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Fr. Stephen

Celebrating Freedom…but are we really free?

Celebrating Freedom…but are we really free?

“I am freer here in prison than I was ever on the outside!” Over many years of being a prison chaplain, I have heard that statement countless times. How could that possibly be? How could someone experience more freedom inside a prison than on the outside?

On the 4th of July the United States celebrates a special holiday that honors our freedom.  If you have traveled to some other countries around this world, you might agree that the United States definitely has something to celebrate.  We don’t have walls or fences to keep us in the United States.  By and large, Mexico and Canada are not patrolling their borders looking for Americans sneaking in to find a better life.

Yet in the midst of this “free” country many, many Americans find themselves in a bondage of sorts.  They are unable to shake off the inner feelings of emptiness, depression, and lack of meaning in their lives. They continue to strive after something, anything that would give them freedom from these entrapments.

That word…FREEDOM…is such a misunderstood term.  Many people equate it with being able to do what you want, when you want, and however you want to do it.  They chase after that freedom through travel, jobs, alcohol, drugs, sex, money…on and on goes the list.  “If I could just go to New Zealand…If I just had a better job…a bigger house…more money…a different spouse…”

Sadly as they arrive at each goal, the freedom they truly want is still missing.  Somehow they are still bound up with those chains of emptiness, depression and lack of meaning in their lives. In spite of failure after failure to be set free, they continue to seek the answer in what they have and what they do.  That notion of freedom limits mankind to a purely physical being.  But people are not just physical beings.

People are also spiritual beings and if that fact is overlooked, one will never find the freedom they seek.  Emptiness, depression, and lack of meaning in life are not just physical problems.  In fact, often they are more spiritually oriented than physical.  Physical answers to spiritual problems are nothing more than band-aids on a serious infection.  Things may feel better for a moment but then bondage returns.  We can take a wino out of the gutters of skid row and dress him up in a brand new tuxedo.  But, when we return a month later, we will find a drunken man lying in the gutter dressed in a tuxedo.  Perhaps we even know this to be true, but many of us continue to pursue physical remedies for spiritual problems.

“Perhaps a little more of the physical answer would do it…I guess I need just a little more…maybe just a bit more.”  And so an alcoholic or a drug addict is born (workaholic may fit right in there as well!).

Unless someone is set free spiritually, they will never know true freedom.  The best answers to emptiness, depression, and lack of meaning in life are to be found in God alone.  This FREEDOM is available to everyone.  Entering that path toward freedom is as close as a prayer away.  “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!” (John 8:36)

Here are a few quotes from early Christians regarding our freedom…or free will to choose God’s ways or our own ways:

JUSTIN MARTYR c.100-165 A.D.

“God, wishing men and angels to follow His will, resolved to create them free to do righteousness…”

THEOPHILUS of Antioch (2nd century). To Autolycus XXVII

“For God made man free, and with power over himself . . . For as man, disobeying drew death on himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting.”

IRENAEUS of Gaul c.130-200. Against Heresies XXXVII

“God made man a free agent from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will toward us is present with Him continually. And in man as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice…so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God. . .”

CYRIL of Jerusalem c. 312-386  Lecture IV

“Know also that you have a soul that is self-governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator…having free power to do what it wills.  There is not a class of souls sinning by nature and a class of souls practicing righteousness by nature; but both act from choice. The soul is self-governed: and though the Devil can suggest, he has not the power to compel against the will.”

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM 347-407On Hebrews, Homily 12

“All is in God’s power, but so that our free-will is not lost . . . It depends therefore on us and on Him. We must first choose the good, and then He adds what belongs to Him. He does not precede our willing, that our free-will may not suffer. But when we have chosen, then He affords us much help . . . It is ours to choose beforehand and to will, but God’s to perfect and bring to the end.”

 

– Fr. Stephen

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Fr. Stephen

Seeing the Beauty Within

Seeing the Beauty Within

Christ is Risen!!

My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Recently I came across this wonderful quote from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh:

Unless we look at a person and see the beauty there is in this person, we can contribute nothing to him. One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty.

These words remind us that no matter how “unlovely” or “damaged” a person is in our own judgmental view, there is beauty within. As Orthodox Christians we are called to look at everyone with the eyes of Christ. When we see the beauty in others, we recognize them as living icons of Christ, as brothers and sisters whom we are called to love.

