“Now when forty years had passed [i.e., in the fullness of time],
an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush.
When Moses saw it he wondered at the sight; and as he drew near to look,
the voice of the Lord came, ‘I am the God of your fathers,
the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’
And Moses trembled and did not dare to look.
And the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the shoes from your feet,
for the place where you are standing is holy ground’ (Acts 7:30-33).

Standing here today in your august presence and having acceded to the eminent Throne of the Bishops of Eastern America of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in this resplendent Cathedral dedicated to the All Holy and Life-giving Trinity, I am reminded by this passage that the ground beneath us is in verity holy, having been dedicated to the glory of the Triune God in this fair City of Pittsburgh, itself blessed of God by the triadic confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. Glory be to Him who has created all and to Whom I am summoned once again to offer the entirety of my being, now as a faithful steward of this Vineyard, promising to toil together with all of you, on behalf of all and for all.

I herein proclaim my steadfast loyalty and offer my deepest appreciation to His Holiness the Archbishop of Pech, Metropolitan of Belgrade-Karlovci and Serbian Patriarch Irinej, the Episcopal Council of North and South America, and the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church for their confidence voiced on my behalf, having acclaimed my unworthiness worth of this exalted calling as Bishop of Eastern America.

In like manner, I would be entirely remiss as immediate past Bishop of the Metropolitanate of Australia and New Zealand, if I did not presently offer my exceeding and heartfelt gratitude to those dedicated clergy, monastics and devoted faithful, as well as my brother Hierarchs, clergy and laity of the pan-Orthodox community and wider Christian fellowship with whom I have labored over the past decade and whom I shall continue to carry unabated in my heart and prayers!

Daring to pause and to reflect at this auspicious moment, I call to remembrance a timeless sentiment of the ever-memorable First Hierarch of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos. With whom I share in common the glorious day of his consecration to the Holy Episcopate and the humble day of my birth. Having arrived for the first time on American soil, he stated aptly: “I stand firmly with trembling knees!”

Following in the footsteps of my distinguished predecessors on the Throne of the Bishops of Eastern America: Their Graces Bishops Stefan and Sava, and His Eminence Metropolitan Christopher, all of blessed memory, and His Grace Bishop Mitrophan, presently Bishop of Canada; I, too, stand firmly with trembling knees in this sacred place. However, having been summoned by our Lord, the Great High Priest, I am emboldened by the prayerful presence and fervent support of you who have ushered me into this Throne on this day: my brother Hierarchs, Royalty, clergy, monastics and faithful laity of our Holy Church.

Albeit that this path has been firmly trodden, the knees of my heart and soul tremble as did the very foundations of the earth on that great and holy day of Pentecost. Yet I am comforted knowing that the episcopal authority bestowed in the Holy Spirit upon my uncertain hands and the pastoral staff which I now hold rest firmly on the most certain of foundation stones: Christ, the rock of the Petrine Confession (cf. Mat. 16:18) upon which He built His Church. Accordingly, preaching in the Cathedral of St John the Divine on the Sunday following Ascension in 1921, the Holy Bishop Nicholai delivered one of his most inspiring homilies, titled “The Stone the Builders Rejected”, stating:

I am told that the builders of skyscrapers in America dig the ground very deep until they find a solid stone under the earth. Then, and only then, they start to build in the heights up to the clouds. Dig deep, o brethren, dig deep into the earth of your body, till you find something more steady than your body. That is your soul. But don’t be deceived, for even the soul is not the steadiest stone in you. Dig still deeper into your soul, till you find in it the lamp of eternity, the nucleus of God, the eternal Christ, God’s wisdom and life, clothed with your soul, as your soul is clothed with your body. Rejoice then as the man rejoiced having found gold under [the] earth in his field, and make that nucleus the very corner stone of your soul building and of every building in your life, inward and outward.[1]

In order to so endeavor in our building, we must “be of good courage”, as Joab admonished his brother in the days of Old, “let us be strong for our people and for the cities of our God. And may the Lord do what is good in His sight” (II Sam. 10:12). I am, thereby, in the words of the same St. Nicholai of Zhicha, “grateful to God, to the people thankful and without the seal of shame, bravely looking toward the future.” Thus as the great prophet Isaiah, responding to the summons of the Lord, while walking through the valley and seeing about him the people of God, joyously and with fullness of heart exclaimed, as I today reiterate, “Behold I and the children whom the Lord has given me!” (Is. 8:18).

