The Orthodox Way of Life – Living Through Christ Each Day

There is this incessant misconception involving the way in which Orthodox Christians should live with blurred lines of confusion of what is right and wrong in terms of practice. As an Orthodox Christian, there is an emphasis on acquiring humility and patience, through continual prayer, repentance, and love towards one another. Unfortunately, this current epoch of an existence is far from what is expected from us as not only Christians, but as an entire population of humans. Through the rapid explosion of technological advances, medical science discoveries, social media hype, and celebrity idolizing behavior, humans are very lost, drifting far away from God. With all the distractions there are today, it is very easy to be possessed by the physical aspects rather than the spiritual ones.

 

People would prefer to stay home on a Sunday morning just to sleep-in long enough to watch a football game. Others, tentative about attending Sunday service, give their own children the choice of whether or not they want to attend Sunday School, as an attempt to “skip” church that day. There are even people who just stop going to church altogether just because they do not feel the need to go. The sad part about all these scenarios is that they are considered a normative behavior and these individuals see no problem with it whatsoever.

The enormous shift in values and tradition among most families today is quite alarming. The devoid of our Lord being center in our lives is an endangered practice. Being an Orthodox Christian is not only a once-a-year experience or private worship time at home. Life as an Orthodox Christian is a consistent, unending path with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ leading our way, according to His Will, and not our own.

Due to the many interruptions there are nowadays, we are forgetting why we are here. We are not alive for the sake of fulfilling the hedonistic tendency that has flooded the newer generations of human beings. We are the sinful salts of the earth that must attempt to grow in Christ and take life one-step at a time. The main problem we have is not only hedonism but also indifference. People seem to care less about purpose or meaning of anything. Some only want to take from life all that they can take, with no intention of giving anything back.

Going to church once a week is the very least Orthodox Christians can do to practice their faith. It is amazing what one liturgy service can do to someone. It could be one Gospel or Epistle reading, or even the priest’s sermon that can make a difference. A single phrase or message could be taken from that one-time visit each week to God’s House. It all sounds so simple. Yet, why is it so difficult to do?

It is only through our Lord Jesus, that we can be forgiven and allowed access into the Kingdom of God. However, we have only one lifetime to get this right. Heaven is an honor granted to us not an entitlement. Just because you are an Orthodox Christian, does not imply complete remission of sins if you do not actively practice the faith accordingly.

Beloved, you must understand that this life is only temporary. God can grant us life as quickly as He can take life away. Remember to put Jesus first always. Ask God before doing something that may change your life forever. Pray more, at least twice a day. Repent your sins and be sincere in your apologies. Ensure you treat others with dignity and respect, without expecting anything in return. Above all, you must love the Lord Jesus, with all your heart, mind, and strength. Do not forget all that Jesus has done for us, and place Him in the hope of our salvation.

How Do Homeless Kids Get Ready to Go Back-to-School?

As the new school year gets underway, parents and children know the anticipation and excitement that accompanies the first day of school: the simple joy of a new backpack, a new outfit, new shoes, or a clean notebook. Yet for many parents and children across the US, these items are luxuries they can’t afford.

It’s something we all know – that there are poor and homeless families who live in our own cities and towns.  But most of us don’t realize just how bad the situation is. 

Across the United States, homelessness and poverty are at unprecedented levels.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports that since 2007, family homelessness skyrocketed by 20%. 

It’s important to define what is meant by “homeless”.  When we think about homeless people, most of us think of bums living under a bridge or winos begging for change.  But this is not an accurate picture of the homeless today.  Sure, there is a “chronic homeless” population that mostly lives outdoors, but the majority of people who are homeless today are working individuals and families with children who cannot afford to rent or buy a permanent home. 

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in every city, county and state nationwide.  A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that there is no jurisdiction (no town, city, county or state) in the United States where a working family of four, earning the poverty threshold wage of $24,000 can afford even a one-bedroom home at fair market rates. 

So where do these families live?  Where do you go if you’ve been bankrupted by an illness, lost your home to foreclosure, or just don’t earn enough to rent a suitable home?  Many cities offer family homeless shelters where families can stay together.  Other families live in motels, trailer parks, or camp grounds.  Families often live in the basements or attics of friends or relatives, while waiting to hopefully get placed in some sort of government subsidized housing. 

Wherever they stay, it’s not a permanent home and children tend to suffer the most from repeated transitional living.  What school will children attend if they have no permanent address?  How will the kids adapt, manage and succeed in their education if they have no stable place to live?  If parents can’t afford a place to live, how will they equip their children with the supplies, clothes and shoes necessary to attend school? 

About four years ago, FOCUS North America began working with school districts around the country to provide meals to poor children.  Almost every school in America has a free and reduced lunch program that operates during the day when children are in school.  However, over the weekend, many of these kids don’t get enough to eat.  To combat hunger over the weekends when the free lunch program isn’t available to kids, FOCUS packs up meals each Friday and sends these meals homes with the children so that they can feed themselves and their siblings. 

Through our work with school districts, we also learned that homeless and poor families struggle with another major item that they find difficult to afford:  Shoes.  Even a low cost pair of shoes from a discount store can cost $10 - $15.  And even $10 -$15 is a big expense for people who are living paycheck to paycheck. 


Thousands of homeless and underprivileged children attend an Operation Lace Up event in St. Louis on 8/2/14

Based on this, FOCUS developed “Operation Lace Up”, our national back-to-school program that has assisted 252,000 children in 250 school districts across 30 cities nationwide over the past two years.  Operation Lace Up gives children everything they need to get back to school and succeed in acquiring an education: back packs, school supplies, new athletic shoes, clothes, and even medical and dental checkups so that they can go back to school prepared -- and healthy. 

While FOCUS works on creating stability in these families’ lives by offering sustainable and affordable housing assistance (FOCUS helped almost 1,000 people assisted with housing last year) we are addressing the immediate needs that homeless children face each August as they go back to school. 

Each year, thousands of Orthodox Christians, united in faith and joined by a desire to provide action-oriented and sustainable solutions to poverty in communities across America come together through Operation Lace Up and provide much needed assistance to children in need.  Last year, the Metropolis of Chicago Philoptochos helped more than 25,000 homeless children get back to school in Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.  Throughout California - in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego – and all across America, parishes, people young and old, and communities forged a wonderful partnership that stands as a witness to the practical nature of the Orthodox faith and our combined efforts to live out the commandments of Christ to love and serve our neighbor. 

This year, Operation Lace Up will continue to serve homeless and underprivileged kids throughout the nation.  To learn more, or to volunteer, please visit the FOCUS North America website: http://focusnorthamerica.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=307&Itemid=231

 

Vacation and Paradise

In second grade, at some point in the frozen middle of that Minnesota winter, my parents told us we were all going to Florida for spring break and I began running and jumping through the house for joy.  We'd taken several summer trips before – always a thrill – to the North Shore of Lake Superior but I'd never traveled south.  And by then I'd heard enough about Florida for my imagination to feast the rest of the winter. 

Nor was the trip a disappointment when it came.  Boarding the plane, the take-off and flight were like nothing I’d experienced.  And then being in Florida, I was in a state of continuous wonder, first at how I could just have been in snow and ice and was now in such sweet summery air, with sunlit balconied buildings -- their pinks and yellows like something from Dr. Seuss -- rising up from plush lawns and flowerbeds as we drove in the rental car.  Fountains spilled up everywhere, and I couldn’t get enough of the palm trees, their trunks graciously curving this way or that way up to fascinating heights where their waxy fronds burst out from amidst clusters of coconuts.   And all of it against the ever-present background of the turquoise water of the Atlantic.  I’d never seen so much color in my life. 

Five years later when we went a second time to Florida, the experience didn't match the expectation.  I was now in seventh grade.  I have some good memories of that trip too, but I distinctly remember saying to my Mom that I felt let down:  it wasn't as amazing to be in Florida as it had been the last time.  Melancholy had entered upon the scene.  As I would read another five or six years later:  "There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight / To me did seem / Appareled in celestial light, / The glory and the freshness of a dream.  / It is not now as it hath been of yore;  -- / Turn wheresoe'er I may, / By night or day, / The things which I have seen I now can see no more."

The day before yesterday I returned from the Jersey Shore where my wife and I and our three kids spent a week with my wife's side of the family.  The weather was perfect.  The rental house was the best we'd had in a number of years.  A colleague of mine lent me a beach canopy that was fantastic and saved us from all the frustrations of multiple umbrellas.  The kids had a whale of a time with their cousins and grandparents. 

One of the mornings, we’d gotten a sitter for our 19-month-old, and Julie's Mom took our older two out for breakfast so Julie and I could bike along the boardwalk and stop somewhere in nearby Asbury Park for a leisurely breakfast of our own.  It was as we were biking in the freshness of the day, with the sunlight sparkling on the water, that I was aware that here again as at a number of other moments during the week, the gorgeous beauty of what surrounded me -- the surf and the sky, the light, the goodness of being able to spend time with those I loved -- was something I wasn't fully or directly able to come into contact with.  It was all there, I was experiencing it, I was even appreciating it.  But it wasn't transporting me entirely.  It didn’t have the glory and the freshness of a dream.  In the past, this awareness would have bothered me -- everything I'm seeing is so perfect and what I'm doing is so nice, why aren't I in a state of ecstasy, of sublime tranquility?  But this time instead of being bent out of shape I felt that it was all right.  I'm here, enjoying this to the extent that I am (which was a pretty good extent, actually).  Life even at its purported best doesn't always deliver to the max . . . vacation isn’t paradise -- it’s okay. 

Alexander Schmemann once wrote in a journal entry, “Paradise is open to children; it shines from them.”  There were lots of reasons why it wasn’t wide open to me that morning.  There was the constant low-level anxiety that comes with being a parent especially of a toddler.  While I'd been watching Jonathan the previous afternoon he'd started eating Goo (its actual trademarked name) the older kids had brought back from an amusement park in Point Pleasant; he’d gotten ahold of a Superball the size he could choke on; he’d been within a half-second of shattering a vase; at another point he was walking around with the IPad of one of my nieces.  The kind of stress all this sort of thing induces -- and like any parent, I could multiply examples -- has a way of lingering in one's system.  No doubt I still had plenty of it coursing through me as I was biking the next morning on the beach. 

News of atrocities and injustices around the world, somewhere beyond the crisp line of the horizon where ocean met sky, hung in the otherwise exquisite air.  A part of me feels a tug of guilt about anything less than traveling personally to the sites of the worst of today’s unfolding crimes against humanity and putting myself directly in harm’s way to stand up against them.  Though nobody has advised me to do this the tug of guilt (which I think we all must feel or suppress) about not doing it forms an essential part of the backdrop of every earthly vacation and reconfirms that it’s not paradise.  

On the near side of the horizon were also all the ordinary and inevitable little misconnections of everyday human interaction.  The ones that arise between my wife and me we try to work through.  That level of emotional investment can't occur across the board, though, with everyone.  I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of every person in my life just as I'm incapable of being entirely present to the beauty of the beach on a clear morning (and the former deficit no doubt underlies the latter).  The best I can often do is to know I'm not doing others justice, not encountering them fully.  Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Catholic theologian, sandwiches a comment of his own between two quotations from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:  "it is 'the lofty pathos of our fate that every "thou" in our world must become an "it"'; the direct relationship must become 'latent'; 'it is impossible to live in the naked present -- it would devour us.'" To be completely alive to the presence of others is more than we can manage. 

Although I agree with Buber’s idea of the impossibility of living fully in the naked present, I’m also struck by the thought that God’s living in it means that in communion with God I’m able to have access to it, myself.  Of course my communion with God is imperfect from my side:  since I’m not fully present to God I’m not able to be fully present to those to whom He’s fully present; I don’t know others as God does.  But even this awareness makes a difference.  At the end of a day (and not only the end) when I pray to God for another person, I’m essentially admitting that I’m not and haven’t been fully present to him or her as God is.  This is also to say I haven’t loved the other person fully.  People to whom I’ve done nothing wrong, but of whom I’ve had fleeting thoughts that haven’t done them justice or to whom I’ve not given myself fully with all my attention, are that much less distorted, less reduced, less rendered an “It” instead of a “Thou,” each time I pray for them, however modest the prayer.  And if they have in any way distorted or reduced me, rendered me an “it,” I’m able in prayer to forgive them, as I know I’m in need of the same forgiveness. 

Anxiety, suffering, sin, on big levels and small, infiltrate vacation:  no shilling Sherlock!  It shouldn’t be news to anyone beyond about the second grade but it somehow still is to me, yet I also see it’s begun sinking in.  I used to have a harder time than I do now mixing religion and vacation (this year, I wasn’t even too disappointed that our week at the beach fell within the Dormition Fast, although I should say that I didn’t strictly stick to it).  Having once hoped for vacation itself to lift me above every earthly care, I used to resist accepting in the course of it the ongoing need to be unburdened through worship and prayer of what wasn’t ceasing to weigh me down.  As I’ve better come to grips with how vacation in itself doesn’t make me well (any more than, in itself, work does), that there’s a mystery of paradise beyond it, that this isn’t that, the interesting thing is how much more often I’ve been able to be at peace with the lack of total peace, to be reasonably happy with the less than soaring happiness, to appreciate the beautiful surroundings even as I sense that some vital essence in them eludes me.  The perfect, as the saying goes, doesn’t have to be the enemy of the good; the good can be accepted here and now because of the promise of more that it holds.

In another journal entry in which he sought to express his Christian faith in its most basic form, Fr. Schmemann wrote:  “One thing seems clear:  the basic coordinates of this faith are on the one hand, an acute love for the world, for all that is given (nature, city, history, culture); on the other, the conviction, as acute and as evident, that this love itself is directed at ‘the other’ (the ‘all is elsewhere’) that this world reveals.  In this revelation is the world’s essence, calling, beauty.’”

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Scranton, where in addition to the course on work and rest, he teaches on the Bible, Byzantine theology and the relationship between faith and politics.

Back to Sunday School Planning

The onslaught of  “back-to-school” newspaper ads and television commercials has begun. The beginning of another school year is just around the corner. The time has also begun to plan for another Sunday Church School year.  Here’s a checklist.

Meet with the Priest.  Are there any issues that he needs addressed this year? How will he want to be involved with the program this year that might be different from other years? How might he work with teachers on training matters?

Teachers and Assistants. Do you have enough teachers? Are all the teachers ready to start? Need to find a few more? Will they need assistants? Do you need any substitute teachers? Are all the background checks complete?  What about special programs: Oratorical Festival Chair, Music Teacher, Arts and Crafts specialists? Have you planned some meetings to deal with administrative matters? Have you planned for some training sessions? What will the focus be?

Lists. Do you have the class lists ready for each teacher? Student’s information (birthday, nameday, special issues like allergies), parents contact information (especially email), how they’ve offered to assist the program that year. Do you have a list of all the teachers, assistants, all the contact information.

Review the calendar. Set the days for registration, when classes will begin and when they will end in 2015 (include a day for preregistration for Fall 2015). Note the days for when Sunday school will not meet because of Church holidays (Pascha is April 12, 2015), vacation seasons, or special parish events. Note the days for special programs, like Christmas pageant rehearsals, the Oratorical Festival, retreats and service projects. Select days for teacher training meetings. Make sure that all of these are on the parish master calendar. Distribute the calendar to all in the parish.

Check the supplies. Will you have enough textbooks, teacher’s guides, Bibles, icons? Do you have enough materials, paper, pens, crayons, glue, notebooks, and all the rest. Take advantage of the back-to-school sales.

Are the classrooms and teaching spaces in good order? Are there enough desks, tables, chairs, whiteboards. Do some need repair or replacement? Are they sized correctly for the class? You don’t want the furniture designed for kindergarten to be in the space that you’ll use for high school and vice versa! 

Electronics. Do you have projectors and other display technology? Is it all working? Are all the cables in the right place?  Does the wireless network work? If it’s password protected, do you have the proper passwords?

Pray. Pray for the teachers, the students and their families. Pray that the 2014-2015 Sunday Church school year be a year of growth and learning for the teachers, the students and their families.

Orthodox Health Center Opens in Pittsburgh

Despite the best efforts of many policy experts and lawmakers to bring universal healthcare coverage to all Americans, 16% of the population – 45 million people – still do not have health insurance, a number that is higher in 2014 than it was in 2008, according to a recent Gallup poll. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has exacerbated many of the reasons that people do not have coverage and 2% of the American workforce, more than 3 million people, have lost their employer-sponsored coverage due to loopholes and other consequences of the Act, making the net benefit of the Act debatable.   

