Monday, February 20, 2012

On Missions: Part 4

After my "epiphany" earlier, it remained only to unpack the details of the simple concept. I started by bringing to mind one of my favorite saints: St. Nina, Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia. Several things stick out about her life. First of all, would you look at that title! Is that big, or is that big? No Protestant missionary I know of would be considered on par with the Apostles, let a alone given an official title of equality. No Protestant missionary I know of would be considered "Enlightener" of an entire nation. But when you delve into the details of her work, you see that the title is not hubris, and it's not exaggeration either. St. Nina, by the grace of God, became truly worthy of it.

More importantly, we begin to see the scale on which evangelism is carried out in the Orthodox Church.

Other examples abound, such the work of St. Joseph of Aramathea in England, St. Patrick in Ireland, Sts. Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs (nowadays several nations, including Russia), Sts. Innocent and Herman in Alaska, to say nothing of the works of the Apostles themselves in their various lands: St. Thomas in Persia and India, St. Matthew in Egypt, St. Paul in Asia Minor, the Grecian peninsula, and Italy (and perhaps Spain also), etc.

All of these echo and perpetuate the work that God Himself did with Israel, culminating in Pentecost.

I think we are too much a "microwave" culture: we want it fast. It's too easy for us former Protestants to adopt (or rather, to retain) an impatient missionary ethos which expects that a man or a team will go preach to a people, and if the Holy Spirit moves, 3000 people will be baptized in one day. Then we get discouraged when it doesn't happen.

What we forget is that Pentecost may have occurred over the course of one day, but it didn't "happen in a day". It was the result of some 1500 years of preparation by God. Jesus didn't just pop up in the middle of some strange land and start preaching. No, the entire period of the Law was preparation for His coming. God worked with the nation, shaping it's culture and language until the time was right for His Son to enter into it, and even then there was more work to be done. He trained his "missionary team" (12 Apostles, and "the Seventy" in addition to them) for three and a half more years, and only then were they ready to receive the Holy Spirit. Only when the Holy Spirit descended on this painstakingly prepared people did things really start "popping".

It seems, from examining the great missionary works of the Church since then, that we Orthodox follow that same modus operandi. Missionaries are sent to a nation, with the goal of baptizing that entire land: its people, its music, its culture, its social and governmental forms — in short, it's entire being — into the household of God. Sometimes, the first missionary wave accomplishes this. Sometimes, it takes several. Indeed, in some lands, there is still much work to be done. But this is always the goal.

Now, regarding the methodology itself, how we go about doing this, I have noticed some common threads in all of the above-mentioned works, including God's work with Israel:

  • The exact opposite of the Protestant approach is taken, when it comes to building churches. A solitary missionary cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy without another person. This is especially true of those who are women, such as St. Nina, who cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy at all! So it is unheard of for an individual missionary in a virgin land to just build a church and start inviting people to come. He or she may baptize individuals, and may even form a church and begin serving the divine services. But they do not invite people to the church with the goal of converting them. Rather, they convert them with the goal of bringing them into the Church. This conversion is accomplished through purity of life, and the preaching of the Gospel, accompanied by "the signs that attend the Word", such as healing the sick, casting out demons, etc., the missionary prepares the people for baptism.
  • At the same time, he (or she!) frequently works on making the local language suitable to the worship of God, and identifying which aspects of the local culture may be kept and Christianized (e.g. the spirit-houses of the Aleuts), and which must be destroyed as the work of demons.
  • Also, the missionary will frequently find the ruler of the land (or the one with the most influence), and seek to convert him or her, since this is the fastest way to effect nation-wide change in the culture, so that the maximum effect will accrue from the preaching of the Gospel.
  • At the same time, the missionary wages spiritual battle on an immense scale, which is only accomplished with the help of the Holy Spirit. Demons must be cast out, who have long held sway over the people, and they frequently do not go without a fight. Princes must be bound by the name of Christ. Pagan religious rulers do not take kindly to the infringement on their territory, nor to the routing of their deities accomplished by the power of Christ, and so they frequently fight back. Many of the Apostles and others met their earthly end because of the machinations of these pagan authorities.

As you can see, this is not the calling of every believer. God has not appointed all to be apostles. So what, then, can or should YOU do to support and be part of the universal calling of the Church to evangelize the world? Before I list a few suggestions, let me clarify that you ought to work out with your spiritual father what your particular role is. What follows is merely some things that come to mind, and should only be considered suggestions to get the conversation started.

  • First of all, purify yourself. By God's grace, become the Saint you are called to be. Regular Confession of sins, watchful, prayerful attendance at the divine services of the Church (as many as you can), and frequent Communion at the Lord's Cup are absolutely essential. With the blessing of your spiritual father, establish a prayer rule and keep it. Learn love for your God and for your neighbor, and in every thing give thanks. This is paramount.
  • Secondly, learn your Faith. Learn anew the Gospel of your salvation, and with God's help believe it more and more each day. Learn of the Kingdom of God. Become intimately familiar with the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, and the texts of the divine services, both by reading and by paying close attention to their use. If you have a question about anything, do not hesitate to ask. Always be a catechumen in heart. But most importantly, while you learn these things, do them, and consider yourself the chief of sinners.
  • Working with your spiritual father, discover and put to use your specific gifts of the Holy Spirit, for the building up of your Local Church, and of all the churches of God in love.
  • Live your faith not just at Church, but everywhere, and "always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you for a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear". Do not be obnoxious about it. This is reactive, not active. Or rather, it's activity is first to BE the light, to which those who are in darkness will be drawn. (Note: this is what is typically referred to as "lifestyle evangelism".)
  • Be ready always to contribute in whatever way you can to the work, both at home and abroad. If you cannot give money, then perhaps time, or other gifts of love, such as encouraging letters, care packages, etc. You can always give prayer!

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. But I hope you get the point. As St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote: "Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved."

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