Saturday, September 16, 2023

"The greatest school in the world is the Church..."

(AOC-ANA) - 

My dearly beloved,

I am asking you today, what does every Orthodox family need? However, this question is not just for families that are in church today, but for the families who are at home, and families who have lost their way to church. 

There are so many families that I have served. I have buried their great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children. I have churched and baptized several generations of children and grandchildren. We have celebrated countless Orthodox weddings, and as a community have stood as a pillar as the example of how Christian love and values can prosper and grow. This is the Great Commission that Christ has given us: to love one another as one family and one Church.

Today, we must hold onto the sacred traditions of the Church. It is not the food, but the Holy Orthodox Faith, even though both can be part of how we express love. Our faith can only be practiced in and through the Church. The faith that we experience in worship is what we take home and live out, on a moment-to-moment basis within our families.

With the beginning of Sunday School, we are also returning our children to public or private schools, or—in the case of my grandchildren—to daycare and the first experience of learning. This education provides so much knowledge, but not the knowledge of God and His Holy Church. This secular education does not promise a future of healthy families. The only true school left for us in these times is our Church, which holds onto our sacred traditions.

From ages past, scholars, theologians, and our Church Fathers testify that Holy Tradition is necessary for the stability of humanity, especially for our Orthodox family. This gives us what we believe, what we practice and how we worship, and offers us a totality of faith. The gospel, the icons, the sacraments, the hymns of the church, the Liturgy: these are a permanent, stable force in a changing world.

Sadly, so many families today do not come to church or send their children to participate in the activities that teach our Holy Tradition. Parents must realize that by participating in school on a daily, weekly, and seasonal basis their children will grow with the knowledge taught in school but not with the knowledge of Christ and His Holy Church. Knowledge without virtue is deadly. Schools feed our minds, but the Holy Church feeds our souls and places healthy and loving thoughts in the space that is now reserved for despair and confusion.

Sometimes, parents are focused on making millions of dollars or striving for material things, and they keep their children busy with extracurricular activities. They believe that the "best" thing to do is to get their kids involved in the world. While feeding the minds of their children, they are forgetting to feed their souls. What do these children have to look forward to if they are 18 or 19 years old and lack the desire to have their own families following Holy Tradition? 

The greatest school in the world is the Church, because it gives us a strong foundation for our family. Schools feed our minds, food feeds our bellies, but the Church feeds our souls and keeps our minds and bellies in check. I am not opposed to sports activities or music or horseback riding, or even to big lunches of kibbee, lamb, and falafel. However, as we look at today's Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 16:13-24, we hear that parents must testify to a greater strength within themselves to raise children in this secular world. St. Paul writes, "Be on your guard, stand firm in faith, be courageous, be strong, but do it in love."

Our faith protects us from the storms and attacks directed at our families, with unshakable ground to navigate the challenges of life. Yes, America is "free" but today it is complicated by politicians and school systems with false messages that confuse and divide the family. This new ideology and secular faith offer no boundaries for right and wrong, no morality for justice or injustice, and this belief system allows darkness to flow like a social contagion into the hearts of our families. It is at this point that our families can be lost to the awareness of God's love.  

Today, we are called to stand fast in our faith that has been passed down to us from Christ, through the apostles, to our grandparents, and then to our mothers and fathers. Our Orthodox Christian Faith is a living relationship with our Lord that instructs us on the ways of love, guiding us in how to raise a blessed Orthodox family.

My dearly beloved, standing strong in faith means we are to emulate and constantly reflect on the virtues of courage, humility, and self-sacrifice. It means to put aside our own selfish desires and build into this generation good character, modeling for our children our godly actions and disciplined speech. Our faith teaches us to honor our fathers and mothers, elders, grandparents, and even our enemies. Each and every Sunday, our worship reminds us of these words spoken by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). With one mind, we may confess one Lord, one baptism, and one holy Church.

What is the Church? Throughout the world, Orthodoxy has survived without Sunday School programs because the best teaching is found through the Liturgy. This encounter between us and the living Lord every Sunday is a living witness to who we are. The Church, my dearly beloved, is a training ground to aid families and their children with faith and virtue. It is where we learn to practice love, patience, and forgiveness. As St. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:3-8, "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

My dearly beloved, I am passionate about this issue because I have seen America change from a nation who welcomed us and provided for us, but yet now wishes to change us. The Theologian and Apostle John tells us, "Let us continue to love one another for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God, but anyone who does not love does not know God; for God is love" (1 John 4:7).

To each family within the folds of our Holy Church, I ask that you stand firm in faith, act with spiritual maturity and clear minds, and remain watchful for the coming of the Bridegroom to the bridal chamber. Let our families and homes become sanctuaries of God's presence, where husbands and wives exercise spiritual leadership and mutual edification for each other's souls; where children learn the blessing of obedience to others and to themselves; where in grace and love of God they honor their parents, just as you have honored your parents.

I want to wish all those going to school, regardless of your grade or degree, God's blessings! May you learn not only facts and reason but also the Lord's revelation and wisdom. The world needs these virtues, and Orthodox Christian families need the Holy Church.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.


Fr. George H. Shalhoub, pastor of Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, Mich., offered this homily on Sunday, September 3, 2023, as families were preparing for the start of the new school year. 

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