Vending Machine “Christianity”: The Church Created in Our Own Image (Mini-Blog #6)

vendingFr. Benedict Simpson, a Facebook friend, posted this deeply thought-provoking, but yet sharply critical status about Americans and how they “church hop”. One thing I have learned in my journey into Orthodoxy is that my preferences do not matter, the preferences of those in the early Church and throughout the ages did not matter, and neither does yours. This is where the Orthodox sharply disagree with some about spirituality, ecclesiology, and above all worship. Christianity isn’t  a vending machine where you get to pick and choose things. Nor is it a menu where you pick what is in line with your tastes. This is deeply out of line with both the New Testament and the Fathers.

I’m a drummer, and I’ve played in worship teams before. Of course, I wouldn’t mind some instruments in worship, but that isn’t how the Church has approached it and still approaches it (note, there are some African churches that bring deeply held customs of their culture into the Church, but it is not a general acceptance). But I’ve learned that there is so much beauty and watchfulness in the approach to worship we Orthodox take. We sing/chant the entire service without the aid of some silly stage, loud instrument, or egotistical worship leader. I’ve deeply criticized this approach and the entertainment-driven, feeling based approaches before, so I appreciated Father’s challenge and wisdom. This is just one insistence of preference, but think about your own preferences, your own theology, and how you may try to find a church that fits into them instead of a Church where you drop yours and receive what was given to the Saints.

We Americans and others shop for churches like we shop for coats. Does the coat suit me? Does it make me look good? Does it ‘feel’ good? Is it agreeable to my own sensibilities?

If we ask ourselves those same questions and simply substitute the word ‘church’, We will find the crux of the issue. Does this church suit me? Does this church make me look good? Does it make me feel good? Does this church agree with my own sensibilities?

Dear ones… with such an outlook, we are looking for the church created in our own image and not the Church that is the Body of Christ. Think upon this. To become part of Christ’s Holy Church one must sacrifice his own image in order to take upon himself the image and likeness of Christ; for indeed we are called to become imitations of Christ in all that we do. Even unto the Cross.”

Something to ponder on. God’s blessings to you in your ponderings.

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Hope Anew in the Gospel: Respond to Abuse & Betrayal with Even More Raw Transparency

woman worshippingA post from my pal over at “Musings of a Hardlining Moderate” that I find myself highly agreeing with. He makes some great points about ministry that I find should be applauded and admired:

Hope Anew in the Gospel: Respond to Abuse & Betrayal with Even More Raw Transparency

By Carson Clark

There are a number of fundamental ways my philosophy of life and ministry seems to differ from most Christians. That includes clergy and laity alike. What I have in mind here is the widespread belief that the wise and prudent response to abuse and betrayal by members of a faith community is be more cautious and less transparent in the future. It evidences disillusionment with the Gospel.

One of my close mentors says it’s moving from naive idealism to “the unfortunate but necessary reality of guardedness.” I find that option repugnant. Perpetual guardedness as a way of being sounds like an awful lifestyle. Do that and you’ve allowed the jerks to win by callousing your heart, beating down your spirit, and instilling a hermeneutic of distrust.

The worst part? You’re still being controlled by them through your continuing response to them. That’s why I simply will not accept that option. Ever. Never ever. To my eyes that’s acquiescing to dysfunction. It’s being controlled by what has gone wrong instead of being principled about what is right; it’s living in response to past failures rather than living into what should be.

I believe this is where the importance of prophetic forthtelling comes in–casting a hopeful, alternative vision for being and doing. My personal and pastoral response, then, is even more transparency within the context of clearly established and diligently maintained boundaries. However imperfect it may be, it’s the only way I know to live into shalom rather than détente.

I will not sacrifice my openness and honesty to wolves in sheep’s clothing but neither will I allow them to keep hunting. The key is refusing to let parasites have a host organism. If someone attacks me or someone in my community and just isn’t repentant about it, (s)he is cut off. I’ll forgive him or her but I don’t allow that person to be part of my life. Brokenness is welcome. Toxicity is not.

Many pastors disagree. Many have insisted that the only healthy approach to pastoral ministry is concentric circles of trust and transparency: Don’t treat everyone the same and share your failure, heartache, fear, doubt, temptation, and the like only with a very small inner-circle. This I’m told is an unavoidable and healthy boundary for pastoral ministry. I strongly disagree, though.

