomb comes bringing their dirge songs, their funeral songs, because we realize, thanks to the revelation of God, that Christ is risen. So all of you who have preserved the Church to this point—glory to God—thank you. May God grant you many years.
For those of us who have come to the Church as adults, it can be quite a struggle. I served for six years in the Russian Orthodox Church, and I constantly—Greeks, I never had this happen to me, believe it or not—when I was in the Russian Church, I would meet people. They’d say, “You speak Russian?” And I’d be: “No.” And they’d say, “And you’re Orthodox?” “...Yeah?...” I’m sure the Greeks probably do that—not any of you all, but that probably happens sometimes.
A church in San Francisco, where St. John Maximovich—St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, where his relics are—a friend of mine visited there years ago, back in the ‘70s, and he was just a white boy, so he knocks on the door, because the church was locked. They opened up the door, and they said, “Pravoslavnyye?” and he said, “No”: they slammed the door! So things have changed. I mean, if you are all having a guy from North Carolina come up to Belleville, Ontario, glory to God, things have changed, because we don’t come together because we speak any language in common except the resurrection of Christ. That’s why we’re here. It’s not because of our culture. It’s not because of our family. Those things may be good and God-pleasing, but the thing that unites us together is the risen Lord, and that’s available to everyone, everyone, everyone.
But we have to be reminded, over and over and over, about our mission, not as Greeks, not as Southerners, not as Canadians, but as Christians. I did a retreat once, and I spoke for [about] six hours, and it was a lenten retreat, and a man came up to me afterwards, and he says, “Father, you’re the first Orthodox speaker I’ve ever heard who didn’t quote C.S. Lewis!” Now, if you know, C.S. Lewis died an Anglican—I dare say he would probably die if he were an Anglican today—but died an Anglican, so when you’re quoting him, you sometimes get in trouble, but I want to mention this. C.S. Lewis wrote that “Christianity, if false, is of no importance; and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Christianity, if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important, so if it’s false, it’s of no importance. C.S. Lewis is often quoted, paraphrased, for this next saying, but I wanted to read at least most of it in its entirety. He said:
Either this man [Jesus], was, and is, the Son of God, or he is a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come away with any patronizing nonsense about his being a good human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
So our first purpose today is to appreciate the Church, its mission, and presence. The second thing today is to understand why we do or should do the things we do in church. The third is to acknowledge that salvation is a free gift, but it’s hard work and it’s hard work only because we’re rebellious and lazy. Number four is to conclude that the only way for us to truly live is to die.
We were talking last night at dinner about Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, Diary of a Russian Priest. Forgive me: I have to read a few quotes to you, but Fr. Alexander writes:
Our continual mistake is that we do not concentrate upon the present day, the actual hour of our life. We live in the past or in the future. We are continually expecting the coming of some special moment when our life will unfold itself in its full significance, and we do not notice that life is flowing like water through our fingers, sifting like precious grain from a loosely fastened bag.
Constantly, each day, each hour, God is sending us people, circumstances, tasks, which should mark the beginning of our renewal, yet we pay them no attention, and thus continually we resist God’s will for us. Indeed, how can God help us? Only by sending us in our daily life certain people and certain coincidences of circumstance. If we accepted every hour of our life as the hour of God’s will for us, as the decisive, most important, unique hour of our life, what sources of joy, love, strength, and yet hidden from us, would spring forth out of the depths of our souls?
He ends by saying:
Let us, then, be serious in our attitude towards each person that we meet in life, towards every opportunity of performing a good deed. Be sure that you will fulfill God’s will in these very circumstances on that very day in that very hour.
The quote that came up last night from Fr. Alexander is on Protestantism and Orthodoxy. Fr. Alexander says:
In the little things, they [Protestants] have, they have obtained very great results, and we [Orthodox], who have great things, vegetate in mediocrity.
There was a time when I wanted to have a tent revival that was Orthodox. Now, you might think, “This guy is nuts,” but in the South, that’s what they do. That’s what churches do: they put up a big tent somewhere, they bring in some speakers, they bring in some singers, and they get hundreds of people to come out, and they feed them. We have to get the message out, so in the South, I wanted to do this big tent, and I was going to have music, bluegrass or something. We were going to serve barbecue. That was the South. I don’t think you could put up a big tent here in Belleville, play bluegrass music… Well, I don’t know. Maybe you could. Hmm? Country music?
