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Priests Have Feelings, Too

In a previous article, “Phone Calls That Never Lead to Visits,” I addressed the phenomenon of people contacting a priest to discuss visiting the parish, and then never showing up, and how this can be draining on priests.  In that article, I discussed how I had taken an approach to limit the length of the initial conversation, until the inquirer paid a visit to the parish in person.  The present article is a follow-up of sorts, and will focus on those who have gone beyond simply making a promise to visit, but have actually established a relationship with the priest, and then disappear.

We often think of our priests as the go-to guys when life gets tough, and in fact, that is certainly a function that we priests fill.  Priests seem to have an unlimited supply of energy to deal with multiple problems simultaneously, and speaking to a priest about our struggles often alleviates them.  Priests then tend to become involved with people when they reach a critical phase in their life.  I might mention parenthetically that if we are actively engaging our faith and interacting with our priest when life is good, that we will have less chance of things developing into crisis mode in the first place, but human nature is what it is.

Another type of interaction that a priest has involves those looking into the Orthodox Christian faith.  Contacting a priest is often a watershed moment, the moment when what we’ve been reading becomes suddenly tangible.  Here is a person who embodies the faith we are feeling called to, and it is no longer an idea, but a reality.  Such persons are quite naturally excited, and priests are often encouraged by their enthusiasm.  It can be a blessing for both parties.

When people who are at a critical point in their life make contact with a priest and begin to open up to him about their situation, this creates a relationship.  With a relationship in turn comes responsibility; the priest has agreed to take on the case of someone who needs his help, and through prayer, study, discussion, and possibly action, will attempt to take a person from point A to point B.  The pastoral relationship involves trust, patience, and the building of rapport.

Sometimes, those of us who are dealing with a crisis find resolution to our problems, and no longer need the priest’s help.  Sometimes, those of us looking into the Orthodox faith have second thoughts, or become overwhelmed, or find ourselves suddenly moving away from the area.  This will perhaps end the interaction with the priest.  Priests know this, and can adjust to the change, if they are prepared.  The problem comes when they are left in the dark.

More often than some would imagine, people simply stop communicating with their priest when they no longer need him.  The inquirer may be embarrassed that he has taken the priest’s time, and now no longer wishes to pursue Orthodoxy. The person with a problem may have taken a course of action that the priest recommended against, and feels the priest will be upset.  It seems easier to simply let the contact lapse, as a confrontation would be unpleasant for both parties.

This attitude is simply wrong.  Just as a priest takes on certain responsibilities in a pastoral relationship, so too does the one seeking the priest’s assistance.  Keeping proper communication is a key responsibility of a lay person.  A priest will try to follow up if he has not heard from someone, but in some cases, the follow-up emails or calls are not answered.  Priests are not trained to “take the hint” and stop contacting others when contact ceases, but instead are prone to become more concerned.

Abruptly terminating contact with a priest after engaging him for help is inconsiderate, to say the least.  Like it or not, priests have feelings, too, and they should not be forced into a situation of worry or even of wondering, “what happened?”  Priests are adults, and can deal with changing circumstances.  The best thing to do if we no longer need a priest’s help is to let him know honestly what has happened or changed.  It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but it is the proper thing to do.  It provides resolution for both parties, and in fact, it is helpful in the event that later on, we change our minds.

By this article, I do not seek to make anyone feel guilty, or to suggest that I am more concerned with the feelings of priests than the feelings of laypeople.  Instead, I seek to exhort the readers to always act charitably and responsibility in their dealings with priests, and not to neglect courtesy in dealing with them.  If a phone call is too emotionally difficult to make, an email or letter would be equally appreciated.  In a culture that has so often forgotten common courtesy, it is necessary to point this out simply to educate and inform.  May we ever strive to treat one another with courtesy and show concern for others.

Saint Cosmas the Aetolian: A Patron of Domestic Missionary Work

Saint Cosmas the Aetolian

Saint Cosmas the Aetolian (1714-1779)

When we hear the word “missionary,” we often think of one being sent to preach in a far-away land.  Certainly, Christianity has a rich history of such people being sent away from the comforts of their homeland in order to work for the salvation of others.  However, there is an equally great need, especially in today’s modern Western world, to conduct such efforts at home.  There are a great number of people whom we might describe as “post-Christian,” who have been raised in a “Christianesque” culture.  Such people have a familiarity with the Christian faith, often attended Church when they were younger, and either reject the Gospel outright, or give lip service to Christian faith while not actually living it day-to-day.

Also, as Orthodox Christians, we believe that our Church is a unique Church, the original Church, in fact, and which has something to offer Americans.  As the culture at large goes more and more toward relativism, and some Churches respond by watering down the Christian message in a misguided effort to reach such people, Orthodoxy presents a corrective, a living witness of the faith that never changes, and which has the power to save people in all generations and all walks of life.  Orthodox Christianity is not just an ideology, but is something that can be known by experience.  We have Holy Scripture, the lives of the saints, and the writings of Fathers to confirm our faith, but it is imperative that each and every Orthodox Christian live as a missionary in his own community, sharing the Gospel with relatives, friends, and neighbors.  This involves both sharing the faith and living the faith ourselves to the utmost extent possible, so that we radiate Christ and prove that His grace is effective.

When looking for Orthodox precedents for foreign missions, we are quick to think of the Apostles to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodios, who in the 9th century brought Christianity to the pagan Slavs living in the area now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  However, we may have a harder time calling to mind a saint who was engaged in domestic missionary work, or more specifically, the re-evangelization and strengthening of one’s own people, especially in modern times.  Yet there were several remarkable individuals who contributed to the modern spiritual reawakening of the Orthodox faith in Greece after centuries of degradation under Ottoman rule, and the most beloved of these has to be Saint Cosmas the Aetolian.

Saint Cosmas (1714-1779) lived at a time when Orthodoxy was on the decline in what is now Greece and Albania.  After the Turkish conquest of the area in the 15th century, various pressures led to conversions to Islam, and restrictions on the practice of the Orthodox faith among those who remained Christian.  Education suffered, and in many areas, people ceased to have a connection to the Greek language, which had a detrimental effect on understanding the faith.  By the time of Saint Cosmas, there were countless adults in the northern regions of Greece who were unbaptized and completely uncatechized.

Saint Cosmas the Aetolian

Saint Cosmas the Aetolian Preaching

Our saint originally sent out to become a monk on Mount Athos, and accomplished his goal, living in peace for nineteen years.  Eventually, his concern for his fellow Greeks led him to request a blessing to go back into the world to help educate and enlighten them.  The Patriarch of the time in fact gave him a blessing to preach everywhere he wished, and to accomplish his work as best he saw fit.  He would go from village to village, and set up a Cross in the square.  Various Christians would come to hear his teachings, which he presented in simple language so that most could readily understand him.  Saint Cosmas established over 100 schools in his years of struggle.  His work provoked jealousy among the rulers, and he was put to death on August 24, 1779.  His earthly body was silenced, but his work outlived him, and not only helped thousands of Christians to improve their faith and avoid apostasy, but helped bring the Greek nation into the modern era.

Saint Cosmas burned with a love for his fellow Greeks in the 18th century, that they might know Christ and be saved.  In a like manner, we burn with love for our fellow Americans, and specifically North Carolinians, that they might experience the blessed life and joy that accompanies repentance, surrender to Jesus Christ, and baptism into His Church.  We travel from place to place, building up missions and teaching the people how to properly give glory to God (Orthodoxy is a Greek word meaning “right glory,” or the proper way to worship God).  We are provoked by the degraded spiritual state of modern man, a state where questions which were considered solved centuries ago by revelation and experience are now openly questioned again, as man has lost touch with the sources of the Christian faith, the anchor of Western civilization, resulting in many today walking along lost, engaging in do-it-yourself spirituality and bouncing from ideology to ideology.  The setbacks and struggles in our work do not cause us to quit, but instead strengthen our resolve.

A Methodist Circuit Rider

A Methodist Circuit Rider

This work is, in fact, not something new to American culture.  Shortly after the time that Saint Cosmas struggled to enlighten the Greek nation, Methodist circuit riders began working to re-evangelize and minister to Americans, especially those in rural areas.  By combining the spiritual teachings, examples, and disciplines of our Father Cosmas with the methods of these early American evangelistic pioneers, and adding in the aid of modern technologies such as the Internet, we hope to follow God’s call and spread our faith through our own homeland, the beautiful state of North Carolina (and may others reading this be inspired to work in their own communities).  As we labor, may we be guided and protected through the prayers and intercessions of Saint Cosmas the Aetolian!

A Hymn to Saint Cosmas

By teaching the Divine Faith, thou hast richly adorned the Church and become a zealous emulator of the Apostles; for having been lifted up by the wings of divine love, that hast spread far and wide the message of the Gospel. O glorious Cosmas, entreat God that He grant us His great mercy.

Resources

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmas_of_Aetolia

http://www.orthodoxwiki.org/Cosmas_of_Aetolia

Cavarnos, Constantine. St. Cosmas Aitolos : great missionary, awakener, illuminator, and holy martyr of Greece. 3rd edition. Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1985.  (available for purchase here: http://ibmgs.org/lives.html)

Mission Burnout

When we read the book of Acts, it is easy to become enthusiastic for missions. The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led to the Apostles going out and converting 3000 people in one day (Acts 2:41). The saying, “with God, all things are possible!” comes to mind, and we set out to convert our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens to the faith we have encountered.

Reality sets in though, and we discover that it is quite difficult to start a new Church, even more difficult to get sizeable numbers to come, and yet harder still to retain them. All the while, though, the day-to-day tasks remain: making phone calls, cleaning the Church building, doing fundraisers and charitable events. We can become frustrated, and we begin to ask ourselves: “if this is the true faith, if Christ really matters, then why are more people not coming?” Two common causes of disappointment, which if unchecked can lead to burnout, are false expectations, and a small group bearing the brunt of the work.

