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
This is the hardest message I’ve ever had to write. Going to the football analogy immediately, there isn’t a play in my priestly playbook for when the 22 year old son of two of my friends dies suddenly of what to say to make it all better. Because nothing I’m going to say can do that. Last night we had an unbelievable outpouring of so many things. The sheer number of people who came to share their love and affection for Nicholas and for Chris and Debbie was incredible. I’ve done funerals where ten people came and I went away sad that someone had lived for so long and affected so few. There were hundreds and hundreds of people here last night—the line wrapped around the block, of people whose lives Nicholas has affected in some way. We heard moving tributes to him from people that knew him best, from people whose lives he impacted. I was moved by the words of his coaches, two men who adopted Nicholas like their own son for the last 8 years of his life, two men who shed tears not only because Nicholas was a great player for them, but because he was a great person. If we had opened the microphone and let everyone come up here and speak, we would have been here all night listening to stories about how Nicholas brightened our world, made us laugh, messed with us, how we was courteous and kind, how he was both a leader and a servant, how he could light up a room just by coming into it. We could watch game film and see an accomplished athlete in two sports, someone who loved to win, but even more than winning, he just loved to play. The video montage playing in the corner showed many sides to Nicholas—it wasn’t just sports. There were pictures of family. Two loving parents. A wonderful brother. A huge family. There were diverse experiences—hunting, fishing, traveling. And there was a beautiful smile in every picture. It didn’t matter the situation, the common denominator to all those pictures is a smile. I don’t know that I ever saw Nicholas without a smile on his face. And when I remember him in the years to come, my mental picture of him will always be with a smile.
Last night when we were all done, I sat in church alone. I felt confused, like I had had an out of body experience. Was I having a bad dream? For surely I didn’t just do what I did. Surely I could not have actually done a memorial service for Nicholas Kavouklis! I feel certain that most of us left last night, and who are here this morning, are feeling the same way. This just can’t be—not our little boy, not our star player, not our friend, not the young man who was always smiling.
The theme of this morning’s message is truth. Separating what if’s for what is. There is a lot of pain in truth. But when you mix in the Lord, there is also a lot of hope. Again, this is the hardest message I’ve ever had to deliver—how to do justice to the truth. Last night, we did justice to the truth of Nicholas’ life. Today we must do justice to the truth of his passing.
Early yesterday morning, I returned to Tampa from a one day trip to South Carolina. I usually travel in black clothes that identify me as a priest. Because my trip was to our summer camp and I spent the day outside doing physical work, I had traveled in a t-shirt and shorts. I took a pair of flip-flops with me to wear on the plane ride home. Because the plane was cold, I wore white socks under my flip flops. I don’t like wearing hats, but I have to wear a hat outside to cover my bald head, so I wear my hat backwards and then I feel like I’m not wearing one. I couldn’t sleep on the plane, so to pass the time, I put earbuds in my ears and listened to music streaming through my phone, something I rarely do. And I had no luggage, just a backpack, as I strolled through the airport, surrounded by the hundreds of people who had been on the plane with me. As I was walking, I thought of two things. I thought of Nicholas, hat backwards, earbuds in, and wondered how many airports he walked through in all of his travels playing sports. I thought of all the places he went and all the things he did. The second thing I thought of was that I’m no longer a young man. Many of the people on the plane were my age, returning home in their business suits from important meetings. They probably thought I looked ridiculous, like one of their teenage sons, rather than a middle aged man. Perhaps they cast a look of judgment at me, that I look like some arrested development teenager or just a thug. I thought to myself, these people have no idea who I am, or what I’ll be doing tomorrow. They have no idea about the pain I am carrying. They are not asking, and I am not telling. I’m not talking to them, and they aren’t talking to me. And I thought about Nicholas, and how it’s actually possible to move through a crowd of people, even people we know, and be lost in thoughts that are known only to us. It’s possible, I just did it. That is truth.
I remember a movie I saw when I was a boy. I was fascinated with history and this movie was about kids who grew up in Nazi Germany. A man and his wife were living in a small town. They were Jewish. Their neighbors were Germans. When the news reports came out that in the big cities German kids were killing their Jewish neighbors, the wife said to her husband, “we need to leave this country before this happens to us.” The husband reassured his wife, “It couldn’t happen here. We don’t live in a big city. We live in a small town. We are all family here. It couldn’t happen here.” And then it did, their neighbors did end up killing their kids. It couldn’t happen here—that line of the movie has always stuck with me. It doesn’t happen in our town—it happens in the big cities. It doesn’t happen to good people, it happens to the marginal ones. It doesn’t happen to the kids who are always smiling. Until it does. Until it did. To Chris and Debbie. To our Nicholas. That is truth.
God is good. That is also truth. We read in James 1:17, “For every good and perfect gift is from Above.” That means, if it is good, its source is from God. And if it’s not good, it’s not from God. Nicholas had a God-given ability to play sports. Not everyone has that. God blesses certain people to be leaders, and other He blesses to be followers. Nicholas was the former. God gives certain people talents with their hands, and others with their minds, some are good organizers and some are good executors of the things others have organized. Some are builders and others are writers. Some do their talking with their mouths and others say little with their mouths and do their talking with their hands. Nicholas had so many gifts and brought us so many happy memories. These good and perfect gifts came from God. He blessed Nicholas, and He blessed us with Nicholas. That is truth.
There is no human being who doesn’t ever have an irrational thought. We have them every day. Those thoughts do not come from God. They come from us. We have fears that are irrational. We think of actions that are irrational. There is no human being who hasn’t ever acted on an irrational thought—we’ve all thought of stupid things, and instead of leaving it at the thinking stage, we’ve all said the stupid thing or done the stupid thing we were thinking. We’ve all done that. We all do that. Those thoughts are never Godly thoughts. I’ve never exaggerated thoughts about God—that He’s too good, or too powerful or too anything. But I have exaggerated thoughts about myself and sometimes those thoughts have become exaggerated actions that aren’t really me, they don’t reflect who I really am. We all do that. I have always believed that under the wrong set of circumstances, anyone is capable of doing just about anything. Outside of a speeding ticket many years ago, I’ve never broken the law. I can’t imagine walking into a store and stealing something. However, if I found myself without food, I just might rob a store. If the wrong set of circumstances creates a perfect storm around us, there is nobody who is immune from doing something that is out of character for them. That is truth.
Psalm 103 speaks of God’s mercy—“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. . .As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.
The funeral service we just offered is a combination of reality and comfort. No one is without sin. But no one is cut off from God’s mercy. The service is a dialogue between us and God on behalf of Nicholas. And those things that were offered in the first person, were offered as if Nicholas was saying them to God: I am the sheep that is lost, O Savior, call me back and save me. Have mercy on me, O God.
We sang the hymn “Christ is Risen” many times, an affirmation of the basic thing we believe as Christians. Because Christ Himself laid in the grave and rose from the dead, we too, through His mercies, can do the same thing.
The Gospel lesson from John Chapter 5, tells us that “those who have done good will go to the Resurrection of life.” Though it is not part of the funeral service, Romans 8: 38-39 reads: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is truth. For Chris and Debbie, for us, and for Nicholas.
This is hard. That is truth. There is no harder day in the life of a parent, a brother, a friend, a priest, or a community than today. We grieve. And we grieve hard. We know that the Lord Himself was grieving, when His friend Lazarus died. Even the Son of God was crying for His friend. So today we cry for Nicholas. And that’s okay. Because Christ is right here crying with us. The angels in heaven are crying with us. In the Epistle lesson we heard, St. Paul talks to us about grief. He tells us “do not be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (I Thessalonians 4:13) This verse does not tell us that we are not to grieve. It tells us that we are not to grieve as the others, the ones who have no hope. So grieve. Cry. We need to do that a lot and will need to do that a lot in the days and weeks to come. But don’t grieve without hope.
