Blessed 2019

In 2018, I chose both a personal word, as well as word for our parish of Saint John. My personal word was “faithful.” I want- ed to be faithful to projects I started, faithful to eating better, faithful to exercising, faithful to family and friendships, and most especially faithful to God. I’m not sure how I succeeded in any of these things actually. The one word, while easy to remember, was certainly a challenge to incorporate into life on a daily basis. I guess that’s why it’s good that a New Year is coming, and with the New Year, I’ll choose a new word.

The word for our parish was “engaged.” The idea behind this word was that we wanted to move people from being “active”to being “engaged” in both the life of Christ and of the Church. It is possible to be active in church without being engaged. An example is someone who attends Divine Liturgy, even every Sunday, but doesn’t participate in worship. They are active, in the sense that they are physically present, but they are not en- gaged, or involved, in worship. As with anything in life, change generally occurs slowly, so, as with my personal one word, our parish one word had some good results but certainly could have been better.

I asked each person in our parish to choose one word to define your 2018. In fact we even created a “wordle” on a large board and posted it in the hall. I don’t know whose word is whose. Each person who chose a word will know how they did with it.

With 2019 upon us, I wanted to use the one word theme again personally, and for our parish and I’d like to encourage each of you reading this message to consider choosing a word of your own which will define your 2019. (I’d like to ask that you email me your word by January 10, so we can create another“wordle” for our hall for 2019—you can email me at frstav@gmail.com and all you have to email is your “one word”).

The word for our parish for 2019 is BLESSED.
There are many aspects to this word “Blessed.” Allow me to reflect on four of them.

Counting Ourselves Blessed - An Attitude of Gratitude

Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from Above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17

Many of us are familiar with this line of Scripture. In fact, this verse is quoted in a prayer near the end of the Divine Liturgy. This verse of Scripture, as well as the line in the prayer, acknowledge that everything good that we have is a blessing from God. One cannot feel blessed without a sense of gratitude that every blessing we have is from God and that everything good that we have is a blessing, not an entitlement. Each day we wake up, we are blessed to have woken up. Each bit of food we have is a blessing, so we are blessed every time we eat.

Clothes, a home, a means of transportation—think where we’d be without these ordinary and mundane things. So even the ordinary things we have are blessings for which we should feel grateful.

Next we come to the important things—our jobs that allow us to provide sustenance for our families. Our ability to have a job comes from a talent that God has first blessed us with. So, jobs and talents are blessings. Then we come to the more ex- traordinary things—marriages, children.

We move next to the beautiful things in life—marriages, chil- dren, family, close friendships. These are all blessings that ul- timately have their origin with God. So, if we are married, or if we have children, or if we have a family, or if we have close friendships, we are blessed.

Next, we move to the sublime—These are the things that we take for granted, but if stopped to think about them, they are the greatest blessings. We have air to breathe, water to drink, sun- light to warm us and allow plants to grow. We have wind and rain. We have all the processes of the human body—from its ability to heal and fight off injury, to intelligence, laughter, lungs, hands, feet and heart. There are so many blessings that each of us has.

Finally, we move to the Divine—Through the Lord we have our very being, forgiveness when we make errors, purpose, and the most important blessing of all, the potential for salvation.

The person who is blessed has an “attitude of gratitude.” Read over the preceding paragraphs on even the worst of days and you’ll see exactly how much we are all blessed. Family, mar- riage and children aren’t even the greatest blessings. They don’t come ahead of salvation, or even the gift of life we’ve all been given.

The first way that we manifest the word “blessed” in our lives is to be grateful for what we have, rather than being upset with what we don’t have. We also learn to see even the smallest things as blessings. We feel blessed even in the mundane. An average day can become better if we feel blessed to be alive.

So much of what trips us up in life is an attitude of entitlement. We feel entitled to each day, so bad days happen when things don’t happen as we feel entitled that they should happen. If we approached each day as a blessing, just to be alive to start the day, then each day will start out great no matter when mundane or even difficult things it may hold. Think about how different

So much of what trips us up in life is an attitude of entitlement. We feel entitled to each day, so bad days happen when things don’t happen as we feel entitled that they should happen. If we approached each day as a blessing, just to be alive to start the day, then each day will start out great no matter when mundane or even difficult things it may hold. Think about how different life could be if it was approached with this attitude.

