It seems like it has been a long time since we have had our newsletter and I'm filled with joy to bring it back! As I've been reflecting upon the fall (where did the summer go!) and the renewal that comes with the new Church year, I was reading some articles about the Church year and wanted to share one from Fr. Chris Foustoukos with you all. I pray it is as edifying for you as it was for me and I look forward to praying, working, and being with you in this new ecclesiastical year.
The summer months seem to comprise a period of refreshment and reflection for most Orthodox Christians. It is this spirit that I would like to share with you some thoughts taken from the book, Christ in Our Midst, Spiritual Renewal in the Orthodox Church, by Father Theodore Stylianopoulos. I find his words especially timely and vital. Furthermore, I hope that we will carefully meditate on them as we approach the New Ecclesiastical Year on September 1st.
The spiritual nature of the parish defines the style of the parish as a religious institution when the following factors are working together: vital worship, effective Christian education and meaningful ministries. When the life of our parish revolves around these basic expressions of God’s work in the world, our parish becomes by God’s grace a highly effective community of renewal for those who desire a life with God. How can we work practically for Christian renewal and spiritual life in our parish?
We should first start with ourselves. Spiritual renewal in the parish is not essentially a matter of a program which will be successful given a correct methodology, ample promotion and sufficient resources. Rather, it is a matter of spiritual renewal, a matter of being ourselves, spiritual, each of us. The crucial thing, therefore, is that each of us begins his or her renewal in Christ through prayer, confession, the Divine Liturgy, Christian education, stewardship and all the other means of renewal which we have had available to us since the days of the apostles. As each Christian is united with Christ through all these means and is growing spiritually, then to that extent is our parish an effective setting of renewal. A Church school teacher who is growing spiritually will be spiritually effective in his or her teaching. A parishioner for whom Christianity is really a way of life will greet a new parishioner or a visitor to the parish with a special kind of Christian welcome.
How are we to focus on Christ? By doing every-thing that we do in our parish for His honor and glory, the Divine Liturgy, preaching, singing, teaching, caring for the sick, baking and serving, raising funds, building new structures, and even the way we care for and speak to and listen to each other and one another’s children. The crucial question to ask is: How does this or that proposal, goal, program or action whether liturgical, educational, administrative, financial, social or athletic, honor and glorify Christ and his work? When we prayerfully ask this question and follow through in good faith, whether in the case of a parish assembly, a church school committee or a youth meeting, wonderful transformations begin to take place. Christ makes His presence known in our midst and people are uplifted and edified. Ordinary things that we do in our parish become transformed into tools for God’s redeeming work in a concrete way and become vehicles of His grace, when we do those things for Christ, for His love and for His glory. Then our parish consciously becomes what it essentially is: the mystical Body of Christ, full of Grace and Truth.
The importance of leadership for the nurture of the new life in Christ in our parish is obvious. Leadership is provided by the local Metropolitan, clergy, Christian educators, musicians and youth leaders, as well as the other men, women and young people who are called by God to serve in various ministries in our parish. In each parish, there is a rich reservoir of leadership and service which simply needs spiritual focus and spiritual direction. Once again, however, the first priority for leaders as for other helpers is for each one of us to give himself or herself to Christ so that we may abide in Him both while planning and implementing particular programs; the goals of which, in the first place, are to help all those who are open to come to know Christ and live in Him! In this way those who are in leadership positions and those who serve in other capacities do not act by relying on their own enthusiasm or new ideas, but by relying on the grace of Christ. Talking about our plans misses the point. We need to see them as His plans, His strategies, His programs, His resources and His parish. The moment we focus attention on ourselves and what we want, rather than on Christ and His will, the moment we forget that in the words of the Liturgy He is the Offerer and the One who is offered in all the work of our parish, we fall down spiritually and can rise again only through personal and corporate repentance to Him.
Jesus said to Peter: Do you love me?...(then) take care of my sheep.(John 21:16) The work of salvation can be done, to repeat the teaching of St. Silouan, only through love and humility. Working in this way, even a small number of Orthodox Christians can make a difference in parish renewal and spiritual life. We need to place ourselves at Christ’s feet and pray in this spirit: Here we are O Lord. Help us in our efforts. Make something of our plans and strategies. Be in them and see them through. We offer all these things to You and for Your glory. Insofar as those of us who serve in other ways make ourselves available to Christ, insofar as we turn to Him daily with prayer and a contrite spirit, insofar as we proclaim Christ, love Him and do everything for His glory, to that extent Christ Himself guides our parish step by step. We should be perfectly happy in this, because our Lord knows far better than we do, exactly what we need. We should also feel secure because He never lets us down when we abide in Him. A parish which is fully surrendered to Christ, just as a fully surrendered family, or a fully surrendered soul, will always find victory and joy in Him.