Stewardship Reflections for Holy Week – The Cursed Fig Tree

During Holy Week and the weeks of the Paschal season, we’ll turn the pages of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition to probe some of the stewardship themes brought to us by the Church.  Because this time is so intensive – it’s impossible for to explore in depth the multitude of these themes, hence this endeavor to reflect up on them to ascertain their context and spiritual meaning. 

 

The spiritual intensity builds with each day, each service held during Holy Week.  In short, the Church as the voice of Christ, casts down the gauntlet to His followers to imitate Him in every way, as He has commanded.  The sayings and teachings, the metaphors, examples and especially the actions of the Master become the template for life for the Christian.  The Suffering Servant invites His followers to suffer and to serve, and to suffer through service.   He gives us spiritual food and spiritual warnings – exemplified most perfectly in the bitter dichotomy of rejection of Judas of that which was Most Precious, for that which is worldly, in thirty pieces of silver which he would hold for mere minutes – just as Adam would taste the fruit of destruction but for a moment, before it destroyed him.

 

Great and Holy Monday  – The Cursed Fig Tree (Mt. 21:18ff)

As the glory of the Entrance into Jerusalem recedes during Holy Week, we see Christ magnifying the terse contrast of the emerging Kingdom with the decayed state of the Judaism as it was practiced by its spiritual leaders (the Pharisees and the Sadducees).  This state of decay was made clearl by the curse of the fig tree – in a strange but powerful miracle that points to the spiritual withering of Judaism, and the eventual Roman conquest politically.  (Mk. 11:12ff, Mt. 21:18ff, Lk. 13:6ff).  In Matthew and Mark, this story is reported as taking place during that period immediately before the Crucifixion of the Lord, and tied to the opposition of the Chief priests and scribes who were complicit in His death.   This connection to the ‘death’ of their reign as spiritual leaders of a fruitless generation, is central to first level of  meaning in the event.  Indeed, the bearing for fruit was needful, otherwise the tree is worthless.

How and, more importantly, why does this speak to the Christian Church about stewardship today?

Well, first, we must recognize the obvious here, that this has nothing to do with stewardship as financial management.  Rather it points to the deeper reality of stewardship – as the careful nurturing of the spiritual life.  This stewardship nurturing was necessary not only in the Jewish people, who were the great spiritual heirs and recipients of the Covenantal relationship with the Lord entrusted to them as a people.  It was more than a ‘spiritual heritage’, but a living relationship with God Himself – but they had reduced this to religious practices and human traditions.  As recipients of the spiritual relationship of the New Covenant in Christ, this warning needs to be important to us as well.

This Lord’s Covenant with the Hebrews through Moses was privileged and distinctive, but needed to bear fruit.  In decrying the behavior of the Chief priests and scribes, he insists that it’s not the Law or even their teaching that is at fault.  Rather it is their behavior – which instead of a spiritually flowering and fruitful life, had become dead – and this death, like a disease, would propagate to others.  So the internal spiritual state of the leaders was taking the entirety of the Jewish nation and people down with them.  In other words, by failing to properly live the spiritual life through the righteous observance of the Law themselves, they not only failed to lead others to righteousness, but became themselves a stumbling block to anyone who did.  Jesus spares no words in condemning them for how they corrupted the proselytes they brought into their religious system and made them.  With rapid-fire imagery in Matthew 23, He brings righteous condemnation to their failures, all the while inviting those who would hear Him to a change of mind and heart – in a word, repentance.  Two of these leaders would hear these words and take them to heart – and so we will find Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea at the foot of Cross.

Bearing Spiritual Fruit

So we see that our stewardship of our spiritual life must be of prime importance.  This begins with our selves – and indeed, the greatest condemnation for the Pharisees and scribes was over their arrogant hypocrisy – laying heavy spiritual burdens on others (disciples) while not following the Law themselves.  Taking this to heart, our spiritual right to lead others only goes as far as our own practice (praxis) of the Faith.  This means taking the teachings of Jesus to heart and stewarding our lifestyle in the ways of simplicity of life and humble service of others that are hallmarks of the way of Jesus.   This may (and must) begin in the heart, but in the end it must be lived out in faithfulness to Christ, His people, and His commandments.

Failing this, like the fig tree condemned, no spiritual fruit will be born, at least none that matures and brings sweetness, nourishment and life to people.  It is not sufficient to have ‘green leaves’ and look the part, without bearing fruit.  In His teachings about ‘pruning the vine’ (Jn. 15) and ‘fertilizing the fig tree’ (Lk. 13:8) we are assured that God will provide every blessing, and every opportunity to bear fruit spiritually.  But failing this, the fruitless fig is destined to wither, death and destruction.

This story is frightening and it should be.  We must be fruit in our spiritual life – which is then manifest in our lives in practical, visible ways.  What does this fruit look like?  There are many varieties of fig – and there are many ways to bear fruit in the Kingdom!  The good tree will bear good fruit.  The fruit is the fruit of righteousness – which is, put simply love of God and love of neighbor.  When this spiritual  fruit is visibly maturing, we are manifesting the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5)  We are doing the ‘labor of love’ for the Lord in our Churches, and our Churches are alive, with a pulsating spirit of love, mercy, generosity and fellowship.  We are working out our salvation and something rich and life-giving is emerging.

Parish Stewardship – Fruitful or Not

Parishes that are alive in Christ exercise Christian stewardship by the fruits it bears.  These are communities which are hospitable and receive many blessings by God to foster its life and work.  These communities are true communities, formed and sustained by real relationships (spiritual and friendship) – founded in a living relationship with Christ. But these relationships go beyond the walls of the parish itself and reach deeply into the communities that surround them.  These are relationships of care, service, and humility that lead to a sharing of the good news of Christ in evangelization, through love, not pressure.  To quote the old song, these churches are known they are Christian by their love.