My ministry has been its healthiest, most impactful, and most vibrant when I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve. I keep finding broken people who require empathy, who are desperatefor pastors who are startlingly open and painfully honest. It’s Batman vs. Superman. They can’t resonate with strong, outwardly flawless character who has all the answers and all of life together.

I’ve been considering the significance of this. Honestly, I can’t figure out if this is a generational thing, personality thing, leadership style thing, or something else. My guess is probably all of the above. Maybe it’s as simple as birds of a feather flock together. Maybe I’m just the misfit outlier who keeps meeting other misfit outliers. Or maybe there’s a lot of us, all feeling lonely.

There are a whole lot of us out there who are tired of the bait and switch tactics. We came to faith believing what the Church proclaimed: A Gospel full of truth, love, grace, reconciliation, humility, forgiveness, and community. But once we joined we found a Church with a nasty underbelly and a dearth of those characteristics. Only we refuse to be disillusioned. We still believe in that Gospel.

I as much as anyone have reason to be guarded, and to be disillusioned by the Church. If you went down the checklist of possible abuse one can suffer at the hands of Christians, my life story contains most all of it. My heart, mind, and soul reveal those scars and open wounds. But the answer is not to give up or acquiesce. The answer is to recommit to the Gospel and to overcome.

My whole life people have insisted that I’m being unrealistic and what I’m envisioning cannot be done. It’s a recurring motif. They said that about the interdisciplinary academic conference I put together as an undergrad. They said it was impossible for University Abbey to be spiritually devout, intellectually rigorous, rhetorically civil, and relationally intimate. They were wrong both times.

Those naysayers usually mean well but they’re incredibly limited by their inability to dream new dreams. In my experience, the more institutional one becomes the more he or she tends to lack the capacity to appreciate the beautiful chaos of innovation and reformation. Loyalty displaces truth on the priority list. You start talking about the unfortunate but necessary reality of guardedness.

This post, then, is a call to hope anew in the Gospel. Many Christians suck and inflict grave harm upon others, which I still find rather inexplicable in light of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel remains full of truth, love, grace, reconciliation, humility, forgiveness, and community. So here’s my challenge: Respond to abuse and betrayal with even more raw transparency.

Spiritual…but Not…

spiritual but not religiousCourtney was recalling to me a incident at work the other day when a co-worker, who she hadn’t met before, asked her about the book she was reading, which happened to be about icons in the Orthodox Church. This lady told my wife about her former roommate who use to take a week off work “all the time” (which I suspect was once a year for Holy Week) and was Orthodox as well. This lady remarked how weird her roommate and her religion was. She said, “I just don’t get it; I’m spiritual but not religious.” It called to mind this blog by Father Stephen about that very subject:

Spiritual…but Not…

By Father Stephen Freeman 

It has become a commonplace to hear someone say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Most people have a general understanding of what is meant. I usually assume that the person holds to a number of ideas that are considered “spiritual” in our culture, but that they are not particularly interested in “organized religion.” I understand this, because organized religion can often be the bane of spiritual existence.

I am an Orthodox Christian – which is not the same thing as saying that I have an interest in “organized religion.” There is much about organized religion that I dislike in the extreme, and I occasionally see its shadow seep into my experience within Orthodoxy. But I repeat unashamedly that I am an Orthodox Christian and admit that one clear reason is that I am not very “spiritual.” Without the life of the Church and its Tradition – I could easily drift into a shapeless secularism – living a mediocre existence, marking time until my time is done.

The shapeless contours of spirituality often reflect nothing more than the ego within. How can I escape the confines of my own imagination? It is, of course, possible to ignore the question of the ego’s input and be satisfied with whatever we find comfortable as our “spirituality.” But, as noted above, I do not think I am an inherently “spiritual” man.

The Church is spiritual – indeed it is far more spiritual than “organized.” It is standing in the midst of the holy (whether I am aware of it or not) and yielding myself to that reality that largely constitute my daily “spirituality.” I pray and when something catches my heart, I stop and stay there for a while.