But this blog post is not written to discuss why the ACA is, or is not, succeeding.  Rather, it is written to show how Orthodox Christians are responding to a problem in the United States that has been pervasive for decades and will continue with no clear end in sight. 

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, FOCUS North America recently opened the first comprehensive Orthodox health care facility in America. The FOCUS Pittsburgh Free Health Center targets uninsured individuals and provides them with access to quality physical and mental health care as well as pharmaceutical and laboratory services.  In addition, The FOCUS health center is a place where skilled Orthodox medical practitioners can put their talents to good use for the glory of God and in service to those in need right here in America. 

FOCUS North America is an Orthodox Christian faith-based nonprofit organization that provides sustainable jobs and permanent housing solutions for the homeless and working poor families across America.  FOCUS has operations and activities in 50 cities in the US and Canada.

Why did FOCUS extend its services into healthcare? Because it’s not much good to give someone a job or a place to live if they are not healthy enough to maintain them.  It is very difficult to sustainably transition a person or a family from homelessness, poverty and dependency to a life of self-sufficiency without providing for their health.  Offering free comprehensive healthcare and health-related services is a natural fit with FOCUS’ work to transform the lives of the homeless and working poor in America.

Why Pittsburgh?  Because western Pennsylvania, and specifically the 10-mile radius around the City of Pittsburgh has an extremely high, and increasing, population of working-aged people who are uninsured.  According to a study by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, there are approximately 142,000 working uninsured individuals and family members in the greater Pittsburgh region, with approximately 70,000 living within 10 miles of Pittsburgh.

The FOCUS Pittsburgh Health Center is organized and managed as a Volunteer in Medicine type clinic, which is specifically designed to provide care to uninsured working adults that fall through the cracks in today’s health care system.  In today’s environment, there exist government programs, such as Medicaid and CHIP, that provide healthcare to all children, the elderly, and to adults receiving public assistance.  On the other end of the spectrum are those people who have employer-sponsored healthcare insurance.  The FOCUS clinic specifically targets and serves working adults caught in the gap between these groups, ensuring that they have access to regular and high-quality healthcare. 

But the FOCUS healthcare initiative is about more than just numbers and gaps.  It is about the faces, names and stories behind these statistics.  Each day we meet men, women and families who are struggling to get by. We meet people like Linda, whose life was upended by a medical condition that turned deadly.

Linda and her husband Kevin were working full-time, he as a janitor, she as a nursing aide. With three children, they were barely making ends meet. The children qualified for free health insurance through the county, but Linda and Kevin weren’t eligible.

Kevin suffered from hypertension, but without insurance his condition went untreated. He died suddenly, at age forty, from a heart attack that could have been prevented by routine checkups and hypertension maintenance that is available to anyone with insurance.  With Kevin’s income gone, Linda was unable to pay the rent and so she and her children were evicted from their apartment. When the family came to FOCUS, they were living in their car.   It was our encounter with Linda that set FOCUS on the path to establish a free health center, understanding that health is equally as important as job or a house.

The FOCUS health center model addresses psychosocial, physical, mental and spiritual aspects of care. Rooted in the Orthodox Faith, we understand that all of these are essential to a person’s total wellbeing.  By capturing all aspects of care, and making the FOCUS health center an easily replicable model, we hope to expand an Orthodox Christian presence in health care. 

While the FOCUS health center in Pittsburgh is designed to operate five days per week, the model that FOCUS built was specifically created so that a health center could be replicated and operated on an intermittent basis in many different types of facilities, such as a church hall, office building, or classrooms, serving as a witness to the Orthodox faith and providing care that is desperately needed to those that live nearby. 

FOCUS health centers are staffed by Orthodox Christian volunteer physicians and other health care providers.  Medical malpractice liability protection under the FOCUS model is provided by the federal government and the Federal Tort Claims Act for free to any physician or medical staffer serving at a FOCUS clinic. 

Using this model and all its advantages, FOCUS hopes to launch more health centers in areas where Orthodox physicians are available to donate their time and skills to serve the uninsured and working poor.  We all know that our faith teaches to love and serve those in need.  The FOCUS health center model is just one way that skilled Orthodox medical practitioners can put their talents to good use for the glory of God and as a witness to the practical teachings of our Orthodox Faith.  

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