Embracing Poverty, Finding Christ
Jesus came to bring the good news to the poor, not to those who serve the poor! I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news, in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.
It seems clear to me today that if someone is called to live with wounded people, with mental disabilities or with mental illness, people with drug problems, or whatever the wounds may be, he or she has to discover the presence of God there – that God is present in the poverty and wounds of their own hearts. God is not just present in their capacity to heal but rather in their need to be healed. We can only truly love people who are different, we can only discover that difference is a treasure and not a threat, if in some way our hearts are becoming enfolded in the heart of the Father, if somewhere God is putting into our broken hearts that love that is in God’s own heart for each and every human being. For God is truly in love with people, and with every individual human being.
I do not believe we can truly enter into our own inner pain and wounds and open our hearts to others unless we have had an experience of God, unless we have been touched by the Father in order to experience, [as Matthew did], that no matter how wounded we may be, we are loved. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches, but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion and love through our wounds.
Jean Vanier (1992), From Brokenness to Community, p. 20
Among Orthodox Christians in America, I have seen two basic approaches to the Christian life. One is broadly compatible with what Vanier says here.
The first approach makes saints. The second has been common to every mistake I’ve made as a priest. It is also at the basis of why we have the problems we have in our parishes and why Orthodoxy in America is shrinking at an alarming rate.
One is broadly compatible with what Vanier says above. Here, the Church’s tradition reveals to me my poverty and need for God and my neighbor for, well, everything. Not only Holy Tradition reveal my poverty, it helps me embrace that poverty as the road a life of communion with God and to see my neighbor as a living icon of God.
The other approach sees the Church’s tradition as something that erases my poverty and makes me rich. Characteristic of this second approach is a certain, static and impersonal view of the Gospel. What I mean by this is that I come to see God in things (icons, Scripture, Liturgy and the Sacraments) and my neighbor as in different ways deficient.
The first approach makes saints. The second has been common to every mistake I’ve made as a priest. It is also at the basis of why we have the problems we have in our parishes. in the lives of the faith (including clergy). It is also why Orthodoxy in America is shrinking at an alarming rate.
God, in His mercy, leaves it to us–to me–to choose which of these paths to walk.
For Consideration: Liberal Education?
Don’t expect to find much guidance on liberal education in the mission statements of leading American colleges and universities. They contain inflated language about diversity, inclusion and building a better world through social transformation. Missing are instructive pronouncements about what constitutes an educated person or on the virtues of mind and character that underlie reasoned inquiry, the advance of understanding, and the pursuit of truth. Instruction on the ideas, norms and procedures that constitute communities of free men and women devoted to research and study are also scarce to nonexistent.
Source: What’s the Point of a Liberal Education? Don’t Ask the Ivy League.
Since many (probably most) American colleges and universities don’t teach the foundational texts and ideas of Western culture, the Church must. Or at least we should these things if we expect to see our young people grow to become mature and committed Orthodox Christians.
The Mission of the Church
The Church is Alive! Indeed it is!
Despite what reporters claim based on national and international surveys, regardless of impressions, some might want to create, notwithstanding the ongoing secularization of the world, the Body of Christ – His Holy Church – is Alive.
Go out and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
A priest I knew once and a mentor of mine said that the greatest fear of modern times is that Jesus actually meant what He said. And right there in the Gospel according to Holy Evangelist Matthew, He gave us our marching orders.
Here’s the truth: at baptism, you and I are given a mission. This is our baptismal call. We are all entrusted with a sacred purpose to do for others in Christ’s name.
Our mission is to take the many gifts that God has entrusted to us and build his kingdom on earth. The primary gift we are given is the love of the Holy Spirit. That love sanctifies us as we share it with others.
The word “mission” means “sent.” To be on mission is to know that, with the love of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we are to live each day as bearers of the Gospel. A mission is always a movement toward others and for others.
As announced by Metropolitan Antony, the Strategic Plan of the Church is a planning initiative designed to help us discover how best to be on mission in this present moment of the church.
At our baptism, we received a number of powerful gifts from the Holy Spirit to equip us for this mission. The first of these are the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which unite us to God directly. These virtues enable us to make a heroic difference as people of grace. We become
a gift to others.
We are called to be an anointing upon the world. This is expressed by charity, the radical gift of self. We can love in this way because we have hope in the promises of God. And we have hope because we have faith in God’s mercy.
