Baaaad Exegesis

by Fr. Aris Metrakos

Scripture separated from its context can be confusing, misleading, and even destructive. Take the well-worn Bible college criticism of the way Orthodox and Roman Catholic faithful address their clergy, Matthew 23:9 (call no man father). The literal application of Mark 16:19 (snake-handling) is downright scary. Women’s southern summertime fashions being what they are, I’m grateful that no one is advocating an exact application of Mark 9:47 (if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out).

The ripping and twisting of scripture is not the sole domain of the folks who think that mega-churches are “non-denominational” and that the Orthodox Church was “founded” in the 19th century with the rise of nationalism. We Orthodox also know how to play the game of “Bible pick and choose.” My favorite contemporary Orthodox exegetical distortion is Luke 15:4:

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?”

America’s Orthodox Christians look at the beautiful image of the Good Shepherd returning home with the lost little lamb around his neck and say to themselves “Let’s find all of the people who have ethnically Orthodox last names and get them ‘back’ in the pews!” Behold, another Lost Sheep Committee is born.

For all of the Lost Sheep Committees that have come and gone, this is an evangelical paradigm that has yielded little or no fruit. Why? Persons with “Orthodox” last names who don’t live the life of the Church do so by choice. They are sheep who have fled the flock — if they are even sheep at all. More importantly, Lost Sheep Committees don’t work because they are based on faulty exegesis. Luke 15:4 must be placed in the broader setting of verses four through seven:

15:4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 15:5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Emphasis added.)

Jesus uses the image Luke 15:4-7 to tell us that He is the good shepherd who calls each human being to repentance, and to remind us that His redemptive ministry is focused not on maintaining the status quo of the righteous but on the reclamation of the fallen. If we are to follow the words of the Lord, then we must go after the lost sheep. We just need to make sure that we know who those lost sheep are.

Who the Lost Sheep Aren’t

Igor Czht came to the United Stated from Slobovia when he was in his early twenties. After spending a couple of years working for his cousin in Chowderland, USA at the Chowderland House of Pottery (Slobovians are renowned pottery makers), Igor moved south to Countryland, USA. Twenty years after arriving in America, he operates the lucrative Countryland House of Pottery. He spends Saturday evenings consuming copious amounts of Slobovian brandy and playing cards and passes his Sundays fishing on his pontoon boat. He last sat through Liturgy two years ago, when his mother was visiting from the old country.

When Igor is asked why he doesn’t come to church, he answers with no hesitation: “They’re too judgmental.”

“But the priest, Father Boris, is energetic and hard working.”

“He’s the worst. He hates all Slobovians.”

“Have you talked to him?”

“I don’t need to. I’ve heard all about him at the Slobovian Men’s Club.”

“But Father Boris’ dad was Slobovian and he speaks the language. He even co-authored the book “Slobovian Pottery and the Major Feasts of the Church.”

“Look,” says Igor. I don’t need to go to no gee-dee church to be no gee-dee Christian.”

Igor might be described as a certain four-legged animal with three letters in its name, but he is certainly no lost sheep. He has never been part of the flock and has no recognition of his need for repentance. Yet, Orthodox churches around the country spend countless hours wringing their hands over the fact that the Igors of the world could care less about the Church.

Am I saying that Igor doesn’t deserve a phone call, card, or a visit? Of course not. But wasting too much of the parish resources on getting Igor “back” in Church is irresponsible. Worse than Igor’s not participating in the life of the community would be Igor’s hanging around the parish with the destructive attitude that he harbors. Instead of reclaiming a lost sheep for Christ, the parish would be deliberately introducing a disease into the flock.

Who the Lost Sheep Might Be

Panagiotis and Panagiota Pappas moved to Countryland three months ago. For a long time they had no idea that there was an Orthodox parish in their new city. The Slobovian parish has a one line listing in the white pages and their website has been under construction since the days of dial-up. When Panagiota finally found the number for the parish, someone answered the phone “Slobovian Church.”

Undaunted, she and Panagiotis drove to Liturgy the following Sunday. They drove past the church the first time (the sign is three feet by three feet). Then they drove around the block twice trying to find the entrance into the parking lot. After walking into the narthex, they were shown which were the “one-dollar” and which were the “five-dollar” candles. After the Liturgy, the priest made a point of welcoming “Mr. and Mrs. Panagiotis” and invited them to come next door for coffee hour-where no one spoke to them.

The Pappas’ are sheep in search of a flock. Meeting their needs requires only a little more money and a little less parochialism. Instead of placing their light under a bushel, the Slobovian parish needs to spend some money on a decent phonebook ad and Web presence. Dare I say it? Even an occasional radio spot would be nice.

Get some signage that helps people find the church. Do something about the parking lot traffic flow. At least pretend to be happy to see visitors. And please, please, please stop calling yourself the “Slobovian Church.”

Who the Lost Sheep Are

Jane and John Whitebread live in a 2800 square-foot house in a gated community. Both are educated and have good jobs. Jane was raised Baptist, but hasn’t set foot in church for years. John’s folks were never part of a faith community.

The Whitebreads work hard. Like most Americans, they enjoy creature comforts that antiquity’s royalty couldn’t even dream about. John goes through a bottle of scotch per week, and Jane is into retail therapy. Weeknights they fall asleep on the couch and love seat watching cable news. Saturday evenings are spent having gin and tonics with the neighbors.

They wake up with headaches Sunday morning. John stumbles out to the curb and retrieves the Sunday paper. A pot of coffee and a crossword puzzle later it’s time to think about mowing the lawn and getting caught up on the laundry.

Meanwhile, the Whitebread kids carry out their Sunday morning ritual. Their 13-year-old son IM’s his friends while checking out porn sites. Their nine-year-old daughter is glued to the TV. The six-year old plays video games.

Jane and John feel like something is missing in their lives. They wonder if it might be religion, but abandon the idea. They can’t relate to the fundamentalists that are always preaching to them at PTA and neighborhood association meetings. They think preachers in golf shirts and khakis look silly. Pithy church signs, services that start at 4:48 p.m., simplistic answers to complex questions, and moral stances that seem to accommodate society’s trends leave John and Jane cold.

“Isn’t there a religion that offers a set of practices and beliefs that doesn’t require you to throw out half your brain or agree that gay marriage is a necessary step in cultural evolution?” they wonder.

The Whitebreads are America’s lost sheep. They don’t even know it, but they’re the reason that God became man. They have a life of comfort that is anything but abundant. What will we Orthodox do to help them out of their stupor and into the light of the Kingdom? This is the defining question for American Orthodoxy.

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question. But I do know that fulfilling the Great Commission means that we must stop squandering our time and energy on going after ornery pottery makers and start going after the real lost sheep. Along the way we might want to make ourselves more visible and accessible.

And if a visitor wants to pay one dollar for a five dollar candle, it’s cool. The church pays less than a quarter for them in the first place.

Source

Let’s Get Real About Priestly Indiscretion

by Fr. Aris Metrakos

This article contains excellent advice for anyone contemplating the priesthood or discerning a vocation in the Orthodox Church (or any ‘church’ for that matter). Fr. Aris nails it.

Aren’t we disgusted with the shocking number of high-profile cases of priests engaged in pedophilia, homosexual activity, and adultery? Some excuse this behavior with the platitudes “a sin is a sin” and “we are all sinners.” Uh, excuse me?

Persons who say “a sin is a sin” don’t live in the real world. My wife is more than forgiving when I snap at her for no reason. I don’t think that she would be that charitable if I were to come home smelling of another woman’s perfume.

I concede that we are all sinners, but clergy relinquish the right to even think of engaging in certain classes of sin. When a priest sins sexually he damages the Church the way that crooked judges, lawyers, and police officers damage the legal system. How can anyone not understand this?

Looking back on my seminary years, nobody ever told me that I shouldn’t put my hand on an altar boy’s private parts, leave my wife for a man, or go to bed with someone other than my wife. Come to think of it, they didn’t tell me not to eat yellow snow, either. The faculty assumed that we all knew better.

There’s a saying about the word assume. If you don’t know it, ask somebody who served in the military to explain it to you. So, rather than assume that seminarians and young clergy know right from wrong with regard to sexual matters, here are some essential rules of behavior for those preparing for and serving in the priesthood:

  • If you are delaying ordination until you find Miss Right, then be willing to wait for the appropriate woman to come into your life. Rushing into marriage with the wrong person is like voluntarily infecting yourself with an incurable illness. Ask any married person — our spouse will either make us or break us. The priesthood poses enough difficulties without having the millstone of the wrong wife around your neck.
  • If you have sexual fantasies about anything other than a woman, get help. If these ideas persist, choose a different career.
  • If your heterosexual fantasies occupy as much of your time as they did when you were 15, see an experienced confessor. If you are married and have persistent sexual fantasies about anyone other than your wife, again, see the confessor.
  • If your marriage needs fixing, then go to counseling. If counseling doesn’t work, you have three options: separation, divorce, or “gutting it out.” Finding a mistress is not an acceptable alternative.
  • Appearances matter. Don’t put yourself in situations where your integrity can be challenged. Don’t stay in the same room with children when no other adults are present. Don’t go swimming with anybody other than other clergy, and certainly not with minors. Don’t meet repeatedly for one-on-one counseling sessions with the same person outside of normal office hours. Don’t meet with a long-time female friend in a hotel room when you are together at a conference. Don’t give rides to a woman or a child unless other people are in the car.
  • It’s not too late until it’s too late. If you are counseling a woman and you are attracted to her, send her to another priest. If you are about to walk into the bedroom of a person who is not your wife, walk away. If you are kissing someone other than your wife — stop, and get on the phone with a priest-friend whom you can trust.

All sexual misconduct is unjustifiable. Some child abusers excuse themselves because they were victims of abuse. Yet plenty of adult survivors of molestations go on to have normal sex lives. Get help. And before you put your hand where it doesn’t belong, remember how bad it felt when it was done to you.

And all sexual misconduct deserves the maximum penalty. When persons on the bench, in the bar, or with a badge undermine the legal system they get locked up for a long time; they are held to a higher standard. Priests who are pedophiles, homosexual predators, and adulterers need to be defrocked — not only to send a message but to protect the Church and her members. Some of them need jail time too.

And why give a wolf in shepherd’s clothing a second chance to ravage the flock? Maybe an adulterous pastor who had one occasion of adultery could be given a second — and last — chance, but only after plenty of counseling and a transfer to the other side of the continent. The rest need to be removed.

The second century priest-martyr Haralambos was dragged by his beard through the streets because he refused to deny Christ. In the 21st century, clerics drag the good name of the priesthood and the Church through the tabloids and the evening news. Sexual sin among the clergy must stop.

Brother, Can You Spare A Paradigm?

Greatest-Heresy_620

by Fr. Aris Metrakos

This essay was first published June 30, 2006 on Orthodoxytoday.org, and not only uncovers the dangers of old paradigms of priestly identity, but also reveals the only one of value in the Church. We reproduce it here with permission.

Is it time to retire “paradigm shift?”

This overwrought cliché is used to describe everything from new laundry soap to the wireless mouse. Even worse, religious types have taken a liking to it. Clergy and lay leaders are convinced if they could just figure out how to shift their paradigm, the pews and offering trays would overflow. (Do we really need to sit through one more mission statement formulation?) Continue reading Brother, Can You Spare A Paradigm?

Fear and Loathing in Preaching

fear and loathing large

The following has been excerpted from an article by Fr. Aris Metrakos,  entitled, On The Priesthood, and published in 2002 by Orthodoxytoday.org.

The more we pray, the better we preach. Why? Because it frees the Holy Spirit to guide the thoughts and words of the homilist. At the same time, preparing and delivering sermons is a skill that requires attention, perspiration, and revision. There are very few natural born preachers. Most good preachers just make it look effortless because they work hard preparing their sermons.

There are a variety of approaches to sermon preparation and delivery. Write it out and read it. Write it out and memorize it. Write it out and reduce it to an outline and use the outline when preaching. Write it out, reduce it to outline and memorize the outline. Write an outline and refer to the outline and notes as necessary in delivering the sermon. Write only an outline and commit it to memory.

It is never acceptable to show up and just start talking. This is especially true when preaching in a language that is not our mother tongue — no matter how well we think we speak that second language. Stream of consciousness worked for Hunter S. Thompson. For the rest of us, it only creates fear and loathing in the hearts of our listeners.

Preachers should record their sermons and listen to them. This helps us spot the linguistic quirks (rushing, not letting a period be a cadence, filler words such as “you know,” etc.) that keep our message from reaching the congregation.

Why all this attention to preaching? Is it to keep from being embarrassed? To look good? To gain favor? To justify a pay raise?

No. In the words of an older, much wiser priest, “When we preach, we are telling a group of people we love something that will save their lives.”

That’s why the craft of homiletics deserves so much attention.