The Church Is the Life Saving Station
By Father Luke A. Veronis
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought of themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown!
The Church as a lifesaving station! What a beautiful and accurate image! Many Church Fathers described the Church as an Ark, like the Ark of Noah that saved his family from destruction. The Church is a lifesaving station that should reach out to all people everywhere.
Unfortunately, many Christians forget this universal vision of God, and limit our Orthodox Church to caring only for a particular people. We sometimes make those who are different than ourselves feel unwelcome, and even unloved. Such parochialism has plagued our Church for too long, and we must see this narrow worldview as contrary to the essence of the Church and to the mind of Christ.
Jesus reached out to all people in love, and welcomed even the worst of sinners, foreigners, or heretics. He saw everyone as children of our heavenly Father, and thus, our brothers and sisters. He fulfilled the words of Isaiah: “Even though a mother may forget her child, I can never forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand.”
This unconditional, universal love we receive becomes the motivating factor behind our desire to share Christ’s light with others. We understand that God blesses us with His love, so that we can then reflect His love onto others.
The whole meaning of Orthodox Christianity has to do with looking outward, remembering the other! The Philokalia teaches “Blessed is the one who rejoices in his salvation, but even more blessed is the one who rejoices in the salvation of the other.” We can see how St. John Chrysostom concurs with this spirit when he states, “I do not believe in the salvation of anyone who does not try to save others."
The Church as a lifesaving station, looking out into the ocean of humanity and trying to be a beacon of hope! This is our sacred call and the astounding privilege we have as God’s people.
Today, on Missions Sunday, we are asked to pause and reflect on how we as individuals, as well as how we the Church, are fulfilling this hallowed responsibility.
Do we possess a truly universal and missionary spirit? Surely, a Church and her pastoral team must take care of their own people! Simultaneously, however, the Church community must remember her call to be yeast within our general society. This means being a light to the non-Orthodox and secular people around us in America, as well as offering an overall witness to the entire world!
His Beatitude, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania warns that a egocentric worldview reflects a distorted understanding of faith: “The opposite of love is often called hatred. But its real name is egoism. This is the denial of the Triune God who is a koinonia (a communion) of love… Any spirituality that is devoid of the element of universality, of the struggle and agony for the salvation of “all the world” is a crippled spirituality.”
When we cultivate such a “missionary mind” within ourselves, and within our communities, we begin to see our faith not as a private affair, as many secularists try to claim. Our faith, and Christ’s light within us, becomes a public matter. Jesus clearly taught, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
One way for this light to shine to “all the nations” is through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. The OCMC in Florida acts as the central vehicle of our Orthodox Churches in America to bringing God’s love to all peoples throughout the world. By sending missionaries to various nations, our Mission Center helps us realize that the Church in America is one with the mission churches in Africa, in Asia, and in South America, because we all are part of the “one, holy catholic and apostolic Church.” We should never view the world as “us and them.” When we show indifference to others worldwide, we ignore our own brothers and sisters.
You can become partners in this universal work of the OCMC through your prayerful support, through financial donations, and maybe through your decision to take part in one of their mission teams, or even by becoming a long-term missionary yourself! By participating in the work of the OCMC, you are fulfilling your responsibility of being worldwide Christians.
A lifesaving station that shares God’s love with those around her. A lifesaving station that becomes the yeast of Christ in our general society. AND a lifesaving station that treats all people of the world as beloved children of our Lord. Such a holistic, universal outreach represents an authentic lifesaving station, which lives up to its original calling. This is what it means to be the Orthodox Church!
Fr. Luke Veronis is presently offering courses in missiology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and St. Vladimir's Seminary. He is also serving the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Webster, MA. He and his wife Faith have served as missionaries in Albania for more than 10 years, and in Africa for a year and a half. He is the author of "Missionaries, Monks and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations." Fr. Luke graduated from Penn State University, Holy Cross Theological School and Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Mission.