Monday, December 28, 2015

Thank You!

My Dear Brothers and Sisters and Friends,

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

I just wanted to say "thank you" to all of you who sent me greetings and good wishes for my name's day. Your thoughts and prayers mean so very much to me. Your prayers especially are a great source of comfort, hope and encouragement. Please know that all of you are always in my heart and thoughts and in my prayers each day.

May the God of love bless all of you and may He bless you with everything that is good and unto your salvation.

Yours in Christ,
+Archbishop Stephen

Saturday, December 26, 2015

God's Mercy is Not Automatic

Since Pope Francis of the Catholic Church inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy for Catholics on December 8th, there has been a great deal of talk about God's love and mercy. Having listened to some of the conversations and discussions taking place in my local community about the Year of Mercy, I believe a lot of people misunderstand what the Year of Mercy is all about. A good number of people seem to think that God is going to simply forgive everybody their sins during the next year, regardless of what they did and without having to do anything in order to obtain His mercy. In other words, since the Pope proclaimed a "Year of Mercy," some people think that every Catholic in the world is getting a free pass and that all their sins and misdeeds, past and present, will be forgiven. I am sorry to say, it doesn't work that way.

While God certainly is all-loving and merciful, we often forget, overlook or ignore the fact that God has the right to judge and mete out justice just as He does mercy. In other words, while God can, and certainly does, show us tremendous mercy, He still has the right to deal with sinful people in judgment.

God displays His glory in the mercy He dispenses, but He also manifests His glory in the judgment He passes on sinners and the justice He meets out to those who do wrong. There are a lot of people who believe that God does not punish the sinners and the guilty, at least not in this world. But nothing could be further from the truth. Whether He chooses to do so now or prefers to wait for another time when His glory will be more greatly magnified or manifested is of no consequence to us. The fact remains that God can and will punish the unrepentant sinner and wrongdoer.

God did not create us as sinners or bad people. We become sinners and bad people by our own choice; we freely make the decision to be a bad person and to do wrong. God has not written sin and evil into our lives, we have done that ourselves. Nor does God influence the choices we make in our lives, unless we ask Him to help us by sending us His counsel and grace. Sin and evil are not part of God's plan. It would be ludicrous to believe such a thing, for that would be tantamount to saying that God is the author of sin and evil. And that is impossible. God's plan for us, even from the beginning of time, has been that all men should be one with Him and live with Him in eternal blessedness and happiness.

But to speak about God only in terms of His love for us is to deny the complete, total and absolute sovereignty of the Lord. Many Christians have a tendency to speak about God these days in touchy-freely, warm and fuzzy, sticky sweet terms. They speak of God constantly as being "our friend" and Jesus Christ as being "our brother." They make a relationship with God sound easy. But in reality, it is not. A relationship with God involves a lot of work and struggle. A relationship with God involves difficulties and failures. None of these are on God's part, but rather they are part of our own life and struggles. We have to work and struggle to change ourselves so that we can become one with God and be like Him as He intended us to be. This change is what we call metanoia, which means "repentance," "penance," and "turning about." There will be difficulties and failures in this process because we are prone to temptation and sin. These get in our way and distract us; they move us away from God rather than bring us into a more intimate communion with Him.

When we fail and sin, God does forgive us, but He expects us to act responsibly and do our part. First and foremost, we must be repentant. God does not forgive an unrepentant sinner. Mercy is ours if we ask for it;  if we confess our sins, ask God's forgiveness, repent of our sinful ways and do penance. We must never forget that there are consequences to our sinful deeds and behavior. 

Make no mistake, God can punish us for our sins, if we are not repentant; and there is nothing that says that punishment cannot happen in this life. Whether He chooses to do so now or wait until the Day of Judgment is not something we should take lightly. As I pointed out earlier, God has the right to deal with sinful beings according to His good pleasure. But even if God chose to punish us now, it would not be an act of retribution. That is not the kind of God He is. he is not a vengeful or angry God, just a just God.

