"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Bill Mills on Following Christ

I have had the pleasure of interviewing the Orthodox priest and pastoral theologian Fr. Wm. C. Mills over the years on here. He is a prolific writer, author of such scholarly works as Church, World, and Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology; editor of a Festschrift for Michael Plekon, Church and World: Essays in Honor of Michael Plekon; and author of numerous biblical commentaries, including From Pascha to Pentecost: Reflections on the Gospel of John, and (my favourite), The Prayer of St. Ephrem: A Biblical Commentary.

Again this past week I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his latest book, Come Follow Me (OCABS Press, 2015), 134pp. It is--as with so many of his books--a lovely, accessible, short book that cuts through a lot of the fog of "spirituality" or even "biblical theology" to allow the divine word to speak to us clearly and freshly.

AD: Tell us about your background.

WCM: Long story short, for the past fifteen years I have served as the pastor of an Eastern Orthodox Christian parish in Charlotte, NC. Like many parishes we’ve had our ups and downs and thankfully we’ve experienced more ups recently.

My Church School curriculum focused on the Divine Liturgy, lives of the saints, and some Church History, but very little about the Bible. Our family had a leather King James Bible on our living room coffee table but I never read it. 

At St. Vladimir’s Seminary I was blessed to have Fr. John Breck and Fr. Paul Tarazi who instilled in me the love of the Scriptures. While both have different backgrounds and personalities, they taught me the centrality of the Bible for preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. I am extremely grateful to have had them as my teachers and I think of them often, especially as I’m preparing sermons. 

I am also grateful to Dr. Nicolae Roddy, professor of Old Testament at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska whom I met after my seminary studies. Nicolae opened my horizons to the religious, cultural, and social world of the Bible. In addition to his teaching, Nicolae is also an archaeologist who leads an annual dig at Bethsaida in Galilee.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, Come Follow Me, in particular?

WCM: Early on in pastoral ministry I realized that I needed to dig deep into the Bible. My sermons, adult education classes, catechism classes, and teaching involved Scripture and therefore I needed to really study the Bible so I knew what I was talking about! It also dawned on me that all of our prayers, hymns, liturgical seasons and cycles, and Divine Liturgy are rooted in the Scriptures too.

My earlier books, From Pascha to Pentecost: Reflections on the Gospel of Johnfollowed by Prepare O Bethlehem and my other lectionary commentaries flowed from this deep desire to understand the biblical text. These books were followed by a A 30 Day Retreat: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Renewal, Encountering Jesus in the Gospels, as well as Walking with God, among others. Come Follow Me is a result of many years of preaching, teaching, and praying the biblical text, and quite frankly, even after all these years I still have so much more to learn.

AD: How did you decide on these particular biblical texts as ones to comment on? Is there a theme that links them or a rationale for bringing them all together?

The collection of reflections in this book are sermons that were delivered during the Divine Liturgy and based on the scriptural texts found in the Orthodox liturgical calendar. There is a slight difference in texts depending on whether you are using the Greek (Byzantine) or Russian (Slavic) lectionary. Because our parish is a part of the Orthodox Church in America we follow the Russian or Slavic lectionary.  So in that sense these chapters were not organized thematically as one would if they were doing a lectionary word study or a chapter-by-chapter commentary.

AD: A lot of spiritual literature today from the East seems to be concerned with elders on Athos, or collected sayings from the Fathers. But you, refreshingly, went straight back to the Scriptures and let them breathe directly and freely. Was that deliberate?

The Scriptures are the basis of our faith in God. The Bible is the Word of God which is given to us for life. Everything in our Christian spiritual tradition--our liturgical cycles, rites, and rituals; our prayers, our sacraments; our belief itself--is based on the Word of God. So I thought early on why go back to the Fathers of the fourth or fifth century or even the writings of someone more contemporary like an elder of Mt. Athos. Instead, let's go back to the source that these very elders and Fathers were reading--the Bible!

I encourage everyone, not just our clergy, but also the laity, to read the Bible regularly. I usually advise folks to start with the gospels or the Psalms. The Psalms are poetry and they are highly accessible and they contain a wide range of human emotions and feelings: anger, love, fear, doubt, despair, joy, and pain. Likewise, the gospels are stories which are very memorable. Almost everyone has heard of the story of the Good Samaritan or the Publican and the Pharisee.

AD: You've no doubt heard the slogans: "Jesus--yes! Church--no!" or "I'm spiritual but not religious." But can we really heed Christ's call to "Come, Follow Me" on our own, without a community?

