Thom Rainer, a prolific Baptist writer and former seminary dean, recently published an article titled “9 Reasons Why Church Leaders Struggle with Prayer.” I’ve thought about the article several times since it appeared about a week ago and decided to record some of those thoughts here. Read the article, then come back here.
In no particular order:
- I believe he’s fundamentally correct that many, and perhaps most, church leaders, including Orthodox clergy and laity, struggle with prayer. I know this has been true for me at several points, and I hear of it often from others. Read the rest of this entry »
In reflecting on the distracted hearer, I had intended, but then failed, to make mention of a valuable practice that can be used to battle that problem: memorization of Scripture. It was going to be a brief point yesterday, but, thanks to its omission, merits something of an excursus. Yesterday’s article talked about the enabling role of technology in fostering a distracted mind (with its notable effect on preaching, for both the preacher and the hearer). However, this same technology can be used to develop mental focus.
One of the best ways is through memorization of Scripture and of the prayers of the Church. Before I say any more, just think about your favorite music. Choose any you like, as long as it has lyrics. When you hear the opening parts of a familiar work, the mind almost immediately recalls the lyrics. If listening to an album, the end of one song immediately prompts the memory of the next. Recall is the basis of old game shows like “Name that Tune” and new games like SongPop. Memorization has long been an important component of literature classes. How many can recite some portion of Shakespeare or Chaucer from a high school English class from long ago? Read the rest of this entry »
There are two sides in this matter of preaching (the topic I started last time), which means there are ultimately two primary sources of difficulty. The first side is, of course, the preacher himself, and the second is his hearer. I’ll tackle the second one first for no other reason than that I think it conditions the first.
In our time, the hearer presents a mix of issues, broadly speaking:
- A short attention span
- A desire for entertainment and exciting topics.
- An expectation that preaching be a boost for self-esteem, or motivational according to the popular definition.
These are not entirely new phenomena (see the citation from St John Chrysostom in the preceding post). There has long been a bias in the direction of flattery, which is why it is so effective for politicians. There are, nonetheless, some differences in this early 21st century. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been working my through St John Chrysostom’s treatises on the priesthood, not having read them in some time. See the end of the article for details about the translation. (Some words are amended for precision.)
One of the greatest challenges the priest faces is that of preaching, and it’s not a new problem. Even Christ’s words, which were life from Life himself, were not always received (cf. the rich young ruler, Matt 19:16ff). Thus John Chrysostom gives his own perspective on the delicate balance that must be achieved by the faithful preacher.
Chrysostom’s first caution to the preacher is the description of the state of his “audience”:
For most people usually listen to a preacher for pleasure, not profit, like [critics] of a play or concert. The power of eloquence, which we rejected just now, is more requisite in a church than when professors of rhetoric are made to contend against each other. (On the Priesthood, V.1)
I would add that the contemporary listener is heavily conditioned to be this way. The majority of pastimes – whether sports, or television, or books and magazines, or games – are aimed at pleasing us. That is to say they are not in the least intended for us to elevate our souls or minds, or to have them grasp at something better. Thus, many listeners have an unspoken, and perhaps even unknown, desire to be entertained by the preacher. There is no greater evidence of this than the difficulty with which even pious believers have in listening to a homily that exceeds 15 (or 10!) minutes, even as they can watch hours of television without moving from a recliner. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ll post one final excerpt from Fr Kyprian Kern. This time he takes up the matter of ordination.
It is now time to put aside these matters [of how priests and bishops are chosen] and turn our attention to the most important matter – ordination – its meaning and substance. The priest, whether chosen or appointed by the personal power of his future diocesan bishop, still has to face, at a certain moment of his life, this mysterious and awesome hour of ordination. Symbolically speaking, the following parallels may be drawn: election by the flock is somewhat akin to a courtship, but ordination – that is his wedding with the flock. This symbolism is fortified by common rituals and by one or another sacrament: walking around the lectern or Altar, singing the psalms (“Rejoice, O Israel,” “Holy Martyrs” …) (in reverse order). [Editor's note: Kern here refers to three hymns that are included in both the marriage service and in the ordination service: "O holy martyrs who fought the good fight and have received your crowns: entreat ye the Lord, that our souls may be saved." "Glory to Thee, O Christ God, the Apostle's boast, the Martyr's joy whose preaching was the consubstantial Trinity." "Rejoice, O Isaiah! A virgin is with child, and shall have a son Emmanuel, both God and man. Orient is his name, whom magnifying we call the virgin blessed."] Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s some more from Fr Kyprian Kern (see yesterday’s post for the first excerpt).
Note also that Fr Kyprian was Fr Alexander Schmemann’s mentor and confessor while at St Sergius in Paris. Those who attended Fr Schmemann’s liturgical theology lectures at the St Vladimir’s Seminary remember Fr Alexander referring often to Fr Kyprian.
As to any other mere mortal, God may or may not have given the priest certain talents. He may be a bad orator or an incapable administrator of his parish, a poor teacher of Scriptures, may even be unfeeling and an excessively demanding spiritual leader, not to mention the fact that he may be completely lacking in skill for social service, but all this will be forgiven and will not erase his spiritual actions, if he would only possess a Eucharistic consciousness, if he will not cease to consider as his main mission the “concept of mysteries,” the service of the Divine Liturgy, the mystical unity of self and his flock with the Body of Christ, “That through these you may be partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter 1:4). If this same Metropolitan Anthony so remarkably called pastors “the path of prolonged heroic actions of the creation in self a prayerful element,” as an ability to ascend to heaven, so by no means this element and this ability are to be accomplished in the priest except in the mystery of Eucharistic sacrifice. Read the rest of this entry »
On the priestly outlook on life and salvation:
Man in whose society the priest is called to serve, was, is, and will always be, in spite of all his sins and degradations, God’s beloved creation. For this reason, the Orthodox priest must be inspired by faith in man, his predestination in the everlasting assembly, communication with God Incarnate, his kin in the flesh, according to the words of Symeon the New Theologian. To that end, the priest’s most important means of communication must be based upon the Good News of salvation, universal faith in this salvation and worship, instead of upon the premise of the promise of fire and brimstone. (p. 35)
Our parish is holding Vacation Bible School this week, with a theme of “Running the Race. Going the Distance.” The key Biblical passage is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (NKJV)
The emphasis is, of course, on the spiritual life: characteristics of good athletes, a healthy spiritual diet, perseverance, focusing on the goal, and “the trophy.”
For clergy and parish leaders, however, this “race” always has some particular obstacles.
Obviously, there is the matter of personal spiritual life. The deceiver always lurks in the prayer corner to tell the priest, “You’ve already prayed today. You don’t need to do so now.” The deceiver sits at the desk, murmuring “But you’ve already spent time reading the Scripture when you prepared your sermon. Why not read something more fun?” Read the rest of this entry »
This return to blogging after hiatus is occasioned by a simple recollection of experiences as an Orthodox priest. The following are stories from friends and acquaintances. (Really!) Not a one of these is fictitious.
I am familiar with one priest whose parish leadership has repeatedly refused to pay for him to attend diocesan assemblies and pastoral gatherings. The same parish has previously objected to paying housing costs for the priest who is otherwise meagerly compensated.
I am familiar with a second priest in another jurisdiction and diocese whose leadership has done likewise. This parish has also been resistant to structuring parish finances to allow for a gradual shift to full compensation for this priest. (The more I think about this one, I’ve heard this from numerous brother priests.)
A new discipline for me has me blogging once again.
Note also, though, that the site policy is changing. Posting under pseudonyms is allowed. Comments will be moderated to weed out any slanders or similar inappropriate material.