By Jackie Morfesis
With abundant hope, I read His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros’ presentation at the Clergy-Laity Congress in New York. I was waiting for his words to be anchored in scripture. For his words to stand strong and bold in our faith. For his words to not be swayed by the changing cultural winds or the turbulent tides of politics.
Sorely and sadly, that hope faded very quickly as his words were exactly the same words that he is known for, words that riddle and rhyme, words that hide behind a smokescreen. Words that appear to be something but are truly something else. Most importantly and crucially, words that belie intentions to reform, remake and revise Orthodox Christianity. Or as his platform states: Legacy, Renewal, and Unity.
Let us begin with scriptural truth. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). This means what it says. It means that our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It does not mean that He is the same as yesterday, but today He is different, and tomorrow, with our reimagining and revisioning, He will be even better. We serve an awesome God. It is we who need to become more holy.
This paragraph from the presentation sums up the philosophic viewpoint of the Archbishop:
“As your Archbishop, I strive to present our Faith in the best possible light, in respect to all matters of life and culture. Sometimes, you agree with me; sometimes, you do not. The old axiom is correct about not being able to please all of the people all of the time.”
Let us unpack this one paragraph. In fact, we need not unpack the whole address as that would require pages upon pages. This one paragraph will suffice for the purpose of this article.
Firstly, He “strives to present our Faith in the best possible light, in respect to all matters of life and culture.”
This means that our faith must be remolded, altered, shifted, and most importantly conform to the ever-changing, evolving, or devolving (depending on your viewpoint) matters of life and culture. Having bold and courageous faith does not negate but rather supports our ability to be merciful and loving in our response to all matters of life and culture. We must have mercy. Knowing full well we are called to be merciful.
I am aware of the changing tides of the world, of society, in “matters of life and culture.” I stand for giving outreach and service to those in need as instructed in Matthew 25:35. I also know full well that we are all in need. We are all in need of love, support, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption. On these points, we must and can do better as an Orthodox Church. We must serve God’s children, our communities, and not only concern ourselves with material gain and success. If we do, we will fall short every single time. Our foundation must and always be spiritual.
We also in the guise of political correctness continually water down our faith and God’s Word to meet as the Archbishop says so that we can “present our faith” in response to matters of life and culture. This is not how it works. We do not need, once again, to remold, remake, and essentially “rebrand” our faith to meet the changing tides of the world. We need to stand on the anchor of God’s love, God’s Church, and God’s Word, as the light in the tunnel of the darkness of life and as the steadying force in the storms of life. For “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life…No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). The Archbishop believes we must preserve the “legacy” of our faith. Our faith is not a legacy to be preserved, it is a living and breathing faith, right here and right now. We are not honoring history, we are worshipping a God, the unchanging and eternal God.
Secondly, “Sometimes, you agree with me; sometimes, you do not.”
Lord have mercy. We do not look to our spiritual leaders to either personally agree or disagree with them. We look to our spiritual leaders to shepherd the faithful grounded in God’s Word, His unchanging, Holy Word. We look to our leaders to share the faith, to teach the faith. Certainly, we are all gifted differently. Certainly, we all have our own ways of communicating, but these should not be foundational differences or theological differences. They should not impact nor change the rock upon which we stand as Orthodox Christians. They should not change our sharing of the faith or of God’s Word.
Thirdly, “The old axiom is correct about not being able to please all of the people all of the time.”
We are not here to be pleased by our spiritual leaders. Nor entertained. Nor enraptured. Nor are they to be worshipped or idolized. They again, serve to share the faith, to uphold, administer, and guard the liturgical and theological life of the church, to guide the flock, and to share God’s Word. They should do so in a way that causes us to hunger for God’s Word and move us to draw nearer to God and to have a deeper personal relationship with our Lord. They should be unafraid to testify to God’s infinite mercy, love, and healing. They should encourage their flock to rejoice in their identity as a child of God, disciple of Christ, and ambassadors in the kingdom.
We must be concerned with pleasing God even if it jeopardizes us pleasing others. I realize that this statement may appear concerning given that we are to love God and love our neighbor. I did not say that we should not love our neighbor. I said that we do not have the need to “please” our neighbor, by conforming or changing who we are as a child of God to be more acceptable, palatable, and approved. We should be fearless in our faith and testimony. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Archbishop Elpidophoros is concerned with shepherding our youth. This in itself is a noble and important ministry. We must tend to our youth, guide our youth, educate our youth.
However, we do not educate our youth in the ways of the church by once again, molding, remolding, and reforming the faith to meet the needs of an ever-changing “culture.” Many times, I reference a spiritual retreat that I attended at St. Vladimir’s Seminary conducted by Father Thomas Hopko, memory eternal, a true treasure to Orthodoxy, a pastor of bold faith. I do so because of the tremendous spiritual impact it had on my life. I will always remember his explanation of sin. Amartia is “missing the mark.” One slight veer and the trajectory of the angle widens and widens until its relationship to its starting point is so far gone that it will threaten our faith walk in ways unimaginable, detrimental, even disastrous.
We do need to be on fire. We do need to “energize” our parishes, our communities, and the hearts of the faithful and our youth. Only we do not need to approach this by veering farther and father away from the rock and anchor upon which our holy Church was built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. But by going deeper and deeper in intimacy into the Truth of what we have been given though Christ Our Lord and Savior and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not need the changing, morphing, and tragically distortive guidance for how we are to move in the world.
We know very well how we are to move in the world as told to us in John 17:15-8: “I do not ask that you would take them out of the world, but that You would keep them out of the hands of the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You have sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.”
This brings me to the opening remarks of the Archbishop that the Orthodox Church is conservative in comparison to other Christian denominations. Conservative here is used critically. Conservative is used as a foundation that is not in tune with the needs of the world. Christianity and Orthodox Christianity is not a political construct as the Archbishop would have us believe. It is a spiritual foundation upon which to build our lives. Matthew 7:24-26 says we either build our house on rock or on sand and we know the perils of building our home on sand.
The Archbishop’s political vantage point was evident when he marched proudly for Black Lives Matter but did not give one speech, public plea, that violence, assault, arson, murder, vandalism, and looting against innocents and their neighborhoods and communities should stop. As a victim of home arson, as our home was poured with gasoline and set on fire while we were sleeping, barely escaping, watching our home burn to the ground, and being made homeless by the hands of vandals, I take issue with this lack of advocacy for all. As a victim of physical assault during a store robbery, I also take issue with the lack of advocacy and accountability for all.
We know very well that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy: I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Our mercy should not be politicized, nor should our faith. The rallying cry during the months of protests that many times enflamed into riots: “No Justice – No Peace” is a fallacy. We do not look to the world and the actions of man to dictate the promptings of our heart. We seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in all things, and do not repay violence with violence. Nor hatred with hate. We do we turn a blind eye to anyone’s suffering. We stand for the protection and for justice for all. If we do not, then in truth, we neither know justice nor peace.
Every time I read the words of our Archbishop, I hold hope in my heart, that today will be the day, that instead of seeing the weavings of political correctness and wanting and needing to “please” the changing tides of the world, as evidenced by his platform of Legacy, Renewal, and Unity, I will instead see a renewed commitment to standing strong in God’s Word, loving His Word, praising Him, and giving Him the glory.
I will keep waiting.