Volume 3, Number 11

November 21, 2012

Theme: Giving Thanks Always and for Everything


Introduction from the Editor

by Deacon Jason Ketz

First World Problems

by Andrew Boyd

Our Joyous Response to God’s Blessings

by Rebehak Moll

Seeing Christ in Unexpected Places 

by Barbara Soroka

Giving Thanks is more than Saying Thanks

by Richard Ajalat

More information about our writers and contributors can be found here.

Introduction from the Editor

November 21, 2012

by Deacon Jason Ketz

Thanksgiving, or ‘giving thanks,’ is one of the most dominant themes of both scripture and the Christian tradition. Not merely an annual celebration, giving thanks is a daily responsibility for followers of Christ. But why is thanksgiving so central to Christianity? What are we doing when we give thanks to God?  Certainly, all of us learned in elementary school and even in Sunday school to make lists of things that we are thankful for. But is that really all that God expects of his children?

Giving thanks is also one of the common threads that connecting the Old and New Testaments. Our first encounter with scriptural offering of thanks is not through Jesus, or through St Paul, but at the heart of the Pentateuch, in Leviticus 7. And at its core, Thanksgiving is a sacrificial offering to God.  Different from the sin offering, the guilt offering, the atonement (kpr) offering, the thanksgiving offering combines the peace offering and the cereal offering into a single liturgical rite. And the Law of Moses offers very strict guidelines for when and how it is to be performed.

Of course, neither the ancient sacrificial rite nor our modern list of thank-you’s are, of themselves, what God expects of us.  The proper human response, and the fullness of our giving-thanks, is the state of mind that undergirds each gesture. Below each form of thanksgiving, old and new, is a change of heart; an awareness of our relationship with our Creator and our Redeemer.

Such a high understanding of giving thanks also developed in the Old Testament. Psalm 50 (LXX Ps. 49) poetically explains that the point of sacrifice is hardly the sacrifice itself, for God has no need for such things. “Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps 50:13-15). The change that thanksgiving brings about inside of us is a powerful one. We can only give thanks to God once we recognize that we are his creation, and as our creator, all blessings have God as our source. This is a significant correction from our “default setting” of entitlement. Ultimately, through giving thanks, we are offering up our own self-control, our own will, as a sacrifice to God, and accepting in its place the mercy that God continually shows us.

But to offer ourselves as a sacrifice (in any sense of the word) is a frightfully difficult challenge. A challenge so great, in fact, that it was only perfected through Christ’s own self-offering. Paul tells the Ephesians that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2), and he did so by giving up the authority that was rightly his, in order to achieve something greater for us all (cf Phil 2:5-13). And when Christ became a sacrifice for us, he fulfilled all of the need for sacrifice (cf Heb 9:26, 10:12), but also set for us an example of the proper relationship between God and Man.
This relationship is none other than communion with our Lord, which we refer to as an offering of “Thanksgiving,” the Greek translation of the Eucharist. Now, in a spirit of thanksgiving, we approach our Lord at the chalice. But our position is unique. At the same time that we offer ourselves as sacrifice (Rom 12:1) and offer as a community “a sacrifice of praise,” we now partake of the sacrificial meal, as did the Levitical priests of old. And by placing us in this position, Christ has restored us to our proper place in the world. We now stand before him as the priests of his created world. Through the Eucharist, we are able to fulfill the vocation given to Adam and Eve, that we live as ministers of creation, under Christ, the High Priest (Heb 5:5, 9:11).

It is in precisely this role that we hear the Apostle Paul’s injunction to the Thessalonians, that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Th 5:18).  It is for this act of thanksgiving that we were created. It is not mere piety that drives our gratitude. As the beloved of our Lord, thanksgiving is our proper response to his salvation.

But what does this look like in the world? Such talk of our high calling as humans must eventually come face-to-face with our daily lives, our earthly reality. So how, then, is the fullness of our thanksgiving manifest?  How do you and I move beyond Old Testament Sacrifices and Church School “thank you” projects, to actively show our thanks in a way pleasing to God? What does it look like, and where in that process do we encounter Christ?

