As servants in the household of God, we are called to "always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (1 Peter 3:15) Fr. Timothy Hojnicki, instructor of apologetics at the St. Raphael School, shares how he equips his high school students with the deposit of faith so that they can make a good defense when asked. Rather than merely winning an argument, he stresses the importance of dialogue and respect to win over a brother.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki will be speaking on Early Life Transitions: Supporting and Navigating Change from High School to College at the 5th Annual National Orthodox Leadership Conference at St. Vladimir's Seminary, September 17-19, 2021.
Read the full episode transcript here
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. My guest today is Fr.Timothy Hojnicki, pastor of the Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He has taught liturgics and homiletics at St. Tikhon's Seminary, and currently teaches apologetics for the St. Raphael School. Fr. Timothy will also be presenting at this year's National Orthodox Leadership Conference held at St. Vladimir's Seminary, September 17-19. He will present on early life transitions - supporting and navigating change from high school to college. So Fr. Timothy, welcome, I'm so excited to have you be a part of this fifth annual Leadership Conference that's coming up where we'll focus on generously investing in emerging leaders, something you clearly do through your church - intentionally providing hospitality and integration into the life of the church for college students. And you really invest in emerging leaders in your work as a teacher at the St. Raphael school.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 1:12
Thank you for having me. I was blessed to be able to participate in this conference three years ago - I think the second one they did - I really enjoyed it. I had a wonderful time there and met a lot of amazing people, a lot of relationships. I still keep in touch to this day. And then this past year, was invited to come and participate in the conference, which, you know, anytime you get an opportunity to go visit St. Vlad's and see Fr. Chad, I'm happy to do it. The topic of the conference really appealed to me as equipping these emerging leaders of how do we get these young people who are you know, up and coming to participate in the life of the church and really take the reins as we go forward. So I'm excited that this is going to be the focus, and we can equip some of these young people with the tools and skills they need for when they take on that role to be the leaders of the church in a few years.
Hollie Benton 1:56
Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about the St. Raphael School and about your apologetics class. What is apologetics? How do you approach the class with high school students?
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 2:06
It's interesting because high school kids are an interesting bunch, because you never know what you're going to get. It's wonderful that they can feel comfortable to ask these questions. Apologetics, you know, apologia is, you know, to give a defense of - not to apologize for. Not like, "I'm sorry, I'm Orthodox" or something, but really to defend what we believe, which literally has been part of our church since day one. Jesus isn't in the tomb - say something about that, you know - and so the way I structure the classes, you know, I think of all the things that will be asked of them, specifically in college. It is the first time they'll probably be challenged with this kind of thing. And rather than say, "Well, we're kind of like the Catholics, but" or "We're kinda like Protestants, but." Rather than that approach, not be offensive, but not be on the defensive all the time. "We believe this," and be able to stand on our own two feet and what we believe not just because someone else believes that, but because this is what the church has believed for the last 2000 years. And so I structure the class in different topics, and how they'll be approached. And so if someone says, "Why do you believe in the Virgin Mary?" Well, here's how we respond. "Why do you have the view you have on scripture?" Here's how we respond. "What are the sacraments?" Here's how we respond, not to be in a polemic or an argumentative context. But just to be able to stand on our own two feet and present what we believe coherently, rationally, and respectfully. I think that there's something that's so lacking in our culture right now that it's such an important thing to have proper dialogue, and to respect one another as we're talking, not just waiting for the person to stop talking so we can speak.
Hollie Benton 3:34
Exactly. As we prepared for this discussion today, you suggested that we take a look at the Apostle Paul's first letter to Timothy, probably because you use this in your apologetics class. If you would allow me to read a portion of that now starting with I Timothy 3:14 and through 4:6. "I hope to come to you soon. But I am writing these instructions to you so that if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Great indeed, we confess as the mystery of our religion. He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. Now the spirit expressly says that in later time, some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving, by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. For then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed." So hearing this passage, I find it true to the Apostle Paul's message throughout his letters that he emphasizes what is written: the Word of God, the instruction, the letter of instruction. It's the Word of God which nourishes and gives life. I can see how you would use this in your apologetics class, rooting it in the content of what is written. And the church has been entrusted with this word, much like it is the image of Mary, the womb of Mary who has been entrusted with the Word of God. So say a little bit more about this passage, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 5:34
Sure, I mean, in our world, there is something that is true. Mostly what you see now is everything is true, anything you want can be true. And when anything is true, nothing is true. It's all relative. We don't believe that. We have a one true and living God whom we worship. He reveals Himself to us, not as an opinion of man, but as the definitive revelation of God Himself. And so it's important for us to know these things, and how it benefits us and for our salvation, because all this was done for us. I mean, the Lord's are very clear about that in Scripture that he reveals these things to us for our life and for our salvation. We understand our faith, especially with young people coming of age and realizing for the first time, this is my faith, not just something my mom and dad gave to me or somewhere I'm forced to go on Sundays, but something that they're going to have to when they go out to college, make that choice that I'm going to live this life, this Christian life as the best way I can. And the reason I have such a passion about this is my grandfather of blessed memory was a very good and austere man, I would even say holy. He went to Mount Athos for a while. He was, you know, just a good man, a good father and grandfather, reader of the church. And my first year in college, he sent me a letter hand-typed on a typewriter, like, you know, the old fashioned ones, because he wasn't really savvy, tech savvy. And it said, basically, you're entering a world where you can do anything you want, and no one will stop you, Mom and Dad aren't there to make your decisions for you, you're making your decisions. But you know how you were raised. And you know what is true. And the last line was, when it comes to your Orthodox faith, you compromise nothing, love grandpa. And it's one of my most prized possessions that I still have that when it comes to the truth of the faith, we can't compromise these things, because that is the only eternal thing we have. Everything else, our reputation, or money, or houses or whatever, is all fleeting. When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, all we have is our faith in him. And so it behooves us, you know, not just as a professor of school, but parents and teachers and godparents, and grandparents, and friends, and whatever, to instill this in our children. That this is important, that this is the utmost of importance, that this truth that the church possesses is not just ours, but it is ours to share. And we have to preach it, speak it, give an apology for it. And that's the basis of the class.
Hollie Benton 7:48
How do you connect apologetics and servant leadership specifically serving as Doulos, or servant in the household of God, which the letter in 1 Timothy mentions?
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 7:58
Well, in a household, all these different servants have different responsibilities. Paul talks in other places that some people have different gifts and characteristics that you're supposed to exercise within the church. Some people are good at this, about explaining the faith, other people are self conscious about it. Other people are good workers, or good singers, or good administrators, whatever. If this is your gift and your talent, then you use that to share it with the world. Then we have to figure out where we are, and where we fit into that role as a servant, and what is our role in the household of God because all of us have different roles. And not everyone can be the priest or the choir director or the parish council president, we all have different roles to do. And it's important for us to identify what God-given talents and gifts I have, and how I can use them to build up the body of Christ.
Hollie Benton 8:42
I imagine also in your apologetics class, you focus quite a bit on the content, like what is the faith? What is the written word of God handed down? As the deposit of faith - we hear about the deposit quite a lot in the letters to Timothy - that deposit of faith entrusted to those who believe by trusting in its life-giving word. So in terms of content, but also in methodology, you mentioned not being offensive, but neither being merely defensive. Could you talk about the methodology of apologetics, having a verbal defense, so to speak.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 9:16
Sure, I grew up in Catholic school, I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I have great respect for Catholic education. But I did a lot explaining why I had peanut butter and jelly for 40 days straight or why I couldn't go out on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent because we had presanctified or something. And so there's a lot of, not even knowing what apologetics was, I was already doing it. I think that part of it is that we're called to make this defense sometimes we're not looking for it. It comes to us and we have to be ready for it. Always be prepared and the spirit will give you a word when you need it. To know our faith well enough that when we're asked a question, we can respond in such a way that it can be beneficial to the person who's coming to us. When I was in college people would ask me a question about the faith. I might be the only Orthodox Christian this person has ever met or will ever meet. At that moment, I represent the church. And it's a daunting kind of responsibility. And so not just looking for a fight or something, I have an aversion to that when we learn this stuff as a weapon, Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, I remember he told me one time that a lot of times people use this stuff as weapons. "Well yeah? Well take this!" and we hit him with this fact and we hit him with this. He said there's nothing good that comes with that. Even if you win the argument, no one wins, that God is not glorified in that. And so there has to be a sense of humility be approached with this too, that if someone comes to us asking, we're ready to respond to them. Also in our response, we're not there to destroy people or hurt them. But to kind of see a different perspective from where they're coming from, that this is what we believe. This is why we believe it. There's error in these other things. Here's why we see that. Here's where that came from much later on than what the church has always taught. And so to be gentle, but to be firm. St. Paul, when you read his letters, you can see his heart just overflowing for the people. And he's, you know, very compassionate. Other times he's dad coming in there, giving a stern reprimand. You have to know the context in which you're coming to and respond accordingly. And so it just takes practice, and preparation to know what to say at the right moment, which is something I think as a priest is one of the hardest things of knowing what to say, when you say something too harsh or not stern enough. It's like a doctor with a scalpel. If you don't push hard enough, you don't break the skin. And if you push too hard, the person can bleed out. You have to know how to apply that pressure. The same thing with apologetics, you have to know what to say, in the right context. So it can be received by the person and not just used as a weapon to smack them over the head. And then you know, "I won the argument!" but you really didn't connect with the person.
Hollie Benton 11:42
Even scripture itself refers to the Word of God as being a double edged sword,
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 11:46
Yeah, cuts to the heart, the marrow, the bones, and all that. It can be painful!
Hollie Benton 11:50
Right, and necessarily so for the right kind of repentance,
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 11:55
We probably all experienced that. When we read something in Scripture, and it strikes us, like, "I gotta change that," it stings. But it's a good thing. You know, it's kind of like when you put antiseptic on a skinned knee. It stings for a few minutes, but it's cleaning the wound, it's necessary,
Hollie Benton 12:10
Right. And what better way to be prepared for the day when you have to answer for your faith, than to study scripture, and to be involved in it, to have it work its way into your heart and mind. So that the word of God is written on your heart so that the spirit comes more quickly to you, as you speak that word that comes from your submission to His Holy Word. In terms of apologetics, just the framework of the conversation, you know, so many times in public dialogue, people frame questions in a certain way, which is either this or that - is it faith? or is it works? And that's not really a question that's even framed for us as Orthodox Christians. So speak a little bit about the framing of the conversation.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 12:54
Archbishop Michael, who was a professor of mine in seminary, he used to say that you can't play baseball in Madison Square Garden, you can play basketball or hockey, but not baseball. So you can't put something in a place where it doesn't fit. And so a lot of times we're asked by say, a Protestant question and an expect an Orthodox answer. It just doesn't work. So what I try to do is on the fly, listen to what they're saying, and tweak the question and respond in a way, which is really the answer to the question from an Orthodox perspective, or, or restate the question in an Orthodox manner, and then answer it. And sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn't. Like you said, does our church believe in faith or works? Well, yes, both are important. It's hard sometimes when people have these black or white questions, and they want an answer, and it doesn't really have that for us. I see this a lot of times counseling men and women that are getting married. Men come to things from one direction, women come from another direction, the same topic, but they're coming from two different directions. And if you can get the one to kind of pivot and see from the other's perspective, it opens up a whole world like, "Oh, that's why they think that way," because we're kind of like hardwired differently, right? If I can understand where a Protestant is coming from, then I can use what the Church teaches to speak to that point, rather than just answer the question directly, which may not really answer the question. Part of the thing with apologetics is kind of an art in knowing what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and have it nuanced in a way that addresses the matter at hand. And sometimes, I'm sure you've seen it or experienced it, that sometimes it's a disaster, it doesn't work, you know. People kind of get all bent out of shape and whatever. And that's not what we tend to do here. But it happens.
Hollie Benton 14:29
Yeah, I'm reminded of Jesus Christ, who was so brilliant at reframing the questions, you know, thinking about, "And who is my neighbor?" He tells the story of the Good Samaritan and reframes the question.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 14:39
Yeah, he didn't answer it directly, just you know, "There was a man coming from Jericho . . ." you know, he just tells a story. Yeah. And it was a knockout punch, because the end of it, "Which of these were neighbors to him who fell among the thieves? Then go and do likewise." And just, mic drop, right? They know the answer, and he kind of puts them in their place.
Hollie Benton 14:57
Right. And what's remarkable about the way that the question was asked, which is what we all tend to do, is ask a question that justifies our own self-righteousness. "So who is my neighbor? Let me make sure that I know that I'm doing the right thing to justify myself." Instead, the question really is reframed in a way that we can learn and get over ourselves and not self-justify, but really submit to the teaching and go and do likewise.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 15:25
That's really interesting, because many times, you know, we read these things, and we're always the good guy. But if we're really honest, we're the Levite, we're the priests, we might be the guy beating the guy up. And we never identify with the negative. We're always the good guy. We're always the righteous one. But really, the point of these stories was reminders of - No, nine times out of ten, we're the opposite camp. You know, we have to learn from that and repent.
Hollie Benton 15:44
Exactly. This has been a great conversation. Father, Timothy, tell our listeners a little bit more about the St. Raphael School where you're teaching.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 15:53
Sure, St. Raphael School is an online curriculum that I was invited, I think three years now, to teach the apologetics in the theology department. It's a growing pan-Orthodox education system. It's something that's really kind of neat, because it's a church based program. So everything comes from the perspective of the church - classical education with a church perspective. I've been blessed to be a part of it just teaching theology classes, but to interact with these young students that you know, are Orthodox Christians up and coming that are, like I said, will be the leaders of the church one day and to be able to in some way, help and equip them to know their faith better. I'm honored to be able to be part of it. So St. Raphael School is an online Orthodox education program, and you can find more about it at raphaelschool.org grades K through 12.
Hollie Benton 16:37
Thanks so much, Fr. Timothy, and I really look forward to seeing you in September at the national conference.
Fr. Timothy Hojnicki 16:43
My joy. Looking forward to it.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai