The Evil of Ignoring Evil

The Church is a place of healing. And sometimes, to create an atmosphere that promotes spiritual development rather than decay, the Church needs to identify and speak against spiritual sickness.

Whenever it does so, one thing is clear: the Church can speak against illnesses of the heart because the Church, as the Body of Christ, is united to the source of holiness and goodness.  

On the first Sunday of Great Lent, for example, we celebrate the restoration of the icons during the Sunday of Orthodoxy. At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful process with icons in hand and the clergy proclaim that we depict Christ and His saints in icons because “this is the Faith which has established the Universe.”  

Yet these affirmations of the Faith are also paired with strong anathemas against “those who persist in the heresy of denying icons, or rather the apostasy of denying Christ.” 

We see this in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. The First Council, for example, composed the Nicene Creed, a positive statement setting forth the Church’s core profession of Faith. Yet the Council also published a long list of anathemas condemning the errors of Arius, who taught that Christ is a mere creation rather than “true God from true God” (as the Creed states).  

Sometimes, the Church needs to clearly and courageously speak out in order to correct a grave error which has taken root in our hearts. 

This correction flows from a clarity of purpose and the sure knowledge of what spiritual health means. 

Last weekend, the world witnessed something ugly and deeply twisted. On Friday night, a group of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, and other white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, VA in a gathering initially organized to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Conjuring frightful images from decades past, they marched with tourches in hand, spreading darkness and shouting vile slogans: 

You will not replace us!

Jews will not replace us!

They marched for the creation of an “ethno-state,” intentionally identifying with those who gassed and lynched in the hopes of a whiter (yet nonetheless darker) tomorrow.

The scene erupted into violence when the white supremacists and anti-racist counter-protesters clashed.

On Saturday, the buildup to a planned rally further degenerated into more violence. After a state of emergency was declared, the rally was cancelled. A car intentionally careened at high speed through a crowd of counter-protesters. Nineteen people were injured. Heather Heyer was killed.   

Condemning this should be simple and straightforward. As Christ Himself said, whatever we do to “the least of these,” we do to Christ Himself.

Similarly, whatever we do not do for “the least of these,” we do not do for Christ Himself.

When we march through the streets with torches in hand, shouting for the extermination of our fellow human beings, we join the angry mob that shouted for Christ’s blood.

Crucify Him! Crucify Him!

Similarly, when armed mobs itch to play the executioner and we remain silent, we deny our Lord as Peter once did.

White supremacy is inherently un-Christian. Racism is inherently un-Christian. It is premised on the false notion that some human beings are inferior to others.

Differences serve as an opporunity for union and love. Division, however, is overcome in the person of Christ.

Christian preaching is very clear. We die in the waters of baptism so we can rise in Christ, as members of His Body. A body is composed not merely of eyes or hands, but a rich variety of members. Divisions are drowned in the font so we can be made anew.

True identity lies not merely in our biology or nationality or ancestry, but in our union with the true human being: Jesus Christ.

Racism is contrary to our identity as Christians, and it denies the image of Christ in every person.

This is the theology of the Church.

"We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ."

In the past, the Church has publicly denounced efforts to diminish Christ and those who bear His image. Our duty as Christians remains the same today.

When the Church speaks against those who would dishonor Christ or His people, it is in the hope that the misguided would repent and unite themselves to the Lord.

Today, when we speak against nihilistic ideologies contrary to the teachings of Christ, it must be in the hope that they (and we) can be better: that the hearts of all people can soften enough so that we may see Christ in every face we encounter.

People are assembling to harass, intimidate, and even destroy living icons. 

We must not equivocate and mince words. We must not hesitate to courageously denounce what is evil. We must not make excuses for those who try to justify or rationalize such spiritual and societal darkness.

If we are slow to come to the defense of these living icons, is it because we do not value all people, made in the image of Christ? Is it because of the difficulty of freeing our own hearts from sin? Or do we fear the discomfort of naming and fighting the evils before us?

If we are afraid to call out the obvious evils right in front of us, can we be brave enough to confront the evils in our own hearts? And if we do not root out the evils in our own hearts, what hope do we have of being a prophetic voice in a world that desperately needs the Word of God?

May our hope rest in the Lord. May our lips speak His words and may our hands do His works: with generosity and hope, and without any hesitation.

 

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM.

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How Service Changes Lives

Over the last few months, I’ve been busy organizing a group of sixteen young adults to take a service trip to Project Mexico. We recently got back, and since then I’ve been reflecting on the importance of service - both international and domestic - and how it has changed my life. For me, this trip was one of reunion and fulfillment, and served as an expression of gratitude for what God has done in my life over the last decade.

