Report on the
Tenth Annual General Convention of
St. Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship
September 1st– 4th, 2006
The General Annual Convention returns to be held this year(*) in the Antiochian Village Retreat Center (Ligonier, PA, Photos 1, 2, 3) for the 7th time. About 75 youth and adult members attended this year, many of them for the first time. They came from Washington, DC, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio, besides a large number coming from Canada (Toronto, Ontario) and Egypt.
The success of the project that started in the 9th Convention, a parallel program for the youth, was confirmed again this year. Lectures in English were provided in a separate room at times of Arabic lectures in the main program. Dr. Yousry Armanios was in charge of this program this year. Also, there was a chance for members attending the conference to meet and socialize with each other, and with all speakers in the conference throughout all the evening of Friday 9/3, right after registration and assignment of their rooms.
The Convention started 9:00 am with a liturgical prayer led by Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko (Orthodox Church in America), Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir Theological Seminary, NY, who attended our conference for the second time in a row. This was followed by a brief introductory talk by Dr. Gamil Soliman, who started by expressing our loss of Dr. Guirguis Ibrahim, the founder of St. Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship, who departed to glory on 3/4/06 after serving the Lord till the last hour. Then he introduced the theme of this year’s convention, “The Kingdom of God”, and its program, which included the main different meanings of the kingdom of God, whether it is an expression of salvation and new life, eternal life, at the heavenly throne of God where the faithful saints will eternally dwell, or the presence of God in the Church, or inside the heart of the faithful. The program included also how the Bible, in both Testaments, has described the kingdom, what the Lord in His parables of the kingdom wanted to tell us, how the kingdom is the divine response to the sufferings and the carrying of the cross in the present time, and what are the signs of the second coming of the Lord to announce the resurrection of the bodies and the judgment of all people.
The four lectures of the first day included two consecutive lectures by Rev. Fr. Thomas Hopko (Photos 11, 12, 13): The first was on the meaning of the kingdom of God(1), and the second on the kingdom within us(2). In the first lecture, Fr. Hopko’s central concept was how the Lord established His kingdom through the cross. The lecture included the following points: (1) From Genesis, we did not know Adam except after the fall, but God took care of his fall, sending His Son born of the Virgin, the second Adam, who accomplished the salvation. (2) God was the king of the Jews from the time of Abraham till Moses and the Judges. But the Jews demanded a king like the other nations, and they got Saul, despite warnings, but God remained their King. Even David sinned as well as his son and who came after them. Also the temple, God permitted its destruction, and Jerusalem was taken captive twice [The great city of Revelation (Rev. 11:8, where the Lord was crucified) was called spiritually Sodom (the sinner) and Egypt (the idol worshiper)], and will not rise again, because there is another Jerusalem descending from the heaven (Rev. 21:2). (3) The foundation of Christ’s kingdom is the cross, which is also His throne, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Ps. 45:6), and Jesus was glorified by His crucifixion and death, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified … And if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me” (Jn. 12:23,32). (4) Christ is the King: this appeared on the cross in three languages, in the resurrection (King of glory) as He conquered death, and in the ascension as He sat at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again in Glory to put His enemies at His footstool (Ps. 110:1).
In his second lecture, Fr. Hopko pointed to the words of the Bible that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1Co. 3:16), “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1Co. 6:19). And the Holy Spirit, being the Spirit of Christ, brings Christ into us, and this is the meaning of “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:21). Christ has been united with us in the cross (He emptied Himself of His glory, the glory of the throne of God, and was joined unto us who are His bride, the Church, Mt. 19:5). And in Eucharist, which is the mystical presence of Christ, we become united with Him, and His presence in us becomes real and true. The kingdom of God is realized here in our daily practical life, not in our imagination or dreams, for the Lord will tell each one of us in the last day “I was hungry and you gave Me meat: I was thirsty and you gave Me drink … ” (Mt. 25:35). The Church is the actualization of Christ in the present world, and attending the Liturgy of the Church, reading the word of God, and receiving the Body and the Blood, these make the real presence of the kingdom of God.
The third lecture Saturday was by Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin(3), pastor of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Heliopolis, Cairo, who blessed our convention for the seventh consecutive time. Its topic was the “Parables of the Kingdom”, which our Lord gave us to simplify for us the understanding of His kingdom. He said that the Lord started to establish His kingdom on earth by delivering its constitution, the sermon on the mountain. This kingdom is beyond time, and it is like a wedding, with wisdom as its theme, and union to the heavenly bridegroom as its goal (parable of the virgins, Mt. 25). And it has no borders, special language or nationality (parable of the dragnet, Mt. 13:47), but its flag is love and therefore God talks to all (even the Magi whom God talked with in the language of the stars). And it is in the world, but the world does not dwell in it (parable of the wheat and the tares, Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43). It embraces the castaways (lepers, woman with flow of blood, adulterers, tax collectors, and all sinners; parable of the prodigal son, Lk. 15:11-32). In this kingdom, all believers are Christ’s brothers, and therefore heirs who are rewarded according to their own abilities (parable of the talents, Mt. 25:14-30; parable of the 10 servants, Lk. 19:11-27). The kingdom is the greatest gift; any cost for it is smaller beyond compare (parables of the hidden treasure and the precious pearl, Mt. 13:44,45). The economic system of the kingdom relies on giving rather than taking, and whoever gives away anything receives a hundred-fold, and in the coming age, everlasting life. Its power to grow and spread is like the mustard seed that becomes a great tree (Mt. 13:31,32, Lk. 13:19), and the the small leaven that leavens the whole meal (Mt. 13:33, Lk. 13:21).