Four authors have considered such bold questions, and offer to all of us their reflections on the subject in this season of Thanksgiving. Each has wrestled with the challenges of giving thanks to God for (or perhaps despite) what surrounds us, and each has come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be thankful in the eyes of God.

Mr Andrew Boyd speaks to the sad necessity of a “wake-up call” that we all experience, in reflecting on Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the East Coast. Only in the midst of tragedy can we actually separate what matters most from what we are fooled into prioritizing on a daily basis. Boyd further reminds us of the centrality of thanksgiving in our faith, and in our existence as Eucharistic beings. Mrs Rebekah Moll approaches Thanksgiving through a thoroughly Christian lens: Joy. As she highlights the wisdom of several female theologians, she leads her audience along her own path of learning to maintain her relationship with God through the simplest of “thank-you’s.” Through these small gestures, Moll asserts that we are able to truly rejoice in our salvation.  Mrs Barbara Soroka relates several profound experiences in her work as a Special Education teacher. Through her work, she challenges the conventional model of presenting Christ to others through our daily actions. Instead, Soroka very clearly identifies that she has met Christ through those with whom she works the hardest, and then only when the interaction is allowed to happen without all of our self-imposed social constructs. Finally Mr Richard Ajalat calls into question perhaps the greatest myth of our age. Reminding us that we, as Christ’s disciples, have been called to action, Ajalat offers us all a powerful reminder that giving thanks is much more than merely saying ‘thank you.’
As you all settle into the Advent fast, and prepare for your own Thanksgiving celebrations this week, I hope that you all spare a moment or two for reflection on precisely what it means to ‘give thanks’ as a Christian. It takes a different shape for each of us, but our calling as God’s creation, and our ministry to the world, is certainly to “Give thanks for everything, at all times.”

Wishing you all a blessed Thanksgiving and start to the Advent season.
Dcn. Jason Ketz
Editor, Wonder

First World Problems

November 21, 2012

By Andrew Boyd

I can’t Facebook. I can’t check my fantasy league. I have to wait in line for gas. Starbucks is closed (No, I don’t drink coffee, but what’s the point of writing if people can’t see you do it). My 4G Network is down. This is what gets me upset. Not that people are homeless, hungry, and cold (or dead). But my life has been personally inconvenienced in what only can be considered minute and superficial ways. Many are homeless and cold, some have lost everything, I’m merely living in a world unplugged from social media and political news.

Lower Manhattan without power

Why does God allow seemingly random bad things to happen? Is he trying to punish us? I for one don’t believe in a God who rains down supernatural punishment upon His sinful people in the form of super-storms. After all, after sending His Son to be crucified, what more can our God do to correct our behavior and send us on the road to salvation? But that doesn’t answer the questions, it just shuts up whatever talking head is blabbing on TV, using this tragedy (or any other) to get his or her name “out there” by making outrageous claims about God’s will and intention.

An interesting thing happened to many of us in the Tri-State Area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) these past few weeks. As we clean up and get back to life following Hurricane Sandy, our perspective dramatically changed. For many of us, deprived of internet, phones, and the ability to travel, quiet reigned where there was once self-involved and distracting noise. Suddenly, we were stuck only with the people right in front of our faces, and cruelly forced to acknowledge them. What a dramatic change in lifestyle.

As the electronic world came back to life, fully four days after the storm, I actually saw pictures of what was happening in New York City, in Southern Long Island, on the Jersey Shore. Unimaginable devastation, human pain and suffering, loss of life and property coupled with chaos and lingering anxiety. Disbelief was my first reaction, followed by frantic calls to loved ones and friends as the cellphone network limped back to life. Thankfully, everyone I know was alive and safe, though many others were not so lucky.

In all the swirling and unreal confusion of the past three weeks here in the Northeast United States, that emotion, that perspective, kept coming back to me again and again, in terms of thanksgiving. Short periods of deprivation from my technological world made me profoundly thankful for the wealth and convenience of my modern life. I was thankful for the safety of my friends and family, thankful for the heroic efforts of so many first responders, thankful for power crews from across the country, and even thankful for some days of quietly reading by candle-light instead of compulsively checking my smartphone. As I passed a Red Cross relief truck on the highway last week, I became thankful for the ability of so many, even in our cynical age, to give so selflessly. One OCA priest relayed to me the absolute surreal experience of seeing IOCC at work in his own neighborhood.

Clearing Storm Damage

Father Alexander Schmemann always taught that human beings were created for the sole purpose of giving glory and thanks to God, of being what he would call “doxological and Eucharistic creatures.” We are created to be in communion with God through thanksgiving to Him, for we know the very word “Eucharist” has as its root the Greek verb “to give thanks”. God made us to be in communion with Him and each other by giving thanks and glory to Him. In our current life however, in the noise and self-involvement of our daily tech-enabled routine, it’s so very easy to forget God and your Neighbor. I am eternally thankful to God for this profound tragedy, because it forced so many of us to open our eyes to our neighbor, and give thanks to God for his abundant blessings and constant love. This attitude of thanksgiving is not the whole answer to the eternal question “Why does God allow bad things to happen?”, but for me, writing this on my laptop in my heated apartment watching cable, it is perhaps the most relevant answer.

Our Joyous Response to God’s Blessings

November 21, 2012

By Rebekah Moll

As a high school teacher I have been very blessed to develop trusting relationships with some students.  One of my students, a devout Christian who is very open about her faith once asked me, “how do you keep God in your everyday life?”   I thought about the times in which I was most aware of him and found that it was when I was simply saying thank you.

Thanking God for the simple things reminded me of a book I was lead to read, The Ascetic of Love[1] in which Nun Gavrilia’s words emphasized the importance of thanksgiving as a sense of joy in the Lord,

When we become truly conscious of the gifts of God, we no longer have the time to ask for anything.  We keep going and saying Thank You….Thank You…Thank You…Thank You…  We see a person…Thank You…We see a flower…Thank You…We see a glass of milk…Thank You…Thank You….for everything!  And such a joy enters into our life that many, even of those that are close to us, cannot understand what’s all this.  When I lived in England sometimes people asked:  What’s up?  Why are you so happy”?  “Because I am alive and I see you…Good day to you”!

“We see a flower…”

Likewise, Matushka Juliana Schmemann said something similar in her lecture “A Joy to Serve” posted on Ancient Faith Radio.[2]

 Empty yourselves and be grateful just for being alive, for a morning, a day, or sunshine for solitude.  One can always find something to be grateful for, even .troubles, tribulations and suffering because they teach you to be strong, forgiving and full of light.

When we take the time to give thanks, we become aware that nothing comes from us.  My student’s question led me to further reflection to a period in my life when I was very “me focused.”  I have always been a busy person, occupying myself with all things that interested me, from teaching to taking college master courses, to coaching extracurricular activities, to working with youth outside of school through church, through having a husband, etc.  There was a point in my life when I was doing all these things and I became so worked up about things when they did not go my way or there was trouble along the way.  I did not realize it at the time, but I wasn’t giving God credit for anything.  I was constantly relying on myself which brought about a great deal of anxiety and worry.

It wasn’t until a quiet drive home from a day of teaching that God let me know that something was missing in my life and I realized it was Him.  Yes, I went to church and yes, I said my prayers, but I realized that amidst my actions, I wasn’t allowing Him to actually work in my life.  I realized my egotistical ways and my sin of pride.

I realized that I needed to hand things over to God and not do things for myself anymore.  Without giving thanks for all things we end up trapped in a spirit of pride and we forget where all things come from, good and bad.

I started to take baby steps, praying before and after tasks thanking God for allowing me opportunities and abilities.  I began to recognize that I am nothing and that God is everything.  He does not need me, but I need Him.

Again, this notion is emphasized by Nun Gavrilia[3] when she said,

It is you who must be grateful, immensely grateful.  When you become conscious of that, you will have God’s blessing.  Do you know why?  Because when God wants to help someone – you , for example – He will send somebody to do it.  This somebody could be anyone.  That is to say, if God had not sent this particular person, He would have sent another one.  You would have been helped anyhow.  “My help is from the Lord.”  Who am I therefore – this ‘anyone’ – to take pride in helping?  Sometimes we hear someone say:  “If it weren’t for me, this could not have been done”!  and other such nonsense.  Whereas everything would have been done!  Do you understand why?  Because, as we are told God can make children for Abraham even out of stones and send them to help the world!

The idea of letting God take charge is also addressed in Dorotheos of Gaza:  Discourses and Sayings:[4]

A man standing in need of everything from God is ready to make progress; he knows how he will make progress, and cannot be puffed up.  He does not rely on his own abilities but attributes to God everything he does right and always gives thanks to him.

If we refuse to let God in, what we do is meaningless. There comes a sense of peace when you realize that no matter what, He is in control.

Saint Dorotheus of Gaza

“I’m not so good at this, but I believe it is when I thank Him for even the little things life brings,” was my reply to the student. So you see, even my student asking that question was not an accident!  It helped me to realize the meaningfulness of thanksgiving – to put together these moments in my life to find the deeper meaning – that in order to truly experience a sense of joy in our Lord, to praise God and be (re-)united with God; we need to give thanks for everything and to always give everything up to Him!

[1] Nun Gavrilla, The Ascetic of Love, 3rd Ed. (Athens: Tertios, 1999).

[2] Juliana Schmemann, “A Joy to Serve” Women Disciples of the Lord, Part II in Voices from St Vladimir’s Seminary Podcast Series. July 6, 2011, 37:31. The podcast is hosted by Ancient Faith Radio (ancientfaith.com)and can be heard at: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/svsvoices/women_disciples_of_the_lord_part_two

[3] The Ascetic of Love, 3rd Ed. (Athens: Tertios, 1999).

[4] Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings. Cistercian Studies Series, No. 33 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1978), 259pp.

Seeing Christ in Unexpected Places

November 21, 2012

By Barbara Soroka

I have the best job in the world, hands down!  A lot of times, when I tell people I work as a special education teacher with children who have autism, their reaction is to tell me that I must be a special person, be particularly patient, or have a big heart.  I want to answer back, “No, not at all.  It is my students who have shown me how to really be present in a moment with another person and how to recognize the love and face of Christ in the person looking back at you.”

The Face of Christ in the Other

There is a story that tries to describe what it is like to have a child with special needs, to encourage parents to be thankful for the little things.   It’s called “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley.  The story compares the experience of having a child with special needs to the experience of planning a trip to Paris, and you are looking forward to seeing the Eiffel tower and the Louvre.  But when you finally board the plane and begin your trip, the plane is diverted to Holland.  The author points out that though your expectations must change, you can still be grateful for the windmills and tulips.  While the message is a good one, there are a lot of people, including myself, who feel this comparison is bit too Pollyanna-esque.  Sometimes the experience of caring for a child with special needs is closer to that of the plane landing in war-torn Somalia.  It is much harder to give thanks in these circumstances.

Welcome to Holland!

As their teacher, I often struggle with this same problem.  There are those days and those students who I don’t know how to help.  When the tantrums just won’t stop and shoes are thrown across the room.  When a non-verbal child bites or hits because he can’t tell me to leave him alone, that he needs a break.  On those days, I leave work haggard and longing for a desk job.  Some people say, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” but, on those days, I’m pretty sure it’s possible.  The best response I’ve heard to this feeling was from a father of a child with autism.  He said, “We do get more than we can handle, and it’s at these moments we remember how much we need God, how much we need to fall on our knees and beg Him for help.”

While the autistic spectrum includes an umbrella of traits that present themselves in many different ways, there is one common trait that affects almost all those people diagnosed with autism: “a qualitative impairment in social interaction,”  to use the psychology jargon. People on the spectrum don’t relate to others in the same way most people do.  The social rules we pick up on through observation and experience don’t imprint themselves on people with autism in the same way. But it is this same “social impairment” that allows you to see the face of Christ staring back at you in these children.

This impairment in social interaction obviously affects the teacher/student relationship as well.  Most young children are already socially conditioned to try to please a teacher.  Often, student use their charms to ingratiate themselves with you.  Children with autism often don’t have that conditioning.  When I’m building a relationship with a child with autism I have to leave social niceties behind.  Until you really do this for the first time you don’t realize how much we use those niceties to cover who we really are when we interact with people.  A child with autism only truly interacts with me when I let go of the social role of teacher I might try to present.  In return, I get the most amazing gift of all, an interaction with another person in its purest form.  Since children on the spectrum are not hampered by social convention, and therefore are not embarrassed when they act in a manner outside this convention, they are free to be perfectly themselves.

The best example of this was during my first year of teaching.  I was right out of college, and, because I’d had some experience working as a student volunteer at a school for children with autism in college, I was given the job of teacher in the class of the lowest functioning children in the school.  One of my students was Al.  He had a reputation as being a tough, physically aggressive kid, but was one of my favorite students right from the beginning.   He is the one who shaped me into the (hopefully!) competent teacher I am today.  Al was practically nonverbal, but very smart.  He had a lot of common sense and was great at solving problems.  The difficulty with being smart and non-verbal is that it is very frustrating to be unable to communicate your feelings.  Overall, Al was great to work with, but we were trying really hard to help him communicate, and that meant a lot of pushing.  So when he needed a break, when we had done too much and I wasn’t picking up on his signals, Al would bite, hit, kick, spit – anything to let me know he’d had enough.

As intense as Al’s displays of aggression were, his displays of love were every bit as intense.  Every so often in my classroom we would have dance parties.  We’d put some music on and dance around just to get the kids moving and interacting with us and each other.  One day we turned the radio to a salsa station and, when he heard the music, Al started to weep.  He started to say, “Mom” over and over, and couldn’t be comforted until we turned off the music.  When I called home to let his mom know what had happened, she laughed.  “He was just missing his momma,” she said.  “Al and I dance to salsa music together a lot.  It’s our special thing.”

Sometime later Al and I were waiting in line for the bathroom with the rest of the class when he turned to face me and started stepping on my feet.  I assumed he was getting aggressive.  “Oh no,” I thought, “here we go again.”  I was just about to tell him to stop when he reached up and put his arms around my neck, looked into my eyes and started to sway.  That’s when I realized he was dancing with me, reaching out to interact and, without any words, say, “I’m so happy to be here with you right now, in this moment.”  It was the first of many moments where no words were needed, no typical social interaction occurred, just pure emotion and joy, the face of Christ reflected in this little boy.
Moments like these have allowed me to have a better understanding of my relationship with God.  Experiences like these have shown me how to simply feel love and joy without any hindrance.  And for that I will be forever humbled and thankful.

Giving Thanks is More Than Saying Thanks

November 21, 2012

By Richard Ajalat

Every Thanksgiving we reflect on what we are thankful for in our lives. We often come up with the same generic answers year after year. Through high school my answers were always family, friends, the church (I learned at some point not to mention video games and toys!). As I got older, I added different organizations to my list, like SOYO and OCF.  We all have this list. We were taught in Kindergarten to make it, and we have done so ever since, in our heads if not on paper. And there is nothing wrong with being thankful for our possessions, but is that what Thanksgiving, or “Giving Thanks” is really about? Is making a list and saying ‘thank you’ what our Lord expects of us? Is that what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he encourages us to be thankful for all things at all times?

In fact, I think that the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ It’s not a matter (usually) of what we are thankful for, but how we choose to show our thanks. Certainly we are on dangerous ground when we expect our Thanksgiving list to match our Christmas list! But when we distill our thanksgiving lists to the things that are truly important to us, such as food, shelter, and loving relationships, this is certainly what our Lord expects us to be thankful for, because these are unquestionably blessings that God has given us.

The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) address the needs that people have, and the blessings that the Lord extends. Humans need basic things in life – food, clothing, shelter, love. And these blessings all come from God the Father, who is the source of all blessings.

Sermon on the Mount

Certainly, God has provided all of these basic human needs for me. As is likely true for most of you, I can’t count a single day in my life that I was without such blessings as food, clothing, shelter and companionship. And we’re all grateful for these blessings. But saying “thank you” isn’t enough.

At some point, we all got this idea in our heads that ‘giving thanks’ means ‘saying thanks.’ But that’s not what Christ teaches. He does not say “sit back and enjoy your blessings. (cf  Luke 12:15-21) Rather, the expectation is that we will provide others with blessings, too. Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ teaches his famous passage about the final judgment. And how does he judge us? Jesus says, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and your clothed me, I was sick and your visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46). He doesn’t even mention whether we thanked him for having such things ourselves. He is interested merely in whether we paid such blessings forward, so to speak. Those who loved others are rewarded with eternal life. And those who do not love others, well…things don’t end so pleasantly! Why would our Lord take such an interest in our behavior toward others, but not in our response to the Lord himself?  Because there is no difference! It is simply impossible to say ‘thank you’ to God while we ignore those people around us who may not have been blessed the way we have been.

Thanksgiving is an active process, the same way that loving a person is an active process. So the correct response – the correct display of our gratitude for God’s blessings – is that we work to provide these same blessings to others. These are the things that Christ commanded us to do.  He didn’t ask us, he commanded us.  And he didn’t say tomorrow or some day, but today.   We can serve our communities in so many different ways.  Just look around to find someone who needs help.  Better still, just have the courage to ask.

What are some of the ways we can show our thankfulness by helping others?  We can go and help at a homeless shelter and feed the hungry.  We can teach Sunday School.  We can visit sick or lonely people.  We can tutor a child.  After liturgy, we can talk to someone we don’t know instead of going straight to our friends.  We can just say a kind word to a cranky person at the grocery store. It’s not easy to prioritize these activities – to prioritize others in our busy lives.  But this is our high calling as followers of Christ.

When we do these things – when we reach out to others as a way of expressing our love of them and our gratitude toward God – something else is accomplished: we witness to the Gospel. We show these people just a glimpse of Jesus Christ in our outreach, often without mentioning Him at all.  Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel always and if necessary, use words.” Through our actions we express our thankfulness.  As Francis demonstrated to  us by the way he lived his life, through our actions we show love and thankfulness, and more importantly, we show Jesus Christ to our fellow man.

It is through our Christian actions and interactions with others that our generic ‘thank you’ list becomes personal and acceptable to God.  And people no longer need to ask what we’re thankful for, because they can see it in our actions.  By this type of active response, we have shown that we are truly thankful to God for our family, friends, and His church, for our very lives,  and for our salvation.

“Thanksgiving is an active process”

Volume 3, Number 11, Authors and Contributors

November 21, 2012

Deacon Jason Ketz is a deacon at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis, MN. He and his wife Elizabeth have three children (Sophia, Patrick, and Natasha). He is a graduate of Arizona State University and Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and works in the medical device industry. He is the editor of this blog. 

Barbara Soroka is a Special Education Teacher in New York City.  She is the daughter of Fr. Michael and Valerie Zahirsky and married to Michael Soroka, a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. She has a graduate degree in Special Education from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. She grew up in parishes in Erie, PA and Queens, NY. 

Rebekah Moll is a parishioner at St. Mary’s Cathedral (OCA) in Minneapolis, MN and is a high school English teacher. She has a Masters in Education from the University of Minnesota. She is married and the proud mother of a two month old daughter.
Richard Ajalat has a Bachelor’s degree from St Mary’s College in California and is completing his final year of studies in the Master of Divinity program at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Born in Lebanon during the war, he grew up in Los Angeles, CA, attending St Nicholas Antiochian Cathedral there. 
Andrew Boyd is the Director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry for the Orthodox Church in America. He grew up attending Saint Alexis Church in Clinton, CT and attended the University of Connecticut and Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He enjoys fly-fishing and yelling at cable news channels.