I am certain that in most respects I differ in no way from other Christians. The vast majority of the conflicts I encounter are my own conflicts and they center around the Gospel and my obedience to Christ. Will I forgive an enemy? Will I turn aside a painful remark with kindness and generosity? I am sure that I could lengthen this list and that any of my readers could add to it as well.
There are other kinds of conflicts – those that are larger. Some exist on the parish level, some the diocesan or deanery level, some on the National or International level as well. Of course, the further removed the conflict the more difficult it is to take any worthy action. It is hard to steer a ship from afar, particularly if you’re not the one at the helm.
My experience as a clergyman within the Episcopal Church for some 17 years, was often one of great frustration and anger. Decisions were made of which I disapproved. Statements were made with which I disagreed. Every pronouncement from the National Church seemed to open the wound only wider. The result was never good for my spiritual well-being. It is one thing to start out one’s spiritual career with a notion that you will be among the “reformers.” This, in fact, is probably not good. The Church should exist to save us, not us to save the Church.
But it was also destructive to my spiritual well-being because I was frequently so deeply exercised about things over which I had no control. I could and did voice my opinion and even led one national movement that was engaged with structural change (we failed). But in such struggles other human beings can quickly become little more than adversaries – known by whatever name we know adversaries. Prayer without peace is deeply damaged prayer.
In early 1998 my family and I entered the Orthodox Church, utterly at peace with the fact that this is the fullness of the faith, Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I also entered (perhaps because I approached everything so slowly) well aware of the skeletons in Orthodox closets and the conflicts that exist within Orthodoxy. But I did not come to reform the Church. Somehow I knew I couldn’t and that it was not my place.
Since the time of my conversion there have been conflicts to come and go. I am now Rector of a parish and I have been elevated to the responsibility of dean (and thus some small conflicts are now in my lap) but I believe deeply that one must always act with discernment and not with passion. Mostly, my life consists in doing whatever lies at hand: to conduct a service, teach a class, hear confessions, write, preach, run a council meeting – whatever; and that my salvation lies in doing these things with kindness and generosity, with forgiveness where required, with gentle rebuke where required. And that in all of these things, the good God who called me to this path of salvation will provide for me all that my soul needs in order to be conformed to the image of His Son. It is for me to struggle with faithfulness.
There are conflicts large and small, just as there is stewardship of large things and small – and we all must answer for our stewardship. I pray for those whose stewardship is so much larger than mine and I try to be faithful enough to say, “Yes,” whenever I am asked to take on a larger stewardship (not abandoning the small). Where the greatest difficulty lies for any of us, is finding where our stewardship lies and being faithful in that place and praying for and being patient with the others.
If you are in a place where you justify your role by being a “reformer,” I would seriously counsel you to consider whether this is a delusion. The Church should save you and not the other way around. The myth of the Reformation is alive and well – but it did not work then and does not work now. Almost every effort I can think of that is a matter of Church reform resulted in the creation of new denominations that quickly became everything that its founders fought against. Read a little history.
If you are called to a larger stewardship, then be sure you have a good confessor who is not impressed with the magnitude of your responsibilities but instead cares for the very least things in your heart.
We live in frightful and terrible times. In almost all places sin is “ever present at the door.” With the instantaneous character of news, we also all know too much too soon and in such a way that we can emote better than we can pray. Fear the press and the instantaneousness of our news. The fathers said that the devil cannot predict the future – he only seems to because he is fast. Beware the speed of news.
And be aware of the slowness of grace – not only in your own life but in those of all around you. Pray with mercy and act with integrity. What else can we do? We who are but human beings?