Friday, August 07, 2009

Ten Years Ago: A Return To Ministry

Return To Active Ministry
Reverend Father John-Brian Paprock
Sermon delivered on the evening of August 5th, 1999
At St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church - Madison, Wisconsin
(photo at left circa 2000)

Ye do well that ye take head, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day-star arise in your hearts” 2 Peter

God, my Father in Heaven, the Creator of the Universe, be gracious and merciful to your unworthy servant and grant my needs to the fruition of ministry. May my words this evening be for healing and understanding and reflect Thine expression in me. Amen.

Thank you all for being here. Your loving support and interest has touched my heart and renews my trust in the direction of ministry before me. Until my discernment weekend a few weeks ago, I don’t think I was ever prayerfully considered and held in spiritual nurturance for by so many of so many diverse beliefs. It was a powerfully affirming experience. I will never be able to repay the kindness bestowed upon me during this time of discernment. I can only hope that God will bring to bear fruits of my humble and unworthy ministry that will nurture and assist fellow servants in a similar manner.

Although I have always been ministering, the last seven years have been more or less covert. The length and breadth of my leave of absence from overt active ministry cannot be condensed into this talk this evening. The magnitude and the depth of the lessons I have learned cannot be relegated to a few moments. Not because I have become a reservoir of great teachings, but because I needed to learn so much. I had no idea how ignorant I was. I had no idea how many inner wounds needed healing nor how much energy and time it would take to be here this evening. At least now, I know enough to know that I am ignorant and there are areas of common knowledge that I am still learning as an adult.

The decision to return to active ministry is the fruit of agonizing days, weeks, months, and years of prayer and meditation. My leave started confused and in deep emotional pain. I wanted to have clear answers and for everything to be back in order. I thought I must have been “bad” or, worse, “broken” that I had to be fixed to make everything right again. But I found out that I could not, not by myself. Not until I let God take over did healing come, even then the walk was very dark at times.

That first summer I was lead to volunteer at St. Benedict Center. I remember saying to the coordinator, “whatever needs to be done…” They gave me the job of transplanting seedling oaks. How symbolic! It still gives me goose bumps.

Today, as I approach a return to active ministry, I am filled with gratitude and trepidation. I know I am not perfect. Whatever is good about me and my life today (and there is much to be grateful for) is a testament to God’s grace and mercy. I am truly honored by the support of so many. I am also nervous and afraid – you see I know all too well the frailties of our human existence. For reassurance, an orthodox priest said to me: "Never despise your past. God knows who and what you are. You begin right where you are."

Sometimes, my friends, I am confused, but I am still a real person. I don't pretend anything about myself. I've been down that road in survival of tremendous childhood abuse. I follow the spirit as much as I can and I haven’t always been sure which road to travel. In this country, at this time, there are many roads to travel. But they do not all lead to our home.

I have met many hypocrites who have not even begun to deal with who they really are and how they got so full of anger or so full of denial. For them, I say prayers for the healing Light that brought healing to my delusion to penetrate their darkness and for them to awaken to the truth of their hearts. I have come to understand a truth about this life: I would rather be hated for who I really am, than loved for who I am not.

I have no doubt anymore that God is gracious and merciful in hearing our prayers as He knows the truth in our hearts. Once while praying, a rabbi was caught reciting the alphabet, when asked how such a prayer could be a true prayer, he replied “I opened my heart to God and let Him make the words for my prayer.” I have so often prayed to God to hear the voice of my heart and cried tears of gratitude and healing in those loving instances of honest communion. I continue to ask God to reveal to me the direction of my heart, because I have so many layers over my heart it can be hard to see the Truth there.

A good friend reminded me, God call us the way God makes us. I cannot deny the call to ministry inside me. But what form of ministry should that be?

In 1996, I struggled with this issue and wrote the following Mission Statement:

My Personal Mission Statement is
- To bring light into the dark, the integration of life experience and the re-integration of souls
- To heal wounds of individuals, groups, society, working with the angels at their core
- To dispel ignorance and deception with knowledge, wisdom and truth
- To be trustworthy, honest, honoring, empowering, nurturing
- To work as a guide, consultant, developer, networker
- To bring beauty and hope, life itself, through innovative and creative expressive views; words and images that last beyond present existence
- To have a peaceful familial beauty-filled home base where nurturance abounds and needs are met.
- As a healer, I will need to be healed
- As a guide, I will need to be led
- As a teacher, I will need to learn
- As a developer, I will need to develop
- As a bringer of beauty and hope, I will need optimism and vision
- As a minister, I will need ministration and prayers
- As a light bearer, I will need light
- As a spiritual being, I will need spiritual nurturance and direction

This continues to be a personal mission statement. Certainly, most faith traditions and denominations of Christianity could provide for the expression of this mission. The question of where and how to serve continues, but, through continued prayer, trust in God and the wonderful blessing of the counsel of my wife Teresa, the field of opportunity has been narrowed.

My views are both universal and Christian, both ancient and modern. How can these be reconciled? There have been several Orthodox writers that have helped me on my journey. I have chosen a few representative passages for their insight.

H.E. Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios of the Malankara Orthodox Church of India was President of the WCC and opened the Centennial Parliament of World’s Religions.
From his opening of the Parliament A VISION BECKONS, he wrote:

In each religion there are two levels. One level is exclusivistic and expansionist. That is to say, each religion says, we have the truth and if you want to have the truth, join us. That is the exclusivist, expansionist, lower type of religion. All religions have that lower type.

But in religions there is also a higher type, a type which is universal in its orientation, which is all-embracing in its love, which is non-discriminating between members of its own community and those outside. That good, humanistic, open tendency in all religions will have to be brought to the top. It is there. It only needs to be emphasized further. Only that way will we promote Peace on Earth.

From another talk, he said:
It is our faith in the Divine that permits us to freely embrace the whole of humanity in a warm embrace of love and respect for their dignity and freedom.

The higher type of Christianity is expressed in the words of Fr. Alexander Men, a Russian Orthodox Priest who was martyred in 1990. A CREDO FOR TODAY'S CHRISTIAN is quoted from his book "Christianity for the XXIst Century" (published by Continuum 1998). I have abbreviated this for tonight.

A Christian...
...believes that the coming to earth of Jesus Christ the God-man was not a divine one- sided act but a call for people to respond to the love of God.
...does not look on faith as abstract conviction but total trust in God revealed in Christ.
...accepts the word of God recorded in scripture but guards against giving a literal interpretation to every line.
...recognizes the activity of Christ in the Church and in all life.
...believes that the Church lives and grows in the strength of Christ.
...respects the ritual forms of devotion without forgetting for a moment that they are secondary in comparison with love for God and other people.
...experiences the divisions among Christians as a sin which is common to all and a violation of Christ's will.
...sees all that is beautiful, creative and good as belonging to God, the secret activity of Christ's grace.
...believes that Christ reveals himself in the sacraments of the church, in her sanctification of the world, in her teaching and in acts of service, but knows that none of these aspects is sufficient on its own, for Christ came as savior, healer and teacher.
...knows that the kingdom of God which is to come can reign within us even
...does not ask for tangible signs but remembers that creation is a miracle.
...refuses to point to human imperfection or to the 'survival of the animal nature' as the sole reason for the existence of evil in human beings but believes in the reality of metaphysical evil. open to all that is valuable in all Christian denominations and non-Christian beliefs.
...does not consider reason and science to be enemies of the faith. Knowledge enlightened by the spirit of Faith deepens our understanding of the greatness of the creator.
...affirms with the apostle Paul that the witness of faith in the world is first
and foremost the witness of service and active love.
...does not reject good even if it comes from non-religious people but rejects force, dictatorship and hatred even if they are perpetrated in the name of Christ.
...professes that freedom is one of the most important laws of the Spirit and in
the light of this sees sin as a form of slavery.
...sees that the Christian vocation can be realized in everything: in prayer, work, creativity, in active work and moral discipline.
...considers that when some area of life is infected by sin this should not serve as a reason for rejecting it. On the contrary, the struggle to establish the Kingdom of God should take place at the center of life.

From “The Royal Priesthood of Christ” by Paulos Mar Gregorios 1967

We are a people gathered from all the nations of the earth, not because of any special merit in us, but by His gracious calling, to a life of close intimacy with God.

That is what distinguishes us from those who are not Christians. We have been given a privilege of knowing Christ, and through Him of living in great, close intimacy with God.

But this is a great responsibility as well. we cannot take this call lightly and expect that we will be automatically holy. First we must keep in mind the two poles of our calling, namely, that it is out of His free grace that God has called us, and therefore that the call does not make us any better than others. There is no room for feeling superior to others.

Second, our calling is always to an existence on behalf of others, Christians and others. This is what priesthood means. A priest is always one who lives to intercede for others and not for himself. And all of us have been by baptism incorporated into the one eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ who ever lives to make intercession for the whole world. Our priesthood is a part of this ministry of universal intercession.

