Delivered at the Parish General Meeting January 31, 2016
Beloved Brothers & Sisters in Christ:
EDUCATION through WATCHFULNESS OVER THE HEART
Some time ago, someone remarked on how much our parish is committed to educating the faithful - that education is "our thing", while some other clergy and parishes have "their things", such as liturgical life. Outwardly the reasons for such a comment are obvious:
• Although a small parish, we offer two levels of ORTHODOX CHURCH SCHOOL almost every Sunday;
• Each summer, our parish punches above its weight by helping to lead the PAN-ORTHODOX VACATION CHURCH SCHOOL; we have even for several years had the highest number of students enrolled among all Hamilton parishes, despite being the smallest parish in the city;
• For catechumens and inquirers, we offer twice each year the ORTHODOX COFFEE TALKS series;
• For all faithful - to ensure that no one has any excuse for spiritual stagnation, or for living a life uninformed by the experience of the Church - we offer monthly QUESTION HOURS;
• We provide unique spiritual education for the wider community through our annual Lenten ORTHODOX SPIRITUALITY SERIES;
• Each fall, we offer the ORTHODOX INSTITUTE ON THE FAMILY to address some of the most fundamental questions facing our faithful in daily life today;
• Our parish makes available hundreds of solid spiritual resources through the DESERT WISDOM BOOK ROOM;
• We also work together with our neighbouring parish of St. Nicholas to support their biannual retreat.
Yet inwardly, where our Christian life counts the most, these things are nothing special: they are in fact what any Orthodox community should be doing, yet for reasons of spiritual dryness or laziness, simply ignore or fail to do. As I said in my State of the Parish Report one year ago, we are called on to do more, since very realistic opportunities have been set in front of us. With only few small additional pieces put in place, several very straightforward mission opportunities are literally on our doorstep:
• As I said a year ago, the creation of a "Desert Wisdom Books" tent, to travel to area events would provide a very simple, effective means of breaking into new circles which have not heard about the Gospel, or Christ's Holy Church. Two or three committed faithful would make this possible.
• For three years, time, money, and training have gone into preparing the means of producing online videos, for catechism and spiritual education. We now have in place three video editors, but require a couple extra hands to help with filming, and a new set of hands to set up the camera for filming weekly sermons. Perhaps this kind of job is a calling for you: the real measure of any of this work is commitment, however, which must carry through into weekly attendance, rain or shine.
• Our executive members will remember my repeated efforts to put in place a 24-hour spiritual education video broadcast at our Woodward Avenue exit - the place where hundreds of neighbours each day spend 10 to 15 silent, bored minutes waiting for the city bus. What better place to reach those whom we never otherwise reach? Such a project will take oversight, selection of material to be broadcast, proper formatting, and care for the equipment. Like any work involving the caretaking of other people, this kind of project requires maturity and commitment: we will see what God has in store, and what faithful person will respond to this call.
In all these cases, this mission work may be guided by the priest, but practically and day-to-day, simply and truly need just the commitment of one or two faithful people. Whenever Orthodox "philosophers" wag their tongues about the "role of the laity in the Church", I am always moved to say simply: here is the work that needs to be done - why don't you just do it? If one is happy living the "idea" of Orthodox Christianity, nothing ever gets done; if one is determined to live the reality of Orthodox Christian life, we can accomplish with God's help anything - more than we might ask or imagine.
PRAYER for INNER STILLNESS
If any one of us finds his interest sparked, his imagination inspired by these mission projects, but lacking the strength or resolve to commit and carry through with them, I believe we will (as Elder Paisios says) find the source of our weakness in a lack of prayer, a lack of humility, and lack of confession, and a lack of Communion with Christ. Contrary to the worldly wisdom of those Protestant-minded brethren who call themselves Orthodox, these disciplines are not "monastic": they are the very means by which each one of us will have the energy, initiative, and long-term commitment to make anything good happen in our church.
If these missionary dreams are to become realities - and they can and they will, just like all the other mission work now happening around us in the parish, which were not that long ago also just ideas and dreams - each one of us will have to draw his or her strength by living out a sober-minded Orthodox Christian life, with endurance and effort, which will produce real spiritual fruit.
HOLY MYSTERIES for TRANSFORMATION
Our main "education ministry" is first and foremost the holy services, including the feastdays and akathists which fall during weekdays. It is encouraging for me as your priest to see the increasing number of faithful who make the effort to be part of these services, as essential parts of their Christian life. Yet it is nonetheless a reality that most Orthodox Christians continue to have lives and schedules that are mostly determined by the timetable of the secular world, and whose lives will not change until this reality changes. As a rector and pastor, I weep inwardly to see people who come to know the Orthodox faith, but who still treat her as a weekend hobby, whose conscience and characters can be reformed by the holy services... but are not, whose sins can be wiped away and souls healed by the Holy Mysteries... but are not, because the Mysteries are avoided. I sorrow to see those whose lives can be sustained through daily prayers - even ten minutes of prayer - but which are not. This is truly a great loss. Many a priest is reminded of the parable of the sower, in which the seed of the Gospel is lost, neglected, or choked by the cares of this world, in which only a quarter of those hearing it are in fact saved: this Gospel parable provides confirmation to us that the ministry of the Church will almost always be for the minority who accept her with love and open hearts.
EVANGELISM TO KNOW THE CHURCH
In many respects, 2015 was a year full of surprises for our parish, especially with the unexpected challenge of the newly purchased temple in Brantford, dedicated to St. George. At our last annual meeting a year ago, this project was not even on our radar; now, it is a very time-consuming and important undertaking, which has already drawn the interest of about fifteen new households, despite no deliberate outreach to promote the new parish, who tell us they are eagerly awaiting its opening. Clearly, the Lord knew what He was doing by placing this work into our hands, and it is a happy and exciting opportunity, one which I believe will see decades of spiritual fruit, long after we are gone.
It is work like this which taxes our resources, to some extent financially, but in particular, our human resources. As your rector, I must confess that the last month or two has been a great challenge, with the resignation of my administrative assistant, and the departure of our beloved Deacon Mark. These departures have coincided with the increase in demands, both in our Hamilton parish, and for the completion of St. George's, Brantford, a parish which still awaits a priest, and for which I am responsible until such time as one is found.
A CONCLUDING EXHORTATION
Brothers and sisters: at such a time of demands as we are in right now, I beg your prayers, and also your patience. I do not enjoy now all the supports or the resources we have often been blessed with in the parish over the last decade, and I fear my capacities are sometimes lessened by my health. Yet, I am hopeful - indeed, optimistic - that the Lord will provide for all our needs through the humble efforts of you, the faithful. For any ways in which I have failed or will fail as your pastor and rector, I beg your forgiveness.
I also would ask that in the midst of such a demanding time, you as the flock of our community not allow yourselves to be drawn away into any factionalism, that you rise above the temptation to simply read spiritual books without an earnest effort to put them into quiet, humble practice, and that you concentrate your efforts on forgiving not only one another, but also forgiving me as your priest, since we are all afflicted by human failings and weaknesses. Only through such humility and repentance can we deliver ourselves from angry outbursts, preserve the precious harmony and love of our dear parish, and show (ask St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says) that ours is an "Orthodoxy of the heart, not just of the mind".