September, the first month of the new ecclesiastical year, offers us the opportunity to reorganize our lives spiritually after the summer holiday. This yearly beginning is an occasion for us to change, to see the need for change, to take the opportunity God is giving us to leave behind our old ways and ideas and embrace the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church without shame, without embarrassment and without excuse.
The Church in her wise and continuous concern for our spiritual welfare offers us, through her many activities, the opportunity to take seriously the work of our salvation. Whatever activities we choose to be a part of, if they are not centered in Christ, following His example as shown to us in the Gospel, our efforts will be of little value. We cannot and we must not substitute the Social Gospel for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
By this I mean that we are deluding ourselves if we think that by focusing solely on social issues and concerns we can fulfill our vocation as Orthodox Christians. Too often we turn our backs on the need to be a regular part of the spiritual life our parish. We are content with being “Sunday” Christians. Some of us do not pray in our homes. Thinking that we know the Orthodox Faith, we do not study our faith to learn more about it, indeed we criticize those who try to teach us or correct our misunderstanding. We make fun of fasting or worse try to rationalize our refusal to fast by invoking the need to be modern or contemporary.
No matter how good our intentions are as we enter the new ecclesiastical year, this much needed change will not occur in us unless we seek to put Christ into our life. To many of us this seems to be too difficult a task, too great a sacrifice for us to make. We are well established in our comfort zone and we don’t want anyone or anything to come along and disrupt our “comfortable life”.
In order for us to change and do so in ways which will be beneficial to us personally and to all of us as a church, we must look at a number of problems and see where our attitudes and behavior are in need of serious adjustment.
First, it is important to define the purpose of a living Church. The Church’s sole purpose is to guide its members into the harbor of salvation. The Church is not here to make you happy, it is here to make you holy.
The Church, as you well know, is not merely a lay-clergy organization with secular goals, but rather it is, specifically, that Holy Foundation instituted by Christ, the Son of God, for the spiritual regeneration and salvation of mankind. Since the salvation of our souls is our ultimate goal, it is evident that the work of the Church should be guided toward the fulfillment of this. For some, the Church is not a standard to which we should conform. Rather the Church is something which we need to force to conform to our weak and watered down standards. As a result, sacrifice, commitment, repentance, spiritual growth, all of these are seen as unnecessary. Instead, the Church, is seen as needing to “come into the 21st century, to modernize, to update, to give up its old-fashioned and antiquated notions.”
Too many of us have the attitude that religion is alright as long as it does not inconvenience us, as long as it compromises with our human vanities and weaknesses. It appears that we are not interested in the salvation that Christ offers us through His Holy Church. The average person can get away with being average by merely doing what is expected and accepted by everyone. In fact when we see others who are taking their spiritual lives seriously, when we encounter people who are struggling with the demands of spiritual growth, we make fun of them. We accuse them unjustly of thinking they are better than we are. The truth is if they are sincere about their efforts to grow spiritually, the last thing they would ever think is, that they are better than anybody.
Secondly, it is important that we help the Church offer its advantages to others. We can do this if we support our Church activities through her various organizations. Where would we be without The Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Women of North America (AOCWNA), The Fellowship of St. John the Divine, SOYO, our choirs and chantors, our Church Schools and teachers, and others. There are also many activities on an Archdiocesan, Regional and Deanery level whereby we serve God by serving others. The Archdiocese needs you and you need the Archdiocese. Therefore your participation on these levels needs more attention and a firm commitment.
The newest and perhaps most challenging is the Parish Ministry Team Program which is just beginning to come to notice in the Archdiocese. This program recognizes not only the God-given talents of each person but also the God-given vocation of each person. It provides a chance for everyone to utilize their special and unique gifts for the good of the Church and the Body of Christ.
By serving our Church in these ways, we help expand the good and virtuous life that is exemplified by our deeds and attract others to the redemptive message of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Thirdly, our financial contributions should be given faithfully for the support of our local Parish and our Church, nationally and internationally. In this regard, we, Orthodox Christians refuse to assume the obligation which is ours.
From an economic point of view, our Church is poverty stricken. A bankrupt Church can offer little if any assistance to her communicants and cannot become a strong motivating force, spiritually and morally, in the society in which we live. Most unfortunate is the refusal on our part to take seriously our responsibility to embark upon a program of stewardship and support our Church from our gifts. Instead we look to those outside the Church and think nothing of expecting that our local churches will be supported by fund raisers, attended by non-parishioners. These fund raisers usually generate income from groups that receive little if any benefit from the Church. Thus we “support” our churches but keep our own pockets full. As good stewards we ought to recognize that God has given us time, talents and treasure and that these have been given to be used, not hoarded and held unto. In the same light we need to realize that God has given us this time, these talents and this treasure and that He expects us to use them for the good of the Church. He does not expect us to look to others. In essence being a good steward come down to one word – I; what I can do, what I can give.
Spiritually, most if not all of our parishes are in need of a major overhaul. The Archdiocesan Priest’s Guide requires the pastors of churches to conduct Vespers on Saturday evening and Orthros on Sunday. How many of our churches actually do these services? How many of us make the effort to attend? How many of us criticize the priest if he tries to do them?
Confession and Holy Communion are clearly stated to be separate Sacraments, yet how many of us avoid Communion because we refuse to go to Confession on a regular basis? How many, if we go to Confession at all, make a mockery of this sacrament by standing in front of the priest and refuse to actually say the sins we have committed and then ask for forgiveness? How many of us when our priests provide an atmosphere of quiet, private and unhurried opportunity to truly confess our sins, criticize them and try to frustrate their sincere efforts to look after the good of our souls?
How many of us try to fast even one day a week? How many when we see others fasting, say this is a man-made rule and that it is unnecessary for us to fast?
How many of us expect our priests to overlook those rules and guidelines of the Church which we disagree with, in order to accommodate our weakness and our refusal to comply with the Church? How many of us portray our priests as unloving, as uncaring, as legalistic and as impractical, because we are too lazy, or worse too concerned with others might think?
My beloved in Christ, let each of us, then, resolve TODAY, to become truly reborn, in both our outlook and our commitment to sincere and beneficial spiritual growth. Let us actively participate in our Church programs, placing emphasis where it belongs-in growing spiritually and helping our fellow parishioners to live a truly Christian life. Let us examine our personal circumstances, our finances, our ability to commit our time and our talents to the church and then make a commitment to do what we can honestly and sincerely do to help build our Church, our parish and our communities. Let us be good Christians in being quick to judge ourselves and our shortcomings and better Christians while being slow to judge others. Let us be willing to accuse ourselves and excuse others. Let us pick up the yoke of Christ who said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Let us resolve to take time to live our Orthodox Faith.