The Church of the Unanxious God

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The story of the conversion of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware to Orthodoxy has more or less passed over into modern Orthodox legend. He accidentally stumbles into a Vigil service in order to get out of a rain storm. Discovering Orthodoxy and its beauty he begins to inquire into conversion only to be told to go back to his Anglican Church (he was not a clergyman, by the way). When eventually he does convert, he is told that he may become Orthodox but that he should not expect to ever be a priest because he is not Greek. The irony of the story, of course,  is that it is being told by a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan.

His story was from another time. It is similar to that of Archbishop Dmitri (OCA) who, along with his sister, persuaded by encyclopedia articles that the Orthodox Church is indeed the Church founded by Christ, seeks to convert and attends five weeks in a row before anyone speaks to them (he was 16 or so at the time). He says he was 21 before he ever knew what the Liturgy said.

In neither case did the Orthodox Church seem particularly anxious to accept a convert. Some part of these stories is a failure – a lack of concern for evangelism – but another part reflects an aspect of Orthodoxy that continues to a certain extent: a frequent lack of anxiety about conversion. The night before I made a heart’s decision to convert to the Orthodox faith, I had read an article about a gentleman who had himself approached the Church and was told by a very spiritually mature woman that he should indeed convert to Orthodoxy, but that he should wait ten years.

I recall at the time being amazed at the story. What amazed me was that no one could say such a thing without a sure confidence in God. It was an uncommon thing to say – something that could only be said because of a prophetic gift. Indeed something about the story moved my heart to a place of decision that had not been there before. That story had a character to it that I later heard echoed in both the stories of Metropolitan Kallistos and Vladyka Dmitri. Indeed, my own entrance into the Church took years after that first decision of the heart – not because anyone in the Orthodox Church told me no or asked me to wait – there were many other factors that made my conversion extend over such a period. But what I found in the Church was no one who was anxious to make me do anything.

I found priests who certainly cared for me and would have done anything for me. But I did not find priests who seemed alarmed at my condition and anxious that it be corrected as soon as possible. The priest who eventually received me and my family into the faith later said to me that he thought everyone who came through the door of his parish was called to be Orthodox. “But that is God’s problem. My problem is to show hospitality.”

I had no arguments when I approached the faith. For one, I had no doubt of its truth. This stood in stark contrast to the life I was experiencing as an Anglican – where doubt and argument, crisis and cowardice were all too familiar companions – both within me and within most around me.

There was no argument – only decision. The lack of anxiety that greeted my decision probably played a much larger role than I will ever know. I provided all the anxiety anyone could want (I didn’t need more from someone else).

In hindsight, I can see that the “Church of the Unanxious God” is also the foundation for virtues such as patience, faith, hope – all characteristics that are born from dwelling in the truth. We can be patient because “God is good and loves mankind.” For the same reason we can be faithfully patient and live in hope.

I will quickly grant that Orthodoxy has no corner on proclaiming an unanxious God and that we sin as often as anyone else, failing to be patient or to have faith and hope. Nevertheless it seems to be an inherent part of the Orthodox faith to say to the world: “The truth abides and will abide and will not change. It will be here tomorrow as surely as today. Whether you come now or later or never come at all – it will abide.”

The position of Orthodoxy within the English-speaking world has shifted dramatically since the decades in which Archbishop Dmitri or Metropolitan Kallistos sought to be received into the faith. Much of the convert-rich territory of today’s Orthodoxy can be attributed to the fact that, unlike 50 years ago, today’s Church has an abundance of material in English. And with greater numbers of converts also comes greater conversation, awareness and opportunity.

And yet, it should still be the case that the Orthodox Church retain its faith in the unanxious God. Hospitality is tremendously important and so is the ability for people to get information who want it. We have a commandment to preach the gospel and to make disciples – but this is not the same thing as a commandment to make converts. That is God’s business, and a mysterious business indeed. Our first task is to pray for the world and welcome such as God adds to the Church (Acts 2:47), making disciples by learning to be disciples ourselves.

21 Responses to “The Church of the Unanxious God”

  1. mrh Says:

    Very well said as always Father.

    I often think of one of the lines from The Great Divorce where one of the characters says to another about heaven, “I can promise you… no sphere of usefulness; you are not needed there at all.” Like heaven, the church does not need me at all. I need the church. And it was salutary to learn that.

    The church is the peal of great price – just there for the taking, if you will leave everything else to buy it.

    The church is the prodigal son’s home, just there waiting for him to “come to himself”.

    The church is the Lord at Bethesda asking “do you want to be healed?”

  2. Micky Says:

    WHERE IS GOD?

