Entries with tag service .

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?

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a supporter. Your contribution can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

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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Abducted Syrian Bishops Serve as Models of Christian Service

This month marked four years since two Christian hierarchs were abducted at gunpoint in Syria. While Metropolitan Paul of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and Bishop John, the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo, were en route from Antioch to Aleppo, they were stopped by unknown assailants and taken hostage. The deacon driving their car was shot and killed.

The bishops’ whereabouts and status remain unknown. As Syria has been embroiled in a devastatingly violent and multifaceted civil war since 2011, various factions immediately blamed each other for the abductions.

The extended disappearance of the bishops has had a marked and heart-rending effect on the Christian population both in Syria and around the world. Both men were known as prominent and dedicated clerics in their communities.

And there’s one more important detail to the story that I haven’t mentioned yet.

The bishops were returning from a humanitarian mission when they were kidnapped.

In today’s charged political climate, much of the conversation here in the United States and in Europe centers on security over humanity and dignity. Civil authorities endlessly debate the merits of offering humanitarian aid and of safe haven in our own communities, particularly to the victims of violence in the Middle East.

Metropolitan Paul and Bishop John, both residents of Aleppo, probably knew better than anybody how dangerous it was to venture out past their front gates and into the world. And yet they did it anyway.

They took their Christian role as servants very seriously, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The bishops could easily have decided that it would have been too risky to travel. They could very well have remained secure in their homes, offices and cathedrals.

But they didn’t. They went out into the world to serve.

As Christians, our ambition is to follow the example of Jesus; to live a Life in Christ.

And though we still do not know where Meropolitan Paul and Bishop John are, their service reminds us that our individual and collective potential for helping others is far greater than the power of death.

Indeed, the anniversary of their abduction during this Paschal season emphasizes the power of Christ in the world. Christians, after all, are not deterred by danger; we go out into the world and open the doors to our communities in service for many.

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org).

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

 

Prepping for Our Journey to Pascha

If you’re anything like me, the fasting periods of the Church seem to just sneak up on you. It feels like it was just Christmas, and suddenly we’re preparing for Pascha! But despite the surprise every year, Lent comes at a time when I always find that I most need it. And like we prepare by stretching before we exercise and we pack before a journey, the Church gives us a period called Triodion before Lent begins to get us spiritually prepared.

 

For three weeks, we ease into fasting and we set our eyes on the goal of Christ at Pascha. On the first Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee – a reminder against pride and a for humility in anticipation of the Fast. On the second Sunday, we were reminded that that we – like the Prodigal Son – are on a journey to the Father’s House. And the final two Sundays of Triodion we bring to mind the Last Judgement and the importance of forgiveness.

 

Interwoven into these four Sundays are three themes that help us to orient our minds towards Christ and to put us in the right spirit as we approach the Great Fast. During Triodion, we are reminded of the importance of humility, of forgiveness, and of being concerned for our neighbor.

 

1. Humility

 

Humility is a virtue which prepares us to receive God and opens us up for compassion towards our neighbor. So it’s natural that humility is woven into each of the four Gospel passages chosen for the period of Triodion.

 

In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the humble and honest prayers of the Publican justified him before God. He was honest with himself and the state of his life and poured out his heart to God without trying to justify himself. The Prodigal Son was humbled by his poor choices and was willing to return to his father’s house even if he had to be a servant. In his humility, he confessed his unworthiness, and his father clothed him in a robe and received him as his son.

 

The theme of humility is especially fitting for us as we prepare for a fasting period because the temptation is so very real to become prideful in our adherence to regulations and our spiritual practices. It is so easy to forget that we worship the God who says on Judgement Sunday, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” We worship a God who not only humbled Himself by becoming man and dying on the Cross for us, but one who continues to identify with the humble and lowly among us.

 

So we hear the words of Christ on Forgiveness Sunday that “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:17-18). You see, it wasn’t a matter of if you fast but when you fast. There was no concept that the followers of Christ wouldn’t keep this tradition. The issue for us is how to go about fasting, how we present ourselves before others, and whether we reflect the humility of the God we worship or the pride of our own egos.