Parishes that don’t take spiritual  stewardship seriously will die.   It’s that simple.   They produce no fruit and will be cut down.  The Lord has provided every opportunity for growth – and no grace spared – that the spiritual fruits of maturity might be harvested.  In some cases, the fruit may be born – but never matures, ripens or nourishes.  It’s full of potential that’s never realized.  These communities are not communities of love, but no different from the example of the Jewish state of affairs above.  Their life is waning – it will fade and vanish.  We cannot ever judge the spiritual state of any community – but we must beg the Master to sustain our  life – or in some cases, resurrect the life He planted within His Church.

As with any living plant, sustaining water and food are necessary and it’s no different with the spiritual life.  There is no stewardship in practice unless there is health in the soul which is the soil from which the visible life emerges.  The sustaining grace present in the Holy Mysteries, prayer, spiritual reading, fellowship are not optional – they bring us life.  In some cases, as in the passage in Luke 13, there is special care needed – counseling, penance, asceticism – but with these comes restoration, health and ‘production’.

Final Reckoning

This general theme – stewardship of the spiritual treasure – will be repeated in many different forms.  We all will do well, not only during Holy Week, to open our minds to the deep, life-giving gift of our Orthodox Faith, the pulse of life in our souls.  How well are we fostering this life – not only individually – but as families of Faith and parishes that bear fruit for the salvation of the world.  These chapters all point to that final reckoning, when the Master will bring forth His judgment upon us – and whether or not there was not only life, but fruit in abundance for the Life of the world.

 

Now Available on Ancient Faith

Stewardship and Time – an Interview with Dr. Nicole Roccas on the Ancient Faith Podcast: First Fruits of Christian Living – Orthodox Christian Stewardship Today:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/firstfruits/stewardship_of_time_with_dr._nicole_roccas

See also the Interview on the Stewardship of Time on Nicole’s podcast – Time Eternal:

https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/timeeternal/making_time_with_fr._robert_holet

Comments welcome!!

 

And the Meaning of Christmas is – Stewardship?

By Fr. Robert Holet

At first, you might think that the feast of the Birth of the Lord has nothing to do with stewardship, but since I began to examine Orthodox stewardship a number of years ago, I’ve found that this theme permeates almost ever aspect of our Orthodox way of life and prayer that I can find, especially our major Feasts.

We can view the key movements of Stewardship as a kind of cycle – a relationship of God with us comprised of the following:

  1. God is the Lord and source of All, and bestows upon Hi s creation a multitude of His gifts. God initiates the everything Godly.
  2. The steward receives the gifts of the Lord in thanksgiving.
  3. The steward responds by making an offering to the Lord, which brings him into Communion with God, initiated by God, but characterized by the offering.

Christmas is all about gifts – but not so much our gifts to each other,  but the Gift bestowed upon humankind by God, by giving to us His Son, who came into the world for our salvation.  He has entrusted His Son to the Holy Virgin and all Humanity – and the question is always, what does the steward do with the Gift.  Christmas  is all about receiving Christ, as our Lord.

The Christmas story is about 3 groups of people – those who received Christ, those who didn’t and those who recognized Him, but opposed Him. Of the first group, including Mary and Joseph, the Magi and the Shepherds, who all, in some way, received Christ.  The Virgin received Christ through the Good News of the Archangel, Joseph, through a dream (with no small bit of difficulty!), the Magi – a star, the shepherds the angelic hosts.

How many others received such messages – but did not respond – those in Group 2?  Those who did not respond, we know nothing about. When we fail to respond to God, we drift into oblivion of Group 2.  The message of salvation comes, but it is ignored or missed. The Gospel of the Wedding Banquet that we hear on the Second Sunday Before Christmas is our warning that, when the invitation to join the Church in the Banquet of Christ, the invitation cannot be ignored.

Group 3 needs no introduction.  These are the ones who oppose God.  They may not deny His existence, but they openly oppose His working in the world, which they claim for themselves as their own.  The do not affirm that our world, our life, is the Lord’s and all that is contained within it. (Ps. 24).  Herod, and by extension, his cohort in Jerusalem see Jesus as a threat.  They are right – Christ brings forth a Kingdom that makes the Kingdom of Herod and this world a shadow of impotent worldly power – which ultimately collapses under its own weight and ends in death and destruction.  The worldly ‘kingdom’ of the Jews would be crushed by the Romans in AD66.

But the stewardship cycle is not complete.  There must be a third movement – a spiritual offering of Thanksgiving which brings humankind into Communion with God, once the Gift is received.  So we hear in the hymnography of the Church a beautiful expression.

What shall we offer to you O Christ? Who for our sake has appeared on the earth as a man?

Every creature which You have made offers You thanks. The angels offer You a song. The heavens, their star.

The wise men, their gifts. The shepherds, their wonder. The earth, its cave. The wilderness, the manger.
And we offer You a Virgin Mother.
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us
!    (Psalm verse from Festal Vespers)

There is a special beauty in this hymn, reflecting the personification of creation itself, endeavoring to offer a gift to Christ, as well as the shepherds, the Magi, and the offering of the Virgin – who represents for all of us human beings, our offering to Christ.  It’s necessary that an offering be made as a response to God’s loving initiative!

This spiritual offering of ourselves to Christ – and the commendation of our lives and families, our parishes and our treasures to Him, is what will fulfill our vocation of stewards of the Lord – recipients of the divine Gift of Christ and His immeasurable love.  All of our sacrifices, oriented toward Christ, including the offering of our treasure (as a sacred material offering to the King – like the gold of the Magi), our time (especially in sacred worship at services), our talents that represent personal participation in the Church life through the gifts of the Spirit.

Finally, may our stewardship of the precious gift of trust (which we call Faith), bestowed upon us as Orthodox Christians, be celebrated and strengthened by the Lord during this holy season.

May our Festal offerings lead to a sacred communion with Christ during this holy season, like the sweet-smelling offering of the incense of the Magi – to Christ the Lord.

Fr. Robert Holet is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville (Greenwood) Va., and serves as director of the Consistory Office of Stewardship of the UOC of the USA.

Stewardship and Automatic Giving – Is the United Way the Way to Go?

Note – Updated- Tues. November 22, 9am – In response to a reader’s comment and anecdotal report, I have revised the recommendation – A shout out to Ken for making me aware of this… see below

By Fr. Robert Holet

I was recently reminded that this is the time of year that many people receive solicitations through their workplace to sign up for payroll deductions to the United Way, or the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) or similar state programs.  Often there is ‘encouragement’ by managers to do so, with drives and special social events to enhance the signup campaign.  This is a deeply personal decision actually and an important one. Should I sign up?  Here are a few things to consider – in short – BE A WISE STEWARD!

If anyone has read this, or any of the related blogs on Orthodox Christian stewardship, you’ll quickly identify the importance of making offerings as a key element of faithful stewardship.  Ideally, this takes the form of an offering to the Lord that we make weekly, as the first fruits of what we’ve received from Him during the week, offered to Him and through the local parish. But if the firstfruits offerings are the right hand, our offerings to the poor are the left hand.  We should be two handed givers!

Expanding Circles of Generosity

Because there is a multitude of ways to give to charitable concerns and people in need, these decisions can be a little complicated.  We need to be both wise and generous stewards when offering our charity.  Consider starting the process envisioning your charitable efforts as concentric circles – like the dynamic circles formed by a pebble tossed in a pond.  The efforts of our local Orthodox parish or our national Church (UOC of USA), should obviously get prime consideration for several reasons  First, the concerns and recipients of these charities will be the ones close to the ‘heart’ of our faith.  So if a local family experiences trauma, and the local parish responds – it reveals a great opportunity to multiply the effect of our individual donations, joining them to others in charity to a neighbor in need.  Sometimes we forget that people very close to us are in need, when the marketing campaigns of major charities play on TV before us, sometimes continuously.  Likewise our national Church (and groups like the UOL) have identified special needs worthy of extraordinary concern, such as the Ukrainian orphanages and wounded soldiers.  The Assembly of Bishops has recognized several organizations such as OCMC, IOCC, Zoe for Life, FOCUS etc. that are worthy recipients.

Secondly, the recipient charity needs to be well administered. For example, if a charity extends only 20 cents of every dollar it receives to provide actual aid to people in need, it’s not a wise choice.  Administrative expenditures of your hard earned funds will evaporate into hidden costs.  Some such expenditures are necessary – but sometimes these funds go into the pockets of people at the top of the organization (including executive salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, vacation perks, etc.) or for uses of limited or questionable value.  Some exceptions may exist, but most well run organizations can usually expend less than 10% of their income on administration, leaving 90% to go directly to people in need.

Thirdly, the selected charities should be well ‘vetted’ so that donated funds by the charity reflect the moral and spiritual priorities for us as Orthodox Christians.  First, some not-for-profits must be shunned outright – such as Planned Parenthood – which exists almost exclusively to provide abortions and makes its money off of this diabolical activity. Their nod to ‘care of the mother’, or providing mammograms, etc. is only a head fake.  Their business is abortion and it is a profitable one.[i]  Sadly, even some seemingly innocuous charities, like the Susan B Komen Foundation have been found to ally themselves with Planned Parenthood, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to them. Also, while some charities are quite effective at pulling at the emotional heartstrings, there may be other charities whose purpose is far closer to our spiritual mission.  Hence, the assistance (and funds) to human concerns should always far outweigh donations to animal care or similar worldly concerns of lesser importance.

Should we Go United?

So is the United Way the Way to go? My answer – I don’t think so.

While United Way Worldwide (the umbrella organization) does not contribute directly to Planned Parenthood, local chapters do – and these may be funded by people unaware of this connection. (For a list of local chapters that do so, see https://afa.net/unitedway). CFC does likewise.   A generic donation to the United Way or CFC could be viewed, in effect, as a donation of a small portion of your funds to organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  I would not want a penny of my hard earned income to go there.  So what do you do?

Well, the best option is simple. First, ‘fully fund’ your local parish and local Church/Metropolia and national/internationals Orthodox institutions, like the concentric circles mentioned above.  They need your help and your donation becomes a spiritual, as well as a material blessing to those they serve. Note that if you want the simplicity of an automatic donation, this can easily be done through online banking systems – sending out the amount at a time that works for you.

I used to think that earmarking the contribution made the United Way / CFC route a suitable workaround.  I just learned however, that this may not be the case.  The thought was – ‘Because many United Way/Combined programs offer you the opportunity to earmark your funds – and sometimes Orthodox institutions like IOCC are offered as an approved organization for such automatic payroll donations on the check list – that this would avoid the above difficulty of donating to unsavory institutions. The automatic payroll deduction makes it ‘easy’.

This may its not so easy….

Contortions in Charity Allocations

Anecdotally, I learned that at least one United Way local chapter determines its budget allocation to charities without reference to the earmarked funds.  How can that be?

