Sunday, October 14, 2007

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

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