Again Magazine Vol. 21 No. 1 Winter 1999 Page 13-15
by Fr. Gregory Rogers
Life, whether it is that of an individual person or of a corporate body of people, is a process. It consists of sequences of events that lead into and shape those which follow. No life is ever the same as another in every respect.
And yet, there are paths, rhythms, even stages of life that God seems to bring all of His people through – birth, growth, decay, death, resurrection – over and over again.
Building a Church, a community of God’s people living and worshipping together in a covenant of love, also occurs in stages worked out in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. He leads us, His people, through paths of plenty and through the valley of the shadow of death, maturing us, teaching us, and making us alive and sensitive to His presence.
For the past five years we have been working to build a Church in Gary, Indiana. In our pilgrimage God has brought us through several stages which I believe are the common experience of those who “pioneer” in the kingdom of God, of those who respond to the call of God to build things “on earth as it is in heaven.” It does not particularly matter if one is working in a mission context or not, the experience will be the same whenever one, in search of the “city whose builder and maker is God,” sets out on the path to glory.
I would like to share my reflections upon our experience with you, both for your own encouragement and as a stimulus for your own reflection upon the process of development and maturation of a Church community.
STAGE ONE: The Joyous Dream
“When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyful shouting” (Psalm 126:1,2).
O, the exuberance of beginnings! Always filled with hope, anticipation, excitement, and wonder. At last, freedom to worship, freedom to grow, freedom to love, freedom to walk paths not walked before. And, yes, freedom to dream with a chance to fulfill that dream.
There is a special grace in beginnings. Nothing can quite compare with the exquisite moment when God’s loving hand fills our cup with new wine for the very first time. One taste and our entire beings thirst for refreshment, for the “living water” which will enable us never to thirst again. And in a very real sense it is the memory of the sweetness of that taste which brings us through the drought of stage two, longing and hoping that we may again drink from the well of the Lord.
Without a doubt “we were like those who dream.” In fact, the dream consumed us.
“We have,” we said, “discovered the ultimate experience of life in the Church. People are being cared for properly, a sense of commonality of life is growing among us, our theological understanding has never been deeper, our worship of God has never been so heartfelt and enthusiastic.” And we were ready to tell anyone who would listen. “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:3). So zealous were we, so committed to the dream, so naïve, that we almost believed that “wishing makes it so.”
This first stage was permeated with a sense of naïve idealism, a belief that somehow it is actually possible to transcend the problems and sin of mortal man and to begin a church community with a fresh relationship with God, a relationship unencumbered by the problems of the past. Never mind what history has shown. We are different.
STAGE TWO: Disillusionment
Many Churches, some of which I have been involved in, steadfastly refuse to admit the arrival of stage two. They persist in the myth that they have “restored” the life of the “true church,” even when the signs of decay are all around them.
I tried to resist the inevitable for a long time. Or perhaps more accurately, I played the ostrich, burying my head in the sand, hoping the trouble would go away. But, alas, the awful truth could not be hidden: The church community is imperfect. So is the leadership, the manner of care, the administrative structure, the direction we’re heading, the place we meet, the length of my sermons, and the selection of food at the last church dinner.
We discovered, somewhat rudely, that sinful human beings cannot produce a perfect society. At this stage, many people left us. Some, in love with a particular vision, ideal, or dream, abandoned the Church when it did not conform to their expectations. Others, perceiving the human frailty of the leadership, left to depend upon their own human frailty. Still others, in love with this world and their own sins, left rather than face the loving voice of God in the Church.
Without making any judgment on the motives of their hearts, the people in the first two categories were, at least to some extent, correct in their perceptions of the state of things in the Church. We were not in every detail living up to the vision of the Church we had professed.
And to top it all, the Holy Spirit seemed to have an agenda for us that had occurred to none of us. The situation was difficult and confusing. The legendary London “pea-soup” fogs could not have been more bewildering.
In times of disillusionment, there are two things that hold a Church community together: covenant commitment and good leadership. Covenant is absolutely crucial. Before God we had committed ourselves to serving Him together whatever may come. There were times, much like in a marriage, when the vows themselves were the only good reason for perseverance.
Because of our covenant to each other, we were able to provide mutual support. We were going through struggles together, and that is much more tolerable than going through them alone. The strength found in a covenant relationship is expressed well in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.”
At one time or another, each of us fell. And the bond of our covenant helped us lift one another out of the miry bog and onto the solid rock.
But it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for us to see our way through the fog without good leadership. Making it through stage two to the light of stage three takes the steadying hand of one who has been there, one who has been through the dark times, and by grace and through faith has overcome. Leadership can come from those who are struggling and learning in the midst of the corporate confusion, much like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron. But there are crucial moments when only the skilled hand of an experienced spiritual guide can bring the needed adjustment.
Not just any leader will do. True help can only be provided by one in whom the members of the church community have lodged their trust before the crises began, or at least someone in whom faith can be placed to resolve the upheaval. Stage two makes clear unequivocally the essentiality of extra-local relationships and the utter futility of local autonomy. How tragic it is when pride keeps us from placing ourselves under the guiding hand of God’s chosen bishops! And how blessed it is to confess our personal and corporate sins, to receive Christ’s forgiveness, to be encouraged, and to be shown the path out of the mire.
It would be easy when confronted with disillusionment to abandon the dream, to resignedly settle for some approximation of the dream that is at least not as pretentious. Indeed, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:13, 14).
STAGE THREE: Tempered Idealism
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:5,6).
Entering into stage three is a breakthrough in maturity. We still know everything that we discovered in our disillusionment: that we are weak, imperfect, and sinful people. But grace has come to meet us. And that grace is primarily brought to us in the Eucharist.
At the Table our vision returns. No longer do we see merely the weakness of our humanity. Rather we see the glory of the deified human nature of Jesus Christ. For a time we are transported beyond the bounds of our mortal existence into the eternal Kingdom of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And in seeing the majestic glory of that Kingdom, the fullness of the power of God in Christ, it becomes impossible to abandon the dream, to settle for anything less than living to the full in union with Christ, as his body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
To be sure, such an encounter with the living God reminds us all the more of our sinfulness. But in the Eucharist we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes:’ We come face to face with our sin, yes, but also with the means of the forgiveness of our sin. And in partaking of the glorified humanity of Christ, our human nature is healed, being changed “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The vision has returned, but it is not the same as before. The problem with the idealism of stage one is that it is supra-historical. In effect it denies that the incarnation took place in space and time. It refuses to get its hands dirty, to struggle with the needs and weaknesses of men. It believes that the body of Christ was created in heaven and dropped upon the face of the earth unrelated to anything that happened before or since. But it was not that way with our Lord. He took on true humanity in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, not some Docetical pseudo-humanity. He got His hands dirty with the sins of men and shed His own blood for them. His suffering produced glory unspeakable, the healing of our humanity, the forgiveness of our sins, and our ultimate perfection in Him.
Now we participate in the glory of the Kingdom, while still waging war against the power of sin that the power of sin that dwells in our mortal bodies. We do not ignore or excuse our sin. Rather, we strive to overcome it through our union with Christ.
We have struggled together, wept together, fought with each other, and been reconciled to one another. As living stones, we have begun to polish and shape each other. Unity of mind, heart, and soul has begun to be realized. The humbling truth is that our experience of worship, care and commonality is deeper than anything we knew in the zeal of stage one. “Those who sow in tears will reap with joyful shouting.”
STAGE FOUR: From Glory to Glory
Lest we become complacent and self-satisfied after having attained such a level of maturity, we must be reminded of the great distance we have yet to travel together. Saint Paul tells us that the goal of our corporate experience is that “we all attain . . . to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Consider the glory of that statement: The fullness of Christ, the glory which belongs to the incarnate Son, is to be experienced and demonstrated by we who are in union with Him in His glorified humanity. Perfect love, that which looks beyond its own comfort and convenience, beyond the faults of others to see their need, and endeavors with all that is within it to meet that need, is to be ours. Perfect faith is to be ours, believing without wavering in the strength and goodness of God, seeing His hand at work in even the most difficult of situations. We must have perfect hope, awaiting with joyous anticipation and hastening by the righteousness of our lives the coming of the day of our final glorious redemption. And we are to know God, experiencing to the fullest the depth of the riches of His grace, love, power, and mercy.
Attaining the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” does not come in weeks, months, or even years. We may approximate it corporately in decades or centuries, but the fullness of the promise awaits that glorious day when He shall come again to bring the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
Thus our attitude must be that of Saint Paul:
“Not that I have already attained or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12—14).
So it has been thus far in our life together in Christ. I expect that as the years go by we will discover that stages of life cannot be quite so neatly divided. We are, after all, a living Body relating to a living God. Neither His actions nor our responses are predictable.
But I suspect that the pattern of God’s dealings with us, even when filled in with an infinite variety of detail, will remain essentially the same. Birth, death, resurrection, and ultimate glory are indeed foundational experiences in the Kingdom of God. As with many of God’s saints, we will find ourselves forced to die over and over again, always to be raised to new life, a life greater than that which we knew before.
The Very Rev. Fr. Gregory Rogers is now pastor of Saint Catherine Orthodox Mission in Aiken, South Carolina.
This article first appeared in the Volume 6 number 1 issue of AGAIN (March, 1983). At the time Fr. Gregory wrote this article, he was “Bishop Frederick C. Rogers,” one of the bishops of the “Evangelical Orthodox Church.” He was instrumental in gradually leading his congregation in Gary, Indiana, on a journey towards Orthodox faith, life, and practice. About four years after writing this article, Fr. Gregory and his parish had a new beginning, when they were received into the historic Orthodox Church through the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, and Fr. Gregory was ordained as a priest.