Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Thoughts On Ministering to Baptized Seekers

At right: Icon of the Bodiless Powers of Heaven.

Over on Intentional Disciple, Sherry W offers some thought provoking observations by Christopher Ruddy:

I acknowledged then and acknowledge now that church-world tension, but I think it is wrong to conflate that unavoidable tension with a Donatist desire for a purer church. A church that is not in some sort of substantial tension with the world is either corrupt or deluded.
Hard words, but I think words that, as an Orthodox Christian, I need to give serious consideration.

Several months ago I was at a meeting with a number of priests when one of the brothers asked why it is that the Church (which in context meant the bishops and the administrative powers that be) never seemed to quite respond in a proper or timely fashion to sexual or financial misconduct in the Church. At the time I did not offer an answer. But as I've thought about his question (which is also one that other's ask and which I ask myself) I've come to realize that when people act in a manner that I perceive as irrational, I have that perception because I don't understand their rational, I don't understand the why of their behavior.

Let me make this clear: When I say your behavior is irrational, I mean that I don't understand your reason(s) for acting as you do.

This isn't to take a stance on the validity of the other person's motivation. It is only to point out that the judgment that someone's behavior is irrational or incomprehensible at a minimum reflects my lack of empathy for their situation.

This empathy it seems to me is the key to understand why it is that for many Orthodox Christians the tensions between the Church and the world simply does not exist. Why is it that, in large numbers, we prefer to structure the Church around the needs and desires of the complacent rather than, as I pointed out earlier, around the seekers in our midst?

Again, Ruddy's observation are helpful:
[A] concern for identity and orthodoxy cannot be reflexively reduced to a fear-driven desire for purity and security. One can be confident and open, as I believe [Pope] Benedict [XVI] is, in the face of a difficult, even hostile situation. His words and actions as pope give little evidence of a fearful, cramped man. On an impressionistic level, he looks relaxed and happy; he wears the yoke of his office lightly and does not seem burdened as Paul VI was.
At the core, our acceptance of complacency as the practical norm around which we structure the life of the Church in America, reflects our habitual fearfulness. Both individually and as communally, we lack the confident openness that Ruddy sees in Pope Benedict XVI.

In its place Ruddy identifies two different, but equally unhelpful responses that I think embody and foster in us a fearful disposition of heart: "sectarianism" and "cooptation."

It is easy to say that complacency in the Orthodox Church largely follows along with an emphasis on maintaining a given ethnicity as normative for the community's life. Yes, I think it is true that in these communities, the Church has in large part been co-opted by, and put at the service of, the agenda of a particular ethnic identity. But even among converts it is rather easy to assume that the agenda of the world is identical with the Gospel.

There are many people who come to us from a cultural or theological or liturgical conservative background. There interest in becoming Orthodox is often less from a sense of vocation and more in the hope of finding a refuge and even an ally from liberalism and an ally in their own conservative agenda.

There is a similar parallelism to be seen in the sectarian temptation. "Old hippies," so the joke goes in my old northern California stomping grounds, "never die. They just become Russian Orthodox." American spirituality has always had strong utopian, and hence sectarian, tendencies. It is very easy to see in the Orthodox Church the vehicle for those utopian desires. Especially when it is mixed with an emphasis on ethnicity, one finds a ready made way to opt out of the larger culture.

What I'm saying is this: At least for the Orthodox Church in the United States, sectarianism and co-option can, and often do, exist hand in hand. When we succumb to one, we also give credibility to the other. And again, but grow out of and foster in us a fearful disposition of heart.

Compare this to what Ruddy says ought to be the case:
God's people are elected, called out (literally, an ek-klesia) through no merit of their own, precisely in order to exist for others, to reveal to the world God's will for all peoples. Election and openness go hand in hand, they call for each other. Donatists and their heirs get election, but forget openness. Some Catholics [and Orthodox Christians] today get openness, but forget election. Thinking of the church as a contrast society--and living as such--helps one to see how brilliant intensity and broad openness can coexist.
It is worth noting that just as sectarianism and co-option exist hand in hand so do election and openness. Let me go further, election/openness are the cure for the sectarianism/co-option dynamic that afflicts not only the Church, but is the common lot of fallen humanity.

The call to repentance is call to participate evermore fully in the life of the Most Holy Trinity and thereby transform sectarianism/co-option into a communion that embraces the whole of the cosmos. Again, as Ruddy express it:
We are all mediocre, God-beloved people called to conversion and to divine life in community. No one is perfect, and one of the strengths of Catholicism [We are all mediocre, God-beloved people called to conversion and to divine life in community. No one is perfect, and one of the strengths of Catholicism [and Orthodoxy] is precisely its mediocrity, its anti-elitism, its willingness to welcome all who are willing to come.
Ironically, even the sectarian, for all his zeal, is also mediocre and will also always and "repeatedly fall short of that standard, doesn't take away from the intensity of that call, which 'costs not less than everything,' as T.S. Eliot put it."

Overcoming the fear that breeds sectarianism and co-option is the work of conversion and as such of the whole Church. This is why the Church--East and West--grounds the Christian life in the grace of the sacraments. We cannot lift ourselves out of the fear we are in--it requires God bring us into the light of His Life. Christian live an eschatological life, a life that both participates in, and bears witness to, the New Heaven AND the New Earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"(Rev 21.1-5)
The sacraments are the means by which we come to participate in this New Heaven and this New Earth. While it is easy to say that we should minister to the seekers in our midst and not cater to the complacent, we can't forget that the goal of our ministry is the Kingdom of God and not the seekers as such.

Yes, t is not only easy to say that we should minister to the seekers in our midst, it is the right thing to do. But, and this is key, just as we ought not to allow the complacent Christian to set a limit on the ministry of the Church, so too we cannot allow the seeker to circumscribe the Church's ministry.

What God offers us in Jesus Christ and through the sacraments in not new things, but old things made new by grace. Whether we are complacent or a seeker, God desires to renew us--to make us new. And whether I am a complacent Christian or a seeker, it is this newness that I fear above all else.

The great tragedy of being a sinner is that I am not terrified that God will NOT give me my heart's true desire, but that He will. What I most deeply desire is God, but when I am offered Him, I am like the prophet Isaiah:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: " Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!" And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said: " Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts" (Is 6.1-5).
Like Isaiah, I need to have my lips cleansed by the burning coal of the Eucharist and, only then, offer myself to be sent in His Name to say what He would have me say to whom He would have me speak:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:
" Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged."

Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying:
" Whom shall I send,
And who will go for Us?"

Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."
And He said, "Go, and tell this people:
' Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.'
" Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed" (Is 6.6-10)

Yes, we must focus our ministry on the baptized seekers in our midsts. While we never could, it is becoming increasingly clear that we can no longer cater to the complacent Christians among us.

But in this we can never forget that our ministry to the baptized seekers in our midst does not exempt them, or us, to being undone. Nor does such a ministry excuse us from remembering that those who don't hear the Gospel, or who hear and don't understand, are in that situation for reasons that are not at all clear to us.

All I have to offer is the Living God and I cannot offer God unless I first encounter Him and am myself undone.

As I hope I showed above sectarianism and co-option are our constant temptations and we cannot allow ourselves the facile assumption that, however essential, structuring the ministry of the Church around the baptized seekers in our midst exhaust what it means to be obedient to the will of the Living and Thrice-Holy God in Whose Presence even the angels hid their eyes.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory