Posted by: Shawn Ragan | May 27, 2008

Father Patrick, part 2

So there I say, still in almost a state of shock…this was not what I had expected. Not only that, but I did not have the framework or context within which to place what I had just experienced…and I thought I was pretty savvy when it came to Christianity…

For the five years before this night I had been the Vice-President of the local Ministerial Fellowship. In that role, I fellowshiped and interacted with pastors of a variety of denominations and “non-denominations.” I had regular contact and conversations with pastors from a variety of backgrounds – Baptist to Methodist to Adventist to Roman Catholic to Foursquare to Vineyard to Lutheran to Christian Assembly to local non-denominational Christian “centers.” I had attended services at many of these churches, as well as participating in joint services at Thanksgiving. But I had no where to place this new experience. Hieromonk Mark, a dear spiritual adviser to me, has said “The more you learn about Orthodoxy the more you realize how different it is from the other professions” (my paraphrase – not a direct quote).

So there I sat…enthralled, confused, excited, frightened.

Now, before I had walked through this door, I had been pastoring for some time…not a long time (six years or so), but enough time to begin to realize some things in my own Christian walk. The church I pastor is an independent congregational Sabbath-keeping church. We are not affiliated officially with any denomination or group. The church is congregational, which means that most matters are voted on by the “members” of the church. Up until recently, General Business Meetings were held every 3 months to discuss and vote on church issues ranging from class teachers to elections to financial and budget reviews to church direction. The church also has a Council of Elders, which is responsible to the members and deals with the “spiritual” issues of the church. We also have a Board of Directors, which is responsible to the members and deals with the “secular” issues of the church.

Then there is the pastor, who functions with the Council of Elders and carries out normal pastoral/ministerial duties. That is where I was, but being in an independent church I didn’t really have anyone over me feeding into my life. I had an Elder mentor my first couple of years, and he advised me on things relating to preaching and some other issues – that was a tremendous help. I did not however, have anyone who had pastored or been in pastoral ministry with more experience to help guide me. I corrected this deficiency by asking questions and seeking guidance from my fellow pastors in the Ministerial Fellowship. That, too, was a blessing, but it did not fill the need I have. These other pastors were my friends, and their help and advice was beneficial, but their investment was in their own church – not the one I was at. Further, their opinions really did not matter much to those in the church I pastored. What I found myself needing as I pastored (especially as the weight of that position became more clear to me – after all, we are dealing with people’s souls – their deeper spiritual needs – their eternal life) was someone with pastoral experience, someone who I could turn to for counsel who was invested in me and the church I was at, who had authority to speak into my life and into the church’s, and who would be, in a real sense, my pastor.

Every week I would preach the sermon, and by the time church was over I wanted to do nothing more than go home and crash. I was emotionally and spiritually drained. When I got home, I did not want to play with my kids, I did not want to go do some family function, I dreaded the months where we had a church potluck after service…all I wanted to do was go to bed or do some mind-numbing activity like watch TV or play a computer game. By the end of the week, I felt like I had given all I had, and I was totally drained.

The other thing I had struggled with was the realization that I did not have anything substantive to rely on when it came to teaching and preaching. Let me explain…for most of my pastoral ministry, when I prepared for a sermon I would buy several different commentaries. I would read all of the different viewpoints of what the passage said, and then I would take from the different commentaries what I thought was good and right – basically what fit into my model of the way things are. Then, I would preach on it.

Early on, this did not bother me. For many years I had been shown how the “evil” Roman Catholic Church had apostatized and how we didn’t need anything except “me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit.” After all, why should I listen to you, I can read the Bible just as well as you can. I had been told by pastors for a decade to “not take my word for it, study for yourselves.” I had been taught that we could not trust tradition (which was inherently evil anyways), nor should we trust any man. All we can rely on is ourselves – our own interpretation.

Therefore, for several years, as I studied the Bible, something was true simply because I believed it. Maybe I will get into this later in another post, but this was a practical example in my life how the Protestant Reformation did not throw out the Papacy, it just replaced the Pope with the individual person – a kind of “Be your own pope.” The Christian faith, then, became what I thought it should be, based on what I believed at that time. It even came to the point that I was sure I was called by the Holy Spirit to go and plant my own church. I thought “We’ll start over and get it right.”

