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.
I have received several requests to reprint last Sunday’s sermon (August 4), which is about how we live somewhere between the majesty of God and times when God feels absent. We will have some unconnected reflections (but there will still be a daily reflection) the next 10 days, with a new unit starting on August 19.
On our recent vacation to Montana, we had the opportunity to travel to Wyoming and Montana, to places where there is a lot of natural beauty, and thankfully not a lot of people. It was nice to unplug and to enjoy some needed family time and just plain time off. One day, we were hiking up a trail near the Continental Divide, above the tree line, where there was still snow on the ground amidst the rocks and tundra like earth. Because the trail was narrow, we often walked single file, unable to really speak. And so I had some time to just be alone with my thoughts. As I was seeing big horned sheep, goats and other animals in their natural habitat (and sometimes alarmingly close to us), amidst wonderful vistas of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and beautiful natural color, my mind drifted to the words of Psalm 104, which is sometimes called the Psalm of Creation:
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers. He made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows it’s time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all.
It is always an amazing thing to experience nature in its fullest sense—how everything just seems to fit. I continually thought of the majesty of God—that there must be a God because no way can all of this stuff happen purely by accident. It is by a divine design that the earth is as it is. I definitely felt small and insignificant beholding His handiwork. Going out into nature is, for me at least, a faith-building experience. Just seeing the creation bolstered my faith. A faith experience is definitely a high in the Christian life.
Of course, there is another side to the Christian life, the rough parts of life that still affect even the most devout of Christians, when everything seems to be going wrong, when God feels distant, and we wonder if He is really there at all. Most of us do not spend as much time as we should be reading the Bible. Permit me a few moments to read the first chapter from the book of Job:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was true, blameless, righteous, and God-fearing, and he abstained from every evil thing. Now he had seven sons and three daughters, and his cattle consisted of seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses in the pastures. Moreover, he possessed a very large number of house servants. His works were also great on the earth, and that man was the most noble of all the men of the East. His sons would visit one another and prepare a banquet every day, and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When the days of their drinking were ended, Job sent and purified them; and he rose early in the morning and offered sacrifices for them according to their number, as well as one calf for the sins of their souls. For Job said, “Lest my sons consider evil things in their mind against God.” Therefore, Job did this continually. Then as it so happened one day that behold, the angels of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and the devil also came with them. The Lord said to the devil, “Where did you come from?” So the devil answered the Lord and said, “I came here after going about the earth and walking around under heaven.” Then the Lord said to him, “Have you yet considered my servant Job, since there is none like him on the earth: a blameless, true, and God-fearing man, and one who abstains from every evil thing?” So the devil answered and said before the Lord, “Does Job worship the Lord for no reason? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his cattle have increased in the land. But stretch out Your hand and touch all he has, and see if he will bless You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to the devil, “Behold, whatever he has I give into your hand; but do not touch him.” Thus the devil went out from the Lord.
Now there was a day when Job’s sons and daughters were drinking wine in the house of their elder brother, and behold, a messenger came to Job and said, “The yokes of oxen were plowing, and the she-asses were feeding beside them. Then raiders came and took them captive and killed the servants with the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said to Job, “Fire fell from heaven and burned up the sheep, and likewise consumed the shepherds; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “Horsemen formed three bands against us, surrounded the camels, took them captive, and killed the servants with the sword. I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine with their elder brother, and suddenly a great wind came from the desert and struck the four corners of the house; and it fell on your children, and they died; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved off the hair of his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all these things that happened, Job did not sin against the Lord or charge God with wrong.
Now, for sure Job is a better man than I. I’d like to think that I would have his faith and his patience. I can’t say that if half of the things that happened to Job happened to me, that I wouldn’t fall away from God. I hope I never find out. It is very easy to say that I would be steadfast like Job, but the truth of the matter is, my faith has never been tested like his faith. My faith has been tested, for sure, but not like his.
There are times in my life that I feel as I did on vacation—I’m just a small part of God’s vast creation. That there must be a God because only someone greater than us could have created all of this natural beauty. And there are times I feel like Job—everything is going wrong, it’s one bad thing after another, there is no break, there is no joy, and I confess I sometimes wonder is there even a God? I have wondered that in my life. I have wondered that even as a priest. There are times I have celebrated the Liturgy pondering on this question—is there a God, and if there is, why does He feel so distant from me? There are times I have wanted to stay away from church, where I have not had the desire to receive Holy Communion, when, I confess, I have come because this is not only a calling but it is a job, I had to be here.
Most of my life, I sit in the middle of two extremes—I don’t feel the awe of God from my recent vacation, nor do I feel the despair of Job. I am somewhere in the middle. I confess that for much of my life, I do feel closer to Job than to the majesty of God.
Which brings me to a third quote, this from, this from the second prayer of Holy Unction:
O God, great and supreme, worshipped by all creation, fountainhead of wisdom, abyss of unfathomable goodness, and boundless gulf of loving-kindness; Master Who loves mankind, the God of things eternal and of wonders, Whom no man by reason alone can comprehend.