 

Eleven years ago, I went on an alternative spring break (Real Break) trip through Orthodox Christian Fellowship. I was a freshman and excited for my first service trip - working on a home in Tijuana, Mexico through Project Mexico and Saint Innocent Orphanage. I couldn’t have predicted how much that trip would change me. In Mexico, I witnessed poverty like I hadn’t seen before: homes the size of my neighbor’s shed, a community outhouse, children playing frisbee over downed power lines, poor infrastructure, etc.

 

Maybe this was my Damascus moment - like Saint Paul whom God had to strike blind before he changed the direction of his life.

 

Service - and Project Mexico more specifically - became the catalyst of change in both my professional and spiritual life. I switched my major from Chemistry to International Affairs and Spanish. I served with AmeriCorps VISTA for a year in Philadelphia and then went to seminary. Going on a week-long international service trip to Mexico propelled me in the direction of domestic service and ultimately full-time ministry in the Orthodox Church.

 

But what is it about service that is so life changing? Why is service so important for Orthodox Christians?

 

1. It fosters relationships

 

It isn’t enough for me to know about someone, I need to actually take the action of getting to know him. Before I took my first trip to Mexico, poverty was a concept and impoverished people were not much more than a category. Afterwards, I had names and faces, relationships instead of ideas. I knew the relative poverty of my own family, but I knew little of the poverty of others.

 

Last month, our group of young adults went to Mexico as a collection of friends and strangers. We came back a united group, as people who had served together, prayed together and who had a common experience as a community. What I’ve found is that when two or more people serve someone together, they grow close to one another, too. A similar thing happens as friends or spouses develop their relationship with God; they wind up closer as a result.

 

Service is so transformative to individuals because they break out of their isolation and become members of a community. We experience a moment of connection - to God and neighbor - that gives life to all of our relationships. Service changes our lives because it opens our hearts and helps give us a new perspective on our lives.

 

2. It’s a reflection of the Liturgy

 

The focal point and climax of the Liturgy is the Eucharist. All of our prayer and worship, our offering of ourselves and one another, our listening to the Scripture readings and homily, lead up to this moment when God offers back to us our gift to Him (bread and wine) as His Body and Blood. And as a corporate work as a community, the Liturgy is an act of service to God. Eucharist is our thanksgiving, our action of gratitude for the work and presence of Christ in our lives.

 

But when we leave the Liturgy, how much does our week resemble this action of gratitude? Do we commit ourselves and others to God during the week? Service to our neighbor is an important way of giving thanks to God as we help bear one another’s burdens. As the Liturgy helps to cultivate within us the realization that God is the source of our lives - and not our own labor or our success - service reminds us to be grateful instead of selfish.

 

There’s a certain mystery that happens when we give to others in the name of Christ. He gives to us His Body and His Blood and is never depleted. And when we give to others in service to them, we leave with hearts brimming over. We walk away with more than we gave.

 

*****

 

The Orthodox Church sets up service as a vital part of our spiritual lives. Almsgiving and service to those in need are built in as part of our fasting periods and are highlighted in the lives of great saints such as Saint Basil the Great and Saint John Chrysostom. Service cultivates relationships both with God and our neighbor, and it is an act of gratitude for what God has already done for us.

 

How has service changed your life? How can you reach out to serve your local community?

 

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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.

Photo Credit: Sam Williams - Project Mexico 2017 Virginia team

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Yes, I Read *The Benedict Option*

Recently, one of my friends read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and strongly suggested that I do likewise. I was a bit hesitant, to be sure, feeling like I was about to be inundated with political lingo and reasons that the Religious Conservative Right was under siege from the Secular Liberal Left, and frankly - ain’t nobody got time for that.

I have enough problems. I thought. I don’t need to hear all the bad news about how the Church is under attack. And so I wrote it off.

Then I learned that many people I love and respect have been wrestling through Dreher’s work, and so I suddenly felt that perhaps it was time that I give it a go, and so I decided to follow suite, and bought The Benedict Option on Audible.

While a review of Dreher’s book is beyond the scope of this post, I can say that my time with The Benedict Option has awakened something within me: a longing for a truly Christian community. I want to be a part of something bigger than myself, a part of a group of people that are committed to living out the virtues and struggles of the Christian life together.

I think one of the biggest problems I face in my own Christian life is that of isolation. I frequently feel like my spirituality is something that I’m responsible for muscling through on my own, and so I despair. I feel lonely in my striving to follow Christ, and it becomes all too easy to let myself off the hook when it comes to the struggle that is inherent in learning to be a disciple of Christ, of learning to deny myself, take up the cross, and follow Him.