False Expectations

Part of the problem has to do with our own expectations. In our culture, we are driven to quantify everything, chart and plot out all details, and measure the progression, seeking out feedback. Those who have had success in the business world often feel like a fish out of water when faced with the prospect of investing so much time, effort, and money into something that does not immediately return the expected results. This is a make-or-break moment for the mission and its founders; will they forge ahead, or will they throw in the towel?

It would be easy at this point to say to oneself, “it must not be God’s will.” Yet one would hope that God was consulted before the endeavor began, and that His blessing was discerned, through prayer, the reading of Scripture, etc. While those of us who are not in an advanced spiritual state cannot always directly discern the will of God in the same way that many of the righteous in the Bible could, God does not abandon those of us who have put our faith in Him, yet are still struggling with overcoming sin. No, He can and does make His will known, in ways that we can perceive. So, having ruled out that the mission was started against the will of God (and let us be honest with this question, if the evidence merits such consideration), we must overcome our disappointment, and find a way forward.

Results are not measured in terms of numbers, but rather in terms of the spiritual growth of those who have come. When we hear comments such as, “coming to this Church has been a blessing in my life,” “I feel different when I am here,” and “I have learned so much in my time here,” we know that God is with us, working through us to change the lives of others. Lack of large growth is not an indication of failure, because people have free will, and often they are not seeking the truth. Those Churches which have extreme growth are often achieving these types of “results” because of a watered down Gospel, and they also often have a person leaving for every person that joins. At the same time, we must never become satisfied with the status quo, either. We must diligently seek to reach more people with the message of the Gospel and the Church of Christ.

We can ask ourselves, what type of people are coming as a result of our evangelistic efforts? Truth seekers, or those seeking to be entertained or to find affirmation that they are “basically good people”? This is how we should measure ourselves. The saying mentioned above, “with God all things are possible” comes from Matthew 19:26. How many of us forget, however, that the preceding phrase is: “with man this is impossible, but…”? We must place our trust fully in God, and not ourselves, if we are to see our mission work succeed. This is a true act of faith, and one which is difficult to do, even for the priest. If we have been lacking in faith, let us repent today, at this moment, and offer God our doubts and fears, and an admission of our own weakness, because by giving it to Him, we can find healing and a way forward.

A Few Bearing the Brunt

It is almost universally true that in any group, some people are more dedicated than others. Unfortunately, in the Church, this is no different much of the time. The Church may be the Body of Christ, but it has a human and a divine aspect to it, and the human aspect can often be disappointing.

When a mission parish is formed, the priest usually travels in from another place, at least at first, and there is a local core family or two who do most of the organizing. In some instances, several families come together and form a mission, or several families come soon after the foundation of the community to add their support to the core families, but this is not always the case. In situations where one or two families bear the brunt of the work for an extended period of time, disappointment arises, and burnout can occur. There are so many little things that have to be managed: cleaning, paying the electric bill, mowing the lawn, fixing a tile on the roof, contacting the local news agency about an event, baking bread for the liturgy, etc. The priest also can become burnt out, a truth that many would not like to admit, and one which can cause guilt on his part, as he feels he is letting down his flock. Family stress can also became an issue, if the priest does not say “no” when he is overtaxed, and the parishioners should be understanding when the priest has to say “no.”

There are several ways that this can be avoided, or addressed and overcome if it has already occurred. The first is that good communication between the priest and the core families must exist. The parishioners should make the priest aware of fatigue. The priest should likewise apprise the parishioners if he is feeling overwhelmed. They must support one another, and set realistic expectations, and bear one another’s burdens. They must be patient with each other, especially when either party does not meet the expectations of the other. We have to remember that we are essentially operating as an extended family in small mission situations, and it is expected that there will be some differences of opinion, disagreements, and even hurt feelings from time to time. We will not always live up to our calling in Christ. Communicating this honestly on the one hand, and being willing to listen and address the concerns on the part of the other party, is essential. Patience with the shortcomings of others—shortcomings which may never change—is also required.

The priest should make sure to ask others to pitch in, even if they are new to the community. Things like cleaning schedules, “work parties,” and other situations need to be scheduled in order to take some of the work off of the core families. Those who are new to a mission need to understand that it is a team effort, and work does not magically get completed without their support; they should not wait to be asked how they can help, but should rather ask how they can pitch in. If everyone helps just a little, then no one will need to feel overburdened. In our specific case, we have also benefited from friends of the mission, who have come to help us during our charitable programs. Members of the mission should never shy away from asking others for help, because many people are eager to help out a good cause, even if they are not members of the Church—and such contacts could lead to them becoming so in the future.

Defining the Mission

Our mission work is conducted for the purpose of bringing people to salvation in Jesus Christ. We must set Him as our goal, our hope, our strength, and use our personal spiritual growth in Him as a measure of progress. We must work against false expectations, impatience, and disappointment, which will be frequent in our work. We must not be afraid to be open with one another about our concerns, and listen to others when they express theirs. We cannot be too proud to ask for help, and those of us who are new should seek to pitch in, even if we have not been asked. Together, we can provide a warm and welcoming community for others to make their home. By ourselves, the task is impossible, but with God, all things are possible!

A Silly Video That Demonstrates How Orthodox Are Perceived

Every year around this time, as the joy of Pascha is still fresh in my mind, my thoughts return to an old YouTube video.  Back in 2006, I was new to YouTube, as were a lot of people. The novelty factor was still strong; it was fun to see what kinds of silly or stupid things people would post, and I came across one video in particular that featured a grown man in a bunny suit singing about “Eastern Orthodox Easter.”

At the time, I thought it was silly, and not altogether original or that good even, but almost as it is impossible not to look at the aftermath of a car accident on the side of the road while driving by, I have found it hard to resist the temptation to look at this video around each Pascha (no offense to the guy who made the video, if he happens to find this article—he did look like he at least had a lot of fun making the video!).  Perhaps it’s a waste of time to watch it every year, and something I should confess…

That being said, this year I was thinking about this video again, and it struck me that the video is unintentionally useful for missionary purposes.  That’s because this video shows one view of how the common man, the average Joe, views the Orthodox Church here in America.  Listening to the lyrics of this, err, song, I realized that it gives us some insight into how we are perceived by many of our fellow citizens here in America (and probably other parts of the Western world).

The video opens with the performer stating: “Easter Bunny here. Y’all think Easter’s over but I’m here to tell you about a little something I call ‘Eastern Orthodox Easter.’” The performer then announces that most people think that Easter is just one day in April, but if you look, you will notice that actually there is another Easter—Eastern Orthodox Easter.

The reason for two dates is because approximately two out of every three years, the Orthodox date of Easter is different than the West’s date, due to a difference in calendar. I remember seeing the same thing on some calendars throughout my life, just as I remember reading in my middle school textbook that “in 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church was formed, when it broke with the Pope.”  Naturally, we dispute that version of the events, but it left the impression in my mind that the Eastern Orthodox were kind of like Roman Catholics, but a popeless, Greco-Russian cultural variety thereof.  Thus when I left the Protestant Church, I didn’t even consider Orthodoxy, but went straight to Roman Catholicism.  It was some time before I finally gave Orthodoxy a fair shake, and thank God, I found out that Orthodoxy is not just for Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners.  The video’s performer thus highlights the exotic and “other” feeling that allows people to gloss over Orthodoxy without investigating it; it’s just “too exotic for me” I suppose most people say to themselves, without ever delving deeper.

He continues: “Whatcha know about Eastern Orthodox Easter? Yeah, didn’t think so. You ain’t even ready for this.”  Indeed, most people have no idea what the “Eastern Orthodox” Church is.  Even the name Eastern contributes to the exotic feeling mentioned above.  Some ask if Greek Orthodox is the same thing.  I never introduce myself as Eastern Orthodox, preferring to self-identify as an Orthodox Christian, but most of the time, this elicits a blank stare, which is usually alleviated when I say, “you know, like Greek Orthodox?”  Then follows the look of acknowledgement…

The video continues: “stomach sore from thousands of crunches?”  Obviously used as a filler, something to rhyme in this quickly-composed song, the performer doesn’t realize how close he comes to the truth.  Pascha, the Orthodox word for Easter, follows the Lenten period, when we fast and do many prostrations in repentance for our sins.  We mortify the body in order to help cure the soul, while the modern world often exercises to maintain illusory beauty.  Thousands of crunches, no.  Thousands of prostrations? Hopefully.  Yet how many people know about the saving medicine of Orthodoxy, the path to spiritual cure that has saved many of us from destruction?  How many people in the world would benefit from the Church, the Hospital of sinners, where they could find their cure?  Yet they do not know about it, or dismiss it, because it is so poorly understood.

“When you feel like you’re a week behind…”  Orthodoxy uses a different calendar; it’s outdated many think.  We must explain why we use a different calendar, why we celebrate some things at different times than our Western Christian friends. We must show why Orthodoxy is relevant to the modern man, going deeper and beyond the surface differences.  The best way to do this is for Orthodox simply to be good Christians!  Orthodox, know your faith!  Read the Scriptures daily, pray, fast, and live the life that is made available to you through the grace of God.  Do not throw away the grace that is given, and leave outsiders with no impression that you are in any way different from society at large.  Otherwise, our different calendar and our incense and our Eastern looking Church buildings will remain a symbol of our inaccessibility instead of something that stands apart, and draws the curious inquirer in,  or worse, they will give the impression that we are attached to our faith because of our ethnicity, and not because our faith itself matters personally.  This applies to converts as well as those from historically Orthodox cultures, who can easily be perceived as contrarians or those who are just interested in exotic things.

“Just another day to find the money egg, fool!”  Easter is not about bunnies, and chocolate, and eggs, although such things can be used to teach some aspects of the feast.  No, it is about Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.  Pascha, as we should call it, is the culmination of the Savior’s work, the victory over death and sin.  Do we live the resurrected life? Have we died to sin and death, and arisen with Christ, through Holy Baptism?  Then let us not mimic the ways of this world, and let our celebration of Easter “Eastern-Orthodox style” not simply be a remix of the first one that “normal” people celebrated a few weeks before.

