Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Administrative Change

As you no doubt have noticed, there are now comments available on the right hand side of the blog. These are thanks to Intense Debate, a blog comment service. These kind people will moderate comments for spam--as part of this process, the first two of your comments will need to be approved. After the first two comments, you can post freely.

Please let me know if the service has any bugs in it.


In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Book Announcement

This week Navigator Press has published a collection of essays entitled Out of the Ooze. It so happens that there is included in the book a have short piece that I wrote entitled "God-Pleasing Evangelism." On their web page, NavPress describes the book this way:

We need more than statistics. In a day when millions of people are walking out of church and more churches are closing their doors than opening them, we need to discover what is really happening. Spencer Burke, creator of, brings you face-to-face with pastors and elders, committed attendees, back-pew sitters, and people who have walked out of the church looking for something more. Their unlikely love letters give you an opportunity to hear firsthand from the whole body of Christ.

Out of the Ooze marks the beginning of an annual series publishing the best of each year's articles exploring the themes of faith, social justice, art, and ministry.

You can download excerpts from the book on the NavPress's site for the book or by clicking here: Excerpt from Out of the Oooze.

Besides the fact this is always fun to see my name in print, what is exciting for me about this book is that it is directed toward the same people as The In their own words:

TheOOZE is a website dedicated to the emerging Church culture, and organizes the premiere annual event for this audience, called Soularize. Over the past six years TheOOZE has developed a community that captures the ethos of the emerging Church movement. Our site and events hold the tensions between creativity and information, theologians and artists, traditional and new voices.

For better or worse, there are increasing numbers of young, and not so young, usually unchurched or post-churched (lapsed in other words) men and women who are attracted to the Emergent Church movement.

As the inclusion of my own essay suggests, there is an interest and openness to Orthodoxy among those who identify with the Emergent Church movement. But this movement has got my attention not simply as a group of potential Orthodox Christians. One of the things that I have learned from my conversations with folks in this movement is to temper not my convictions about the Orthodox Church, but my way of expressing that conviction.

In addition, as I look at The Ooze, and the people who post and comment there, I ask myself: What might I, as Orthodox Christian, learn from this movement? My own view is that there is a great potential here to could help the Church reach our own lapsed members. Depending on how one defines a lapsed Orthodox Christian that number can reach 50%, 60%, 70% and even 80% (or more) of the men and women who were baptized in the Orthodox Church.

Orthodoxy in America has a unique opportunity to escape the triumphalism that has plagued us especially in recent. A lively conversation that takes seriously the concerns and criticisms of the Emergent Church movement might be helpful for us as we try and move beyond an approach to missions, evangelism, parish ministry and renewal, that is based not in polemics, but a gentle openness to the Holy Trinity in the lives of the men and women (Orthodox or not) who we serve. It was a rational for this openness to the presence of God in the lives of others that I tried to give expression to in my own essay.

Anyway, if you have the opportunity and the money, do consider picking up a copy of Out of the Oooze. Autographs are free!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Seventh Sunday of Luke (Luke 8:41-56)

And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue. And he fell down at Jesus' feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying. But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped. And Jesus said, "Who touched Me?" When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, "Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'" But Jesus said, "Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me." Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, "Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace." While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue's house, saying to him, "Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher." But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, "Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well." When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, "Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping." And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead. But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, "Little girl, arise." Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened (Lk 8:41-56).

In his commentary of Luke's Gospel (Homily 46), St Cyril of Alexandria says that when Jesus turns to Jairus and says, "Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well" (v. 52), He does so to comfort the man. Why? Because, in St Cyril's words, Jesus "saw the man oppressed with the weight of sorrow, fainting, stunned, and all but despairing of the possibility of his daughter being rescued from death." He continues:

Misfortunes are able to disturb even an apparently well constituted mind and to estrange it from its settled convictions. To help him, [Jesus] gives [Jairus] a kind and saving word that is able to sustain him in his fainting state and work in him an unwavering faith: "fear not, only believe, and she shall live."

Sadly however, Jairus, his wife and most extraordinarily of all, Peter, James and John, are unable to believe what Jesus is telling them. Instead, "they ridiculed Him." Why? Because they knew that the little girl was dead (v. 53-54). Cyril is to the point here: Jairus and the others are correct; the girl is dead and by "their laughing at [Jesus], they . . . give a clear and manifest acknowledgement that the daughter is dead." This is important, it is necessary St Cyril says, for there to be no doubt in anyone's mind that the girl is really and truly dead, otherwise those in the "group who . . . resist His glory . . . would reject the divine miracle and say that the damsel was not yet dead."

To make manifest His divinity, to reveal His glory, to proclaim the Good News that He is "God With Us," Jesus willingly subjects Himself to the scorn not only of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Roman authorities, but to the dead girl's parents and His closest companions. The Gospel it seems is always entrusted to the weak. Not simply to those who are ontologically weak (creatures) or morally weak (sinners), but to those who not but to outcasts to those who even the weak despise and see as weak. God entrusts the Gospel to those who are lonely and marginalized, those who society (even the "Christian" society of the Church) forget.

In St Luke's Gospel we read that God announces His incarnation to those who the Church of the Old Israel forgot: the childless couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth; the young Virgin, Mary; to Joseph who would all his life bear the unjust scorn of others who thought him a fool and cuckold; the Astrologers, wise men to be sure, but pagans nevertheless and so outside the Covenant between God and the Jewish people; finally, the shepherds, who, even though they were formally part of the Chosen People, lived on the outskirts of Jewish society. To all of these, and to us, God not only reveals the Gospel, but He calls each of them in his or her own way to be evangelists, heralds of the Good News that "God is With Us!"

There is probably no more poignant biblical voice on God's willingness to entrust Himself to outcasts then the prophet Hosea. Hosea told by God:

When the LORD began to speak by Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea:
"Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry
And children of harlotry,
For the land has committed great."
(Hos 1:2)

And so the prophet does. Hosea shames himself among his people by not only marrying a harlot, but by adopting her children as his own (vv. 3-8). He marries Gomer because he has been called by God to be a tangible sign to Israel's apostasy, their whoring after other gods and the powers of this world. Obedient to God's call Hosea willingly joins himself to an adulterous woman and willingly become unclean. Obedient to God's call Hosea makes his wife's sin his own and thus separates himself from the Chosen People of God. Hosea becomes an outcast so that he can reveal to the People of God that they have departed from their God.

Throughout all his trails, Hosea also remains faithful to his faithless wife, even as God remains faithful to apostate Israel. In the end, though Israel, like Gomer, must pass through a period of divine judgment. And it is on the other side of judgment that both discover there is mercy and hope:

O Israel, return to the LORD your God,
For you have stumbled because of your iniquity;
Take words with you,
And return to the LORD.
Say to Him,

"Take away all iniquity;
Receive us graciously,
For we will offer the sacrifices of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us,
We will not ride on horses,
Nor will we say anymore to the work of our hands, 'You are our gods.'
For in You the fatherless finds mercy."
"I will heal their backsliding,
I will love them freely,
For My anger has turned away from him.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
He shall grow like the lily,
And lengthen his roots like Lebanon.
His branches shall spread;
His beauty shall be like an olive tree,
And his fragrance like Lebanon.
Those who dwell under his shadow shall return;
They shall be revived like grain,
And grow like a vine.
Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
"Ephraim shall say, 'What have I to do anymore with idols?'
I have heard and observed him.
I am like a green cypress tree;
Your fruit is found in Me."
Who is wise?
Let him understand these things.
Who is prudent?
Let him know them.
For the ways of the LORD are right;
The righteous walk in them,
But transgressors stumble in them
Restoration only comes when Israel is willing to respond to God in faith. This means she must cast aside her alliances with not only false gods, but the false hope of military power. Mercy is to be found only by casting aside the powers of this world. Imitating the Christ Who is to come, Israel is able to enter into the mercy of God only by accepting her own status as an outcast among the nations and instead rely wholly on God.

Returning to the Gospel, Jesus suffers the shame and ridicule of those who are closest to Him, of those who He has come to serve, to help, to heal and to forgive. For us who follow Jesus this means we too must accept the ridicule and shame of this world and instead be willing outcasts, men and women who are forgotten and abused by those who account themselves mighty according to the standards of this world.

There is, I am afraid, no other way to proclaim the Gospel except through our own weakness. While we may not be called to a life of material poverty or monastic obedience, if we hold fast to the Gospel we will always find ourselves, at this moment or that, rejected precisely because we are a sign of contradiction to this world and its standards. This rejection will often come from those who are closest to us, from those who we have been called to serve, and even from those who themselves carry the Name above every other name. This it seems is inescapable; it is simply the Gospel.

In all of this I would do well to remember, not only the example of Jesus Christ in whose Name I suffer, but also Jairus, his wife and the Apostles. You see I am not only persecuted and ridiculed; like Jairus, his wife and like Peter, James and John I too ridicule Christ and those who carry His Name.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Where I’m Speaking Next

Needless to say, the picture below is the icon of St John Chrysostom, not your servant. Those of you who live in the greater Youngstown area are of course most welcome to attend my talk and, as alway, your comments are most welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory



TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 2007, 7 P.M.








(FOR INFORMATION CALL: 330-755-5635)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Some Slam Poetry

With a hat tip to Dean Abbott of Inspired by a True Story, two offerings from teacher and slam poet Taylor Mali. The first asks us to, "Like, you know," learn to speak with conviction. Together with the second piece, "What Teachers Make" Mali's poetry has inspires me (in a positive way) to reflect on my own priorities as a Christian and as a priest (I should warn those of you with tender sensibilities, the second of the two videos uses some very graphic language that some might find offensive.)

As always, your comments are welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Like, You Know

What Teachers Make

Friday, October 26, 2007

Good News & An Administrative Change

First of all the good news, Koinonia has received over 8,000 hits and has some 70 subscribers. Thank you!

Now the not so good news. Ours being a fallen world means there are no unambiguous successes. If this is true anywhere, it is certainly true online. For those who receive comments via email may have noticed a few spam comments. For the sake of everyone's privacy and security I have chosen to moderate all future comments. Basically this means that I will approve the comments before they are distributed. This is not done to limit conversation--only to block spam. Everyone's comments will be distributed but there will be a slight delay.

I apologize for any inconvenience for the delay in our increasingly lively and productive conversations.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Parochial Ministry of the Priest

Bad days, we all have them. Though substantial the same I made several grammatical and spelling corrections to this essay. My apologizes for sloppiness.

In Christ,


Christian theological reflection begins by looking backwards. Our concern is always to meditate on the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. Because we are members of the One Body of Christ and "surrounded by a great cloud of witness," our mediation necessarily includes the reflections of those who have gone before us "marked with the sign of faith." This above all means the we are called to think about the lives and work of the saints and Fathers.

The temptation of this approach, however, is to stay in the past. There is a certain romantic glow when we imagine ourselves to live no longer in our own time but (by a series of curious intellectual and emotional twists and turns) in some bygone "Golden Age." Well, "bygone," to everyone but us that is. While we must learn from the past we cannot be limited to it. As Thomas Merton somewhere said that we value the "old answers" not because they are old but because they are true.

I offer this by way of a caution about my earlier reflections on the role of the priest in the early Church. As much as I find helpful for my own ministry meditating on the office of the priest during the patristic era, I also know that we cannot return to the 2nd century. Not only can we not do this, we ought not to try or even allow ourselves the self-indulgent luxury of imaging that such a return is desirable. Thomas Wolfe is correct, "You can't go home again."

That said though, what can the past teach us about the ministry of the parish priest in the contemporary situation?

Right at the start the way I've phrased the question betrays my conviction that not all priests need to be, or should be, parish priests. Besides the need for priestly service in monasteries, I think there is something valuable in leaving in reserve priest, married or monastic, for the classical work of presbyter: counseling, governing and teaching on the diocesan level (or even outside the formal boundaries of the Church, but that is for another day). This has been the work of presbyters from very early on and, if the needs of the Church have changed and the work of the priest with it, this does not absolve the Church, much less the order of presbyters, from these earliest obligations.

As the Church has grown, the ancient practice of the Church being coterminous with faithful of a given geographical area gathering around the Holy Altar together with the bishop, the presbyterial senate, the deacons, the minor orders, the order of virgins and the whole People of God, is no longer the practice. I will leave to better theological minds then mine whether or not the ancient or contemporary should be the norm. For myself all I can say is, that even if we should return to the ancient practice of smaller dioceses and more bishops, we can only do so by invigorating the Church within its current limits.

And so to the parish priest.

The work of the late Baptist theology A.J. Conyers, The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture is helpful in understanding the parish priesthood. Mike Aqualia on the blog Fathers of the Church, offers us some selections (and a very positive review) from Conyers' work. Reading through them with our concern for the parochial ministry of the priest, I am struck by this passage regarding St Justin Martyr

who came to the Christian faith by way of Stoicism and Platonism. For him Christian faith is the "touchstone" of truth. He believed that the identification of Christ as logos in Scripture opened the way to understanding even pre-Christian philosophies as bearing a measure of truth. Explains the historian Henry Chadwick, "Christ is for Justin the principle of unity and the criterion by which we may judge the truth, scattered like divided seeds among the different schools of philosophy in so far as they have dealt with religion and morals."

As with Justin, the parish priest finds himself in a community in which, through creation and the sacraments, God the Father through the Holy Spirit has scattered the seeds of Christ. In each person that he encounters in the parish the priest finds Christ seminally present. It is the priest's task and great privilege to discern and nurture the seminal presence of Christ in his parishioners, uniquely for the person and corporately for the parish.

The ability, the authority (exousia), to do this is central to the promise made to the priest at his ordination. The bishop prays that God will send down on the candidate "divine grace which always heals what is infirm and completes what is lacking" so that filled

with the gift of your Holy Spirit this man, whom you have been well-pleased to let enter the rank of Presbyter, that he may become worthy to stand without blemish before your Altar, to proclaim the Gospel of your Kingdom, to minister the word of your truth, to offer gifts and spiritual sacrifices, to renew your People through the washing of rebirth, so that, when he meets the second coming of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, your only-begotten Son, he may in your great goodness receive the reward of his good stewardship of his own order.

The presbyter is no merely liturgical functionary--the priest is the steward of the gifts God has given His Church. And these gifts are above all those personal and shared charismata given to each believer to strengthen the Church and make possible the fulfilling of the commandments given to her by Christ.

The ministry of the parish priest then is this:

To help the members of the community Christ, through the bishop, has entrusted to his care discover and develop their own charismata for the sake of the whole Church and for themselves.

This is the direct application of the priest's more general ministry to the diocese as counselor, governor and teacher. And as with the priest, it is important to note here, that the parish (and so the parishioners) only fulfills its own ministry in so far as the parish serve not simply its own needs, but the needs of the whole Church (that is, the diocese).

Strictly speaking the priest does not serve the parish. He serves the local Church (diocese). The parish is that part of the diocese that has been entrusted to his stewardship. But his aim is not the parish as such, but the diocese. His work in the parish finds its justification and completion only as part of the work of the whole Church.

In this service he will, invariable, discover that the riches poured out by Christ through the Holy Spirit on the members of the parish have a curiously incomplete character. This doesn't mean that Christ gives only partial gifts. Rather the gifts that are given to each are only fulfilled in and through the personal integration, the personal incorporation if you will, of each member of the faithful into the larger community of the parish. Even as the gifts given to each are fulfilled by incorporation into the parish, so to the gifts given to the parish as whole only find their fulfillment though the parish's incorporation into the diocese.

Conyer's meditation on the Church fathers' understanding of tolerance highlights for us the challenge that the parish priest faces in fulfilling his own office. In addition to human sinfulness, the priest leads a congregation that is very much formed by the modern world.

Modern times … lost the earlier understanding of a higher connection among different ways of thinking and believing. Thus modern people tended to know no way of tolerating alien thought other than to say that all opinions are of equal value since they merely illuminate the mind of the individual doing the thinking. Or, to put it less starkly, they confined certain kinds of thought, religious and moral thought specifically, to the realm of the private.

When, as will inevitably be the case, parishioners try to absolutize their own gifts, the priest is called to counsel tolerance. This is not done as the world does this, by privatizing the differences in our gifts so as to allow us to live separate lives on parallel tracks. Rather it is the priest's task to demonstrate to the individual parishioner how his or her gifts are essential for the completion the gifts given to others. The more challenge task, however, is to help people see that they too are in need of the gifts that Christ has given to the other members of the Body of Christ and that without their gifts, my gifts remain incomplete.

The more richly we are blessed, it seems to me, the more we need to realize that our gifts are only fulfilled by the gifts God has given to others.

As when Clement of Alexandria looked at Greek philosophy, the parish priest needs to cultivate in himself and his community a living sense of the parish as a "chorus of truth" Again, Conyers;

This multiple source did not replace Scripture, but it illuminated its pages. All philosophy, if it was true philosophy, was of divine origin, even though what we receive through philosophy is broken and almost unintelligible. All truth, Clement would argue, is God's truth. In his Stromata (Miscellanies) he wrote, "They may say that it is mere chance that the Greeks have expressed something of the true philosophy. But that chance is subject to divine providence. . . . Or in the next place it may be said that the Greeks possessed an idea of truth implanted by nature. But we know that the Creator of nature is one only…"

The parish priest, in concert with the bishop and the faithful, is called to help see how the different gifts given to each illumines not only the Scriptures, but the lives of each and the work of the whole Church.

While it is understandable that we might find ourselves longing for a return the "Golden Age" of the Fathers, or at least the more proximate "good ol' days" of the parish, a return to the past in either case is impossible. But possible or not, it is "now," not "yesterday," that is the acceptable hour to serve God as He has called us to serve Him.

In the use of their gifts the priest and his parishioners need to follow the example of Christ:

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
" The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD."

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, "Is this not Joseph's son?" (Luke 4: 16-22)

Today, here and now, among these peoples with all their gifts and limitations, the Scriptures are fulfilled.

While the past may guide our understanding, the past cannot be substituted for the present. The parish priest is set aside to counsel, govern and teach and his specific area of concern is the parish. Dependent upon the Holy Spirit it is in the lives of his parishioners that he is called to discern the will of God the Father and the presence of Christ not simply for the sake of the parish, but the whole of the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Which Come First: Office Or Character?

Reading through the most excellent comments on an earlier post on "closed source" and "open source" models of ministry I note, not all together happily I hasten to add, the prominence of the priest and his role in making or breaking the parish. I do not wish to minimize the importance of the priest--far from it in fact. But I do have a few thoughts that might help us, or at least me, come to a bit of clarity about the relationship between the priest and the parish.

First, and both Chrys and S-P have alluded to this, there is the question of the priest's character. In the usual order of things, which is to say how we do things today, we trust the man because he is a priest. It is the fact of his ordination to priesthood that causes us to think and speak about the priest as trustworthy and a leader.

But this I think is exactly backwards.

We do not, or at least ought not, trust a man because he is a priest. Rather he is a priest because we trust him. Likewise the priest's leadership role in the worship of God is his precisely because he has, or should have, demonstrated his able to lead the parish in the other areas of the Christian life. Let me explain.

Historically men were ordained to the priesthood not to serve parishes, but to counsel the bishop. It was the bishop's responsibility to stand at the head of the community and lead the People of God in offering praise and sacrifice to God. When the Church gathered, all the orders of the Church, laity, deacons and priests, each in their own place (thus "orders") stood together with the bishop around the Holy Altar. The priests stood closer to the Holy Altar and the bishop during the Liturgy as a reflection of his unique role in the Church.

This role was three-fold: First, in the early Church priests were the wise elders (presbyter, is Greek for elder) who served as counselors to the bishop. Second, by virtue of their demonstrated wisdom and mature counsel, presbyters assisted the bishop as governors of the Holy Church of Christ (the diocese). Third and finally, these wise counselors and experienced governors were also teachers who expounded the Word of God with power and authority (it is noteworthy that St John Chrysostom came to prominence as a preacher will still a priest in Antioch.

Before all else the ministry of the presbyter is to counsel, govern and teach. It is only as a consequence of his fulfilling these obligation that a man would be entrusted to lead the Church of Christ in offering praise and sacrifice to God the Father in the absence of the bishop.

While I am not in anyway opposed to the professionalizing of the clergy, it is important to keep in mind that the office as priest is first and foremost about character and virtue and not professional skills (no matter how important). This means that the priest must demonstrate that he is to be trusted not simply in a general sense, but specifically in his ability to serve as counselor, governor and teacher for the Church. The witness of a priest is first and foremost a personal witness and then, only secondarily, a reflection of skills.

This means that, to borrow a phrase from my young ministry days, the priest must "earn the right to be heard.' Usually factors such as seminary education and subsequent ordination will get the man the benefit of the doubt since most of us respect education and the office of the priest. But these factors while important, and in the case of ordination essential, they are nevertheless external to the man and so external to his character and his personal relationship to the Church.

In our conversations about the priesthood we (laity and clergy alike) tend reduce the office to liturgy, so closely do we identify the priest with his parochial liturgical duties. For many priests and parishes this reduction of the priest to his liturgical duties is the preferred state of affairs.

Doing this however is harmful both for the priest and the parish.

Even when the model is not priest/spiritual, on the one hand, and laity/business, on the other, is a bad idea. The narrow identification of the parish priest with his liturgical role does not encourage the priest to grow and develop pastorally and professionally, much less personally. If all that I'm expected to do as the priest, if all I want to do as the priest, is to celebrate the services, then I will very quickly stagnate. Whether I find myself serving a parish with an active or minimal liturgical life doesn't really matter. In either case I am left with a rather large void in my life that I will try and fill with something other than the development of the non-liturgical gifts God has given me.

For some that means more services. One real consequence, or at least temptation, is that the priest begins to confuse his liturgical function with who is really is. In this case the goal of the priest is to be confirmed in his liturgically based identity. When this happens the priest is likely to ignore, or worse, resent, anyone or anything that distracts him from his liturgical obligations.

Or, if liturgy isn't all that important to the parish and no one has much non-liturgical use for priest, he'll try and find other interests, typically social, to fill the void. Whether these social interests are ecclesiastical or secular doesn't matter. With his social life becomes more and more important, as committee work and dinners become evermore fill his day, the priest is subject to petty vanities.