At our baptism, we were also given the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, reverence, piety and courage. Each of these enables us to serve others in making God known. Often it seems that our world has lost all sense of the sacred. The gifts of the Holy Spirit make us a means for people to encounter the sacred.
Each of us is also gifted with “charismata” designated for a specific purpose. The Holy Spirit empowers each of us to build up the body of Christ in some special manner. Some of these gifts are teaching, prophecy, healing, administration, leadership, mercy, etc. What are your gifts and how might God be calling you to serve the Living Church of Christ – our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA?
This is the question we are asking ourselves together – every member of this Metropolia during this time of prayer and study of our Strategic Plan of the UOC of the USA. What gifts has God given to you and me, and how can we use them to advance the mission of Jesus Christ?
Do you believe you have a mission from Jesus? As a bishop of the Church, I want you to believe this. It is a mission to “learn Christ, love Christ and live Christ.” We are to live out our baptismal call of love in whatever ways the Holy Spirit leads us.
And that puts us on our “mission from God.”
By the Grace of God your bishop and brother in the Lord
The Parish as a House of Formation: Understand the Job to be Done
Currently, I’m reading Clayton Christensen‘s book on marketing Competing Against Luck: the Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. The book’s basic argument is that consumers don’t so much buy goods or service but hire them to do a specific job. Successful product development and marketing requires the seller understand what job the consumer needs to have done. Complicating this is that often consumers don’t have an explicit idea of what they hope to accomplish by purchasing the goods or services on offer.
The seller knowing the job the consumer wants to be done, however, doesn’t guarantee a successful sale. Especially when being asked to try something new the consumer will only make a purchase when “the job has … sufficient magnitude to cause people to change their behavior.” In other words, “the pull of the new has to be much greater than the sum of the inertia of the old and the [potential purchaser’s] anxieties about the new.”
Christensen goes on to say that “No matter how frustrated we are with our current situation or how enticing a new product if the forces that pull us to hiring something don’t outweigh the hindering forces, we won’t even consider hiring something new.” For Christensen, there isn’t any “clearly defined job in which the emotional and social forces–and the forces compelling and opposing change–are not critically important” (p. 84, emphasis in original).
Even as I write this I can hear people complaining–not unreasonably–that applying product development and marketing theory to the life of the Church is simply wrong. While I sympathetic with these critics, there’s an irony in their complaint. is that their criticisms actually lends credibility to Christensen’s argument. The criticism also helps us understand why we can, and should, apply Christensen’s insight to the life of the parish.
They don’t want to hire a new servce to help with the evangelical and pastoral life of the Church. In a way, their criticisms actually lend credibility to Christensen’s argument; we don’t want to try something new even when (as I show in a moment) what we’re doing is failing.
Change is simply hard. And change is hard even when we are being asked to leave something we don’t like or which doesn’t work for us for something that we will (potentially) like better or which has the potential (there’s that word again!) to make our life better. The new can be frightening and the old, even if I don’t like it, has the virtue of familiarity.
If in marketing a new product, the seller must be mindful that there “is always friction associated with switching from one product to another,” how much more so do we need to this awareness when inviting people to become disciples of Christ? Or when, as I’m proposing in these short essays, we ask people to think of the parish as a house of formation? Just like the marketer, a minister of the Gospel must take care that he does not minimize the cost of the change he is asking people to make.
But priests and other in the Church will often do just that. They will minimize the cost of discipleship or of asking the parish to embrace a new model of parish life and become a house of formation. Whether in commerce and in pastoral care, why does this happen, why is the cost of change “almost always discounted” by innovator? Ironically for the same reason he is confident in his product or ministry.
It is when innovators “are sure that their product”–or ministry–is “fabulous”–or the will of God for the parish–that they are most likely to “erase any such concerns” about people’s anxiety and hesitancy in the face of something new.
But we need to always remember that new things are, for most of us anyway, scary.
Even before we address the myriad practical and pastoral challenges inherent in making the parish a house of formation, we need to respond to people’s understandable and even praiseworthy resistance to change.
Jesus tells us to count the cost of being a disciple before we follow Him (see Luke 14:25-34, NKJV). He tells us this not to dissuade us from following Him but so that, having put our “hand to the plough” we do not look back and make ourselves “[un]fit for the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:32, NKJV).
One of the most scandalous realities in the Church in America is the number of converts who defect. Nominally, that number is about 30%. This means that out of a group of 100 converts, 30 will at some point leave. When we factor in that people are not only leaving the Church but joining, that defection rate is likely closer to 50% if not higher.