I know that the Church exists as a rampart of faith, a place where we can shore up courage as we learn to battle the passions together, but functionally, it doesn’t really seem like that. For me, it often feels more like a weekly gathering of like-minded people who take refuge in being kind-of-like one another. In part, this is due to the fact that so many of us live so far from our parishes that establishing any kind of day-in-day-out rhythm of life is simply impossible. So each Sunday we come together and return to our individual huts where we are responsible for holding on for another seven days. And frankly, this is simply getting tiring for me.

It’s not that I don’t believe. It’s just that I don’t have the strength to act like it on my own. And so, as I’m reading The Benedict Option, I find myself longing for a community of faith, a community that is dedicated to the teaching of Christ, committed to living out what it is to be a disciple of the Lord.

I don’t mean this as laziness on my part. It’s not that I don’t want to do it on my own. It’s just that I can’t. I get too weighed down by the demands of my daily life: waking up in the middle of the night to a crying baby, waking up again to the demands of a hungry toddler, needing to get ready for work, maintaining a caseload, feeling guilty about not making it to the gym more, and amidst all this, trying to be the perfect husband who helps out around the house as much as possible while having a keen financial plan that will allow us to make a down payment on a house in a year...well, it’s just a lot. Then when someone tells me that I have to say my prayers, spend an hour in silence, and prepare for confession...honestly, those just seem like more things on top of an already very long to-do list.

Again, it’s not that I don’t want to do these things; I simply don’t have the energy on my own.

But I have this imagination that if I were part of a community, a real community of Orthodox Christians where our kids played together after school and we gathered together for evening prayers or reader’s vespers on the regular, somehow this would make it all feel more manageable.

I’m just tired. I’m tired of believing on my own. I’m tired of feeling like I have to keep my head above water by my own effort. I understand that this is an essential component of being a disciple, but it cannot be the entirety of it. If the monks are a part of a community that is committed to prayer as a way of life and the central grounding point of their life together; why shouldn’t lay people in the world want the same thing?

And so, I think I’m going to make this my quest in the next year or so. I want to make an intentional effort to build a community of Christians committed to living out the Gospel. I don’t mean that I simply want more “church events.” I want the Church, the assembled body of believers to be the center of my life so that I may continue to strive to draw near to the Lord with the fear of God, in faith and in love.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, podcaster, homebrewer, and CrossFitter. Christian has an MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary and is a Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Another Church School Year Begins

While it’s still early August, and many families are on vacation, and parishes are still on their “summer schedules” or still working on their Festivals, another Sunday Church School year is just around the corner. That means now is the time to plan and organize so that when Sunday school begins, everything is in place.

Here are some things to do. This list may look overwhelming, but by starting to work on it now, you can make steady progress to be ready for that first day of Sunday school.

First, pray for your students, teachers, and their families. Pray that God will give them a good year, inspire them to learn and deepen their knowledge of the Orthodox Christian Faith and practice it with more dedication. The Paraklesis Services through the Dormition Fast period are an excellent opportunity to bring your prayers to the Theotokos and ask her for guidance.

Second, review the calendar. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve fall on Sundays this year. Pascha falls early in 2018, which will affect your schedule. Triodion begins January 28, 2018, Clean Monday is February 19, and Pascha falls on April 8 (one week later than the West). Once you’ve noted that, schedule events and programs, the Christmas program, the Lenten retreat, the Good Friday retreat, the parish Oratorical Festival, and all the other events and programs your parish holds (a parish calendar is a good idea too).  Create a calendar that can be shared with the parents and students and publicize it.

Third, review class assignments with teachers. Who will they be teaching this year? Who will teachers work with as assistants? What will various parents help with this year?

Fourth, review the class spaces and supplies. Make sure everything is working, in good repair, and that there are adequate materials ready for the classrooms.

Fifth, related to supplies and resources, order now! Take advantage of the “back to school sales” in your local stores. Order books and materials from the Archdiocese (OrthodoxMarketplace.com) now.

Sixth, start implementing ways to “keep kids safe” in your program. Discuss appropriate and inappropriate forms of interaction with children and youth. There are many items for consideration, too many to list here. Public school teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement professionals could be invited to offer their insights into best practices for your parish.

Seventh, schedule teacher development time. Poll the teachers for topics they want to learn about and schedule a few times through the year to meet to study together. Theological topics will be on the list and parish priest will be your primary teacher, for those, or local experts. But don’t forget educational topics and experts in your parish or neighboring parishes on those as well.

What Domino's Pizza Taught Me About Church Leadership

A few years ago, the CEO of Domino's did something incredible: he admitted that their pizza was awful.

