Entries with tag liturgy .

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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A Home Away from Home Parish

Before I was even alive, I was connected to my home parish. My parents got married there in 1991, I was baptized there two years later, and my sisters were baptized there when they were born. So it holds a very special place in my heart, and it always will.

 

Over the years, I’ve been in and out of that church community. In my teenage years, I fell out completely, and when I got back into Orthodoxy as a college student, I was away from my home parish. Most recently, I attended liturgy there regularly after I graduated in 2015 and moved back into my parents’ house for about a year.  

 

While I will always cherish the opportunity to go back to my home parish, and I will help it in any way that I can, I moved out this past summer and for a long time I found it difficult to find a parish that I felt connected me to Christ with no distractions.

 

Because I realized only a short while ago (unfortunately) that if you call yourself a Christian, you should be going to church. It’s an expression of your faith and devotion to Christ, allowing you to worship Him and take part in Holy Communion every week. It’s a blessing that we can do so, and it’s even more of a blessing that we have so many beautiful places of worship scattered throughout the country, especially in a place like New York City. So as an Orthodox Christian I’m attempting to show gratefulness for these things by going to church.

 

It wasn’t until I moved that I discovered how integral a parish is in building a foundation in your life; how being rooted in a community can help you establish a healthy routine and feel at home where you are. It’s important to have a setting in which you feel comfortable growing towards Christ, and a setting that helps you do that. And this is especially true as we, young adults, move away from our homes and to places where we have to build our own community; a church community is a great way to start.

 

I’ve recently discovered that a short hop, skip, and jump (or train ride) away from my apartment, resides a parish in which I feel completely at home. I honestly never knew that it was possible to find a church that supports me in this way, especially as a young adult (which, honestly, is a group that many parishes lack). This parish has services in a language that I feel more comfortable with, and when I’m there I always feel accepted as the person that I am, and for where I’m at in life.

 

What I love especially about this parish is that it isn’t perfect, so in a lot of ways it’s a lot like me. Yet every week it’s pews attract a crowd from all walks of life, from locations both within and outside of New York City, both visitors or permanent residents. This parish is thriving and welcoming and fills my heart with Christ’s love. When I’ve gone to coffee hour, every member of the community has been welcoming and open towards me. I seem to have stumbled into a place that has been extremely inspirational and accepting thus far.

 

On Sundays, I truly enjoy getting up in the morning when I think about going to this parish. I want to go to church, and that’s something that I honestly haven’t always felt. Even when I have my excuses, there’s something in the back of my mind pushing me to get out of bed and get to church. It’s a place that I love to tell people about, that I love to attend, and most importantly, brings me closer to Christ.

 

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Maria is the Administrative Coordinator of Y2AM. She is a New York native who isn't completely sold on the city's charm, yet has never left. A proud graduate of Fordham University and occasional runner, she is happiest whenever chocolate, a sale, or a good Gilmore Girls reference is involved.

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With the “Fear” of God: Three Things Awe of God Can Teach Us

Many people replace the God of Love with the god of fear.

This replacement god is a vindictive perfectionist who punishes those who aren’t good enough. And this “god” character usually leads to either atheism or despair.

Thankfully, the God we worship isn’t Zeus.

But when we hear in the Liturgy that we are to have the “fear of God,” it might lead to some confusion.

So if the fear of God isn’t about being scared of or intimidated by some cosmic tyrant, how can we explain it?

Part of the problem is an imprecise translation: a better choice might be “awe” or “wonder.” So let’s see how having awe and wonder before God can bring us to a healthier relationship with Him.

1. It teaches us God’s greatness by comparison

If I’m in awe of something or someone, it’s because of my reaction to greatness. If I’m in awe of a beautiful sunset, I won’t be able to take my eyes off of it. It’s awe-inspiring because at that moment I can’t remember ever seeing such a wonderful sight. If I’m in awe of an artist’s work, it’s because I see something so incredibly beyond my skill level, something that inspires and shapes the way I see the world.

So when I experience the “fear of God” at the Liturgy, I am aware of God’s greatness. My eyes have been opened to the reality of my own limitations and to God’s limitlessness. To my own brokenness and God’s wholeness. I stand in awe of God and His power, in comparison to my own powerlessness.

The truly beautiful thing, though, is that God doesn’t stop there. When we hear “with the fear of God” we also hear, “with faith and love, draw near.” The God who created the universe, Who is awe-inspiringly beautiful and powerful, desires to be in an intimate relationship with us, personally.

What’s more awesome than that?