A long time friend, Bishop Seraphim Sigrist OCA wrote a book recently, Theology of Wonder, which I have been honored to be of those who were able to review the manuscript. It was he who introduced me to the works of Fr Alexander Men. Bishop Seraphim writes this of COMMUNITY:

Fr Men loved to say that the Church has only begun to realize and to disclose her inner reality …and yet [this is] most difficult...for consider that in no other religion is there anything really comparable to the Church in [its] aspiration to make one Body of many members…The revelation of the Mystery of Community reveals, and will reveal yet more, the Mystery of the Church…

(Bishop Seraphim refers to these Mysteries as gifts…he continues:)

To the gifts of the Spirit in Community we must add those gifts in which the Spirit pours out on each individual in Community. For as ones life is lived with and offered to Community, the gifts of each are for all…

A gift is not something that we have on our own. Considered in ourselves we are all on the contrary limited and broken and full of impossible contradictions even within ourselves--not to speak of with others. We have no wholeness individually or together, but we have the possibility to receive [community] as a gift that which we could in no way establish ourselves.

The Community…is a way of balance, indeed of a whole series of balances. Balance of the personal and of the communal, of the spiritual and of the practical, including all the concrete circumstances of our lives, family work and so on; balance of ministry of the word and of social service. Balance of an ever-deepening understanding and experience of the Church's Tradition, and of searching for new ways; balance of taking in and of giving out, of love of the Church and of reaching out to those outside, of silence, and of action grounded in peace.


The seeming contradiction of my call to return to the priesthood, to a spiritual, nurturing community of ministry and to interfaith and ecumenical work are reconciled in a loving God presented in ancient Christianity and alive today.

This does not mean immediate harmony and trust. I remember a revelation to me from the Desert Fathers - We have the same sins and disharmonies. There is no doubt that we all have the capacity to offend another without any special effort on our part. BUT, as the desert fathers emphasize, there will always be new forms of holiness. We all can be new expressions of God’s love in the world.

This is not easy work and no one (save Jesus Christ that we know of) has achieved perfect union with God while still in the body. So, in Orthodox Churches around the world and since the Apostles, we pray, "Lord, have mercy." and "Forgive us sinners." Not as added psychological torment, but as admission of the truth and real requests for our Creator's grace.

I am an orthodox Christian who believes in the historical realities of Christianity through time to the present. I am a modern American who is also qualified computer technician and organizational consultant, who believes in the American constitutional rights and privileges. I coordinate a local interfaith network. These and more are all integrated into the unique blended creature God has made me. Modern society also has a blended-ness.

If I back up far enough and look honestly - people of diverse faiths walk past each other, use the same roads, and even consume many of the same products. We already live in a pluralistic society. Much of the grandeur of religious tradition seems to be relegated to novelty and exotica from distant lands (or even distant galaxies or distant dimensions).

I can search the internet on any religion as well as most of the sects and cults and find information and misinformation in abundance. The bookstores are teeming with books about this religion, that tradition, this ancient secret or that one. Many spiritual teachers that I have had contact with during these 1990s are being told by their elders and holy ones to teach the truth of their ways to anyone who wants to know, even if that has never been the tradition before. When faced with great overwhelming changes many pull back in defense of the old ways, even when it is really not the old ways being threatened.

My hope is that we will never be afraid to say, "There is Truth!" and "There is Goodness!" - regardless of who or what tradition or belief may have generated it, just as easily as we can admit to the awe experienced at the grandeur of the natural wonders of the world (like the Grand Canyon) as well as the human-constructed wonders (like the Great Wall). Both of which can be seen from space.

Once I give up trying to convince everyone of my beliefs and put my energy and focus on being a believer, being a Christian rather than try to make more Christians, my faith - my ability and capacity for love - becomes large enough to even include God and myself.

I believe we are all capable of reaching this place of honoring others in the manner that God honors each of us. I believe in a God of Truth and any movement toward Truth is movement toward God and toward “partaking of divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Archimandrite Christofvros Stavropoulos, (from a little book - Partaking of Divine Nature) says, “Within each human being, God sows all those seed-like gifts which make us His image and leads us toward His likeness, insomuch as we cultivate these gifts. This is our calling – Theosis. Theosis is achieved little by little, through the step by step spiritualization of our human nature.”

This is the life and the ministry to which I am called. As to which church, Bishop Seraphim wrote this to me in an email last week:
“As to which church to be in – one thing is to keep perspective, of course. After all, in every case God’s will for us is the same – holiness... and all will be well.”

Paulos Mar Gregorios reminds us that
“Without Divine Aid our human efforts can bear no fruit”

Finally, this evening’s aposticha for Holy Transfiguration:
Having Ascended this mountain with Thy disciples, O Savior, and having been transformed, Thou didst make the dark nature of Adam shine again, by transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thy Godhead.

May we each be so blessed.

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