Beloved Brothers & Sisters in Christ:
Christ is among us!
We read in the Psalms of King David:
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.
As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children...
- Psalm 103: 13-17
As our parish enters its second decade, it becomes increasingly apparent how much day to day life can change for us, both as individuals and families, and here, together as a parish family: Our first parish meeting had fewer than ten members; today, most midweek services have more faithful in attendance than that day had; The holy vessels and books for our first Sunday liturgies would fit into a single box; today, we have trouble finding the correct box in which things are stored!
With so many changes - and so many positive changes - since the founding of our parish, there is an ever-present temptation to try to find a comfort zone, to believe that our community has somehow "arrived" at its goal.
But this is not the goal of the Orthodox Church, nor must it be the goal of Orthodox Christians. To remain alive and vibrant, each of us individually - and collectively as a parish - must daily take up our cross to live the Christian life.
PRAYER for INNER STILLNESS
This means much more than simply holding Orthodox beliefs, or making the Sign of the Cross:
As Orthodox Christians, we must make a conscious decision to pray every day, not as a sort of hobby or exercise, but realizing that it is prayer that keeps us close to God when we are physically removed from the services of the Church.
We must also make time for the holy services, especially on feast days, which (thank God) many of our faithful have been doing.
We must objectively shift the center of our lives from ourselves to Christ, and seek each day to know better the ways in which we resist God, resist His Gospel, and seek our own will.
This is the foundation of the way each of us can begin to relate to the world like true Christians. This must also be the foundation on which the future direction of our parish is built.
In the eleven years I have served as rector, you will know that I have paid keen attention to the improvement of our temple, the provision of space for educational work and materials, and the beautification of our temple through the sponsorship of icons and holy objects.
Brothers and sisters: none of this is an ends in itself. Holy icons only fulfil their purpose when we pray before them, and stand at the Liturgy before them. Spiritual books only have value when we read them, share them, loan them, and give them as gifts. Spiritual education only has value when we attend and receive it, and invite others to do the same.
It is only an active Christian life that is a true Christian life. One cannot be a passive observer, or simply a "believer", and still be a true Christian.
One cannot imagine the saints praying occasionally, frequenting only the Divine Liturgy and no other Holy Mysteries or services, or approaching Orthodox life as a kind of spiritual armchair quarterback. One must be on the field.
Such engagement begins with simple decisions, like taking the time to eat and socialize after Sunday Liturgy. It is no coincidence that visitors remark that our parish is very friendly and welcoming - the reason is simple: each person makes a decision to speak with visitors, to sit with visitors, and to break out of the cocoon of cliques. This means we must come out of our shells, and begin to get to know each other again and again, and so join together in our common struggle to live the Christian life.
HOLY MYSTERIES for TRANSFORMATION
This relationship with fellow communicants of the Holy Mysteries extends to our shared work in every aspect of parish life, from keeping every corner of the church clean and in good repair, inside and out, to providing food and clearing up after meals, to the repeated initiative it takes to remove the ever-present trash the customers at the neighborhood 7-11 so generously bestow on our property.
When we speak of brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow communicants of the Holy Mysteries, this presupposes two things:
Firstly, that those who are part of our parish community who have not yet been received into the Orthodox Church are encouraged and helped to do so, enabling them to navigate the challenges each of us experienced and experiences in our own life. This is the call to bear one another's burden, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).
Secondly, it means that those who are part of the Church avail themselves of regular Confession and Communion, and not slip into a kind of excommunicated ghetto, where Confession is a burden, Communion is an option, and the faithful that make up the Church are a casual - and occasional - social circle. This is not the Church. This is not Christian life.
EDUCATION through WATCHFULNESS OVER THE HEART
One of the real successes of our parish (the last year in particular) is the shared commitment to spiritual education, both learning about the Orthodox faith, as well as learning about how one lives as an Orthodox Christian. I am happy each time I see so many of our faithful working together at our Orthodox Spiritual Series retreats, or eating together and listening to our speakers at our Chinese Missions Dinners. Our first Orthodox Institute on the Family this past fall was another spiritual success story, in that the four evenings not only strengthened our faithful to face everyday life at home, work, and school, but they also gave a wide variety of friends the chance to eat together, and to converse about the trials and joys of life as Orthodox Christians (and would-be Orthodox Christians).
While it is a blessed thing to work to strengthen and serve the faithful, we must also all take the time to recharge ourselves through this kind of learning, and to take advantage of monthly question hour and Orthodox Coffee Talks. There are so few opportunities for us to grow in our knowledge and understanding of Christ and His Church, and where we fail to take advantage of them, the world will be our educator - and one could not imagine a worse teacher to shape the Orthodox Christian.
FINALLY, a word on EVANGELISM.
I am grateful to God that our parish community has learned the important lesson of the organic nature of sharing the Gospel and the Orthodox Faith, and has largely avoided the trap of trying to "convince" people into the Church. Only the Holy Spirit can bring people to Christ and His Church; we must simply be there to cooperate.
That being said, the ways in which we choose to make ourselves available to inquirers and to the world at large does and will impact on the lives of those outside the Church.
This brings me to my "Evangelism Wish List" for 2015:
Desert Wisdom Books Community Tent
From the earliest days of the parish, it was a shared dream to bring the Desert Wisdom Book Room to community festivals and events - a "Desert Wisdom Books" tent, to travel the area in warmer weather, to reach many people who have never encountered the Orthodox Church. We should bring this to fruition in 2015: who is up for the challenge?
Expanded, Ongoing Catechism
An expansion of ongoing catechism for those already in the Church: which would require additional volunteers to support our Church School and Orthodox Circle, as well as the summer Vacation Church School.
Online Orthodox TV
Maximum use of technology. Almost everyone who comes to our parish finds us online. Most informal catechism and learning about Orthodox Christianity now happens online, since books only reach the few who are most keen and motivated. This year, we need support in the area of photography, arrangement of printing, and online sharing of images in innovative, edifying ways, which do not require an addiction to Facebook. We need assistance to record and post sermons and talks online, and to help produce video material related to Church life. I do not believe it is unrealistic to foresee, even three to five years from now, a small online Orthodox television station, as our brethren in one of the dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia have already begun to do in the United States.
Training Our Faithful
Finally, to support this work, we will need the human resources God will provide. This requires two things: firstly, it requires the heartfelt investment of volunteer time by the faithful. This must grow from the natural inclination of each individual or it will not be sustainable, and it must be backed with a life of prayer, as we have mentioned, for the Lord has told us, "Without me, you can do nothing," (John 15). Secondly, this will inevitably require an additional staff person for the parish, if not this year, then at some time in the future, to help meet administrative needs, and to allow the priest to focus on pastoral care and spiritual education. Only with these two resources can our parish hope to reach more people, and to offer the kind of Orthodox Christian education, catechism, and worldview that is difficult to find elsewhere.
Building Up Our Choir
Finally, one specific example of the places in which our faithful will be called to help carry new responsibilities in the year ahead. For the last five years, we have enjoyed and been blessed with the leadership of Sara Hillis as our choir director, work which she has even taken on from a distance in cases where she has not been able to travel to Hamilton. As many know, Sara and her fiancé Michael plan to be married this year, which will take Sara out of town, requiring both support and help for her travel here, as well as the need for increased cooperation to ensure our liturgical music continues to be strong. Reader Sean, Father Deacon Mark, and our faithful band of singers cannot do this alone, and your active help for them will allow them to juggle new challenges as they present themselves.
God Sees Your Sacrifices
To conclude, please accept my sincere thanks - each of you - for all you do in service to our parish, and toward each other, for your careful attention to the holy altar and the service of the Liturgy, to the singing of our services, to the care of our building and property, to the cleaning, maintenance, and improvement of our facilities, to the work of hospitality and charitable care for those in need, to the preparation and serving of food, to the washing of dishes, and the care and education (both formal and informal) of our children and adults.
A rector must lead a parish, and with God's help, be a father to a parish, but it takes many, many sincere and committed people to make up a flourishing, growing family, and that is indeed what we have been blessed with.