Last week, at our church, it was our 20th anniversary. I serve a church now [of] mostly converts, about a hundred families. Last week we had six tents put out in front of our church. We had tables set up, and the tents were all lined up, and we had a bluegrass band playing music. Our bishop was there. So we’re in church, we had the protopsaltis come down from the Diocese of Mid-America. He even did some Arabic chanting and so forth. We had 250 people in church. They came out of church, and there’s bluegrass music playing and lamb kabobs.
There’s no reason for us to think in Belleville or in Houston the way it is is the way it’s always going to be. “Maybe we can get three or four more new people. Maybe we should just start working out our own salvation, and others will come.” We have to answer at the Last Day for the faith that we’ve been given. Whether you were given it as a child in those baptismal waters and you were raised by pious parents or when you came to the faith late, the Lord’s going to say, “What did you do with what I gave you?” and we can’t say, “I was going to do that, but that was kind of Protestant, and I didn’t want my co-workers to come to church because they don’t even know I go to church.” I have a guy at my church who wouldn’t put an Orthodox bumper sticker on his car because he didn’t want people to know he was a Christian, the way he drove…
The priest who got tired of hearing excuses for why people do not attend church presented the analogy of ten reasons for my not washing up. The reason the priest says he doesn’t wash up is…
1. Because when I was a child, I was forced to wash myself.
2. Those who wash themselves are hypocrites. They think that they’re cleaner than other people.
3. I can’t decide which soap is best.
4. I used to wash up, but later I got tired of doing so.
5. I wash up only for major feasts: for the Nativity and for Pascha.
6. None of my friends wash…
7. I will start washing up when I’m old and dirty.
8. I don’t have time to wash.
9. In the winter, the water is too cold; in the summer, it’s too hot.
10. I don’t want soap manufacturers to profit from me.
But you can see how that would relate to church. Some people don’t go to church when they’re sick. I’ve never understood that. People came to Christ when they were sick. If we believe that Christ is present, we would be found in church, even when we’re sick. I told them last night, I can say anything, and then I get on a plane and fly away tomorrow, so if you don’t like this, you can talk to Fr. Anatoly.
You can’t get sick from the chalice. The chalice is the Body and the Blood of Christ. You cannot get sick from the chalice. If you believe you can get sick from the chalice, don’t receive Communion, because you don’t believe it’s the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s the greater disease: you don’t believe it’s the Body and Blood of Christ. So don’t refrain from Communion because you believe it will damage you, unless it’s because of your own sins. St. Paul says we should never receive in an unworthy manner. When are we worthy to receive Communion? Never! But we should not refrain from Communion because we believe that we will get sick from the chalice.
St. John Chrysostom, reportedly, his last words were “Glory to God for all things!” and we see that written at the end of many books and so forth. He’s saying that as he’s dying. We find it hard to say it when we have a cold. We should thank God for the struggles he allows us. Those are the struggles that he allows for us alone, for our salvation. God is always good, not just when good things are happening to you. God is always good, so we have to thank God. If I have the flu, it’s incumbent upon me to thank God for this affliction that reminds me of my mortality. I also add, “God, do your will, and I’d be happy to be well again.” We don’t pray like we’re silly.
God knows what our wants and needs are, but it’s impossible to sin when you’re being grateful. You cannot be grateful and sin at the same time. So if we find ourselves being grateful, we find ourselves fleeing sin. I offer those things to God. We offer to God what we have. Sometimes what we have—forgive me, young people—is crap. That’s what we offer in confession. That’s what we offer in repentance.
So if I’m approaching the chalice and am reminded of my sins, I have a mental change; I repent of them. I ask God to forgive me. If I’m in line and I’m approaching the chalice, and I’m mindful of my unworthiness, and I am mindful of my own unworthiness, I ask God to bless my unworthiness. And if I’m on my way to the chalice, and I have none of those thoughts, I’m probably not worthy to receive.
Repentance is a lifelong process. Our bishop taught us one time—you know, we sing, “God grant you many years”—even if somebody is 115 years old, you’re singing, “God grant you many years…” and the guy’s 115 years old! The reason we do that is not so God will make him live longer. The reason we sing, “Chronia polla, Many years,” is that you have more time to repent. That’s what your life is given to you for: to repent, not to walk around, “Woe is me!” but to keep turning toward God, so that [on] the Last Day he receives you into his kingdom.