Unfortunately so many people have been turned off to the Church because of other Christians. I’ve talked with many disaffected and disinterested Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians who have been scandalized by various types of sexual and financial abuse among Church hierarchy, the lack of real concern for outreach and service of the poor, as well as the lack of open communication and freedom in the Church, and the abuse of authority and power. So in some ways I don’t blame them for wanting to be in community.

However when we read the Scriptures we see that God called people to be in community. He called Abraham who later became the father of many nations. He called the Israelites. Jesus called the disciples. God calls us too. The famous writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said that no man is an island: we are all connected to one another in our baptism or as St. Paul said we are all members of one another in the one body of Christ. God calls us to be community, whether big or small. We are meant to be in communion with one another as we carry our cross together and follow Christ.

AD: Tell us a bit about your own rather unique parish community there in NC, and the good things that are going on.

My parish is very different than the one in which I was raised. My home parish was in middle class suburbia. A few folks were blue collar workers but most were not. Almost all were from Slavic or Eastern European roots. While everyone was kind and nice we didn’t have much outreach to the local community and I had little sense about how my faith would and could intersect with the world around me, both locally and globally. 

My current parish is in an urban centre and is very much a microcosm of the United Nations. We have families from Syria, Lebanon, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, Eritrea, India, and Romania. Our parish family has a mixture of those who consider themselves “cradle Orthodox” and “convert.”  We also have parishioners who have arrived in North Carolina from across the United States: Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Florida, Texas, and other places. We have just a few people who were born and raised in the South.

I think our social, ethnic, and racial diversity provides a strong foundation for our parish family. We don’t have divisions like many parishes have such as “newcomers” versus “old-timers” or “cradle” versus “convert.” Our wide mixes of ethnicities and backgrounds is a symbol that everyone is welcome and everyone, while having come from some place else, is welcome in this place on Sunday morning.

Our parish also is involved in a lot of outreach ministries. Each month we purchase food and cook a hot lunch for approximately one hundred men at the local men’s shelter. We also donate canned goods each month to the local Loaves and Fishes ministry as well as baby diapers and baby products to the local Florence Crittendon Center, a home for unwed teen mothers.

Two years ago we started a construction ministry where a few of our parishioners travel to another parish and help them with small renovation projects. Our first project was to design and build a one-hundred-foot handicap ramp. Last year we helped renovated a large warehouse-type building and installed a drop ceiling and a covered portico which connected the church building with their new fellowship hall.

Every August we purchase back-packs, fill them with school supplies and after blessing them we then donate them to the local school system for children in need. We also team up with the local Salvation Army and participate in their Angel Tree Program where parish families “adopt” an angel, buy gifts for them, and then bless them on St. Nicholas Day. The gifts are then distributed to needy children at Christmas. At last count we host nine different types of regular outreach ministries. Our parish ministries not only help those in need but provide parishioners with many opportunities to participate in helping those around us in both big and small ways.

AD: What do you think is the most difficult part of following Christ today for most people in North America? What do we need to give up, or do differently, to hear and heed His call more clearly?

This is a question that I’ve thought about and wrestled with for a long time. My hunch is that, by and large, we have a very comfortable life here in North America. People work, have some type of housing, go on vacation every year, put money away for college and for their future. With a few clicks on the computer I can buy almost anything I want and that often includes free shipping! If we’re so comfortable we don’t feel like we need God. Sure, we need him when we have the urge, but for the most part if we’re doing okay why do I need a savior? Yet if you look at poor places in South America or countries in Africa, for example you see that the Church is growing by leaps and bounds. Why? Because people are poor, people are hurting, they are sick, there is war, famine, poverty. People want hope, and the Church offers hope in a world full of despair, light in times of darkness. When I have almost everything I need I certainly don’t need God.

The trick is that we do need God! We have to almost trick ourselves into un-learning or divesting ourselves of our reliance on all these material things that I have: my home, my pension, my savings, my healthcare won’t save me. Only God saves through his Son. But this is a very hard lesson to learn and many people never learn it.

AD: Having finished Come Follow Me, what are you at work on next?

I have a few projects that I’m currently working on, including another sermon collection which is similar to Come Follow Me and is tentatively called Bread for the Journey. I’m also working on a book on St. Paul’s vision of pastoral care, especially his use of metaphors for ministry such as planting, sowing, harvesting, and building, among others.  Paul’s writings are a treasure trove for pastors, especially his writings on pastoral care, preaching, and teaching. Very often we go straight to the four gospels, but I encourage pastors to go to Paul. Paul’s writings pack a punch, and you won’t be disappointed!

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