I know there is a God. I know that He is great and supreme, I know that on some very deep level. I know that He loves people. I know that He loves me. I know that He has blessed me with gifts and talents. I also know that He has allowed me to struggle and have deficiencies as well. And I know that no matter how intelligent I think I am, no matter what I do, no matter what I know, that I will never be able to comprehend Him, because He is God, and I am not. Which means that there are complicated and complex things in life that elude my grasp. There are hardships and challenges that I just don’t understand. There are bad things that happen to other people and bad things that happen to me, and I wonder: Why? Why the tragedies that have happened in our parish the past 15 years I have served here? Why another tragedy in Texas yesterday? And in Dayton this morning?
And this is where faith comes in. Faith is not fully knowing or fully comprehending, but still believing. There are two aspects to faith: Showing up, and growing. There are times when I feel God’s presence very strongly, where I am very motivated to grow. These are the times when I take big strides in my faith and in my journey to salvation. And there are times when I feel that God is absent, or at very least distant, when I am not particularly motivated to believe, or to grow. If I’ve done anything right in my life, I’ve continued to show up. My Spiritual Father says that 80% of life is about showing up. One can show up and not grow, but one cannot grow without showing up. And I don’t mean just showing up for church, I mean showing up for God—being obedient to His commandments, praying, making some effort to love and to serve.
When life gets hard and when unspeakable tragedy strikes, it takes a person of strong faith to keep moving forward. But I am going to humbly suggest that it isn’t necessary to keep moving forward at all times. It is necessary to show up though. It is necessary to tread water in the faith, even if we can’t swim strongly towards God. It is necessary to eventually move forward in the faith, but on a given day one doesn’t have to make great strides. It’s like showing up for school or for a job—each day isn’t going to have a breakthrough—we know that. But there won’t be any breakthrough if we stay at home. So we show up, and on many days we have breakthroughs, and on many more, we just go through the motions, thinking we haven’t really accomplished anything, which sometimes is true, and sometimes we’ve actually accomplished something without even realizing it.
I know there will never be a day that I will be able to say “I have it all together” as far as my Christianity goes. That is neither fatalistic or pietistic. It is true. I will never master God. I can grow in faith, I can allow Him to grow in me, but I will never master Him, nor will I ever master faith. I will seek as many glimpses of Him as I can and hope to witness His majesty not just in the natural beauty I saw on vacation, but in the beauty of people and things that are part of my everyday life right here. There will be times in life that I will feel like Job, undoubtedly. I will have setbacks and tragedies, I hope and pray that they won’t be to the degree I have seen some of our parishioners suffer. I will keep showing up for God, and for others, even if all I can do on a particular day is just show up.
I know that there are people who are hurting in church today, as they are every Sunday—there are people who have suffered loss of a child, or a parent, or a spouse, or a job, or a dream. There are people who have a challenging health issue, a challenging marriage, a challenging child, a challenging job or a challenging financial situation. There are people who are feeling the majesty of God and people who are feeling the despair of Job and everything in between. There are people who are growing in faith and people who are just showing up. And all of that is fine. I’m glad you all showed up today.
There are two things we need to offer each other—one is encouragement. We read about that in the Epistle lesson of today, that encouragement gives us hope, and we have the ability to offer encouragement at any time to anybody. We need to learn how to give encouragement and we need to learn how to accept encouragement.
And the second thing we need to offer each other is grace—because what happens when I meet someone who is full of God’s majesty on the day that I am having the despair of Job? I can be angry at the person who is filled with God and lash out because I feel empty. And they can dismiss me as being a downer to their good feelings about God. When we give each other grace, to fill and complete the space between us, then I can be in the presence of God’s majesty, through another person even in my moments of despair, and the one who is filled with God will be patient during my moments of suffering and doubt, they will show up and not judge.
I’m going to close the sermon this morning with a fourth quote, this from a prayer we offer at every Divine Liturgy:
It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion: for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, you raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us.
Again, this prayer affirms that God is incomprehensible and beyond our understanding. It affirms that when we fall, He will raise us up again. He wants us to attain His Kingdom. And there are blessings, seen and unseen, known and unknown that He bestows upon us. The day Job lost everything, God gave him the blessing just to get through the day. God gave Him patience. He gave Job patience to endure everything that happened. And at the end of Job’s story, Job was rewarded more than any person who had ever lived. Because his faith had been tested as no man’s had ever been tested, and Job still showed up.
We can’t grow if we don’t show. Just because we show doesn’t guarantee we will grow. But faith starts off with a commitment to show up, not only when His majesty is obvious, but most especially when it isn’t. It didn’t take much faith to appreciate God when I was on vacation in Montana. I was surrounded by His majesty. It takes faith to believe in Him when I’m home and in the drudgery of everyday life.
Let’s focus on giving one another encouragement and grace—so that majesty can meet despair without judgment and despair can once again find majesty. Let’s keep making the journey together.
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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