In either case the priest suffers. And with the priest, the whole Church, the diocese and the parish, also suffer; we suffer because we lose the gifts that the man brought to the priesthood. And we lose as well because, following the example of the priest, we begin to identify our own spiritual life with either an extensive cycle of liturgical services, or an unending round of social activities. And this assume that, unlike the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, we simply don't walk away limiting our participation in the Church to baptisms, weddings and funerals.

So what is the way out?

It is a return to the primacy of character. Not simply the character of the priest, but of each and every single person in the parish. The problems, the temptations, and failures facing the priest are not his alone. They are common to the whole human family and especially to the Church.

To overcome all this, requires leadership and providing this is the first challenge of the priest. His character is tested by how well he is willing to place the riches of the Tradition, and the real power of his office, to the work of transforming lives.

For good or ill, the priest leads by example. Either he leads the parish to salvation or leaves them in stagnation. To lead them to salvation however requires that he place himself on the line, that he understand that his office buys him only a polite "hello" and a moment of time.

After that, what he does is dependent on divine grace and his own creativity.

But that I will leave for another time.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority

The following is the final report of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church that recently met in Ravenna, Italy.  While long, it is certainly well worth reading.  I have included only the Introduction with a link to the remainder of the report.  Though I have not studied the report in depth, what I have read impresses me and encourages me for the future of Catholic/Orthodox relations and reconciliation (and if God so wills, let this be in my life time).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church. Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority
Ravenna, 13 October 2007


1. "That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (Jn 17, 21). We give thanks to the triune God who has gathered us – members of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church - so that we might respond together in obedience to this prayer of Jesus. We are conscious that our dialogue is restarting in a world that has changed profoundly in recent times. The processes of secularization and globalization, and the challenge posed by new encounters between Christians and believers of other religions, require that the disciples of Christ give witness to their faith, love and hope with a new urgency. May the Spirit of the risen Lord empower our hearts and minds to bear the fruits of unity in the relationship between our Churches, so that together we may serve the unity and peace of the whole human family. May the same Spirit lead us to the full expression of the mystery of ecclesial communion, that we gratefully acknowledge as a wonderful gift of God to the world, a mystery whose beauty radiates especially in the holiness of the saints, to which all are called.

2. Following the plan adopted at its first meeting in Rhodes in 1980, the Joint Commission began by addressing the mystery of ecclesial koinônia in the light of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of the Eucharist. This enabled a deeper understanding of ecclesial communion, both at the level of the local community around its bishop, and at the level of relations between bishops and between the local Churches over which each presides in communion with the One Church of God extending across the universe (Munich Document, 1982). In order to clarify the nature of communion, the Joint Commission underlined the relationship which exists between faith, the sacraments – especially the three sacraments of Christian initiation – and the unity of the Church (Bari Document, 1987). Then by studying the sacrament of Order in the sacramental structure of the Church, the Commission indicated clearly the role of apostolic succession as the guarantee of the koinônia of the whole Church and of its continuity with the Apostles in every time and place (Valamo Document, 1988). From 1990 until 2000, the main subject discussed by the Commission was that of "uniatism" (Balamand Document, 1993; Baltimore, 2000), a subject to which we shall give further consideration in the near future. Now we take up the theme raised at the end of the Valamo Document, and reflect upon ecclesial communion, conciliarity and authority.

3. On the basis of these common affirmations of our faith, we must now draw the ecclesiological and canonical consequences which flow from the sacramental nature of the Church. Since the Eucharist, in the light of the Trinitarian mystery, constitutes the criterion of ecclesial life as a whole, how do institutional structures visibly reflect the mystery of this koinônia? Since the one and holy Church is realised both in each local Church celebrating the Eucharist and at the same time in the koinônia of all the Churches, how does the life of the Churches manifest this sacramental structure?

4. Unity and multiplicity, the relationship between the one Church and the many local Churches, that constitutive relationship of the Church, also poses the question of the relationship between the authority inherent in every ecclesial institution and the conciliarity which flows from the mystery of the Church as communion. As the terms "authority" and "conciliarity" cover a very wide area, we shall begin by defining the way we understand them.*

*Orthodox participants felt it important to emphasize that the use of the terms "the Church", "the universal Church", "the indivisible Church" and "the Body of Christ" in this document and in similar documents produced by the Joint Commission in no way undermines the self-understanding of the Orthodox Church as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks. From the Catholic point of view, the same self-awareness applies: the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church 'subsists in the Catholic Church' (Lumen Gentium, 8); this does not exclude acknowledgement that elements of the true Church are present outside the Catholic communion.

Read more: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Moving From A "Closed Source" An "Open Source" Model of Pastoral Ministry

After Liturgy this morning I had a conversation with one of the men in the parish about different approaches or models of pastoral ministry. For many ministry in the parish, whether by the clergy or the laity, is very much a "" reality.

"Closed source," you ask, "what is that?" I'll tell you.

Without getting lost in the technical details "closed source" refers to a computer software in which the end user or consumer is does not have access to the source code or the actual program that makes the software work. In many cases this isn't really a problem. Most of us, myself included, are not particularly interested in the source code of say, Microsoft Word. We don't care how it works, only that it works. The technical details of the program, much like the technical details of automobiles, or electricity, or cell phones, don't matter to us.

Except of course when the program, or automobile, or electricity, or cell phone, doesn't work. Then we ask, pointlessly in my own case, "What's wrong, why isn't this stupid thing working?" The reality of course is I don't really care why my cell phone isn't working, at least not in any technical detail. I only care that I'm not able to make a phone call when I want to.

The typically parish I think largely runs on a closed source model. As with our computers, or our automobiles, or electricity or our cell phones, we don't care how the parish works, only that it is there and working when we want something. While it is not all together true, the work of parish is kind of like making sausage or law, most people think it is better if they don't really goes in to them.

But again, this is only the case while things are working. When things go wrong, or probably somewhat more cynically, if not inaccurately, we get upset and we want answers. Unfortunately, as with our computers or our automobiles, most of us really don't have the knowledge basis to understand what went wrong. So again what most of us look for is not for an accurate appraisal of is wrong (and right) in our community, but an answer (and it is almost always a singular explanation we are searching for) we can understand and that makes sense (justifies really) our discomfort, disappointment, or anger.

While this is certainly understandable, and I am as prone to this as anyone, it is not reasonable to expect to have a satisfying answer to a complex question without putting in the necessary time beforehand. Without a sufficient knowledge base, any explanation I can understand is likely to distort the situation. Worse it is likely to play to and re-enforce my ignorance or bias or active prejudice.

My brother priests will often tell me that because I'm a psychologist I'm less biased in evaluating parishes. I'm not, I am simply differently biased then they are. The fact that my different bias, my different perspective on a parish, the people in the parish and their relationship with one another, is useful doesn't mean that it is "objective" with any mathematical purity. Like everyone else I see what I see from my own vantage point in terms of my own life experiences and with my own very real blind spots.

So since none of us have time to master all the information necessary to run a parish, much less to diagnosis its illness, what are we to do? This is where the "" model of computer programing might come in handy. If Microsoft is closed source, open source software give the user access to the code that makes the program work. Why? Because in the open source model the conviction is that the best programs are developed incrementally, step-by-step, in an active and intentional collaborative process. In this process, those who design the software and those who use it are seen as partners in the development of the final product.