That plan did not solve all of my problems, though. For example, I knew I needed some person over me…someone who knew the pastoral struggle, someone I could trust and rely on (I needed that not only as a pastor, but also as a person – as a Christian). As I considered this new church, even if I set up a bishop, per se, it was still going to be me. Others might get that care, but I still would not.

Then one day, a few years back, I was mowing the lawn. It was not an audible voice, but it was clear nonetheless. It was as if the Lord was saying to me “Do you really think I kept the Church hidden and I plan to reveal it through you?” In that moment, the pride and arrogance of my thoughts was revealed to me very clearly. Christ came 2000 years ago, and the true church was hidden while the public church fell into apostasy, and I was the one the one who was called to reveal the true faith. In some ways I am speaking in hyperbole, because those thoughts were not what I was thinking. What that incident revealed, however, was that that was what those thoughts meant. While I never would have said I was the one called to reveal it, that is what my thoughts meant – what their real meaning was. Mowing the lawn that day, I knew that it was not the Holy Spirit, but my own pride that called me to go and a start a church. That day was the last I ever considered the idea.

That, however, did not solve my problem. Before, the only thing I could trust was my own interpretation. Now, I didn’t even have that. My desire, I think through much of my life, from my Methodist childhood to my Sabbatarian pastoring, had been underscored by a desire to know the truth. I wanted to know the truth – the Truth, and I was willing to change my thinking to match it. The problem was that I had no idea how to know the Truth. Some out there will say – the Bible, duh! But whose interpretation? Why should I trust yours over mine? Is there nothing more?

While I never doubted the existence of God – He has been real to me as far back as I can remember – I was in some ways in crisis when I showed up that night. There had become a gap, not just in the areas mentioned, but in others as well, between the Faith I read about in the Scriptures and the faith I was in and surrounded by. It wasn’t a crisis that questioned my belief in God, it was one that made me desire more.

Father Patrick and I sat down to talk…again, my purpose before I came to Vespers had been to learn some history of this “Eastern Church” that had never been Roman Catholic. By the time Vespers was over, I was in a different state of mind – something had happened during that service – I didn’t know what, but there was something about it that stirred me in a way that I hadn’t been stirred in a long time. There was something there – something real…

I don’t recall everything Father Patrick said. He talked about Vespers, and when he talked about history, he went back thousands of years – this was not some “new” church. In fact, I remember him rather pointedly telling me that the Orthodox Church was and is the ancient Apostolic Church – it is the “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” of the Creed. This is it. He didn’t say it in pride or any kind of malice – it didn’t come across as a bragging point – just a simple – and humble – statement.

He also addressed to other things as he was sharing that night…one was the need for every person to be accountable to someone else – in Orthodoxy each person is accountable to someone. Even the bishops have someone they are accountable to in their Christian life. Orthodoxy has the relationship of a “spiritual father,” someone who helps you along the Christian path – who provides guidance and direction – who helps you see areas of your life that you may be blind in. He spoke about how as a Methodist pastor, he felt he was always giving – but not receiving. This was almost exactly what I had been going through. Now, he says, he doesn’t give anything out that he isn’t receiving himself. (As a side not, my ministry has drastically changed in the last year as I have “received” from Father Patrick, Hieromonk Mark, and Father Mark here locally – since then I am no longer drained on Saturday afternoon when church is over).

He also encouraged me to “know” Truth – not just in my head – intellectually, but in my heart. (He indicated this by pointing to his head, and then to his heart as we talked about truth) To know. My first reaction was one of pride – I thought to myself “I know Truth – in my heart.” Reality, though, said it was something I was hungry for – and his very statement made me want to know more. What is this “Truth” he speaks of – that he claims to “know” in his heart. I wanted to know…and have it be based on something more than just my opinion.

I left that night with much to think about…knowing that I would be back – that I would go again. Would everything he said be true? Could it really be that simple. Over the next 1-2 years I would be looking for the answers to those questions and more. As we go along, I’ll share about what I found – and what I am finding even today.

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Responses

  1. The fact that you see your people seriously, as those with precious souls and of incalculable value before God–this fact in your life speaks great volumes to me. I am humbled to know that God has used me, despite my weak nature, to indicate to you the Way. Surely, with a heart like that, God can lead you whithersoever He wills. And you, and your family, will prosper in your faith!
    I am passing your blog articles on to others…


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