St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Church in the Home, and Home in the Church

Orthodox Christians call the family “little church.” It’s an instructive figure of speech. You can run it backward, too: church is “big family.”  In fact viewing the church as large family may be more instructive in the long run.

In a family you have to come to terms with people you may not especially like, or who irk you with their idiosyncrasies or bad habits. It is the same in church unless, of course, you treat the whole matter superficially.

For some people church is about being good. For some others it is about clinging to fundamentalism. For yet others it’s where you basically make up whatever you want to believe and call it church. Or you reach into the Bible and pull up a handful of self-chosen ideas and call that church. For some of us, however, it is the big family that is located in the Great Tradition of faith that stretches back through the c0uncils and the apostles and evangelists to Christ himself. To be part of this family is not, and cannot be, a superficial thing.

Even with this precise understanding, Christianity is not a set of beliefs you sign off on. It’s a way of life. The first great lie is that you can check off a list of things you believe and call yourself Christian. The second great lie is that you can be a Christian without belonging to the family. That’s like saying I can be a Rochelle without having any contact with my relatives. I can keep the name, sure, but it doesn’t mean anything. If I take no part in family affairs, exercise no leadership, do not engage in family rituals, make no contribution, I am a bystander at best. Same goes for church.

Here’s the secret that ties it all together: God became human. Minimal phrase, maximal meaning. Bottom line? You find God through other people and in the Spirit, who is the binding power of the Christian community. Don’t mistake emotional frenzy for spiritual power.  The great temptation is to look for God off in the sky somewhere, as if there were a perfect realm elsewhere that we pine for wistfully. In fact, we can only live one world at a time. In this one, God is committed to being discovered in the unlikeliest of places: in our fellow human beings. It’s almost as if God wakes up every day and says, “Now where can I hide so that I can surprise everybody?”

This common life is very mundane and everyday and no-frills. It is fueled by forgiveness and generosity of heart. It runs dry on acrimony and begrudging and pettiness. There is in the church, as in any family, a tight combination of fragility and strength. Sometimes the fragility is evident; feelings get hurt, people pout and shun each other. But when the forgiveness comes, the strength that underlies it all is once more revealed.

I have seen enough pettiness to make anyone heartsick. People will not forgive the minor faults of others but refuse to recognize that they, too, might be a wee bit difficult. You don’t have to look for that imagined guy in the red suit and horns; you don’t have to look for spectacle. Evil shows up in simple and barely noticed ways wearing the same clothes we all do, and being less ostentatious than we are.

Again, life in the community, just like life in any family, can be quite fragile at the same time as it is surprisingly resilient. If pettiness rules the roost, breakage is guaranteed. If love is at the heart of it all there is resiliency.

15 July 2011