Count your blessings today. Feel blessed for all that is good in your life. Feel blessed that God has given each of us a path to eternal life and today is one blessing on the continuum of that journey. If we start actually counting our blessings, we will all realize that we are each pretty blessed, regardless of what chal- lenges we have in our lives.

Start your day with an attitude of gratitude. Count your blessings. Feel blessed.

Do I Have God’s Blessing? - The Need to Focus
Blessed is everyone who feast the Lord, who walks in His ways! Psalm 128:1

In the Old Testament, when a man’s father was about to die, he would go to him and ask for his blessing. The son would want to know that whatever he was doing was going to be under the umbrella of his father’s blessing even after his father died.

We are all children of God. He is our Father. In doing the things we do, do we think about whether we have His blessing. But then we try to rationalize the things we do, thinking that certainly God would bless whatever thing we want to do. I re- cently heard a podcast that got me thinking about God’s bless- ings in a different way. The speaker said that rather than ask God to bless what we are doing, that we should be doing what God is blessing.

So, how can we know that we are doing what is pleasing to God, that we are doing what God is blessing? Well, there are two things that we know are never wrong—it is never wrong to love God and it is never wrong to love our neighbor. We don’t have to wonder what God’s reaction will be, whether He will bless us or not, if we are loving Him or loving our neighbor. We know that God is love and God blesses gestures of love towards others.

There are two ways to look at behavior as it pleases God each day. The first is to ask for God’s blessing often. It is to ask God to help us to keep things under His umbrella throughout the day. We have discussed this before, but when a Metropoli- tan or Bishop serves at the Divine Liturgy, the priests and dea- cons who serve with him bow to him before every line or movement to receive his blessing. In the case of the Divine Liturgy, this provides good order and makes it more certain that priests won’t speak over each other. Each of us makes dozens of decisions each day. Imagine asking God for a blessing before each of them. Here are some examples:

Upon waking up—Ask the Lord to bless your day Before breakfast-Ask God to bless your food After breakfast—Thank God for the food you ate.

Before getting in the car to go to work—ask the Lord to bless your commute. That doesn’t mean to ask Him to make every light green or to break up rush hour traffic. It means asking the Lord to keep you safe and for you to keep others safe. It means asking Him to bless you and to help you in turn to bless others. Asking for His blessing and for help to be a conscientious driv- er will undoubtedly make us less likely to drive like a maniac, have road rage, or be texting while driving. Why? Because we’ve just asked God for His blessing.

After getting to work—thank the Lord for your safe arrival. Ask Him to bless your day.

Before a contentious meeting—Ask the Lord to walk with you into the meeting.

Before lunch—Ask the Lord to bless your food.

After lunch—thank God for the food you ate and ask God to bless the work you’ll do in the afternoon.

And this list could go on and on for events throughout the day. If we are continually asking God to bless us as we go through- out our day, then we are never going to be too far away from Him.

The second way to look at behavior is not to ask God to bless what you are going to do, but asking God, and I mean, asking in prayer, “Lord, help me stay focused on the things You are blessing. Let everything that I’m going to do today be some- thing that You have blessed.” We know what is right and wrong according to God. We also know what is right and wrong according to us. And we also know the gap between what we think is right by us and what we know if right by God. Many times, we rationalize what we are doing as a way to bridge that gap—i.e. I know this isn’t “quite right” but hey it’s still better than most people. If we want to bridge this gap, then we should ask God for the strength to do His will and the strength to fight the temptation to do ours.

Someone recently asked me what is the purpose of life? The answer simply is, “to glorify God.” If everything we do, say, think and plan glorifies God, then we’d have the perfect life, we’d be saints. The bar is set extremely high. None of us can hit it. But that should stop us from trying. That shouldn’t stop us from trying to live in step with God. For the very righteous, this is still a life-long struggle. However, there are many who don’t even make a struggle of it—they just give in to what they want and don’t give much thought to what God has blessed us to do, which is to glorify Him on earth, so that He will glorify us in heaven.

To do all this requires a lot of focus. Which again comes back to why we pray so often. Prayer helps us to maintain focus. It helps us to stay under the “umbrella of God.” It helps us to keep doing the things that God has blessed, rather than the things we want to do, or the things we try to rationalize Him blessing.

Don’t just ask God to bless what you are doing. Work to do the things that He is blessing!