    THIS IS A TRUE STORY:
    There was this King who ruled his kingdom for many years. His every desire was satisfied, but still he felt there must be more to life than just satisfying ones instincts. He wanted to experience God – know who he was.
    He asked his courtiers to find God for him, but none of them could help him. He had heard about a shepherd boy named David who seemed content with his lot. He called him to his palace and asked him, “Where is God, I want to experience, God”. David took him out to the fields and asked the King could he see God. The king said, “No, where is God”?
    David said that he is up in the air, all around him. But still the King could not understand or experience, God. David took him to a well and said that God was in the well. The King looked at David and said, “In the well, God is in the well!!” David asked the King to look in the well and the King obliged. He then said, “All I can see is water and my image”! David said to the King, “You have found God”! You and I are the image of God.
    Can you see God when you look in a mirror? The kingdom of God is within you!!
    Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you [Luke 17: 21].

    Peace Be With You
    Micky

  3. jennyjuliana Says:

    The lack of zeal for evangelism within Orthodoxy was disturbing to me before I converted to the Orthodox Church. It still bothers me a little (even though things have changed). I understand that conversion is God’s business. But I can’t understand why, when we know where the hospital exists, we don’t seek to bring all the hurt people to the hospital. Of course, I realize that I need to be there for healing as well. Which is why I converted.

    Even though things have changed radically within Orthodoxy with regard to evangelism, we are still don’t seem to have the focus on outreach that Catholics and Protestants do.

  4. David_Bryan Says:

    I seem to be in Rich Mullins mode lately — he told a story where he went to SE Asia to help missionaries, and one of them asked him why he was there. His reply was, “Well, I just want God to use me.” The missionary said, “Well, forget it. God doesn’t need to use you.” The point being that we are not called to be used by God (most folks He used to bring about Calvary weren’t very nice people, i.e., Pilate, Judas, etc), we are called to be loved by God, and love Him and others.

    “We have a commandment to preach the gospel and to make disciples – but this is not the same thing as a commandment to make converts.”

    Excellent. Like JJ above me, I know we ought to proclaim to all, but we ought to take the hint from our unanxious God and always offer, yet never push. Hard line to walk, that…

  5. Ezekiel Says:

    Father, Bless!

    Your comments underscored my own experience over the years as my journey to Orthodoxy intensified. The priests and laity with whom I had conversation never stepped back from the Truth — but neither did they evidence condescension or “evangelical fervor.” I remember quite succinctly comments like that of Theodore as I was ending my tenure as a Lutheran pastor — I was wondering at my parish, what we would do, and when we should move — he gently said, “God has all this in His hand.”

    The Unanxious God. I like that.

    Ezekiel+

  6. Alyssa Sophia Says:

    As always, Father, you hit the nail on the head. I don’t know how you do it. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.

    Though my situation was not nearly as dramatic as the examples you cite here, I was sure that the fact that my requests for meetings with our priest was some sort of spiritual test–“let’s just see how serious Alyssa is about Orthodoxy. If she’s persistant for several months, then perhaps we’ll meet with her.” Now I understand that this was not what was going on, but having come from a good evangelical church, and having spent 6 years doing evangelism with students on a college campus, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why no one at the church was rushing to talk with someone who was clearly seeking!

    I had a similar reaction to JennyJuliana above. If its true, if you have the answers then why won’t you tell me? It was very perplexing.

    However, I have grown in my appreciation for what you describe here as an unanxious God. I am still in the process of shedding my old ways of thinking of course. I still want my friends to find their true home. But I find the “come and see” approach to be much more inviting. It took me about one year to go from questioning to being received. It took my godmother 18 years. But all in God’s timing! His ways are mysterious indeed.

    Thank you for this post, Father!

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    It is indeed possible to err in the direction of using the “unanxious God” as an excuse. I just never found it to be the case. Indeed during some of the times that little was happening on the surface, I had a monk friend (now on Mt. Athos), who himself had been an Anglican priest, who never failed to call me once a month to see how I was doing. It was not an anxiety producing phone call or salesmanship – indeed he knew as well as I did that the arguments were all over for me. But he did not forget me.

  8. JS Bangs Says:

    This post was a great encouragement to me in my current situation, and reflects what I’ve seen from the priests and deacons that I’ve talked to. Like Fr. Stephen, the arguments are all over for me, but my wife remains staunchly against converting. To my surprise, when I talked about this with a deacon at the local Orthodox church, he said to stay in my conservative Anglican church with my wife and let God work things out. I’ve received similar council from other Orthodox sources. This sort of confident, unanxious approach was exactly what I needed to hear–especially since I tend to be plenty anxious myself.

    Thank you, Father, for posting this.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    JS,

    I’m glad you’ve made contact and found support from a local Orthodox Church. It sounds like they care and I’m sure they pray for you. There’s never a single solution to questions like a spouse who is in a very different place. But my first reaction in such situations is always to go slow and be patient. In the course of such patience, sometimes very good things happen in marriages. I will pray for you all as well.

  10. Barnabas Powell Says:

    It took us 10 years to convert when our process began and some wise counsel from an Orthodox monk helped us a great deal: “only convert when there is no other option.”

    I heard him to say that an unhurried approach is always the wisest. It is the path that produces fruit that remains.

    Thanks father. I have fallen in love with the “Unanxious God.”

  11. Jason Says:

    Not to dispute anyone’s journey, but my wife and I had the opposite experience in our journey to Orthodoxy. Essentially I started getting serious about Orthodoxy in the fall of 2006, and shortly afterwards mentioned it to my wife (who basic understanding of Orthodoxy came from the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) who then went through a catechism in early 2007 and we were both received into the church this Holy Saturday. We of course had close dialogue with our priest and submitted to his wisdom regarding when we should be received into the church, but all in all things went fast and seemed to fall into place and we have no regrets whatsoever. Glory be to Jesus.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Jason,

    Jason, I think your experience is probably more common than the ones I’ve mentioned in the posting. Most of my catechumens come in, receive instruction and preparation without having to wait years or go through the kind of gymnastics that marked my journey. And I thank God for it. Without the more normal road of many around me, I would have had much fewer friends to help me. I bless God for your reception into the Church and pray that He will continue to bless you with peace.

  13. Michael Bauman Says:

    In pondering evangelism I keep asking myself the question: Is it the Church’s job or my job? The more I ask the firmer the answer is that it is my job. I keep coming back to Psalm 50 as a template for what it takes to evangelize. Among other nuggets the Psalm says: “…Restore unto me the joy of my salvation and steady me with a guiding spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways and the impious whall be converted unto thee. …” In the years I have been Orthodox, I have never known the Holy Spirit not to bless those who hear the voice to Go Forth. Every one I have known has gone forth as a personal response to their own life in the Church. The most effective evangelist I have ever met simply goes to work everyday. In the process he has created a resource for fellow Orthodox around the world and is the sponsor to a great many of the coverts at my home parish. He owns 8th Day Books. He gives of what he has been given out of love and serves all those who come to the store whether they are bishops or just folks off the street.

    Buying as many of your books from 8th Day as possible (see the link on this site) will involve you in evangelism.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Michael,

    Thank you for the post and the comment on 8th day books. I met one of their guys when we were at the colloquium in Detroit and I came home and immediate put their link on the blog. Such a delight and solid witness from them.

    Also, Psalm 50, perfect text. Thanks.

  15. Magdalena Says:

    The Holy Apostles did not share this attitude. Nor did St. Paul, St. Patrick, St. Nina or St. Herman: all of them understood that Jesus was not being vague about the call on us to go, not to sit around and wait for people to come to them.

    The Orthodox Church’s failure to evangelize is avoiding the Great Commission. When we persist in maintaining the liturgy and services in languages that no one understands, we hide the Gospel, not proclaim it. I find those stories you told appalling. They do not demonstrate a lack of anxiety to me. If we believe that this is the True Church, then why are we not telling everyone we can about it?

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Magdalena,

    I do not mean, by any means to suggest no evangelism – and I stated in those paragraphs of those stories that there was a failure on the part of the Church to evangelise, and particularly noted that English language materials have been a key part of the success. I not only believe in evangelism, I practice it and encourage it, serving as member of the department of evangelisation for the OCA.

    I write this blog. I preach on radio (under the auspices of OCN an agency of SCOBA – representing virtually all Orthodox jurisdictions in America.

    Not that I have done enough.

    But, looking at the Church, I can see something that is healthy in our “unanxious approach” to evangelism. We must preach the gospel and make disciples – I do believe I said that. But I also noted that we cannot “make” converts – only God can. And that we should not be anxious about God, or try to take onto ourselves what God alone can do. In some forms of American Christianity, they in fact try to make converts, doing great damage to people in the process.

    But reread what I have said. I have not discouraged evangelism in the least (I probably practice it more than most) nor did I use those stories as examples of the way to do things, just as examples of famous stories in contemporary Orthodoxy, and noted that they are examples of failure to evangelise. I paricularly said that there must be things in the language of the people (we only use English at my parish except in pastoral situations).

    But the existence of OCN and the OCMC are clear commitments to evanglization and the great commission. Please read what I’ve said more carefully before you suggest that I have said something I didn’t say.

    St Herman is a good example. He shared the good news – the liturgy, etc. was translated (that took a few years), he spent most of his ministry on Spruce Island taking care of orphans. But the quiet, patient and unanxious work of Orthodox missionaries in Alaska resulted in Orthodox Alaska, without the anxious evangelism of American Protestants who did great violence to Native Americans in their efforts to evangelize and control (indeed they did great harm to Native Alaskans once America bought the place).

    I am not advocating something different than the work of the saints. If you see that – then you have misunderstood – and I apologize sincerely for being a poor writer who made one point and failed to make another clear enough. Forgive me.

  17. David Says:

    While I appreciate the lack of anxiousness, I think there’s an identity problem. Normally I appreciate the identity-thinking of the Orthodox church, but sometimes I think I detect an “otherness”. That is, the church is “over there” and it’s just fine with or without me.

    But that doesn’t equate with my understanding of membership (particularly Pauling “giftedness” discussion in 1 Cor).

    We are the church (even if you want to setup a formal boundary of who “we” is as just those in the Orthodox communion). That “we”ness sets us as members of the living body (not just bride) of Christ.

    It is in our nature as His body (Orthodox seem to emphasizes brideness).

    We are gifted and God has prepared good works for us in our giftedness. He’s ordained our work as part of the body of Christ. We are His Holy Hands and His Holy Feet.

    Something powerful comes over a Christian when they realize the prayer offered up in petition to God may be answered by us as proxies of God.

  18. Alexander S. Says:

    I have not read or heard the stories of conversion of Metropolitan Kallistos or Archbishop Dmitri, but I thought this one is relevant. Please take a look if you hadn’t in the past.
    http://www.metropolit-anthony.orc.ru/eng/

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Perhaps I can find the text of Met. Kallistos and Arbp. Dmitri’s stories. I have read Met. Anthony’s and always treasured it. His honesty about his struggle through atheism to faith is very dear to me. As is his spiritual legacy in the faith.

  20. Don Bradley Says:

    Leave it to me to play the Devil’s Advocate:)

    Father, you have a tougher job in evangelism than the rest of us. I advocate for Orthodoxy, but I am powerless to either convert somebody or recieve them into the Church. On multiple occasions I have sought to dissuade people from the Church because I thought their reasons for doing so to be inadequete.

    But you hold the keys by distributing sacraments, which is the final phase of evangelism for the non-Orthodox. Somebody says they want to be Orthodox, you catechize, then eventually Chrismate. So you have a dilemna before you all of the time: Is this person sufficiently catechized and converting for noble reasons? If you wait too long to Chrismate you violate the Church’s admonition against torture 🙂 ….. if you Chrismate too quickly you risk having a nominal convert that may depart before their Chrism oil dries.

    In U.S. jurisdictions there has been a growing movement towards quicker distribution of sacraments. The OCA needs priests, so they seem to be getting younger (or maybe I’m getting older). Catechesis of catechumens seems quite short by historical standards. The risk is that the value of the sacraments, to the minds of those recieving them, can become watered-down.

    This is NOT a critique of you or St. Anne’s, but observations from my experience and contact with other jurisdictions as well as the OCA. Do you wonder, in general, “Am I moving too fast with this new family at St. Anne’s?” Or, “Are U.S. Bishops ordaining men too quickly by ordaining prior to 30 years of age?”

    Once a Bishop or a priest distributes a sacrament; it is a done deal. I cannot critique what has been done, it has become the will of God. But whatever happened to making a person “sweat it out”? Toil and sweat breed character, as your own examples of +DMITRI and +KALLISTOS demonstrate. They became better men and leaders because something was withheld from them.

    Whenever I contemplate such issues, I thank God I am a layman. I wouldn’t want your job. I get to be the “Monday morning quarterback”. Do you think there is an American tendency to distribute sacraments quicker?

  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Don, I think every priest thinks long and hard about these things, even with every case, as do Bishops. My experience, from traveling around the country and reading material, letters, emails, etc., is that we’re doing a fairly good job. My own experience is of maybe one or two who have come through St. Anne and done something different (left Orthodoxy), but not after chrismation per se (though if I think long enough I might have an exception to that statement).

    And i think my experience is fairly common, at least in quality. Some of the hardest work actually is with those who’ve grown up in Orthodox households but were not particularly taught the faith in any significant way. They may have needs, but not know that they have them. The catechumen at least knows he needs to learn something.

    There is a huge world-wide need for Orthodox catechesis and its being renewed and discovered any many places. I’m always eager to look at new materials (none are satisfactory to me yet). But the prayers are well placed.

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