We Orthodox have to take a large share of the responsibility for how we are perceived.  Yes, those who are truly seeking the Truth can find Christ and His Church, despite the shortcomings of our witness, but this is no excuse.  The persecutions of the communists, the poverty under the Turks, are all understandable reasons why the Orthodox Church did not expand as much as other Churches in the Early Modern Age, but these days are gone.  There is no longer any material or physical reason why Orthodox cannot and should not expand as far and wide as possible.  Thankfully, in many places, this is exactly what is happening, but the need is great.  We must show other Christians that we are not an exotic “other” but are rather the eldest Christian Church, with something to offer all peoples, a perspective that provides continuity and balance in a sea of relativism, in the face of shifting sands of the whims of man.  While other Churches are caving theologically, Orthodoxy is a witness stretching back into antiquity.  It’s up to us to live our faith as a faith, to explain it to others, and invite everyone we can to Church with us!

The performer closes by stating: “We got eggs, Easter bunnies…you ain’t never seen anything like this…Easter, Eastern Orthodox style.”  Well, as explained, the bunnies and eggs are missing, but he and anyone else who gets past the superficial exoticness will be led to agree that they have not seeing anything like Orthodox Pascha.  It is the most beautiful religious service, beyond anything that most people would imagine, and it is accessible to all people!  In addition, we Orthodox proclaim that every Sunday is a kind of “little Pascha” because every Sunday we commemorate the Resurrection of Christ, and sing the hymns that talk about His Descent into Hades and arising on the third day.

So for those non-Orthodox reading this, come and see Pascha, or any other Orthodox Christian liturgy.  Don’t assume we are exotic or culturally distant.  And Orthodox brothers and sisters, let us make our Churches welcoming to all peoples, open, and welcoming.  Let us not put any barriers up that would prevent the seeking heart from finding its true home.

Phone Calls That Never Lead to Visits

I’m at my secular job, focused on some computer-related task, and the phone rings.

“Father Anastasios?” asks the caller, somewhat unsure how to pronounce my name.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“I have some questions about the Orthodox Church.”

This is how many conversations have begun in the past few years since I became a priest.  I quickly move to a conference room, and then engage the caller, answering all his or her varied questions.  They seem positive, and promise to come for services the next Sunday.

They don’t show up. And they never call again.

Unfortunately, many of the people who call us and ask about the Church show a momentary interest, but then fade away.  I am reminded of the Parable of the Sower:

And it came to pass, as he sowed…some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away (Mark 4:4-6).

Am I criticizing those who call and ask for information about the Church?  Of course not!  I love to talk to people, and answer questions about the Orthodox Church.  I wouldn’t want someone who is genuinely interested in contacting me to hesitate to call.  However, there is a difference between asking questions without making a commitment, and enthusiastically promising to visit and not showing up and not following up. Things come up; I know this, but why no follow-up phone call or email to let us know?

You see, I’m a caring person—it’s part of the reason I became a priest.  I want to help people find the Truth, to find salvation in Jesus Christ, and the Church which He established. When people contact me and state an intention to come to the Church, I get excited and look forward with anticipation.  When there is follow-through, I am pleased.  When there is no visit, I feel disappointed.  I pray for the people who contact me, and am genuinely concerned.

Such communications have taken a lot of my time and emotional energy; and my missions are growing, which means I am spending more time with those who have already joined the parish.  Both of these are reasons why I have had to limit how much time I can spend speaking to new people on the telephone.  Presently, I encourage people to visit the Church first, and I will answer their questions after the liturgy.  Orthodox Christianity is best experienced; it is hard to understand it without visiting a liturgy and seeing it for oneself.  Many questions can be answered just by participating in the Divine Liturgy.

No one who has questions about Orthodoxy should hesitate to contact us, for sure, and we look forward for your call, as you realize that Orthodox Christianity is the True Faith, and you seek to join us in the Church.  It is a real blessing to us that there are many people who have called and emailed and have come to the Church, and are now members!  You will not be the first to find Orthodoxy in this way, nor the last.  So get your questions together, come to liturgy, and let’s talk!

Racially Segregated Churches

One thing I’ve noticed about Christian life here in North Carolina is that many, if not most, of the Protestant Churches in the area are still racially segregated.  In contrast, most of the Roman Catholic Churches in the area are racially diverse (Masses in foreign languages do technically divide people up, but all are still members of the same parish).

It seems to me that the trend towards ever-more contemporary worship styles will probably continue to functionally keep people divided, because different ethnic and cultural groups in America tend to enjoy different styles of music and expressions of worship, in general.  Those who advocate the use of contemporary worship music and practices often cite the generally unchurched nature of most young Americans, and contend that this approach gets seekers and inquirers into the Church while traditional Churches seem increasingly foreign to each succeeding generation. I do not wish to disparage the non-Orthodox people who are living their entire lives trying to preach Christ to those who know Him not; I count several such people as my friends, in fact.  This article is not an evaluation of their methods, which I believe could find a way into a broad program of Orthodox missionary work, perhaps with some modifications (para-liturgical, of course).  These Christians are mentioned here only to further the article’s main point.

