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George Pinchuk's Blog

My Orthodox "kerygma" in the Deep South

31.05.2010, 18:19
Reflections of a lay Orthodox faithful about preaching his faith in the predominantly non-Orthodox world of the American South

The word “kerygma” (κηρυγμα) means, in Greek, a speech, a proclamation, a sermon; in the New Testament, this word and its derivatives are used to indicate a preaching activity. Christ comes to “preach the Good News of the Kingdom” ("κηρ?σσων τ? ε?αγγ?λιον τ?ς βασιλε?ας," Mtt. 4:23). He tells His apostles to “go and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” ("κηρ?σσετε λ?γοντες ?τι ?γγικεν ? βασιλε?α τ?ν ο?ραν?ν," Mtt. 10:7). This preaching or “proclaiming” is often mentioned together with “teaching” the people something: in the above quoted Mtt. 4:23 Christ is said to preach the Good News and to “teach in their synagogues” ((διδ?σκων ?ν τα?ς συναγωγα?ς); the apostles receive the task to “go and teach all nations” (“μαθητε?σατε π?ντα τ? ?θνη,” Mtt. 28:19). Even though not all of us are apostles or teachers (1 Cor. 12”29), still, each person who has been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity has to carry something “out” from the comfort of his or her parish or congregation into the world, “street,” society. Hereby, I want to share some of my own personal “kerygma” activity that I, an Orthodox Christian, am trying to carry in the Deep South of the USA, in the predominantly Evangelical Protestant “Bible Belt.”

Three things straight away. First, least of all I am a “moralistic” preacher – I realize all too well that I am not a shining example of anything, including faith, but, rather, a very sinful man who has zero right to occupy moral high ground and look down at anyone from there. Second, even though I am a professional university lecturer, talking to non-Orthodox people about my faith is not something I am good at. Especially when I feel resistance to what I am saying, I tend to “lose my cool,” become overly emotional and unable to stand my ground in point-by-point logical, rational debate. So I prefer the Internet arena, particularly fora like Facebook, to not as much debate with people about this or that, but more to INFORM, show tidbits of my faith, “open the window” a little so that this 99.99…9% non-Orthodox world could simply see something. And, finally, I am a lay person, not a priest, so I try to avoid being too confident in responding to what seems like a “difficult” question.

 One of my “kerygma” activities on Facebook is posting messages about various Orthodox calendar feast days. The Evangelicals are almost always simply unaware that there exist all these numerous holidays (or Holy Days), when the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast, or commemorates the memory of a certain holy person – martyr, confessor, wonderworker, healer. Pretty much ANY day of the year is some saint’s day, some feast. Thanks to the web site of my Orthodox jurisdiction (the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the USA, or GOA), I am able to find out exactly, who of this “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is remembered and honored today. I can also attach iconograms of this or that saint, taking them either from the GOA site, or from Google. I am trying to do this every day or at least several times a week. So far, I saw enthusiasm about this activity of mine only from my Orthodox FB friends, but not as much from those who are non-Orthodox. Well. I will still be doing it and maybe some day someone will become interested, God willing…

A second direction of my “kerygma” is to explain to the non-Orthodox the way, the order of things, the modus operandi and the traditions ("τ?ς παραδ?σεις,” 2 Thess. 2:15) of the Orthodox Church. Sometimes opportunities come; for example, a while ago one of my students, a young man from a Methodist family, asked me whether I would be willing to join a Christian student fraternity, and I told him that for something like that, I have to ask my priest’s blessing. I think that by saying this, I really opened this “window” to what is to this wonderful young man completely unknown; he showed interest, and I had a great, pleasant chance to explain to him concepts like parish priest, parish, bishops, metropolitans, jurisdictions and the like. I also mentioned this thing called Orthopraxis – the detailed rule of living for all Orthodox faithful, the rule that includes, as one of its many parts, the concept of asking for a priestly blessing. And again the young man showed interest. Maybe some day other parts of the Orthopraxis rule will trigger his curiosity and attention, who knows? Evangelicals tend to dismiss Orthopraxis as “works,” but it was St. Maximos the Confessor, one of the great luminaries of Christian theology who said that “any theology without Orthopraxis is a theology of demons…”

Yet another strategic direction is to share with people elements of my personal prayer life. The Orthodox Church is “liturgical” through and through, and, even though She does not forbid Her faithful to pray improvised prayers, She keeps at Her disposal a huge deposit of historical liturgical prayers, often attributed to certain saints. For example, in the morning and in the evening and before the beginning of any activity during the day we pray the liturgical prayer to the Holy Spirit, “Heavenly King, the Comforter, Spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things…” At night before bed we pray the liturgical prayer of St. Makarios the Great, “Eternal God and King of all creation, You have granted that I may arrive to this hour…,” and the prayer of St. Antiochus, “Allmighty Word of the Father, All-Holy Jesus Christ, You are perfection…,” and a beautiful historical Prayer in front of the Cross, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered…” We also pray liturgical prayers to the Most Holy Theotokos (Mother of God), such as “It is right, in truth, to glorify You, the Birth-Giver of God, the Ever Blessed, wholly immaculate…,” and “To You, unconquerable Lady…” (It does not mean, of course, that we WORSHIP the Theotokos – we worship only God in Trinity, but we “talk” with saints, who are, according to our faith, alive and close to us, listening to us and helping us, and the Most Holy Mother of God is the first of them.) I love these prayers because they aren’t at all “didactical” or “moralistic,” but in them I can feel this huge, great history of the Church, the soul of each of the great holy men and women who came up with these prayers, and this wonderful “gentle wispering” of the Holy Spirit (1 Kings 19:12). Interestingly, I heard some very positive feedback on my postings of these prayers, or their parts, from some of my non-Orthodox FB friends. People say that these prayers are truly beautiful and spiritual.

There is yet another aspect of my “kerigma,” and this one is the most challenging and delicate. As a faithful son of my Orthodox Church, I have to be honest with people and tell them that according to my faith, there is NO SUCH THING AS “CHURCHES” IN PLURAL. The Church is One – as our Nicene-Constantinople Creed says, “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” One cannot be in “this church” or “that church,” because, according to the Orthodox teaching, if you are not a member of the Orthodox Church, you are simply “outside” of the Church (“in the yard of the Church,” so to say). It does not mean that the Church views only Her own members as Christians; no, - any person who has been baptized in the name of the Trinity is a Christian; but until a baptized Christian is received into the Orthodox Church (usually through the Holy Mystery, or Sacrament, of Chrismation), we view him or her as a “catechumen,” i.e. a student who is learning about faith but who is not yet a member of the the Body of Christ. We do not believe in the Church as an invisible, purely spiritual body that unites all believers. This Protestant notion is alien to Orthodoxy. We view the Church as perfectly visible, tangible, with Her hierarchy and with Her Holy Mysteries. Our Church was visibly born of the day of Pentecost of ~33 A.D., and She never split from anybody or merged with “another” church, but remains the same One Church. And we believe that She has the “fullness” of the faith of Christ’s holy Apostles, never departing from this faith or modifying it in an opportunistic fashion.

This is a tough message to carry to the non-Orthodox world, because it may seem arrogant and divisive. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church says the same thing about herself and views us, Orthodox, as people who went into a schism (to which we have a lot to say, but this is beyond the scope of this essay). Protestants, on the other hand, insist that Church is an invisible spiritual community of believers and that as long as one has a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” this one is in it. And, importantly, here, in the Deep South of the USA, any argument of the kind that “there is no such thing as “churches” in plural” may seem simply insane, because, well, cross the street and you will see YET ANOTHER “church” or “confession” or “denomination” – so, how come you are saying what you are saying? Well… again… as an Orthodox faithful who is not at liberty to revise the "παραδ?σεις” (2 Thess. 2:15) of his Church, I only say to this what I hear from my priest, and through him from his bishop, and through the bishop (who is in the unbreakable chain of the Apostolic Succession) from the Apostles, and through them from Christ: the Church is one. “Denominations,” “confessions,” Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians etc. are not “different churches” – they are, rather, groups of people who may well be wonderful, strong, faithful Christians and much better Christians than me, but all these Christians are OUTSIDE of the One Church. If they believe otherwise, they are simply misguided. They are divided into their peculiar groupings merely because of the differences in the HUMAN PHILOSOPHY built by various men around the Scripture. That is NOT what the Church is about…

So, that’s where I stand, basically. I will be most grateful for your comments.