On a blog called Internetmonk, I am part of a group called the Liturgical Gangstas. The idea is that periodically the moderator of the blog asks a question of people from different Christian backgrounds who have an interest in liturgy to see how they would respond. Most of us are pastors, but not all. Today is one of the days when our “feature” is posted. Below is the question that we were asked and my answer. I would highly encourage you to go to the blog and look at the answers from the other people involved and the discussion that ensues. I guarantee that you will find it interesting. If the discussion is not posted at the time you go to that blog, just return later and it will be.
Question—The Gospel: On Internet Monk, we try to make the point that the Gospel is not simply a message we proclaim to non-believers but a message that Christians also need every day. In your tradition and church, how do you make sure the Gospel remains central in your preaching and practice?
My answer: In order to “make sure the Gospel remains central in your preaching and practice,” I must have an inner idea of what the Gospel is in order to know what it is that I wish to maintain central. For me the key Scripture verses that keep my preaching and teaching centered are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
We are called to obey Our Lord who said, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” So, I too must “proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,” which includes preaching the Gospel (to the poor), healing the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and liberty to those who are oppressed. But, how do I keep myself centered? There are several things I do. The ones familiar to most of us are prayer and Scripture reading. For us Orthodox, it is a helpful aid that we have daily and Sunday lectionaries that take us through vast parts of Scripture. Many churches and para-church groups have developed reading patterns to try to ensure that we do not just read what pleases us and makes us feel good and encourages us, but also read what displeases us, what frightens us, what calls us to account, and what leaves us in the dirt in broken repentance for our many sins and offenses.
But, we Orthodox also have patterns of prayers. These morning and evening prayers tend to keep us focused on God’s goodness, our repentance, our duty to him, and our love relationship with him. But, more than that each day we have a saint (or saints) that we remember and a couple of prayers that remind us of why that person was great. Along with that there is usually a short one paragraph reading that gives us an overview of the saint(s)’s life. This is especially important because it shows us how people in history have interpreted Scripture and Holy Tradition in order to live out their lives in practical obedience to God. The great stream of the Church, properly appraised, gives us the guidance that keeps us from odd or tendentious interpretations and behaviors. A priest is required to maintain the reading and prayer disciplines.
But, let me talk a bit about myself. The previous paragraphs are standard Christian thought. I also read a lot, and I mean a lot. I read Church Fathers; I read people like John Bunyan; I read C.S. Lewis. The more I am willing to read the great Christian writers, the more that I catch a glimpse of that great stream of the Church that helps keep me centered and able to respond appropriately to God. I am more convinced than ever that writers such as G.K Chesterton (Roman Catholic), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Orthodox), C.S. Lewis (Anglican), etc., are correct when they encourage us to read fiction, fantasy, etc., whether or not it is overtly Christian, for I have many times seen the solution to a theological conundrum more clearly in a fiction story than in reading many theological tomes. Sometimes, I have understood more clearly the complaints about Christians by reading secular fiction than by any other mean. I urge you all to read and to read broadly.
Finally, there is something we must all do in order to keep ourselves centered on the Gospel, and I do mean must do. We get too caught up in worrying about whether works will earn our way to Heaven. Please drop that argument. I find that without works I lose my way in realms of theological speculation or in the depths of fictional worlds which have little connection to making sure that I keep the centrality of the Gospel in my preaching and practice. Our Lord came to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. I need to keep my hands dirty if I really wish to keep Gospel centered in my preaching and practice. Some of my fondest memories are some of my most difficult memories. My work overseas and my work in the inner city kept my hands dirty. I buried toddlers who would have never died in the USA. I worked with indigenous people (in missions) who could barely speak Spanish. I buried teenagers in the USA who were shot in drug violence. I watched teenaged girls in the inner city refuse sound advice and get pregnant. But, I also watched churches grow, a school get started, an orphanage begin, a new indigenous work (and a bishop who rode a mule in blue jeans) with new church plants, teenaged girls who did listen and are now sound married mothers, teenaged boys who grew up and now have sound jobs. People have been baptized, chrismated, and brought into Life. You see, my hands are dirty and my nails are broken, but it is those works that, along with Scripture, lives of the saints, readings from great Christian writers, and even secular readings, help to keep me centered on the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.