The Orthodox liturgy, in contrast to contemporary worship, is worship that was established by the Apostles, and was passed down from them to each generation, through the succession of bishops that continues from the Apostles to our own bishops (a direct chain of ordination, all the way back). This liturgy, while having developed organically over the centuries, maintains the same structure as the earliest attested liturgies, and has changed little over the centuries.  No committee or worship team ever sat down and decided how to “do” liturgy in the Orthodox Church.

Thinking in terms of an axis, there are both vertical and horizontal components to the unity of Orthodox worship; vertically, in the sense of time, having been passed down from the Apostles, and horizontally, in geographic terms, knowing that all Orthodox are worshipping in virtually the same way, whether in Uganda, America, or Greece. This unity is powerful.  We fallen sinners enter in to this stream of worship, which has been going on since before we were born, and which will continue long after we are gone, which is bigger than any one of us.

Orthodox worship is timeless.  It is never old-fashioned, or modern.  It simply expresses a heavenly reality, a glimpse which the Holy Prophets, Apostles, and Fathers of the Church experienced and transmitted to us.  Their divine visions gave much substance to the liturgy, which is also going on in Heaven continuously, as the Angels worship the Holy Trinity on the throne of glory.  It is thus God-centered worship, and not created to appeal to the cultural whims of any given, short-lived generation.

Roman Catholics, having once been part of the Orthodox Church, and having a Mass which, while drastically emasculated by the “reforms” of 1969, is nonetheless still foundationally pattered on this same liturgical structure.  Their insistence on there being one Church structure and one form of worship has allowed for a much greater integration.  Thus, a visitor to a Roman Catholic Mass will notice people of all ethnicities together.  This much better reflects the vision of the Holy Scriptures, where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Orthodox mission work in Eastern Carolina faces a challenge.  A faith that was initially brought here by mostly Eastern European and Middle Eastern peoples, and which has expanded to include American converts initially mostly of Caucasian background, could easily fail to substantially reach all segments of the community.  But this would be a failure, for all people deserve the chance to receive baptism for the remission of sins in the True Church of Christ, the Orthodox Church, the only Church with an unbroken link back to the Apostles and unchanged doctrine.  Therefore, we are constantly evaluating our mission strategy, and looking for ways to invite people of all backgrounds in our Church.  We desire to be a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community.  In Greenville, we have already achieved an atmosphere that is welcoming to visitors of all backgrounds, and we seek to continue to develop this.

The Divine Liturgy is thus the catholic, or universal, form of worship for Christians.  Orthodox hymnography is full of expressions such as that when Christ was raised on the Cross, He lifted “all men” to Himself, not just for instance His fellow Jews.  It brings people of all backgrounds together.  It does not, however, force us to abandon who we are, racially and culturally speaking.  Thus, we can imagine that from that unified assembly, members would continue to express their Orthodox faith in ways comfortable to their own background, and in their own neighborhoods.  The universal will thus bring fulfillment to the particular.

If you believe that Churches should be places where all people worship together, and not a religious reaffirmation of long-standing ethnic divisions in the community, then contact us and learn how to become part of our work, to further the Gospel and Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Vision for a Monastery in Eastern Carolina

Here on the Eastern Carolina Orthodox blog, I’ve laid out a general vision for our work in the Eastern Carolina region, and I have begun to produce posts about local communities in the region where we pray that one day Orthodox Christianity will take root.  With this post, I’d like to highlight another aspect of our vision for mission work, the foundation of a monastery in Eastern Carolina.

Esphigmenou Monastery, Mount Athos

Esphigmenou Monastery, Mount Athos

To some readers, the connection between missionary outreach and a monastery will not be immediately clear.  Monasteries are focused inwards, a retreat from the evils of the world, where men or women live in community with others of the same sex, under obedience to an abbot or abbess who provides them with spiritual direction.  Mission work, or church planting, is focused outwards, on reaching those who have not heard the Gospel, those who have fallen away, or those who have heard a false or incomplete version of the Gospel and are searching for something more authentic.  How then would a monastery fit in with our missionary work?

We gain an early glimpse of proto-monasticism from the life of St. John the Baptist, who while living in the wilderness, nevertheless attracted thousands who heard his message of repentance and turned their lives to God.  Later, we see that widows were playing a role of teaching both by their example and their words, in what is an office or role:

The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed (Titus 2:3-5).

St. Paul of course encourages celibacy as a higher calling:

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman… For I would that all men were even as I myself…Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God. Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh: but I spare you…But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord…But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction…So then he that giveth her [a Virgin] in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better (1 Corinthians 7, various verses).

From these passages, we gain the sense that some are called to remain single in order to work solely for the advancement of the Kingdom, and that these people serve as examples to other members of the community.