Suppose the executives at the United Way form their annual budget, and decide to give our morally acceptable charity, we’ll call Charity A (say the Boy Scouts) $10,000, and organization B – Planned Parenthood – $10,000 as well.  The practice (at this chapter) is to apply (when they receive it) your specially earmarked funds to the established budget income anticipated for said charity.  So if you earmarked your $5000 for the Boy Scouts, they would apply it there.  BUT they would cut the income budgeted to the Boy Scouts from the anticipated general funds that had been allocated to the Boy Scouts by same amount – $5000. Instead of getting $15000, the Boy Scouts would still get only $10000! The $5000 previously allocated to the Boy Scouts was then free to be applied elsewhere (in this example, Planned Parenthood). So yes, your funds do not go directly to Planned Parenthood, but your earmarking doesn’t help the situation!   In effect Charity A will simply be deprived funds that would have gone there from the General funds and those will be dispersed elsewhere – even to Planned Parenthood.  So in this case, even if the Scout troop had expected a windfall because they had worked hard to encourage their friends/family to donate to United Way and have their funds earmarked, in effect they would have found that the troop’s income receivedfrom the United Way general (non-earmarked) funds went to zero, replaced by funds from their earmarked efforts.  The only way around this – and the better way around this – is to simply donate directly to the preferred charity.  In this case, an employer’s matching donation (if offered) might be lost, but it beats the alternative.

— Note- this is a very general supposition based on anecdotal, but reliable information. It may not be applicable in all circumstances and local chapters, and is no way meant to be an affront to the many generous donors, volunteers and employees of the United Way or CFC. Nevertheless, if /as the situation has existed in the past, there is little reason to believe it does not exist now.  Most of us do not have the time or wherewithal to check the budgets or management practices of our local United Way chapters, but it’s in the fine print of budgets, policies and management that what seems to be one thing, may actually be quite another. I welcome comments, or information from other reliable sources on this matter – so that we might all be better informed, better stewards.—

One More Thing

But there’s one more subtle, but important aspect of to consider.  When we use the payroll deduction it becomes a one-time decision (for the year) and automatic.  We don’t think of it – or think of it only as a financial transaction. Almost like the payroll taxes we pay – we never see the money and forget about it.  But the real power of sacred offering is the personal sense of our participation and offering of what we have received, to those in need – even if through the hands of others who offer the actual charitable service. These service providers are often in a better place to help people in need through their knowledge and experience – like the innkeeper in the story of the Good Samaritan, who was ‘funded’ from the hands and heart of the Samaritan.  He had an inn -what was needed at the time – to help the man in need.  So too with organized charities.  What is best is if we take a personal interest and involvement with those charities we support.  We can do this simply, and ‘contribute’ in other ways as well. We can contribute by volunteering or offering helpful  items or personal help that they might need in their work. Hence, volunteering to do administrative work or even cleaning offices might make needed funds available for direct care!  Such organizations are always looking for ways to engage people in personal service.

Not to be underestimated is our prayer for those we are trying to help.  In short, our charity needs to be charitable – it’s really a matter of the heart.  With the automatic process, it’s easy to taken on the attitude, ‘I gave at the office’ and pass on the person in need, whether immediately in front of us, or others who we may know about, who the Church may be desperately trying to help.

May the Spirit unite us in the way of sacred Charity in Christ as His stewards, especially during this holiday season.  This is the true united Way, united in Christ.

Fr. Robert Holet is the Director of the Consistory Office of Ministry of the UOC of USA, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and author of the book, The First Fruits of Christian Living, Orthodox Christian Stewardship as Sacred Offering (Authorhouse, 2013)

[i] References available by request.

Vocation as Stewardship

by Mark Host

We generally think of our job as something that belongs to the secular world.  It is part of that “other” world in which we exist apart from our spiritual and church lives.  It is common to think of our vocation as something we must do to meet our worldly needs: a paycheck, and with it the resources to purchase food, clothing, shelter, and luxuries.  The idea that our job is somehow a part of this other life we live stems directly from the secular idea that one’s job does not define one’s self.  In a feel-good world that focuses on the self, people feel they need such distinctions in order to cope with a job which they understand they need, but which they may not want.  Yet this is simply another attempt at creating a worldview that suits what people want to believe, instead of changing our perspective towards the Truth of what is.  That latter sounds hard, and it can be, but that does not mean that it needs to be unpleasant.  Far from it.  As the late Fr. Hopko put it, “… all vocations are ‘religious.’”[1]

There are many possible ways to understand this idea.  First and foremost, it is important that we always remember that we are the only Bible that many people will ever read.  When we say that we are Christians, what that means is that we represent Christ and His Church.  How we conduct ourselves often becomes what people understand Christianity to mean.  If we conduct ourselves poorly or under-perform at our job, then this reflects poorly on God.  If we do well, then this reflects positively on God.  If we go the extra mile to help out a co-worker, and don’t gloat on a job well done by us, but rather give that up to God and do it humbly as an act of service, then we glorify God by doing so.  This is what the Gospels mean when they tell us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).  When we are humble and have our hearts and minds oriented towards God in our vocation, then we can understand how our vocation is a ministry.  Let others see your diligent work and praise God.

Regardless of one’s vocation, it is possible to use it for the greater Glory of God.  The CEO of a company has the well-being of every employee and their families in his or her care.  How the CEO executes their job has a direct impact on the lives of those under his or her care.  It’s easy to understand how this can be stewardship.  Yet even a dishwasher can make his or her vocation meaningful beyond the immediacy of earning a paycheck.  Cleaning dishes properly can have a direct impact on the health and safety of the customers who use them.  How conscientiously the dishwasher executes his or her job also matters.  Wastefulness or theft is often visited upon all employees, as the employer often recoups those losses through lower wage increases and reductions in benefits.  So each person can be the caretakers of those made in the image of Christ in some way.  So we must each be conscientious in our vocations, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (Colossians 3:23).