Tomorrow at the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel lesson will be the story of the healing of a blind man. It begins like this: “At that time, as Jesus passed by, He saw a man blind from His birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him.” (John 9: 1-3) And here is the proverbial question, why do bad things happen to good people? This is not the fault of Chris and Debbie, for sure. I will forever believe that we are equal sharers in an imperfect nature. Imagine for a moment that everyone in this church is perfect. We are breathing perfect air, and even enjoying perfect conversation. Then someone comes in here and sprays an enormous amount of aerosol. We would not have changed, but the air would have. And some of us would sneeze, others would cough, others would get watery eyes and others would get a headache. We all are different people, but we all share the same imperfect nature. It just gets to us in a different way. That’s why different people react to the same thing in a different way. We share the same nature, but its consequences are different for each person. Why do bad things happen? Some are because of bad choices. Some are the consequences of the bad choices of others. And some are just because we are equal sharers in an imperfect nature which will affect each of us in a different way. That is truth.
We know that God can bring anything good out of even a bad situation. And some good is going to come out of this. We don’t know what it is today. And we may not know for a long time. Hear is a beautiful analogy I came across in reading the other day. We’ve all seen embroidered tapestries. Beautiful carpets, elaborate needlepoints. Have you ever looked at the underside of a beautiful tapestry? It is a bunch of threads and knots and looks ugly. Imagine if you looked at the ugly side first, you came first upon the underside of the tapestry. Your first thought would be, “This is ugly,” and then if someone told you, “flip it over,” you’d see that this ugly thing was actually beautiful. My most fervent prayer today is a prayer of comfort for Chris and Debbie and James and all who have been affected by this awful thing that has happened. My second prayer is that this awful thing, this chaotic view of the tapestry of your life and of our community can be flipped into something that is beautiful. I pray that something good can come out of this.
There are many ideas, but here is one we can all do. Remember my story of walking in the airport the other night? How can that story be different? First, we can all do a better job of not judging what we don’t know. No one knew my story the other night, so no one should have been judging me. Second, we can all do a better job of taking out our earbuds. The other night, I isolated myself from the crowd. They didn’t give me a chance and talk to me, and I didn’t give them a chance either. We need to stop living in isolation and start living in community. No, I was not solitary the other night. There were hundreds of people around me. But I was isolated. Nicholas was not solitary, but on the last day of his life he was isolated. We need to do a better job, all of us, at making sure no one is isolated, even for one day. Encourage others. Notice others. Talk to others. And if you don’t know the others, smile at them, hold the door open, do something that is positive. There are lessons to be learned. Something good is going to come out of this. Nicholas didn’t waste his twenty-two years. He did a lot with them. He accomplished a lot in them. He affected many people in a positive way throughout them. So let us take our wonderful memories of this awesome young man that we knew for twenty two years and let’s do something constructive with them. When we sing “May his memory be eternal,” this is exactly what it means—let’s do something constructive to keep Nicholas’ memory eternal. I wish we could bring him back. But we can’t. What we can do is keep his spirit, his smile, his drive, we can keep those alive in how we treat others going forward. We can flip the tapestry of confusion and sadness that we feel today into a beautiful tapestry of love and caring tomorrow. That is truth.
Last Sunday in my sermon, the theme was be part of the solution, or part of the problem. There is no one who is THE solution or THE problem. But we all contribute daily to one of the two. In all that we choose to do, we can choose to be part of the solution, or part of the problem. So ask yourself, as you make your decisions each day, is what I am doing or about to do part of the solution or part of the problem, for myself, for the person I am doing something to, and for the greater community in which I am living.
Chris and Debbie, you carry the hardest burden. When you walk out of here today, I want you to walk out with your heads high. You are excellent parents. You are devoted Christians. You are dear friends. You are decent people. I think at this moment about words from the book of Job. Job had been a rich and successful man, with beautiful children, a beautiful wife, and lots of possessions. Satan came to God and essentially told God, Job only loves You because You have been good to him. Take away all that he has and he will surely curse You. God then allowed Satan to take away the things that Job held so dear, including Job’s children. This all happens in the first chapter of the 42 chapters that comprise the book of Job. In Job 1: 20-22, we read: Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground and worshipped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. The next 40 chapters of the book of Job is Job’s lament. Job cried and he cried a lot. And it’s only at the end of the book, in Chapter 42, that we read that God blessed Job more than any other person who had ever lived, because Job was patient in his sufferings and steadfast in his faith. Chris and Debbie, you find yourself in the unenviable position of Job. It was not your choice, just like it wasn’t his. You can cry through the next forty chapters of your life, and you probably will. But please stay with God, even when it’s hard. And focus on Chapter 42—that there is a reward for those who stay with it. This is truth. Chris and Debbie, I’m sorry for your loss. I truly am. I am a parent. Our child is young. There but by the grace of God goes any of us. If it can happen to you and your beautiful family, none of us are immune.
