Our Foundational Inspiration: A Message From FOCUS’ Executive Director

This Sunday is a special one for all of us who serve, work, support and pray for the ministry of FOCUS.

If you’re reading this, no doubt that includes you.

Today’s Gospel, the famous account of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, is the foundational inspiration for all of our work. As our Lord says to those who provided compassionate service and care to those less fortunate: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).

What a beautiful and yet sobering maxim! 

How often, given the atomized patterns of modern civilization, are we truly attentive to those who are “the least” in our lives and neighborhoods? Yet Jesus calls us to serve not only those who are close, those whom we already like and know, but precisely those who might be least on our minds, who might be ignored or alone or not blessed with the love and support of friends and family. 

Further, in today’s Gospel reading Jesus calls us to pay special attention to the very practical, corporeal needs of those without sufficient food, clothing, and financial resources. Doing so is an inherently spiritual act, because when we give freely and generously, we actually experience a glimpse of God’s very person. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Giving of ourselves ultimately conforms our minds to the image of Christ. As it says in “A Prayer for FOCUS,” which I certainly hope you will make part of your Lenten journey: 

Help us to strip ourselves of our earthly adornment,
that the poor may be sufficiently clothed and fed.
And, by so loving our neighbor,
adorn us with the everlasting pearls of virtue instead.

Where there is suffering, help us to bring Your mercy.
Where there is despair, Your hope;
Where there is pain, You who are the Comforter;
Where there is hatred, You who are Love.

As a Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve, our goal is to empower and walk alongside those who want to follow the calling of our Lord in Matthew 25. Throughout the country, we are feeding, clothing, housing, and serving our neighbors in need every day. Thank you for being a part of that mission, as a volunteer, advocate, or supporter.

With prayer and love in Christ, and wishes for a blessed Lent,

Seraphim Danckaert

***

This Lenten Season, join our journey through “40 days with FOCUS,” a special weekly blog series where you will hear Lenten reflections from different servant-leaders who work within our organization. We are excited to share wisdom from the men and women who lead our ministries across the country with love and live out the mission of FOCUS every day in their work and lives. Thank you for reading! Make FOCUS part of your Lenten Almsgiving Today 

Compassion Is Divine

Prodigal Son Icon

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 24, 2008

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

What is the opposite of fear?  You might say “courage” and you might be right. But it has been suggested that the opposite of fear is compassion.  I like that answer best.  Where there is no fear there is no need for defensiveness.  Judgment relies on fear. So does hate. Without fear compassion becomes possible.  If we are not defending ourselves, then the way is open to love.  Compassion, I insist, is not weakness. Compassion is strength.  Compassion is divine.

Let’s talk for a moment about the father in the story of the Prodigal Son.  He is fearless. He takes the risk of offering his sons their inheritance before his death. They could have taken everything!  When the younger son decides to take him up on the proposal, the father does not go back on his promise. He doesn’t try to stop him. He freely embraces his son’s freedom of choice.  How many of us could do such a thing?  How many of us, when presented with the opportunity, confirm the freedom of the other to act even in ways that are opposed to our own values and interests?  Most of us are afraid of freedom, but not the father. He demonstrates fearlessness of the highest quality. So high it is divine.  He is the perfect image of God, the One who cannot be pleased or displeased.  He is always the same in all things and towards the obedient and the disobedient,

We are meant to see in the father an image of God, of course, and what of the older brother?  When the younger son returns repenting of his sins and the father graciously embraces him the older son complains.  “How could you take him back like that?”  The older son believes that the father is too generous.  To us, this insane generosity is the source of our hope. God is too generous, too welcoming, too inclusive.  Why, God may even accept us, though we do not deserve it. It is sometimes very hard to accept. The “older brother” cannot accept it.  There are always some who base their belief on a God who is angry and infinitely offended. But how can this be?  The Gospels show us a very different God in the life of Jesus Christ, the living, breathing example of the God who is too generous.

We should note that the older son, in his complaining, demonstrates the opposite. He is wedded to and attached to his grudges.  He won’t let go of his anger.  God is definitely not like that.  The older brother is stuck in the past and we all know what happens when we get stuck in the past. We suffer because the past is an illusion, it is no more, and yet we are trying like crazy people to live in it.  God, on the other hand, is eternally present.