Fr. Hopko writes that, “All are called to be saints…”  Not everyone is called to do this in the same way.  We need to shed secular ideas of what is important and not important work.  As Fr. Hopko points out:

“Some will sanctify their lives being married; others will be single. Some will do it in clerical orders; others as lay people. Some will be monastic; most will live in the everyday secular world. Some will work primarily in a physical way, others will work intellectually. Some will be artists, scientists, business people, professionals. Others may have no particular job or profession. And some may be called simply to suffer, while others, in terms of this world, will hardly suffer at all.”

What is left for us to do is accept the calling to which God has guided us, and in so doing, use that vocation – whatever it is – for His greater Glory.

 

So here are a few questions to ponder:

  • Have you asked yourself how you can use your vocation towards God’s greater Glory, instead of only towards a greater paycheck?
  • Do you give your time at work to God as well as to your employer?
  • How can you be a better example for those around you?

[1] Hopko, Thomas.  “Finding One’s Vocation in Life.”  Orthodox Church in America.  1996. Web.  23 March 2016.

Mark Host is a member of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, OH.  He works in IT, teaches college English on the side, and is planning to return to school in 2017 to pursue his PhD.

Financial Offering as Eucharistic Thanksgiving

by Mark Host

At the beginning of the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy (the sacred prayer of the consecration of the bread and wine spoken by the priest), the deacon (or priest) says the words, “Let us be attentive, that we may present the holy offering in peace.”  What is this offering?  As many would assume, it certainly does refer to the bread and wine that the priest offers up to God, but what has largely been lost today is the significance of those items.

In the ancient church, the wine, bread, oil, and other supplies used by the priest during the liturgy were brought to the church.  Most churches had an alcove in which these offerings were left.  These gifts would have included money, and practical items such as grains for the sustenance of the priest.  During the Great Entrance, the deacon would bring these offerings from this alcove into the altar.  As the practice of bringing such offerings to the church dwindled, the Great Entrance devolved into simply walking out in front of the iconostasis with the Chalice and discos and back to the altar.  The bread, wine, and other supplies were simply purchased or prepared by the parish priest as needed.  Today, instead of supplying priests with items for their sustenance, we supply them with a salary.

So there was a time when these offerings were the tithe given to the church.  There was a ritual aspect in their giving, which gave them meaning far beyond the practical reality of what they supplied to the church.  These were the first fruits given by the faithful back to God in grateful appreciation for all they had received.  Then offered up to God, they received the Holy Eucharist in return for their faith in Him.

So why then has the Church not removed the vestigial remains of this practice?  For many, it may be tempting to decry this as stubborn conservatism, but the truth is that this part of the service is not vestigial at all.  For the most part we no longer bring the wine and oil, and we no longer bring them into the altar in a ritual way.  In spite of this, these things remain to remind us of the sacrificial aspects of our financial contributions.

Over the time the modes have changed.  Most of us are not agrarian, so our first fruits are not grain, wine, oil, or other similar products.  Our first fruits are mostly monetary.  We exchange our time or labor for money, so our first fruits look a little more like leaves.  This does not change their purpose in the Divine Liturgy.  They are the same sacrificial offering, made to God in Eucharistic thanksgiving.

So when the deacon prays that we present the holy offering in peace, let us all remember that the holy offering we give in contemporary times has taken on a different form, but it is still the same thanksgiving to God for all the blessings He has bestowed upon us.

 

Some questions for reflection – please feel free to use the ‘comment’ section to share with all of our readers what your parish practices are:

o   What is our parish’s practice in receiving the offerings of the faithful?’

o   What does it look like in my church?

o   How might it be improved?

o   When we come to the church, do we actually believe that we have something to offer to God?

o   Do we believe that the offering we make is done in genuine thanksgiving for His blessings, and towards our sanctification?  Or do we think that the check is simply a means to a worldly end?

 

Mark Host is a member of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, OH.  He works in IT, teaches college English on the side, and is planning to return to school in 2017 to pursue his PhD.

Podcast 2 Is Up – Principles of Christian Stewardship

The fine folks at Ancient Faith have posted the second podcast in the FirstFruits series on Christian stewardship where some basic foundation stones of personal stewardship as a means of offering of our selves to God are explored.  This also opens the door to a bit of discussion about how financial stewardship is to be approached in the Church as a ‘sacred offering’.    Do feel free to send comments to this blog, or the Ancient Faith site.

Click – Podcast 2 – Principles

Stewardship and the Great Council

The Great and Holy Council –  The Orthodox Hierarchy Wrestles with the Stewardship of the Church

 

By Fr. Robert Holet

 

The timing couldn’t be better – as the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church convened in Crete with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, concluding on the Sunday of All Saints. Much will be written by many with far more profound insights into the historical, spiritual and theological meaning of the Council – as well as the implications of the participation of the Churches and, more notably, the non-participation of others, for whatever reasons. From my perspective, what is so encouraging is the refreshing sight of the Fathers of the Church as they step up – prayerfully, visibly and publically – to act as the stewards of the Lord’s Church in our age. Quietly, the prayer of many Orthodox Christians was that, through the Council, the Lord would pour forth a wave of spiritual enthusiasm, renewed insight and where necessary, needed change, to the Orthodox Church’s life and witness in the world today.

 

Herein is set forth one of the challenges of Orthodoxy today. We know that Christ is the Head of the Church, and so the Body lives in harmony with Him (or is cut off and dies). But the Head has ascended to Heaven – leaving us, in a manner of speaking, without a visible head. The natural human inclination is to select a new visible representative – so that we have a ‘chief steward’ to preserve order. Some lament that we need a ‘visible’ Steward of the Church in our own day, as in the practice of the Roman Catholics, whose Pope has the responsibility to steward/shepherd their Church.[i] This approach would certainly be more understandable to our modern sensibilities; every organization needs its leadership head, every business its CEO.  If the Orthodox Church had one, it surely wouldn’t have taken hundreds of years to convene such a Council to initiate this process! It can be argued that this leadership-stewardship role was exercised in an earlier age by the Christian Roman Emperors, beginning with Constantine – and probably out of practical as much as spiritual need. The Roman Catholics have not had a problem calling wide-ranging councils since the Great Schism in the 11th. It’s been much more difficult for the Orthodox to so gather – even though the conciliar model is at the heart of the Orthodox understanding of how the stewardship of the universal Church takes place. For Orthodoxy, Christ did not set up such a singular, ultimately empowered, overseer.