Beloved! We must consciously strive together for a life in Christ. For He first loved us, creating us as an extension of Himself – His Love – in this world and in this age. But this world, the holy ground on which we stand, which the Lord has created and sealed with His love and beauty (cf. Gen. 1:31), requires us to cooperate fully with the Triumphant God-Man so that we can joyfully enter the abode of God and be His people and that He would be with us and we would live according to the will of our Heavenly Father.

However, in this very world there continue to be numerous difficulties and travails as many do not desire to accept God’s love! They prefer to live in their own right without the Lord. The laws and order of the Creator have been forgotten in our contemporary societies. Many are those who unwittingly live in the world as people of the world, and not as laity according to God’s salvific will. Prayer, which is more and more banned in public space, is understood as the exhausting pursuit of vain religions, rather than an unlimited time and space in which to stop and fill our lungs with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; in which we breathe freely with the true faith; and responsibly contemplate and fulfill ourselves in His love.

The sense of humanity and thus community, marriage, parenthood and family, which are the unshakeable foundations of every healthy, wholesome society originate from our Heavenly Father and find their perfection in the iconic likeness of the intercommunion of the Holy and Life-creating Trinity. Today, the meaning of life itself is quickly removed and replaced by distorted societal shadows in which our children are taught about self-seclusion and in which a mother and father are no longer required; in which marriage that is according to God’s will is no longer essential; in which brother and sister are no longer an integral part of our existence. A person in this world is reduced to an individual, one which lives as a self-sufficient and lonely being, without the mutual sharing of God-given talents and life, completely devoid of the sanctity of community.

Standing here today in your midst, myself being a son of the Serbian American Diaspora, I behold you, my faithful pastors and flock of Christ’s Holy Church, gathered liturgically around your hierarch in a common unity of faith. For according to the teaching of St. Ignatius the God-bearer: “The Church gathers as a community of faithful around its bishop!” And as I hear echoed the words of the Great Prophet, at the same time I see visibly opening before the eye of my heart that moving icon wherein St. Sava, our first archbishop, welcomes his father, the Venerable Simeon, father of our nation, before Vatopaidi Monastery on Mt. Athos, while receiving him in a tender embrace. In that eternal moment, as time stood still, a son became a father to his father; and a father became a son to his son.

Most beloved children, rejoice with me, for I have wholeheartedly accepted you in my paternal embrace as your father in Christ, and pray the Lord that you have also accepted me, your son and now first among you, in the warmth and joy of your familial embrace!

Brother Hierarchs, Your Royal Highnesses, reverend brethren, venerable monastics and faithful people of God, Christ-loving assemblage!

His Holiness our saintly Patriarch Pavle has taught us that it is not up to us to determine the time in which we will be born, neither the people into which we will be born. However, how we shall choose to live that is, indeed, for us to determine. As all peoples are blessed of the Lord, I truly rejoice and am grateful to God for the devout and good people of God into which I was born and by whom I was brought up and in whose Holy Orthodox Faith I was baptized. For the fullness of the Way of Saint Sava is understood precisely as our common and living Orthodox Christian inheritance, and in no way a sealed and isolated, lifeless path.

It is historically accorded to St. Sava, through one of his bishops named Irinej, that “we are considered to be East by the West and West by the East, while we belong neither to the East nor the West, but only to the Heavenly Jerusalem”. This is our particular Serbian and common Orthodox ethos, our creative might of communion with the world and our unique contribution to contemporary society, which is neither East nor West. The same must become in unity, “a harmony of elevated emotion, intellect and will power”, according to the holy Bishop Nicholai, whose blessing I received while in the womb of my mother, and whose holy presence I feel constantly beside me. For precisely in describing America, he noted:

The light of the East and the light of the West will rest at their noon on the continent, which lies between East and West. . .[2]

In that light make us worthy Lord, to behold Your Light, in order to fulfil the admonishment of Your Saint who continued by advising American church leaders to “make plans as large as the world and efforts as hard as those of the apostles”; “to prepare for a sacrifice as holy and as universal as Yours”. For in these troubled times, only such efforts issuing forth from a strong faith will be able to sustain those fainting from fear.

I beseech You, Lord, Who entrusted my humility with the care of this Vineyard, the holy Diocese of Eastern America, which You have planted with Your own Right Hand on this holy ground: let Your everlasting light guide me in prayerfully and diligently laboring, always together with those entrusted to my care. May we in our furrowing, planting and watering, reap the harvest of Your bountiful blessings. May Your Holy Right Hand always hold firmly our impoverished, outstretched hands and complete all that is wanting in us for the sake of Your holy ones. For You, Christ, are truly among us who have gathered in Your Name and You will be and remain with us, now and forever and unto the ages! Amen!