In earlier years of my life, as an Anglican, I learned about a  liturgical phenomenon known as the “guilty secret.” It referred to the extreme familiarity that grows up between priest and “holy things.” Holy things easily become commonplace and their treatment dangerously flippant. More dangerous still, is the growing sense of absence in the heart of a priest as the holy becomes commonplace and even just “common.” Of course the things which God has marked as “holy” are just “common.” A chalice is holy though it is only silver or gold (still “common” material). God uses common things in the giving of grace.

The “guilty secret” can afflict anyone. It’s the old phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” It is particularly dangerous on account of our secular culture which holds most things in equal contempt. Things are only things within our culture, and any value it may have is imputed and not inherent.

This same problem holds true with “spirituality” itself. Words easily revert to mere words; actions to mere actions; ideas to wispy drifts of nothing. I have written elsewhere that secularism breeds atheism. The guilty secret that stalks us all is nothing more than the suspicious voice of secularism whispering, “There’s nothing and nobody there.”

The life we are called to live as Christians is not one long argument with the voice of secularism. The voice of secularism is not the sound of our own doubt, but the voice of the evil one. He has always been a liar.

The essential question for us is clearly stated by St. John:

By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. (1Jo 4:2-3)

It is the question of Christ’s incarnation – but, in turn, it is also the question: “Is the flesh capable of bearing the Spirit?” Do we live in a world that is capable of God? There are many, who have partaken of a semi-gnostic spirit within modern secularism, who are not comfortable with Spirit-bearing material. Christ is someone whom we have fenced off, demarcated as a unique event such that He alone bears Spirit. He is the God who became incarnate in a world that was, by nature, secular. His incarnation would thus be a sign that does not confirm the world in any way, but by its very coming condemns all flesh.

This, according to St. John, is the spirit of the Antichrist. It is as though the evil one had said, “Fine. Take the flesh of this child born of Mary, but everything else is mine, and tends towards nothing.”

The Incarnate Christ is not only God with us, but reveals the true reason for all creation. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” Nothing is merely anything. Everything bears the glory of God.

Thus my “spirituality” is to learn how to live in a material world that is everywhere more than I can see or know. For such a life I need a guide. Without a guide I am left to the devices of my own imagination. My parents were not raised in such a situation. They were not teachers in this matter. It is the life of the Church, the way of knowledge that is the lives of the saints that teaches me how to live. They help me eat (or not eat) in a manner that reveals God. They teach me to read, to honor icons, to forgive enemies, to hold creation in its proper, God-given place. I am an Orthodox Christian. Who else remembers how to live in the world, holding that Christ is come in the flesh?

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The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow (Guest Blog)

ImageBack in September of 2008 Father John Peck wrote a fine little essay that caused a lot of stirring to occur within Orthodox circles. Father John’s words here have deeply touched me and spoken to me. I believe he is very accurate in his words. I believe he has a deep love for the Lord, for His Church, and particular for young men who feel called to serve as priests. He is a sincere priest who speaks with a prophetic voice in this essay. I have greatly enjoyed getting to see Father John’s passion for preaching, which is a passion I share. He has a burning love and drive in his soul to which I can relate. Father Johannes Jacobse, who runs the American Orthodox Institute, said this concerning Father John’s essay,

[Five] years ago Fr. John Peck published the essay [“The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow”] and boy did he get hammered. Creativity, a characteristic you would want to see in priests, is feared because sometimes it gets too close to exposing the sheer paucity of substantive ideas and compelling engagement with the larger culture that the Church, in order to be Church, should cultivate in their leaders. The truth is we have got some very fine men serving as priests. The other truth is that those who bring the most to the table are often the first to get their hands slapped, and if that doesn’t work their livelihoods threatened and sometimes taken away.”

The words spoken here are spoken with love and sincerity, but with brutal honesty. I believe the words spoken here are spoken from a man whose heart has come to know Christ. This is the truth spoken in love from a man I have come to deeply respect and admire. For the Orthodox reading, these words are spoken with fire, but fire is refining even if it hurts:

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH OF TOMORROW

By Father John Peck

There is an interesting phenomenon occurring in Orthodox Christianity in America today, and reflected powerfully in our seminaries. Seminaries are loaded almost exclusively with converts, reverts (cradle Orthodox who left the faith, and were re-converted to it again), and the sons and grandsons of clergy.