Over time, these communities developed in a more organized fashion, especially in Egypt in the fourth century.  Monasteries over the centuries have provided Christians with places of retreat, places to go and get spiritual refreshment and guidance, and were also places of learning.  Monasteries are places that highlight the ideal of the Christian life, and allow others to see a high standard against which to measure their own Christian walk.  Monasteries are also primarily places of prayer, with long daily services being the norm.  This prayer contributes greatly to the surrounding community’s blessings and success.

Turning the focus to our region, the establishment of a monastery would provide a great advantage to Church life in general here, and would provide great support for our missions.  Here are a few ways:

  1. Oftentimes, mission communities to do not have as much time with their priest and other Orthodox Christians as they would like. A centrally-located monastery would provide more opportunities for faithful to interact with spiritual guides and fellow Christians.
  2. With mission communities, many converts come in to the Church, and need to be acculturated into an Orthodox mindset and way of life.  Becoming an Orthodox Christian is thus more than just acquiring a new set of beliefs.  Monasteries provide an experience of this life in a more obvious form.  It should be noted, however, that monasteries are different than parishes, and do not compete with parishes. Instead, they compliment them.
  3. The priests of the mission(s) become tired through the constant struggles, and the monasteries can be a place of retreat and spiritual stability for them as well.
  4. Having a nearby monastery can be a great way for laypeople from the missions to expand their Christian charity by supporting the monastery in its projects, both physically and financially.
  5. The monastery can become a place of education, where talks and seminars are held to encourage a deeper walk with Christ.

The benefit to the monastery, besides #4, is also the potential for members of the parishes to adopt the monastic life for themselves; thus having a community that supports the monastery also provides a pool of potential future candidates for monasticism.

The practical details of how we will found a monastery have not been addressed in this article, as here we are attempting to set the vision and ask for prayers for our intention, and to alert those with an inclination towards monasticism to know that there may someday be a local opportunity to exercise this calling.  If you would like to be part of this project of establishing a monastery in Eastern Carolina, please let us know.

Rocky Mount Needs an Orthodox Church

Rocky Mount, North Carolina

Rocky Mount, North Carolina

Rocky Mount, North Carolina is a town of over 60,000 people straddling Nash and Edgecomb Counties in North Carolina’s Eastern region.  The surrounding region has upwards of 150,000 people.  The city has a growing arts community, several post-secondary institutions such as North Carolina Wesleyan College and Edgecombe Community College, and Nash General Hospital, opened in 1971, which was the first all-private room hospital in North Carolina.

What Rocky Mount does not have, however, is an Orthodox Church.  On Holy Thursday this year (April 21), a gentleman arrived at our Greenville, NC Orthodox Church, Nativity of the Holy Theotokos, in order to attend services.  After the service, he told us that he actually lived in another state, but was visiting family in Rocky Mount, and upon researching Orthodox Churches in the area, discovered that ours was the nearest parish.  He had to drive nearly an hour to reach us, and in fact, he came again on Holy Friday and for Pascha itself.

We were impressed by this man’s dedication to Orthodoxy, such that he would make the trek three times in a row.  While at least two of our families travel an hour or more for each service, we understand that not everyone is “built” to withstand such.  Rocky Mount has a lot of families that are suffering economically, and with gas prices being nearly four dollars a gallon, and with many people not having reliable transportation, we are keenly aware of how the prospect of having to drive an hour each way for services might be unattainable for many.

Should then the people of Rocky Mount be without the Church?  Naturally, some will ask why they do not just attend a non-Orthodox Church, but we Orthodox understand ours to be the original Church established by Jesus Christ Himself, which has passed down through the centuries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot simply commend these people to God’s mercy and hope for the best!  If we Orthodox claim that we are the true Church, we must do everything in our power to spread the faith to every corner of the world ourselves, and not rely on others.  The people of Rocky Mount need Jesus Christ as much as the people of Greenville, Raleigh, New York City, and Athens, yet they do not have the same opportunity to worship in an Orthodox Church as the people in the above-mentioned cities do.

Are you a resident of Rocky Mount who has stumbled across this blog posting?  Do you have questions about Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church, the Bible, or Church history?  Do you feel that for some reason, you are being called to join with us in our work, perhaps forming the nucleus of a study group in Rocky Mount that might one day lead to become an Orthodox Christian mission parish?  Then do not hesitate to contact us today!

Are you already Orthodox?  Will you join us in prayer, to ask God to lift up the people of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, that they will one day have the chance to worship God in the ancient Christian manner, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, which is the antidote to the never-ending search for “relevance,” the never-fulfilling striving for something “new”?  If you care about your Orthodox faith, then pray for us and for these people, and for the people near you who are in a similar situation, and do everything in your power to reach out to them as well.  Perhaps you are being called to replicate our efforts in your own area.  You are invited to contact us for helpful advice on this point as well.

God bless you all!

Greenville Holy Week and Pascha Reflection

Blog readers are encouraged to read this reflection on Holy Friday and Pascha at Nativity of the Holy Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Greenville, North Carolina written by Fr. Anastasios’s godson, who came in to worship with us for this holiest of times.