[1] The Living Church, Vol. 65, June 18, 1921, pp. 215-216.

[2](Velimirovic), Bishop Nicholai, “A Serbian’s Vision of America”, The Living Church, Vol. 65, June 25, 1921. p. 247-248.


Enthronement Homily of Bishop Irinej of Eastern America, The Serbian Orthodox Church (SVOTS Alumnus M.D. ’82)

Delivered on October 1, 2016 at Holy Trinity Cathedral Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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First Sunday of Luke

Sunday, September 25, 2016 Luke 5.1-11

A sermon of Fr. Alexander Rentel

“ So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets.Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.

When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.”  Luke 5.1-11

The God of Heaven in the Wilderness (Ex 24.15-25.22).

Upon a high mountain, the great prophet Moses entered the dark cloud and went into the silence of mystical contemplation. For forty days he heard things that cannot be spoken and saw things that cannot be described. When he left that mountain, he commanded the people of Israel to do what had been given to him on that mountain by God. His face shone brightly from talking with God himself, he gave the people the law and also the specific order for their worship of the God who had revealed himself to them on that high mountain, in the midst of the cloud. God told Moses, “make an ark of wood, here are the dimensions, overlay it with gold, put holes in it so that it can be carried with poles. Make two  cherubim out of gold, one there and one there, with their wings outspread.” And there, God said, “there, I will make a mercy seat, seated upon which, is where I will meet with you, where I will speak with you.”

The God of Heaven in the Temple (Is 6.1-10).

In the year that the king of Judah died, King Uzziah, eight centuries before the birth of the Christ, Isaiah, great amongst the prophets, stood in the temple and beheld the glory of the Lord. Isaiah saw the Lord himself sitting enthroned and his glory filling the wide expanse of the temple. Not cherubim here, but seraphim; here they are made not of gold, and are alive and crying “Holy, holy, holy,” one to another. From this temple also goes the word of God to his people, challenging them, “hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.” Hear and see the Lord God of heaven and earth, revealing himself seated upon his throne.

The God of Heaven along the River (Ez 1.1-3.21).

“In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of that month,” Exekiel, not the least among the prophets, stood astride the banks of the river Chebar in the land of the Chaldeans and looked and beheld the appearance of the glory of the Lord, sitting upon a chariot, led on by four fantastic beasts, with four faces, wings gleaming like bronze, shining like flashes of lightning.  As their wings beat and as the chariot moved, a sound of many waters was heard, the thunder of the Almighty. Ezekiel, like Moses and Isaiah, immediately became aware that he was unworthy and fell on his face before the Lord. Again, like Moses, like Isaiah, Ezekiel was given the Spirit of God to speak to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, end your rebellion, turn away from death and come to life.”

The God of Heaven at the Lake at Gennesaret (Lk 5.1-11).

At the northern tip of Palestine, as we have heard from our deacon today, in a dusty, dry, and impoverished area, along the banks of the lake of Gennesaret, this same Lord reveals himself again to a people desirous of hearing the “word of God.” Here again, he resumes the posture typical of revelation, seated, though in a working fishing boat, where they were cleaning their nets, but not on a high mountain, or in the temple, or only to the prophet in exile, but to people pressing about him clamoring for the word. Where these people are working, where they are living, the Lord reveals himself, he meets them, and he speaks to them directly, teaching them of the ineffable mysteries. Here there are no cherubim and seraphim visible, but a great catch of fish loudly proclaiming the holiness and the glory of God present on a boat in this lake. The witnesses to this revelation are many and their record is neither scroll, nor parchment, nor paper, but the living apostolic witness of Simon Peter and James and John, sons of Zebedee, into whose nets we too are caught in fulfillment this day of the oracle spoken that was spoken on that day.

The God of Heaven is with Us.

This manifestation found in the gospel today, this theophany, above all tells us who Jesus is. It is he whom Moses met on the mountain in the dark cloud. It is he whom Isaiah saw enthroned in the temple. It is he who came to Ezekiel along the banks of the river Chedar. It is he, the one who teaches the people while seated on a boat. In Christ, however, God has turned everything upside down so as to fulfill his promise that he made to Isaiah that “God is with us (Is 7.14).” The place again of this theophany is quotidian, it is in the midst of day-to-day work. No doubt fisherman doing their work, fishing, cleaning their nets, were not involved in the lofty and sublime, but in the hard work of scratching out a living, in the hot sun, the sweat of effort, aching bones, and sore muscles. Where they worked, no dark cloud descended, no mystical vision appeared, only the Word of God himself, who appeared directly to them and the people pressing about him. Jesus Christ, the Gospel tells us, is God with us.

Such a Manifestation.

Such a revelation proclaims for us too that God is with us, and that Jesus Christ manifests, reveals himself, teaches us, speaks to us, meets us in our day-to-day lives. The place of this revelation is not only sacred ground, but throughout all our lives: in the work, in the effort, in the hardness, in the difficulties. Any perceived wall that would separate one place, one way of being with the way we live the rest of our lives, the sacred and the profane – God is here, but not there – simply does not exist. God is with us when we pray in the Church at services, but also in our homes, in our work, in our leisure. That this is true should provide us comfort and consolation: we are not alone. Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, remains with us, in good and bad, in happiness and in sorrow, when we are sick or healthy, rich or poor. It should also challenge us, because this same Christ, by the same grace, remains with us in righteousness and in our sins, when we “do good,” and we do evil. By this we do not profane God, but rather God comes to us to make all our lives holy through his presence.


Throughout all the theophanies I have recounted today, those that I have connected with the Gospel today, one theme stands out above all others: it is that God at every point reaches out to us. He makes himself known to those whom he has created, to meet them, to speak to them, to challenge them, to teach them and us. He does this out of the love and goodness that desires that all of us, those to whom the original message came, and we who receive this word today, come and be with him, now and in the world to come. Amen.

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Have This in Mind

Imagine a world where this doesn’t just happen at the Olympics, but in all aspects of life – even Church!

I think all of you have probably seen this photo from last week.

According to the Independent, here’s what happened:

New Zealand athlete Nikki Hamblin fell four and a half laps into the race on Tuesday, accidently tripping up America’s Abbey D’Agostino with around 2,000m left to run.

 D’Agostino, 24, quickly got back up, but, rather than carrying on with the race, she stopped to help her fellow competitor who remained on the ground and appeared to be crying after falling hard on her shoulder.

 …D’Agostino helped Hamblin back on to her feet but had injured her leg in the accident.

 Refusing to quit, D’Agostino ran the rest of the race with what appeared to be a right ankle injury, while 28-year-old Hamblin stayed by her side to help her continue.

 Hamblin later finished in 29th place, one ahead of D’Agostino who limped across the finish line.

 The pair embraced at the finish, before D’Agostino was taken from the track in a wheelchair.

This story has gotten a lot of press. Many people have cited this as the spirit of the Olympics.

The helping of a fellow athlete truly is inspirational.

In fact, I was so encouraged by it that I shared it on my personal Facebook page with this caption:

May this spirit become contagious in all we do – religion, politics, class, gender, race – everything!


What is so refreshing about this story is it’s a story of one human helping another. It’s not about the worst of humanity.

There were no personal agendas.

D’Agostino wasn’t expecting anything in return. It was simply about helping a fellow athlete.

It’s this spirit that should infuse every aspect of a Christian’s life.

The great apostle St. Paul once put it this way,

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,” (Philippians 2:5-9 RSV)

In other words, St. Paul is telling us to be like D’Agostino, asking us to slow down and help our brother or sister who needs us.

He then gives Christ as an example of someone who humbled himself to raise us up.

As the second person of the Trinity and divine, it was unfitting for Christ to take on human flesh and die a miserable death. Yet, out of love, he did that for us!

As a result, Christ’s death destroys death and we are offered a renewed life. We are a new creation with a new way of living.

Christ humbled himself to raise us up.

D’Agostino humbled herself to raise up her fellow athlete.

Humbling ourselves to raise up our neighbor is what the Christian life is all about.


Imagine a world where we all stop to help one another!

Imagine a world where we work together to overcome our differences.

Imagine a world where we listen instead of constantly interjecting our opinions.

Imagine a world where we strive to empathize* with others.

We don’t have to give up who we are. We don’t have to give up our values, or our way of life, but we should work to build up our neighbor – even if their values differ than ours.

This message is transformative and it’s what the Gospel is all about!

News text and photos from: Alexandra Sims,”Rio 2016: Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin embody ‘Olympic spirit’ by helping each other finish race.” The Independent 17 August 2016.

