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I BELIEVE…maybe

Don Richmond:

“I BELIEVE in…The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins…”  -Apostles’ Creed

heres the church

For about two years I served bi-vocationally as an Educational Pastor in an Episcopal parish in one of the most liberal diocese in the United States. On their coffee mugs, which I cherish and continue to use, were emblazoned these words “A Safe Place for those Seeking God.” I always felt very uneasy with this statement. Although I know they were simply trying to make people to feel at ease, as many PC folk are wont to do, I entirely resisted the implications of this assertion.

I continue to resist it for at least two reasons, one of which I will capitalize upon in this meditation. First, quite honestly, when was “seeking God” ever a safe prospect? Have you EVER read the Bible? Have you ever sought to walk with God? G-d is singularly UNSAFE. There are a number of reasons for this; chief among them is that G-d always leaves something out of the relational equation. There is always the big “O” of awe and transcendence that cannot be bridged. There is always the big “O” of our personal epiphanies that must be safely navigated. And, of course, there are always the relational hurdles that must be addressed. NO: God is NOT safe. With only very slight “tongue-in-cheek” I have often said “I trust God and my wife — and sometimes not G-d.” I stand by this.

But there is another reason, certainly embedded in my last quotation, why I do not think seeking God in the “place” called the church is a safe bet. It is not safe because, duh, it is THE CHURCH. This of course means that THE CHURCH consists of people like me and you — but mostly like you. That is, in spite of our wanting to live “in love and charity with [our] neighbors,” we all-too-often fall institutionally and relationally short of our calling. In short, I have found that most church folk are not nice folk. Or, more bluntly, they ARE “nice” folk, too nice, saccharine, superficial, and studiously soul-stupid.

This often places me at odds with many of my best friends, most of whom are nice Christian folk. My orientation, as well, puts me at odds with my assertion that I BELIEVE in a holy Church that is a true and vital communion. I militantly insist on the essential of sainthood, I do honestly believe that this is our calling and our challenge, and yet I am painfully aware of our stark failures — but mostly of your failures.

When I left the Episcopal posting, noted above, I asked the Rector for an evaluation of my years of ministry with his community. He was quite generous, but he was also brutally honest. He told me that he did not think I was suited to be a Lead Pastor. This surprised me because I had enjoyed over a decade of successful service before taking on the position of Educational Pastor at his parish. When I asked him why he thought this, he said the following: “Don, you do not take fools lightly and, unfortunately, the Church is made up of fools.” He was right.

This is the heart of the problem. It is the heart of my problem, your problem, our problem, G-d’s problem. The Creed presents a Scripture-affirming doctrine that is very hard to appreciate, and even harder to apply. It is sort of like that episode from “Friends” when Rachel makes a delicious dessert which, along with the standard custard and cake, also includes peas and potatoes. If you are truly her friend you will need to eat this unfortunate mess and swallow it! To BELIEVE in a HOLY Church that is a truly CATHOLIC Church which embraces a full and robust COMMUNION I must commit myself to both the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit (This text does, after all, fall under the rubrics of the Holy Spirit) and to the FORGIVENESS OF SINS. I must, so to speak, eat the “cake” of communion and the “peas” of forgiveness. They are one-and-the-same.

And here, precisely, is the proverbial “rub.” I do not like peas…I do not trust you…I do not trust God. Be honest: Do you REALLY trust me? Do you REALLY trust others? Do you REALLY trust God? Do you REALLY trust yourself? Should you? Should we?

Unless the Church was God’s idea I would entirely avoid it. But it is not because I think it is unnecessary. In fact, within certain strict guidelines, I actually believe that there is no salvation outside of the Church. Quite simply, if I am entirely honest, I would avoid the Church because its expectations are far too high. Church, Christ in his Body by the Holy Spirit, expects far too much of me. The high price of Church is radical forgiveness. The high price of Church is me hanging upon the “tree” of your inane ideas, your unreasonable expectations, your culturally imposed misinterpretations of text and context, your self-sanctified shibboleths of right Rite and right Religion, your exasperating impositions and my excruciating self-sacrifice.

Forgiveness, however, is Spirit-graced and social glue. Without the Holy Spirit we could not forgive. Without the Holy Spirit we could not be holy. Without the Holy Spirit there would not be any holy, catholic communion. Belief is impossible without the Spirit of forgiveness. In this life, like it or not (which I do not), dealing with wounds is the price of unity. Forgiveness is central to confession (Credo) and community.

Is the Church “A Safe Place for Those Seeking God”? I do not think it is.  And the PRIMARY reason is because I am in it. I am a part of it. I am, in my small way, Church. Let me, then, offer a word from Thomas ‘a Kempis to each of us: “Turn thine eyes unto thyself, and beware thou judge not the deeds of other [persons]” (Imitation of Christ, Book I,14:1, Moody Press 1980).

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Our Lord’s Very Bad Idea

Noahs-Ark

Donald Richmond:

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who said that he loved the Church, but he hated the people who were in it. Maybe, at least on some level, you share his sentiment. To be quite honest, I certainly do.

In fact, I have recently been so very upset by both Church and churchmen that I wrote the following poem about my experience and feelings.

AND GOD SHUT HIM IN

And, after all,
God shut him in

In with the seven
and other beasts

where amid frayed nerves
pigs and piss

together they lived.

And, after all, the Church is a ship
God shuts us in

In with all the other
chosen animals

where stretched sinews
sing

together waiting

for the Dove’s return.

Please accept my apology for any offensive language but, notwithstanding, this seems to be how I (and many others) experience the Church. It is not (to borrow from a congregation in which I served) a “safe place for those seeking God.” In practice, it is quite an un-safe place.

Of course it could be argued that not all churches are this way, and that this is decidedly not God’s intention. Nevertheless, it is as it is and it is far-too frequently a substandard excuse for Christian community. If the Church was not Christ’s idea, God’s idea, the place where the Holy Spirit currently dwells among humanity, I would abandon it (not Christ!) all together. (And, to be sure, the issue of Christ without Christianity is a huge question and issue.)

But this is nothing new. Even the primitive Church, as seen in the Acts of the Apostles, had its problems. The Bible is realistic in its outlook and assessments, as was Saint Benedict in his Rule. Both recognize the problems associated with living in community, problems that are not easily navigated.

How do we “answer” the problems of the Church; this (at times) unsafe place among unsafe people —- which God has established as “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” and in which reside the Sacraments? There is only one, exceptionally difficult, solution: Commitment. We must commit ourselves to the Church and do our part in order to make it a better place, a safer place, a place where God’s great love radiantly shines in, through and beyond us.

The great liturgical scholar, Alexander Schmemann, has said that when we experience an inordinate disappointment in the Church it is likely we have fallen into some form of idolatry (The Journals of Alexander Schmemann, Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press). The Church may seem like our Lord’s very bad idea —- but, as its expectations cut against self-centeredness, is it really such a bad idea?

 

DONALDPRICHMONDThe Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

 

Image above, right: Noah’s Ark. Fresco. Juan Gersón, 1562; in the Franciscan church at Tecamachalco, Puebla, Mexico.

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On Being Saints

Donald P. Richmond:

Poet Robert Lax

The true and only vocation of every Christian is to be a saint. This rather unusual assertion was pointed out by the poet Robert Lax to Thomas Merton, Lax before his Christian conversion, and Merton long before he entered Gethsemane Abbey. As they were walking down the street, Lax looked at Merton and asked him what he really wanted to be. In response, rather uncommitted, Merton said that he supposed he wanted to be “a good Catholic.” In a flash, Lax told Merton that his response was unacceptable, and that his only true calling was to be a saint. Merton was stunned.

And it is likely that we, also, will be stunned. It is possible that we will begin to think of St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, St.Augustine, Mother Teresa, of martyrs such as Bilney, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer (not to mention Thomas More or Edward Campion), or of authors such as Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, J. C. Ryle, A. W. Tozer, E.M. Bounds, Andrew Murray, or Thomas Merton, and we will assert that we are not in any way like them — men and women of great passion and commitment. To be sure, we are not these men and women. We are who God has made us to be, and, according to the Holy Scriptures, we are called to be saints.

The question is “how?” Lax suggested to Merton that it was simply a matter of will. Lax is correct. But sainthood is not achieved, nor is it in any way a matter of self-will.

Over the past several decades there have been a great many books about self-help that have been published. Within certain contexts this may be well and good, but not in regard to spiritual awakening, growth, and formation. Flying in the face of monastic tradition (which in most ways I embrace) I am as suspicious about John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent and St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility as I am about modern texts that seek to provide the reader with twelve easy steps to Christian maturity. Rarely, if not always, does such an approach lead to anything but pride or frustration.

Of course we must be disciplined. There are priorities and practices (such as Bible reading and meditation, private prayer, public worship, and participation in the Sacraments) we must observe. But this does not mean that we should support any form of “cookie cutter” spirituality — one size fits all. Such an approach is little more than a Christianized form of Babel. One Greek Elder had to remind one of his spiritual disciples that what the Elder said only applied to that particular disciple and to no one else. Luke Timothy Johnson, in Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making In the Church, tells us that “freedom is the most rigorous of all asceticisms.” These are wise words, and it is to the theology of individual freedom in Christ that we must look for help in our quest for sainthood.

St. Paul writes, “All things are permissible, but all things are not profitable.” The committed Christian, the monk in the world or in the monastery, takes this statement seriously. As those who are called and challenged to be saints, we seek to live our lives from the position of profitability and not from permissibility.

But we must be very cautious in this regard. We need balance. People tend toward extremes, and we will often be too “hard” or too “soft” upon ourselves. I am a perfect example. As a child, in imitation of St. Dominic Savio, I slept on sticks in order to mortify my body. Not a wise choice, most especially at ages 7 – 9, because I had no idea what true “mortification” really meant. As an adult, as another example, I have always sought a spiritual guide who would “[spiritually] beat me up as an old world Jesuit.” God has never seen fit to provide me with a director who was hard and harsh. Invariably, my directors were (and are) the most gentle of persons. I sought holiness, I sought to be a saint, but I did not have the insight to be able to bring God’s desire for and in me to fruition.

The insight and inspiration we need requires self-awareness. Most frequently this requires objective insight, an insight that can only be provided by another person who, with us, listens to both the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures as they intersect with the context of living our lives. The Celtic Christian Tradition has said that “a person without a spiritual director is like a body without a head.” We need a spiritual director, a spiritual mentor or guide, to help us along our path of freedom and sainthood —- or freedom to sainthood.

But I must be blunt: I am not talking about accountability groups among peers, as useful as these may be. I am not talking about Bible Study, Cell Groups, or Catechesis — as helpful as these may be. I am not referencing transformative worship. I am not talking about pastoral counseling either. What we need is an Elder (the classic spiritual “Elder” of antiquity), a Starets (of the Russian Tradition, and found in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov), a Soul Friend, or “Anam Cara” (of the Celtic Tradition), a Spiritual Director. We need a mature believer who knows God, the Bible, Church Tradition, human psychology and the traditions of spiritual guidance, to help us navigate our freedom in Christ, our pathway to sainthood.

In his wonderfully inspiring book for young people (gorgeously illustrated by Caryll Houselander), My Path to Heaven, Father Geoffrey Bliss writes these words, “All the roads go to Heaven and to Hell; and they go through all sorts of places with the names of the different kinds of lives. Sometimes I can choose my own road; but generally God chooses it for me, if I keep in the right direction” (emphasis mine). A Spiritual Director helps us to keep our choices profitable, providing us the safest and surest way to God and the grace (SHEER GRACE) of sainthood.

The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.

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