Outreach in a healthy Parish (2007-07-25-28)

Archbishop Seraphim : Talk
Outreach in a healthy Parish
(Words at the Skills Conference, “The Heart Assured :
Works of Love in Deed and Truth”)
Department of Pastoral Life Ministries,
Department of Christian Witness
Marymount University
Arlington, Virginia
25-28 July, 2007

What does this expression mean : “a healthy parish” ? Before we can discuss “Outreach in a healthy Parish”, I believe that we have first to examine what a healthy parish could be like. A major part of this consideration will depend upon the contents of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 12. Also, the context of our consideration will have to include the understanding that the parish is a hospital for sinners. Let us also remember that since the Orthodox way of life reflects the natural consequences of the Incarnation of the Word, the Love, of God (as shown also in iconography), so everything else about the whole of our Christian life is about our “yes” being “yes”, our “no” being “no” (see Matthew 5:37) ; about doing what we say, about an integrated life, about “putting our money where our mouth is”, as the slang saying goes.

Let us begin first, as in the Gospels, with the “r” word. This word, repentance, has to be at the heart of every person’s life in a healthy parish. For healthy Christian living, this turning about, this choosing Christ, this choosing life, this choosing love in truth, this spiritual struggle, must be a daily factor in the life of the faithful people. Indeed, this particular choice has to be the characteristic of every moment. This choice cannot be simply an intellectual sort of exercise, because if it were that, one would quickly short-circuit. It is a choice of the heart, a heart in communion of love with the Lord. When there is a fall (as is regularly the case with each of us), then repentance must be quick. We have to recognise our vulnerability to the tempter ; we have to recognise our weakness, and our need to be calling constantly to the Lord for help in everything. We have to recognise our need to know how to listen to the heart. This is the hospital-for-sinners factor. If we as a parish are, indeed, a bunch of hypocrites, then this assessment is realistic. This hypocrisy is at least in the context of repentance. Everything begins with admitting that we can do nothing at all without the Lord, without constantly calling to Him for help, as in the twelve-step programmes. If we really want to be honest, too, we could go so far as to admit that we are addicts. We are addicts to sin. We are addicted to ourselves, in this respect, and we need the Lord’s help to get out of that quagmire. In the context of repentance, all this admission of vulnerability provides a good environment for everything else. In this atmosphere, in this disposition, we may more easily see Christ in the other, and we may more easily hear Him speak to us through the other. So we must constantly be turning about, which is the exact meaning of repentance : a 180-degree turning about. We must be turning away from death to life, turning away from selfishness to selflessness, turning away from darkness to light, turning away from fear to love.

There is also a concern that I have about an ecclesiologically-related misunderstanding, which seems to be even infecting the disposition of various persons in different parts of the Church (not only here in North America). The misunderstanding to which I refer has to do with the difference between “power” and “authority” in interpreting life in a hierarchical environment, which certainly is that of the Orthodox Church.

“Power” has to do with the use of force, or manipulation by the higher upon the lower. One might say that in this case, a leader, whose mentality concerns itself with such an application of power, treats the structure of the Church as simply being like a secular organisation, a political entity. “Power” is the environment of secular politics. In such an environment, it is said that the Church is like a pyramid, with the lay-people at the bottom, forming the broad base, and the higher authorities above them, and the highest at the top, all the way to the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is, truly, the last court of appeal in the Orthodox Church. The various ranks in which we serve are, in this schema, compared to the ranks of soldiers in an army. Shepherding of sheep is treated in the western manner, in which the shepherd, assisted by dogs, from behind the sheep, drives them in the direction he wishes them to go. The Church is understood to be an institution, and life in the Church is often treated as if it were a human invention, a business, a club. Leaders are officials. In this context, one could apply the saying : “Do not do as I do, do as I say”. The Church is often treated as if it were a society of holy persons, of the just. This word “just” is a word that we ought to avoid. (I do not refer to the adverbial use of the word “just” as an alternative for “only” !) “Just” and “justice” long ago in Latin accurately translated the Greek words for “righteous”, and “righteousness”. However, in the last millennium or so, our use of these words “just” and “justice” has become much more limited and legal in connotation. They are treated almost as actual things, rather than states of being. As with many other concepts, our very materialistic environment has developed the strong tendency to treat a concept as if it were a commodity, a thing. Justice can be treated as if it were some sort of machine, some sort of rigid process. Discernment is lost altogether. Indeed, this environment of manipulation can be described as dysfunctional. The spiritual condition of such leaders is rather similar to that of addicted persons, who, living in fear, feel that they need to control their environment for their own protection.

