Sunday, March 04, 2007

The People I Met One Thursday Night Last Fall

One Thursday night last fall I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with other college chaplains at the University of Pittsburgh. The panel discussion was sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ and included a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, the Campus Crusade for Christ staffer, a major from the Salvation Army, a Roman Catholic priest and your servant. For the better part of an hour my colleagues and I answered questions submitted in writing by the students.

I left the event with two thoughts. First I was rather disheartened with the lack of seriousness of both the questions from the students and the answers offered by my colleagues. It would not be an overstatement to say that the questions were trivial and the answers painfully relativistic.

Again and again students were told to find a church home where they were comfortable and with which they were in doctrinal agreement. After committing ones life to Jesus Christ (which we Orthodox would do well to emphasize more firmly--but thats a topic for another day) for most of my colleagues the whole of the Christian life seemed to be simply a matter of taste or opinion. The truth of worship, the truth of doctrine, the truth of what it means to be human and live in a civil society, all of these were up for grabs.

But, and this is my second thought from the evening, in my conversations with people afterwards I discovered that--just underneath the surface--both the students and the chaplains were dissatisfied with the relativism that was espoused that evening.

In the case of the chaplains, breaking through the relativism and bring to light their dissatisfaction will be tough. Once they realize that the objectivity of the Christian life extends to areas beyond our initial repentance, they will have to confront the lack of historical and doctrinal foundations of their own ministries. Put somewhat differently, once they shed their relativism they will ask questions the answers to which will lead them either to the Orthodox Church or to the Roman Catholic Church.

Because in the main they are good people, once that happens they will have to make some painful decisions. The question I have is how ready are we as Orthodox Christians to help them in their transition to New Life in Christ? While we have done a little, and frankly relative to interest to say nothing of need we have done almost nothing for these Protestant clergy. Yes, the Antiochians and the OCA especially have been welcoming--but even in this is only a drop in the bucket.

Why haven't we done more you ask?

Because conversions in any significant number would rather seriously disrupt the Church's life--or rather what we think is the Church's life, but which is really our own religiously justified sense of comfort. And I say, thank God and please hurry with the disruption. I wonder are we willing to accept the challenges that our rhetoric invites? I don't know if we are.

The students who I spoke with afterwards were also quite interesting. Though professing Christians, they are as scarred by cynicism and the effects of cultural and theological relativism as any of the non-Christian street kids I knew in California.

The California kid were sexually promiscuous, often drank heavily, used drugs and dabbled in the occult. Gang bangers, vampires, witches, Goths, Ravens and Crows all of whom had no use for Christ and the Gospel. And yet, in their own way, these kids were better off then many of the Christian students I met one Thursday night last fall.

It is easy to forget in our "Christian" society and groups that paganism, witchcraft, drunkenness and sexual immorality, were all sins that God used as symbols on Israels infidelity. The actions of the California kids were certainly different--and not at all to be recommended--dying by degrees, homeless and on street of AIDS or Hep C or hunger or as a result of a beating is an evil way to die. But, at the same time, their lives remind me of the consequences of the relativism that I saw one Thursday night last fall.

Having surrendered to the cultural relativism that surrounds them, the students I talked with are indifferent and cynical and this in spite of all their Christian talk and activity. In fact, they remind me of drug addicts--they use the drug to feel better and for a while it works. But then life breaks through the drug and they discover that the drug has made them less able to resist the pressures of life. So what do they do? They get high again and in feeling better, destroy themselves a bit more.

Likewise, these young people flee the destructive culture around them only to discover that the Evangelical and Protestant ministries they have fled to are just as relativistic, just as destructive to human freedom and dignity, as the culture they fled. Some leave, some try harder, most surrender to the relativism, but all of them are scarred and are worn down by disappointment, failure and guilt. If nothing changes in their lives, the cynicism will make them hard and ever more resistant to God's grace.

But, and Ive seen this again and again, especially when dealing with college students, the desire for real faith, the desire for true and lasting repentance, is just underneath the surface. We simply need to be there for them and offer them, to paraphrase the desert fathers, "A word so they might live."

The question for me is whether or not I am willing to speak that word and if anyone in the Church will speak that word with me. To speak this word means that we will change the desert into a city. But todays desert is not a desert of sand, but the desert of our parishes and seminaries that are not transformative of the lives of men and women. In all of our jurisdictions (and it is important to remember that they are "ours" not Christs--He willed the Church to be His Body here on earth. We have exchanged a Body for jurisdictionalism) I have seen parishes torn apart when they grow--when new people, new Christians come in and they come wanting, needing, to participate in the liturgical life of the Church. The desire, the need, to be philanthropically and evangelistically active as a consequence of their conversion is not always met with support. And at times it is greeted with active hostility.

A systematic and well planned ministry to the people I met one Thursday night last fall would destroy our comfortable parishes, seminaries and diocesan headquarters. The hard part about the desert is not the loneliness or the demons, it is the well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) Christian from the city who comes and tempts the monk to return to a life of comfort. Like the Hebrew children in the desert, we are always longing for the "flesh pots of Egypt," for a soft bed and a quiet life as Pharaohs slave.

But there is something better. And that is to reach out to those people I met one Thursday night last fall.

Let me tell you a secret--those people I met, they are us--and we are them. Their sins, their struggles, are the very same as ours. They are trapped because we are trapped. But we are trapped because, though we have the Keys to the Kingdom of God, we refuse to open the gates and enter in because we know that once we enter in we will be called to go out again--even as Moses ascended the mountain only to descend again in imitation of the Son of Man Who was to come.

I cannot in my heart condemn the people I met on that one Thursday night last fall because, even lame, they run the race that we Orthodox Christians refuse to run and at times even prevent others from running.

Ah, but if we would only enter the race--what a victory we would have.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Witness to Sanity

Several years ago I asked my bishop, Metropolitan Maximos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, why he participated inecumenical and interfaith discussions. Part of what motivated my question to His Eminence was that his involvement in these matters brought him agreat deal of criticism and even attacks on his character.

These unwarranted assaults came from both those inside and outside the Church. After a moments reflection, His Eminencesaid that as a bishop, and as a Christian, he was morally obliged to be a witness for sanity in an insane world.

The idea of someone being sanitys witness struck me forcefully. At the time I was finishing my doctorate in psychology and religion. I was also working as a mental health counselor. Most of my workday was spent with chronic, institutionalized psychiatric clients. Needlessto say, as a mental health professional I had my own narrow ideas about the nature and causes of insanity.

Typically, the insane person is the one who does not play by our rules, whatever those rules might be. A witness to sanity, at least as His Eminence used the term, is one who calls into question the assumptions of those who rule, of those who are powerful in this world.This is precisely (though not exclusively) what Jesus and the prophets are shown doing throughout the Scriptures.

Unfortunately, in our culture the need tobe a bit skeptical about the rules is the only rule of life that many of us will accept. All too easily skeptics, reformers and revolutionaries can become parasites whose identity comes only through their rejection of others. When a person builds an identity upon rejection, or when a community only knows who it is by whom it refuses to admit, then insanity, both psychological and spiritual, rules in that persons or that community's life.

The truly sane person is the one who, in the words of the Scriptures, welcomes the stranger and cares for widows and orphans. We are all quite easily seduced by a false sense of power and authority. With amazing ease we tell ourselves that we are strong and powerful; that we the captains of our own destinies. As for those who are different or vulnerable, who are sick or suffering, we shun them or, worse, blame them.

At our very core,we are each of us poor; none of us had any decision in the matter of our birth; none of us can even really say that we own our own life. We are each of us absolutely dependent upon the kindness, hospitality and charity of others. No child, for example, is born except by the willingness of a mother to welcome this tiny stranger into the very midst of her body.

The person who bears witness to sanity reminds us of this. A witness to sanity reminds us that we are dependent upon one another and ultimately upon God for our very lives.

But this mutual dependence should not betaken to mean that we are really all the same. Nor does it mean that, deep down, we really all agree. This is simply a cheap and childish way of refusing to love our neighbor. Rather than embrace someone who is different, we simply deny that the differences or disagreements exist. Or if we acknowledge that differences do exist, we say that they do not matter.

But it is not love when we only approveof those who are like us. It is not love when we only welcome those who affirm us or agree with us. The undeniable truth is that we are all different. But it is these differences that make love possible.

In the Orthodox Christian Church wevenerate and call saints those women and men who, among other things, become shining witnesses to sanity and its demands. We can easily forget, because itis convenient for us to do so, that such witnesses have always existed and still exist today. But easier and more convenient still, we can forget that a truly sane life makes demands upon us and upon those around us. This tragic tendency to forgetfulness we call sin.

Against the power of sin there is onlyone response possible: sacrifice. A life can only rightly be described as sane, not to mention loving, when it is a life of sacrifice. Further, this sacrificeis not offered for ones own good. Rather it is offered for the good of others.

Living as a witness to sanity demands that we sacrifice for the sake of those who are different from us. And anything less than this freely offered sacrifice is not worthy of being called sane, much less human or, as His Eminence reminded me, Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Celibacy, Sex and the Single Christian

For most contemporary Christians teaching on sexuality outside of marriage means counseling abstinence, but rarely (if ever) the New Testament challenge to celibacy and life-long virginity.Christians must affirm that while human sexuality is good and from God, as with all of human life after the Fall human sexuality is disordered, and wounded by the powers of sin and death. Maintaining a living awareness and practice of celibacy and life-long virginity helps to keep a balanced, Godly view of human sexuality.

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion, on both the local and national levels, about the Christian teaching on human sexuality in general,and to homosexuality in particular. Both sides of this debate make some very sound, if very different, points that both the Christian communities and the larger society would do well to keep in mind. Quite appropriately, in this debate, Christians on both sides of the discussion appeal to the Scriptures to buttress their own arguments. Nevertheless, I do think that the New Testament’s active encouragement and advocacy of celibacy and life-long celibacy for those Christians who are able to live this way (see for example, Mt 19.11-12; 1 Cor7.7; 17; 35) is often neglected.

Celibacy and life-long virginity have been a part of the Christian life from the beginning. God becomes Man by the power Holy Spirit,and with the consent of the Virgin Mary (Lk 1.26-83). A celibate, John the Baptist, announces the ministry of Christ (Mt 3.1-12). The Gospel is proclaimed and the Church established throughout the Roman Empire by a celibate, the Apostle Paul. And finally, there is Christ Himself, a celibate Who’s only Bride is the Church. Viewed within the context of the New Testament, and the universal Christian practice of the first 1,000 years, celibacy and life-long virginity are (or should be) a normal part of how at least some members of the Christian community express the gift of sexuality in a God pleasing manner.

Christian contributions to a discussion of human sexuality, and here I would include not only homosexuality, but also teenage pregnancy, AIDS prevention, abortion and our growing divorce rate, generally seem to overlook celibacy and life-long virginity as viable options. At best, Christians will typically counsel premarital sexual abstinence, but rarely (if ever) celibacy and life-long virginity. Sadly, when as Christians we only counsel premarital abstinence, we forsake the fullness of the New Testament’s teaching of sexuality and essentially concede that sexual activity must be part of human life. The idea that one may live a sound, wholesome life as a celibate is simply not apart of the discussion.

Christians must affirm that while human sexuality is good and from God, as with all of human life after the Fall human sexuality is disordered, and wounded by the powers of sin and death (see Rms 6.12-12;7.23). Christians understand, or at least should understand, that all of life, including our sexuality, needs to be brought “into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (see 2 Cor 10.5; see also, Mt 11. 29-30). This must mean much more than simply saying: “We love each other and so this makes it right” or for that matter: “We are married and that makes it right.”

Those who have responded positively to God’s call to live a celibate life serve a prophetic function both in the Body of Christ, and for the world. Maintaining a living awareness and practice of celibacy and life-long virginity helps to keep a balanced view of human sexuality. The presence and practice, the positive teaching and encouragement of a life of celibacy and virginity as viable options within the Church reminds us that human sexuality is only a relative good. Presenting celibacy as a viable option means standing prophetically against a sex drenched and obsessed culture, in which seemingly even Christians have forgotten that when the dead arise “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk12:25). More importantly, to hurting men and women, a life of celibacy (which as St. Paul reminds us also includes a life of pray and service to others) can represent a positive, life-affirming alternative to the increasingly confused and destructive messages that our culture gives about human sexuality.

When as Christians we enter into our culture’s debates about any issue, we must in fidelity to Christ, and out of love for our neighbor, present the fullness of the Gospel and not simply those aspects of the Gospel that resonant with our own political or cultural biases. In our current cultural discussions of sexuality, this means more than teaching the merely negative goal of premarital sexual abstinence. Along side of the positive good of Christian marriage, authentic, biblical sound Christian teaching on human sexuality must include a willingness to present a life-long commitment to celibacy and virginity as a legitimate vocation, a true calling from God as relevant today as during the New Testament era. It is in proclaiming the vocational, and ultimately the prophetic dimension of celibacy and life-long virginity, that I think Christians can best make a contribution to our culture’s debates regarding human sexuality.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Thought Experiment: Converts, Reverts and the Need for Pastoral Change (part III)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it."

(Mt 13:45-46)

Certainly some Orthodox Christians fall away from laziness or indifference. Some are apostates in the proper sense. But in almost all cases the fact that someone falls away from the Church reflects the failure of other Christians--parents, friends, clergy, etc.--to properly evangelize and/or catechizes the person. Even in those cases where someone has been hurt by a priest or fellow Orthodox Christian, the willingness to walk away from the Church reflects poorly on the pastoral care that person received. While certainly not in all cases, the lapsed Orthodox Christian reason for leaving is in fact the Church herself--or maybe more accurately--the people in Church are the reason he or she has left.

Though it is counter-intuitive to say so, the biggest failing I think is that we who are in the Church do not present the Gospel as valuable. What do I mean by this?

In the parable of the pearl of great price (Mt 13.45-46) , and indeed in the parable of the hidden treasure that we read just before (v. 44), we are told that the Kingdom of God is valuable. It is more valuable then money, it is more valuable then our time, it is more valuable then our labor, it is more valuable even then our reputation in the community--after all, who but a "lunatic" would sell everything he owns in order to buy an empty field?

When the Gospel is presented as just another a part of our cultural heritage (whether that culture is Greek, or Russian, or Arab, or American for that matter) something that we are born into if you will, we do not value it. Why? Because it doesn't cost us anything--we got it for "free" and anything we get for "free" is (literally) of no value since it cost us nothing.

Over the years I have wondered why people join cults--or for that matter, non-canonical, pseudo-Orthodox groups. As a matter of social or religious psychology, people look to these groups for the same reasons they look to the Orthodox Church or the Masons or a bowling league--they are looking for a community. While there are many factors for picking this or that group, I think one very big reason for opting for a cult or a pseudo-Orthodox group is that participating in these organizations carries a (relatively) heavy cost.

Cults will make extraordinary demands on people's time, treasure and talent. Pseudo-Orthodox groups will go so far as to point out that "We are on the margin because we take our faith seriously! We have full services, we fast, we welcome the unwashed and unloved! We are not a social club! Join us and you are a True Orthodox Christian who will be persecuted not simply by the world, but the rest of the Orthodox Church!" Say what you will, but if people are willing to put up with all of that, they most value what they have.

If we wish to encourage lapsed Orthodox Christians to return to the Church, we must demonstrate that the Church is valuable. We do that by (1) making demands of people on their time, treasure and talent and (2) giving a return worth people's investment. Far too many Orthodox Christians approach the Church as if they were "renters" rather then "home owners;" they are "customers," rather then "investors."

If we are serious about encouraging lapsed Orthodox Christians to be reconciled with the Church--to say nothing of encourage non-Orthodox Christians to convert--there must be a cost and a benefit to being Orthodox. If we simply assess cost--that is make demands of people--or of we simply offer a benefit--give them something--we will fail. We have to make the argument that yes, it is good to be Orthodox not only because you get something (salvation), but also because it costs you something (time, treasure, talent, and as I am writing this in the season of the Great Fast, a full stomach--I am hungry all through Lent, even if now and then I "cheat.")

Minimal investment means not only a minimal return, but it is also an acknowledgment that what w are asking people to invest in has very little value either in itself or to us. When we look at what Jesus says in the Gospel about the cost of disciplineship we discover that we cannot follow Jesus unless we are willing to sacrifice everything to follow Him.

Parishes that wish to be successful in reconciling lapsed Orthodox Christians would do well I think to look at mission parishes that are successful in attracting--and retaining--coverts. It is by raising, and not by lowering, the bar for admission or participation that we will be successful. The attendance statistics for Orthodox parishes here in the U.S. would suggest that we must act quickly. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is a case in point: We claim 2,000,000 members when in fact we have something more in the neighborhood of 144,000 actual (as distinct from nominal) members--and even this second number would suggest a fairly low level of participation (pledging members, though not necessarily tithing; attendance on some Sundays and major feast days rather then weekly reception of Holy Communion; known to the priest, though not necessarily active in the catechetical, evangelistic or philanthropic life of the Church).

What is called for is raising the cost of participation--while there will always be nominal Christians in the Church (as there must be), to accept nominal Christians as parish council members, Church School teachers, to say nothing of seminarians and candidates for holy orders, is killing us by small cuts. When we hold up as leaders and role models those who invest very little in being Christian we announce to all "who have eyes to see or ears to hear" that the Orthodox Faith is not valuable since it cost so little to be a leader. And again, if it not valuable to those who lead, it won't be valuable to those who are outside the Church.

In my next installment, I hope to flesh out a bit more what I mean that by (1) making demands of people on their time, treasure and talent and (2) giving a return worth people's investment.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., If you stop by and read this, leave a little note please, it is hard to write without knowing who is reading.