If God chooses not to punish us for something we have done wrong, then we should be grateful and give thanks for His mercy shown to us. But never should we think that we are not deserving of punishment or that God does not punish simply because He is a loving, merciful and compassionate God. God is also a just God and judgment belongs to Him by right as Sovereign Lord and Ruler of all.

God also can and does chastise us. Like any loving father who loves and is solicitous and concerned for the well-being and welfare of his children, God calls to our attention our misdeeds, lets us know that we have strayed off course, and shows us the way back to a righteous life through His Son, Jesus Christ. He tells us that we must change in order to be united with Him and receive good things, and that if we continue in our wayward life, the consequences will be severe.

God's chastisement is not intended to make the guilty miserable, although we should feel miserable for failing and not staying the course, nor to induce a feeling a hopelessness. On the contrary, we should not wallow in our misery but resolve ourselves to a greater energetic effort to move forward in holiness and righteousness. God's chastisement is designed to correct and effect a change of heart and a disordered way of thinking and behaving. It is also designed to manifest God's displeasure with sin and to serve as a catalyst for making the changes necessary to live a righteous, pure, and holy life. Thus, God's chastisement, in a real sense, is intended to be therapeutic. But, inasmuch as God's mercy and patience are enduring, there will be a day of reckoning.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the meanings of metanoia is penance; and penance implies judgment. We do penance because someone has judged us guilty of doing something wrong. Thus, we must repent of that wrong, cleanse our soul of the stain with which we have darkened it, and make the wrong right in some way. But all of the foregoing is meaningless unless we charge our way of acting; unless we change our heart. That is to say, we can't keep doing and confessing the same sins over and over again and expect that God will continue to forgive us just because we confess and ask forgiveness or because we believe His love and mercy to be infinite and unconditional. We must make a conscious and sincere decision to abandon our sinful ways and live the life of Christ into which we were baptized and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Penance should never be considered the means by which we free ourselves from the consequences of sin but rather as a tool which helps us in our effort to achieve holiness and deification. Thus, penance should be viewed as an act of purification; an act which brings us closer to God and increases our communion with Him and our fellow human beings. We cannot enter into the life of God if we are impure. Impurity is not compatible with the life of the Holy Trinity, therefore, we cannot enter into and participate in the life of the Holy Trinity if we persist in living an impure life.

When it comes to sin, we are guilty before God of a grave offense against the life of God to which we are called and the being of God, in whose image and likeness we have been created. When we sin, we experience the consequences of sin, which are sickness, despair, unhappiness, doubt, confusion, sorrow, loss of faith, and death. These are not punishments from God. Suffering, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, is not the result of the mistaken belief that God exacts retribution for our offenses against Him and the wrong we have done.

God works all things according to the counsel of His will, including the works of Satan and the sinful acts of human beings. But God is not the author of sin and evil. These have come about because rational beings have free will. With each new day, we are given the opportunity to love and obey God in all things or turn away from and oppose Him. The very act of turning away from God and disobeying Him is a sin.

We should be thankful that God allows mercy to temper justice, for if God withheld His mercy from us, His judgment and justice would be unbearable, "for the wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23; 6:23). In some ways, mercy wins out over judgment and this should be a great comfort to those of us who strive every day to live faithfully the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, we should not be so quick to assume that mercy totally negates judgment. Just because God is merciful does not mean that He overlooks sin, discounts it, or fails to impute or assign guilt. Just because God is merciful does not mean that all people are guaranteed or assured salvation. Once saved does not mean always saved. we must continually work out our salvation and for Orthodox Catholic Christians, we are helped in this effort by the Holy Mysteries of the Church.

We must all remember that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). Therefore, we should be attentive to how we live our lives. God's mercy does have conditions, among which are included: keeping the covenant with God, remembering the Lord's commandments and doing them, and forsaking our evil ways.

God's mercy is abundantly available to those who call upon Him, repent, and turn back to Him in sincerity of heart. Those who are disobedient, who rebel against God and His Church, and who do not faithfully and fully live the Gospel will meet God's judgment and justice and not His mercy. 

In his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul speaks clearly about the judgment of Christ, saying, "For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and fury of fire which consume the adversaries. A person who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by persons who spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge His people.'" (Hebrews 10:26-30)

God always waits for those who have turned away from Him and fallen away to return to Him. In this regard, His mercy is unfathomable and ever enduring. God in His infinite mercy will welcome back the repentant sinner, but we must always ask, "Lord, have mercy." It is in this way that Orthodox Catholic Christians approach God. By constantly placing ourselves in His presence as repentant sinners asking for His mercy, we experience Him not so much as a stern and aloof judge, but as a loving, compassionate Father waiting for the prodigal to return home.

The Orthodox Christian understanding of divine mercy is based upon the Orthodox Catholic teaching of synergy; the act of freely cooperating with God in our salvation. As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we are able to do this by God's grace given to us in the sacramental life of the Church, which is itself the vessel and sacrament of salvation. The struggle we undertake to obtain salvation and deification is a process in which we are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ, Who, together with the Father and the Spirit, is the Eternal God: Creator, Savior and Redeemer of all.

The Year of Mercy proclaimed by His Holiness, Pope Francis has significance and meaning for all people, not just Catholics or Christians. Let us all avail ourselves of the mercy of God, but let us also remember that God's mercy is not automatic; we must ask for it and be properly disposed and prepared to receive it.

Asking God's blessing on you all during this Christmas Season, I remain,

Yours in the Word made flesh,

+Archbishop Stephen

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

My Dear Brothers and Sisters and Friends,

I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Blessed and Joyous Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. This is a feast of hope and love, for Love Incarnate was born this night in the flesh to dwell among us and show us the way to salvation. Indeed, he is the salvation of the world. In the Child of Bethlehem we see the invisible God made visible. In the Child of Bethlehem, we see Eternal and Infinite Love made real and touchable.

This day is the day of family and relationships borne out of immense and unselfish love. Let us take our example from the events of this day. God showed His unfathomable love for us by being born in the flesh; by becoming one of us, so that we could become one with Him.

Celebrate this day and the entire Christmas Season with great joy and festivity. Do not be ashamed of God for God is not ashamed of us. He loves us with a love that knows no end.

And just a reminder my friends, the feast of Christmas begins TODAY and lasts for TWELVE days. So, don't throw out your Christmas tree or take down your Christmas decorations and lights on December 26th, or after New Year's Day. Leave everything up at least through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. 

Reclaim Christmas as the solemn celebration and feast of the birth and manifestation of the Lord in and to the world. Sanctify the season and keep it separated from the secular festivities that no longer have anything to do with the birth of the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Remake Christmas into the feast it was intended to be. Make the Twelve Days of Christmas a true religious and family celebration, if not this year, then starting in 2016. Blog it, email blast it, like it on Facebook, get it out on Twitter. Make an old tradition a new tradition for 2016.

May you all have a blessed and joyous Feast of the Nativity of the Lord.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!  Merry Christmas! Buon Natale!

+Archbishop Stephen

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ

My Dear Friends in Christ,

While I was in prison, I spent a lot of time reflecting and praying. Prior to my going into prison, my relationship with God was, at best, lukewarm. I felt lost, alone and abandoned, cut off from God. I was angry at Him because I couldn't understand why He allowed myself and our Church to suffer so greatly by persecution, indifference and cruelty. 

In the beginning, when I was first ordained, I was full of energy, ideas and enthusiasm. But as time went on, and we encountered one difficulty and disappointment after another, the distance between myself and God grew greater with each passing month and year. By the time I went to prison, I was worn out mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I was tired of dealing with all the hypocrisy in the Church; of kowtowing to people with money, whose egos and arrogance were as immense and over-powering as the universe; of dealing with polemic and vitriol, of mean-spirited and holier-than-thou people in the Orthodox Church who, if you were on fire, wouldn't put it out or help you unless you were Orthodox; of people who thought they knew better than the Fathers of the Church what was best for the Church; and of the multitude of self-proclaimed canonists who must eat, sleep, work and even play with, and never go anywhere without, a copy of the Rudder glued to their person. It certainly seems that the favorite form of relaxation and enjoyment for a good number of Orthodox Christians is to judge others and make pronouncements about the canonical status of this or that person or group without knowing even one iota about them. Add to all of this the fact that I hadn't had a vacation since 2006 and you had a very disenfranchised and unhappy person. With all the sacrifices we made and the difficulties and trials we were subjected to, the resentment, anger and frustration grew and festered. Yet, I continued on.

But then came prison. And what an experience it was. It was actually like being in a monastery; the discipline, the structure, the experience of living in close quarters with other people, the leanness. It was an altogether wonderful experience. This was my sabbatical: my time for reflection, renewal, metanoia, and growth. 

Prison is not a place that makes you feel comfortable. In fact, if you do feel comfortable in prison, and many people are, then something is very, very wrong. Prison is intended to keep you on your toes. In prison, you see things you would not normally see, or only get a glimpse of, in the street. And, more importantly, you see yourself like you never have before. In many ways, prison is the best education a person can get.

As time went on, I began to relax and utilized the time I had in many different ways. Besides working, I would go to the library once a week. I did more reading in prison than I have done in my entire life. I now read about four books a week. In the 19 months I was there, I only watched television about 20 times, and that was toward the end of my sentence. Otherwise, I would just sit in my cube and read or write.

I went to the gym everyday, either to work out or, believe it or not, to shoot hoops. I never played basketball in my entire life, but, because of my friend Roc, I learned how to do both. Roc is an amazing guy. I guess you could call him a career criminal because he's been in and out of prison a few times. But, he has a heart of gold.  For most of the guys I associated with in prison, I was an unlikely friend. I was not the kind of person guys like Roc would have as a friend or even as an acquaintance. Roc took a lot of ribbing from some of the "tough" guys for hanging out with me, but he never backed off. He really was a friend.  Not only was he my workout coach and mentor, he was my guardian angel. 

I had several guardian angels while I was in prison. Besides Roc, there was Phil, Adam, Nelson, Mayback, Sire, Javier, and Grandpa. I mentioned these guys before in a previous post. I mention them again only because they are very special people who helped me get through the prison experience, especially during the first few difficult months. You see, prison is not filled with just bad people, there are a lot of good people there too. Not everyone in prison is a criminal; many are good people who made a bad decision, like drinking and driving.

As time went on and I got to know the people I was incarcerated with more and more, I began to see things in a different light. My eyes were opened and I saw things I never saw before. I experienced life in ways I never experienced "in the street" and most certainly, never in my parish. In many ways, I was set free. As the days waned on, I began to feel more at peace and my relationship with God changed. My heart became lighter and I found myself talking to God more and more. At some point, our conversations occurred on a daily basis, sometimes three or four times a day. It ended up that there was regular and fluid communication between me and God every day. Some of that "communication" took the form of "letters" to Him. These letters are actually prayers that I wrote to Him. I also composed some to the Blessed Mother, who I turned to often for counsel and comfort. I would like to share with you now, one of the prayers that I wrote to our Lord Jesus. I hope it touches your heart.

Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ

My sweetest Lord Jesus, for me and my kind You willingly submitted Yourself to cruel and indescribable torture and an ignominious death. How can I ever repay the great service You have done for me, my God? No one in my life has ever loved me so much and so deeply as to do what You have done for me. My heart is filled with gratitude but how often I take You for granted. You give me so much but like a selfish child, it is never enough and I demand more. Rather than being ever conscious of the great sacrifice You made for my happiness and  well-being, I let my pride and ego dictate my words and deeds. I forget that I live because You died for me. I go through each day thinking that I can make it on my own; that I know what’s best for me. But the fact of the matter is, my Lord, the decisions I make do not always bring about the results I had hoped for. I strive to keep my heart pure, but the harder I try, the more aggressively Satan deals with me, trying to lure me away from You with promises of wealth, power, and position. How foolish and weak I am, O Lord, for I continually squander the riches and treasure You have lavishly and unselfishly given me. Save me from myself, dear Lord. Give me the moral and spiritual strength to be a good steward of Your love and the life You gave me. For nothing is more important to me, Sweet Jesus, than my relationship with You. Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

God's Love and Mercy Are Unfathomable

I have been home from prison now for a little over a month and a half. I was blessed to be able to be with my family for Thanksgiving, which was truly a day to give thanks to Almighty God for the many blessings He has showered upon me, unworthy though I am. And now, I look forward to celebrating Christmas not only with my biological family but with my Church family. This Christmas will surely be a special one.

Since I have been home, many people have asked me what my experience of being in prison was like. Inevitably, there was the initial uneasiness about broaching the topic but as soon as I started talking freely about it, the tension and uneasiness melted away and questions just flowed naturally like the rushing waters of a mighty river. In every instance, however, I saw mouths drop and a look of disbelief wash over the faces of some of those with whom I has having conversation with. I would have to stop a few times to ask if they were all right. I guess they never expected me to say that I actually enjoyed the experience of being in prison. But it is true; I did enjoy the experience. It was, in many ways, a great learning and growth experience, one that I will always be truly grateful for.

There is so much to say and so much to tell about the experience. I couldn't put it all in one post so, maybe after the holidays, I will write about the whole experience, from arrest to release, in several different posts. 

The one thing that stands out the most for me though is the vast wealth of knowledge I have acquired over the past two years. I have learned more from the 20 months I spent in prison than I could possibly have learned in any college, university or seminary classroom. 

Life's real lessons are learned in the world, by experience, and prison is one of those "real-time" learning experiences. That's not to say that everyone should experience prison. And don't get me wrong, it's not something I want to go through ever again. Yet, at the same time, given my own personal experience, if it wasn't for my mother and father and the Church which I serve, I would not mind at all living among God's children in prison. I know personally the joy St. Peter and St. Paul, and many other fathers and mothers of the Church, must have felt living with and ministering to God's children in prison. It is a feeling of inexpressible joy and fulfillment.

Being a parish priest ministering to a closed community or a bishop shepherding or administering a diocese does not give you the real experience of life "in the street." There is no doubt, for example, that a married priest has an intimate understanding of what unique problems and challenges married couples face each and every day and what ups and downs there can be in raising a family. But, they can be challenged when it comes to dealing with a drug addict or someone who has not had the love and support of a family and who, as a result, is bitter, angry, and doesn't believe in anything, and doesn't care about anything except to get everything they want, when they want it, oftentimes at the expense of someone else's well-being and safety.

In my own cathedral parish, for more than 15 years before being sent to prison, we ministered to people who are prostitutes, drug addicts, ex-convicts and felons. Yet, during that entire time, I never knew exactly who I was dealing with or what made them tick. Going to prison changed all that. I am much more knowledgeable now and better equipped to minister to such people in more realistic and tangible ways.

Not every one in prison is a bad person. I met many good and decent people in prison; people whom I am proud to know and even call my friends. At the same time, I learned that not every person is good. What I mean to say is that even though we are all created in the image and likeness and God, some people have made a conscious decision not to be good, they have chosen to be evil and do evil; they simply do not want to be good. That was a very hard lesson to learn and it took coming to prison to learn it in very real and tangible ways. Nevertheless, during my time in prison, my belief that we, as Christians, are not to judge anyone because of their past or social upbringing, etc., was confirmed.

