I am in Miami attending the annual Diocesan Assembly for the South. This first evening was primarily time with with our Archbishop DMITRI, and my brother clergy in the Diocese. I have known His Eminence since around 1994 and have, on occasion, spent a extended periods with him. I have heard him speak at least three to four times a year (and sometimes more). I add to that numerous private conversations. For me, he is one of the giants of Orthodoxy in America, serving as the founding Bishop for the Diocese of the South, and today being one of the longest serving Bishops in the U.S.
What I find striking is that for someone whom I’ve known for these past 14 years or more, I have heard a consistency that I find almost unique. His witness is to preach the Gospel, but with a profound proclamation that only in the fullness of the Gospel of Christ is there assurance of the dignity of man (as he said again this evening). It is not a lack of creativity (in his early 80’s he continues to write outstanding commentaries on Scripture) but a clarity of vision. Only in the truth that man was created in the image of God, and that having marred this image, God Himself came to restore and heal him by uniting Himself to us, trampling down death by death, and raising us up to the fullness of our dignity in our union with Him – only in the fullness of this truth can the worth of human beings be understood or preserved.
This is simply the heart of the Gospel. It is the content of the statement, “For God so loved the world.” I have been with Vladyka [the Slavic name of respect and affection for a Bishop – it means “Master”] in all kinds of settings – liturgies, discussions, lectures, restaurants, airports – and in every place, every setting, whatever opportunity arises to proclaim that simple facts of the Gospel, he is eager to share with friend and stranger. (This has sometimes been awkward when I’ve almost lost him in an airport because he had taken up conversation with a stranger while I was distracted about luggage or the like).
To be with him is to be with someone who thinks there is nothing more interesting nor worth speaking about than the love of God and what it means for man and about man. At the same time I have heard him caution repeatedly, with prophetic urgings, that grave dangers surround this Gospel in the modern world. Numerous Christian bodies have been lured away to a different gospel, often for what may seem noble purposes, only to have lost the very basis for the dignity of man. In the name of some perverted vision of justice, for instance, a number of mainline American denominations have provided funding for abortion clinics in foreign lands as well as providing support, both politically and financially, for such work in our own country. This is not only contrary to the Gospel of Christ, it is “another gospel”, in the language of St. Paul (Galatians 1:8). (I could multiply these same defections from the Gospel but it is not my purpose in this posting.)
It is with this same urgency that he encourages the mission work of the Orthodox Church. It is not a love of institution, a matter of self-aggrandizement, that motivates him (indeed I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such sentiments in him), but a profound love of the Good News of Jesus Christ in its fullness, and a deep concern that without Orthodoxy that fullness would cease to be proclaimed.
I will acknowledge, parenthetically, that some of my readers would perhaps take exception to the last statement – though it is a tenet of Orthodoxy – but I would only respond to such exceptions, “then prove it wrong by proclaiming the Gospel in its fullness.”
We do indeed live in a time when humanity itself is under attack. I think of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man as another outstanding diagnosis of this modern disease. But for this week, I will take encouragement from a champion of the faith, who urged his clergy tonight, “Don’t be afraid to take a few more hours to extend the mission of the Church.” Occasionally my energy flags, then I look at someone, now in his 84th year, who does not flag because he has no other life – nothing better to do – no allegiance apart from Christ. And I am grateful that he prays for me daily.