In the social realm blogs are very much an application of the open source model to the writing process. As the author of the blog, I invite you not only to read what I write, but to comment on it. These comments are especially valuable to me since they help focus my own thoughts, tell me where my thought is not being communicated effective, and are a source for me of new themes of inquiry and reflection.

So what might an open source approach to parish ministry look like?

I don't know--that's why I've written this post. Let me ask those of you who read this: What would an open source model parish look like? Have I even given you enough information to answer, or even understand, the question? As a suggestion, think of the times when your own parish has not been functioning properly, what (and not "who") need to be different do you think to avoid, or at least minimize, the dysfunction? Looking back, what might have been done differently to strengthen the parish? And what does strengthen mean anyway?

Just some grist for the mill:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore He says:

" When He ascended on high,
He led captivity captive,
And gave gifts to men."

(Now this, "He ascended"—what does it mean but that He also first[c] descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, or the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Eph 4:4-16).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Progress in dialogue with Catholics, says Ecumenical Patriarchate

Thanks be to God!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Metropolitan Ioannis, co-chairman of the joint commission, talks to AsiaNews about the importance of the discussion with regard to the Pope's role in the Church. The row caused by the Moscow Patriarchate is an "expression of authoritarianism" so that the Russians are isolated once again.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – The results of the latest talks by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches held in Ravenna (Italy) were definitely positive, this according to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamon, one of Commission's two co-chairs with Card Walter Kasper, expressed a similar opinion in talking to AsiaNews, thus confirming the positive assessment already made by the Holy See.

Ioannis' statement comes on the eve of another meeting between Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, scheduled for Naples (Italy) where the Pope will be on a pastoral visit and where the Patriarch will be receive an honorary degree and be made an honorary citizen of Amalfi.

Ioannis, who played a key role in all the activities according to everyone present at Ravenna, including Catholics, said that the final paper from that meeting on collegiality and authority in the Church was unanimously approved and will be the basis for future sessions of the Unity Commission.

Mgr Eleuterio Fortino, under-secretary at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told Vatican Radio that the experts had started to discuss "an issue that is essential to the dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, a difficult issue," explaining that "we're starting to study in detail the evolution of the role of the Bishop of Rome in the Church."

According to Ioannis, removing any reference to Church unity in the first millennium, which defined the Pope's role as that of 'co-operator' whilst that of the patriarchs as 'consenting,' was one of the most important decisions taken. This was done to avoid differing interpretations by the two ecclesiologies, Western and Eastern; the first centred on the fact that the Pope prevails over others; the second which focuses on greater equality" among Church leaders.

"In the Eastern Church, the primacy goes to Constantinople," he said; "not in terms of power but in terms of initiative and coordination. For the first time, the term primus was used, the meaning it held in the tradition of the first millennium, always within the synodal context."

For the Orthodox, the conclusions reached by the Commission "were so important that they overshadowed the pullout by the Russian delegation," due to the presence of the Estonian Apostolic Church, which Moscow does not recognise.

"We should remember that the issue goes back to 1996 when the Ecumenical Patriarchate in response to a demand by the Estonian Church recognised its autonomy which it had in 1923 and which was forcibly suppressed in 1945 by the Soviet army," Ioannis explained.

"Despite the agreement with Constantinople reached in 1996 in Zurich and Berlin, the Moscow Patriarchate refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of the Estonian Church until the latter returns property belonging to Russian parishes. Constantinople has tried to mediate, but the Estonian government has refused on constitutional grounds. Thus the issue remains unresolved."

A statement by Bishop Hilarion to the Interfax news agency best illustrates how deep the cleavage is. In it he questions the "legitimacy" of the conclusions reached in Ravenna since his patriarchate was absent. He said that Moscow "alone has more members than all the other Orthodox Churches combined."

"Hilarion's tough stance should be seen as an expression of authoritarianism whose goal is to exhibit the influence of the Moscow Church," said Ioannis. "But like last year in Belgrade, all Moscow achieved was to isolate itself once more since no other Orthodox Church followed its lead, remaining instead faithful to Constantinople."

Thoughts on the Priesthood

S-P, faithful fan of this blog (also a good man and a friend from when I lived in California), has a very insightful comment in "Parish Life Redux." The whole of what he, wrongly I think, describes as a rant is certainly worth reading and I reproduce it here:

Forgive my upcoming rant here, but my 36 years of experience with clergy of all Christian expressions has been that, while they view themselves as "leaders", they are well defended emotionally and psychologically for all manner of reasons, and all of which amounts to they seek intimacy based on the illusion of connection to parishoners based on intellectual discussion and being perceived as a "guru" purely on the basis of the "grace of the collar" (translate that: authority , strength and honor) and not a true personal transparency and openness which they expect from their constituents in the confessional.
He continues:

It is a rare pastor who truly leads through humility, vulnerability, struggle and a persona of compunction and repentance. This is not ONLY a clerical issue, but a human one. Unfortunately many men enter the priesthood to work out personal issues of "manhood", acceptance, codependence, authority and control issues and these common male issues are magnified through the office of the priesthood. I know this sounds cynical, but it is the reality I've encountered (I must say here, even in myself as a protestant minister when I was a younger man). I do not despise the priests or the priesthood; I truly have a great deal of compassion and sadness for men who are trapped in themselves and for whom the priesthood ends up reinforcing their dysfunctions rather than being an arena for their healing and maturity. A priest who is perceived as vulnerable and humble will have a parish that will struggle WITH [him] as they struggle [together] to mature. If [priests] are merely sacramental dispensers, theological reference manuals, professional homilists, and confessional advisors they will have little compassion from their flock when they show any signs of weakness or failure. End of rant. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blogospherical programming.

Thank you for your observations, these are powerful, and true words. You are in the main correct I think.

Where I might have a slightly different thought is this: Even when men enter the priesthood from an authentic sense of vocation (and this is itself a problematic assumption), there remains the underlying psychological dynamics that you articulate. An indifference or ignorance of these darker, but very real, motivations is irresponsible. It is, I fear, very much the norm for the reasons you offer; we draw our seminary faculty from a group of men in which a fleeing from the self is common, if not the norm.

And you are correct, this is not simply a struggle for priests or clergy of other ranks and traditions. It is rather the common human struggle. "No tree," Jung says, "reaches up to heaven, unless its roots first reach down to hell." Too many people come to the Orthodox Church, and other religious traditions or political movements, to avoid the painful truth of their own lives. And if the priest himself is also so inclined, if he desire to submerge himself in the office of priest, well, he will like not only attract those who wish to do the same, he will actively promote this agenda.

This is certainly something I have seen in a number of parishes. It is so much easier to be "Greek," or "Russian," or "a convert," then to be myself. Looking at the broad expanse of Orthodoxy in America, I can help but see those hyper-ethnic Orthodox Christians and super-correct Orthodox Christians, as simply two sides of the same coin.

We have turned Holy Tradition, and all those small "t" traditions, into ends in themselves.

And S-P you have diagnosed one major reason why we do so: We are fleeing from self-knowledge, and therefore repentance. In place of self-knowledge, we favor a purely formal attachment to Tradition (or traditions).

At the risk of showing my own psychoanalytic leanings, this attachment to externals is where people get all the energy the expend in defending "Holy Orthodoxy" or "How we've always done things." Energy that should go to self-knowledge instead is channeled in defending the self from, well, the self. Puncture this feedback loop, which is often older than the person and represents generations of stagnation, and you risk an explosion.