 

Local or Global? Broadening the Circle

 

A related challenge facing the Hierarchs, and highlighted by the Council, is the very tension between ‘local’ and ‘global’.  In Orthodox ecclesiology, the bishop is always bishop first and foremost of a ‘local church’.  But what about the Church around the world?  This typifies a tension present more broadly in Christianity today. Where do our responsibilities lie? Are we to focus on ‘working out our salvation in fear and trembling’ – with a strong focus on our individual, private life? Are we to also broaden our spiritual awareness and take responsible stewardship of our family? What about our local church communities (parish)? Do we look beyond the walls of our parish to reach out with the gospel and also endeavor to express the stewardship of the Church in our locale, finding some way to ‘love our neighbor’ in the local community or region?

 

As a member of our Metropolitan Council, I’ve sensed the need of our national Metropolia to be supported (in ministry and love, not to mention financially) by local parishes – and when that’s absent we are like leaders without followers, and our bishops are shepherds without sheep. Are we not also called, as Orthodox in America, to see the breadth of our cross-jurisdictional Church, manifest in the work of the Assembly of Bishops, or IOCC, or OCMC, or OCF or any of a score of ministries that have a national reach that we are supposed to steward by our support, because they really are important? And let’s not forget the international concern of many of Orthodox Christians today in our parishes and our jurisdictions, that extend across the oceans to a faraway place and a faraway people who are our ‘brothers and sisters (no less)’, many of whom are deeply in need.[ii] Then too, there are inter-Church and ecumenical concerns that reach into international ecclesial activities and discussions. Just thinking about all this makes me dizzy! Is it little wonder that the oft-quoted saying of St. Seraphim about acquiring the Holy Spirit is so popular today – focusing/stewarding our thoughts and energies on what is closest, and manageable?

 

But for a hierarch, the global dimension of their calling cannot be ignored. It’s their responsibility to bear that broader, global concern. When Christ gathered his disciples at that Mystical Supper and entrusted to them the Mysteries, the Keys to the Kingdom, and all, He also entrusted a distinct, global expression of a united, conciliar Church and ministry to them as well. They cannot deny or ignore it – and the diptychs[iii] remind them of their global connectedness to the entirety of the Church whenever they offer the Liturgy. Further, if the hierarchs don’t faithfully serve as stewards of the global Church (oikoumene), no one will because no one else can. What we should all appreciate, regardless of any of the documents or other outcomes of this Council, is the determined effort led by the patriarchs, especially by the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All-Holiness Bartholomew, to overcome all manner of impediments so that this distinctive expression of stewardship of the worldwide Church could be exercised. It had been hundreds of years since it was so manifest – because it is, as expressed in the icon of Pentecost, a stewardship function which can only be exercised in the Spirit, in council and solidarity with others.

 

Stewardship of the Gift of Unity through Conciliarity

 

We can glory in the expression of this Pentecost-enlightened Church because it shows us the need for stewardship expressed as conciliarity. If, as the Council theme resonating the Kontakion of St. Romanos indicates, “He called all to unity,” maybe this is the very image of the Church of Christ we so desperately need; especially as communities and collaboration collapse – sometimes in violence – in an individualistic and secular age. International, national, jurisdictional, regional and local – all of the other levels of life in Christ – need the discovery of this conciliar dimension of stewardship and mission in the Church. Perhaps the stewardship of our very souls relies not just about our-selves, or what we do even in serving others in the Church, but through the very relationship and union with God the Trinity, and with others in holy communion in love.

 

Essential, then, to the stewardship of the Church is this search and longing for unity. This will lead each of us, especially the shepherds, to repentance – as we realize the disruption of the unity in each of our Church circles. Only repentance and truth can bring healing and restoration. Efforts to bring reconciliation, though imperfect, in the Great Council exemplify the hierarchical role of calling us to the dialogue, and if necessary, repentance that leads to unity – true among Patriarchs, within national churches, down to the family level. The world will know the love of Christ when He sees us love one another, and reconcile with one another.[iv]

 

As with the stewardship of any important ministry in the Church, unity cannot accomplished solely by individuals. Rather, an effort to gather the Church in the oikumene assumes a global vision and multi-national strategic planning and practical execution. As anyone hanging around the Orthodox for a short time may have observed, gathering the Orthodox for anything beyond eating a meal can be a challenge! Gathering theologians, media support, people gifted with multi-lingual skills to address staffing needs, hospitality concerns, etc. – this was a herculean task. Perhaps most daunting was the challenge to firmly and fairly address the concerns of all the Patriarchs and their delegations, not the least of which was the patience required to address (even to the final moments before convening the Council) the concerns and reluctance of those who opted not to attend. Even choosing a safe and accessible site was inspired – in light of the bombing of the Istanbul Airport on the very day that many of the Hierarchs were traveling home at the end of the Council. And I’m sure that there will be a few stories in the days to come of other near-misses and events that managed to find resolution so that these men, called by God, could actually sit down and begin to address, as faithful stewards, the global needs of the Church throughout the world.

 

A Moment in History?

