June 4, 2012

Day of the Holy Spirit

I’ve been looking forward to writing this column for months, and the Day of the Holy Spirit is a good time to start.  Ever since taking on the job of Chancellor last October I’ve wanted to connect more with everyone and this—with your prayers and God’s blessing—will be one way to do that.

My aim is to write two very short reflections most weekdays: one on the daily Scripture readings, and another on the people, parishes, places, events, questions, consternations and miracles I encounter in the chancellor’s office and in travels around the OCA. 

It’s an experiment, I’ll try it for a few months over the summer, get reactions and then see where to go from there. The OCA website is not set-up for comments, but you can leave comments on the OCA Facebook page. In fact, there is much internal discussion about what kind of communication, comment and monitoring is appropriate for an official Orthodox church website in 21st century North America…your comments on that will be useful too. I can guarantee that all comments will be read, but unfortunately neither I nor the web-team will have time to respond to most postings, so please don’t be offended.

O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will show forth Your praise.

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It’s curious that the name “Holy Spirit” makes no appearance in these readings for the Day of the Holy Spirit. They don’t at all focus on the person of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is in keeping with the mysterious character of the Holy Spirit, who can be encountered everywhere, even in the most unexpected places. Instead, the scriptures for the day speak about what fruitful, Spirit-inspired life looks like in the Church. The only time “spirit” and “spiritual” are mentioned is here: “ …but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart…” (Eph 5:19).

When I look at the rest of the readings for today I see a list of pointers to each of us as individuals for contributing to shaping our parishes as Christian communities.

  • Live out your life in constant communion with Christ in the light
  • Make every effort to understand the will of the Lord
  • Reject communion with works of darkness and instead expose them
  • Fight passions by being filled instead with the Spirit
  • Take responsibility for the Christ-bearing character of the community
  • Be accountable to each other, both for building up and also for correcting
  • Abandon no one: when necessary leave the comfort of the “99” and go look for the lost sheep

That last point is especially challenging for mission. Churches are exactly the places “lost sheep” avoid, often for good reason. By leaving the safe precincts of the temple, as Jesus did, we are guaranteed to encounter plenty of lost sheep.  But we will also encounter the same sort of criticism He did for mixing with the wrong sorts of people. That’s all part of the predictable tension of living the Christian life, in the world but not of the world. 

* * *

Over the last couple of weeks I had the opportunity to attend commencement at St Vladimir’s and St Tikhon’s Seminaries. The graduating classes represent some 50 individual stories of men and women willing to set aside time and money, reorganize family life and children, in order to study the scriptures, theology, church history, liturgy and pastoral care all in order to serve Christ and the Church in some way.  This includes graduates in programs of Diaconal Formation, Master of Divinity, Master of Arts and Master of Theology. Many are serving OCA communities; others come from a range of Orthodox churches in North America and around the world. But what I found most inspiring in all these people was the common story that in some way—unique to each—they had all been touched by God’s inspiration to make decisions and sacrifices to follow this path of study and service. A woman going on to work as a hospital chaplain. A young priest and his family heading to a tiny mission parish in Texas. Another going to Montana. A third taking up a Spanish-language mission in Florida. While one student was in seminary for three years, his wife stayed home to study nursing in order to help support their working together now in a mission.

We are accustomed to hearing criticism (often legitimate) about many aspects of church life (and believe me, I hear this loud and clear in my office). But we need to be reminded that God’s presence, action, guidance and inspiration are very much alive. And our church is alive and will live because of this. So I am hopeful.