 

2. Forgiveness

 

As we approach Great Lent, we remember that we worship a God who forgives. But forgiveness is connected to our own personal repentance, which is a journey in itself. Each one of us becomes more aware of the things that are barriers to our relationship with God the closer that we come to Him. Lent is a time of special vigilance, a time when we become more attentive to ourselves and our spiritual lives. So the Church reminds us both of the forgiveness that God offers us, but also of our responsibility to forgive others as well.

 

With the image of the merciful father of the Prodigal Son in mind, we remember that God offers us a restored relationship with Him when we return to Him. But on Forgiveness Sunday, we also hear the words of Christ about our role in forgiving others. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). We hear the same thing in the Our Father when we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

In the days that remain of Triodion, we can seek to have forgiving hearts. Holding on to resentments and anger from today or yesterday or years past only holds us back from being able to receive the grace of God.

 

3. Concern for our neighbor

 

The scripture readings during Triodion call us to have a real concern for our neighbor. From the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we encounter the merciful father. We learn not only that our God is a merciful father to us, but also that this should affect our relationships with those around us as well. Christ tells us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Do we show this mercy to those who have offended us? Do we show concern for our loved ones and parishioners who no longer come to church? Do we show concern for our friends who do not know the Father’s House and have never encountered Him in the Orthodox Church?

 

Are we as merciful to our least favorite person as God is merciful to us?

 

On Judgement Sunday, also known as Meatfare Sunday (because it’s the last day we eat meat until Pascha), we hear the words of Christ who says,

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. (Matthew 25:35-36,45)

Our Lord tells us that when we serve those in need, we serve not only them but Christ Himself. In contrast, if we do not serve the hungry, the thirsty, the naked or those in prison, we are neglecting Christ.

 

Lastly, as we begin the fasting period, we are reminded not to let what we eat be a stumbling block to others (1 Corinthians 8). In other words, we need to be aware of how we are conducting ourselves during the Great Fast. We should not bring undue attention to ourselves just so that we can keep the Fast, but neither should we scandalize our brother or sister by eating meat or dairy in front of them if we are not fully keeping the Fast.

 

*****

 

Lent is our journey back to the Father’s house. Through these next weeks, we take a journey of fasting, of learning how to say no to good things like meat and dairy, so that we can have the strength to say no to the passions that lead us away from God. We learn to say no to our sins so that we can say yes to Christ.

 

But the period we are in today is preparing us for this journey. It is time for us to pack by practicing humility and forgiveness and to get ready for how we will serve Christ and our neighbor during Great Lent.

 

How are you preparing for Great Lent? Who do you need to forgive and how is Christ calling you to be of service during the Fast?

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

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 and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Saving Room for Christ

Every year I look forward to holiday foods. At Thanksgiving, it’s the stuffing and cranberry sauce. At Christmas, it’s the ham. At Pascha, it’s the lamb…and well, anything related to meat or cheese. And as a Southerner, we seem to always have deviled eggs and sweet tea at every important family gathering too.

 

And you better believe I make sure to save room for that food! After all, the thin guy always has to get seconds and thirds or the host isn’t happy.

 

But what would happen if we came to holiday meals already full? The holiday spread would become just…another meal. Just more of the same.

 

During the Advent season, as we are getting closer to Christmas, we are surrounded by Christmas music, Christmas lights, Christmas coffee drinks…we get so filled up with Christmastime that Christmas itself can feel anti-climactic. After weeks of worrying over gifts, planning our holiday schedule, and running here and there, the actual feast of Christmas comes and goes before we know it.

 

We forget to meet Jesus in that quiet cave in Bethlehem. We can get so filled up on Christmas that we forget to leave room for Christ.

 

Here are three things the Church offers to help us to come to the feast prepared and to meet Him this Christmas.

 

1. Fasting

 

We know to skip breakfast before going to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, because we want to make room for the good stuff. Similarly, the Church gives us the practice of fasting so that we can make room for Christ in our lives; or rather so that we can make Him the center of our lives. Instead of filling up on all that the world has to offer us, we are given periods throughout the year to put some limits on ourselves to train us to seek Christ. As we hunger and thirst for food before the Liturgy, we are reminded that Jesus alone can satisfy us. We come to church hungry, and the first thing we taste is Christ.

 

It’s easy to ignore practices like fasting as if they were just the tradition of man, until we remember that Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:1-2) and He said that His disciples were to fast, too (Matthew 9:14-15). The Church has a calendar of feasts and fasts, many of which can be hard to remember, but here’s a simple outline we can follow. Before major feasts, we prepare ourselves by fasting from certain foods and activities to prepare ourselves for the feast. We also fast throughout the year on Wednesdays and Fridays in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and death on the cross.   

 

But how can we fast this Advent period? The Nativity Fast lasts for the forty days leading up to Christmas. If you haven’t begun, you can begin today. If you don’t fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, perhaps you could begin by fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Nativity Fast. If we are not accustomed to fasting, we should begin by making some step towards the tradition of the Church. As we live in an individualized culture, the temptation is to come up with something unique for ourselves instead of following the tried and true way of the Church. The best thing, though, is that you speak to your parish priest and ask his advice on what might work best for you and your family this year.

 

2. Confession, scripture, and prayer

 

Fasting during the Nativity period helps us to save room for Christ in our lives. Another practice during this period is to go to the sacrament of confession. Jesus desires that all of us who are “heavy laden” with our life’s concerns and worries will come to Him so that He can give us rest in Himself (Matthew 11:28). As we confess and we lay everything at the feet of Christ, we can walk away freer and lightened from those things we keep carrying along with us.

 

And as we are lightened through fasting and confession, we will have room to grow in our relationship with Christ. We can commit to saying some prayers in the morning and at night before going to sleep. We can set aside five to ten minutes each day to read scripture. When was the last time you read the whole of one of the gospels? It can be especially helpful for us to focus on one gospel, like the Gospel of Matthew or Luke during this period. As we read the life and the words of Jesus, we can encounter Him anew each time. And when we come to Liturgy on Christmas, we will be prepared to welcome Him.

 

3. Serving others

 

We worry a lot about presents during Christmastime. Did we get this person what they’d want? We think we’re thinking about people during Christmas, but usually we are just focused on the idea that we have to get everyone something. Is our focus on serving others or just getting them gifts? Are we focused on loving our neighbor? Are we remembering to love our enemy by praying for them?

 

Our Orthodox history is filled with saints who committed their lives to the service of the poor, the needy, the sick, and the fatherless. St. John Chrysostom served the poor in the streets of Antioch and preached the rest of his life about the importance of direct service. St. Basil devoted his life to service and his sermons continue to inspire us today to give back to those who are in need. Modern saints like St. Elizabeth the New Martyr and St. Maria Skobtsova show us that service is something we are all called to do today.

 

We can all find a way to give back to others who are in need today. Have you considered writing letters to those in prison through the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry? How might you assist the work of IOCC or OCMC? How can you serve the Orthodox orphanages like those in Mexico or India? And on a local level, how can you work with local food pantries or social services help a family in need to have a Christmas dinner?

 

*****

 

We might already feel like we’re getting swept up in the preparations for Christmas. The point for us, whether we are starting now, or if we have been preparing all Advent long, is that we commit to growing closer to Christ today. If we are emptying ourselves of our pride and worldly concerns, our hearts will be open to Christ and to the many ways we can serve our neighbor.

 

What is your experience of fasting? Have you been to confession recently? How could you better serve those in need?

 

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

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 and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Making Home a Little Church

It’s all too easy to separate our lives into “Church stuff” and “worldly stuff”, into “Church friends” and “school friends”, into “we can talk about God here but not there.” This inclination towards compartmentalizing life in our modern age can lead us to think that we only learn about our faith at church, sort of like how we only learn about math when we’re at school. We go to church to pray, we go to church to learn during the sermon. But what about when we go home?

