Thoughts and talks with Joel on the Mission – and the mission of the Church: Part I

We bid Joel and Tessi and the girls (and Liam) good-bye yesterday morning. Sure hard to see them go. Joel and I (as I have mentioned before) formed a real partnership in the mission and his input and participation and enthusiasm has been invaluable to me.

We’ve had this ongoing discussion of what missions really are. That is, what’s the goal, the point? Is it just the establishment of a parish – the spreading of Orthodoxy? And by the way, what exactly does that mean?

What we’ve come to learn is that if you look at the Church as anything other than a hospital it will mean different things; and therefore how you approach the work, how you look at the people that come to you, how you respond to them – and especially how you measure success – will be very different.

In a recent email exchange with a fellow-struggler-in-missions, I was reminded of some of the things Joel and I talked about as well as integrating our seminary experience into all of this.

Regarding seminary, the reason I felt I could be used by God to move forward with this mission is not because of my two years there. That has been invaluable in many, many ways, I’m grateful for the experience and I am anxious to return to it. However in terms of what I wanted to do this summer I’ve not found it to be nearly as relevant as my experience in the mission in Portland I left to attend seminary.

My experience and approach to missions is very simple: it’s about our relationship with God in the services and in the people He brings to us. The services are the foundation and the key and therefore must be simple but not truncated. My goal this summer was two fold: to bring the therapy of the Church to a place it has never been while laying a foundation from which to return, and to share with Joel (as a potential future mission priest) how to do the services as therapy and mission.

For the last two years in seminary we’ve been doing several service variations – as the Typikon calls for and you would expect from a monastery and/or a cathedral. The structure changes almost daily and because of the expertise of the choir directors there is a variety of Kievan, Znameny, Obikhod and Byzantine music used. It’s beautiful and has been a very spiritually rich experience for me, and as I said, I’m very grateful for the opportunity. But it’s very, very difficult to learn the services – and virtually impossible to learn all the tones.

You leave after three years with an M. Div. but could not stand next to someone at the cliros and lead a simple Readers Matins or Vespers – which, as I’ve said, is the heart of mission work. However in just three weeks of daily services Joel has the ability (in my opinion) to lead a Reader’s Matins and Vespers. And although it will take longer to learn the tones, were he to continue at this same pace he would certainly know (whatever single tradition he uses) them all within a year.

As I mentioned, the foundation of this work was the decade I spent in an inner-city mission in Portland, Oregon – which is also where I was instilled with the singular perspective and approach to missions (and the priestly ministry) that I have. But it’s not just from this experience – or experience per se – it’s from a person.

My confessor and mentor, Archpriest Nicholas Letten, used the basic, daily, simple yet complete, Readers services of Matins and Vespers as the main therapy and theological formation for our mission, and the main tool for outreach. He also lived his conviction of the Church as the hospital for the soul.

The power of his example was actually driven home to me by a question Fr. Abbot Sergius posed to many of us seminarians during our first year of studies. He said, with real sadness at so few of us attending more of the services, “if you don’t do the services here how will you do them when you have a parish as a priest?” What I understood him to mean was: what is it you think you will accomplish with only a weekly Great Vespers and Divine Liturgy? It’s more than sufficient where the Church is persecuted of course, but where we have the freedom to worship every day but simply choose not to? Again, why would we think that’s OK? He didn’t for sure – and neither did Fr. Nicholas.

The answer we would hear from priests time and time again was: the people don’t like it – they’re not ready for it – they can’t do that much – if you do too much they will get frustrated and won’t come. However if you view the Church as a hospital that’s exactly the same thing as arguing from a medical perspective, for those who don’t like medicine and therapy, to not provide them because many people don’t like medicine and therapy and won’t come to the hospital if you insist on using them…You’d have to ask yourself what the point of the hospital even is without medicine and therapy – or if it even is a hospital without medicine and therapy.

One of the things I love about missions is the profound (and tragic) irony that you can begin (in terms of the services) at a place that can take literally years for an established parish to reach – if they ever do. We had someone with no experience with Orthodox worship attend a Matins service the other day and Joel was surprised I didn’t shorten it for him – which is typically done. However he saw the man was just fine with the length of the service (about 1.3 hrs). Then he realized that (being new) the visitor had no expectations – he simply accepted it as the way Orthodox worship is done.

Fr. Nicholas (and I have followed him in this) would simply tell people the goal was not to do all the services but to simply do what they could – that’s all God wanted. As with fasting and the other ascetic aspects of Orthodoxy it takes time and is a process. I know Fr. Abbot Sergius had the same approach with the seminarians – it had to be worked up to…And yet each of them unapologetically did the full services in their particular environments so the option of therapy was as available and accessible as they had the ability to make it be.

The other person that had a huge impact on me in these areas was Fr. Abbot Paisios of St. Anthony’s Monastery. He instilled in me the teaching of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (On Frequent Communion), that the services are the supreme therapy for the soul and the best preparation for the strongest medicine the Church possess: the body of Jesus Christ in the Eucharistic celebration. With this view, all our ascetic and noetic struggles, all of our obedience, is for the purpose of maximizing and deepening our experience in the therapeutic services and the Eucharist in particular.

It always seems to come down to what we see the role of the Church to be, our concept of what the Church is. And as Joel and I talked about it, that was clearly connected to another huge pastoral issue we’ve seen (myself, many, many times); that is, how people are viewed by the pastor/priest…stay tuned for part II tomorrow…