Conflicts Large and Small

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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?

26 Responses to “Conflicts Large and Small”

  1. The Scylding Says:

    Slow grace – now there is something I don’t like thinking about. Thank you once again for stumping me well…

  2. Thomas+ Says:

    what do you feel is the “myth of the Reformation”?

  3. John Pernoctate Says:

    Thank you for this. Since becoming Orthodox some ten years ago, I have experienced something new in regards bishops and priests. To change the quote about there “not being an archbishop of Canterbury worth killing since …”, I’ve met both bishops and priests for whom I would consider dying … not only because they are loved but for the sake of those who love them. Of course I pray that remains untested but even more than dying, I would live for these for in them we can hear God’s inspired words and in their lives we can see God’s grace.

    What is telling is that I had not looked to “professional clergy” for this witness; rather, I had become accustomed to bearing witness to clergy who had either lost or never found even belief in the divinity of our Lord. In fact I was called a “flake” by a priest for instructing chalice bearers to honor the Real Presence. Two other of my last priests in my old church are serving as supporting chaplains at an abortion clinic where the “doctor” specializes in full-term partial birth abortions. Years later, it is with sadness rather than anger that I recall my past.

    I didn’t begin to realize my own woundedness and need for repentance until holy priests and bishops showed me how to listen to God’s voice by the example of their lives. Even now, I observe the depth of my separation from God more by inference than by any gift of humility. Indeed, patience and tolerance, especially with oneself, is necessary for the slow growth in grace.

  4. dpc+ Says:

    Thank you for this, Father.

  5. John Pernoctate Says:

    Ha … that was “are necessary”.

  6. wellspring1 Says:

    Thanks for your writing. The role of reformer can be frustrating when hearts do not change. I have been finding myself in the role perhaps of prophet which I view as different than reformer. It is one that speaks forth God’s heart. As in the examples of the Old Testament (and with Jesus) a prophet is not always welcome in his home.
    Blessings, scott

  7. With Respect « The Sound of EmCeeKhan Says:

    […] 4th, 2007 by mcclaud I have sat around thinking for awhile how to approach this blog entry and the message within. I have the utmost respect for men of Faith, because they often have the […]

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Thomas+

    The “myth of the Reformation” is that it was a reformation. It was directed by academics and political powers, and in many places established by the most bloody methods possible (Henry VIII for instance had the monks at Walsingham drawn and quartered – that is butchery, not reformation). It was not a popular movement but successful wherever it was supported by the crown (which controlled the army).

    My other observation stands: would be reformers have given us new denomination after denomination, not reformed churches and their own new denominations quickly became what was supposed to be reformed. Presbyterianism, for instance, in its majority is a sad thing, not reformed, just bureaucratic. Methodism is no more alive than the Anglicans from whom they broke. The Restoration Movement in East Tennessee and Kentucky simply created 3 new denominations, though its original goal was to unite all protestants.

    Evangelicals reform and split at an alarming rate, and implode here and there as highly visible leaders collapse morally.

    I am not advocating that we none of us ever do anything. I instead advocate first – returning to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (which I believe is the Orthodox Church of today). Second I advocate being faithful where you are in the stewardship God has given you. I have read elsewhere in comments that the “Church is not supposed to save you, that Christ’s saves you and then puts you in the Church.” This is just modernist theology rather than the teachings of the Fathers and the Scriptures. The Church is where Christ saves us all. Where else are we Baptized? Where else do we receive His Body and Blood.

    Having said all that is just to say that I am an Orthodox Christian. I cannot tell anyone else what to do – but I would repeat – if you think you are going to reform your Church, take some serious prayer time and see whether you are not in delusion.

    Semper Reformanda is not Scripture, it’s just modernism with a Latin motto.

  9. Mary Lowell Says:

    Father, Bless!

    There are conflicts in the Orthodox Church, just as there are in families, yes. But holding fast to the family, honoring the Church as parent, we wait and pray, rather pray and rest; 2000 years of True Worship can weather [episodes]. It is an oxymoron to take on reforming Her; the Church is Holy, Spotless and Undefiled, in Khomiakov’s dictum: “The Church is One,” http://www.westernorthodox.com/khomiakov

    In my own family, parish and blood, conflicts appear insurmountable. “Oh, ye of little (small-ish) faith!

    From our moorings in the fragmented shards of wayward confessions – Anglican to radical Anabaptist, we can only say, “de-form yourselves, dissolve yourselves into the God’s Holy Church; perpetual ‘reformation’ of madness is perpetual madness!”

  10. Despre Biserica ce ne mântuie « Teologie pentru azi Says:

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  11. Margaret Says:

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you so very much for posting this. I continue to pray for our former Anglican priest and his beautiful family because they appear to be in the position that you were once in. May God direct them and bless them!

  12. Fatherstephen Says:

    Margaret,

    Your prayers for him are greatly appreciated, I’m sure. It’s a very tough place to be for many.

  13. ann Says:

    loved the article. shouldn’t the word under the title be ‘religion’ instead of ‘relgion’?

  14. David Says:

    My worst experiences in life have been when I have taken the mantle of reformer. It almost always means “assuming responsibility for things I have no power over and then agonizing over my failure to effect change.”

    One of my dilemmas in moving to Orthodoxy is extricating myself from the commitments I’ve made as a reformer in my own tradition (a Campbelite church). Perhaps you can speak to this, when one as made a bad vow, how do we deal with the sin of breaking it?

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    David,

    You ask forgiveness. We’re human beings and we make poor choices, sometimes, including vows that we should not have made. If I have been wrong, I need to say so, and move on. Remembering it (without great melancholy) is part of becoming humble.

  16. Kyle E Says:

    I believe reformation would be a great thing.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Reform is a great thing. It occurs each time a penitent comes for confession and truly turns from their sins. But there is nothing in the teaching of the Orthodox Church that should be reformed, nor should we embrace modernism as a pattern for Christian life. We have no such commandment from Christ. Rather, we have been told: brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 thes. 2:15). I am the sinner who needs to be reformed.

  18. philosoap Says:

    What you describe as orthodoxy sounds more like orthopraxy (sp?). Works, not grace. The form, not the substance. To quote Korzybski, “The map is not the territory.”

    I see the way described by Jesus as spirit-led and not man-led. Supporting the priesthood of believers where no man is called “father” but our Father in heaven. This was the essence of the Reformation as it is taught in the gospels and epistles. I agree that the first step of “reform” occurs upon repentance but the second step is pure grace; the act of rebirth via the Holy Spirit upon confession of sin and acceptance of Jesus as Lord. No church can provide anything other than the context for this to occur, but it is not dependent on any church to occur.

    Reformation (capital R) is appropriate in ALL organizations of men that think they have it all figured out, defined, organized, labeled, and categorized. When we make a liturgy out of a daily walk we risk containing the Infinite in a man-shaped box. When we idolize the visible we risk becoming the quasi-Jewish/quasi-Pagan Samaritans; admixing the sacred and the profane. Jesus said, the whole law is found in loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Beyond that is fluff and ought to be subject to reexamination and reformation daily.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    philospoap,

    You have a very truncated version of the gospel, that does not have a sufficient ecclesiology. The Church the is Pillar and Ground of Truth, according to Scripture, and you have reduced it to a human association. I daresay, this is true of man-made denominations, but the Church was founded by Christ and is His body. The so-called reformation has created many false theologies that do not express the fullness of the truth of the gospel. I do not believe that good works save us, and you have wrongly assumed this of me.

    The Orthodox Church teaches daily and profoundly that we must love our neighbors as ourselves and our enemies as well. We have never reformed ourselves so as to forget this. Your definition of Church, what you think the Church is, and what the Scripture says it is are miles apart.

    I would suggest study of the Church as Christ founded it and as it has survived in history, despite the machinations of man. The liturgy we have is from God, though written by saints, and teaches the fullness of the faith rather than some preachers favorite saw.

    The living fruit of the Orthodox Church is its saints and martyrs through the ages (more martyrs in the 20th century than all other centuries added together). While Americans sat and invented a false theology of how they get to escape the tribulations promised, the faithful Church founded by Christ was yielding the blood of martyrs.

    Protestant Reform theology is a modern invention, and misreads the Scriptures because you have only a changing modern tradition to guide you. But you don’t see it as tradition, and you don’t see yourselves as modern.

    For a thousand years there was only the Orthodox faith. We evangelized your ancestors (and mine). This is the old time religion. It reformed the British Isles and all of Europe into the Christian faith. And in the person of Patriarch Aleksy is recently lecturing to Europe and scolding them for their abandonment of even an historic mention of Christianity within their culture in their new secularist constitution.

    I agree that we should examine ourselves daily and repent daily. A broken heart is the proper sacrifice to bring to God – daily. But this is the teaching of the Orthodox faith and always has been.

    To quote Bob Dylan (“don’t criticize what you don’t understand”).

  20. David Says:

    I’m not that far from philospoap. When you answer him, you convict me. But not just your words.

    I would think I was wise, as those in Corinth did. St Paul’s opening words to them beat me about the ears.

    I’ve noticed that I’ve started to call him Saint Paul.

    Culture, habit, call it even “style”. Maybe it means nothing that I call him Saint now. Or maybe when I nearly cried when I looked at the photograph of Bishop Nikolai Velimiroch on the back of my copy of Prayers by the Lake… maybe my heart is learning something my mind cannot.

  21. kevinburt Says:

    David,

    I’ve been in your position, too. I began in the Campbellite tradition, as you know, moving from that into Evangelicalism (of a Campbellite bent…how’s that for a weird critter?), then close to Catholicism, now to Orthodoxy.

    I’ve not only been accused of going back on commitments, but of being unstable. “Tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine” has been used of me more than once by those in our Campbellite background.

    I’ve found Fr Stephen’s advice to be perfect. A simple, “I am sorry. I am a sinner. Pray for me, please,” is not only truthful, but perhaps it may give my detractors pause. I also appreciate what I once heard was said by Winston Churchill: “I’d rather be right than consistent.”

    God bless, brother.
    Kevin

  22. very wise words « Restorative Theology Says:

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  23. Sam Keyes Says:

    Your words are challenging, Father. As always, thank you.

    David’s description, “assuming responsibility for things I have no power over and then agonizing over my failure to effect change,” is too close for comfort.

    I wonder, though, if there is anything faithful about staying put (and here I refer to my own location in Anglicanism and/or the increasingly silly Episcopal Church) that does not rely on a mission to reform. I wonder if there is a place for those whose lives witness to brokenness of Christ’s Church, who remind us to weep for her wounds.

    I don’t know. I do not trust my own ability to tell what is what. (I say some more along these lines here at Covenant, where I also linked to this post in a comment.)

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    Only if you assume that Anglicanism is part of Christ’s Church. It has some sort of relationship to it, but we can’t substitute sentimentality for the Gospel. Suffering is real, but suffering the tyranny of heresy and apostasy is not a call found anywhere in the Scriptures. And in none of the Church fathers, was there a willingness to continue in communion with heresy. Not Athanasius, no one.

    Christ is the brokenness we bear witness to, and the only brokenness we need to point to. There is a brokenness of sin in the Anglican communion, but I believe the word, finally, is “come out of her and be not a partaker of her iniquities.” She passed beyond the pale some time back.

  25. Isaac Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for the post. It is indeed very meaningful and most importantly true. I am particularly touched by the statement that we are called to be saved in the Church not the other way around. I wished that many ‘progressive’ Catholics thought about their souls and others first rather than their ideologies. I am a Catholic and I pray that one day Catholics and Orthodox will be able to confidently profess the same Four Marks of the Church once again in full communion even if the road seems difficult. It’s a pity that it’s been 1000 years apart.

    Ut unum sint,
    Isaac

  26. words for the week :: evolution and reformation « a few words Says:

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