 

I can recall, as a youth, hearing wisps of information about the Second Vatican Council which was taking place and how it would change forever the life of the Catholic Church. What could not have even been anticipated made history – beyond anyone’s imagination.[v] Is it possible that something of similar great importance is in store for the Orthodox Church? In the words of our Metropolitan Antony of Hieropolis,[vi]This Council will be part of the history of the modern world.”[vii]

 

All I can say is it’s about time. God’s time. God takes His time – often taking millennia to act – but when He does, big things happen. This is a new beginning. As the Hierarchs of the Orthodox Church around the world get exercise their profound ministry as stewards of the whole Church in Orthodoxy, we will have a new glimpse of the icon of the Church for Pentecost. In a sense, the Apostles in the icon can now be flanked not only by the Fathers and Hierarchs of the previous ages – but now we can see, sharing in that glory as stewards of His Church, our own Hierarchs, assuring us that our Church is not only one with that Church of Pentecost, the Councils, and the Saints, but expressed in a powerful, new, visual image in our own age.  Ω

 

 

[i] Of course, in the Orthodox view,  the Pope is first and foremost the Bishop of Rome, and the scope of his pastorship extends to a degree as Patriarch of the West (but never replacing a local bishop).  Some popes recently have eschewed the ‘Patriarch of the West’ title, notably His Holiness Pope Benedict. For one Orthodox take on this, see http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/HilarionPope.php   But the papacy is globally recognized in the Roman Church as a ‘Universal Pontificate’, effectively making him the steward of the entire Church.

[ii] Among the most pressing needs are those of the Syrian and middle-Eastern Churches due to the war and persecution in their lands, as well as the suffering in Ukraine due to civil unrest and its accompanying ecclesial issues.

[iii] The diptychs record the names of rightly ordained bishops in Communion with the Church, as successors to the apostles, and for whom prayers are offered, especially in the Divine Liturgy.

[iv] Jn. 13:35

[v] Some would argue – for better, others, for worse.

[vi] Presiding Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora

[vii] http://pemptousia.com/video/metropolitan-of-ierapolis-antony-this-synod-will-be-part-of-the-history-of-the-modern-world/

Stewardship of Our Time: Sanctifying the Hours of the Day

By Lisa Ryan

Prayer is one important way we serve as stewards of the time.  Future posts will discuss morning and evening prayer, as for most of us that is the bulk of our individual prayer on a daily basis.  It is worth remembering, however, that the Body of Christ is one, although it is made up of many people with many different vocations; and even if you and I are in the midst of the secular world, odds are pretty good that somewhere within our time zone there are monastics who are praying the Canonical Hours all day every day.  Have you ever wondered why services are set for certain times of the day?  The schedule of Divine Services is constructed so that when it is prayed by monastics, they are sanctifying the time for all of us, hour by hour each day.  Their prayer is offered to make holy even the hours when most of us are lost in the cares of the world.  We are one Church, monastics and laity, and so all of us benefit from their labors.

It is good to remember their efforts, and also to find little ways to keep the hours ourselves, so that we feel connected to the rest of the Body of Christ.  The first thing might be to have an awareness of the hours so that when you glance at the clock and see one of those times, know that somewhere prayer is offered to make this hour holy.  If you would like to make a small offering yourself, perhaps you could cross yourself or say the Lord’s Prayer as a way to keep the hour.  Short prayers to honor the hours have been written by several church fathers:  St. John Chrysostom has one for each of the twenty-four hours in the day, you can see them here on the OCF site: http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/prayers/chrysostom.html.  Perhaps a Lenten project would be to pick one of these and memorize it and pray it at that hour each day during Great Lent. A larger and more worthy project, learning to pray the Jesus prayer, helps us sanctify the time in another way:  praying continuously is a stewardship of prayer time offered to God continuously in the heart.

What are the Canonical Hours?  Time in the Church differs from time that we learned in school:  each day begins at sunset, and the services keep the rhythm of life as it was before clocks and artificial lights changed our ideas of day and night. So the Hours as the Church understands them are: sunset, night, midnight, sunrise; and then the hours of daylight:  first (approximately 6am), third (9am), sixth (12pm), ninth (3pm), and then back to sunset and the beginning of the next day.  In the days without clocks, judging the third hour by the position of the sun roughly halfway between the horizon and directly overhead (and the ninth the same way in the other direction) was more practical than trying to judge 9:30am, so scheduling services at those Hours was natural. Night time was a good time for prayer in those days, not only because it was so bad for productive laboring, but because it is a good way to counteract the fears that are so natural when it is dark outside.  The four night offices:  Vespers, Compline, Nocturne and Orthros/Matins, are the beginning of each day in the Church and help us remember the Light while the world is dark.

Keeping the Daily Services in mind can greatly help us in our stewardship of the time each day.  Each service has its own character which is appropriate to that time of the day.  Even when we do not attend the services, we can look for little ways to live that particular theme in our everyday lives, to let it shape us spiritually, and to find little ways to offer that back to God and to others.  In future posts we will discuss the Daily Services in more detail, but for now, consider some little ways you can “keep the hours” in your daily life.  Here are a few suggestions, but please post others you may think of in the comments section!

  • Do your daily Scripture readings at the appointed hour. We’re reading Isaiah now at the sixth hour during Lent, which is lunch time for most of us.  Say a prayer to thank God for your food and read while you eat:  monastics also contemplate the Word of God during their meals.
  • Say a prayer at 9am (or when you get to work) dedicating the morning’s work to the glory of God.
  • Counter the mid-afternoon urge to nap with a brief walk while reciting the Jesus prayer.
  • Listen to an Ancient Faith Radio podcast during your morning or evening commute.

We welcome your comments and invite you to share your thoughts about the following questions, or other ways that the theme for today can be better lived out in our Christian walk:

  • How do you keep the hours in your daily life?
  • What does an awareness of God and your calling as his Steward do for you during your day?

_____________________

Lisa Ryan is a member of St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, PA.  She is an IT Business Analyst in her professional life; co-Head Coach of the UOC of the USA’s Strategic Planning initiative; and an enthusiastic convert to Orthodoxy.” 

Stewards of Time – Making the Most of Holy Week

 

By Fr. Robert Holet, Director – Consistory Office of Stewardship

 

We all know how Father has been ‘encouraging’ us to attend services and activities in Church during Holy Week.  It’s one of the best examples of the challenge we face in the stewardship of time.  Parishioners will tell me that Holy Week is the ONE week when the boss decides the extra project needs to be done now, the taxes need to be sent in, the prom has been scheduled for months (Great Friday of course) or your co-worker has decided to have her baby.  Or maybe the Lord decided for her.

 

It’s a conspiracy.

 

So maybe it’s appropriate that the Church reads from the Book of Job in Church this week, because it reminds us that the Devil will work overtime, over lots of time, to upset our Holy Week apple cart in any and every imaginable way.  I can feel the angst in my chest today remembering the moment when I blew out a tire on the Interstate on Great Friday, heading at high speed to one of the most important services of the year. But the Lord took care of things then – and may He protect us this year!

 

Take a Look Ahead

 

Although it’s a little late this year, it’s always a good reminder to set your Holy Week schedule during the first week of January.  This way you open up at least as much time as possible by taking vacation days (at least for Great Friday!) and setting your electronic calendar to ‘Busy’ as much as possible – so that no one schedules you to that critical meeting at the wrong time – like Holy Thursday evening.  In addition to taking off Great Friday (and Saturday), I strongly recommend taking off Bright Monday – as it allows us to celebrate with the Church the second day of Pascha and drink in the spirit of that special time called Bright Week, when the joy of Pascha resonates its beauty, light and joy.  And don’t forget, it shortens the work week by a day too!

 

In terms of Orthodox Stewardship – setting aside your time is a sacred offering, of yourself, to Christ.  Your time is where you are and what you’re doing – so when that’s in Church, it can be a way of spiritually committing yourself to your Orthodox Faith.  But it will be a sacred offering only if you do it willingly, and intentionally.  Sometimes I wonder if we Orthodox Christians have ever graduated from junior high school.  What do I mean by that?  Remember that in junior high or middle school, your parents could still control where you were at any point in time; and so they took you to Church during Holy Week.  You may have disliked it, even hated it and wanted to it to end as quickly as possible – perhaps because you couldn’t understand a word in some foreign language the priest was mumbling?  But you survived.  And here we are, some 20-40 years later, perhaps still going to Holy Week services not because we want to participate, but rather that if we don’t, we’ll feel guilty, break tradition and perhaps disappoint people who are “counting on us”!

 

Sacred Moments

 

Here’s the truth. Your time is God’s gift to you.  When you offer it back to Him, attending the services of Holy Week, you give Him an opportunity to bless you in unusual ways.  Over the years, I’ve sensed countless people ‘get it’ regarding the meaning of their Orthodox Faith – the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, by participating in the services.  God communicates the truth in all of this – in His own ineffable way.  How about trying something different this year?  Attend the services of Holy Week with an open heart –  try to listen to the words being chanted, the meaning of the Gospel, and experience the solemn atmosphere of the Great Friday services reminding us that this Jesus, who we proclaim as Lord, was ‘truly the Son of God’. (Mt. 27: 54). The Holy Week services are perhaps the most powerful moments – intervals of time – where we truly learn what it means to worship God – in venerating the shroud in silence, processing around the Church at Resurrection Matins in hope, seeing the brilliance of Christianity in joy at the Paschal Liturgy, enjoying the bounty of God’s blessings in the feast that pours out of our Pascha basket.

 

Stewards of Precious Time

 

Of course, there are a few hours left in the week outside of the services!  First, it’s good stewardship of time to get rest during Holy Week, especially if your lifestyle involves family life and laborious work responsibilities.  Throw in the extra time needed for special activities involving Holy Week – like special housekeeping, preparing foods for your basket, writing pysanky, preparing for Confession – all can be very time intensive.  No, today we don’t have the kind of lifestyle that allowed Baba to spend hours braiding her Pascha perfectly.  For many, the pressure of trying to keep up with ‘tradition’ can become extremely disruptive.  In one family I know, the mother never made it to the Paschal Services – she was so busy trying to keep up with everything else that the stress lowered her resistance; and she always succumbed to a debilitating sickness late in Holy Week.

 

Finally, part of wise stewardship is recognizing special opportunities in life.  Holy Week comes only once a year, and then only after a buildup of many weeks of spiritual effort in the Church.  This time is special – take advantage of it!  And yes, we never know if this will be our last opportunity to participate in these services – to ponder in silence the mystery of God’s redemption of our souls, or to see in the flickering candlelight the faces of children who have much, much more pure faith in Jesus than do we adults.  As adults, we can choose to attend the services in a way that we are fully present in our minds and hearts to Christ – as stewards of our time in this most sacred and life giving way.  So we can take that well-formed habit  from our youth, the witness and memory of Baba and our forebears,  and our respect for all the traditions – and schedule a personal appointment with Christ in  His Church.

Wise stewardship means getting ourselves to a place where we can enter into the festal Banquet. (Lk. 14:16ff)  At Divine Liturgy on Pascha, we proclaim the Prokimenon of the Feast,

 

“This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  (Ps. 118:24)

 

This is God’s gift – of the Day that He has fashioned and entrusted to us.  Our faithful stewardship leads us to rejoicing and gladness on that Day – the Feast of Feasts!  Ω

 

Note – Do check out the following links for some great ideas about managing family time and resources during Holy Week.

Orthodox Holy Week Activities for Children

 

http://www.mostlymarthabarelymary.com/blog/a-parents-guide-to-surviving-holy-week-a-pep-talk