Sharing My Blessings with Others - A Spirit of Generosity

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abun- dance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8

If everything we have that is good is a blessing from God, then nothing is truly ours. And if nothing is truly ours, we should be eager to share what we have with those who are in need. The information in the following paragraphs of this section was tak- en from a podcast, as well as from my sermon on December 2.

Imagine that you go to a McDonald’s drive-thru and you buy your child or grandchild some French fries. You decide not to order any for yourself, because you tell yourself they aren’t healthy. Then you give the fries to your child in the backseat of your car. They smell so good, you ask your child for a few fries. And your child says “Hey, these are MY fries, and I don’t want to share them.” And you think “Hey, I drove over here, I bought you these fries, without me you wouldn’t have them, I made it possible for you to have them.” This is the opposite of generosity. God blesses us with so much, from the very air we breathe to our freedom to another day of life, and yet we have a hard time reciprocating His generosity. A part of what it means to be blessed is to share our blessings with oth- ers. To give back to others from what God has first given us.

You are reading this message because someone passed the faith on to you. Maybe you’ve had it your whole life and you re- ceived it from your parents. Maybe you’ve discovered it in adulthood because you heard the message from a friend or through an article or in some other way. At some point, some- one told you about this faith.

Itisourdutytopassthefaithontothenextgeneration. Psalm 78:4 says We will not hide them from their children but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord and His might, and the wonder which He has wrought.

What legacy will we pass on? We will hopefully pass on our faith and our values. Which values? Our society values a lot of things today that are ungodly and unhelpful. The Bible identi- fies three specific values that are timeless. They are found in I Corinthians 13:13: So faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

In the Bible you will find the word “faith” used 246 times. The word “hope” is used 185 times. And the word “love” is used 733 times.

The word “give” appears 2,285 times. The Bible says more about generosity than faith, hop and love combined. Why does the Bible talk more about generosity than these other things? Because generosity is an expression of faith, hope and love.

Generosity is an expression of faith—it says that God will take care of my needs so I don’t mind giving things away.

Generosity is an expression of hope—it says that my hope is in heaven, not just to get a bunch of things here. So, I can give away my things.

Generosity is an expression of love—you can give without loving but you can’t love without giving. Your generosity is your heartbeat. Where your treasure goes, that’s where your heart goes. How generous you are correlates with how your heart beats for God.

Love is about giving. You can’t love someone without being generous. In loving someone, we give what THEY need, not what they deserve. God gives us what we need—forgiveness, redemption, salvation—not necessarily what we deserve. Love is about blessing others with what they need, not what is com- fortable for us to give. Love includes sacrifice. And sacrifice is hard.

One legacy we want to leave with our son is that we want him to be generous. We want him to be generous with his time, his talent, his treasure, his encouragement, his compliments. We want him to be blessed with abundance. But we want him to share from that abundance with others.

There are two kinds of people in the world—givers and takers. We want our son to be a giver. We don’t want him to be stin- gy, or have his life be an “all about me” proposition. We want it to be not about counting his blessings but sharing them with others.

Generosity is an essential component of mental health.

Generosity displays God’s character. It shows what God is, a giver—He gives us our next breath, our heartbeat, our freedom. We would have nothing without God’s generosity.

Our money comes from talents, blessings that come from God. Freedom is another blessing from God. God wants us to be generous like Him.

We live off of God’s generous blessings—God gives to all gen- erously and ungrudgingly. In John 3:16 we read, “For God so loved the world that He GAVE His only-Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

God doesn’t want our money—He wants our hearts. God doesn’t want our time—He wants our hearts.

Wedon’townanything—wedon’tcomeintothislifewithanything,we don’t leave this live with anything. Everything is on loan from God. God wants us to be like Him, unselfish, generous. Generosity defeats materialism, the antidote to materialism.

What are we teaching our kids about materialism versus gener- osity? What are we going to pass on to our kids about material- ism? We are getting more and more materialistic, pressure to get more and more stuff. Christmas catalogues come out be- fore the end of summer and the Birth of Christ has become the most important materialist holiday of the year. Instead of re- ceiving the gift of hope from the manger, we are focused more on getting.

Our motto has become “Spend it all, have it all, get it all.” And our goal is to get more and more and more.

I saw a bumper sticker which read: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Itshouldsay,“Hewhodieswiththemosttoysstilldies.”