In prison, my eyes were opened, and the veil of fear was lifted. And once it was, I saw the real beauty of God's children in all their forms and with all their weaknesses and faults exposed. I have to admit that when we ministered to the marginalized at the Cathedral, there was a certain sense of fear and discomfort that rested in a lot of us, myself included. I suspect it was because, to a great degree, we did not understand how someone could end up in such a state or allow themselves to get into certain situations.  We simply were not knowledgeable.

We certainly did do more than most parishes in our community. For example, some people who showed up at the Cathedral seeking help would not be welcomed at other churches in the area because they smelled and were unwashed and unkempt. I can't tell you how many times I would look out from the altar during a service and see one or more homeless people in the church. While we did what we could for them by giving them food, clean clothes and sometimes even a shower, we still kept them at arms length to a certain degree. Again, it was mostly out of fear and, I have to say, even ignorance. But prison has washed away that fear and ignorance and replaced it with a vast body of knowledge that I intend to share not only with the members of the Cathedral parish but with all the faithful of my Archdiocese.

I want every member of my Archdiocese to live fully the life of Christ. I want them to emulate Christ in all things; to open wide the doors of Christ to all people, regardless of their social or economic status or position in life. If my people need a contemporary role model to look to for inspiration and the courage they need to break out of their own psychological prison of fear and prejudice, then I would like them to look to Mother Theresa of Calcutta, whose own life has inspired me in ways beyond description. In and throughout the Archdiocese, I would like us all to continue the work of Mother Theresa by working with and caring for the poorest of the poor as well as the lost, the forgotten, and the marginalized.

As I said earlier, I have grown so much as a person in so many ways: spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and even physically. I have learned how to take care of myself and most importantly, stand up for myself, something I have not been able to do for many years. Over the years, I have let others intimidate me and bully me, because of things that happened to me in the past, I lost my self-confidence and self-esteem. It took going to prison to overcome all that fear and to get my life back. It took going to prison to break out of the prison of fear that held me prisoner for so many years, a prison in which I languished and which virtually incapacitated me in so many ways.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the guys who looked after me and pushed me to break away from the grip that fear and insecurity had on me for so many years. I especially want to thank Grandpa, Roc, Nelson, Phil, Mayback, Adam, Mr. Harris, and Mr. B. for all you did for me; for pushing me beyond myself; for opening my eyes to the realities and even the harshness of the world, and for teaching me all I now know. I hope to be able to share what I have learned with others and most importantly, keep young men from going to prison by giving them the love and support they need. Guys, you are my family and I love you all. 

I also want to thank all the guys at Livingston Correctional Facility who also helped me by allowing me to help and serve you, even the guys whose intentions and motives were not honorable.  Thank you to those of you who allowed me to be your spiritual father, confidant, confessor or friend. It was an honor and a blessing to know you all. Finally, I want to thank the staff and officers of Livingston for allowing me to learn and grow under your guidance and care. Thank you for everything, especially for the honor and privilege of working for you. Thank you also for being patient with me as I tried to find my way through what was a difficult but rewarding experience. I want to say a special "thank you" to those officers who kicked my butt to make me grow up and "smell the coffee." I will always be grateful to you.

To all of you at Livingston, I wish you all a very Merry and Blessed Christmas. I pray for you all every day and think of you fondly.

There is an overwhelming feeling of peace, joy and happiness in me at this time in my life and I owe it all to my prison experience. As the Feast of the Nativity approaches, those feelings are growing with an intensity that is overwhelming. I feel like Scrooge when, after having been visited by three spirits, he woke up on Christmas morning with a song on his lips and a new way of thinking and living in his mind and heart. I am filled with the love of the Lord and the hope of the faith which I profess and live in Christ Jesus.

God truly does work in mysterious and wondrous ways and I am so grateful to have been chosen by Him to experience all that I have experienced. I hope to do great things with what I have learned to the greater glory of God and in service to His people.

May all of you who read this blog enjoy a very Merry and Blessed Christmas too! May the love, peace, and mercy of Christ, the newborn King, fill your hearts and lives to overflowing and may you unselfishly share their abundance with all you meet.

+Archbishop Stephen