Fear, as the world uses the word, is destructive to relationships. But having a proper awe and wonder before the greatness of God pulls us into a relationship with Him. And it is precisely in knowing that God wants a relationship with us, even in acknowledging His greatness and our unworthiness before Him, that we begin to understand the power of His love.

But, of course, there’s only so far our understanding can go.

2. It opens us to God’s otherness or the mystery of God

If I stand in wonder of something, there’s an element of mystery or something you just can’t quite put your finger on. New parents might sit in wonder at the miracle of conception and childbirth, for instance.

There’s certainly a level of wonder in our relationship with God. In Orthodoxy, we try to balance between what we know about God and what we can’t know. In many ways, God is intimate, close and knowable…and in other ways, He is always going to be a mystery. We wrestle with the tension between these two realities. Even if we can’t fully grasp it, we can live it: God is the uncreated Creator who chose to become part of His creation to bring us all into a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ.

What a gift! How then do we respond to this overwhelming sense of awe and wonder before God?

3. It inspires an active response

During the Liturgy, the priest directs the congregation how to respond as one, as the Body of Christ. We are told to “bow our heads to the Lord” and to “lift up our hearts.” There are times where it is appropriate to bow and cross ourselves (like during the Trisagion, the Thrice-Holy Hymn) or whenever the Holy Trinity is named. These aren’t simply private devotional practices; they are ways for every person in the congregation to move as if with one motion.

If we are in awe and in wonder of God during the Liturgy, we are also going to be attentive. We will be paying attention to the cues that the priest gives and we will be prepared to receive the grace that God gives us through our worship.

If we are zoned out during the Liturgy, checking our phone (or our watch) or having a conversation with our neighbor, we must not be experiencing awe and wonder. There’s no fear of God in that response to God’s presence. We have no connection. But God is already reaching out to us; we have to take a step forward to Him, too.

If God is truly present in the Body and Blood that we receive in the Eucharist, there is no other response before Him than to stand in awe and wonder. And then of course, to approach and receive Him.

The response to beauty is either silence or praise – not indifference. So our response to God’s beauty, our response to His presence with us cannot be to ignore it – we must either be silent or lift up our praise. That means, for example, that there’s no reason to be having a conversation with someone in the line for communion. We should be in prayer, in silent wonder of God both before and after we take communion. And if we, for whatever reason, aren’t taking communion, we should be respectful and attentive to the fact that others around us are.

This isn’t about fear of punishment (by God, the priest, or a yiayia) it’s about appreciating God for Who He Is and having the proper attitude when standing in the presence of the living God: an attitude of awe and wonder.

*****

There’s a good reason the Liturgy gives us the same cues each week. We need to constantly be told to pay attention, to “be attentive!” and to have awe and wonder before God. It’s all too easy in today’s self-sufficient world to be more in awe of ourselves than of the God who gives us breath and who lovingly cares for us throughout the day.

So ask yourself, how are you responding to God’s presence in your life today? Are you in awe and wonder before Him, or have you been ignoring His invitation to come forward?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. 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 and good coffee.

 

Photo Credit:

Beautiful Mountain Sunset Wallpaper

Awe Child

Christ Administering Holy Eucharist

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Three Things that Make Faith Personal (Yet Not Private)

Last post, I addressed some things that we can set up in our lives in place of Christ. We looked at the temptation we might have to reduce the spiritual life to feeling a certain way, to doing religion the right way, or even to simply believing the right way.

We saw how even good things can become idols if we allow them to take precedence over our relationship with Jesus Christ.

I’ve been reading along each day with Y2AM to finish the Orthodox Study Bible in a year, and I’ve been reflecting on the “idols” in my own life. Over and over again, we read in the Old Testament that the people of God chose to worship the gods of their own making rather than to submit to God’s will. When they repented and returned to God, it was always by coming back to the community.

The remedy for our individualized spirituality is to return to the spiritual life of the community.

Last week, Father Andrew Stephen Damick wrote a great post entitled “Christianity is Not About Your Spiritual Life.” Fr. Andrew argues that even the Orthodox faithful have turned the spiritual life into a private matter where the individual Christian is a consumer and the priest is elevated to a “religious professional.” Our purpose, as baptized Orthodox Christians, isn’t our own salvation, but the building up of the whole Church. As he writes, “Our faith is indeed personal, but it is not private. And there is nothing more personal than when persons are in communion with one another.”

So in light of this, how can we practice an authentic, Orthodox spiritual life in the world today? How can we cultivate this sort of personal, yet not private, spiritual life the Church calls us to?

Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Private and communal prayer work together

Our private prayer should reflect and build upon the prayer we experience in community. Remember, when we’re in the liturgy, orthros, vespers, or paraklesis, we’re more than a bunch of disconnected individuals praying separately (while happening to be in the same room). We are there to join as one voice in our common prayer. But to truly experience the fruits of this unity, we need to be praying our private prayers at home. Because both private and communal prayer, when done together, are personal: they work together to bring us into relationship with both God and neighbor.

Setting aside time, not only for silent meditation but also for praying the words that have been handed down to us, helps us to align ourselves with the rest of the Church. Private prayer helps keep us connected not only to God, but to the saints and the rest of the Body of Christ, as we all pray together for God’s mercy and salvation, no matter where (or when) we may live.

Being strengthened in our prayer at home, and nourished by the sacraments we receive in the Liturgy, we will then have the strength to live out this faith in community.

2. Parish life extends beyond Sunday morning

If we only came to Liturgy, did our prayers, and then left, we would certainly be approaching our faith as a private affair. Instead, the Church calls us to grow in community, to grow closer to Christ together. Getting involved in parish life and in the ministries of your local community are an important part of a lived out spiritual life, one that’s easy to forget when we make faith private rather than personal.

What gifts and interests has God given you and placed on your heart? How can you bring those to the service of His Church?

Fellowship is an important part of community, but we are called to be more than a social club. Saint Paul reminds us that we are given gifts to assist with the building up of everyone in the Church; it’s not about our private spiritual lives (Ephesians 4:11-13). Additionally, when we are involved in ministry, it reminds us that the role of building up the saints is not only in the hands of the parish priest, but of all baptized members of the Church.

And besides formal parish ministries, we should look for new ways to support one another.

The Holy Spirit makes His home not only in us individually, but in a special way when we live in community. Like Saint Paul says, “Don’t y’all know that y’all are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God dwells in y’all? (1 Corinthians 3:16, my Southern translation). In other words, God lives in us when we are together.

And that togetherness even extends to those we don’t live with.

3. Monastics are part of the Church, just as much as we are

Everyone needs to set aside time for retreat. I once heard an abbess compare monasteries to the inn where the Samaritan took the injured man (Luke 10:25-37). The monks and nuns recognize that, while they are not the Doctor (only Christ can heal us), monasteries can be places to regain our strength and encounter Christ.

In addition to finding some solitude in our busy world, we go to monasteries to remind ourselves that the Church is much larger than our local parish community. The monastic lifestyle is counter-cultural and demonstrates that the Christ transcends the expectations of the world. It’s a good reminder for us to see Christians who put Jesus first in their lives. Monks and nuns have committed their whole lives to the service of Christ and to pray for the world. Even if we take just a bit of this spirit of prayer with us when we leave from our visit, it will be easier to remember to pray throughout the week.

Do you have Orthodox monasteries within driving distance? This directory can help you find out. Check out what their visitor policy is and see if you can stay for a night. Most monasteries have rooms available and a prayer schedule that is open to visitors. Usually, visitors can help with chores too. Depending on the monastery practice, meals may be held in silence while listening to a spiritual reading. Even a short visit to a monastery can help those of us in the world to reorient our vision back to Christ and motivate us to get more involved in our local parish community.

*****

The Orthodox spiritual life is never just about my private relationship with God. But it is about an intimate personal relationship with Christ, rooted in a community. This community helps us break out of our own heads, to encounter the people around us and see that our Church extends even to the counter-cultural monastic communities around the world.

The truly refreshing thing about Orthodox spirituality is that it doesn’t rest in our isolated abilities and efforts. Our spiritual life is about letting go of our need to do things alone and reaching out to the rest of Christ’s Body.

How are you connecting to and cultivating Orthodox community? What can you do to reach out to others and to live Orthodoxy today?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. 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 and good coffee.

Photo Credit:

The Sick Man by Vasili Maximov (1881)

Stewardship Ministry

Sam with Sister Soulamitis 

 

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Commitment to Christ

Everyone is committed to something. Committed to a job, to friends, or to a spouse. We commit to finishing that book we bought last month but still haven’t gotten through.  We (hope) to commit to that new diet or that New Year’s resolution.  Seniors in high school respond to college acceptances and commit to their favorite school.

Some of my friends this year have committed to marrying their special someone by getting engaged. Others have committed to their spouse through the sacrament of marriage. Still others have gotten ordained, having committed their lives to the service of the Church.

