"A time is coming when people will go mad and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.' " (St. Anthony the Great)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Feast of the Saints of Vardan

Below is the text of a speech I prepared for tonight at the Eastern Diocese,
on the occasion of the Feast of the Saints of Vardan.

The account of Saints Vardan and Ghevond in the History of Eghishē has been reinterpreted over the centuries. Tonight, it was requested of me to speak on the topic: what does the Feast of the Saints of Vardan mean for me as a future priest of the Armenian Church? So, here I go, standing in the tradition of reinterpretation.

I could stand here and talk about how Armenians may have lost the Battle of Avarayr but we won the war, about the unity of our Christianity and nationalism in the person of Vardan, and so on. But the Feast of St. Vardan, to be quite honest, does not mean much to me as a priest-in-training of the Armenian Church. It does not even mean much to me as an Armenian-American. The level at which it does resonate with me, however, is as a human being.

The Armenians were given a choice: either renounce their religion or face the consequences. And I find it interesting that the bishops received the letter from King Yazkert, responded to it, and the military backed them. Another interesting point is that there were some Armenians who supported an alliance with Persia. The history of the events is rather complex. But anyway, let us take that ultimatum seriously, and say that the Armenians had been living peacefully and respectfully under the Persians, paying financial and military dues, while maintaining their religion.

Now, I would like to comment on the term “religion”, because in that time it meant much more than its current connotation. Religion, as philosophy in its Ancient period, did not mean merely a belief system, something which includes religious practices, but a lifestyle. This way of life for which St. Vardan was willing to fight, this patriotism, was one which allowed the Armenian’s political allegiance to be given to a foreigner, but did not allow Armenian morality to be compromised.
Our lifestyle is determined by our morality, and our morality is in turn determined by our beliefs. Yes, we as Armenians are Christians. But what do we do with that fact? What does that even mean to us? What are we willing to do for our faith? Am I willing to die for it? If I am not sure that I would be willing to die, then—and this is the ultimate question—how far will I go to try to live up to Christ’s example? Rather than our Christianity providing answers to all questions, it raises even more.

God, how much am I willing to give up for myself to serve You by serving others? This is a question not only for me as a seminary-educated deacon, serving as a pastoral intern in the preparation for the priesthood. That would be easy. But as a Christian, I have to answer that question—we all must answer that question—every single day of our lives.

However, St. Vardan knew that Christ was the answer to all of his questions. He confirmed his answer not only with his time, his money, and his efforts in life, but with his blood. He did so, according to Eghishē, without fear, for fear is a sign of doubt. St. Vardan’s answer at Avarayr was his last on this earth, his last before going to be with Him whom he confessed.

And I also see St. Ghevond with the soldiers on the eve of the battle, being with them, speaking to their hearts, celebrating the Divine Liturgy, baptizing them, comforting and encouraging these men who were facing certain death. So then, I have to ask, “St. Vardan, could I have been with you—could I have been with you and died with you?”

As the Saints of Vartan were inspired and encouraged by the blood of the martyrs before them, through their martyrdom, may we also be inspired and encouraged to die to ourselves, to our egos, on a daily basis for the sake of Christ and for others.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

who's the boss and were do I fit in?

I know I am not alone. Many people see room for improvement within the Armenian Church. In my own attempts to convince myself that it would be best not to be paralyzed by my own criticisms (and those of others), I think that I must act. However, as soon as I act, I look around and see others who have acted and been criticized (at best) or ostracized (at worst) for their efforts to improve something they love—the Church.

This is not something new; in fact, Armenian youth have been talking about their spiritual hunger, stemming from an "internal malaise" as the "Williams Bay Manifesto" (see below) phrases it. The document may very well have been drafted today, but in reality was written over 40 years ago. Forty years, and what has changed?

One priest who was involved in the formation of the "Manifesto" said that the youth of his generation made one mistake: they did not go far enough. I think he was called to action precisely to aid in the healing of the AC's internal malaise, as well as some others. (They are easily identifiable. See Armodoxy blog and 1 Kings 19:14-18.)

