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. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros 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 by Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
Create in me a clean heart, o God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
The end of our unit on a thankful heart comes as we conclude the feast of Epiphany. (Tomorrow we will resume the unit on “The Heart of Encouragement” that we suspended at the beginning of the pandemic last March.)
Our natural inclination is toward the good. If a person came out of the womb and was given no instruction at all, their natural inclination would be towards doing what is good. A thankful heart is a good thing, and it is a natural thing. Every bad thing we do is a learned behavior. We are bad by nurture, not by nature.
Today’s verse is one of my favorites from the Bible and we reflect on it once or twice a year on the Prayer Team, because it provides a good reminder, as well as being a good prayer in itself. King David wrote this Psalm after committing adultery and being complicit in murder. (yes, and he is still in the line of genealogy to Christ, and is commemorated as a righteous person, the Sunday after the Nativity). He thought that his failures would forever estrange him from God. He asked God to create in him a clean heart and to put a new and right spirit within him. Actually, he should have used the words “Re-Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” Because we are created with clean hearts and right spirits.
I read a book several years ago entitled “My One Word.” It was about how the power of one word can change your year. The book pointed out that many people make long lists of New Year’s Resolutions that they don’t keep or even remember. And the author challenged the reader to choose one word to define the year. Each year, I encourage my parishioners to choose a word to define their year. In years past, I have chosen words for myself like “time” and “thankful”. Each year, I choose a word for our parish, to define and shape our year. For 2021, the word is “Renew.”
The pandemic set us back in many ways. Church attendance went down. Programs were curtailed. Social events were cancelled. Zoom replaced in person. (Of course, not all was bad in my parish. We set records for most services offered in a year and most dollars given away to charitable causes and those are two excellent things.)
As we hopefully move out of the pandemic this year, the goal is not going to be to re-create what we do, but renew ourselves in our commitment to it. The Orthodox faith is not going to change as a result of the pandemic. Neither will the Divine Liturgy. Neither will the purpose of the church or the path to salvation for each of us. We don’t have to re-create any of these things, only renew them.
There are two points to leave you with as we finish this unit on A Thankful Heart. The first is a challenge to you, even though we are almost two weeks into the new year, to choose a word that you want to define your year 2021. My word for 2021 is “health.” My goal is to focus on my overall health—my physical health, my mental health, my spiritual health, the health of relationships, a healthy balance between work and family, between work and leisure, I even hope to grow a more healthy lawn at my house. Choose a word that you want to define your year. The good thing about the one-word concept is that it is easy to remember your one word. We might not remember a list of resolutions but we can check in with one word. Choose a word, write it down, write down some goals related to your one word, and check in with your word on a daily basis.
The second point to leave you with is encouragement to have a thankful heart this year. We know that the first sin of the human race was greed, caused by a heart that wasn’t thankful. On the recent feast of Theophany, we reflected on how Christ re-consecrated the creation when He stepped into the Jordan River, and how Theophany offers us a perfect opportunity to re-consecrate ourselves as children of God. And the first step in doing this is to approach God again with a thankful heart. If gratitude has been part of your daily life, keep coming to God in gratitude. If it hasn’t, then start today. Remember that the manifestation of gratitude is outward acts of thanksgiving. We can be grateful but not thankful, remember the ten lepers. All were happy to be healed. Only one came back in thanksgiving. So, be grateful in heart, but be thankful in work. Gratitude meets the first commandment, to love God with a grateful heart. Thanksgiving fulfills the second commandment, which is to love your neighbor as yourself.
The Jordan River reversed its flow out of sense of respect, awe and fear as the fire of the Godhead, Christ, touched the water. Christ touches us in so many ways—in Holy Communion, in small miracles, even in something is mundane as waking up today. Like the Jordan River, let us chart a new course that points to Christ, by working to make our hearts and our lives thankful, and making these a priority. We’ve just begun a new year. However, we don’t need a special occasion to be thankful. Make gratitude part of every day and any day, and if you haven’t thanked God yet, or haven’t thanked Him in a while, start today. If you haven’t manifested your thanksgiving with a gesture of love towards someone else in a while, start today.
Be thankful for what you have. Show your gratitude by offering thanks to God through acts of service to others.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is He that made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him, bless His name! For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations. Amen. (Psalm 100)
Make gratitude and thanksgiving important parts of your life on a daily basis. There isn’t a moment of life when our hearts are not beating. Make sure that yours beats in a rhythm that is thankful. Make this year the year you renew the THANKFUL HEART with which God created you!