Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection, and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Isaiah 4:2
To thrive means to do well. To survive means to get through. It is certainly more preferable to thrive than to survive. After all, who wants to have just enough money to get by, or have a marriage that is barely holding on, or have a child who is barely passing their classes? In most areas of life, thriving is preferable to surviving. However, many times we have to focus on just surviving before we can thrive.
When I was nineteen years old, I was not in a good place at all. An injury to my elbow meant that I would never play competitive sports again. The injury had happened over time, but when I woke up one day with paralysis in my right arm, the prognosis for never playing sports again was decided in mere minutes. There was a serious surgery, a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation and the loss of something I enjoyed that helped boost a fragile self-esteem and all these things came crashing down on me at the same time. Now that I’m in my 40s, with the life experience I now have with setbacks and comebacks, I would probably handle that situation different if it happened now. It’s not like I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, but back then, as a 19-year-old, it was as if I had.
My thought patterns were not good. While people close to me were reassuring that I could still have a great life, and to be honest, I wasn’t great at sports anyway, it’s not like I was going to make a career in athletics, I didn’t see it that way at that moment. In one of my lower moments, I made an appointment to see my priest. I figured it couldn’t hurt. I went to see him one afternoon, told him about my situation, that I was profoundly sad, that I didn’t see what good was going to come out of my situation, I wondered where God was, and I wondered loudly, “why me?!”
Despite the fact that I went to church every Sunday and was still serving in the altar faithfully at age 19 (and was having thoughts about the priesthood), I couldn’t really tell him that my relationship with Christ was very strong. It was very surface. Other than a children’s Bible my parents used to read to us when we were kids, I had never really read the Bible. Daily prayer was not part of my life. I had gone to confession once when I was 9, so that didn’t really count. And an attitude of “I am a victim here” really prohibited a joyful relationship with the Lord.
The priest offered some advice and encouragement. He suggested I go for confession, which I said I’d have to think about. He suggested how I could start reading the Bible. He gave me some prayers to offer each day and he gave me a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and told me to read it. I must confess that I left his office a little frustrated. I had gone in expecting empathy and validation and instead I got homework. I even told myself that this priest’s advice was not going to work. However, I decided to take his advice, to the things he asked me to do and then go back in 30 days as he asked and tell him that his advice didn’t work.
When I opened the book he had given me, inside the front cover, he had written a few words that have stuck with me to this day: Stop being a victim and start being a survivor. God does not want victims, He wants survivors.
I read the book and it had a profound impact on me. I started praying and reading the Bible. I went back to his office thirty days later and had my first confession. And I can safely say now that that encounter at age 19 changed my life. It certainly changed my attitude. I began to think of myself more as a survivor than as a victim. And I began to think more about how to survive things than become a victim to them. I stopped being afraid of setbacks—that doesn’t mean I like them—I just honed a survival instinct rather than one of being a victim when it comes to setbacks.
The encounter with this priest really helped propel me to the priesthood. Up to that point in my life, the priesthood was about services and vestments. In this moment, he showed me that the priesthood is about people and that a priest could have an impact on someone’s life by just being there and offering encouragement. When I thought about the priesthood, it was no longer just about what it would be like to celebrate the Liturgy but what it would be like to do for others what he had done for me. Now, nearly thirty years later, I thank God for that low moment in my life, because it prepared me to work with people in their low moments. And I approach people in their low moments with the same advice (and sometimes the same book) that my priest gave me back in 1991: Don’t be a victim, be a survivor. When it’s not possible to thrive, focus on survival. Of course, once one is comfortably at the survival stage, then it is time to focus on thriving.
When I Thessalonians 5:14 tells us to “encourage the fainthearted” one way to do that is to encourage them to be survivors and not victims. There are some challenges in life that cannot be overcome—that could be a financial situation or a health diagnosis or a learning disability or many other things. So to tell someone to overcome something that cannot be overcome is not helpful. However, to encourage someone to be a survivor, to somehow survive the things that cannot be overcome, rather than putting up the victim flag, is helpful, genuine and actually possible. There are some things in life that won’t allow us to thrive—a diagnosis with a terminal illness is the first one that comes to mind. But we can survive, spiritually, anything that comes our way. And that is the goal, survival during life’s bleak moments, when we put our faith in trust in God, rather than being a victim of our circumstances.
Lord, thank You for the many blessings in my life (name a few of them). Please be with me in my challenges as well (name a few of them). Help me to thrive in my circumstances. And when that is not possible, give me the wisdom and the strength to just survive. Help me not to see myself as a victim but as a survivor of setbacks. Help me to encourage others to do the same. Bring someone into my path today who could use some encouragement. And bring someone into my path today who will encourage me. Amen.
I encourage you to be a survivor, not a victim, of whatever adverse circumstance you face today. And I encourage you to encourage others to do the same.
*In memory of Fr. James T. Adams, a priest whose advice back in 1991 changed my outlook and my life. I am forever grateful!
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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