Alumnus Father Dustin M. Lyon (M.Div., magna cum laude, ’11), is rector of St. Elias the Prophet Greek Orthodox Church, Dubuque, Iowa. Father Dustin, who in his undergraduate years studied archeology, has a wonderful personal story to tell about his discovery of the Orthodox Christian faith, and you can read more of his writings on his blog, “Rediscovering Christianity”:  www.dustinlyon.orgPlease keep him and his wife, Presbytera Nicki, in prayer as they serve the Lord! 

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“Prof” Sergius Verhovskoy 1986-2016, Memory Eternal!

August 4, 2016

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the falling asleep in the Lord of Professor Serge S. Verhovskoy professor emeritus of Dogmatic Theology and Ethics, and Provost of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) from 1955 until his retirement in 1981.

verhovskoy_4 August 1986He was born in Sarzha Russia in 1907. He left Russia with his parents and sisters in his early youth following the Bolshevik Revolution. He completed his secondary education in Prague, Czechoslovakia before moving to Paris, France. Greatly influenced by Fr. Georges Florovsky, while studying at St. Sergius Theological Institute between 1932–36, he became known for his passion for Orthodox Tradition, grounded in the Patristic Fathers and the Holy Scripture, and he was an open and vocal critic of the popular “Russian émigré intelligentsia,” to Paris. By the early 1950s he was recognized as an important theologian and writer, and was invited by Fr. Florovsky to join him in NYC in the forming of SVOTS.

Professor Verhovskoy always seemed to live “beneath the radar,” until it was necessary for someone to step forward to speak the Truth, which he always did without hesitation—an issue for which he continually chided his students: “You are called to be ‘Ezekiels,’ yet you are silent.” And when [seminary Dean] Fr. Alexander Schmemann expressly and adamantly responded to the “Sorrowful Epistle” of Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), by stating, “I trust people like Prof. SS Verhovskoy,” he might well have duly cited him in his description of the role of the theologian:

The theologian has no rights, no power to govern and to administer that which belongs exclusively to the hierarchy. But it is his sacred duty to supply the hierarchy and, indeed, the whole Church with the pure teaching of the Church and to stand by that truth even when it is not considered “opportune.” It must be admitted that much too often our official “academic” theology has failed to accept this “obedience” and preferred quiet complacency. It has thus become accomplice to many deviations and distortions from which the whole Orthodox Church suffers today. But again, it was not so with the Fathers…they suffered from the various “power structures” of their days for their refusal to opt for the compromise or to accept silent obedience to evil. And the fact is that ultimately the Church followed them and not those who, then as today, have a thousand excellent reasons for avoiding the “abstract principles” and preferring the “demands of reality.”

And like many great men, he was a character. He loved the “Motown Sound” and he borrowed every one of my original blues albums—from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf – and he loved nothing more than to have a student drop by for tea and discussion, day or evening, or listen to us play guitars and sing “the rock music.”

When his beloved wife, Olga, died of sudden cardiac arrest while preparing to attend liturgy on St. Thomas Sunday, the word went out that “Prof” wanted students to be with him. Coming to his home on campus, [we saw] a large circle of chairs was arranged in his living room; students came and went, as a samovar served tea, and he taught “dogmatic theology”—life, marriage, death, the Last Things, the Resurrection—as he told stories, wept, and laughed, and we sang, and reminisced over the course of an amazing day.

At the end of his life, I had arranged for a very small favor in arranging for his care. He called my busy office, and he would not take “He cannot take your call now,” for an answer. And when my supervisor finally was forced to interrupt me, “Prof” simply said, “Well, my dear, I don’t know, but you are somehow an angel.”

Me, Prof?” It was all I could do not to cry like a child. It was like the life affirmation you had always wanted, and the warmest hug you never expected! Memory eternal, beloved Professor, and may your soul rest with the saints!

Michael Stankovich is a Research Consultant in Behavioural Genetics and Forensic Psychiatry. He received his MD from the Faculté de Médecine, Pierre et Marie Curie – Sorbonne Universités, and his MSW from San Diego State University. He was employed by the UCSD School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, in contract with the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, transitioning inmates with a mental health designation (including nearly 500 sex-offenders and child-sexual predators) into the Parole Out-Patient treatment system. He graduated from St. Vladimir’s in the Class of 1978.   


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Music Education in Our Church

As a newborn, I didn’t breathe for my first two weeks. Perhaps I just didn’t feel like it, I don’t really know the reason. As a result, I was hooked up to a machine that took all the blood out of my body, oxygenated it, and then put it back in. Thinking about it now, it’s pretty cool. It sounds like something out of Star Trek. It went on for a week or two. The only real human interaction I had during that time was with my dad. He would sit next to the contraption I was isolated in and sing to me. Just sing. Eventually, I came home from the hospital. Home was filled with music. My parents, my dad especially, would just walk around the house singing…constantly. My parents were never into the music of the 80’s (I don’t know why), so the music they would often sing was church music. Beautiful hymns.

In the car, the tapes were not Michael Jackson or Van Halen, they were from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Tuesday nights was choir rehearsal, and both parents would go—which of course meant I went. I could say that I spent my formative years immersed in the music of the Orthodox Church. As a result of this, I always felt very comfortable in the choir loft or at the chanter’s stand. As a kid, I would just stand there. One particular Sunday, however, all that changed. I went up into the choir loft as I would often do, just wandered up there, and the new choir director told me to leave. I wasn’t allowed there because I was too young. I remember it vividly—I was crushed.

Across the country, school districts have money problems that cause cutbacks in their music education programs. Programs that supported three or four music teachers are now relying on one to do all those jobs. As a result, the kids miss out on some wonderful opportunities. In parish life, if kids are talented, their parents might suggest that they sing in the choir. Unfortunately, the kids that are not considered talented are left out. More often than not, kids experience what I experienced. As a result, our youth feel left out liturgically.

DSC_0028-1024x685During college and post-college years, I spent my summers as a counselor at the Antiochian Village. The most beautiful choir I have ever heard is found there: over 300 children singing to the glory of God, in unison. Perhaps the most amazing thing is how well they know the music of our church. When on the Challenge Course, a group will often sing a hymn while hiking or following the completion of a task. When walking from one activity to another, they sing to St. Raphael. During the morning program chanting lessons, all they want to sing is their favorite hymn. How many of us can even name their favorite hymn, let alone sing all the words from memory?

Many faith traditions utilize youth choirs. Protestant and Catholic churches often have hymns offered by children’s voices or children’s bell choirs. A close friend from college was the music director of a Roman Catholic Church in the Pittsburgh area. They had one mass entirely led by the children: the children were the choir, the cantors, and sometimes even the piano/organ players. Similarly, in many Antiochian parishes, Saturday nights often bring “Camp Vespers.” The teens of the church sing and chant Vespers just like they would at camp during the summer. This can become the foundation for a youth choir in a parish.

It is important to note that calling it “Camp Vespers” is somewhat a misnomer. Vespers is Vespers, though the practice of congregational singing is what is unique to the camp setting. Additionally, we do not want to not exclude children that have not been to summer camp. That said, the idea behind a “Camp Vespers” is what is important. Maybe it begins as a once a month occurrence on Saturdays, then twice a month, eventually every Saturday is “Youth Vespers,” and further down the line it is simply everyone singing Vespers together. The youth choir can then begin participating on Sundays. The children can sing during communion and gradually have the children singing more and more.


The keys to having a successful youth choir are bringing the children together for the first time (possibly the most difficult), strong leadership, and consistency. One way to ensure this is the integration of music education into the current education already happening within the parish. Sunday School can begin each week with singing all together and learning the hymns of liturgy for that week. Additionally, youth participation ensures the continuity of our church choirs. We begin training the next generation of our choirs with our youth. Our youth learn the Divine Liturgy and begin to take ownership of the Church as full and equal participants.

The music of our Church is some of the most beautiful music in the world and also some of the most powerful. It unites people from around the world and calls people to Christ. We must invite our children to participate in making this music.

During the Cherubic Hymn we sing:

We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn, let us now lay aside all earthly cares: that we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly upborne by the Angelic Hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

How can we keep our children from representing the Cherubim and singing to the life-giving Trinity?

Gregory J. Abdalah is the Youth Pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Phoenix, Arizona and has been working in youth ministry in various capacities for 15 years. Greg holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA and a Master of Divinity from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is currently in the midst of a Doctor of Ministry from SVOTS. He serves as the President of the SVOTS Alumni Association, and on the SVOTS Board of Trustees.

 Originally printed in The Word, January 2005. Updated, December 2015.


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Through the Cross, Joy

Let us commend ourselves…
The first few days after the miscarriage were foggy and confusing. We were devastated. Afraid. Empty. We weren’t so much angry with God as numb. We shut down and withdrew. Why did we have to let go of the child we never met? Our emotional turmoil mirrored the winter weather: swirling snow shut everything down, and we were shut inside with our grief.

On the third day, God gave us a great gift to begin the slow process of healing. The blizzard dissipated, leaving everything hushed by a serene blanket of white snow. With everyone else inside to enjoy the day off, cozy with family before their fireplaces, the world outside remained quiet and pure, unspoiled. A new beginning. We alone emerged, tentatively, into that peaceful silence; tentatively, we entrusted part of our broken selves back to the Creator.

The next place we felt comfortable was in church, the Saturday night Vigil. We didn’t have to make meaningless small talk or look anyone in the eye. Others prayed by candlelight; we simply stood, holding onto the stillness from the previous day, letting the prayers wash over us. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee. The prayers in preparation for Sunday, the day of resurrection ­­already, but not yet. For Thy Name’s sake have I waited for Thee. We sat in the hushed service together, keeping watch before the icon of St. Anna the Prophetess, who is practiced at receiving children. We decided to commend our lost child to her, and to remember her with the same name. From the morning watch until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Perhaps we could relearn how to commend ourselves to Christ, too.

Let us commend each other…
The close community at St. Vladimir’s carried us. Two priests came to see us shortly after it happened. They listened, they prayed; they assured us we could always call on them. They were kind and wise in their brevity. Perhaps one of the best lessons in the art of pastoral care.

The best gift our friends gave us at first was space. The second best was food. The evening after our loss came a knock at the door: no one there, just a bag of groceries and warm comfort food. And a note: We’ve been there; we’re here for you. Two of our closest friends. First there was a wave of guilt—how had we not known and acknowledged their pain? Then a stronger feeling, like a firm embrace: they loved us anyway, and there was nothing we could do about it.

We were not prepared for the gentle compassion we received. No one smothered us, but somehow, discretely, we were assured of everyone’s support. Family sent cards. A baby blanket in memoriam. We were even less prepared for the number of friends who had also miscarried. Obadiah. Innocent. Anna. They all had names, icons in the family prayer corner. How had we never noticed? Another couple of our closest friends invited us in. They had been there, too. You’ll never forget her. It still hits us unexpectedly after three years. Tears. Hugs. A deep bond that only comes with vulnerability and shared experience. Only in reflecting back do we see how we made it through.

With every act of kindness toward us, every tear shed with us, every prayer said secretly for us: our friends and family commended us to Christ when we were too lost and lethargic to know where to turn.

Let us commend all our life unto Christ our God.
Slowly the pain dulled, the sobs came less frequently, and we returned to life as usual. We mercifully receded from the spotlight. Nothing would ever be the same, but neither did it have to remain bleak. There were new pains, new fears, new questions; but we were finding a new resilience, and new wisdom. God had not left us during the most painful time of our lives, and in fact, we had never been closer to or more loved by our friends. As we practiced ­­haltingly ­­ giving every thorny part of our life over to God, we found that the pain was not to be avoided or merely endured, but could actually be cultivated into the most precious fruit­bearing tree. Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; Behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Enter again into paradise.

After forty days of mourning, of lamentation, of the cold beginning of a New York spring—Pascha. In spite of ourselves, we dove into the celebration. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Still not yet, not fully. But it felt closer; more certain. We grew to believe with more zeal than ever before. The child that never saw the light of day—her story did not, in fact, end before it began. We hope to meet her one day.

After forty days of paschal joy, of the hope of resurrection and reunion, of sunny days and blooming flowers, we had a memorial service and found out we were pregnant again. At the beginning of this year, our son was born, healthy and happy, by the grace of God. He cannot replace Anna, or erase the scar from our hearts; neither will he be overshadowed by her. Rather, he will grow up under the watchful protection of the Prophetess Anna and the Wonderworker Nicholas. And standing together in our prayer corner, before their icons and by their prayers, we three together will learn to commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.


Andrew, Melissa, and Nicholas Cannon live at St. Vladimir’s, where Andrew is in his final semester of his studies in the Master of Arts program.


Filed under Reflection

Words of life

Sermon, Fourth Saturday of Lent 2016

Gospel readings for April 9, 2016


Imagine, if you will, life as a deaf person. More specifically, imagine all of the things that you can do in the course of a day that would be nearly impossible, or at least significantly more difficult, if you were deaf. How would you wake up in the morning if you couldn’t hear your alarm clock? How would you answer the phone at work if you can’t hear the person on the other end? How could you talk to someone at the grocery store if they couldn’t speak American Sign Language?

Now imagine life as a deaf person in the first century, and not just a deaf person, but mute as well. This existence would have been one of severe limitations, and of austere loneliness and isolation. There were no subtitles, no sign language, no detailed communication whatsoever! This is the picture that the Gospel paints for us today; the man that Jesus heals had to be brought to him, a man who was deaf and without speech. But it is the way that Jesus heals him that is so peculiar; Jesus heals a deaf man by speaking to him. Think about that for just a moment; how many times would someone have spoken a word, or a multitude of words to this man? The words would have entered his ears and then evaporated into the ether, unheard and unheeded, and the speaker, with a puzzled look, would have eventually given up and walked away.


christhealsdeafman chora church

Christ heals the deaf man, 14th century mosaic, Kariye Camii, Istanbul (Church of the Holy Saviour, Chora)


How many of us are just like this deaf man? The words of those around us enter our ears, good words from good people. But even though they enter our ears, they remain unheard and unheeded. Maybe it’s the council that the priest gives to us when we go to confession. Maybe it’s the advice that our parents give when we’re making big life-decisions. Or maybe it’s something that we read in a book of sayings of the fathers. Whatever the source of the words, so often we, like the deaf man, move on without actually hearing what was said.

But why is it so important for us to hear these words?

So often, after we are approached or reproached, admonished or encouraged, we remain unchanged. For better or for worse, the words of those around us inspire and encourage us. They comfort us, they motivate us, they amaze us, they edify us, and sometimes they trouble us; and these experiences have the power to transform us. And it is the opening of our ears that is the gateway to this transformation. But there is something different about Jesus’ words; they are uttered by the Son of God, and he who hears those words will live. “Be opened!” These words didn’t just enter his ears; they sank deep into his heart, changing him.

Here at the liturgy, we encounter words like the ones that healed the deaf man, words of life. Every Sunday, as we gather for the liturgy, we have an encounter much the same as the one that Jesus had with the deaf man. We listen to the reading of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the epic story of how God came as a man to save his creation from the clutches of death.

We have the amazing ability to be healed, to be TRANSFORMED! Now, there is no guarantee that when these words enter our ears we will hear them, much less obey. But it is these words that have the power to sink deep into our hearts, into the marrow of our bones, into our very beings, opening our ears and transforming the way that we live our lives. These words, these words of transformation, are the words of Jesus Christ.

Now, I know what you’re going to say next; “But Father, there’s so much more to liturgy than listening to the Gospel!” And while I’m hesitant to agree with that statement, you’re right; the liturgy is a Gospel encounter, and an important part of that is hearing the Gospel read and preached, but the work of the liturgy is more varied than just that.

Again we see an example of this in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus speaks words of life that transform the deaf man, but he also touches the deaf man, on his tongue. Now, of course we can be rational and say that it makes sense that Jesus would touch a mute man’s tongue to heal him, where else would he touch him? But this intimate action has deeper significance for us than just cold, rational, logical analog. The deaf man receives words of life, and also the touch of Christ on his tongue, loosing it and allowing him to speak plainly. And what is the first thing that the man does with his newly found speech? He speaks to everyone he meets, telling them of the miraculous things that Jesus Christ had done for him! So too do we, after receiving the sweet Savior on our tongues, receive the ability and the zeal to tell everyone about the marvelous things he has done for us and all mankind! Just as the Psalmist says, so too can we say, “My soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” Our tongues are not just loosened to speak plainly, but powerfully, and with praise.

And so, on this memorial Saturday, the last of the Lenten season for this year, we are given this story of complete healing for our own healing. We are told of the truth of Christ, that whoever hears his words and believes in the one who sent him has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. Because they have heard and believed the words of he who was sent, they are transformed. This is who we pray for at the great entrance when we commemorate those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection of the life to come.

This is that hope; to hear the words of Christ, to let them renew and transform us, and to have tongues that are able to praise, bless, and worship Christ, telling everyone that we meet of the incomparable glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Father Ryan Bishop is a third-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Fr. Ryan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies from Columbia Bible College in 2006, and a Joinery Foundations Certificate in 2008. After several years in the cabinetry industry, he decided to work for himself from home, making furniture and looking after his two children. In 2013, the Bishop family embarked on their journey to New York, in order for Fr. Ryan to participate in the Master of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s. He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on February 28, 2016, by His Eminence Irenée, Archbishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada.

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Filed under Homily