This address was given by Fr. Daniel at the Annual Meeting on Sunday, January 10.
I want to begin by giving thanks. Thanks be to God for His love for us, and the mercy He always shows us. Thanks be to God for this church - this community of people, and this place of worship that He’s provided us with. Thanks be to God for our Holy Orthodox Faith, and for making every human being in His image. Truly, human beings - all of them created to be our brothers and sisters - are the greatest resource on this planet, and our Holy Faith is what God has established to bind us all together, and to unite us with Him. Thanks be to God for making a way for us to the Heavenly Kingdom, which is our true homeland, the “homeland of our heart’s desire.” This way, of course, is the way of Christ coming into the world, being born, and baptized and dying on the Cross and rising again from the dead in order to unite us with the One God in Three Persons.
I also thank God for all of you. God is good to me through you. There’s an old saying that the people get the priest they deserve. And I’ve heard it said that the priest gets the people he deserves. Well in this case, clearly you deserve better, but thank you for putting up with me. And I have much better than I deserve, and so I am very thankful to God.
Along with my gratitude for each of you, I want to mention how deeply indebted I am to our very good parish council officers and members, our choir and our chanters and readers, Sunday school teachers, altar servers, handmaidens, our ladies group, and our men’s group, our prosphora bakers and food preparers, our greeters and cleaners, and other volunteers. I’m thankful to now have a deacon serving with me. And I’m deeply grateful for the best Presvytera in the world.
We've seen many blessings as a church community over the 20 years since St. Nicholas began, far too many to mention them all. But just to point out a few milestones along the way: we’ve bought this property and built this building, we’ve had our holy table consecrated and beautifully furnished the church, we’ve chipped away at the mortgage and come to the point where we can look forward to our next building project, we’ve grown in numbers and used our time, talents, and treasures to accomplish many things, both within our church community and beyond.
These are concrete milestones that are easy to identify. There are other things that are harder to see that are even more significant in our parish life, because they are spiritual realities. Even I as your priest am not aware of all that goes on spiritually - God alone knows exactly what spiritual progress we’ve made as a community and individually. What I can say is that God is at work in our midst. Christ is here: we partake of His Body and Blood; the Holy Spirit - the Comforter - comes at each service as we ask Him to be present; the Heavenly Father showers His mercy and compassion upon us continually. People confess their sins and receive the priceless gift of forgiveness; people pray from the depths of their souls in the midst of their sufferings, and their prayers are heard. I know these things go on; I also know that even more spiritual blessings - far more spiritual blessings - are available to us.
And here I come to the heart of what I want to say today. In the Orthodox Christian Faith, we have the greatest treasure there is. And I think that sometimes we aren’t even aware of what a treasure we have. There’s no limit to the grace that can be ours in Christ. And there’s no limit to the space available in the Kingdom of Heaven. But I’m afraid we Christians sometimes forget those realities. Sometimes we forget about the glorious things in store for us. We can go through our days and not even think about the Kingdom of Heaven at all. We can meet and deal with people, and completely forget about how they are created to be children of the Kingdom.
Imagine being on a voyage in a ship, and forgetting about where you’re going. That might not be so bad if you’re just a passenger, along for the ride. But if you’re the captain or a crew member, and you’re supposed to be helping to steer the ship, that’s a problem.
Well, on this ship we’re all crew members. No one is just along for the ride. We’re all participants. We’re all called to be “saints.” Returning to today’s Epistle reading: God appoints pastors “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” I spoke in the sermon about maturing in Christ, and about the path of repentance. Now I want to say that we all bear the responsibility of growing and maturing spiritually, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of those around us as well.
This passage in Ephesians is saying that every one of us is called to ministry. Every one of us has a role to play. We’re all sailors on the ship, and not just passengers. My job as your priest and pastor is to help to “equip” you to do the work of ministry. What is your ministry, and to whom are you to minister? First of all, we minister to Christ; in other words, we serve Him. Along with that, we serve one another. And then, of course, we are called to minister to the world around us.
We have a mission, and we’re all working together to accomplish that mission. What is that mission? Well, first of all, in answering that we can take a look at our parish’s mission statement:
“St. Nicholas Orthodox Church is a community of the Holy Orthodox Church, committed to the worship of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, united in the Apostolic Faith and the sharing of this faith through prayer, teaching and in loving service to our neighbors and one another; emphasizing evangelism and outreach to the Ark-La-Tex area.”
Basically, our mission statement tells us that our priority is first to worship God, and then to grow together through godly fellowship, and then to reach out to the community around us, bearing witness to the love of Christ so that others are drawn to the true Faith. Our mission is clearly a spiritual one and clearly not the mission of a business or something. As nice as it is to have a balanced - or, even better, a surplus - budget, we have what we have in order to serve God and fulfill our mission. Our goal is not to make a profit. Our goal is the Kingdom of heaven.
We could also say our mission is to reach the kingdom of heaven. That is our destination. The mission statement is the basic plan for getting there. But the mission is to get to the Kingdom. And to take as many people there with us as possible.
When Fr. Gregory gave the retreat this past November, he called us to clarify and recommit ourselves to the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven as our goal or our destination, and to preparing ourselves for that destination. In the world, there’s always that danger of forgetting where we’re headed, of falling asleep spiritually. When you get out there in the sun, and the wind dies, and the waves are just sort of lulling you to sleep, it’s really hard to keep alert and keep focused. But we have to keep that focus. We have to think of it as life or death. Are we going to get to the Kingdom, which is our true home, or not? And we should have a desire to see others there, too. To rescue those who are just floating out there, maybe without hope even of finding their way to the true home. We have the responsibility of caring for them, too. But that begins with maturing ourselves, and taking our faith seriously ourselves, so that maybe we’ll have something to give to others.
So now, I want to ask you to take a step in the direction of maturity. I want to challenge you to reflect on what you can do personally, this next year and beyond, to mature spiritually. I said that repentance is the path, but concretely what are some ways that you can put this into effect in your life? Forgiving somebody in your life, or asking somebody for forgiveness? Confessing more often? Coming to services beyond Liturgy more often, like Vespers on Saturday evening? Reading scripture and lives of Saints more? Taking your prayer rule at home more seriously? Fasting more seriously?
And as you reflect on your own personal path to spiritual maturity, I also ask you to reflect on the path of our parish as a community towards greater maturity. In other words, how can we better direct our course towards our destination? How can we, as a community, further our mission to move towards the Kingdom, to prepare for it, and to help others move towards it and prepare for it?
I want to know your thoughts. This is not just a matter of simple feedback about what are your pet peeves that we should find solutions to. That’s fine, and sometimes we need to work on those kinds of things. But what I’m asking you right now is to share with me your dreams for St. Nicholas. How do you envision a positive future? What are the steps you would see us taking, not just to grow numerically or to have a bigger, better budget or something. If our goal is to get ourselves - all of us all together, and not only us here, but everyone in Shreveport - to the Kingdom, how do we advance towards that goal? How do we take responsibility for that? We are the bearers of the Holy Orthodox Faith in Shreveport, along with St. George and Holy Nativity. We have a treasure that we can’t not share. But how do we go about sharing it in a godly way?
Keep in mind that if we’re not growing spiritually, or in other words, if we’re not thoroughly familiar with that treasure of the Faith, we can’t share it very well. You can’t share what you don’t really have. So these two things - maturing ourselves and reaching out to others - are connected. So how can you grow, and how can our church community move towards the Kingdom while bearing witness so that others would find their way as well?
As an example, here are two things I often think about, as a priest here at St. Nicholas. One is the need to deepen in prayer. I need to deepen in my prayer life, and I believe as a community we need to deepen in prayer life. This would include specifically praying for God to give us greater love for others, and guide us towards the kind of outreach to others that would be pleasing to Him. We don’t want to spin our wheels doing things just to do them. We want to follow the Lord’s prompting. The other thing I think about often is building our temple. We have a lovely facility. But it’s not our final destination. Even when we build a temple it won’t be our final destination but it will be a very important step beyond where we are now. I believe that a beautiful Temple will draw people in, but when they come in, they’ll need to find a community deep in prayer in order to know that they’ve found the precious treasure they’ve been searching for.
Please take some time - I’m really begging you to do this - to sit down and write down some things to share with me from your heart. You can say, “This is how I need to grow, and this is how I think our church needs to grow.” I will be blessed and helped by being able to know what’s in your hearts. It may be a matter of teaching about something that would help you to understand or express your faith; it simply being encouraging you to take certain steps in your life. It may involve things that we could do as a community that would help us all. I want to know what’s in your hearts. And you will be helping me to help equip you, for your ministry.
Finally I ask for your forgiveness for my shortcomings. I ask you to pray for me, to pray for one another, and to pray for God’s guidance on our journey together. May the Lord lead the way, and may we follow wherever He leads.