For all of us, whether it is to something short term or long term, our commitment means seeing through what we started. With relationships, it implies a certain surrender of oneself to the other, a giving of myself to you.

So with all of these important commitments happening all around me, I can’t help but reflect on who and what I am committed to. I commit to the things I find the most important. I commit to my priorities: family, friends, work, school.

What about my relationship with God? What about my commitment to growing in my faith?

Our priority list can fill our minds with worry and we can forget to put Christ first. In our rush through life’s commitments, we forget to actually be committed to Him. So it’s no surprise to me that in the Divine Liturgy, we’re reminded to commit ourselves to Christ over and over again. Six times, in case we missed it the first five times!

“Let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.”

So let’s take a look at this petition and see the three things it’s calling us to do today.

1. Commit ourselves

The first thing this petition calls us to do is to commit ourselves to Christ. Though we may be tempted to worry about the faith of others, we have to make sure we are committed to Christ before we worry if others are. It’s like when flight attendants say “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Our life in Christ begins with our decision to unite ourselves with Christ first. 

It’s helpful not to over-complicate this: committing ourselves to something is about making a decision, taking a clear and simple action.

If I’m committed to a friendship, I will take the action of calling them, keeping in touch, spending time together. If I’m committed to finishing a book, I’ll have to actually pick it up and make time to read it. In order to commit myself to Christ, I have to put on my oxygen mask through prayer and through participating in the sacraments.

If I am committed to Christ, I have to set aside time to be with Him, to focus on that relationship.

We decide to commit (or not commit) to Christ each and every moment of each and every day. And we can start today, by making the decision to commit ourselves to Him, to follow Christ through our actions and our thoughts. In this way, our commitment to Christ isn’t hypothetical; it’s a conscious decision each moment and is shown in conscious, concrete actions throughout the day.

2. Commit one another

How do we commit one another to Christ? We commit our loved ones – and our enemies – to Christ by praying for them. We commit the poor and needy to Christ by serving them.

Simply put, we commit others to Christ by loving them with humility and trust.

Throughout the Liturgy, there are petitions where we pray for all sorts of people: the sick, the travelling, our government, our Church leaders. But then we’re told to commit one other to God. So besides simply praying for all of these people, we are called to give them up to the care of God. To trust that God will provide all that they need, and how they need it, when it’s His will.

By committing one another to Christ, we give up our right to worry and stress about what is going on around us. We instead turn to Christ, trust in Him, and ask for His will to be done in others’ lives. When we are given the opportunity to do something palpable in the life of a person in need, we ask for God to strengthen us to do His will in that moment.

If I am set on solving someone else’s problems on my own, then I’m not committing that person to Christ. I’m committing them to myself, to my plans, to my will. If I’m telling God what to do in my prayers instead of letting my requests be known to Him and praying only for His will, then I’m not committing others to God. 

I have to let go of control – even and especially in prayer – if I want to commit others to the care of God.

3. Commit our whole life

God doesn’t just want part of me, He wants all of me. He wants me to be as committed to Him as I am to finishing that plate of food on Pascha, or that argument I just have to win. If you’re an athlete, God wants you to be as committed to Him as you are to winning that tournament or that scholarship to play in college.

We’re either all in or we’re not in at all.

I’m always challenged when I hear the words of Christ from the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). Who wants anything that’s lukewarm? We want to be on fire for Christ, not smoldering embers left over from our GOYA days. 

So, more than committing ourselves to God (which requires a decision and action), committing our whole life to God requires us to completely rely on Him. I commit my life to Christ when I offer Him all that I do today. I have to pray for God’s will in all aspects of my life (work, school, relationships) and honestly desire to carry out His will when it becomes clear to me.

Committing my whole life to Christ means giving up my right to pilot my life and asking Christ to take over – because I can’t do it on my own. Once I commit my whole life to Christ, we’re in this together for the long run. Like a marriage, commitment to Christ means giving my life to Him and trusting in Him.

*****

The Church calls us to commit ourselves, one another and our whole life to Christ. Any commitment can feel overwhelming if we focus on the end goal. A lifetime commitment could sound intimidating if we forget to live one day at a time. In the same way, our Christian life can feel impossible if we don’t live it out purposefully one day at a time.

Instead of focusing on our plans and our desires for the future, we can choose to seek out God’s will and commit our life to Christ. Instead of worrying about our loved ones, or worrying about world events, we can commit one another to Christ. And instead of second or third place on our list of priorities, we can put Christ first and commit ourselves to Christ our God.

What are you committed to?

Have you committed yourself to Christ today?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. 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 and good coffee.

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