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My journey into Orthodoxy was not easy. But it is not meant to be easy. It challenged me (and continues to do so) to become the person God has created me to be, and to recognize my place in His Body, the Church.
When one becomes Orthodox they are called a “convert,” which helps to emphasize just how much of a change one must experience. Becoming Orthodox is not simply acknowledging one belief system as being superior to another. It is an ontological change, meaning it regards your entire being.
In order for the conversion process to be authentic, one must encounter this mystical body of Christ and not ask, “What do I like about this that I can choose from?” rather we must allow ourselves to be shattered upon the Rock and rebirthed into a Son of the most-high God. One of the best images of that is the phoenix. I remember reading about how Harry Potter, while sitting in Professor Dumbledore’s office, was surprised to see the Professor’s bird burn up in flames. It is later rebirthed anew and begins a new life. Other ancient Orthodox accounts also draw on this parallel between the rebirth of the phoenix and the death of the old man and our resurrection in Christ.
I was raised in a conservative Christian home that leaned toward the charismatic, tongue speaking side. I attended non-denominational churches throughout most of my youth and student years. I enjoyed that type of worship for several years and stuck with it through college because it seemed alive and not full of “dead traditions.”
After college though, I became disillusioned with the modern American church scene, which often seemed to contain more hype and emotion than an authentic and life-changing presence of the Holy Spirit. I began to dialogue with other Christians as well as atheists through a blog network. These dialogues forced me to consider points of view I never knew existed. Consequently, I adopted the view that “everybody has it wrong and I don’t know what to think church is supposed to look like anymore.” My wife and I dropped out of church for a couple of years and I committed my time to studying the Bible and church history.
Eventually, I connected with a few churches in my area but couldn’t fully commit to one. I thought of that as a virtuous sort of thing, because hey, none of them had it fully right anyway. At least in this manner, I could cherry pick the things I liked.
I was a worship leader for years and, it seemed, no matter where I went I ended up assisting with or leading their music. I found minimal fulfillment in leading worship. It was exciting while doing it, but the warm feelings were temporal. When I left the parking lot of the church or outreach ministry, I felt the return of a nagging restlessness and emptiness.
THE RESTLESS EMPTINESS
What to do with these unpleasant feelings? Being the typical American Christian, the answer seemed obvious: become more busy with “serving God.” I hung out with the homeless one day of the week, reached out to the unchurched another day, went to a Bible study on another day, was involved in prison outreach, Sunday morning worship, etc. During a period in which I was jobless, I was involved with various spiritual communities almost every day of the week.
While a desire to be involved and serve God is admirable, I knew there was something missing. No matter how involved I was, the warm fuzzies of the event would fade away and I was left with my restlessness, emptiness, and even loneliness at times. I attempted to manage my sin the best I could, but it had the upper hand. I was a slave to my sinful desires and I exhibited self-destructive behavior that hurt both me and others.
Something had to change.
WHAT IS THIS ORTHODOXY?
I tried the charismatic movement, I ran in progressive Christian circles, and I even considered starting my own home church. Nothing had a satisfactory answer.
A spiritual mentor of mine suggested I look into Eastern Orthodoxy (he himself was not Orthodox but had friends who were). I gave him a dismissing waive, telling him I had read about them in my history books, “They’re nothing more than the Roman Catholic Church of the East.” He told me there was much more to it than that; there was a hidden depth and treasure of spiritual knowledge within Orthodoxy. I highly respected his opinion and tucked that conversation away to chew on later.
My spiritual journey continued as I outlined above: full of busyness and emptiness. But I found something odd: I kept “bumping into” Orthodox Christians in my online discussions as well as their theology in some of my readings. Every time I had a differing opinion with them, I found that I agreed more with the Orthodox Church than I did with myself. After a year or so, I sighed and decided it was time to take the advice of my spiritual mentor seriously.
As with many inquirers, I began with Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way. They were good primer books that helped me to understand some of the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Church. After reading most of the way through those books and having several discussions with Orthodox bloggers, I decided the only thing left was to make an actual visit to an Orthodox Church.
For several months I wanted to attend an Orthodox Church, but I was afraid of letting people down. Eventually, I decided I would not be controlled by my fear of people’s opinions and I would go where I felt God was leading me. This was an important step for me.
I had a difficult discussion with the man who was at that time my pastor. While not everyone would need to talk to their pastor about leaving their church, I was part of the Sunday morning worship team and, on some Sundays, the primary leader. The pastor was disappointed to see me leave, and I felt a bit guilty for letting him down. I told him it might only be for a month or two. I had no idea what God had planned for me.
ENTERING A FOREIGN LAND
We were completely lost.
About half of the service was in Greek; they were swinging incense around; many people were coming in an hour late (we were one of the first ones there and were only a couple minutes early); people were standing and sitting over and over; there was (what seemed to us) a random procession where the priest walked out with some shiny dishes in his hands and everyone became solemn; there were conversations around us in Greek (nearly everyone there was Greek); and we hadn’t a clue what was happening. With all of this chanting and singing, I wondered when they would begin the actual service. There was a sermon at one point that, while brief, struck my heart and I longed to hear more.
After standing (and some sitting) for two hours they began a memorial service and I looked at my wife and whispered, “You ready to go?” She nodded emphatically and the two of us quickly walked out just as people were going up front to receive a piece of bread.
What just happened in there? we both wondered and asked aloud once in the car. Trying to be positive, I said, “That was an interesting cultural experience.”
Soon afterward, we decided to check out a Russian Orthodox parish that was a little further away. As we walked in and looked around in our usual clueless manner, the elderly priest walked up to us with a smile and explained that they were going to be doing their first service ever partially in Slavonic. We nodded and said, “Ok, thanks for letting us know” as I thought, “Slav…what?” There was something deep and loving about that priest, and even though we were bored with the liturgy, I felt a tug in my heart to return.
By then, my wife was finished with experimenting in Orthodoxy, though she did not oppose my continued exploration. I frankly couldn’t blame her. And if it wasn’t for an incredibly powerful and irresistible tug in my heart toward it, I would have given up on Orthodoxy as well.
Growing up in charismatic circles, I had grown used to live bands, words on large projector screens, upbeat music, and an entertaining and sometimes emotional sermon that took up most of the service time. It was the Sunday Morning Show.
To me church was supposed to loosely follow this format:
- Opening song
- Three or four more songs
- Sermon (which took up a majority of the service time)
- Altar call
- Closing song
Every time I visited the Orthodox Church, I found that I was waiting for the service to actually begin. It was then that I realized that my subconscious impression was that Sunday morning services are a sermon with an opening act, which is ironic considering I was a worship leader for years.
One day, I heard that there was another Orthodox Church much closer to my home. I visited the all-English Carpatho-Russian parish and found the people to be quite inviting. After a couple of chats with the priest, he recommended a book to me called Introducing the Orthodox Church in order to help acquaint me with the service, the theology, and the church building itself.
I was repeatedly challenged in Orthodoxy: so many of the concepts were foreign to an American and charismatic Christian like me. Many of my struggles included the role of Mary the Theotokos, praying with the saints, a service that was not open to changes on a whim, submission to hierarchy, the exclusive claims of Orthodoxy as being the Church, and –as strange as it may sound- the repeated requests for God’s mercy. Aren’t we all already saved, I thought, why keep asking for God’s mercy?
But there were many aspects of it that I found to be refreshing: once I was used to a different style of worship, I realized there was a deep beauty to it. In the Orthodox Church there was no rock star worship leader or superstar pastor who took it upon himself to be the center of Sunday morning. Instead, I found that the Eucharist was celebrated as the actual body and blood of Christ made present among us, and that was the center of attention – Christ’s (invisible) presence in our midst. And it wasn’t even talked about so much as it was acknowledged through experiencing the service.
With that being the case, it was very unpretentious. Sure there are clergy with fancy vestments, incense, and bells. But no Sunday morning rock concert, no motivational speech, no hype, and no warm fuzzies. You were expected to simply show up with a ready heart and meet God there.
I also realized the altar call (which began during the revivalist movement) was absent from the typical Sunday morning service (called the Divine Liturgy). That really bothers some people. How can we get people saved without an altar call? Of course, in order to answer that, we should pose a better question: what does it mean to be saved?
In Orthodoxy, salvation is not an event that happens to someone (i.e. a prayer and a mental ascent to a particular doctrine) so that one can escape hell and go to heaven later. Rather, it is a complete change of heart and being in which one’s entire self must be crucified with Christ and resurrected in Him so that they can intimately become one with Him in this life and the next. Most of the time, that process of change is a lengthy one.
THE TRUE EARLY CHURCH
After arriving at the Carpatho-Russian parish, I spent a few months waffling. Part of me was ready to give up on the boring liturgical services and go back to something with a bit more hype and excitement. I was having difficulty engaging in the services. Also, some of the above mentioned theology was challenging.
So, I spent months studying the writings of the ancient church within its first 120 years after Christ’s death and resurrection. Many Protestants have a desire to return to the “early church;” quite a few (myself included at that time) think the Church became completely pagan by the time of Constantine.
But my studies blew away all of my assumptions regarding what the early church looked like. (You can read some of those writings here, they are called the Apostolic Fathers.) I had to confess that most everything I was learning was contrary to the fantasy I had in my head about the early church.
I learned there were bishops whom one was required to submit to if one wanted to be a Christian; the Eucharist (communion) was considered the actual body and blood of Christ; services were liturgical in nature; only baptized believers were allowed to stay until the end of the service when the Eucharist was served; there was no mention of instruments being used in worship; there were days and seasons of fasting; and many other things.
As my historical research progressed, I could not help but admit, somewhat unwillingly, that the Orthodox Church was the early church they were claiming to be. However, that is not what convinced me to join. After all, what good is the claim to an outward structure and worship format if there is no life within?
END NOTE: My intention is not to bash the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches — I love them both. There is a large Greek population that the local parish is serving; and in regards to the Russians using Slavonic, they only use it sparingly in one service per month. I have also come to appreciate the beauty of this ancient language. Much of the music I listen to nowadays is in Slavonic.
All images taken from Valaam Monastery’s website, valaam.ru, except the photo of pentecostals, which is from wikimedia commons.