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The Lesson of Obama's Appeal

Fr. John Chagnon

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This past week over 80 thousand people and nearly 40 million via television watched as Sen. Barack Obama accepted the nomination of his party for the Presidency.

Some, I suppose were curious, some wanted to see history in the making; some were looking for points to critique. But among the people there were many looking for a message, the kinds of words that would transform their lives. People from across the country have attended the Senator’s campaign events and often become overwhelmed with emotion. Oprah Winfrey, who called Obama the "One", spoke of how her time in Denver was the most powerful thing she had ever experienced and musician Kanye West said his attendance at the speech changed his life forever. They join the many stories of that type which have come from the campaign, people not interested necessarily in the specifics about how things will run or who will pay for them but seeking a message of hope and change. Those words and what they represent have carried a formerly little known Senator from Illinois to the pinnacle of power in our country and whatever one thinks about the actual politics it’s important to note how people have reacted to even the idea that someone could deliver them to better things.

This is the genius of Sen. Obama’s campaign. Deep inside of all us we know that our world, personally and collectively, is broken and while the Senator’s stands on some issues put him at distinct odds with the witness of historic Christianity he has skillfully tapped into that larger Christian narrative, the reality of our brokenness and the longing for salvation. His promise, like the promises of all politicians, is for a political revival, a secular salvation, the rearranging of the culture through the power of the state and by it the creation of a utopia where everyone has enough, justice is always done, and there is perpetual peace. He has successfully tapped into the innate human desire for Eden lost and shaped it to his message.

We know, of course, this is never going to happen. The day after an inauguration is the day when reality sets in and the promises, regardless of who makes them, fly away like smoke in the cold January wind. We hope for better but people are still the same and it’s not long before the new wears off and business returns to usual. The people who cheer and weep at rallies and events become cynical and bitter again as their heroes, and their message, are revealed as all too human. The Eden we hoped for, like the first, will slip, again, from our grasp.

The saddest part of this, though, is that we who actually do possess an authentic message of truth and change and hope in Jesus Christ have over the years largely been silent. We huddle in our church walls, or our witness has been so compromised by our own attachments to this broken world that what we have and who we are is never revealed. Politicians at best can change laws but Christ can change hearts yet the people who line up for hours to see a politician speak of hope and change will often never know of the One, Jesus Christ, who embodies hope and the transformation of each person and the world into its glorious potential.

One day our Lord will ask of American Christians “I gave you wealth and freedom unlike any other culture and what have you done with it?” And our only answer will be to put our hands in our pockets and stare at our feet. Because all around us are people who need something greater then themselves, something to rescue them from their own lives, something to believe in, and a core to hold them steady in the ups and downs of existence. We, by grace, have been given all this and more and commanded to share it but we have not. At the very moment when our friends and neighbors and family need us to point them to true light, living water, and eternal hope we are silent, our minds set somewhere far from forever.

These precious children of God, souls wandering from one dry well to another, looking to everything our culture can produce, good, bad or otherwise are in need of Jesus Christ and without him they’ll be lost, not just in some eternity to come but in every waking moment of their lives. They’ll follow one person or another for the sake of the possibility of hope. They’ll spend money on meaningless things. They’ll chase experiences. They’ll seek comfort in a stranger’s arms. They will drink until they disappear. They’ll pursue power, fame, ageless beauty, and celebrity. They’ll do anything for a moment of peace, for a fleeting glimpse of rest for their souls, for some light at the end of their tunnel, even if it never comes. And if they never encounter Jesus they will walk the earth empty and leave the same.

Yet what have we, as Orthodox Christians, done?

After the worship of God there is no greater act any Christian can do then to proclaim, in word and deed, the true message of hope, the true haven, as our liturgy says, for the storm tossed, the true light that has come into the world and cannot be extinguished by any night. This is not just the single greatest act of Christian charity but also our own loving response to the one who commanded us to go into all the world with the reality of Christ and transform it one person at a time, a task that will end only when God decides history as we know it is closed. Our lights, as Jesus says, are to shine and not be hidden. Our good works are to be real and tangible and draw praise to God. Our hope is to be shared with any who will receive it and the life that has been given to us must overflow us like living water gushing from a deep and pure well.

To do this we must accomplish two things.

The first is that we as Orthodox Christians must be converted ourselves to the message and person of Jesus. There is much discussion about “cradle” versus “convert” Orthodox but the truth is that we are all converts every day of our lives whether we’ve been in Orthodoxy 80 years or two weeks. We must grow in our faith, our zeal, our knowledge, our love, our sanctification, our holiness, and joy every day of our lives and even into eternity. We cannot give others something we do not have ourselves yet for all too often we have been more a convert of this broken world then of the life giving Christ. It’s well past time for Orthodox Christians to take their faith seriously, to know it, to love it, and to have it be the very core of their lives, the source from which all of our thoughts and actions flow.

The second thing we need to do is to see the world and everyone who lives in it through the eyes of Christ. Where there is brokenness, pain, struggle, sin, injustice, and harm we must see in all those things a call on us to enter into the human arena with the message and the reality of Christ, the only source of resolution to the darkness of the world. Yes we are called to worship within these walls and quite frankly every day of our lives wherever we are, but our life of worship, is supposed to flow out of us as well, every act of charity, every gift we give, everyone we bless, every time we speak on behalf of Christ is a continuation of worship, which by the root of the English word means declaring the “worthiness” or the “worth-ship” of God. Worship, then is not simply a thing we do but the way we are.

The Church was never designed to be a static entity catering to the needs of those inside but rather a living thing, an extension of the Kingdom of God, a collection of worshipping activists who become light, salt, and yeast, in the transformation of themselves and the world wherever it finds itself and to the optimal level of its ability. Anything less, no matter how nice the physical plant, the music, the preaching, and the ambiance, is just not the Church.

It’s time for we Orthodox Christians to be who we were baptized and chrismated to be. It’s time for this parish and every Orthodox church to hear in every bit of sin and struggle in the world a call to get out of their comfort zones, relearn and re-celebrate its Orthodox Faith, and leave these walls to bring the real hope and change that will always and only be found in Jesus Christ to a world of wandering hearts seeking something, someone, anything, to bring them hope and change.

Fr. John Chagnon is the priest at St. Elias Orthodox Church in Lacrosse, Wisconsin and editor of the Traveling Priest blog.

Read the entire article on the Traveling Priest blog (new window will open).

Posted: 10-Sep-2008

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