Mapping Out a Mission Plan

Saint Paul the Apostle

Saint Paul the Apostle, the Greatest Missionary

When it comes to missionary work, is there a certain tension between trusting in God’s providence (Luke 10:4), and planning ahead (cf. Acts 15:36, 20:13)?  If there is, it can only be attributed to our fallen human nature, where our own will is constantly trying to supplant God’s; among those who have grown in holiness, this tension is disappearing or has disappeared completely, as the case may be. Practically speaking, when we look at the example of the greatest missionary, St. Paul the Apostle, he carefully planned his journeys and work, but was always open to changing them if God called him to do so (Acts 16:7-8).

In this spirit, we offer our current mission plan, which we have developed through our experience in planting missions in North Carolina from 2006 to the present.  Should we understand as time progresses that God wills that part or all of our plan should be altered, we will resolve to do so.  But being open to God’s will does not negate the necessity of planning, preparing, and sharing our vision, especially because by so doing, we are already alerting others to what is occurring and inviting them to join us in our work, and opening ourselves up to feedback and constructive criticism from the bretheren, which will refine our objectives and methods.

Our primary objective must be clearly stated: we seek to bring those who do not know Jesus Christ to faith in Him, for Christ Himself says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).  We must be careful, at the same time, to not assume that just because someone professes faith in Christ or even attends a Church, that he or she has made Christ the Lord and Master of his life, has submitted himself or herself unconditionally to Christ, or has the tools and knowledge of Christ—the context, as it were—to grow as a Christian.  As Orthodox Christians, we further understand that when St. Paul confesses that the Church is the “pillar and ground (foundation) of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15), that this refers to a visible Church, with real teaching authority, which has existed from the time of the Apostles to today. This is at variance with what the majority of Christians in Eastern Carolina believe, and so we must tread carefully, and oftentimes recognize that a different approach may be required with different people, never assuming anything.

Orthodox Churches require priests, an ordained office, to conduct baptisms, weddings, funerals, and the Divine Liturgy—the communion service of the Orthodox Church.  This makes mission work different from many Protestant models.  At the same time, unlike the clericalist model which dominated much of Roman Catholic thought and practice for the past millennium (but which is thankfully abating to some extent), laypeople have always had a central position in the maintaining of and prorogation of the faith, and responsible non-clergy can be appointed to lead prayers among laypeople.  Our work then is a synergy of the various offices that Christ established:  “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11).

In our present time, there is a shortage of priests.  In reality, there has always been a shortage of workers.  As it is stated in Scripture: “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).  We find in our work that adult converts are often the most fervent Christians, and therefore we have confidence that among the great harvest are found laborers, who can be added to our work through prayer.  We never know when that email or phone call will come, where a new person is volunteering to help, yet they do come unexpectedly, when our need is greatest, and give us encouragement.

Orthodox Church Greenville NC

Worshipers at Orthodox Church in Greenville, NC on Pascha (Easter) 2011

We will now turn to our present situation in Eastern Carolina.  We have one priest who serves both Raleigh and Greenville, Fr. Anastasios Hudson, who travels back and forth, offering three liturgies in Greenville each month and two to three in Raleigh.  Members come from all over Eastern Carolina to attend services in the Greenville mission: from Greenville proper, and from New Bern, Belhaven, Beaufort County, and other neighboring locales.  We pray that as the Orthodox Church in Greenville, NC grows, two things will happen.  First, we pray that God will raise up a local man (or men) to serve as priests there.  As St. Paul established missions, he selected able men to take the leadership of the communities, while not completely leaving them to their own devices—he maintained a fatherly oversight.  So we envision that Fr. Anastasios’s work in Greenville would include helping the bishop identify a candidate for ordination, training the candidate, and then giving him mentorship for several years as he would take on more and more responsibility, until he finally would be autonomous, but never separate from the other clergy working in the area.

The second thing we would pray to see is areas where there are more than one family residing who are commuting to Greenville.  For instance, perhaps in the future there will be three families coming from Wilson, or two families from Rocky Mount.  Especially in cases with multiple children, commuting every week might be difficult, and in addition, it is harder to invite one’s family, friends, and neighbors to a Church that is far away.  We would bless these families to meet together in their own towns on the weekends they do not make it to Greenville’s Church, to pray together and invite others to learn about Orthodox Christianity.  This might be somewhat akin to what some Protestant churches do with “small groups.”  As these local groups grow, and as priestly availability permits, liturgies and talks could be scheduled in these communities, leading them to become missions of their own.  As they grow, they could then become the bases for further, future expansion, thus repeating the process.

Dare we hope for a time, in our lifetime, when Eastern North Carolina is dotted with Orthodox Churches and missions?  We would say yes!  Since we established the parish in Greenville, we have witnessed how Orthodox faith in Christ Jesus changes lives and draws people together, renewing and strengthening the bonds between men. Families have already dedicated themselves fully to this work, and we believe that as more are exposed to the faith, they will join us in our effort, and as more join us in our effort, more will encounter the Church of Christ.