The fourth lecture was by Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid (Photos 14, 15, 16)(4), director of the Center for Patristic Studies in Cairo, who talked in our convention for the eighth consecutive time. Its topic was “The return of Christ and the last events”. Dr. Nos’hy pointed out the facts that the return of Christ from heaven (as promised in Jn. 14:2,3) became the central hope of the Church since the ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit, and it was one of the main topics in preaching the Gospel (1Co. 1:7, … 1Jn. 2:28, 3:2,3). It was also integrated in the Church worship since the apostolic period: “As we commemorate His holy passion … and His second coming which shall be from the heavens, awesome and full of glory, we offer unto you your oblations …” (Liturgy of St. Basil). He pointed also to what the Bible has recorded regarding the cosmic signs and events preceding the second coming, including the apostasy and revealing of the man of sin (Mt. 24, 2Thes. 2:3-12), and events accompanying His manifestation (Mt. 24:30, Acts 1:9-11, Rev. 1:7) when He judges the world in righteousness (Mt. 25:3-46). He also pointed out what the Bible mentioned regarding the resurrection of the bodies and their nature, and the taking up of the living believers (rapture) to meet the Lord on the clouds (1Co. 15:51,52, 1Thes. 4:16,17). He showed that the Millennium (thousand years mentioned in Rev. 20:4-6) is actually the period from the Lord’s resurrection on the third day to His second coming. The Lord truly reigns with His saints in this present time of the Church (Rev. 1:5,6).
Also on Saturday, the members listened to a report, and watched a brief video, of the activities of “Coptic Orphans” presented by its director, Mrs. Nermeen Riad. She said that 4500 orphan have been taken care of, raising their standard of living, given the opportunity for better education, and supporting their faith. About another 100,000 remain in need of care. And on Sunday, Mr. Morris Demetrios presented a brief report of the activities of “St. Mark American Coptic Youth Association”, which promoted the opportunity of education and work for more than 600 Coptic youth, and marriage for 100 young men and women. He also showed willingness to help any one in need that may be suggested by the audience.
Next day, Sunday 9/3, the program started with the Holy Divine Liturgy (see Photos 4, 5, 6), ministered by Fr. Antonios Amin(5), who also delivered the sermon on “End of the World”. Rev. Fr. John Calbom, a priest in the Ethiopian Church in USA (convert) assisted in the Liturgy. Visitors as well as all Conference registrants attended the Liturgy, and all were urged to receive communion. The rainy weather did not allow us to take the usual memorial group photos(+) (see Photos 7, 8, 9, 10) in the Village gardens, but they were taken in the dining room instead.
Dr. Nos’hy Abdel-Shahid(6) delivered his second lecture for the Conference in the afternoon, and its topic was “Kingdom of Heaven in the Old Testament (O.T.)”. He showed that the O.T. is full of prophesies and visions regarding the eternal kingdom of the Lord, His coming for salvation through His passion, His second coming, resurrection of the bodies, judgment, and eternal life. This study revealed how the divine inspiration in the O.T. contained most of the concepts of the kingdom of God, but in mystery and brevity, and how the mystery was revealed, and brevity was replaced by details, when Christ revealed it by His life and His words, and the apostles declared it to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The sixth lecture in the conference was by Rev. Fr. Antonios Amin(7) on “The Kingdom of Heaven as the Divine Response to our sufferings”. He pointed to the fact that one aspect of the Kingdom is the final consolation for all sufferings and crosses that the faithful bear in their life, thankfully and joyfully in the hope of glory. Although true believers do not join the Lord for His rewards, yet He, out of His mercy, does not forget the labors of their love, nor what they suffer as they follow Him, and He will glorify His faithful servants in the last day. But He also outpours a glimpse of this eternal consolation here on earth on His suffering believers: fleeing and persecuted Jacob was comforted in his afflictions with the well-known dream, the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, and the divine promise to him and his offspring (Gen. 28:10-22). Also, the Lord blesses those who suffer (Mt. 5:11), and the Epistles abound with comfort to those in trials (2Co. 1:5, James 1:2), and promises of their glorification in the last day (Ro. 6:17,18). And in Rev. 21:4, God promises to wipe believers’ tears, and to destroy all sorrow, pain and crying.
We started this year to include in the program more than one open forum in which the audience participated with their views and biblical experiences regarding the proposed topic. The first forum was held at the end of the activities on Sunday. Its topic was “The Kingdom of God on Earth”, and it was led by Dr. Gamil Soliman, who defined the elements of the topic, one after the other, and asked the audience for comments as follows: the Bible uses the expressions “kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of heaven” to mean the same thing sometimes (e.g. Mt. 10:7, Mk. 1:14,15), but may have different meanings in other instances. So, what is the meaning of “the kingdom is at hand”, or in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come”? Didn’t the kingdom start by the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord? Does it not start for every believer here on earth as in the Lord’s words, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:21)? How the relations between heaven and earth changed as the reconciliation was accomplished by the coming of Christ (Eph. 2:14-16, Co. 1:20, 2:14): God became man, the Trinity was manifested in the Baptism, the voice of the Father was heard in the transfiguration and at Gethsemane, the Spirit appeared as tongues of fire at Pentecost, angels appeared on earth, prophets brought to appear at Christ’s sides in transfiguration, the Lord appears to Saul after His ascension, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church Sacraments, the Church is God’s kingdom on earth: we are in the heaven during Liturgy, those who reposed in the Lord are members of the victorious church in paradise, members of the struggling church are salt of the earth and light of the world, and the Church serves the world.
Also on Sunday, the proceedings of the Conference included Report on the Fellowship’s Activitiesduring the last 2 years, submitted by Dr. Ramzy Labib, reminding us of the Fellowship’s purpose, the expansion of its conferences, how its Bible studies and Word of Life magazine reach everywhere in the world, by mail and over the internet, and how the Lord used it to open the hearts of many people who were not thought of.
Hymns and praises, in English and Arabic, were led by Mr. Akmal Hanna, and occupied most of the free time as well as after the last lecture of each day, adding a spirit of joy and spiritual refreshment to our Conference.
On the last day of the Conference, Monday 9/4, the second open forum started 9:30 AM, and its topic was “The Nature of the Kingdom of Heaven”. A comparison between the Paradise of Eden (on earth) and the kingdom of heaven was made, pointing out the fact that the Bible tells us that the earth and heavens, with its stars and planets, will be destroyed (Mt. 24:29, Mk. 13:24,25, Lk. 21:25,26, 2 Peter 3:13, Rev. 21:1). Therefore, the kingdom of heaven radically differs from the Islamic view. And regarding the nature do man after the resurrection, we have the response of the Lord to the puzzle of the Sadducees (Mt. 22:23-30, …), “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.” And about the body of the resurrection, Christ “shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20, 21). For more details we refer to the Transfiguration, and what St. Paul told us regarding Christ’s resurrection and ours (1Cor. 15:41-52). But whereas His body did not see corruption, and after His resurrection He revealed in His body what was hidden before, and He ended its subjection to tiredness, hunger and thirst(8), our bodies will die and become dust, or we shall change in a moment, and arise in a glorified body that resembles our first body, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor. 15:50).
After the lecture, broad closing discussions and conference evaluation started, moderated by Dr. Gamil Soliman. In this session the members offered their views and suggestions regarding the services of the Fellowship as well as their evalution of the Conference (which was already presented based on the Conference evaluation forms). The suggestions can be summarized in the following: (1) Increasing the proportions of lectures and hymns in English to encourage attendance of the youth. (2) Diversification among speakers especially inviting those who talk in English fluently. (3) Stressing that the Fellowship should keep her goal of promotion of the Orthodox understanding of the Bible without diversion to other goals (such as discussing problems in families, marriages, treating children, and work environments), which may still be considered only in the context of Bible study. (4) Location of the annual conferences should be selected in a way that provides equal travel ease or difficulty to all members, or alternation in the location every time, e.g. between the East coast and the Midwest, or between USA and Canada.
The Conference concluded at noon with thanksgiving prayer, and the members greeted each other hoping to meet again in the next conference.
(*) – There was no General Conference last year. Instead, we had many local conferences in USA (Michigan) and Canada (Toronto). The success of these local conferences encourages us to have more of them in the coming years.
(1) - An audiotape, a C.D., and a handout in English are available for this lecture.
(2) - An audiotape, a C.D., and a handout in English are available for this lecture.
(3) - An audiotape, and a C.D. in Arabic are available for this lecture.
(4) - An audiotape, and a C.D. in Arabic, and handouts in both languages are available for this lecture.
(5) - An audiotape, and two C.D. in Arabic are available for this Liturgy.
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(6) - An audiotape, a C.D., and a handout in English are available for this lecture.
(7) - An audiotape, and a C.D. in Arabic, and handouts in both languages are available for this lecture.
(8) - Although He ate after His resurrection, this was only to confirm that He was not a ghost or a mere spirit, and He kept the scars of His crucifixion also to assure us that it was He who rose from the dead.
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