In the Old Testament book of Genesis, we read the story of the life of Joseph who was the son of the Patriarch Jacob (aka Israel) and Rachel. After Joseph had been sold into slavery out of jealousy by his brothers, he later would rise to become the highest official consultor (vizier) to the Pharoah of Egypt.
His brothers years later would go to Egypt during a time of great famine to buy food. There they would stand before the vizier, not recognizing him to be their brother whom they betrayed and forsook many years before. Eventually, Joseph would reveal his identity to them and say the words, “As for you, that evil you did against me intended to harm me, God has meant it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Over the last several months of this year 2020, our country and world have seen the effects of the trials and tribulations of severe political divisions, pandemic disease, economic devastation, police abuse of authority, injustice, discriminatory prejudice and lawlessness in the streets. Ironically, I am reminded that this year a hundred years ago, marks the falling asleep in the Lord of St. Nektarios of the Greek island of Aegina in 1920.
St. Nektarios suffered many of the same things that we are enduring today in his life then which even included a pandemic known as the Spanish Flu of 1918. He understood the time-tested principle of wisdom that all of these bad things, though caused by Satan, are allowed by God Who is in control of all things in His Divine Providence.
St. Nektarios knew that it was in suffering that God gives us the opportunity to grow and be sanctified (theosis) in His image and likeness by shaping our character. Throughout his lifetime, he was victim to abuse, malicious gossip, slander, alienation, discrimination, unemployment, homelessness and poverty. Though he felt sad and alone during the hard times, he did not allow himself to fall in despair because he saw all of these things as opportunities from Christ out of His love for him to seek union with God.
St. Nektarios patiently endured suffering and yet he did not wallow in the mire of victimhood. He went out of his poverty and alienation and sought to be a servant to others in the name of the Risen Jesus relying totally on the power of the Holy Spirit.
None of this is new. It is part of the groaning of creation awaiting renewal of the cosmos of which the Apostle Paul writes of in Romans 8:18-27. The only difference between 1920 and 2020 is that we live in the digital age.
As a whole, the churches and other houses of worship in North America and Europe should have been at the vanguard of leadership during this time of crises. Instead, they retreated into oblivion, into the comfortable confines of silence.
Now granted, there were levels of mandated necessary compliance to governmental regulations imposed by the state in relation to public worship services and congregational functions ostensibly in an effort to stem the effects of the pandemic. Yet, it was the silence of the churches as an absent collective voice of encouragement which was deafening. No denomination was spared of this pox.
On a positive note, I can, however, point to shining examples of Christian leaders whom I personally know who showed us the way of true pastoral ministry and shepherding during this time.
I think of the leadership shown by Archbishop Nikitas Lulias of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain. Although his churches were under strict closure order and restrictions during this time, he still organized and led the opening of food pantries and other ministries to help those in need in the city of London. He encouraged all of his parishes to do the same throughout the United Kingdom.
I think of the leadership shown by the Jesuit priest Fr. Thomas S. Acker in rural Ohio who at nearly ninety-one years of age still maintains a full pastoral care ministry to all who call upon him during this time when other much younger priests were in lockdown in their rectories.
I know both of these men very well and I know that when they read this article, they are going to be embarrassed that I acknowledged them in this way because they don’t do what they do for self-congratulatory recognition. In fact, I point to their examples at this time, to emphasize the positive fact that it can be done.
In spite of all the negativity with which we are bombarded with seemingly on a daily basis, we can receive encouragement that it can be done. These are the types of examples of Christian leadership that we can seek to emulate. Instead of churches waiting to receive governmental PPP bailouts, the churches should be good stewards who are seeking to serve and not waiting to be served. Yet, we wonder why the world looks at the Church as candied and irrelevant.
The Apostle James the Brother of the Lord who was the first Bishop of Jerusalem would write about this very thing saying, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their times of affliction and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world” (James 1:27).
If the Church can’t or won’t rise up to fill the gap for this, what is it all about? We can do all of the most elaborate religious services in the most opulent raiment, and yet without the proper disposition, we are nothing more than modern day Pharisees who are just long-robed fanatical madmen screaming in the town square.
With mindfulness of these things, let us be as Joseph and St. Nektarios when confronted with abuse, abandonment, betrayal, injustice, sickness and turmoil. Though the Evil One and his minions, both spiritual and human, intend our harm and destruction, we can trust in God throughout. We can see through the darkness to the reality that God has intended our suffering to be redemptive, if only we seek Him.
About the author
John G. Panagiotou is an Orthodox Christian theologian, scholar, and professor. Dr. Panagiotou is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, received his doctorate from Erskine Theological Seminary, and is completing a second earned doctorate in theology at Pontifex University-Holy Spirit College. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Path to Oikonomia with Jesus Christ as Our Lighthouse.”
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