We can’t take our things with us. Yet materialism pervades every corner of our culture. It’s all about “get, get, get, get all you can.” Buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t even like—Keeping up with Joneses.

Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 (and in Luke 16:13) “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (money)”. He does not say that we “should not serve God and money.” He says that we cannot.We cannot have two number one goals—only one can go first. We can say “I want to serve God and I want money.” We can- not say “I feel so blessed by God that I don’t want to share my blessings with anyone else, particularly people in serious need.

One things goes first—it’s either God, or its money. If God doesn’t go first, what is the blessing in life that goes before Him? Whatever that is is our idol. And idols can’t forgive, idols can’t give purpose, and idols can’t give us a home in heaven.

Nothing should go before God—no career can meet your life needs like God can, no person, not your spouse, or children.

Jesus talked more about money than heaven or hell. Why? Be- cause it is the number one thing that keeps us from God. Thinking that life is all about things keeps us from getting to know God.

So put yourself in the place of the child in the back seat of the car. You’ve received the blessing of a large order of tasty French fries. Will you give back some of your blessings to your Father, by sharing them with others? Do we eagerly give back to God what He first gave us?

There is no loving without giving. And one who is blessed eagerly shares blessings with others. To be blessed is to have a spirit of generosity.

Turning My Blessings into Praise of God

And Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21

It is easy to feel blessed when everything is going well. It is easy to praise God when we feel abundantly blessed. But how about when we don’t? What about the times when everything is going wrong? There are people reading this message FOR SURE that don’t feel blessed right now. Maybe they’ve lost a job or fallen on financial hard times. Maybe their marriage isn’t the greatest or their kids are having a hard time. Maybe they are having a crisis of conscience or a crisis of faith. It’s easy to tell people to “count your blessings” but we all know thattherearetimesinanylifewhenblessingsseemfewandfar between.

Perhaps the truest test of this word “Blessed” is to be able to see good in all things, to find blessings even in hard times and to turn those blessings into praise of God. The Bible verse above is from the book of Job. The story of Job is 40 chapters long. In the first two chapters, Job is afflicted by Satan with all kinds of calamities. He loses his possessions, his family and his health. He loses everything that is important. But he doesn’t lose faith. For sure his faith is challenged. For 37 chapters he cries out to God to help him. He asks the hard questionsofwhydidthisbefallhimandhowwillhesurviveit. Hestaysfaithfulandinthelastchapterofthebookisrewarded by God for his faithfulness.

His statement in Job 1:21 is very poignant. Job said, Naked I came from my mothers womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job recognizes that all he has is from God. Eve- ry blessing is not his to possess but a loan from God. He didn’t come from the womb with anything. He won’t die with any- thing. He understood that the Lord can give and take away, the same way that an owner can lend or recall from a tenant. And

despite his calamities, Job managed to say “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” If we continue reading to verse 1:22, we will read this: “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”

Nothing worthwhile in life is easy. The journey to salvation is hard. So is the one word exercise. Both can be filled with meaning and reward. We know the journey to salvation will bring infinite reward if we finish the journey. And the journey through one year with one word will bring reward as well. Im- agine how your life could be if you could appreciate your bless- ings, do what God has blessed, share of your blessings and still feel blessed on the bad days. Imagine how you’d feel after a year of this. You’d be a changed person.

This is the challenge I’m giving to our parish—to count our blessings, to do things that God has blessed, to share of our blessings (both sharing our personal blessings with the church and sharing our church’s blessings far outside of it) and still feeling blessed during the bad days and hard times.

You may find that a different word would be better to define your 2019. But I encourage you to pick a word, define how that word will shape your year, set some goals related to your word and then check in with your word on a daily basis.

If you are looking for a “Theme song” based on this one word“Blessed,” there is a wonderful song called “Blessed be Your Name” by Matt Redman:

Blessed Be Your name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow Blessed be Your name.

Blessed be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place Though I walk through the wilderness Blessed be Your name.

Blessed be your name
When the sun’s shining down on me When the world’s “all as it should be”Blessed be Your name.

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering Though there’s pain in the offering BlessedbeYourname.

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord Blessed be Your glorious name.

You give and take away You give and take away
My heart will choose to say Lord,blessedbeYourname.

We don’t need a long list of resolutions to have a life-changing 2019. You can change your life, believe it or not, with just one word!

+Fr. Stavros