S-P is correct, the priest must lead by the example of his own "humility, vulnerability, struggle and a persona of compunction and repentance." Doing this will mean a crucifixion for the priest as it would for anyone who takes seriously Christ's command to take up the Cross and follow Him.

For myself, I am troubled by how easy it is to write these words, or say them in a sermon, and how hard it is to actually live them day to day. And I am tempted to say that the crucifixion that these words announce should only be internal or come from the world and not be public and from other Christians.

But this of course is to perpetrate my own fraud.

Christ dies publicly and at the hands of His Own People. There was, and is, simply no one else to make His Cross, or mine, then the People of God. This being the case, I think the priest is called to be not only a man of prayer, but of courage, prudence and discernment. There will be times when the cross he is called to carry, the cross on which he is called to hang, is not one that he must passive acceptance, but rather is one he makes for himself as the result his active confrontation of human sinfulness.

In this confrontation the priest, must be mindful of his own sins and yet not paralyzed by this knowledge. He cannot hold back, he must identify the sins of others knowing full well that he has now joined a battle above all with his own sinfulness. And as he fights dethrone sin in the lives of those he is called to serve, he will find himself tempted to inaction by the memory of his own sinfulness. This is his real cross.

And here, S-P, is the heart of the matter, in the Church (ike the world in which we live and to which we have acquiesced) is held in the grip of false humility. Following from this is a falsification, or maybe more accurately, distortion, of the Christian virtues that ought to flow from humility.

The priest, and the whole Church, would do well to listen to on this issue to G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy:
But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt -- the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.
We have neglected the Truth of the Gospel, we have reduced its proclamation to a mere formality. And so, necessarily, we neglect to love each other in anything other than words. We have become so falsely humble that we can't go forward.

And this leaves all of us, and especially priests, as you say, "trapped in themselves . . . the priesthood [merely] reinforcing their dysfunctions rather than being an arena for their healing and maturity." But it doesn't need to be this way.

Again thank you S-P and everyone who offers comments here.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Protoevangelium of Abbott & Costello

Back in the day, we could be funny without being crude, humiliating, or mean spirited. I think that, as part of the Church's evangelistic work, it would be good to show folks Abbott & Costello and other entertainers (singers, comedians, etc.) and movies. While not always great art, and certainly not always morally uplifting, there is much from back in the day that gives us a sense of the dignity of the human person.

In their own way, I think Abbott & Costello represent a gentle, but real, Protoevangelium, a preparation for the Gospel that we need to recapture.

Hit tip: Suicide of the West.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thoughts on Parish Life-Redux

Thank you one and all for your comments. I find the feedback very helpful in clarifying my own thinking on the issues I post on.

Thinking about what has been said, I don't disagree with anything that has been posted. Reading through the comments, as I said above, leads me to rephrase my thoughts this way:

Yes, people need to be called to repentance. The real question is not should the preacher call us to repentance, but how can he do so effectively? And for that matter, what is an effective call to repentance?

Simply offering a list of sins is, I think, less then helpful. First of all any such list will invariably fall short of being a complete catalogue of the moral failings of a significant portion of the congregation. As a result, these lists tend to "privilege" some sins as more important and other as less so. Typically this list works itself out as a list of sins that "they" have, but not "us."

For myself, I see no value in my being convinced of your sinfulness but not convicted of my own.

Second, I think care needs to be taken least, in our willingness to condemn sin, we lay on a hearer a burden they cannot carry. Often real repentance requires understanding of not only the objective significance of my actions, but more importantly my own subjective motivations in participating in these behaviors, thoughts, or attitude. Especially in hearing confessions I have come to realize that the sin the person confesses is almost always only the symptom of the illness. Getting to the root of the symptom is what is necessary for real and lasting healing.

Third, a friend of mine is a Southern Baptist preacher (he offered to license me to preach in the Southern Baptist Convention, but I digress). He told me one time that Southern Baptists like nothing better than a sermon that makes them feel bad about themselves. The worse they feel about themselves, so he told me, the better they feel about Jesus. For myself I am loath to participate in this kind of dynamic--it is too much like sadomasochism for my comfort.

There are other reasons for avoiding a catalogue of since. But none of these reasons means that preachers ought not to offer the moral and spiritual guidance that leads to repentance. But a sermon is a limited and--owing to the need to reach a fairly diverse group of listeners--a clumsy tool for the delicate work of directly fostering a repentant heart.

Imagine if you will the response on a direct and frank sermon on sexual morality in the typical Orthodox congregation. Do you really want me preaching against masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception, sodomy and divorce in the presence of your children?

Probably not.

Over the years I have begun to appreciate the strengths and limitations of the sermon as a tool for education, spiritual formation, and Christian discipleship. It is a rookie mistake, as the example above illustrates, to present in a sermon (which is essentially a monologue, even if it evokes reflection on the part of those who hear it) information or topics that are really best addressed in a dialog. Some topics require the give and take of conversation. A dialog for these topics is best since this allows for the asking and answering of and questions so that we can, together, grasp the Truth of the Gospel on this subject.

If I present one of these subjects in a sermon and the BEST I can hope for is to bore people. More probably I will simply upset and anger them.

Been there. Done that. Read the book. Saw the movie. Bought the T-shirt.

Taking into account the limits of the sermon, what are actual topics of moral and spiritual guidance that can be offered from the pulpit (or in my case, standing in the midst of the congregation--I don't like pulpits, too much like hiding, but I again digress)?

The sermon needs to be basically positive in content. The preacher is most effective in calling people to repentance by presenting a compelling, and obtainable, vision of the Christian life. It is within this context that he can present personally challenging information to his listeners. He does so not in terms of blame, but in gently but firmly pointing out that certain behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes undermine our living the vision he's outlined while other behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes making that way possible or at least more likely.

Approached this way the sermon or homily becomes a "light in the darkness," rather than a simple, and pointless, condemnation of human sinfulness. In my own spiritual life at least I have come to realize that simply looking at my own sinfulness and shortcomings cause me to give up and tempts me to despair. Likewise a vision too exalted, too far beyond my grasp, cause me to give up. Again, to despair.

The challenge for the preacher is to hold out to his listeners the next step on the ladder of divine ascent. "Moses went no faster," or so I have been told, "then the slowest Israelite."

It requires a fair amount of practice and knowledge of human nature in general and of the congregation in particular for the preacher to strike the right balance. This is why the effective preacher, is an the effective pastor in my view who focuses his time and energy in getting to know the people in his congregation. He can do this by hearing confessions, conversations with people at coffee hour, leading discussion groups rather than using a lecture format, and visiting people in their homes.

Focusing on a positive vision for Christian living I think is a better plan for success then any I've found. Pastors need to get out of the pulpit and get to know the men, women and children in their congregation. It is also good to get to know the wider community within which the congregation is situated--but that will have to wait for another day.

Again, thank you for your comments. As always your observations, questions and criticism are most welcome and always helpful.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My ESBVM Paper

I have uploaded my recent presentation to the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a pdf. You can download it by clicking here:

My hope is to submit this for publication and so I retain the copy write for the work whole and in part. If you are interested in reproducing some or all of the paper, please ask my permission before you do so. Thank you.

As always, your comments are actively sought and most welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

How Vulnerable is Your Life?

I especially like the quote from Hank William's at the end.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

From Fr Stephen's most excellent blog, Glory to God for All Things:

Young parents quickly discover a level of vulnerability they had not known before a child came into their world. With the birth of a child, under most normal circumstances, your heart becomes extremely vulnerable. You discover that you've never loved anything so much and the fragility of their lives becomes, sometimes, all too obvious. I'm not certain that this sense of fragility stops even after their grown and no longer fit the description of "child" any longer.

