Entries with tag eucharist .

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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Our Personal Role in Healing the Divided Christian Witness

I admit it. I was totally fangirling the whole time Pope Francis was in the United States. I wanted to see what he would say, how he would challenge both government and Roman Catholic leaders. It’s exciting to see such an important Christian figure welcomed into the American public sphere. Plus, I actually like the man; he’s a likeable guy!

But once I got past the curiosity of what Pope Francis would say next, and how the media would fail to adequately report on religion, I was reminded of the pain that comes from a divided Christian community. The Pope of Rome just represents one fraction of the Christian world. For a non-Christian looking in from the outside, there’s a smorgasbord of Christian groups – people can choose whatever flavor they’d like. But is this “choose your own adventure” approach to American religion really the paradigm that Christ set for us when He established His Church?  

Jesus desires that all who follow Him be one, just as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). But today, Christians are divided into Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Non-Denominations, etc. So where does that leave us as Christians? We could despair over living in a broken world, or we can consider ways we can do our part to heal the brokenness in our neck of the woods.  

An important point of clarity before we proceed, though. The Orthodox Church – a community of believers, the Body of Christ knit together through our common baptism – is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I say this, not to be triumphalist (as we discussed last week), but because this is our identity.  

As much as we long for unity with other Christians, the Church is not divided in itself. I do not receive only partial sacraments, nor is the Church substantially lacking. The Orthodox Church does not need the Roman Church to be whole, nor would it be more Orthodox if everyone converted. Instead, our divisions are sad simply because we hope for all people to share in the unity that is in Christ.

And, on a more practical level, Christians today cannot offer a unified witness to Jesus Christ when we are so deeply divided. That’s tragic, because the world so deeply yearns for Him.

With that said, here are some things each of us can begin to do today to bring healing to our divisions.

1. Know your own tradition

Before you can talk to someone about who they are, you need to know who you are.  So before you can talk with someone about their faith, you have to learn about your own. This is particularly true for us Orthodox in America since we are such a small percentage of the population. You may be the only Orthodox Christian your neighbor ever meets. That means we all have a responsibility to accurately represent our faith in Christ to those around us.

That can feel overwhelming, so where can you start?

First, participate in the Liturgy regularly and attend a new service you haven’t yet (matins, vespers, paraklesis, etc.) Ask your priest questions. Check out a Bible study at a local Orthodox parish. Pick up a book on Orthodox Christianity and read it. (I recommend “The Orthodox Church," which deals with history and teachings, and “The Way of the Pilgrim,” which is a sort of spiritual fiction on prayer.) Get a prayer book and use it. Open up your Bible and get to know it. Catch up on episodes of “Be the Bee,” “The Trench,” and “Coffee With Sister Vassa,” as well as the great podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.

If you don’t know your own faith, it’s easy to paint broad strokes and assume that all churches are essentially the same. What we may dismiss as mere details actually matter. Allowing our ignorance to lead us into assuming that we know better disrespects the deeply held beliefs of all churches, not just our own.

Bottom line: when we are engaged and knowledgeable of our own tradition, we will be prepared to encounter others.

2. Make friends with people in other churches

I cannot have a relationship with an idea; I can only know and love another person.

If I am to see Christ in my neighbors, and share Christ with my neighbors, I must get to know them as persons. Trust and friendship will pave the way for honest dialogue and protect against unfruitful argument, judgment, and stereotypes.

Too often, people talk about other Christian churches without having actually made friends with people of that tradition. This leads to the creation of caricatures that exist only in our minds and uncharitable arguments that do not come from the love of Christ. So make friends with faithful Roman Catholics, faithful Evangelicals, faithful Protestants of any tradition. Share meals together, get to know one another’s families. Once you are invested in who they are, then you are on an appropriate footing to talk about Orthodoxy – naturally and in its proper context: a relationship. We’ve got to love one another to properly share the Lord’s love.

3. Be obedient and trust in the Holy Spirit

Our society distrusts rules and regulations. We hear a rule and want to challenge it. We are given a boundary and want to cross it. When it comes to faith, the temptation to question authority is just as common. Questioning can be good and healthy, but it must be accompanied by trust that the Holy Spirit is also at work. If the Holy Spirit is working in the Church, then the guidelines that we are given might actually be inspired by God and not simply created by men.  These boundaries may prove to be the evidence and consequences of real division rather than the causes of it.

In particular, I have in mind the issue of Holy Communion. The Orthodox Church teaches that only baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians can receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion) in the Orthodox Church. That means that Roman Catholics and other Christians cannot receive unless they become Orthodox. Many people could see this as uninviting or inhospitable if we forget the first point: know your own faith first.

In the Orthodox Church, the Eucharist is the climax of a relationship that we have not only with Jesus Christ but with one another in the Church. We receive the Body of Christ because we already are His Body, the Church. Yet we also receive to better become His Body through living out our life in Christ as a community. We partake of the Eucharist after a common work of prayer and fasting, and also after something else we do together during the Liturgy: a confession of Faith when we recite the Creed. We cannot partake of the same meal if we are not sitting at the same table.

We cannot receive communion together, an expression of unity, if we are not actually and substantively united. There can be no communion without community. Receiving the Eucharist in a church to which we do not belong takes Holy Communion from being a life-giving demonstration of community and turns it into a public act of self-will and disobedience, no matter how good the intention may be.

 

It’s natural for Christians to mourn the divisions that exist between the churches, but we must not mourn as those who have no hope. As individuals we cannot force union between the churches, but we can build relationships with people in other faith communities. We can root ourselves more strongly in our own faith while not being afraid to make friendships with members of other churches.  And finally, we can practice obedience to God and reliance on His will, instead of insisting upon our own.

Each of us can follow this model of mutual respect and friendship, because ultimately we all yearn for relationship instead of division. And in these small ways we can make great strides at healing our divided Christian witness as we follow Jesus’ commandment: “love one another: just as I have loved you…all people will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

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