Let's back up a bit. The mission of Domino's is simple: to provide people with pizza. The problem was that no one wanted to eat it.

Over time, their pizza developed the reputation of being bland, unappetizing, even disgusting: because that's exactly what it was. Domino's one job was to make good pizza, and they were failing at that miserably.

When new CEO Patrick Doyle took office in 2010, he had a choice. He could decide to sidestep the problem with spin: maybe Domino's needed a new advertising campaign, to spend more dollars on media, to invest in a new website, or to come up with some new gimmicky sales strategy to cover up the terrible pizza. 

But he didn't. 

Instead, he admitted there was a problem. And he took steps to solve it.

Doyle did something remarkably brave and bold. He was at center of a daring advertising campaign which admitted that Domino's pizza, their flagship product, was a disaster

Doyle and his team didn't hide from an unpleasant reality. They met it head on.

This was no mere publicity stunt. And this was not a simple rebranding or repackaging of a failed product. Domino's admitted their failure, not because it would draw attention and new sales, but because they heard people’s complaints.

And they believed they were capable of more. Doyle and his team believed that they could offer a tasty pizza that people actually enjoyed. 

This was, in a sense, an act of repentance. They accepted the criticism, acknowledged the disaster, and unveiled a new recipe.

This courageous move paid off. Domino's new pizza was, in fact, much better than their old recipe. Sales immediately skyrocketed, and Doyle was named the CNBC Street Signs "CEO of the Year" in 2011

When Doyle took over as CEO in 2010, Domino's stock was trading at about $9 per share. Today, it's pushing $200.

Pizza is a particularly interesting image for us in the Church because it uses food to illustrate ministry. As Jesus said in John 21:17, "Feed my sheep."

And, just as Domino's was struggling to reach their customers, the numbers suggest that the Church has been struggling to feed the flock.

As the Barna group recently explained in You Lost Me, 60% of young Christians disengage from the church as they transition from youth to young adulthood.

The Orthodox Church is not immune. Though data specific to the Church is lacking, the following figures are provocative. 

In 2010, a study commissioned by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops found that there were 799,400 Orthodox Christians in the United States. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Christian Herald newspaper used to commission similar studies. Their last such census, in 1947, found that there were 702,273 Orthodox Christians in the United States.

That translates to 14% growth over 63 years.

That might seem respectable until you remember that waves of immigrants from traditionally Orthodox countries entered the US during those six decades. And that a majority of Orthodox Christians now mary non-Orthodox, potentially growing the Church with every marriage. Yet even despite all that, our growth measured only 14% over 63 years.

Over the same period, the population of the United States more than doubled.

This indicates, at least for the Orthodox Church, that our ministry problem may run a lot deeper than the contemporary rise of the "nones." We may be looking at a sustained track record of missteps that stretches back multiple decades and multiple generations.

When Father Jason Roll (Director of what was then called the Youth Department of the Archdiocese) brought me on to join the team four years ago, we had a choice to make. We could look back at some of the old resources and initiatives of the past and try to rebrand them. We could devise new strategies to double down on what the Church had, for decades, been using to feed young Orthodox Christians.

But, under his brave and visionary leadership, we didn't. We decided that we needed to be honest. We decided that we needed to admit the mistakes of the past.

And, putting our trust in Christ, we were motivated by the confidence that we could do better.

So we rechristened the Youth Department as Y2AM, with a new ministry vision grounded in Christ and oriented towards His Kingdom. And we began this new adventure with a new project: a risky and untested video series known as Be the Bee.

As one fourth grader described in a letter, an episode of Be the Bee “made me reach my goal and made me achieve to pray every night because of you. So every night when I pray, I also pray for you because you taught me to pray.”

As a high school student recently wrote, “Your ministry has led my girlfriend and me to convert to the Eastern Orthodox Faith!” 

As another high schooler wrote, our YouTube channel “was probably the biggest thing that got me to go from being an atheist to an Orthodox Christian inquirer.”

As a young adult who is reengaging with the Church shared, “My wife converted to the Orthodox Church and your words and lessons have helped our journey to Christ.” 

As a mother recently explained to us, she sends our videos to her two children before dinner, “and discussing them at dinner has added so much to our family dinner conversations. My husband and I have learned right alongside them, what a blessing!”

Throwing out a recipe, especially after decades of use, can be a very scary thing. But, as Doyle would suggest, "playing it safe is the riskiest course of all."

So we all have to ask ourselves: are we going to stick with the terrible pizza we know, or offer the amazing pizza we know we’re capable of making? 

 

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM.

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