Is the AC as a museum (merely a structure preserving
what once was) . . .
Can I join their ranks? Is it my place to do something and, if so, must I be a priest in order to accomplish anything? Can anything really be done at all, or shall the AC simply continue on its merry way with or without my involvement? This is indeed a serious path of inquiry with which I have to grapple, and in which, I think, I am not alone.
Firstly, I have abandoned any notion that the AC will not survive. It shall indeed, though its form may be more Armenian and less Church. 
We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to tend a blooming garden full of life. 
—Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), regarding the Church.
Much more can be said, but enough has been said.Secondly, with regard to what I have to offer: compared to the power of the Holy Spirit, I am nothing. Without Christ, I am nothing.
. . . or a blooming garden full of life?
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
—Jn 15:4f.
It is indeed rather refreshing, and liberating, to remember Who is in control. Whatever happens, God is running the show. That does not mean that I am, or anyone else, is absolved from their responsibility to serve (the Church, others) and to use what resources that have been given to them (in the form of talents/charisms, physical stuff, the earth, finances—in short, everything we have) responsibly, but I will return to this term "responsible" after this break from a sponsor.—
A thousand years ago you and I were nothing, and yet the church was preserved at that time without us. He who is called "who was" and "yesterday" had to accomplish this. Even during our lifetime we are not the church's guardians. It is not preserved by us, for we are unable to drive off the devil in the persons of the pop, the sects, and evil individuals. If it were up to us, the church would perish before our very eyes, and we together with it (as we experience daily). But it is another who obviously preserves both the church and us. He does this so plainly that we could touch and feel it, if we did not want to believe it. We must leave this to him who is called "who is" and "today." Likewise we will contribute nothing toward the preservation of the the church after our death. He who is called "who is to come" and "forever" will accomplish it.
—Martin Luther,  "Against the Antinomians" (1935)  
—And we're back! So now what do I have to do with it, if God is taking care of everything? Well, I return to John 15 (vv. 1-3 this time). "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you." I must bear fruit. What that fruit is for me and what that fruit is for you may look differently, but nevertheless we all must bear fruit, whether we are ordained (priests, bishops, or the Catholicos), or be pruned. Branches that do not bear fruit are pruned. These branches are not entirely cut off, but will bear more fruit.

Bear with me while I provide another agricultural example, this time not from my dad. He taught me about water-stressing pomegranate trees while they are young. The idea is that you diminish the water supply to the plants, forcing their roots to go deeper into the earth in their search for water. Once they are provided ample water again, they are more resilient to drought than trees that have not been stressed. It is time to dig deeper, to extend our roots further in our search for the living water that Christ provides us.

Let us be responsible (told ya I would come back to that) in the truest sense of the word—that is, let us respond to what God has done, is doing, and will do for us with love toward God, our neighbors (= everyone), and ourselves.

Let us pray to the Lord that we may not be found among those who are vile on the day [we will be held] responsible (from the Morning Service of the AC (
told ya I would come back to that)) in the truest sense of the word. Put another way: let us respond to what God has done, is doing, and will do for us with love toward God, our neighbors (= everyone), and ourselves. Let us also pray for the strengthening of the Holy Church (հաստատութեան սրբոյ եկեղեցւոյ), for our Catholicos, the hierarchy, and all the faithful, that we may always grow in openness to the work of the Holy Spirit. The call is for all of us to tend the garden. Please ask yourself and pray about these fundamental questions over the next several days or week, "What do I want from the Church that I am currently not receiving?" and "What am I doing for Christ to see that change?"

(This post is a combination of some of my thoughts over the last couple of weeks coupled with an article in Christianity Today (January 2011), "The Enduring Church" by J. P. McNutt.)


The world is in an age of revolution, a time of changing and becoming. The Church, if it is to be relevant to the world, must speak of God’s will in terms of today. Christianity is not a religion for the timid, for it takes courage and strength of conviction to resist that which is comfortable, convenient and traditional in favor of God’s will, which may at times be difficult. Christ continually calls His followers to renewal, reform, and revolution.

As the youth of the Armenian Church, we are disturbed by our Church’s refusal to be a part of the twentieth century, to face the urgent and real problems of today, and to seek Christian solutions to them. Poverty, hunger, disease, wars, racial tensions, social discontent and turmoil sear the world around us, and yet our Church concerns itself mainly with erecting costly buildings and monuments and amassing material goods, rationalizing that it is necessary for self- preservation. We want our Church to see beyond its own interests, to share others’ sufferings and problems.

At present, in the mind of many Armenians, the Armenian Church’s primary function is to act as the defender of nationalism, to protect Armenians from assimilation. This is indicated by their fear of reform, for they worry that with change would come a certain loss of identity. On the contrary, we feel that specific reforms would bring increased dedication and enthusiasm, a renewal and rebirth of our Church.

Apathy and spiritual indifference pervade our Church life. Few Church members have that sincere relationship with God which is the basis of Christian living. We, as the youth, are not simply condemning the adults of our Church; we can see the same problems among ourselves. The ACYOA is suffering from an internal malaise; membership has fallen off, only socials and dances are well attended, spiritual growth has come to a complete standstill.

The time has come when we, the youth of the Armenian Church, can no longer in conscience allow ourselves to be used as instruments for the preservation of a Church which is living in the archaic past. We feel we must make known our discontent with the present antiquated and meaningless structures and institutions and our desire to ameliorate the stagnated condition of the Church which is ours. We are told so often that the Church belongs to us; therefore, we have not only the right but the duty to see that our Church relates to the present day, and thus, becomes meaningful to its members. We are committed to action... the watchword is revolution. Our revolutionary commitment and action addresses itself to a radical concern of making Christ live and grow in our Church and members. We are now resolved to speak out and act in accordance with the dictates of our conscience in all areas of life within and without our Church, wherever Christ is being crucified anew.
Presented at the ACYOA General Assembly 
September 2, 1968
Williams Bay, Wisconsin
(The "Manifesto" is also found here.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Theophany (Appearance of God)

Today, as we celebrate the feast of Theophany in the Armenian Orthodox Church, I thought I would share the translation of this hymn done by Dr. Edward G. Mathews of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary:

A wonderful and great mystery
is revealed on this day!
Shepherds sing with angels;
they announce good news to the world.

A new King is born in the city of Bethlehem;
O sons of men, bless Him,
for He became flesh on our behalf.

He whom heaven and earth cannot contain
is wrapped in swaddling clothes;
not separated from his Father,
He rests in the holy manger.

Today the heavens above rejoice
at this all-illuminating good news,
and all creatures put on the garment of salvation.

Today Christ, the Son of God,
is presented to us in the manger,
and a multitude of fiery beings
come down from heaven to earth.

Today the shepherds
behold the Sun of Righteousness,
and with the angels begin to sing
“Glory to God in the highest!”

From the hymn Խորհուրդ Մեծ ("Great Mystery")

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

you put your right hand in, you put your left hand out

In the AC, as well as others, we tend (read: love) to recognize, thank, and praise donors. It encourages more competition donations, right? Parish newsletters enumerate donations at various levels; dioceses do this as well. Look around any parish and you will notice several plaques all over the sanctuaries (look on stained-glass windows, pews, paintings) and halls. They can be found on the altar table; and names are engraved even on chalices. Everybody knows what was given by whom (even if the person’s name is forgotten after a couple of generations, but never mind . . .).

Okay, this is obviously not an Armenian parish,
but you get the picture.
They have no reward in heaven. If you think I am being harsh, I am not—Christ is just telling it like it is.

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt. 6:1ff.)

I think it comes down to a fundamental issue of faith. Do I really believe that I will be rewarded in heaven for what I have given during my life on earth? If I do, does it not follow that I would want to donate as anonymously as possible? Why, then, would I put my name on a wall, engrave it on a chalice, ... ? Even when the plate is passed, do I look at what the other person is putting in it (forget the fact that it is usally a dollar, regardless of the financial position of the parishioner)? Do I care if others see what we are putting in? I appreciate the practice of the Coptic Church (and perhaps others) that use a bag into which the people place their closed fist with whatever they are giving. Did the person to the right of me just put in a dollar or a wad of one hundred dollar bills?

I believe that the clergy have an obligation to explain this very simple concept to their people, since I think that many do not even know (read: have not read Mt. 6) of what they are robbing themselves.

Last word: we have no reward in heaven when we receive it on earth. When you give, the choice is yours: where do we want your reward to be? 

Monday, November 29, 2010

money and nakedness

In a recent conversation regarding financial matters of a parish, I brought up the idea of tithing.  My example was: let’s say the parish has 200 dues-paying members, and the average household income is (very conservatively in this case) $30,000, then if every member contributed 10% of the gross income (only $3,000 per family per year, $250 per month), the parish would receive $600,000 per year.  The response was that this is certainly not an Armenian mindset.

My response: yes, it is a paradigm shift, that what we have is not ours to begin with.  We come into the world naked, and we leave naked (cf. Job 1:21; Ecc. 5:15).  I may live until I am 80 years old, I may live until I am 28—what matters is what I do during those years with what I have.  This, as you might imagine, made them (who are older than I) rather uncomfortable.

I went on to explain that the ultimate purpose of tithing really is not for the church’s benefit alone—though $600,000 would certainly aid any parish (and its ministries to the poor, the sick, the elderly?)—but for our own as well.  There is a lot of discussion about whether or not we ought to tithe as Christians (Abraham did it (Gen. 14:18), and it is in the Law (Lev. 27:30; Num. 18:26; Deut. 14:24; 2 Chron. 31:5)), if we should tithe our gross or net income, and other weird things which may or may not be important, but generally we do not discuss why we ought to tithe.  Tithing, in fact, is more to train us for something with which I think we all might struggle: what we have is not ours.  We are merely stewards of gifts which God gives us (cf. Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 4:7; Lk 19:11-27; Mt. 15:14-30; contrast with Acts 5:1-11).  If we consider even living is a gift, does it not follow that everything in this life is a gift?

What are we doing with that which Christ has entrusted to us?  In the parable of the minas (or pounds) in the Gospel according to St Luke, Jesus uses rather strong (and even violent) language, “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me” (Lk. 19:27).

To be honest, God does not want simply 10% of our income, but he wants all of us.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (Rom 12:1f.)

We tip waiter/waitresses 15% (at least, hopefully) of what
they bring us, but do we give God 10% of what he gives us,
let alone 100%?
How much better off would our parishes (and their ministries?) be if I thought less like an Armenian and more like a Christian?  How much better would my life be if I realized that what I have is not mine, and actually lived that out?  How much do I, in all honesty, trust God?

My challenge to everyone who reads this: no matter what you make, decide on a percentage to give and try it for a year. (10% is a good start, but it could be 5%, or even 1%.)  See if you do not notice a change in your way of seeing your money, your possessions, your life.  My guess is it will not take nearly a year to see change.

Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. (Job 1:21)

One of the multitude said to him, "Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?" And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." And he said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! (Lk. 12:13-24)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

we are his little ones

We love, because he first loved us. (John 4:19)
I remember growing up, going to Sunday School, and singing "Jesus Loves Me". I know the words (By the way, check out the many other stanzas, they're really cool.), I repeated them countless times, yet often I forget that Jesus loves me. I just forget.

I think many are in the same situation. We want to feel loved, we want to feel important, we want to be cared for—and we are, I think we simply tend to consider the wrong sources. If we remember that God already loves us, we are important to him, and he cares for us, what more do we need from anyone else?

I want to be important in my job.
I want to do something meaningful with my life.
I want to effect positive change in the world.
I want to feel important within the life of the Church.
I want to have a voice.
(Are you with me? Do you feel the same way?)

These things do not really matter. Who do I think I am, really? I am important, I am cared for, I am loved. And so are you: you are important, you are cared for, you are loved.

You do not have to believe me, but read your Bible. The message is in there too. Pray, have some quiet time with God today. You do not even need to talk—just listen. It may be somewhat difficult at first, because in our society we are so used to talking and noise. Fight it; fight it with all you have. And if/when you realize that you cannot do it alone, pray that God give you that strength.
"I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)
In fact, read the whole passage of Mark 9:14-29. Get out your Bible, or read it here. Trust me, it is worth it.

Okay, so "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Now what? We should (and I do not use this word very often) listen to what he tells us to do. He loves, so we are to love him and others (cf. Lk 10:27). When we do not want to love others (of course, this never happens (sarcasm)), let us remember that he loves us, and he loves them just as he loves us. Even if we do not like it, it is true. St Cyril of Alexandria said, "He stretched out His hands on the Cross, that He might embrace the ends of the world" (Catachetical Lecture 13.28). That means you and everyone else.

Now go out there and love!
He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. (Hebrews 13:17)
I have often heard criticisms regarding the hierarchy of the AC. Indeed they cannot make everyone happy, nor do I think that is (or ought to be) their aim. I only hope that they are concerned with our goodness more than our happiness (a lesson Ter Ktrij taught me regarding marriage).

I am not the Catholicos of all Armenians; I am not a bishop; I am not even a priest. Therefore I do not have their perspectives. I see certain things in a certain light because I am me, in my position. Why does the Catholicos not allow more English in the Patarag? I do not know--why not ask him? He has such a broad perspective on the state of the AC, as well as a particular vision for it. Whether or not we agree with him (or our bishops, for that matter) on certain issues, is irrelevant. 

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. (Romans 13:1ff.)
I am sure that there are some times where their decisions may not be completely in line with God's will (they are, after all, merely human), but there is something to this whole obedience thing, something that teaches us humility. This humility which allows us to serve those above us on this earth translates, I believe, to one which allows us to serve the will of God.