The father, however, demonstrates what it means to live in the present.  He rejoices that his son is home!  The important thing is that his son is now home.  The past is over and cannot be changed, but the present! Oh, the wonderful present!  The son returns with the necessary, miraculous words “I am sorry” on his lips, but the father runs to embrace him even while he is still a long way off. The young prodigal barely has an opportunity to get out his rehearsed lines. Remember what the Lord says?  “The angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents.”  How sad that the older brother was too wrapped up in himself, too self-interested to enjoy his brother’s homecoming.  Notice where he is when the father finds him. He is “out in the fields” in a less dramatic form of self-exile from his father’s house. Self-interest always gets in the way of!  Self-interest blinds us to what is good like nothing else can.

Are you beginning to see a pattern in the Gospels?  I am!  God is generous to a fault.  He has no ego to defend.  God is not offended because God has no ego.  The father in the parable is not offended because he has no ego to be offended!  Only the ego suffers offense. When we feel the pains of offense, the agony of fear, the fire of anger, the bristling of our defenses it is a sign that the ego is at work.  At that moment our ignorance comes clearly on display. Be thankful!  It points the way to repentance.  One of my dearest spiritual fathers and brothers once told me, “Your obstacle is your path.” So instead of getting down on ourselves for having such thoughts and feelings we should give thanks and learn the tools that will allow us not to attach ourselves to them.  That is, we need to learn and practice continual watchfulness so that we do not sin.

We also must not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we are justified and that those negative thoughts and feelings are an unavoidable part of who we are. Heavens no! We are made in the image of God!  That junk cannot define us unless we let it. Instead, we need to open our eyes and see the truth that our suffering comes when we give in to the temptation of self-interest.  “Don’t you dare stand in my way,” we shout.  Or like Madonna, we shout from the rooftops that, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.”  But we do not need to go down that sinful path. No indeed. We can, if we choose, keep those negative thoughts and feelings from carrying us where we do not wish to go.  But we must catch them quickly before they do so that we can make the wise choice of turning aside from temptation while the freedom remains as an option.  The point of all this is to move beyond our own fearful limitations by becoming the love that God is.

I want to thank Tiffany for introducing me to this wonderful quote from St. Maximos the Confessor.

“The one who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of detachment knows no distinction between (what is) one’s own and (what is) another’s, between faithful and unfaithful, between slave and freeman, or indeed between male and female. But having risen above the tyranny of the passions and looking to the one nature of men he regards all equally and is equally disposed toward all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is everything and in everything.”

Who among us does not desire to live like that?  That is passionlessness. That is sinlessness. The person who has passed beyond judgment of any kind is one who has seen God. The one who lives like that is truly free. Nothing evil can touch her.  This is what I see in the Prodigal Son’s father.  A free man. A defied man.

Fear is the fertile soil of offense.  Self-interest is the fertilizer of corruption. God knows no fear. God has no self-interest. Therefore God knows no offense. Therefore, God is All-Compassionate.  Olivier Clement writes:

“In the crucified Christ forgiveness is offered and life is given. For humanity, it is no longer a matter of fearing judgment or of meriting salvation, but of welcoming love in trust and humility” (Clement, 1993, p. 49).

Like the father in the parable is, we must become for he is a perfect image of what God is.  As long as there is anything in us that does not reflect that perfection we must remain outside the Kingdom in the prodigal son’s “foreign land”.

—–

Sermon Transcript Originally published by St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge MA

http://stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/sermons/2008/prodigalson?fbclid=IwAR3Ubci5Ru3c0uO8dALW6JDGlJcCF7gz-1tOxgepmamQ00icR-buAw_ZnIY

What can we give? Where can we grow?

In a previous blog post, we answered the question “Who are the poor?” (Spoiler: it’s not always who you think it is). Why is this important? So we can open our lives to new opportunities to see and serve Christ in each other.  

There are countless ways to define and measure poverty. The idea that poverty is purely based upon financial status (or lack thereof) is shortsighted and limits our opportunities to serve “the poor.”  

Compassion International, a world-wide child advocacy ministry, defines poverty in this way:   

“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.” 

What do you think of their definition?  

We think it does a great job showing how poverty includes economic, environment, education, health, social and even spiritual components.  

These six aspects together create a poverty wheel, a visual tool that we can use to help us re-imagine poverty.  

 

For each person you put in the middle of the wheel, each spoke of the wheel is different.  

What would Oprah’s wheel look like?  

It’s safe to say, her economic spoke would be off the charts…but what about her social slice? We can speculate that maintaining fulfilling relationships with friends and family could be difficult.  

What would a homeless neighbor’s wheel look like? 

 

Their economic spike might be small. But what about the other spokes? We can’t assume that because someone is experiencing homelessness that they are uneducated, for example.  

The fact is, many of our neighbors and colleagues are one hardship or crisis away from homelessness themselves. A truth many of us saw and possibly  experienced during the recent government shutdown. 

What does your wheel look like?  

Many of us have much more than we need financially. Bills are paid (mostly) on time. We have access to health care. We live in a relatively clean, safe, supportive environment. Our comfortable lives make it easy for us to forget that we need to depend on God in good AND bad times. Our spiritual health suffers when we look to our possessions, worldly activities and environment for comfort and help. 

Now, think back to our homeless neighbor. Sitting on the street watching strangers’ feet pass by. Ignored by so many, he or she turns to conversation with God to get through the day and find the strength to wake up again the next morning.  

How often do we talk to God each day? 

The poverty wheel shows us that whether in times of need or times of excess, we should always be looking for areas to give and areas to grow.  

New Year, New Resolutions!

We are officially one week into the new year of 2019! Praise Be to God!

Did you make any resolutions for the new year? How are they going so far? Many of us make resolutions only to look back and realize a month or two later that we have already left behind our “clean slate” mentality and continued in our old ways.

Thankfully as Orthodox Christians, we believe in repentance and regularly pray for our hearts to be made clean, and renewed in spirit.

If we think of the new year “holiday” through the lens of our faith, as Fr. Steven Kostoff states:

“A ‘holiday’ is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of a ‘holy day;’ so a resolution is a more-or-less secular and watered-down version of personal repentance.”

With this mindset, our new year’s resolutions are just another way for us to recommit our hearts to seeking Christ through repentance.

“As members of the Body of Christ living within the grace-filled atmosphere of the Church, we can, in turn, incorporate our resolutions within the ongoing process of repentance.”

Here are some of our resolutions from staff and friends of FOCUS. As you read through, please keep us and those we serve in your prayers! We hope you also consider your own resolutions and how they can be incorporated into our spiritual life of repentance.

Our 2019 Resolutions, from FOCUS Staff and Friends:

To be a good steward of the resources I’ve been given.

Create a center of hope and hospitality this year.

Deepen my repentance in order to cultivate more of the precious and life-giving Holy Spirit.

Be more creative, and specifically to spend more time making things with my hands!

Complete the Master of Arts in Applied Orthodox Theology through Antiochian House of Studies, Balamand University, Lebanon.

Respond positively to every personal, social interaction in which I engage.

Always strive to see the best in everyone.

Attend church services more regularly.

Find joy in the present, especially in the people that are immediately in front of me.

Experience and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation every day.

What are your resolutions?

In The Spirit of St. Nicholas

This Advent season, local Orthodox Communities across the country have been partnering with FOCUS to share their blessings. In Minnesota, moving to a new home provides the growing FOCUS Center a great opportunity to meet new neighbors and share in the joy of the holidays. At FOCUS Pittsburgh, neighborhood blocks become an extended family, where neighbors offer encouragement and build one another up in times of trauma, vulnerability and need. In Detroit and West Central PA, volunteers rally around the needs of local children by packing weekend meals kids who would otherwise face food-insecurity.

Aside from these programs, and more, happening at our FOCUS Centers, FOCUS has been busy serving this winter in new communities! Throughout Washington DC, NYC, Bridgeport, Chicago, and San Francisco, a pan-Orthodox effort has been made to connect with and serve neighbors who are homeless and in need.

Volunteers from each location have been hard at work this Advent Season filling and delivering nearly 1000 totes (aka “St. Nicholas Sacks”) stuffed with hygiene kits, snacks, toys and games to individuals, families, and children. In the spirit of the works of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker himself, FOCUS encourages all to worship God through offering selfless giving and sacrificial love.

The life of St. Nicholas offers us wisdom we can use to guide our own lives. Three lessons that stand out to us at FOCUS after reading a summary of his life are: 1) be kind-hearted, 2) distribute all your inheritance to the poor, and 3) do good deeds in secret.

Be Kind-Hearted

Kindness is a virtue. In order to serve each other, and treat others in a Christian way, we must be kind to each other! In today’s world, it’s more common to ignore people than be kind to them! How many times have you been out running errands, or on your commute to work and turned to a cold heart, instead of a kind heart, to get through it? We should strive to be kind-hearted every day and see every moment as an opportunity to let love radiate from our hearts to our surroundings!

Distribute Your Inheritance to The Poor

Jesus expects us to give up everything we have and follow him. If we want to inherit eternal life, we must give up our inheritance on earth. Today, it is easy to live in a bubble of security and ignore or even forget that there are people in need right outside our doors. Our society values “earning” what you have, and doesn’t trust the idea of giving without expecting anything in return. It’s our responsibility to fight this notion, and give freely to one another in times of luxury and in times of need.

Do Good Deeds in Secret

Of all of St. Nicholas’ lessons, this one may be the hardest! One thing humans like to do in this day in age is talk about ourselves. We can do it 24 hours a day with a live audience that grants positive reinforcement on various social media platforms. When we do good deeds, we want to share them – but the bible tells us to not let the left hand know what the right is doing, and to keep our charitable deeds in secret. When we give and say nothing, we allow our gift to truly serve God instead of ourselves.

FOCUS COMPETING AGAINST TOP 5 DETROIT CHARITIES-DONATE TO HELP WIN $20,000

Detroit, MI Dec. 14, 2018— An outpouring of votes and support for FOCUS Detroit from a city-wide network of volunteers, donors, and local community members earned FOCUS Detroit a spot in Round Two of Detroit News’ Cheer for Charity campaign. FOCUS Detroit is now one of only five top charities competing for the grand prize of $20,000.

Cheer for Charity is an annual fundraiser organized by Detroit News to support local, community focused non-profit organizations during the holiday season. For Round Two of the competition, supporters must cast their vote by making a donation to their favorite cause. Each charity keeps the money they raise, and whichever raises the most, wins an additional $20,000. It’s a win-win for the children, educators, and families FOCUS serves in Detroit!

FOCUS Detroit provides impoverished and at-risk children with tools and resources they need to access opportunities for success. By partnering with schools, churches and businesses, FOCUS Detroit ensures these at-risk children have all that they need to succeed in school and in life.

FOCUS Detroit’s programs target three areas of need: childhood hunger/food insecurity, educational insufficiency, and lack of life essential resources. These needs are met through programs that include after school classes and literacy tutoring, year round weekend food sacks plus summer feeding for kids, and essentials like hygiene kits and winter coats.

  • $20 helps our tutoring program reach more kids
  • $50 feeds 20 food insecure children a healthy meal
  • $20,000 would provide 8,000 weekend food sacks for children

VOTE for FOCUS Detroit by making a small donation ($10 minimum) through our Crowd Rise Campaign! Follow our Facebook and Instagram to keep up with the competition and see how your donation is put to action every day!

Donation Link: https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/focus-detroit1

FOCUS NAMED TOP CHARITY IN DETROIT-VOTE TO HELP WIN $20,000

Detroit, MI Nov. 29, 2018— Detroit News named FOCUS Detroit one of the top 15 charities in the city and launched a competition that will give one winner $20,000 towards their cause! YOU can make a difference in the lives of the children and families FOCUS Detroit serves by voting for FOCUS Detroit through the Cheer for Charity website.

Cheer for Charity is an annual fundraiser organized by Detroit News to support local, community focused non-profit organizations during the holiday season. FOCUS Detroit is honored to be among the 15 charities chosen this year.

Through our programs, FOCUS Detroit is empowering children experiencing poverty to have what they need to access opportunities, succeed, and live fruitful lives. By partnering with schools, churches and businesses, FOCUS Detroit ensures the children they serve have all they need to succeed in school.

FOCUS Detroit’s programs target three areas of need: childhood hunger and food insecurity, educational insufficiency, and lack of life essential resources. These needs are met through programs that include after school coding classes and literacy tutoring; year round weekend food sacks and summer feeding for kids; and life-essentials like hygiene kits and winter coats!

$20,000 would help us provide over 6,500 meals, 13,000 food pantry items, or 3,000 winter jackets for kids!

Now YOU can join FOCUS in making a difference in the lives of Detroit children and families by VOTING to help us win $20,000.

VOTE for FOCUS Detroit once per day per email address until December 7th. The five charities with the most votes will move on to round two in the competition!

Vote Link: http://detroitnews.secondstreetapp.com/2018-Cheer-for-Charity/gallery/135235929

Gratitude Tuesday

This month, FOCUS is preparing for GRATITUDE TUESDAY on November 27th.

You might be asking “what is Gratitude Tuesday?”

You are probably more familiar with observing “Giving Tuesday,” the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, which has become a mainstream day of giving . On giving Tuesday people who have spent the past hectic days navigating black Friday crowds, and speed shopping during online-only-flash-sale frenzies, are encouraged to give back.

Don’t get us wrong – as a nonprofit, we love the idea of giving Tuesday! But, while reflecting on this nationally observed day of giving, we realized maybe this time a pause is more important than another push

and just like that, Gratitude Tuesday was born!

On Gratitude Tuesday, we want to recognize the simple gifts we can give to each other every day.

The virtues of faith, hope, knowledge, wisdom, honesty, humility, obedience, patience, courage, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, and gratitude are all gifts God gave to us by becoming man to help us live more like Him.

“Generally speaking, all of the human virtues are attributes of God Himself. They are the characteristics of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God in human flesh. They are the divine properties which should be in all human persons by the gift of God in creation and salvation through Christ. (The Virtues)

As we approach Advent, and our anticipation of the miracle of Christ’s Nativity draws closer,  we all need to work hard to embody the virtues, starting with gratitude!

The spiritual person is the one who is grateful for everything. He is the one who receives everything with thanksgiving, and who knows that he has nothing except what he has received from God (cf. Jn 3.27).
In the Old Testament, thanksgiving was central in the life of God’s people. The temple liturgy offered sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise, and psalms sang continually of thanksgiving to God.

In the New Testament, thanksgiving is the very essence of the Church’s life. The word eucharist means thanksgiving, and the very center of the Church’s liturgical worship of God is when, in remembrance of all His saving acts in Christ, the faithful “lift up their hearts” and “give thanks unto the Lord.”

To thank God in everything and for everything is the result of faith and faithfulness in God. It is the result of absolute trust in the Lord who knows best what we need for our salvation and does all that He can within the evil conditions of the world to bring us to eternal life, to peace and to joy.” (The Virtues)

Keep in touch (click subscribe – top right of this page) because leading up to Gratitude Tuesday on November 27th, we have planned some ways to say thank you, and show how grateful we are to have you in our community! Stay tuned, and join us in adopting an “attitude of gratitude” as we all work towards embracing the spiritual virtues.

God Gives The Increase

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.  -1Corinthians 3:6-9 

On a YES trip last weekend, our first task on a Saturday morning was to do work on a local urban farm – weeding, beautifying, and cleaning in preparation for a community event later in the day. We were divided into groups. Some of us were working patches of earth, pulling weeds and turning the soil in preparation for seed. Others were in the flower garden, cutting dead marigold blooms and sprinkling the seeds back at the base of each plant.

We worked for two hours before having to leave and move on to our next portion of the day. As we reflected on our service, we realized that we were leaving and would never see the “reward” of our actions.

Sometimes we expect instant gratification without even realizing it. So much of what goes on around us day to day reinforces the idea of instant, visible, and measurable rewards.

Because we have learned to expect instant gratification, it can be a challenge to invest our time, emotions, and efforts into something and feel like there is no difference or change. We have to recognize that any impact we make doesn’t come from us, but from God. There is always going to be a result, even if we can’t observe or participate in each step it took to get there.