I believe we are looking at the future of the American Orthodox Church — today.

The notion that traditionally Orthodox ethnic groups (the group of ‘our people’ we hear so much about from our primates and hierarchs) are going to populate the ranks of the clergy, and therefore, the Church in the future is, frankly, a pipe dream. Orthodoxy, despite the failings of its leadership, has actually lived up to its own press. The truth of the Orthodox faith, as presented on paper, is actually being believed – by those who have no familial or historical connection with the Orthodox. These poor deluded souls (of which I count myself) actually believe what they are reading about the Orthodox faith, and expect the Church to act like, well, the Church. They refuse to accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch. No old world embassies will be tolerated for much longer – they will go the way of the dodo. No one will have to work against them; they will simply die from atrophy and neglect. The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.

This is a well known problem. Statistical studies taken a mere seven years ago predicted that within 10 years the Orthodox Church in the United States would for all practical purposes, no longer be viable. If nothing was done within five years (that’s two years ago) the decline would be irreversible. Demographics determine destiny, as they say. As you may have imagined, not only was “nothing done,” such reports were surreptitiously filed away, while the calls for a solution from clergy and laity alike only increased. Larger jurisdictions will, of course, have a little more time, but not a different result.

What we are looking at, of course, is of the highest concern to the hierarchy. They know, in their heart of hearts, that they cannot reverse this trend. Yet they fight a rearguard action, hoping against hope to forestall the historically inevitable movement toward an American Orthodox Church.

Statistical studies taken a mere seven years ago predicted that within 10 years the Orthodox Church in the United States would for all practical purposes, no longer be viable.

The laity has already moved on. Americans, generally, don’t fall for very much strong arm intimidation or brow beating, don’t go for bullying by insecure leaders, and certainly don’t see the value of taking on and promoting someone else’s ethnic culture. They care about the Gospel, and the Gospel does not require Slavonic or Koine Greek, or even English for that matter. The Gospel requires context, which is why it cannot be transmitted in any language unknown to the listener.

When we look at our seminaries, we are looking at the Church of Tomorrow, the Church twenty years from now. Indeed, this is the Church we are building today.

Twenty years from now, I anticipate we will see the following:

  • Vastly diminished parishes, both in size and number. There will be a few exceptions, (and they will be exceptional!) but for the most part, most current Orthodox parishioners will age and die, and have no one to replace them. Why? Because as they have taught the context of their culture, instead teaching the context of their faith. Some parishes will simply be merged with others. Many will close outright. A few will change how they do ministry, with a new vision of parochial ecclesiology. These newer parishes will be lighthouses of genuine Orthodox piety and experience. Some parishes, I believe, will actually be formed specifically, in the old fashion, by purchasing land, building a chapel or Temple in the midst of it, and parishioners building or buying homes around it. The Church will be the center of their lives, and many will come from far and wide to experience their way of life.
  • Publicly renowned Orthodox media and apologetic ministries. These ministries are the ones providing a living and powerful apologetic for the Orthodox faith in our culture (that is, our 21st Century life in the United States), and actually providing the Gospel in its proper context – engaged in society and the public arena. These will succeed in visibility and public awareness more than all the speeches before the U.N. and odd newspaper stories about Orthodox Easter or Folk Dance Festivals could ever do. In other words, the Orthodox Christian faith will become that most dangerous of all things – relevant to the lives of Americans, and known to all Americans as a genuinely American Christian entity.
  • More (and younger) bishops. If our current slate of bishops has been mostly a disappointment, reducing their number will only tighten this closed circle, making the hierarchy less and less accessible, and more and more immune to things like, oh, the needs and concerns of their flock. The process of selection for the episcopacy will contain a far more thorough investigation, and men with active homosexual tendencies, psychological problems, insecurities, or addictions will simply not make the cut. We aren’t far from open persecution of Christians by secularists in this country, and we need bishops who know the score. With better bishops, no one will be able to ‘buy’ a priest out of a parish with a gift of cash. Conversely, parish councils will no longer be able to bully priests into staying out of their affairs, and will be required to get out of the restaurant/festival business and get into the soul saving business.
  • A very different demographic of clergy. Our priests will be composed of converts, reverts, and the sons and grandsons of venerable, long-suffering clergy. These men all know the score. They won’t tolerate nonsense like homosexual clergy (especially bishops), women’s ordination, or financial corruption. They will not tolerate the Church being regularly and unapologetically dishonored by her own clergy. Twenty years from now, these convert and revert priests will be sending life-long Orthodox men, a new cradle generation, en masse to our seminaries. They will be white, black, Asian, Polynesian, Hispanic, and everything in between. Fewer will be Russian, Greek, or any other traditionally Orthodox background.
  • Orthodox Biblical Studies. Orthodox Biblical scholarship will flourish, and will actually advance Biblical Studies, rather than tag along for the latest trends, staying a minimum safe distance back in case the latest theory tanks unexpectedly. Septuagint studies are already on the rise and Orthodox scholars will usurp the lead in this arena, establishing a powerful and lasting influence in Biblical Studies for decades to come. Orthodox higher education — specifically in Biblical Studies in the Orthodox tradition — will finally have a place at the doctoral level in the Western hemisphere, and it will become a thriving academic entity. The whole Church will feed on the gleanings of this new scholarship and Scriptural knowledge, preaching, and Biblical morality will invigorate the Church for generations.
  • A much higher moral standard from all clergy. The next twenty years will see a revival of practical ethics. Instead of trailing military or business ethics, the Church will, once again, require the highest standard of ethical and professional behavior from her clergy — and they will respond! The clergy will not tolerate lying, cheating, or stealing and hold to account those who practice these vices. They will vigorously defend the honor of Christ’s priesthood, and Christ’s Church. I dare say, even the clergy will finally respect their own priesthood.
  • Vocations will explode. As a result of the elevated ethical standard publicly expected from the clergy, candidates in far greater numbers will flock to the priesthood. There will be very full classes, distance education, self-study and continuing education going on in every location. Education at a basal level will disappear, except in introductory parish classes. Clergy will powerfully articulate Orthodoxy to the faithful and to the culture around them. Personal opinion will no longer be the standard for clergy when articulating Orthodox ethics and morality. Our seminaries must become beacons for this teaching, and give up “training culture” once and for all. We will finally begin to penetrate our society, rather than go along for the ride like a tick on a dog’s back.
  • Philanthropy will flow like the floodgates of heaven. Finally, the many Orthodox Christian philanthropists who annually give millions of dollars to secular institutions will finally find their own Church completely transparent, completely accountable, and worthy of their faith-building support. Let’s face it, there is more than enough money in Orthodoxy right now to build hospitals, clinics, schools, colleges, universities, and a new Hagia Sophia right here in the United States. The reason this is not being done is because these philanthropists are intelligent men and women who do not trust the hierarchy to do the right thing with their millions. This will change in short order once it is shown that transparency doesn’t destroy the Church, but strengthens it immeasurably. Frankly, I don’t anticipate every jurisdiction to do this in the next twenty years, but those that are practicing transparency will emerge as the leaders in every arena of Church existence.

Hope

This all may seem unlikely today, but it is coming.

How do I know this? For one thing, the last holdouts of corruption, Byzantine intrigue and phyletism (a fancy theological term for ethnic preference) are clinging desperately to a vision of the Church that is, quite frankly, dying fast. Oh, they are doing everything to shore up their power and influence, and busy serving their own needs, but their vision is dying. And where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18).

As frightening and disconcerting as it may seem to our leaders, they will learn that emerging from a cocoon, even a Byzantine cocoon, is not a bad thing. Orthodoxy is about to take flight on new beautiful wings. These are the birth pangs of a new era for Orthodoxy. God is giving us a time of freedom and light.

This new Orthodox Church will have a different face, will be ready for contemporary challenges, and will have begun to penetrate American society at every stage and on every level. This Church is the one that will be ready for the challenges of open persecution, fighting for the soul of every American, regardless of their genetic affiliation. This Church will be the one our grandchildren and great grandchildren will grow up in, looking back on the late 20th-early 21st century as a time of sentimental darkness from which burst forth the light of the Gospel. Let it begin.

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