Alms Giving, the “Deserving Poor,” and Octuplets

john_chrysostom_russian2 Lent will be here in a few weeks- tomorrow is already the Sunday of the Prodigal Son! This is the time of year when we are preparing to quiet down and concentrate on the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms giving.

Before the days of government assistance, the disabled poor lived on alms. They were called beggars back then. We call them “homeless” or “panhandlers” now. What should our attitude be towards these people? Are they deserving of our help? Oftentimes, we pass them by, consoling ourselves with excuses:

  • He looks like a drunk- he’ll just spend my dollar on alcohol
  • She looks like a drug addict- she’ll just buy drugs with my dollar
  • He’s been standing on that corner for weeks. He should get a job
  • She has a dog- why should my dollar go to buy dog food?
  • I contribute to the Salvation Army. He can go there for a meal
  • My sister hired some homeless people once and they never showed up for work
  • The Bible says “If you don’t work, you don’t eat”
  • I have my own problems- I can’t be giving money away to strangers
  • I tithe at church- I can’t be expected to give more
  • The government should be taking care of these people.
  • My cousin told me that these people make fortune panhandling. It’s just a scam

I once read a sermon by St. John Chrysostom about withholding alms from the “undeserving poor.” I wish I could find it now, but I’ve misplaced it. The gist of the sermon was this: Who are we to judge whether or not a person is worthy of our charity? Is he not created in the Image of God? Are we ourselves worthy of God’s grace? And who knows if our gift might be the very act of kindness that turns the person around. Who knows?

I had the experience a few years ago of riding to a major American city in a car-full of Christian ladies. All along the way, we listened to Christian music and talked about the things of God- what our churches were doing, what Christian books we were reading, etc. When we got to our venue and parked the car, the homeless man on the sidewalk was completely and totally ignored, as if he were invisible. Our group hustled right past him, as if he were of no more significance than the trash that littered the street.

In the spirit of this post, I want to commend the ladies of the women’s ministry of a southern California Calvary Chapel who are volunteering to help care for the children of the woman who recently gave birth to octuplets. Most people don’t think the babies’ mother is “deserving,” and I agree, she’s problematic! These church ladies are going to be very frustrated in the days to come, I think. But God bless them and give them strength! They were able to look past the “undeservedness” and are showing the love of Christ to this family. People will mock them for being duped and being taken advantage of, but agape is not without risk.

Edited to add: In a Jordanville Prayerbook list of daily sins that we might need to repent of, there is this line: “… or if a beggar hath come to me and I disdained him…” (page 45)

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St. Xenia of St. Petersburg

xenia4Today is the day we who are observing the Old Calendar commemorate St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, whose name I have taken. Happy name day, all you Xenias out there!

stxeniasXenia lived in Russia in the 18th century.  She lived a comfortable life until her husband, a military officer, died suddenly at a drinking party.  Xenia was only 26 years old at the time.  She was led by God to give all her possessions to the poor and took up a homeless life of wandering, becoming a Fool for Christ. She reposed in her early 70’s and was buried in the Smolensk Cemetery in St. Petersburg not far from a church she helped build. This church is often depicted in icons of St. Xenia. I’ve posted a photo of this church taken by our friend Dan. St. Xenia was canonized in 1988.

The troparion to St. Xenia:

Having renounced the vanity of the earthly world,
Thou didst take up the cross of a homeless life of wandering;
Thou didst not fear grief, privation, nor the mockery of men,
And didst know the love of Christ.
Now taking sweet delight of this love in heaven,
O Xenia, the blessed and divinely wise,
Pray for the salvation of our souls.

Some links:

http://www.firebirdvideos.com/saintslives/lifeofxenia.htm

http://www.stxenia.ca/en/stxenia.html

My Journey from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy (part 1)

churchlargeI love Facebook.  It gives me the opportunity to talk with people I haven’t seen in many years, people who remember me from my days at Calvary Chapel.  Needless to say, when they discover that I have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy,  they are very curious and would like to hear my story.   Here it is.

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I was raised in a Christian home.  We attended the rustic Baptist church in our rural Ohio community.  I remember a lot of sermons about hell.  Now, I am almost certain that the pastor preached about many other things, but all I remember are his sermons about hell and the Rapture.  I was terrified and had nightmares and in this fearful state I “walked the aisle” one Easter morning when I was twelve and was baptized in Lake Erie soon after.  This episode didn’t calm my fears at all and I always worried that I wasn’t really and truly saved.  It seemed that my salvation was dependant on the sincerity of my confession of faith.  I was never sure I had been sincere enough. In fact, I was totally motivated out of fear of hell and not love of God. Not surprisingly,  I lacked the assurance of my salvation that I was told I should have.  Singing “Blessed Assurance” made me nervous. Nevertheless, I had a specific date I could refer to when people asked when I was born again- “Easter, 1964.” 

I continued attending Baptist churches until I was thirty when the church I was attending in California went through some changes.  A  friend and I tried out the new Calvary Chapel in town.   We stayed at Calvary Chapel Monterey Bay for the next twenty years.   We loved the folksy music and the non-preachy teaching.  My friend immediatley “plugged in” to the active singles group but I didn’t find my niche for many years until I became involved with the women’s ministry.   Eventually, I was a leader and teacher in the women’s ministry, the manager of the web site,  the producer of the daily radio program, one of the directors of the weeky TV show and the maker of the Powerpoint slides. I also began teaching history at Calvary Chapel High School, which began in 2001.  I  didn’t hold all these jobs simultaneously, but to say I was busy was an understatement. I wanted to do these jobs.  I believed in saying “yes” to God and sincerely wanted to be a servant.  However, I also enjoyed feeling important.  I came to see myself as a very important person at church.  

I don’t know when the cynicism began to creep in exactly,  but I gradually became aware of the fact the I was no longer agreeing with what I was hearing from the pulpit on Sunday.   Our pastor was an excellent teacher; it wasn’t his fault. It was basic Protestant theology that I was beginning to question, although I didn’t realize it at the time.   On the one hand, we were told that it was God Who sanctified us and that we couldn’t do anything ourselves except, it seemed, to read the Bible.  God did it all and to think otherwise was “works righteousness.”   But if it was God Who did all the sanctifying,  why were the results so poor?   If  Bible-reading was the path to holiness,  why wasn’t I becoming a more Christ-like, since I read the Bible all the time?  The truth of the matter was that I was becoming a bigger jerk with each passing year.  Reading the Bible and waiting for the Lord to sanctify me wasn’t  working.  I wouldn’t describe the problem in these terms today, but that’s what I was thinking in the year 2002.

So 2002 was the year of my discontent.  I began to privately question a lot of things that were taught and done at church.  Around about this time,  my 22-year old daughter announced that she and her fiancee were planning to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy,  thanks to the influence of a child-hood friend who had become Orthodox after being raised as a Baptist.  I was horrified.  I knew next to nothing about the Orthodox and thought they were simply an exotic version of Roman Catholicism, which is to say, pagan.   I decided to do some research and read Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church.  To my great surprise,  I realized that what I was reading was thoroughly Christian.  In fact,  the book addressed some of the very issues I was privately wrestling with.   I concluded that my daughter could do a lot worse than join this ancient Church and gave her my blessing.   

My own spiritual life was going down-hill at a rapid rate.  I fell into a black hole and actually began dressing in black.   As I helped direct the TV show, I began to view the Sunday morning service as a stage performance which made my cynical attitude even worse.  I quit talking to people.  I wanted to leave Calvary Chapel but where could I go?  We had had it pounded into our heads that Calvary Chapel was God’s cutting edge work for our time.   Yet that summer, I began visiting different churches.  I visited the local  Lutheran, Baptist, non-denominational  and Pentecostal churches.   They were all the same. They all sang the same repetitive,  happy-clappy songs and had the same sermons.  In fact, they all seemed like pale imitations of Calvary Chapel.   I was thinking about leaving the world of churches entirely.   They were all the same and none of them offered what I needed to cure my sick soul.  Time to toss in the towel, I figured.  

Once Sunday morning, when my cup of discontent was at its fullest,  I decided to visit St. Seraphim’s,  the Russian Orthodox Church here in Seaside.  All I knew about Orthodoxy was what I read in The Orthodox Church and I had no idea what to expect when I opened the front door and stepped inside.   All my senses were affected.   I heard heavenly music,  which was the  choir chanting ancient hymns in (what I thought at the time was) Russian.  I smelled sweet church incense,  which was quite different from the Asian incense I was used to.   It was a small room, and all the people were standing- no pews.   The walls were covered with icons.  I was prepared to hate the icons- it was one feature of Orthodoxy where I didn’t find The Orthodox Church to be convincing.  But it was the icons that did it for me.  There was Isaiah,  there was John the Baptist,  there was St. Nicholas,   over there was St. Mary,  and up front was Jesus Himself.  It was like visiting an elderly aunt and finding photographs of all your long-lost relatives on the mantel.   I  had not been in that church building more than five minutes when all my faith came rushing back to me, all at once.  All my cynicism and doubts left in a moment.  I was home again.

How could it be that incomprehensible singing,  a whiff of incense,  and a roomful of religious art could restore my faith so completely?   All I can say is that it was a work of God.  As I stood there in a roomful of mostly elderly strangers,  I knew I had to become Orthodox.  I didn’t know how or when, but I knew this Church had the answers to  my questions.  I knew this place was the hospital that had the medicine my sick soul needed to be made whole.  I walked into St. Seraphim’s that morning a cranky, doubting cynic and floated out an hour later,  basking in the love of God and optimistic about the future. It was a miracle.

It took a few months to disentangle myself from my jobs at Calvary Chapel so I could persue Orthodoxy. I mentioned the Orthodox Church in a casual way a few times to people in leadership,  and they responded with phrases like “those people are trying to work their way to heaven.”    There didn’t seem like much point in announcing that I planned to abandon Calvary Chapel for Eastern Orthodoxy so I just slipped away.   I was chrismated in January of 2003  at the Greek church in Salinas,  taking the name “Xenia”  after St. Xenia of St. Petersburg.   

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That’s enough for now.   Next time I’ll explain some things like Sola Scriptura vs  Tradition,  the Eucharist, etc.   I realize my complaints with Evangelicalism sound a little vague and unformed in this article so I’ll sharpen things up a little bit next time.