June 4, 2012

Running to Christ with Great Martyr George

When I was a kid, I never really liked being teased about my seemingly long Greek name.  As I grew older, I realized that I bear in my first and middle names, the remembrance of two great martyr gentlemen saints, Demetrios and George.  My first thought was, how do I dare live up to such greatness?  But then realizing that the tradition of Orthodox Christians to bear the names of the saints is in place for an essential purpose.  Our patron saints whose names we bear help us in our struggles to overcome our weaknesses, to be our role models who experienced a conscious and living faith in Christ, and who knew and loved Him so much that they suffered and died for Him.  In a previous post, I have spoken about my patron saint, Demetrios, but here, I’d like to focus a bit more on my other patron, George. So what does Saint George have to do with my original intention to reflect upon my running endeavors and life in general?  Here is a clue from the Life of Saint George found from this link:

They shod the saint in iron sandals with red-hot nails, [“Run, George, towards the object of our desire!” said the Saint, invoking the Lord’s help. And once again he presented himself, whole and radiant with grace, before the tyrant.] and then drove him back to the prison with whips. In the morning, when they led him back to the interrogation, cheerful and with healed feet, the emperor asked if he liked his shoes. The saint said that the sandals had been just his size. Then they beat him with ox thongs until pieces of his flesh came off and his blood soaked the ground, but the brave sufferer, strengthened by the power of God, remained unyielding. 

Oh snap! He's witty and sassy too!  This is one example among many various tortures that he endured, all for the sake of his love for Christ.  During both my marathon races in April of 2011 and March of 2012, I vividly remember praying to Saint George around the 20 mile mark—when my feet were in great pain, begging me to stop running.  It was freezing on race day in Charlottesville on April 9, 2011 and it was unseasonably hot and miserable on my second race day in Washington DC on March 17, 2012.  Saint George was my inspiration during the 26.2 mile runs because of his perseverance, patience, bravery, joy, and endurance through his tortures led him to his healing and ultimate perfection and union with Christ.  The other great motivation during these races was the constant thoughts and prayers for the orphans and people around the world who are suffering and dying, for whom I was running.  I thought to myself, this is really hard, I'm in pain, am I going to actually make it?  Then I said to myself, just keep running and finish this thing--those orphans suffer daily and do not know when it will end!  At least I knew that it was going to end once I cross the finish line, pour water on my head, eat lots of food, and sleep very well that night in my bed.  I kept running and praying, because I HAD to finish (with plenty of smiles), I made a promise and held myself accountable to the ones in need, to my friends, coaches, family, and especially to God.

For each race, I was dedicated to raising funds for important charities, the International Orthodox Christian Charities in 2011 and in 2012, for the orphanages in Ukraine that are homes to the children who suffer daily with their developmental, psychological, and spiritual struggles caused by the Chornobyl nuclear disaster that happened 26 years ago.  I want to officially express my immense gratitude to all the good and generous people who donated money to these funds in support of both my marathons in the last year in the name of helping those in great need.  As the Lord wills, any future long distance races that I undertake will have an underlying purpose of helping others--for me, it was not simply a way to set a new PR (personal record) and to feel good about being a marathon runner, but it was a way to engage in the practice of true love that has a sacrificial nature. 

And, speaking of LOVE, let us make a transition....
Yes, I'm coming out of left field somewhat, but please, indulge me, and see the connection of running, St. George and love... This awesome song from my running mix repeats (and repeats) the question of our age, "What is Love?"  Now, you are probably saying, 'really, DP, are you going to talk about this topic AGAIN?'  Yes, my friends, I am addressing this again, and I will address it again and again, unto  ages of ages.  Why?  Because at the end of the day, the purpose of this life is our union with God, our salvation--a goal that cannot be achieved without the continual presence of a living, dynamic, and sacrificial love immersed in our daily life.  I talk about the Saints constantly, not be annoying or church-lady-ish, but because they totally exemplify this kind of life that, in reality, we all desire to have--a life that will lead us to union with Christ.  This passed year in my parish's Church School, the youth learned about the life of a saint each week, and they really found these biographies fascinating and exciting.  Our goal as teachers was to help them also see a bit deeper into the lives of these people to determine how their lives, their works for the love of Christ have anything to do with us now in the present day.  Here is an excerpt of a peculiar miracle performed by Saint George, that usually is depicted in iconography of the saint:

In the saint's native city of Beirut were many idol-worshippers. Outside the city, near Mount Lebanon, was a large lake, inhabited by an enormous dragon-like serpent. Coming out of the lake, it devoured people, and there was nothing anyone could do, since the breath from its nostrils poisoned the very air. On the advice of the demons inhabiting the idols, the local ruler came to a decision. Each day the people would draw lots to feed their own children to the serpent, and he promised to sacrifice his only daughter when his turn came. That time did come, and the ruler dressed her in her finest attire, then sent her off to the lake. The girl wept bitterly, awaiting her death. Unexpectedly for her, St George rode up on his horse with spear in hand. The girl implored him not to leave her, lest she perish. The saint signed himself with the Sign of the Cross. He rushed at the serpent saying, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." St George pierced the throat of the serpent with his spear and trampled it with his horse. Then he told the girl to bind the serpent with her sash, and lead it into the city like a dog on a leash. The people fled in terror, but the saint halted them with the words: "Don't be afraid, but trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in Him, since it is He Who sent me to save you." Then the saint killed the serpent with a sword, and the people burned it outside the city. Twenty-five thousand men, not counting women and children, were then baptized. Later, a church was built and dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos and the Great Martyr George.

Now, I know several scholarly types will jump at the chance now to debate about the reality of this story and likely conclude that it is simply a 'legend' or 'myth'.  Casting that aside, let us figure out what the meaning of this story is for us--why does the Church maintain this and countless other strange miracles in the Synaxarion?  To cause us to get into scholarly, hand-waving debates that end up in confusion and doubt?  Obviously not.  There is a deeper meaning to the "dragon".  See this amazing blog post by Deacon Michael Hyatt--who speaks about slaying one's dragons before breakfast--specifically, the dragon of Lethargy, who is large and has three heads.  He talks about physical (running!), spiritual (praying), and noetic/intellectual (reading) strategies to slay this dragon, as well as other, multi-headed dragons that plague all of us--such as fear, laziness, despondency, lust, anger, gluttony, and so on.  These are the dragons that Saint George and Saint Demetrios, among the multitudes of saints, defeated with the power of Christ--the One Whom they invited into their entire being, and Whom they truly loved.  Again, how can this relate to us?  In the account with the dragon above, Saint George saved a young maiden who was to be sacrificed by the command of her own pagan father--she asked him not to leave her alone because she would die.  And so, Saint George made the sign of the Cross upon himself and killed the dragon.  He did this for the salvation of the maiden and in the end, for the salvation of the more than 25,000 people who were baptized as a result of this.  To answer Haddaway's song--THIS is LOVE.  

Because I work with young people and hope to reach them with this blog, let us talk about relationships. For all of us, relationships with our fellow human beings and with God are the means to our salvation.  As a disclaimer here, I am hoping to simply share my few experiences and the golden advice I was given from some holy people in an effort to benefit us all for the good of our souls.  By no means am I an expert in this area of life, I don't have any real credentials, just a lot of love for you. I truly hope that these words could shelter and protect our youth (and even adults) from experiencing hurt when a particular relationship reaches its end.  I have experienced such pain, and let me tell you, it pains me even more when it happens to someone else--it is something I would not wish on anyone.  This also includes non-courting type of relations too--with family and friends.  And so, let me first share this amazing talk with you by a very awesome priest who I've been blessed to know, Father John Moses, who serves an Orthodox church here in Virginia, All Saints of North America. When you find yourself about to spend an hour or so on Facebook, play this talk and do some multi-tasking, you will be so happy and edified in the end... :)
I will not do justice by attempting a summary of the talk here, but I want to emphasize his mentioning of Saint George.  If you are a young woman who desires to marry, Father suggests that you look for someone who is very much like Saint George--namely, one who is willing to slay the dragons within himself and in the difficult situations of life, for you.  Recalling an earlier post on God-manliness, this is one way in which Orthodox men can truly be like Christ and the martyrs.  I believe that this concept is stressed more so for men here simply because of the role of Christ they are to undertake when they are married.  It is a great responsibility and understandably, may cause fear among men, resulting in our modern-day 'can't commit' phenomenon, especially when the world falsely says that in order to 'be happy' you have to find the perfect mate, who has no issues, who is perfect and will fulfill all your desires.  Christ embraced the Church as His bride--the Church is all of humanity from all of time--that's all of us.  Humanity has been in a fallen, flawed and imperfect state from the earliest time, shortly after the formation of our first parents, Adam and Eve.   It is quite obvious that Christ has overlooked our utter wretchedness so much that He died for us and continually asks us to come into union with Him.  He is THE  ultimate Bridegroom. 

Saint George was very Christ-like, and through his bravery, he endured humiliations, he confronted evil and destroyed it, and even mocked it.  He was keenly aware that the evil things he encountered were ALL the things needed for his salvation  In a similar way, guys, you are encouraged to be like Saint George!  If you want your salvation, do not look for perfection of beauty and pedigree in women, because only God is perfect.  It is the imperfections, the dragons, if you will, that may be the kind of things that are needed to challenge you to fight a life-long spiritual battle for the salvation of your soul, and that of your wife and children.  Also, note the joy of Saint George during his martyrdom--in the same way, see the joy in life's difficulties as well as in the easy and happy times.  God does not want us to be miserable and sad, He desires that we 'have life, and have it abundantly' (John 10:10).  This joy only comes from inside of us, from Christ, who we invite into our heart, because that is where His Kingdom is, within us (Luke 17:21).  And, not to totally target men, I think a good parallel to a dragon-slaying saint for women would be Saint Marina, who literally beat up the devil--read her story here.

May we all slay the dragons that attempt to enslave us and desire to hinder our salvation.  I will leave you with two songs from one of my favorite bands, the Avett Brothers, who I get to see in concert this summer!  

The entire set of lyrics of this one are one big awesome relevant quote. :)

Best quote from this song, January Wedding:  "True love is not the kind of thing you should turn down / Don't ever turn it down."

April 4, 2012

Let the Children Come to Him

2012 Youth Workers' Conference Reflections
The Agony of Christ in the
Garden of Gethsemane

During the last few days of January during an unseasonably warm winter in what I call the American Holy Land—Western Pennsylvania, a group of about 60 Orthodox Christian youth workers gathered at the Antiochian Village from all over North America, spanning almost every Orthodox jurisdiction. The presence of three Orthodox hierarchs gave us extra grace and encouragement—Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, Metropolitan Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and Bishop Irineu of the Orthodox Church in America, who are the members of the Committee for Youth of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. They each stated that the goal of the Assembly and the Committee for Youth is unity of the Orthodox faithful and unity of the Orthodox youth. It was a true image of the Orthodox Christian Church in America and a true witness to the reality of our unity in Christ, a granting of His prayer to His Father in John 17:21 in the Garden of Gethsemane, that we all “may be one.”

 Father Bogdan Bucur’s keynote addresses focused on sharing both a living and generous faith with our youth. These sessions, as well as every workshop that was conducted by many talented and God-loving speakers, all served to train us as youth workers for all levels of ministry from Orthodox camp programs, youth ministry, Christian education, and Orthodox Christian Fellowship college ministry.
Prophet Moses
Father Bogdan beautifully demonstrated a most perfect pedagogical method of teaching—the use of the Scriptures. He taught us in this way by a detailed study of Exodus, where Moses introduces the people of Israel to God—emphasizing that this is the work of youth ministry. Those of us called to youth ministry are to introduce young people to God, much like Moses did with the people. He spoke about how this process involves a gradual description of who God is by the use of the Scriptures. He encouraged us to not present God as a concept, but as a dynamic, living reality with Whom we have a continual loving relationship. The living God and a living faith in Him is transformative, and not a simple pietism, tradition, moralism, or belief out of fear. When these things are separated from faith in a living God, and then shared in this way with our young people, they will reject it. He encouraged us to show our youth the challenging path of pursuing and loving the Living God, who transforms us, and whose work we do in complete humility and in the utmost sincerity. We are also to show them that our vertical relationship with God is directly connected to the horizontal relationships we have with others. We are to teach young people by our example that all human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore, we are to show them a generous faith where we show unconditional love and mercy to our fellow human beings.
Among such great spiritual training, here is a list of additional jewels of wisdom for youth ministers I gained from this wonderful conference:
  • To listen to our youth and to encourage them to listen to the Word of God. 
  •  To present them with Christ by the exampleof living a true, honest and chaste life ourselves, showing them that we put Christ first.  
  • To invite them into an encounter with Christ through our ministry programs, but especially through reaching out to them and offering a personal relationship with us. To remind them of the power of repentance when we fall short, but also to show them the great joy of having Christ in our lives and to be hopeful for even greater things to come in both this life and the next. (From Father Philip Rogers’ talk ‘Come and See.’)

Philip Brings Nathaniel to Christ (Gospel of John 1:45)

  • In our work we are to have a good knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and to be prepared to answer their questions about them as honestly as possible.
  • To encourage the youth, their families and ourselves to minimize the ‘useless sounds’ of the world and to replace them with the sounds of holiness, as Bishop Thomas said.
  • To provide opportunities for them to connect with the Orthodox community either in the parish, in summer camp programs, and when they go to college, so that they may experience the same love as that of the community of the Holy Trinity, on a regular and continual basis.
  • For both lay and clergy leaders working with the OCF college ministry, the mission is to keep college students connected to their Orthodox faith. The ways by which we could do this were discussed in sessions with executive director of OCF, Jennifer Nahas. This included encouraging and guiding students to:
    • Organize programs that will help them cultivate an Orthodox spiritual life both on campus and in the local parish.
    • Form strong bonds of fellowship with other students and people in the parish, and to perform service to others in the name of Christ.
    • Also, for high school students, there should be efforts to encourage parents and parish priests to prioritize the criteria for college selection—the presence of an Orthodox parish and an OCF chapter at the college of choice. 

I am so very grateful to my parish of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville, Virginia for supporting my attendance at this gathering of youth workers. I was greatly blessed in being in the company of so many fellow Orthodox Christians who struggle to love Christ daily in their lives and who generously share themselves with our young people to inspire them to tend to their salvation.

Icon of the Inexhaustible Chalice

It is always an experience of a taste of Paradise when I spend time at the Village, and it was especially true this time. At this conference, we not only worked together to gain more wisdom and enlightenment to share our faith in our youth work, but also, we had the opportunity to come together in worship and in fellowship, enjoying being in the presence of each other and our Lord Jesus Christ, who unites us always, regardless of the physical distances between us.

For information on Orthodox Camp programs and future Youth Workers' Conferences, go here.