 

According to Saint John Chrysostom, the home is a “little church.” It’s where we continue to encounter Christ by seeking Him through prayer and study and where we struggle to acquire the virtues of the Christian life. By bringing our experience of the Church into the home, we more fully recognize and appreciate what it means to be the Church when we gather during the Liturgy.

 

Here are some things we can all do to make our home a little church.

 

1. Pray, study scripture, and talk about the spiritual life

 

One of the results of living in a secular world is that we tend to see the spiritual life as the job description of “professional Christians.” It’s for the monks, nuns, and priests to read the Bible all the time, to pray for the world, and to sit and talk about God and the saints. Interestingly enough, that must have been a common thought even during the life of St John Chrysostom, because this is how he talked about reading the Bible: "Do not say, 'Bible reading is for monks; am I turning my child into a monk?' No! It isn't for them to be a monk. Make them into a Christian! Why are you afraid of something so good? It is necessary for everyone to know Scriptural teachings, and this is especially true for children.”

 

St John also spoke about how a husband and wife should discuss scripture and the prayers that they heard during the Liturgy when they get home. He encouraged his parishioners to read Scripture and to discuss it amongst themselves. This shows us that studying God’s Word and encountering Christ through prayer isn’t reserved for seminarians; this is the way of life of every Orthodox Christian.

 

2. Practice hospitality

 

With the recent canonization of Mother Teresa by the Roman Catholic Church, the world is a buzz with her life’s work of serving the poor and marginalized of Kolkata, India. We hear all that she did for the poor and the sick and assume there’s nothing really that we can do. We figure it best to leave it to holy people like Mother Teresa, Mother Gavrilia, or Saint Maria Skobtsova to do this ministry.

 

But again, Saint John Chrysostom has something to say about the ministry that each one of us has in relation to the poor. He goes as far as to call it our special priesthood! “Consider to whom you are giving drink, and tremble. Consider, you have become a priest of Christ, giving with your own hand, not [Christ’s] flesh but bread, and not [His] blood, but a cup of cold water.” The service that we have is so important because it is Christ Himself whom we serve. “This altar [in the church] is but a stone by nature, but it becomes holy because it receives Christ’s Body; but that one [the poor man] is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body. So that this beside which you, the layman, stand, is more awesome than that.”

 

So one way that we can make our home a little church is to practice hospitality and serve our neighbor throughout the week. This might mean giving some dignity to the homeless man you pass on your way to work, or inviting a friend over for dinner when you’d rather just relax. And when we try to see Christ in everyone around us, eventually we realize that our encounter with Him doesn’t stop at the Chalice.

 

3. Encourage and correct one another

 

Both Saint Paul and Saint John Chrysostom call us to encourage and correct one another: in short, to be an authentic community.

 

“Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another”(Hebrews 10:24-25). “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Since the Church is a family, our gathering should be an opportunity both to be encouraged and at times to be challenged.

 

Saint John Chrysostom says that this role of encouraging church attendance applies to everyone in the family. “Let them incite and urge one another to the assembly here—the father his son, the son his father, the husbands their wives, and the wives their husbands." Friends too need to encourage one another, and to be brought back onto the right path when we see them veering away from the Church.

 

No one likes to feel like they’re being told what to do, or to feel judged. That’s why it’s important that we speak from our own experience and from a place of love rather than judgment. Knowing when to speak up takes discernment and prayer; we should always pray about a situation before bringing our concerns to a friend. Sometimes our friends can see things in our lives that we don’t see clearly on our own. It also helps if we trust our friends and are open to their advice. Then even our friendships will help us bring the Church into our home.

 

*****

 

When we remember to encourage, and even to correct one another, we’re remembering that we don’t stop being the Church when the Liturgy is finished. When we serve the poor or practice hospitality, we’re reminded that Jesus Christ cannot be contained by the walls of our sanctuaries. And when we pray, study scripture, and discuss the spiritual life at home, we see that the spiritual life isn’t reserved for Sunday.

 

What keeps you from discussing your faith outside of Sundays? Do you struggle with serving the poor or giving money to those in need? Do you have good mentors and friends whom you trust to keep you on track?

 

Want more from Y2AMSubscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday!  And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter.  As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

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 and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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