Sunday, September 23, 2007

We Need to Serve the Spiritual Seeker in Our Midst

This morning I served at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

Attendance was probably twice what it was the week before. This was due to the fact that the church school program started this morning as well as a memorial service and breakfast after Liturgy for a member of the Cathedral parish who died last month.

After Liturgy I spoke with a couple who have left the Orthodox Church for an evangelical church. While I disagree with their decision, I do understand it. The sad fact of the matter is that Orthodox parish, especially those with a strong or dominate ethnic identity, tend not to preach the need for repentance and a vibrant spiritual life. Or if they preach this they are usually ineffectual in actual guiding people in the process. The reason this is so is that we naively assume that formation simply happens apart from any decision on the part of the individual Christian or the community.

This lack of effective spiritual guidance means that people tend to be rather mediocre in their commitment to Christ and His Church. The sad irony in all of this is that while priests and bishops and seminary faculty have all complained to me about the results of our lack of any intentional spiritual formation of the laity (and this includes our neglect of spiritual formation for seminarians), no one seems willing to actually take up the task of preaching repentance and implementing a program of spiritual formation.

We are often very anxious not to offend, or drive people away. While I understand this concern, the question needs to be asked how attached are the people really to Christ and His Church who we are afraid of driving away?

Absent repentance and spiritual formation how deep is the person connection to Christ and the Church?

And, absent our willingness to preach repentance and offer intentional spiritual formation, what does this say about us that people leave the Orthodox Church for other Christian traditions (typically Evangelical Christian communities)?

Who exactly are we afraid of offending or driving away? The lukewarm or those who desire for a deep relationship with Christ? This desire is so strong, their need for a relationship with a community of faith, with at least some sort of church, that they vote with their feet and walk across the road to the local megachurch.

So the question is really this: Why is it that we are willing to keep the lukewarm Christian at the expense of the baptized spiritual seeker in our midst?

The couple I spoke with after Liturgy had a list of reasons why they have joined a Bible church. I had to agree with their negative reasons--the reasons why they left Orthodoxy are simply true--or at least true enough for government work as my grandparents used to say.

But even their positive reasons attending a Bible church--to learn the Word of God, to develop a relationship with Christ, and to grow spiritually I also agreed with, even if I doubt they'll find what they want in a Bible church. In any event, what they are looking for, and didn't find in the Orthodox Church, all reflect rather poorly on their experiences as Orthodox Christians (and it is worth noting that they were both baptized and raised in the Orthodox Church, but in different ethnic traditions. The problem that they brought to my attention is not limited to one ethnic tradition or another.)

Thinking about their experiences, I wonder if it isn't the case that the Orthodox Church planted in them a spiritual hunger that we then never feed? In effect, we pointed them down a road, but then said, that they (we, and more to the point, I) didn't need to actually travel down.

In conversation after conversation, in sermon after sermon, in Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, Ukrainian and Carpatho-Russian parishes, from cradle Orthodox and converts, I have gotten a positive, even zealous, response to the possibility of new Life that comes to us through repentance and the sacraments.

But somehow, and again and again this has been my experience, at just the last moment, people falter. They see the prize, reach for it and then lose their desire and turn away.

And I've seen this as well not only with lay people, but also clergy and bishops. We know what we need to do, but we are afraid. And mostly what we are afraid of losing our relationship with those who will not follow Christ with us.

The time has come for God to renew the Orthodox Church. We've made little steps forward here and there, but these are not sufficient. We are still too attached to our wealth, our glorious history (as if any of us had anything to do with Byzantium or the "Third Rome"), our different ethnic customs, and above all our "True Churchiness."

Ain't none of this going to give us the "good defense before the fearsome Judgment Seat of Christ" that we pray for at every Liturgy. In fact, if we do not repent, if we do not value a deeper life in Christ more than our relationship with lukewarm Christian in our midsts, then all of these things--these real blessings from God that we have come to value more than God Hmself--will stand in judgment of us at the end of our life.

There are in every Orthodox parish lukewarm Christians who are dead set to remain lukewarm (It is odd if you think about it. The only way to stay lukewarm is to decide to be lukewarm. This is the only way I can imagine standing in the Divine Liturgy and NOT responding to Christ's call to repentance.) Our willingness to cater, and yes it is a catering, to the lukewarm is costing us presence and the gifts of the baptized spiritual seeker in our midst.

We must as a Church turn our attention to these people. It will in the short run cost us members, money and even some of the "grace proof" comfort we have come to enjoy. But if we do not change our ways we will lose our salvation--our inaction we leave us with no acceptable answers before the judgment seat of Christ.

And that my friends is scary biscuits indeed as one of my spiritual children would put it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory