Beloved Brothers & Sisters in Christ:Christ is among us!
In something of a morbid custom, my family has for over a century followed a practice of discussing - out loud - what would be the most appropriate and desirable epitaph to place on our gravestones. These plans are not always carried out, but the process of hearing what each person believes is (or should be) a reflection of their life can prove most edifying.
The long-considered epitaph - and the one which over the last six months made it onto my own gravestone - is the psalm which reads, "Many are the tribulations of the righteous, and the Lord shall deliver them out of them all". It seems somewhat ironic to me that this epitaph somehow also sums up the experiences of our parish through 2016.
The last year has had its share of trials, both pastoral and personal, which have challenged us on many fronts. Yet for almost all of them, we have already seen the Lord's deliverance and care:
• The St. George's Brantford mission project has presented us with ongoing - possibly endless - challenges in efforts to complete and open the new parish. Yet these challenges have each proven to be simply earthly stressors, and have all passed away, each in their time.
• The departure of our beloved Deacon Mark to ordination to the priesthood and service at the Russian parish has been felt by many of us. Yet in this, we have seen others step forward to assist in different ways, both during and outside services. - On a personal level, the unexpected death of my own beloved mother last summer, although a sad time for our family, proved to be a time at which the loving support of our parish faithful and friends really overflowed: not because of email reminders, not because of exhortations from the priest or parish warden, but simply out of heartfelt Christian love. This love was so strongly experienced and felt by me and our family, that it can be said that we often felt as if we were held up throughout those weeks by the hands of angels - and very often, those angels were you.
The parish has also experienced tribulations in 2016 from which we are still waiting to be delivered. We began the year as owners of a new church building in Brantford, the cost of which was comfortably covered in our budget, along with all the regular costs of our existing Hamilton parish. Almost all parish members had committed to a tithe, and our budget was based on this, almost exactly, for the first time since our founding in 2003, with no small thanks to our new parish book keeper and treasury team.
Early in the year, we experienced the departure of a number of members: a few for geographic reasons, but also a few more out of anger and disagreement, and perhaps disappointment in not finding pastoral perfection here, as parishes sometimes experience.
With these departures went a sizeable portion of the monthly tithe required to support the parish. Having enjoyed financial stability since our foundation, this came as a shock to our parish executive, and to me. As the situation became more and more clear throughout 2016 (as you will see in the financial statement), it soon became obvious that we would be faced with a deficit for the first time ever, as well as a shortfall of between $50,000 and $65,000 for 2017.
Our executive has met more than once and discussed at length a number of reductions in spending, which can be seen in the budget. The bottom line is, most of our expenses are fixed costs, and cannot be changed without turning off the light, shutting down the heat, cancelling the insurance, or dismissing the priest.
Our regular tithes and expected book sales and special gifts will not get us through 2017. One area where we hope to see some respite is with the opening of St. George's, and the beginning of tithes to come from that new community. But this will not be enough.
It is my intention next month to turn back my clergy stipend in the form of a donation to the parish, in order that we may meet our expenses. I will do this in part as a challenge to all you as faithful. Each year, I encourage you to increase your tithe to the parish by one percent over the previous year - that is, if you tithed five percent last year, to tithe six percent this year, and so on, until your tithe reaches ten percent, as we are commanded by the Scriptures and Holy Tradition. This is not to be an afterthought, but rather, the giving of our first fruits to God and the ministry of His Gospel. Alternately - or additionally - since most cannot afford to donate a month's salary to the church, I would challenge you to arrange, over the course of the year ahead, to make a special offering of one week's salary - that is, two percent of income -- in order to allow us to bridge this time.
You will not be alone. As we have in the past, we will be making ambitious appeals for support among the friends of this parish, and I am optimistic that these will be fruitful, just as they have been in the past for the purchase and renovation of this church, for the missionary work of the church here and abroad, and for the purchase and renovation of our new St. George's mission project in Brantford.
The executive members are already aware, having spent hours going over the budget, that these steps - specifically my challenge to you - are absolutely necessary. The alternative to success in this endeavor is the priest giving up his salary not just one month, but twelve. The fact is, without all faithful stepping forward to meet this challenge in one way or another, the priest's salary - which we have worked each year toward making a living wage, so that a priest can serve here and care for his family, that the parish not rely upon a future Matushka to be the main breadwinner - will be eliminated, since it remains the only area of the budget which can still be changed.
My second challenge to you is a spiritual one.
The past year has also seen a decline in attendance at weekday services. I am not saying anything new when I tell you, prayer and the holy services are the engine of any parish. And while I have no intention of reducing the services, my spiritual challenge to you begins with a specific appeal to attend a weekly Akathist, through most of Great Lent, in which we ask the prayers of St Xenia of Petersburg - patron of those who build churches - to intercede for our needs before the throne of God.
Yes, this will mean more time. Yes, this will mean more travel. And yes, this will be a sacrifice of recreational and family opportunities. But as I try to say each Sunday: this is the work that we as Christians must do, if we hope to see the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and in our parish.
Normally in this annual State of the Parish report, I review each of the five pillars of our parish mission statement:
• FELLOWSHIP• EDUCATION through WATCHFULNESS OVER THE HEART• PRAYER for INNER STILLNESS• HOLY MYSTERIES for TRANSFORMATION• EVANGELISM TO KNOW THE CHURCH
The fact is, every single thing our faithful have been doing as labourers in the vineyard of the Lord continues just as strong as every past year, and in many cases, have grown even stronger:
• The thoroughness of confessions has increased;
• The effort to repent and pray endures;
• The fellowship of our faithful has grown closer and closer together, even as the times in which we live grow more challenging;
• Faithful partake of the Holy Mysteries with real preparation, and an effort toward humility;
• Educational opportunities in the parish - for adults and children among the faithful and friends of the church - continue to expand;
• And holy services continue - even more frequently - unabated, along with prayers for the special particular needs of people inside and outside our church community.
The fact that there is nothing but positive news on all these fronts is remarkable - and glory to God! And how many parishes could say the same thing? It is here we find the evidence of that psalm - which made such a great epitaph, "Many are the tribulations of the righteous, and the Lord shall deliver them out of them all".
As Christians, we know (and should know) that tribulations are the norm for this world, and for the lives of anyone who would seek to take up their cross and follow Christ.
God uses tribulations to bring us closer to Him, to make us more reliant upon Him, and to strengthen us in every way, from the inside out.
While the last year has indeed been a year of many tribulations, God has faithfully, one by one, begun to deliver us out of them all. An the year ahead will be no different.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.