“Authority”, by contrast, treats all the same elements of structure with a different spirit. It is an environment derived from the relationship of love in Christ. Following the Lord’s parables in the Gospel, the person with greater authority is properly compared to a shepherd in the Palestinian manner. Because of personal experience, and because of having achieved this experience through loving emulation, the person in authority knows the way to go, and moves in that direction. The sheep follow, because they know the shepherd’s voice, and trust his love for them, to lead them well. The shepherd knows the sheep by name. “Authority” is exercised on the basis of a trusting relationship of love, and the providing of a good example. The person who exercises leadership does so by example, as a parent. Everything is done in the context of loving, trusting, relationships. The Church is understood to be a living organism. The Church is understood to be a family, or a hospital. As a so-called hospital, the Church consists of many sick persons desiring to be healed, desiring to become righteous. If we want to use a diagram for describing “authority”, one might use a circle, or a sphere. The chief authority is in the centre, and the associated and derivative authorities surround this centre. Even this illustration is not sufficient, but it may be helpful. The exercise of authority in a distorted manner, as a result of temptation and of sin, means that a person tries to take short-cuts (sometimes from simple impatience), and tries to force others to go in a particular direction. This distorts authority into power. That does not mean that the misuse of authority changes what it is essentially. Regardless of our temptations, of our falls, authority is the loving exercise of a God-given responsibility, always in the context of Christ, of His love, of His will, of the discernment of His will. When we constantly repeat in Matins and in Molebens, “The Lord is God, and has appeared to us” (Psalm 117:27), we are reminding ourselves about what we all must daily remember ; we are reminding ourselves that we must always look to Him.

Now, having begun with all this, let us continue by focusing on the head of the parish : the parish priest, the rector. If there be more than one priest, the rector may serve more administratively, and the other priest(s) might serve more pastorally. The rector (or the priest-in-charge) has the responsibility of leading the parish, a responsibility given to him from the bishop. This priest (this shepherd, this father) is given the pastoral responsibility by the bishop ; along with the bishop, he has the responsibility of representing Christ to the people, of being the head of this parish community, of this parish family, in such a way that clearly shows how Christ is the Head of the Church, of the Body of Christ. When the priest is ordained, in accordance with the recent Russian custom, he is given a simple pectoral Cross, on the back of which are inscribed words of the Apostle Paul to his disciple : "Be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity (1 Timothy 4:12). In the same vein, there is a true saying : “As is the priest, so is the parish”. There is another, more cynical saying, also : “The fish stinks from the head”. This is nevertheless true. For good or for ill, the character of a parish is very much dependent upon the character of the priest. If his own spiritual condition is healthy ; if he is in himself a living example of a repentant life ; if his life is characterised by Christ’s love ; if he, together with his family, is praying morning and evening, and before and after meals ; if he is welcoming ; if he is caring ; if he is visiting the homes of the rational sheep he has been given to lead, and he knows these sheep by name ; if he regularly intercedes for the members of this flock of rational sheep, then the flock is likely to be healthy. As the priest is living a life in love with, and in imitation of Christ, so the faithful flock will more and more follow this example.

If we have a healthy priest, leading the flock he has been given in a proper Orthodox environment of love (and, of course, of repentance), then we can have (despite temptations) a stable Christian parish family. Suffice it to say that in this family which we have all been given by the Lord, we all have various God-given gifts and responsibilities. We have each also been called by our Saviour to use these gifts in love, in accordance with the manner in which He has given them, and in the context of His call to us. These gifts are never given for ourselves alone, but for all around us. Life in Christ’s love is always reaching out. It is always concerned with the other. It is always concerned, too, with the physical environment. I remember from long ago in my life, reading stories about Anglican clerics who, more than a century ago, actively shared their love of Christ with the poor and the destitute of the docks-area of London. It was invariably the case that those who began to live in the love of Christ changed their surroundings. Their homes quickly became clean and orderly, and they soon had flowerboxes at the windows. This was the spontaneous expression of their new hope, which affected everything. Our personal relationship with Christ always bears fruit ; it always gives life. These words of our Saviour are important to remember : "‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’" (John 10:10). "‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing’" (John 15:5). These are important, crucial, words for us to keep always in our hearts. In Christ, we must be gathering all and everything together ; we must welcome ; we must be hospitable ; we must be open ; we must be embracing. His love always is thus : feeding, healing, giving life.

Now, at last, I get to addressing more specifically the matter of outreach.

The Apostle Paul’s words in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 12, and in his first Letter to the Corinthians, chapters 12-13, are useful to reread frequently, so that we keep in focus. We must always remember that we are living in a cultural context in North America that is definitely not Orthodox. Because we live in such a context, our self-perception as Orthodox is easily distorted by the misconceptions of these, our societies. We have a responsibility to know ourselves correctly in Christ as Orthodox Christians, and to live as positive contributors to this society, helping the Lord to correct these misconceptions.

The Lord Himself, always, and everywhere, has been bringing life to those around. He brings healing. He brings hope. As He does this, so must we be doing, because we who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ (see Galatians 3:27). The Apostle reminds us that we are members of the Body of Christ, and that by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, we have been given the gifts (each of us according to the Lord’s love), in order to function according to where we are situated in this Body, in accordance with the Lord’s will and direction. He reminds us that we have to be ready always to exercise these gifts. We have to remember that each one of us has received particular gifts and responsibilities from the Lord. We have to remember that it is our responsibility to come to know ourselves truly in the Lord, so that we will be ready to exercise these gifts. Sometimes the Lord does not give us just one or two gifts for the whole course of our lives. Rather, He gives us different gifts at different times, according to the needs of various persons, and various situations. Knowing our hearts, knowing ourselves, knowing ourselves in the context of a clear and healthy relationship with the Lord, is very important. It is important, because the Lord is asking us to be reaching out at all times, just as He always has been doing : to each person that comes to us every day, and in every situation. The love of the Lord Jesus Christ informs everything that we are and everything that we do. We have the practical connexion that Orthodox Christians are familiar with : the connexion between the Holy Table of the Temple, and the dining room table of our home, through which our home also becomes a little church, and each one of our daily meals becomes an extension of the eucharistic meal.

The Apostle tells us to practice hospitality (see Hebrews 13:2). This is truly a basic characteristic of all Orthodox Christians, always, and everywhere. This hospitality is not expressed only in church, although it is truly important there. It is expressed daily in our home life. Hence, again the balance, the connexion between home and Temple, between the corporate expression of the Body of Christ at worship, and at work in daily life. All is in balance. All is connected. This is one reason (as was explained to me by a grandmother) that the actual content of Orthodox meals presented to visitors is both excessive, and presents all sorts of foods that would not usually be presented together in a meal-plan. The host should bring forth everything possible and available to eat, so that the guest may find something pleasing among the choices, and so that the guest may have enough to eat. An abbess, the spiritual daughter of a New-Martyr (who was a Metropolitan of Kremenets, Ukraine) was taught by him that the host should make such an offering to a guest, and that the guest should taste something from everything on the table, but not eat everything. How often I have had to remember this lesson in my travels, because the very poor have offered everything they have to the stranger, to the foreigner, for the love of Christ. It is in this same light that many an Orthodox family may have the custom of preparing extra food, even setting an extra place at meals, in case someone may arrive unexpectedly. Many people habitually set something special aside (something especially nice), waiting for the unexpected guest. Such was also the case in my childhood, along with many other families, because in those days people often did appear like that, just at meal-times. It is still so in many parts of the world. An appointment to appear, or an invitation to visit is not required. In this environment of loving generosity, too, lives the custom of not arriving at a home empty-handed, but always bringing something for the host. We respect the presence of Christ, the image of Christ, in each other. It would not hurt us to remember that Saint John Chrysostom suggests that we even prostrate ourselves before each other after receiving Holy Communion, just because of this Presence.

If we are going to reach out beyond ourselves as an Orthodox Community, then, first of all, we have to be visible. People have to be able to find us at what is, for them, the right time. Thus, our Temple must be listed in phone-books and other public directories. The internet is very useful nowadays, although our advertised information has to be kept current. Our Temple has to be kept up in such a way that it shows that we care about it : we care about it as our spiritual home, and as the House of the Lord. Here, too, it is very important that we keep mindful of our various gifts, and that we exercise them all together in harmony, so that none of us has to work too hard. The approach to the Temple (and its surroundings) should be as orderly, as beautiful, as inviting as possible. When a person dares to enter the door of our Temple, that person should not be swarmed, nor pounced on. This is scary to a person who is already nervous and apprehensive in a new place, and it makes us appear to be desperate. We must carefully avoid the temptation to “kill with kindness”. Responding to the Lord’s love in our heart, we would do better simply to receive the person respectfully and supportingly, without applying the “grand inquisition”. This reception has to be without discrimination or partiality, too.

I know well how faithful people have tried hard to present themselves to their near neighbours, using one technique or another, and how they have often been disappointed with the nature of the response (or the non-response). Instead, the Lord has sent the unexpected to their parish, persons most unlikely to fit in, and hard to accept. In one case, they have seen how the Lord has sent Aboriginal persons to them. These, they have received with love, and have fed them. Some have entered the Orthodox Church completely, and all show that they know that they are welcomed and loved. In another case, it was a particular Muslim who arrived, and who was received similarly. With the attitude of the Lord upon the Cross, we reach out to all ; we embrace all. We must be ready to receive whomever the Lord may send. We cannot pick and choose. The Lord Himself shows us how our breadth and depth of love has to be ready to encompass every human being that the Lord has created, regardless of wealth or poverty, health or illness, wholeness or brokenness or deformity. In exactly the same way that we are born into our families as they are, and we do not have a choice as to who are our parents, siblings, relatives, and ancestors, or their state in society, so we are, as members of the Body of Christ, members of a family. The Church Family is a very far-flung and richly various family, a family with some very difficult, eccentric, and eclectic members, and with some very healthy and strong members. The Lord encourages us to love each one uniquely, just as He loves each one of us uniquely, with infinite love, and with infinite patience.

In all this loving relationship, the Lord continues to work the wonder : the more we work in the context of acting in Christ’s love, and acting on the basis of this love, the more we empty ourselves for others in Christ’s love, the more the Lord gives us this love. In its exercise, our capacity to love increases infinitely. This is in itself a taste of Heaven. This is what our parish gatherings to worship are to be — tastes of Heaven. In Heaven, in this atmosphere of love in and of Christ, we increase in love endlessly and unto the ages of ages. This “ages of ages” is in itself an expression of our inability to express the greatness, the wonder, the immensity of the Lord and of His love.

It seems to me that the long and the short of what constitutes outreach in a healthy parish is this : that, although we may be aware of certain techniques and methods, everything must be natural, everything must be honest. Because of the manipulative ways of secular society, people can easily perceive when they are having techniques applied to them.

I have just poured out a pile of words. Nowadays, words have lost the stability of their meaning. Nevertheless, words continue to flow over us like the waters surging mightily over the escarpment at Niagara. “Talk is cheap”, we say. Our “yes” must simply be “yes”, and our “no”, “no”, as we have been exhorted. Our love, and our relationship in Christ with each other, must be genuine. Hearing these words, you are right to look at me, and at these words, and ask yourself whether my life seems to be in harmony with all this. Is there more here than simply the words ? Does this speaker, himself, seem to behave as he says ? When the Lord washed the feet of the apostles, He told them that they would have to do the same for each other (see John 13:14-15). Through this, He reminds us all that we, as He, are here in the world to serve, not to be served (see Luke 22:27). This is the characteristic always of Orthodox Christians. Therefore, if we always have this attitude, then the Grace of the Holy Spirit may flow through us and our service, and touch those around us with the love of Jesus Christ. We may know all sorts of techniques, and that is good. These techniques themselves are expressions of spiritual gifts, and the know-how must be acted upon and flowing. It must flow not artificially, not manipulatively, but naturally, borne upon and informed by the love of Christ, and alive in the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Everything about us must be as natural, as honest, as harmonious, as clear, as clean, as possible. Everything about us, even without words, should be able to reveal the love of Christ to those we encounter. In this, truly we can reach out in an honest way, and in this, truly we can be yeast and salt as the Saviour has said we must be (see Matthew 13:33 ; 5:13). In this, truly we will live what we proclaim — that Jesus is Lord : glorified together with the Father, and the Holy Spirit, always, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.