REFLECTING ON GOD’S BLESSINGS
This past Sunday, I gave my annual Pastoral Address at the parish General Assembly. The annual address is a type of “State of the Parish” presentation in which the Pastor lays out his views on the key events in the church from the previous year, and where he wishes us to head moving forward.
I used this year’s Address as an occasion to try to express more clearly how the many different efforts and projects we have undertaken in the last several years fit together into a unified whole. I hope you will find this helpful as we all work together for the Glory of God and the increase of His Kingdom through our parish activities.
For your convenience, the Address has been divided into three sections. Part 1 is below, and the next two parts will be published in the next two weeks.
As always, I invite anyone to come to me with any questions or concerns or for simply the opportunity for us to increase our mutual understanding.
Reverend Father, the Newly-Ordained Fr. Theodore, Reverend Archdeacon and Deacons, esteemed Parish Council Chairman, officers and members, brothers and sisters in Christ.
We gather annually in this Parish General Assembly to glance back at the year that was, take stock of where we are, and look forward and prepare for the year to come. The history of our Parish will show that the year 2019 left an indelible mark on the ongoing legacy of this community. Hosting a Convention is a gargantuan effort in which our parish, as hosts to the entire Archdiocese, hoped to offer significant experiences to those who traveled from far and wide to enjoy both this beautiful city and the love and hospitality that all of us had to offer. By listening to the comments that continue to be made, God blessed us with the ability to do just that and it is not an exaggeration to say that in those seven days, lives were changed. Both clergy and laity were educated and inspired to renew their love of God and to work even harder in His Church. Old friends reunited, in long lives lived together, and perhaps in some cases for the last time in this life. And new friendships were made, among which we may find out that even a few marriages will trace their beginnings back to those beautiful July days spent on the banks of the Grand River.
But 2019 wasn’t just the year we hosted the Archdiocese Convention. As hard as it was, this Parish did that while continuing its ongoing work of worship, service and fellowship, witnessing to our love of Christ. During this season of Theophany one year ago, I was blessed to visit over 60 households bringing the Holy Water of the Jordan into those homes. A little later in the year, we enjoyed a beautiful and inspiring Lenten season, Holy Week and, of course, the exuberance of the joy of Pascha. In between the highlights of Fasts and Feasts, we continued to worship God in the weekly Sunday Divine Liturgy, and in the many other services held quietly throughout the rest of the week. By the instruction and inspiration of His Grace, Bishop ANTHONY, in the past few years we have focused on improving what he calls the “three p’s:” the preaching, performance and presentation of our Divine Services, and to do so as close to perfect as possible, striving to make real the audacious claim that our Church is the very presence of the Kingdom of God, here on Earth. To this end, I spend much time in preparation of the Sunday Homily, working hard to give you a worthy reflection on the Divine Words we hear in the readings of the Epistle and Gospel. If my homilies are longer than you may be accustomed to or would prefer, take some measure of comfort that several minutes of oratory end up on the cutting room floor each week! Our Liturgical Choir and our Byzantine Choir both practice regularly now, and we were blessed this year with the promotion of Donna Hattem to full-status as a Choir Director, as is appropriate given her remarkable musical abilities and decades of service as Assistant Choir Director. She now joins her long-time teacher and friend in sharing the duties of the Choir Director, and we are blessed by their combined talents.
My belief that we have made progress in these efforts to offer worship fitting to our good and loving God was confirmed recently, when a recent visitor sent the following email. He writes:
“I worshiped at your church this past Sunday morning and wish to pass along how impressed I was with your parish. The temple is magnificent. The choir is angelic, your homily was spot on, and the congregants appeared pious — not to mention how well-behaved the children were. Like St Vladimir’s emissaries, I knew not whether I was in heaven or on earth!”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the experience of Orthodox worship that perhaps we take for granted is what this world is starving for. Besides the desire to offer perfect worship to our perfect God, this witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God, right here on East Paris Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan is why we must continue to strive to be worthy of our high calling as an Orthodox Christian Parish.
It’s also why we must repent of the worst of our habits which tarnish this witness, the chief among which remains our communal blasphemous tardiness, especially to the Sunday Divine Liturgy. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it’s wrong. It’s disrespectful to God and each other, and it denies the very witness we are striving so hard to make. Some of us have worked hard on stopping what has been a weekly-repeating insult to our good and loving God, which has gone on for years. It’s time for everyone, every single one of us, to commit to this simple goal. We as a community summon our God to come down from “heaven’s holy heights” each week at 10 AM. When He does, let’s resolve to not treat Him as if He is below us, but instead, let’s be respectfully in our places, ready to add our personal “Amen” to the communal proclamation that begins each Liturgy, that “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In spite of the work of the Convention, in 2019 we continued to gather in our various Fellowship Groups to be a support to each other in the various phases and situations of our life. These groups that span from our teens in SOYO, our Young Adults, the Women and Men of St. Nicholas and of course, our Forerunners, all provide their members the support of their peers while also working in conjunction with our various ministries to unite those within each group to others in the parish. Some would argue that we segregate ourselves when we gather in these peer groups, but even a cursory review of what these groups have done would bear testimony that they serve as both appreciated mutual support for their members and the means to connect to the wider Parish and the community beyond. Please join me in thanking all of the leaders of our fellowship groups for their selfless service in facilitation of the relationships that their members enjoy.
In tangible and measurable ways, just as we increased our love for each other, we also worked harder this past year to better love the neighbors God has placed around us: from our neighbors down the street in the Camelot neighborhood, to the foster care kids throughout Grand Rapids who opened presents on Christmas morning, to the residents gathered together on the other side of town by the Shepherds of Independence, as well as the victims of tragedies around the world who were the recipients of our generosity and love. All of our ministry team leaders are owed our appreciation for all the sacrifices they make to accomplish their holy work, both within our Parish and in the community-at-large.