So not only do we need to do a better job in lay spiritual formation, we also need to do a better job in helping Orthodox Christians–convert and cradle–calculate the cost of taking seriously Jesus’ call to discern and pursue their personal vocations. Part of this calculation means helping them examine and articulate their fears of following Jesus as His disciple. It also means helping them see the benefits of discipleship not only in the life to come but in this life as well.
What might be a point of entry for such a conversation? What are the fears we need to address? They center around two themes: busyness and loneliness. We’ll turn to those next.
The Parish as a House of Formation: Part I Why Parishes Fail
As a newly ordained priest, I was assigned to rural, northern California. In this part of the country, better than 75% of all adults having no religious affiliation. The town I lived in was right in the middle of the I-5 corridor from San Francisco to Seattle which was (and still is) one of the most unchurched parts of America. It was a great place for a young priest to learn how to do mission work!
Since leaving California, most of my ministry though has focused on working with parishes after the pastor was removed for one reason of another. So while it wasn’t I wanted for myself as a priest, God has seen fit to give me was a lot of experience in the different ways in which parishes can become dysfunctional.
Here’s what I’ve learned. Tolstoy got it exactly backward. It is unhappy, that is pathological, families that are all the same and happy families that are all happy in their own way.
Like psychopathology, spiritual and pastoral pathologies tend to proceed along a relatively predictable path. The reason for this that healthy spirituality frees us. Precisely because the spiritually healthy person (and community) is free, his behavior will always surprise us.
Pathology–again, psychological, spiritual or pastoral–is predictable because it isn’t free. Like gravity, pathology follows a well-delineated path of decay. The predictable outcome of the dysfunctional parish is that it (or the priest) becomes the center of people’s lives instead of Christ.
This isn’t my own insight.
The late Fr Alexander Schmemann was highly critical of the tendency of parishes in America rather than Christ taking first place in the life of the Church and of individual Christians. The result of all this is that
…a parish organization lives by standards and principles, which, when applied to an individual, are condemned outright by Christianity as immoral: pride, gain, selfishness, and self-affirmation. Even the constant preaching in terms of the “glory” of Orthodoxy is a rather ambiguous substitute for the glory that according to the Gospel is due to God alone. The parish organization has replaced the Church and, by the same token, has become a completely secular organization. In this it is radically different from the parish of the past. It has ceased to be a natural community with a Church as its center and pole of “ultimate reference” and “seriousness.” It has not become a religious community, i.e., a group united by and serving a common religious ideal. As it exists today it represents the very victory of secularism within American Orthodoxy (What is a Parish?).
In all the parishes I’ve served that had become dysfunctional share a common characteristic. All of them had becomes ends in themselves rather than means to an end. There are many reasons for this and to lay the failure on secularism is I think simplistic (here). Secularism (like the free market and democracy) while not an unalloyed good, is part of why it is possible to build Orthodox parishes in a largely Protestant nation. Nevertheless, I think Schmemann’s basic insight that parishes have become ends in themselves is fundamentally correct.
The moral and pastoral problem is that we’ve lost sight of the fact that the parish exists for a particular reason: to help people discern and live their vocation. For the vast majority of Orthodox Christians, our vocation is not to ministry within the Church–much less the local parish–but to the world outside the walls of the Church.
Fulfilling that vocation, in fact even realizing that such a calling is even possible, requires that the parish focuses not on itself but on the spiritual formation of the laity. To the degree that this doesn’t happen–and in some cases, the formation of the laity to discern and pursue their vocations isn’t even on the radar of many (most?) priests and parishes–the parish will become dysfunctional.
Given that Schmemann was writing more than 50 years ago, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that dysfunction is just the new normal for the parish. Writing about half century ago about things that were already seen as “normal” not pathological he writes that while the
…modern American parish may have many good aspects, … any deeper analysis must admit that it lacks seriousness in the sense we used this term above. Beyond that, however, as organization, i.e., as “parish” it, in fact, opposes this kind of seriousness, because it knows by instinct and from experience that the success it wants and seeks is precisely opposed to religious seriousness. To be “successful” one has to refer and to cater to human pride (the right hand not only knowing what the left one is doing, but spending most of the time acknowledging and publicizing it), the instinct of gain (bingo, or raffles, etc., being more efficient way to fill the parish treasury than any appeal to religious consciousness), vainglory (the best, the greatest, the most expensive . . .). And since all this is done “for the Church” it is thereby justified and glorified as “Christian.”
What I would argue is what is needed is a vision of the parish as a house of formation. In the next few posts, I hope to sketch out a vision of the parish not as “successful” but as a house of formation. A place where men and women can discern and be supported in pursuing their personal vocations as Orthodox Christians.
… Orthodox churches, are voluntary communities that must strategize to retain and attract membership; hence the new significance of Orthodox evangelism and technological acumen in reaching inquirers. The perceptual fault lines between “convert” and “ethnic” Orthodox Christians as well as the categories of intermarriage and seeker converts in parish life provide a lens by which to observe the shift in these meanings within a community that continues to be cast as ethnic and marginal to American religious mainstreams. The clerical valorization of seeker converts as model Orthodox Christians worthy of emulation by the community as a whole signals an intra-parish acceptance of, rather than a resistance to, this voluntarism. In essence, ecclesial membership by birth, nature, familial, or national heritages as ideals of church affiliation have been supplanted by voluntary, conscious, and emotionally driven associations such as those represented by seeker converts. Clerics wanted all their parishioners, regardless of birth affiliations, to become the functional equivalents of seeker converts, to be Orthodox church members by choice rather than through natal or familial tradition or accident.
From: Amy Slage, The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity
A Thought For Great Lnet
…we picture Jesus in such a way that He becomes a living reproach to humanity rather than an easily recognized expression. By thus elevating Him, we unprofitably abase ourselves and create a distance between us and Him that defeats the purpose of the Incarnation.
Michael Casey, Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology, p. 4
A young man crossed the desert and finally came to the monastery of Scete. There, he asked to hear one of the abbot’s lectures and was granted permission.
That afternoon, the abbot’s discourse was about the importance of work in the field.
After the lecture, the young man said to one of the monks, “That was amazing. I thought I would hear a fine sermon about virtues and sins, and the abbot spoke only of tomatoes, irrigation and so forth. Where I come from, all believe that God is merciful: all one must do is pray.”
The monk smiled and replied, “Here we believe that God has already done God’s part; now it is up to us to continue the process.”
Israel Galina of, Stories of the Desert Fathers (Translated): Ancient Wit and Wisdom for Today’s Bewildering Times.
A King Needs A Palace
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of-throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!
George MacDonald in C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Walker and Co., 1987), 205.
The Soul of the Eater is Not Satisfied
All, over which men labour in this world, is consumed in the mouth, and, munched by the teeth, it passes down to the stomach to be digested. For the little while that it delights the appetite, it seems to give pleasure while it is held in the mouth. When it has passed to the belly, there ceases to be any difference between sorts of food.
After all this, the soul of the eater is not satisfied; either because it again longs for what it has eaten, and both the wise man and fool cannot live without food, and the poor man seeks for nothing except how he can keep the organism of his pitiful body alive and not die of hunger, or because the soul gains no advantage from the refreshment of the body and food is the same to the wise man and the fool alike and the poor man goes where he can see wealth.
St Jerome “Commentary on Ecclesiastes”
Jerome’s words are a commentary on a passage in the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes: “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied. For what more has the wise man than the fool? What does the poor man have, who knows how to walk before the living?” (6:7-8, NKJV)
Especially when I’ve presented ideas like this to Evangelical Christians, my listeners will say that I’m denying the goodness of creation. While I understand why they say this, St Jerome isn’t denying the goodness of creation. He (and I) is rather delineating the limits of creation. Good though it is, there is no life in food. Life comes to us not from what we eat or drink but from God.
Again, this doesn’t mean food (or any part of creation) is evil. It only means that we can’t ask from creation what creation itself can’t provide. This is what St Maximus the Confessor is getting at when he writes that “Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.”
We can summarize the whole of our Christian life as nothing more or less than the struggle to learn to use creation as God intended it to be used. When I misuse the creation then I don’t only dishonor God and the creation, I cause my life to be nothing but a series of frustrations as again and again I become disappointed.
As these disappointments add up I become increasingly prone to cynicism and hardness of heart. I lose, in other words, the ability to feel joy because having lost any sense of nature of creation, I have become incapable of gratitude.
This I think is the situation of all of us at one time or another. But for some, maybe even many, people today this sense of growing dissatisfaction is the norm.