by George Tewfik
Life is hard. I don’t have to tell you all that life can truly be difficult. But when you think about how hard our struggles can be, it’s natural to think about dealing with illness, death, job loss, or large-scale conflict. But when I say that life is hard, oftentimes, the most challenging aspects are the most subtle.
As a young freshman in high school, making friends and not feeling like an outsider was a near daily struggle for me. Finding a place to sit during lunch gave me more anxiety than studying for tests. Hard as it may be to imagine about me- I was a nerd in high school. And not just a regular nerd, but a nerd who played the accordion, was member of the chess club, and president of the science, math and academic decathlon teams. If you wanted to call me king of the nerds, you would be absolutely correct. But, as shocking as it might be to learn, King of the Nerds confers no special powers when it comes to feeling like a member of the group. When you’re a teenager, fitting in is incredibly stressful.
And when you get to college, the struggle changes, from fitting in, to discovering who you are. You’re on your own for the first time in your life, trying to understand not only what job you want to pursue, but the kind of person you want to be. It can be absolutely overwhelming to feel like you have a deadline to figure out your life.
Next for me was medical school, where I had to figure out how to cope with more work and stress than I had ever encountered before. The constant pressure and competition amongst my classmates were often enough to make me feel like I was running through quicksand, exerting massive effort, only to stay in one place.
The formative years of life can be incredibly difficult and stressful to navigate, and once you’re through, it’s a new set of stresses like work, a mortgage, or trying to figure out what we fed our baby that caused her to have diarrhea.
The one refuge, however, and the one constant in my life during this whole time, has been the church. From the difficult days of high school, through my present day challenges at work, I have always derived strength from my involvement at the Church.
But I have a confession to make, and it may feel controversial to some, so please bear with me. But I never, ever come to church just to pray. And there’s a very important reason that I say this. If we consider prayer to be direct communication with God, then I pray all the time. I pray in the car on the way to work. I pray when I think about my wife, my daughter, and our unborn son. I pray when I think about the strife in the world, or hear about a friend or acquaintance with a health problem, or when I need wisdom or clarity to deal with a difficult situation. So, if I can pray to God, and communicate with him all the time, why come to church to pray? I feel God in nature, I feel His presence with my family and friends. So, what is it that we get through coming here every Sunday? And the answer, at least to me, is community worship. And community worship is so much more powerful than prayer alone; it is the feeling of worship and love as we come together with one purpose to commune with one another in the presence of God.
Human beings are social creatures, we are not meant to live alone. There is a reason that solitary confinement in considered cruel and unusual punishment, and there is an effort to ban its use in the penal system. It is because we live together in a community; we work together, we trade with one another, and we celebrate in unity. So when we come together to worship, we fulfill the vision for humanity that was imprinted upon us from the dawn of our civilization. And when we come together in that community, even a teenager who spends his week concerned about his place in the cafeteria can feel loved and reassured. And the college student, who doesn’t know his place in the world, can have his faith reassured, and always feel welcome. The medical student who feels the pressure of the world can understand that he is a part of a community that is greater than himself, and that his work will not be in vain.
It is this sense of community that brings my family here every Sunday, despite the fact that we can walk to a nearby Greek Orthodox Church or drive to a Russian Orthodox Church a couple miles away. What binds me to this Church is not only the Liturgy, the sacraments and prayer, but also the hugs and kisses we get on the way to our seats in the pews. It’s in the smiles I get carrying around Charlotte on the way to Communion. It’s in the love I see as sons, daughters and grandchildren bring family members to church, and Sunday school teachers lead their students in song. It’s in the fun we have serving together as altar boys (though I don’t think we really fit that definition anymore) and the drinks we share in the kitchen at the end of a successful festival. It’s those moments, those hugs and smiles, that foster a feeling of Christ in our midst, and give us the strength to pursue a life as faithful, loving Orthodox Christians.
The sense of community that I find here at St. Anthony’s, and in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese as a whole, can be attributed not only to the love and fellowship in the church, but also to the institutions and organizations that exist throughout our Church. These organizations, like the Teen SOYO, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (or OCF), and Antiochian Village Summer Camp fostered within me the sense of Orthodox love and camaraderie during those formative years that not only kept me committed to the church, but helped me survive those tumultuous times. And because of those institutions, church became not just a place where we can escape the world on Sundays, but a place that gives me the foundation every day to conquer any challenge, and approach the world with the support of a powerful community.
I have lifelong friends, who are now my family because of Teen SOYO. I spent my summers at the Antiochian Village, and often when I close my eyes, I can hear the jubilant campers yelling in the dining hall and the smell of the campfire in my nostrils and it gives me peace and makes me happy. God willing, one day soon, I will bring my children downstairs for Sunday School, and watch them in the Christmas pageant.
It is within the institutions of the church such as these that our sense of community grows. From the Sunday school and Parish Council to the Teen SOYO and events such as the festival, our parish organizations and events throughout the archdiocese help us fulfill the vision of Christ when he left this world. Christ could have trained just one successor here on earth, but he left a committed, large group of people because he understood that as individuals we are susceptible to feelings of isolation and despair, but as a united group we derive the necessary tools not only to survive hardship, but to celebrate successes and share our bounties.
It is with this in mind that our dearly departed Metropolitan Philip saw fit to create the Order of St. Ignatius, an organization that seeks to reinforce those institutions that embody the spirit of community that makes our Archdiocese unique. The Order is not just a check that one writes each year, but a call to give back to the Church so that, it too, can continue to fulfill its mission to create and foster a community here on earth that embodies the true essence of Christianity.
By financially supporting the Order, one not only gets a very cool-looking Cross (which I will admit is quite a perk), but also has the ability to impact so many lives because the Order supports a seemingly endless list of activities, from the Teen SOYO, Special Olympics, the Antiochian Village Camp and Youth Ministry, to the Retired Clergy, Parish development, and numerous humanitarian organizations around the world. Orthodox Christianity is not just having faith, and not just praying in our cars; it is the sense of community we share with one another, and strive to create and foster, to leave behind for our children.
As I stood beside my wife, as she was inducted into the Order several months ago, I thought to myself about the amazing work that the Order supports throughout the Archdiocese. And what truly stands out to me is not the names of the different organizations, or the dollar breakdown of where their support goes, but the young child who will experience the beginning of a lifelong love of the Church at the Antiochian Village Camp, or foster lifelong friendships at the Parish Life Conferences. It is in the fact that our children will grow up experiencing the community of the church, surrounded not just by fellow parishioners, but people who will be friends and their family.
I urge you to consider joining the Order, if you have not already done so, or to get involved in any of the numerous organizations of the Church, especially if you feel the love and sense of community here that I have been fortunate enough to experience my entire life. Thank you for your time this morning, and May God continue to bless us all.