The vulnerability, of course, is that of love. We live in a dangerous world. I can recall standing at a bus stop every morning of my youngest daughter's early school years because the idea of letting a beautiful young child stand next to a busy street seemed insane to me. Some mornings it was awfully cold. But we'd play games and wait for the bus and I would watch my heart pull away in that large yellow vehicle. Happy again, that we had warded off so many dangers.

That this same daughter, as a teen, today drives an old Volvo, doubtless has much to do with her father's vulnerability. It's my heart.

Most of the things that are truly precious to us have a characteristic vulnerability: a child, an aging parent, a spouse, etc. It is also properly true of the Church. Though its existence is underwritten by the promise of heaven, its dependence on love makes it daily vulnerable to all of man's worst instincts. On any given day we either love each other and take up our cross, or the Church, that marvelous Bride of God, is wounded and hurt. Something fails and hearts are wounded, and disappointed. God has not made us immune to the Cross but has required it of us in our journey into the Kingdom.

But neither you nor I need drive the nails that bind one another to the Cross. We need not speak ill words or offer harsh judgments or crush dimly burning wicks. Today, be St. John the Theologian who stood by the Cross (as did the Mother of God). Offer words of encouragement to brothers and sisters. Offer no word of offence or gloat at another's suffering.

There is a line from an old Hank Williams song, that always makes me weep (I'm from the South, you know). It reads:

He was Mary's own darlin', he was God's chosen Son
Once He was fair and once He was young
Mary, she rocked Him, her darlin' to sleep
But they left Him to die like a tramp on the street.

That same darlin' dwells in each brother and sister you meet today. Let your heart be vulnerable to them. Don't leave them like a tramp on the street.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fifth Sunday of Luke (Luke 16:19-31)

Luke 16:19-31

"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell[a] from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom."Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' "Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"

[ Editor's note: St John Chrysostom preached with great frequency on the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Selections from these sermons have been published by St Vladimir's Seminary Press in the book On Wealth and Poverty. Given the wealth of insight from Chrysostom on the parable, I am disinclined to try my hand at even beginning to summarize what he says abou the Gospel text. The Acton Institute has published selections from Chrysostom's sermons available on their blog page: Readings on Church and Poverty. Just scroll down to Week 2 to find St John's work. These quotations do a much better job then I could of explicating the economic implications of this parable. Read St John Chrysostom, and he will explain to you the thorny questions surrounding wealth and poverty. My own concern here is more modest.]

At any given moment of my life I am either Lazarus, sitting in need at my neighbor's door, or the rich man who ignores my needy neighbor. Mark my words carefully: I am not Lazarus, I am not the rich man. Rather I am both of them and so I vacillate between acknowledging my need and the illusion of my own abundance. In the parable, Jesus Who sees more clearly then I do, is able to make these men distinct from one another. And by that very clarity He reveals me to myself as both men.

For this reason I war within myself as St Paul says:
Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin (Romans 17: 13-25).
Unlike Lazarus, I do not accept my own poverty, my own need. I imagine myself to be the rich man, the man who is sufficient in himself and in need of no one.

But when I do that I condemn myself twice over.

First, I am condemned because I deny that my life is not mine, but the gift of God that makes me possible. I do not own my own life, my own existence. It comes to me from outside and in fact it is only that Which is outside of me that makes me possible. Try as I might, I can never grasp my own life, it comes to me, as it does to everyone, as a free gift from God or not at all.

When I refuse to acknowledge that my life is a gift, that I am a needy being who owns nothing not even himself, and imagine that I am sufficient, that what I possess is really and truly mine, I condemn myself again.

If what I own is really mine, if nothing external to my own will and desire constrains me, what excuse do I have for my lack of generosity, my unwillingness to sacrifice or to care for my needy neighbor? If I really believe that I am rich, if I really believe that am self-sufficient, and yet still do nothing, I reveal myself to be a rather miserable and petty little godling.

If I really possess myself fully, then I possess all things and nothing I give away can ever diminish me. And this makes me much worse then the rich man in the parable. He at least would suffer a small loss in caring for Lazarus. But if I am really self-sufficient, if I am really wholly independent of God, my neighbor and possessions, if I am really never in need, then, unlike the widow in the Gospel, I can never give from my substance--anything I give, I give will always be from my abundance since abundance is all that I have.

And so I find myself much worse then the rich man in the parable. He at least had the lame excuse of fear, what excuse do I have who imagine himself to need nothingthing from my neighbor?

In the Gospel, the rich man could look at Lazarus and see himself if only faintly. Even if he never did anything with his sympathy, even if that weak communion with Lazarus never moved him to action, he at least made that stillborn movement toward his neighbor. He compassion is ineffectual both for Lazarus and his brothers who he leaves in this life. But while the compassion is fruitless, it is at least there.

The rich man in the parable is a barren fig tree. but I am even less than that when I deny my own poverty. I am Lazarus laying at not only the Gate of Heaven, but at my neighbor's gate as well, begging for the scraps that fall from the heavenly and earthly tables. Poor and needy Lazarus is taken by angels to Heaven to which he always reached. His need was denied again and again by the rich man, but Lazarus never despairs of Heaven's mercy. His neighbor's indifference never makes Lazarus bitter or indifferent to whatever small mercy he might receive in this life. He is even willing to accept the ministrations of dogs and in this he becomes for us a distressing figure of Christ Who nourishes us with His own Body and Blood.

The whole of the parable, like the whole of the Christian life, revolves around mercy.

Do I offer mercy?

Or am I, like the rich man, unwilling to give even from my surplus?

Will I accept mercy?

Lazarus in his humility did, even if the only mercy he received in this life was from dogs licked his sores.

The rich man within me, as St Paul suggests, war against my ever acknowledging that I am Lazarus, that I am poor and in need. My need is so great that even the Infinite God cannot it seems fill me. Or maybe more accurately, my need is so great that God, in His mercy and humility, allows me to take comfort not simply in Him, but in my neighbor as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Because It Is Always Good to Smile :)

If you grew up like I did, you probably have many fond memories of Bugs Bunny and his friends (& foes!). The man responsible for most of the voices was of course Mel Blanc. Here he is on the David Letterman show in 1981.


In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., If you click the title of this post you can hear more of Mel Blanc's work in YouTube.


Thoughts on Parish Life

When I write my next book (this of course is assuming the publisher ever gets back to me about my first book!), I think I will need to mentioned the good people at Holy Assumption Orthodox Church (OCA), Canton, OH where I've been helping out the last several weeks. We've been discussing an part of an article by Fr Alexander Schmemann. You can find that article here: "The Canonical Problem." In our conversation today after Liturgy, people helped me put words to something I've been struggling with for quite a while.

In a parish where the Gospel is being preached with conviction, and people are at least somewhat committed to Christ and sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, then at any given time at some members of the community will be in crisis. Not crisis necessarily as the world understand the term to be sure.

Rather this crisis is the internal struggle that which proceeds real spiritual growth and transformation in Christ. In a word, metanoia.

It wasn't until this morning that the reality of that really struck me. At any given moment in a parish's life some people are experience a call to repentance. There are men, women and children who, having come to know themselves as sinners, are now struggle to know themselves as loved by Christ and to see themselves in light of the Resurrection. My question is this: What are the implications of this for how we structure the life of the parish?

Of course this has implication for the people who are undergoing repentance. But since we rarely (okay, never) have a sign around our necks reading "Caution! Significant Spiritual Work in Progress!" it also places a particular obligation on the rest of us in the parish. Basically it seems to me that we need to structure parish life around, well, around how we'd like to be treated when we were in those moments of crisis that are at the heart of repentance.

Especially in recent years, it has become fashionable to speak of the Church as a hospital for sinners. That's all well and good and I agree with the idea. The challenge though is figuring out what this means in practical terms.

For a while I thought that this meant calling people to repentance. This isn't wrong exactly, but I think now I was a bit off the beam. Calling people to repentance is too often confused with making people sick--getting them to feel bad about themselves and their relationship (or lack of relationship) with Christ and His Church.

Now I'm wondering if rather than calling folks to repentance, especially in sermons, if I ought not to guide people through the process of repentance. Might it not be better to outline what repentance looks like and help people see how they can walk through repentance rather than, even unintentionally, risk castigating them for being unrepentant?

The challenge of the sermon is that I must speak to everyone and so I need to not only limit myself to those themes that address what is universal applicable and useful. I must also avoid those themes that, while true, might cause harm to those who in all innocence cannot yet hear them. Or for the biblically minded among us: offer people milk not meat, that is describe the way of repentance, but not demand it from people.

God, and the ebb and flow of everyday life, seems to do a good job in reminding us that we aren't God. Looking back over my ministry as a priest I can help wonder if taking it on myself to call people to repentance hasn't done more harm then good.

What I mean is this: Those who are in the midst of repentance probably don't need me heaping coals on the fire. These folks are already in as much pain as they can handle. And since repentance also seem to come with a fair degree of self-criticism and even loathing, I don't think a strong sermon or adult ed class on why we must repent does anything but make the person feel worse about him or herself.

Much like when I'm talking with someone whose been the victim of a violent crime, I think it is better to avoid language or ideas that simply cause more pain (and yes, that's part of what we aim at when we call people to repentance--psychic or spiritual pain). If someone's heart is already sore, why add to the pain? God is already at work there, my job is to cooperate with His work, not usurp His role.

And so, by outlining the process of repentance, I can serve as a guide to those who are in crisis. This approach I think is not only more helpful generally, it also will encourage people to speak with me privately. After all, if I'm in pain already, who would I most likely want to speak to, someone who offers me a helping hand or a harsh word?

"Okay," you say, "but what about those people who haven't repented yet?"

Well, what about them? If they aren't listening to God, why do I think they'll listen to me?

Again looking back at my own ministry, I think this is where I have gone wrong: Preaching to the unrepentant. As with programs centered around the complacent Christian in our midst, structuring my ministry around the unrepentant is a waste of time. Not because there isn't a need to call them to repentance, but because that call is probably better given through the example God transforming lives of the people around them in the parish.

While in a one-on-one situation, I might be able to call someone to repentance, in a public forum I think I need to be mindful of the effect of that call on those who are already undergoing repentance. For the person who is undergoing the trials of repentance my sermon to the unrepentant is not going to encourage or sustain them as they walk through their own experience of inner darkness.

How much damage, I wonder, have I done to those bruised by repentance in my zeal to call the unrepentant to "New Life"? How easy it has been to justify giving voice to my own frustrations and anger at the obstinate and the unrepentant by an appealing to the Gospel. More frightening, how easy it is to overlook the damage I've done to the "little ones" of faith in my zeal to call the unrepentant to turn from their sins.

Thinking about my conversation this morning, I think I would, and in fact all of us would do well, to take to heart the description of the Messiah in Isaiah:

"Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,
My Elect One in whom My soul delights!
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.
He will not cry out, nor raise His voice,
Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.
A bruised reed He will not break,
And smoking flax He will not quench;
He will bring forth justice for truth.
He will not fail nor be discouraged,
Till He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands shall wait for His law."
Thus says God the LORD,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,
Who gives breath to the people on it,
And spirit to those who walk on it:
" I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness,
And will hold Your hand;
I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the Gentiles,
To open blind eyes,
To bring out prisoners from the prison,
Those who sit in darkness from the prison house.
I am the LORD, that is My name;
And My glory I will not give to another,
Nor My praise to carved images.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
And new things I declare;
Before they spring forth I tell you of them." (42:1-9)
I wonder what it would look like to structure a parish around the needs of not the "powerful and wealthy", not around the "pillars of the community," or the "fervent," or even the objectively unrepentant, but rather around the needs of the "smoldering wicks" and the "bruised reeds" who need above all a guide through repentance?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Kind of Reader Are You?

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Literate Good Citizen
Book Snob
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

What I Learned Talking at the ESBV Conference

This afternoon I presented a paper at the meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary-USA. The Society met at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA. If you click on the link above you can go to the ESBVM-USA's web page and see the conference announcement as well as the titles of the presented papers.

After I finish making some minor corrections and some expansion of a point or two, I will post my own contribution, "Apparitions in the Orthodox Tradition" for those who wish to take a peek at what I presented.

Think back on the afternoon I am not really sure how I would characterize the response of people to my presentation. Basically, I presented what I understand to be the Orthodox view of apparitions, visions, myrrh-streaming and wonder working icons. In brief, while we acknowledge that these as potential act of grace, especially in monastic literature, we tend to approach these things with great caution, skepticism and even hostility. These events, even when legitimate manifestations of God's grace, too easily lend themselves to being distorted and a source of spiritual delusion.

The desert fathers are rather clear, we must always approach the spiritual life with great sobriety. Absent this sobriety of spirit, we open ourselves up to demonic influence and a religious induced insanity (which I pointed out at least in my own experience is difficult if not impossible to overcome since the delusion undermines the very thing need to overcome it, the freed openness of the person to God's correcting grace).

Thinking about the different, if rather brief, conversations that I had that day, I noticed the same type of dangers I have seen in the Orthodox Church. A formal declaration of the orthodoxy of a practice or event outside of the normal parish experience is taken as a sufficient warrant for one's own devotion or participation. So, for example, if monasticism is an important, even essential and normative expression of Orthodox spirituality, my participation in a monastic discipline, even if I am not a monk, is not only acceptable, but above criticism.

But this simply isn't true.

The question is not simply is this or that practice or event orthodox (or Orthodox), but is it one that I am called to participate in? And if I am, to what degree ought I to participate in something outside the normal practice of the Church? Should, for example, my love of monasticism be expressed by the imitation of monastic discipline or should it simply serve as a aid to humility by it reminding me of how much more strenuous the Christian life can be lived?

Marriage, monasticism, ordination, are all good things and great gifts from God. But it is a sign of a very serious delusion if I think that I ought to participate in them simply because they are good. God calls some to marriage, others to monasticism, others to ordination. Whatever objective value they might have, the real question is what do they mean for me subjectively.

The merely formal affirmation that something is good is not a sufficient warrant for my participation. Much less does this formal affirmation give me permission to tell others that they must participate in them.

In the face of apparitions, visions, myrrh-streaming and wonder working icons, the real test is not objective, but subjective. Does my attraction or participation or devotion in or to them foster in me obedience to Christ and the life He has called me to live?

We must, I think, exercise great caution and prudence whenever we seek to go beyond what is given to us in the ordinary practice of the Church. The more I feel in myself the need to do things that, intentionally or not, mark me as special, the more likely it is that I am following my own ego.

I must also be very cautious that my faith rises above the merely formal. It is insufficient to say that this or that practice is acceptable. Failing to do so is like confusing the fact that someone might objectively be a good spouse with being a good spouse for me. Objective validity does not guarantee, much less mandate, subjective participation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory