When I visit a friend’s house, the first things I notice are the family photos. I especially love seeing baby pictures and proof that once upon a time, my friend – like me – went through an awkward stage.
It seems natural for people to surround themselves with memories of the people they love. These memories lead to closeness. After seeing photos and hearing stories and learning family histories, I can’t help but feel more connected to my friends, which makes the time we spend together and the food we share mean so much more.
This past weekend, my parish (Saint Nicholas in Wyckoff, New Jersey) hosted our Greek Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to give people a taste not only of the Greek kitchen, but also of the joy and hospitality that is shared around a Greek table. But like a visit to a friend’s home, I felt closest with our visitors when they took a Church tour to learn what makes our community unique.
When they saw our family photos and heard our stories.
When you walk into a Greek Orthodox Church building, the first things you see are the images of our loved ones: Christ and the saints. Icons are the images of our family, and Church tours are an opportunity to introduce them to new people.
As I gave tour after tour, I reflected on how easy it can be to drift from living encounter and reduce our Faith to abstract explanations and words. I talked a lot about Jesus Christ and His Body, the Orthodox Church. The more we talk about Orthodoxy, rather than live Orthodoxy, the more likely we are to rely on oversimplified statements. Sometimes I worried that I might just be offering mere slogans: phrases that were more newspaper headline than explanation, mere lip service to difficult and nuanced issues.
We should be wary of diluting our witness to Christ and His Church to soundbites.
Our Faith is more than a system of beliefs; it’s an encounter with persons. It’s like when friends visit our homes: we don’t just talk about our family, we introduce them to our family. Instead of just talking about our Faith, we can share our experience with the Lord and even give our friends a taste.
So instead of talking at people about Orthodoxy, we should invite them to come and see.
Of course, words are involved in this invitation, and how we speak can make a world of difference. But there’s a difference between talking to and talking at. There’s a difference between enthusiastically and joyfully proclaiming Christ, on the one hand, and demeaning another’s beliefs, on the other. There’s a difference between positively sharing the Faith and negatively tearing someone else down.
For example, of course every Orthodox Christian believes that the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, but a joyous and evangelical statement can easily become triumphalist and divisive if it’s reduced to a sound bite. Theology, and theological dialogues, cannot be reduced to bumper stickers proclaiming that “Orthodoxy is the True Church.” How does it help others drawn nearer to Christ if we begin our conversation by telling them what they are not?
Soundbites are partial truths, but Jesus Christ is the Truth; He is a person, not a soundbite. This means any discussion of Him – as with anyone else in our family – transcends words; we must encounter Him and lead others to do the same.
Like resorting to soundbites, we might focus on defining the differences between the Orthodox Church and “fill in the blank.” We might want to answer the question, “What is the difference between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church?” with bullet points and broad oversimplifications. But reducing a faith to simple differences treats it as just another choice to be made, which reduces the Orthodox Church to just another option on the religious menu. But it also reduces a believer’s convictions to shallow ideas, capable of being uprooted by a brief conversation.
Let’s not talk about following Christ and the Orthodox Church as if we’re choosing between Greek and Caesar Salads.
For me, none of this is hypothetical. When I was 16, I was one of those curious Greek festival goers who took a Church tour. Thank God, I didn’t hear diatribes about my religious tradition (I had been raised an Independent Baptist) or triumphalist slogans proclaiming that the Orthodox Church is true. Instead, I was introduced to a family rich with its own history and traditions.
I wasn’t berated for why my ideas were wrong; I was lovingly invited into the Kingdom.
I recently watched a news story about a woman who was adopted and later in life was introduced to her birth mother. Though they didn’t know each other – likes and dislikes, interests, life story – they could see themselves in the face of the other. That’s what it was like for me when I began to learn about Orthodoxy. The Church put words to things I had always intuitively felt. I knew I had found my family because I recognized myself in Her.
I try not to forget this now that I’m an Orthodox Christian. Talking to others isn’t about having the best arguments or the most clever soundbites. It’s not about out-debating the other. We just have to be ourselves. This reminds me of something that Elder Amphilochios Makris told Metropolitan Kallistos Ware:
"As an Orthodox in the West, you will be often isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians; do not be either defensive or aggressive; simply be yourself."
If we resist the urge to be combative and work in soundbites, we can cultivate our call to invite people to come and see (John 1:46). We have no problem inviting friends over for dinner or getting folks to come to our Greek festivals, so why not do the same with our Faith? As we share our tables with our friends, there’s another banquet that all are called to share in as a family: the Liturgy.
So instead of arguments or convenient soundbites, invite others to come and see. They too might recognize in the Church their family.
They might see in the Church the face of their Mother, just like I did.