Let's put God first !

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Let’s put God first !
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Winter 2000/2001]

For a great many years, our Archdiocese has been simply in “survival mode”. There were, in the earliest days up to World War I, many amazing developments. A hundred years ago, faithful people immigrated to Canada (the “first wave”), and built Temples to God’s glory everywhere – often before their own homes – even though it was difficult to find enough priests. Between the wars, when many more people were immigrating (the “second wave”), active bishops and more clergy helped to establish many communities. They also increased proper order in Church life. However, there were many decades of controversy to be lived through, in the wake of the Communist Revolution. After World War II, when again many people were immigrating (the “third wave”), for long periods, our archdiocese was without a resident bishop, and fewer clergy were available. Yet, even with these severe limitations, with God’s help, wonders were accomplished, as spiritual shepherds struggled to feed their sheep. Nonetheless, this was a period of decline, despite all efforts.

Our recently-departed Archbishop Sylvester (Haruns) served the archdiocese actively as bishop for twenty years, and almost another ten years in semi-retirement. For him and for us, those decades seem to have been the most difficult. Even so, despite the obstacles and set-backs, these years prove a valuable spiritual lesson, much like that of the popular and sentimental poem “Footsteps”. The Lord was, indeed, carrying us, as indeed He always somehow does. The particular boldness of Archbishop Sylvester in the last years of his activity, in blessing four new missions, opened the gate for a turn-about in general for the archdiocese, and for growth which lasts to this day.

We are still relatively small, however, and often unknown and misunderstood. Nevertheless, by God’s mercy we are being used as salt and yeast in Canada (see Matthew 5:13 ; 13:33). This is what is important : to be available and useful to the Lord.

Many of our faithful are not aware of the many important details of our history, and the reasons for our being as we are. Under “normal” circumstances, after all, a century of time ought logically to produce something more, especially since we are a part of the founding Church in this country and, indeed, on the continent. That we are ignorant or neglectful of our history is the main reason why we sometimes see repetitions of parts of our history. As the Syro-Roman Publilius Syrus said before 43 BC : “From the errors of others, a wise man corrects his own”. We must keep remembering and trying to understand how God worked in our past, in order to be able to understand and to co-operate now, as He works with us in ways not always clear to us.

One of the more difficult aspects of our lives as Orthodox Christians is that there are so many periods (some of them very long) when we seem not to be accomplishing much of anything. Day after day seems to be filled with sameness. Often this sameness is pain and/or depression. We may even feel that we are slipping backwards under the weight. We might begin to question God in our anguish. Ironically, we can still feel all this in the midst of an environment of relative prosperity !

Sometimes, perhaps often, the Lord will suddenly open a door or a window, and there is a great movement, a great rush of life. I like to say that at those moments one really needs jet-propelled roller skates. It is only the Lord Himself who knows when is the most opportune moment for such events to occur. How much of our life is spent in waiting and waiting, in enduring, in suffering, in struggling with various sorts of evil thoughts and doubts. Nevertheless, how important it is for us to remember always that it is in these moments of seeming inactivity that the Lord is often most active in our hearts – cleaning, repairing, putting things in order. We can see this, too, often enough in the lives of whole Orthodox peoples. Especially has this been so this century. Therefore, how much there is to give thanks for to the Lord ! I think that when we shall have learnt to give thanks in the times of struggle as well as in the times of great out-pourings, then we shall have taken some steps towards spiritual maturity.

In the light of all this, I want to give thanks to God for the love that has been and is being shown by the faithful in so many ways towards the bishop of this archdiocese. Especially, I want to give thanks to Him for how this love is revealed even in times when there are disagreements. It is because of our God-loving faithful people that our archdiocese has been able to take some steps towards financial stability. It is because of the generosity of our faithful people that the Archdiocesan Centre, Fair Havens, is now able to function almost like a normal bishop’s office and residence, at long last. It is because of the love and concern of our faithful people that the archdiocese has received two bequests which have also helped substantially in organising this stable foundation. One early one came from a faithful lay couple, and it enabled the founding of our three charitable funds, and the purchase of our centre. One recent one came from the bequest of a priest and his wife, and this bequest enabled the first serious development of an endowment for a future second bishop. Yet another recent gift from two living lay-persons is substantially increasing this fund. There are very many people who have contributed sacrificially of their time and abilities to ensure the stability of the foundation of our archdiocese. Glory be to God for all things ! Glory be to God, for past and future struggles, and for past and future Grace !

I also want to thank God for all the persons who offer sacrificially their gifts throughout their lives in all our parishes in order to build and to maintain Temples to God’s glory. They do this without fanfare, quietly, with humility and with love. In this way, they witness in hidden, yet effective ways to God’s love, and to the presence in them of Jesus Christ. I want to thank God for the very many other persons who have been touched by this witness, and who have also found the consolation of Christ’s love.

In this context of thanksgiving, I must also draw our attention to the need for supporting our clergy adequately. The dedicated, God-loving families of our priests, and our priests themselves, offer their lives to the Saviour, and take up the responsibility of leading His flock. They mostly live below the poverty line. On the one hand, it is true that the Lord does look after His shepherds. On the other hand, it is a source of great anguish when a priest knows there is no money available for his children’s teeth – let alone for those of him and his wife. This poverty is tolerable when all parishioners are in the same straits. However, when parishioners live in great comfort, while the priest’s family are very poor, it is a public demonstration of shameful behaviour on the part of the parish. This visible iniquity often enough becomes a barrier which keeps people from coming to Christ. The apparent disregard for the welfare of the priest and his family is a symbol of how God Himself is put to the lower priorities of the lives of the parishioners. It is such a symbol, because the parishioners can be understood not to love God or their priest enough to provide enough, to share properly.

Giving to God the first fruits of our labour has been the principle of stewardship of believers, not only in Christian times, but back to the time of our first parents at the dawn of Creation. Regardless of how hard we work, it is nevertheless a fact that everything we have comes to us from God Himself — out of His love for us. Without Him, we could not produce as we do, and without Him, indeed, we would not even exist. Our very being we owe to Him. It is our place to give thanks to Him accordingly. We humans have always done this by giving back to Him the first fruits. Let us look through 1 and 2 Moses [Genesis and Exodus] in particular, or in many parts of the Old Testament. Then we can look at the Acts of the Holy Apostles. We find that it is always the same principle. We may consider the words of our Lord about the poor widow who gave to the Lord everything she had (see Mark 12:41-44). If we do, in fact, give the first-fruits, (usually meaning the first tenth of everything that we receive), not only do we not really notice what we have given (and indeed, God fulfils our need anyway), but also it is then that we can see that the Lord does meet our needs, that our clergy have enough, and that our parishes can meet their budgets. When we are truly, collectively faithful towards the Lord, everything finds its proper order.

Let us all try our best to live our lives in the perspective of putting God first. It is truly amazing what else falls into place when we do this. Yes, of course, when we do this, temptations also come. However, the blessings outweigh them, and we become stronger. Much more than this, we can see the lives of those around us being touched by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which pours out when we are living properly. We can see how other creatures are also affected positively by this way of living. We can see how the poisonous effects of sin, both in ourselves, and outside also, are counteracted by the life-giving action of God’s love working in us.

In all history, this century has produced by far the most martyrs for the sake of the love of Jesus the Christ. May we be faithful successors of their blood-shedding, and may we contribute to the bringing from this foundation of suffering, new life in Christ in every place where we are sent by the Lord ; for martyrdom elsewhere is used by the Lord to build His Church here and everywhere. Through the prayers of the holy martyrs and all the saints, O Lord Jesus the Christ, have mercy on us, and save us !