As we approach Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry Sunday on June 12, we ask each one of you to join with us in sharing the love of Christ with those whom society often chooses to ignore—those precious souls who are living in prisons and jails across the country.

We have many hopes for expanding OCPM’s ministry – publishing new Orthodox books, study guides and icons to reach more people than ever before. But we need you to join us, to become personally involved in making our vision a reality. Your gift of any amount will make you an instrumental part of OCPM and our outreach. Please prayerfully join us in seeing the beauty of those in prison, and in doing something tangible to help call out that beauty through the Holy Orthodox Faith.

In our Risen Lord Jesus Christ,

Fr. Stephen

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Fr. Stephen

Fasting and Prayer

Fasting and Prayer

I began serving as a prison chaplain more than thirty years ago. That makes for a lot of Great Lents spent in prison.  One year, two men were about to participate in the fast for the first time since becoming Orthodox.  They were determined to keep the fast very strictly.  In that facility, their food was delivered to their cells on a tray.  There was no picking and choosing from a cafeteria line.  To fast strictly was a very difficult endeavor.  Both men told me separately that they were going to concentrate their fasting and prayers on something very personal.  One man had not had contact with his family in over 20 years.  The other had no family and was very lonely; he simply wanted someone on the outside with whom he could have contact. 

Midway through the Fast, the first man received a letter from his sister!  This was his first contact with her in over 20 years!  She had tracked him down and wrote to ask him if he would like to re-establish communication with her.  Soon after that, the second man received a letter from someone he didn’t even know.  They had gotten his name from someone else and wrote to ask him if he could use a pen pal.  Needless to say, those two men hold fasting in the highest regard and can’t wait to begin fasting each year.     

I mentioned the above stories to another Orthodox man in prison.  He thought for a moment and then began smiling from ear to ear.  He said, “Father, I am going to fast and pray that God will enable me to love Him as I should love Him and that He will place a love for others in my heart.  I have never been able to love the way I know God wants me to!” 

We are past the midway point of Great Lent, but it is not too late to commit or re-commit ourselves to fasting, prayer and almsgiving. May our Lord richly bless you this Great Lent and answer the prayers of your heart, according to His will. And please, remember in your prayers our brothers and sisters in prison.

Many thanks for your support of this ministry of the Orthodox Church.

With love in Christ,

Fr Stephen 

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Fr. Stephen

Making the Most of our Lenten Journey

Over the centuries, many people have been blessed by God to know the time of their departure from this world. Most of us will likely not be told. But what if we knew that this Great Lent would be our very last one? Would we make any changes to our Lenten life?

As Orthodox, we should always try to keep a three-fold practice during Great Lent. We should increase our prayer life; we should be more disciplined in our fasting; and we should increase our almsgiving. Certainly we pray you will be granted many, many years of service to our Lord! But it does provide some food for thought to think about “what if”. If we knew this was to be our last Great Lent, what would we do differently? We pray that you will be more fruitful than ever in all three of these areas!

As you consider your own almsgiving this Lenten season, please include OCPM in your offerings. Matthew 25:36 demands that we “visit Jesus in prison”. While you may not be able to personally visit a person in prison, you can still heed the Lord’s command by supporting OCPM’s outreach. With your support, we are visiting men and women in prison every day—sending icons, prayer books, Orthodox Study Bibles, catechism courses, study books and personal letters. Your gift will also help provide training for clergy and lay people to correspond with and/or visit these precious souls. When you have provided for the least of these my brethren you have touched the very heart of  “visiting Jesus” in prison. 

May our Lord richly bless you this Great Lent as you seek to bless those in need. Many thanks for your support of this ministry of the Orthodox Church. 

With love in Christ,

Fr. Stephen

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Fr. Stephen

Dandelions – A Valentine’s Day Message

Dandelions – A Valentine’s Day Message

by Fr. Stephen

Can you tell the difference between a flower and a weed? Many folks in our society view people in prison as weeds. But as Orthodox Christians, we take a different view. We believe that every person has the potential to be a flower—people in prison, and you and me.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to take my oldest daughter to a concert for her birthday present. We went to see her favorite group, Five Iron Frenzy, a Christian Ska band. As we stood in line at a theater in downtown Denver, I began to wonder what I had gotten us into! Drug dealers were walking and driving up and down the street. There were wild looking young folks with huge spiked hair of all colors and lots of body piercings. It would have been easy to look at them as weeds.

As I began to talk with them, though, I saw past the exterior. I found they were all really nice and did their best to help me understand what was going on (I was the oldest guy at the concert, so they were filled with mercy toward me). As it turns out, the band was terrific and their songs had some great messages (my daughter interpreted the words for me). Thankfully there was no sexual garbage, no violence, no cussing, and no suicidal messages. Somehow I came out of it only slightly hearing-impaired (that only lasted for a couple of days) and my legs quit cramping after a day (we stood for about 5 hours straight).

With that as a background, I wanted to share with you the message of one of their songs, called “Dandelions”. As we approach Valentine’s Day, it has a great message for us. The song is about a hopeful little boy who picks a bouquet of dandelions for his mother, which he presents to her with so much love and joy. His mother holds the dandelions to her heart as though they are the most valuable bouquet. “She sees love, where anyone else would see weeds. All hope is found. Here is everything he needs,” the song goes. And then the song turns from the mother and son to us and God: “All that I ever wanted, was to give my best to You…Lord, search my heart, create in me something clean / Dandelions / You see flowers in these weeds.”

I love these lyrics because they remind us that, just as a mother’s love sees flowers where there are weeds, so it is with our loving God. Not only does he see our humble offerings as a treasure but He sees flowers in these weeds that are us! And if there are some “weeds” in our lives…may we see them as God sees them: as flowers!!

May our hearts be right toward God in offering ourselves to Him. “Let us commit ourselves and each other and our whole life to Christ our God!” God’s blessings to each of you on this Valentine’s Day.

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Fr. Stephen

Walking with Turkeys

As we begin 2016, many of us have set goals with the hopes of becoming a better person. When I served as a prison chaplain, I gave a pre-release class to men who would soon get out. They too were setting goals with the hope of becoming better people. One of the things I stressed with them was not going back to the “home boys” with the goal that somehow they would change the “homies” into good guys. Over the years, the exact opposite always occurred: The men who went back to the “home boys” eventually became like them again and often would end up back in the drug or crime world…and eventually back in prison.

That seems to be one of those great truths of life: You will become more and more like the people you associate with the most.

If you want to better yourself, you need to be around people that will help you do that. In sports, if you want to improve your game, you have to play with people that are better than you. In life there is a parallel. If someone wants to become a better person, they would do well to look for friends who will challenge them to improve spiritually, morally, and in every area of life (or at the least, not influence them in the other direction!).

“You can’t soar with the eagles if you’re walking with the turkeys!” Some wise sage said that…sometime in the past…someplace unknown to me, but there is a very important truth there.

Many people really want to change their lives for the better, but they can’t seem to make much progress. There are many issues involved with this, but one huge factor is the people that are most influencing their lives. Who do we call our “friends” and who do we go to for advice?   Ultimately, there are only two kinds of advice…”godly” or “ungodly”. The advice we receive will either lead us on the right path or down the wrong road (sometimes the right path is akin to a steep mountain climb and the wrong road is a freeway that is so easy to travel on!).

When you are in need of advice, bear in mind that everyone will have some for you! Everyone else can tell you how you should live and what you should do. The real key is who is giving the advice?

 

Who are you going to walk with in 2016? Here is some final food for thought from Psalm 1:

1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.
2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
 Whatever he does prospers.

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Fr. Stephen

Christmas Greetings

Christmas Day!! For many of us, those two words bring to mind cherished images: a joyful celebration of the Divine Liturgy rejoicing at the Birth of our Savior, the mystery of presents under the tree, the smiles of children as they unwrap their gifts, the savory smells of Christmas dinner and the warmth of family being together…precious memories that gladden our hearts.

For me, the memories of Christmas Day are a bit different. For almost 26 years, our family would awaken at 5 am to watch our children open their presents. By 7 am I would leave the house to spend the day with the men in prison. In my many years as a prison chaplain, it was our policy for chaplains to be in the institution on Christmas Day. Though I would have loved to spend the day at home with my family, I knew that my presence in the prison was needed.

Christmas is truly the most difficult time of year for men and women living in prison. They long to be at home, rejoicing with family and friends. Many men and women who are incarcerated experience great sorrow and depression this time of year.

We may not be able to reunite those in prison with their families on Christmas Day, but we can do something else: We can let them know that they are not forgotten.

Will you help us? Every item OCPM sends—icons, prayer books, Orthodox Study Bibles, devotional books, and more—lets men and women in prison know that they are prayed for, cared for and remembered. In addition to sending Orthodox materials, we correspond with people in prison, send books and Bibles to prison libraries, and support clergy and laity to minister to those in prison.

Your donation allows us to reach to people in prison not only at Christmas, but throughout the year. By your partnership with OCPM, you will be responding to Jesus’ call to visit Him in prison (Matthew 25:36).

Please join us in this vital ministry.

In anticipation of the Holy Nativity: Christ is Born! Glorify Him!!

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Fr. Stephen

Giving Thanks to God

Giving Thanks to God

In the Gospel of Luke, we read the story of the 10 lepers. Imagine how desperate these men were for healing, living as pariahs in a society that shunned them because of their leprosy. One day, as Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord have mercy!” And the Lord healed them. Of the 10 that were healed, only one came back to give thanks to God. Though all 10 received a physical healing, Jesus indicated that the one who came back received even more: his faith had brought him salvation. 

I have met many men in prison who despaired of their situation and cried out, “Lord have mercy!” The Lord heard their cries and brought them to the Orthodox Faith. These men eventually emerged from the baptismal waters with hearts full of thanksgiving to the Lord. “Thank You” is on their lips more than you could ever imagine. Like the one leper, they know what the Lord has done for them and they are eternally grateful, even within the confines of prison.

Indeed, haven’t we all at one time or another cried out “Lord have mercy!” Perhaps it was in a time of illness or grief, danger or financial distress. And when the Lord showed us His mercy, have we acted like the one leper, or like the nine?

 It is never too late to act like the one! This Thanksgiving we can give thanks to God from the depths of our hearts both in prayer and in almsgiving. When we do this our Thanksgiving holiday will be much more than a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. It will be a day of great spiritual blessing in our lives.

 Please consider a gift to OCPM this Thanksgiving. We need your support to bring the love of Christ to men and women in prison.

 May you have a very Happy Thanksgiving and even more important, a blessed day of giving thanks.  

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Fr. Stephen

Two Wolves

There is a battle that rages within people, both those in prison and those on the outside. It is described well by St. Paul in Romans 7: the battle between good and evil inside of us. Here’s a wonderful old story for us to think about today:

An old Cherokee was teaching his grandson about life. 

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

“The other is good–he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This story is now being backed up by the latest scientific evidence. I read a story in the newspaper called “God, Your Brain” by Michael Gerson. In it, he quotes the leading expert on the neurological basis for religion, Andrew Newberg. In his work on brain imaging, he has found that people who practice prayer and meditation actually alter the neural connections of the brain. This leads to “long-lasting states of unity, peacefulness and love.” He found that this happens fast—a matter of weeks, not years. A strong religious belief amplifies this effect on the brain, “enhancing social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.”

“Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain – particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate – where empathy and reason reside. On the other hand, contemplating a wrathful god empowers the limbic system, which is filled with aggression and fear. It is a sobering concept: The God (or god) we love changes us into his image!”

Interestingly, he uses the same imagery as the above story: “two packs of neurological wolves are found in every brain. One pack is oriented toward anger and the other toward compassion. So all human beings are left with a question: Which pack of wolves do we feed?”

Orthodoxy teaches us that what we feed our minds, hearts, and spirits has a direct impact on who we are…just as what we feed our physical bodies either promotes health or sickness. What we watch on television; what we read in the way of books or magazines; whether or not we go to church; what we listen to on the radio… it all adds up to impacting us and shaping our lives (spiritually, mentally, and physically)!

If, as that article suggested, we can be changed in a matter of weeks, not years, then perhaps we could engage this battle briefly and see if a change is made in us. As a Chaplain, I encouraged men to begin praying the Jesus Prayer one 100-knot prayer rope in the morning and one in the evening (no more, no less). Those who did this saw amazing results in the battle within their own minds. I too could see the difference in them. One man, who was the “vendor” of pornography on the prison yard, saw the change in another man through the Jesus Prayer. He longed for that kind of peace and asked the man to teach him this prayer. After a few weeks of praying the Jesus Prayer this man got rid of all his pornographic materials (a truly amazing act within a prison setting).

With the blessing of your own spiritual father, I would encourage you to try this over the next month: Pray the Jesus Prayer one 100-knot prayer rope in the morning and one in the evening (no more, no less): “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” Some fathers use a shorter version: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!” Do your best to stay focused for those few minutes each day and see what happens with the battle inside you!

May God help all of us to “feed” the right “wolf” each and every day!! God’s blessings to each of you!!

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“ The Meal” By: James (Seraphim) Blackstock

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