The End of a Great Debating Career

 

Story of the pentecostal preacher at Stetson in the parking lot.

When I was at Stetson University, I was known to be a very sharp debater, having honed my skills on the backs of many hapless deacons at churches my father had pastored or I had attended. I mention this because it has to do with a story of what happened one spring.

I was coming out of a NY Deli that was in an old burger joint’s building at the corner of Plymouth  and Woodland Blvd. As I left, I was accosted by a preacher in the parking lot. He had with him about a dozen of his Church. They were out “witnessing”. It is how he understood his service to Christ worked.

One of his come on lines was to ask the usual, “What’s your major?” My major was Music Theory and Composition. The preacher then said, “You know about music; I know about God.”

The preacher had no idea what he had done. He could not imagine how badly he had lost his argument before it even started. He could not comprehend the verbal drubbing that was in store for him.

I opened my mouth. And as I looked at him, I saw him surrounded by his church group. This would not be pretty. He would get the thoroughly trounced in front of people who looked up to him.

I closed my mouth. It occurred to me that in his assumptions and pride he had given me immense power over him. He did not know that I had taken multiple senior level religion classes; he did not know that I had full access to my Baptist minster father’s library since I could read. If I were an evil type person I could have shellacked him well in front of his congregation. I turned and walked away and mused about how this preacher’s pride gave complete control away to the mercy or mercilessness of whoever happened to be there. Then, as I walked back to my apartment I began musing about how I did that myself, how my own pride gave people, whose intentions may or may not be honourable, power over me.

Thus ended my debating career. There must be something more. Something important was missing, possibly more than one thing. I was beating my head against the wall of the culture I had been brought up in. And yet I believed  in a God Who IS beyond all culture and language.

In all this thinking about God abstractly (even high quality abstract thoughts), something was missing. Nothing in how I had been taught to “DO” theology included relationship with God, it was just well conceived, rigorously pursued ideas ABOUT God (along with a nagging warning to myself not to turn my thoughts about God into an idol).

This is not how I wanted it. I knew well the importance of Relationship with God; I knew that God was far beyond my words about Him. But, alas, the tools I was accustomed to using did not lend themselves well to dealing with God in relationship.

What was missing was COMMUNION (fellowship, participation) with God. I had a well studied idea about what fellowship with God was like. But it was a sort of foggy notion at best, since I had not allowed God to Incarnate Himself to me through communion. As a Baptist we believed that the Lord’s supper was a sort of Symbol of a Symbol of something that we did for reasons we really didn’t know other than Jesus said “This do….”

Having been to Russia during the last of the great Soviet persecutions of Christians, I had also seen their worship first hand. This gave me an excellent example of very high liturgical worship that didn’t fit my preconceived notions of “stuffy”. Rather, they combined the simplest of services with all the festivity and solemnity that we normally reserved for “Easter” and Christmas. What is more, they prayed as if their very breath depended on it. This, very lovingly, violated my assumptions.

Seven years later I was, myself, Orthodox. But a question occurred to me very early on: What do I do with all this theologizing that I had been taught? Of what use was it in this new space? I did not want to employ the old ways of thinking, but they were so much a part of my habit of thinking that it made me almost afraid to read scripture because I knew I would do to scripture what I had always done.

There is the tendency among both the non-believer and the believer brought up in the heritage of western thought to separate theological categories and consider them in isolation. We don’t do that. And this is because we are Catholic (Catholic means according to the Whole) and must consider the whole together (and we are accountable to the whole). How we do any particular thing always is related to our relationship with God and His self emptying love for us. Thus He desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn and live. It is easy to justify a multitude of positions when you consider them in isolation. When I found myself accountable to the Whole — to all of the saints that had come before, that were sharing this time with me, and those who were yet to be born — I had to think theologically in terms of all of them. When I said anything I remembered that I was in communion with the saints to whom the faith was once delivered, and that I was also in communion with those to whom I owed the responsibility of passing along the same treasure I had received.

The Church is the agent by which Jesus the Christ has provided that we commune with His Body and Blood and become His Body. This cannot be understood outside of relationship. We are healed in a relationship with the Healer, not because we deconstruct how we understand His spiritual medication and use that to self-medicate ourselves spiritually. This is a recipe for disaster and madness.

Acquiring the mind of the Church as a communion of the Body of Christ, is not something that happens overnight or by magic. I am still working on that in myself, having taken the approach of my Baptist forefathers to its logical conclusion and realizing that there was no “THERE” there. And, compared to what Jesus was up to, what I had been taught was extremely impoverished.

Our Relationship is with God Who took human flesh for our sake, Who came to our condition, Who stretched out Himself to us, for us, and through communion, IN us. That relationship is expressed in Holy Communion, and through prayer. Here I find the words of St. Maximus the Confessor echoing at me constantly: “Theology is Prayer, prayer is theology. Theology without prayer is demonic.”

It is a journey into that relationship that I now make. It is a journey that I do very badly very often. Christ calls me to a life-giving relationship with Him when I want it, and also when I want to run away from it. It is a journey that I don’t ever expect to master; and yet, it is the journey of Life to which He calls me. May He direct my steps and help me both when I want to follow Him, but especially when I don’t want to. As St. John Chrystostom said: “O Lord, save me whether I want it or not.”

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