Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thoughts on Orthodox Missions

I was inspired by a recent post on Orthodixie to offer a few thoughts on Orthodox Missions:

What is our motivation for Orthodox missions? In other words, why do we want secular people to become Orthodox Christians and endeavor to bring unchurched people into the Orthodox Church? The answer is simple: Love.

The Orthodox way of life is the way of love. We commune with Divine Love, are transformed by Love, and express love through our actions in the world. As St. Paul said, if we don't have love we are nothing. As the Orthodox way of life is the way of love it is also the way of healing, the therapeutic way. Our society is full of spiritual sickness and confusion because individual persons have spiritual sickness and confusion within them. (This is part of our shared human experience.) With hearts full of humility and compassion we reach out in love to bring people into the Church, the spiritual hospital where Christ, the Great Physician, heals our wounds and makes us well. Within the Church we experience the spiritual care of the soul, the kind of care we all need. If our hearts are really filled with love for those around us, can we restrain ourselves from bringing others to the fountain that heals and renews life?

The Orthodox way isn't just a path for educated religious people who read novels by Dostoyevsky and study Orthodoxy with intellectual curiosity. Our way of life is also for the ordinary people who don't have time to read books on philosophy or surveys of Byzantine history because they're too busy working for a living. It's also for people who do have the spare time to read these kinds of books, but would rather do something else. It's for environment-friendly types who love the beauty of the earth and want to live a holistic spiritual existence. It's also for those who haven't even thought much about spirituality, or even know what the word means. It's for the pizza guy who delivers dinner, the girl who's behind the counter in the coffee shop, the dad who works long hours at the office, and the mom who needs something more for herself and her kids. It's for the child learning to walk, the college student who drinks too much, and the retired couple settled into a routine. The Orthodox Church is for anyone who needs the healing grace of God in their lives. It's for human beings. It's for us all.

How do we introduce people, like those described above, to our way of life? We have several approaches rooted in our Tradition. The earliest approach may be called "go and tell." The Holy Apostles dedicated their lives to traveling throughout the world to teach people the way and to establish local churches. Most of them were killed, a fact that shows the depth of their love and the importance of their mission.

Another approach is "come and see." We have a saying that goes something like this: "If you want to know what we believe, come and see how we pray." Many people discover the Orthodox way of life by visiting a local Orthodox church, a holy temple where the presence of the Creator God dwells among His community. Within this temple visitors should see the beauty of heaven on earth, revealed through the smoky incense in our ancient liturgy, music, and art. They should also see the beauty of heaven in our hearts. Everyone who walks through the doors of our churches should be greeted with personal care, genuine hospitality, and other expressions of divine love.

I'll call the third approach "personal witness." (We need to remember that we are always persons within the family of the Church. A person is not an isolated individual.) This approach consists of showing people the Orthodox way of life by living it, daily. By living the Orthodox way, the way of participation in the divine life, Christ reveals Himself through us. Because people see the Orthodox Church when they see us, we have to live a life of constant prayer and repentance to overcome our self-centeredness and imperfection. We hope that when people encounter us they don't see our sinful pride and ugliness (since we're still in the healing process), but will instead see (with God's help) the image of Christ within us.

May we, guided by the Holy Spirit, continue to proclaim the good news, walk the path that leads to our own healing (salvation), and reach out into a dark world to lead others into the light. "I am the light of the world," Christ said, "He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (John 8.12, NKJV).

Copyright © 2007 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon shown above is from St. Philip Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida: Used by permission.)