James, you are a wonderful young man. Nicholas loved you. You have athletic ability that will probably exceed his. You have already passed him in height. You don’t have to live your life for the both of you. You live your own life. But live it with purpose. Your brother will not be remembered for only his success on the field, but for his kindness off of it. Enjoy sports, and know that you would have beaten your brother at all of them eventually. But work now to equal him in kindness. Smile. Embrace others as he did. You will have a lot of grief, I know that. But work to turn that grief not into something you ignore, but into something that will drive you in a good way to do good things. James, your brother loved you. And I know you loved him. And I’m truly sorry that he is not here with you and with us.
To the rest of the Kavouklis family—aunts, uncles, cousins—I know your loss is big. This is a big blow. This is a time for family pride—pride in Nicholas’ life, and pride in yourselves, to stand tall and to move forward, with unity, with purpose, and with dignity. I am very sorry for your loss.
To the rest of us in church today, there is work for us to do—please continue to be present for Chris and Debbie. You don’t have to come up with answers—there aren’t any. Just be present. Many of us will be healing in the days and weeks to come. Chris and Debbie and James won’t heal for a long time. Continue to be with them, listen to them, cry with them, just be present. There is no need to gossip about anything, that’s not going to help anything. That is truth. We can all choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Let’s all choose to be part of the solution—whether that is holding our children tighter, having a more attentive ear, not being so quick to judge, or just looking for the guy walking around with the earbuds and making sure he’s okay. There is GREAT power in encouragement. No one get enough of it. It’s something we all need. It’s something we can all give. There is way more negativity than encouragement in the world. That is truth. The ratio of encouragement to discouragement needs to be 5 encouraging things for every discouraging thing we hear to be in balance. That is truth. So, let us all do our part to say and do things that are encouraging, to restore the balance that none of us has. This is something we can all do.
I know we are sad and we are confused. That is truth. I know that God is great. That is truth. And I know that God can bring something good out of this. That is truth. Psalm 61:-2 offers this prayer: “Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that it higher than I.”
I want you to leave this church today with two thoughts—First, Nicholas was a great young man, and our lives are all better for knowing him. I will remember his smile and I will remember him in a good way. And secondly, I will do something to honor his memory. If the hundreds who are present today commit to honoring him in some way, then a lot of good will continue to come from his life.
I will close my remarks this morning by reading Psalm 34:
I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall glory in the Lord; let the gentle hear, and be glad. Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together. I sought the Lord, and He heard me; and He delivered me from all my trials. Come to Him, and be enlightened, and your face shall never be ashamed. This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him from all his afflictions. The Angel of the Lord shall encamp around those who fear Him, and He will deliver them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who hopes in Him. Fear the Lord, you His saints, for there is no want for those who fear Him. The wealthy have become poor and gone hungry, but those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing. Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Who is the man who desires life, who loves to see good days? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Shun evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and His ears are open to their supplications. The Lord’s face is against those who do evil, so as to destroy their remembrance from the earth. The righteous cried, and the Lord heard them; and He delivered them from all their afflictions. The Lord is near those who are brokenhearted, and He will save the humble in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but He will deliver them from them all. The Lord shall guard all their bones; not one of them shall be broken. The death of sinners is painful, and those who hate the righteous shall be damned. The Lord will redeem the souls of His servants, and all who hope in Him shall not be lost.
May your memory be eternal dear Nicholas—our son, our brother, our teammate, our friend—for you are worthy of blessedness and everlasting memory. And may God grant us strength as we grieve you, inspiration as we remember you, and purpose as we continue on. Amen.