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A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with an old friend about my spiritual journey. We had attended church together at a contemporary evangelical charismatic Protestant church as college students. At the time, I ardently defended contemporary worship. The songs stayed in my head for a great length of time, generally they reinforced the themes of what was being talked about in church, they were fun to listen to, and I could participate as a musician. I also appreciated things being relatively free-form. We stood at the start of services but it was generally accepted as a “starting position” from where you could sit, kneel, lie prostrate, lift your hands in the air, dance, etc as you wanted. Over time, I became very comfortable with an array of postures and utilized a full gamut regularly.

Therefore, the idea of going to a high liturgical church was a hard one for me. In my mind, everything in the liturgy equaled “script.” The minister said this, you said that. Stand, sit, kneel. Catholic aerobics done en masse. Moreover, it was the same. I once worked at a Lutheran summer camp when, in going to church on Sundays, my fellow staffers would ask the usher what service was being said. Some jargon like “Communion, setting 2” would be exchanged and my friends would know exactly what to do. I didn’t get it.

Needless to say, I was surprised when I set foot into an Orthodox Church. I did not expect to find myself there at all. To make a long story short, I was without a church and approaching the Lenten season. Being without a church during Lent was unacceptable to me so a friend encouraged me to visit an Orthodox Church near me. That is a different story, so I’ll be sure to add it to my upcoming posts list.

At any rate, the Liturgy struck me because it was far from the picture I had of it. To begin, I was simply too overwhelmed by everything in the church. I lost my eyes to the icons, I lost my nose to the incense, I lost my ears to chanting… Once I stopped trying to take everything in at once, I got something. I literally had to close my eyes, turn on my brain, and focus to the words being said. Even trying to read a service book was a bit too disorientating because a) there were a lot of things in the service book said at the same time as something else and b) my feet on the deep red carpet kind of gave me the impression that I was floating. Closing my eyes was easier. Wearing ear plugs to church didn’t seem like a wise move.

In focusing on what was being said, I found myself recognizing what was going on a bit more. The choir by and large sung arrangements from the Psalms. What wasn’t related to the Psalms was generally telling me about the Resurrection. There were some points where they told me stories about great Christian men and women in song. One woman in particular got a lot of attention: Mary the Theotokos. Yet it was clear to me that even in this odd presentation, the music presented a lot of the same benefits to me as it had previously in a “contemporary” church.

I grew bold so I opened my eyes. The reverence and solemnity of the people around, particularly on the part of the priests, struck me. People kissed things. A lot. But it wasn’t a procedural thing, people approached with gratitude and love. They did not compel me to do anything (except stand for the Gospel and the Great Entrance, but I wasn’t planning on sitting down anyway). The people at my parish let me decide in my own time how I wanted to participate. While it was overwhelming, I felt things align in my mind, heart and spirit.

In realizing that the Liturgy was far from a static structure and that it functions as a vehicle to ensure that the life of the Church is conveyed, I came to trust it. Over time, I’ve learned that my way of participating is not something that is entirely unique to me. Granted, there is a time and place for worship postures, but they generally flow with how I personally want to worship at that time.

Since Tony-Allen asked what I meant, I figured this post was a natural place to start.

My catechumenate is unique in the sense that God has seen it fit to relocate me professionally twice since I began the process. As such, my job interviews and other assorted travels brought me to parishes all over the United States. Although these relocations have been difficult, I do feel like I have come to much greater appreciation of the Orthodox Church as a result of all of my travels.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over all of my travels is that the Orthodox Church is not contained in any one person, parish, or principality. While I have a definite friendship with my priest who welcomed me into the catechumenate, I have been a part of churches in 3 archdioceses.

Here are some tips to making the most out of travels within the Orthodox world:

  • Call ahead, even if you are an inquirer or catechumen. Priests will definitely look for you if they are expecting you, but it can be easy to feel a little lost if you’re going to a bigger parish.
  • Take time to soak in the environment of a new parish. Different churches can use different antiphons, interchange speaking and singing parts, and use language differently (for instance pan-Orthodox parishes tend to have parts of the service be “Lord have mercy” in an array of languages).
  • If a parish offers a service that you normally wouldn’t experience, try to make it a point to go. It could be a Western Rite service during Lent, a Vespers service, a Matins service, a mid-week service of some stripe, etc.
  • Give yourself time to adjust to different priest’s styles about spiritual direction. Many priests are interested in hearing your story about how you came to the Orthodox Church so be prepared with a short version when you go.

Let us commend ourselves and each other and all of our lives unto Christ our Lord.

Upcoming Posts

Hello everyone,

Sorry for sparse blogging this week, but I’ve been on vacation. Who knew that vacations would be so fun, so relaxing, and so capable of pulling me away from the internet?

With that, I would like to let you know some of my upcoming posts because I’ve had time to brainstorm and want to remember what I think I want to blog about here. Here we go.

  • The Feast of the Transfiguration
  • Coming to Trust Liturgy
  • Being Lonely within Community
  • Traveling as a catechumen
  • The role of one’s spiritual father
  • My first visit to the Orthodox Church
  • The Theotokos

Anything else that you can think that you would want a post about?

And today is a day honoring Saint Herman of Alaska. What a witness!

The following is an essay that I wrote several months ago about coming to the Orthodox Church.

——-

What does it mean to “be a Christian?” American society has some interesting ideas to say the least. To some, being a Christian is synonymous with being abstinent: Christians “don’t smoke, drink, or chew, nor go with girls who do.” To others, being a Christian means aligning yourself a certain strand of politics such as the Moral Majority or the Progressive Left. To a growing number, being a Christian means pursuing biblical scholarship with the intent of purging the Church of historical oppression and making everyone feel welcome whatever his or her personal creed. To another growing movement, being a Christian means to follow Christ as best as one knows how usually using one’s conscience as a guide.

All of these options have some truth in them. However, they fail to address key facets of what it means to find one’s life in Christ. Living is messy business. As we try to be in the world, but not of the world, we are bound to face challenges beyond our individual ability to pray, reason, or adapt. Living in Christ means hiding ourselves in Him (Colossians 3:3). We are called to abide in Him and walk the same way in which He walked (1 John 2:6). We are called to be transformed by the renewing of our minds that we may know God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Most directly, Christ commands us to be holy as the Father in Heaven is holy (Matthew 5:48). How in the world are we, sinful as we are, going to approach this Christian life by our own merits and doing? The answer lies in a simple truth expressed in Acts 11:26, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

There are four things to notice about this simple truth. Taking them in contextual order, for no reason than that an order must be presented, we see first that we are “in Antioch.” This reflects a geographical location intimately acquainted with the social and cultural framework of the day. Second, we see that there were “disciples.” Let it not go without saying that this word is expressed as a plural, representative of the unity present within the early community. Third, it is in this time and place that we have this “first” event. The necessity of the word “first” expresses that this practice spread beyond this place and time. And finally, we have the word of choice “Christian.” Why did the three elements of place, community, and practice join together to cross the biblical threshold of what it means to be Christian? Moreover, how does the life of the Orthodox Church reflect these three elements throughout history to present day?

To begin, we have a place. The Bible bears witness to Antioch as being a place where a significant number of Greek Gentiles heard the apostolic teachings of Sts. Barnabas and Paul. The inclusion of Gentiles and their customs challenged the early Church particularly when it came to the question of rites of initiation. God addressed this issue by sending Peter to see the Holy Spirit fall upon a group of assembled Gentiles in the same way of the first Pentecost (Acts 11:1-18). The Apostles and elders of the Church gathered to address these issues again (Acts 15:1-29) with the Church together making the decision. Gentiles and their customs where welcome with the noted exception of certain foods and sexual immorality. This establishes a firm precedent within the Church of extending welcome to those outside of her doors while at exactly the same time calling her people to live in holiness according to the Spirit of the Law.

This canonical precedent helps us move beyond Acts 11:26 towards the life of the Church today. The official pronouncement of welcome was not made in Antioch, but in Jerusalem. Moreover, while several bore testimony, it is not Sts. Peter, Barnabas, or Paul but St. James extends this decree. The elders came together as one body and, in good order, made a statement reflecting the life of the Church that allowed it to go beyond the first Jewish disciples. This precedent continued when Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the gospel to the Slavs. The question related to Liturgy and catechetical education. Drawing testimony from the Pentecost where those present were enabled by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of the day (Acts 2:7-11), the Church continued her practice of celebrating Liturgy in the vernacular of the people. Orthodox missiology seeks to identify intrinsic parts of culture that honor God and the places within the culture that point people towards fullness in Christ. However, the Church body as a whole extends the welcome and erects the necessary fence for that culture. This community partnership remains evident even today as the Orthodox Church extends into North America.

Community forms a central part of an Orthodox Christian experience. As noted earlier, “disciples” is expressed deliberately in the plural. The defining mark of those following Christ is the love they have for one another (John 13:35). Tertullian aptly stated, “One Christian is no Christian.” The earliest record of Christian community places apostolic teaching at the forefront (Acts 2:42); in Acts 11, we read that the community is under the instruction of Sts. Barnabas and Paul. This connection with the Apostles is essential because there were many false teachers. Sts. Paul, Peter, John, and James all warn about the teachings of false teachers. Implicit in this statement lay a belief that the new community is safe within the bounds as defined by the Apostles. Here again, the plural is essential. One Apostle on his own could be in error as evidenced when St. Paul confronted St. Peter on his fear regarding eating with Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-14); however, the unity of the Apostolic Tradition, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, empowers believers to this day.

Returning to the text again, the final pronouncement is that of being “first.” The nature of first necessitates that a continuum of second, third, and fourths are able to follow. The community at Antioch was Christ-centered, Apostolically-instructed, and mission-orientated. These communities remain and exist through to this day. The mere presence of the Holy Scriptures and ancient creeds speak to this community. Divinely inspired letters from the Apostles to various Christian communities circulated widely in the Church to provide instruction for life in Christ and were canonized to be the Scriptures we know today. As Christianity grew through the first centuries, the Creed evolved through the first two ecumenical councils to be what we confess today. The words of the earliest believers remain on our lips and permeate our hearts. The witness of the seven Ecumenical Councils guards us as believers today from falling away from the original deposit of faith. Moreover, a cloud of witnesses, faithful men and women throughout the ages who have found their rest in Christ, surrounds us (Hebrews 12).

And with this, we arrive back to the original question: What does it mean to be a Christian? Literally, to be a Christian means to be a “little Christ.” As we look for daily guidance, it is appropriate to turn to the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the creed. Today, the Orthodox Church stands as one church, united through the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist. Today, the Orthodox Church remains true to the teaching of the Apostles, standing firm against all heresy and division. Today, the Orthodox Church has spread far beyond the geographical confines of the Middle East to be universal, becoming truly catholic. And today, the Orthodox Church remains true to the teaching of the Apostles.

The key feature of life in Christ through life in His body is to recognize that the only stability exists in the Church as a whole. As individuals, we fail; as a community, God promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We must all strive to become like Christ in every way, laboring together and encouraging each other along. In the Orthodox Church, we find ourselves in a continuum outside of time and space. It cannot be contained in any person, parish, or principality. The call is to follow Christ to be like Him; I am of the firm belief that the Orthodox Church gives the necessary tools for this pilgrimage towards Heaven.

Shifting Perspectives

Of everything that I am learning about following Christ, one of the hardest lessons is “it is not all about me.”

Orthodoxy has challenged me in this regard to the deepest degree. At first glance, church is not the way I would like it to be. Music is simple singing. Chanting sounds funny. Standing hurts my feet. Sometimes I go and feel like I have wasted time. My friends and family find going to church with me to be boring. Sitting at coffee hour with tables means I talk to people. My present parish has a multitude of small children. During the week activities happen at 0700.

What happened to my contemporary music services with engaging sermons that I could apply to my life? What happened to the small group focus groups where I could choose who in the church I hung out with?

It seems that over the last 18 months, I am learning to die to myself. I am struggling to be remade. I find myself craving for the stories of the Saints to figure out how they managed to die to themselves. I find myself struggling to pray but grateful for all of the reminders that I am not alone. I am coming to grips with the idea that certain things are mysterious, but that does not make them bad.

In short, I am recognizing that it is in my weakness that I experience the most frustration. Yet, as I take steps back, I realize I am on the road of true transformation.

Lord, have mercy.

Discouraged

Today is one of those days where victory and defeat come simultaneously. I have to realize that the world does not understand the Orthodox faith. I do not understand the Orthodox faith as it often strikes me as too great a mystery to ever fully be known. Yet, now more than ever before, I am called to be an evangelist.

In so many ways, Orthodoxy is good news! While She does not shy away from moral instruction, She charges those in Her fold to an ever-greater pursue of Christ-likeness. Each person enters his or her own ascetic struggle within the broader ascetic struggles of the community.

Yet some people can only see the externals. They see that we have male priests and bishops; therefore, the Church must oppress women. They see that we use a Liturgy that finds its origins in the time the Apostles; therefore, the Church must be outdated. They see that we practice confession; therefore, the Church must be trying to regulate every facet of the community’s life through legal means. They see that I as a catechumen cannot partake of Holy Eucharist; therefore, the Church must be exclusionary and discriminatory.

My heart grieves.

To Struggle

If I had to reduce Orthodoxy to one verb, I think I would pick struggle. As Christians, we are called to struggle so that we may be united to God in Christ. Even looking at Christ, we see struggle as a central theme. Christ lived for 33 years in constant obedience to the Father even to the point of the cross. The fervent prayer modeled by Christ brought Him to the point of sweating blood (Luke 22:44).

Most of us do not know this magnitude of struggle although the Saints provide witness. Instead, God calls all of us to struggle against the passions. In many ways, this struggle is the requirement of being an Orthodox Christian. Are you willing to struggle? Do you want to fight the good fight? Do you want a lifestyle of repentance? Thankfully, God bears us in our weakness of body. Both Sts Mark and Matthew record Christ’s words that provide comfort to so many Christians along this journey, “Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38).

Nail our flesh to the fear of You, and do not incline our hearts to words or thoughts of guile. But wound our souls with Your love, that ever looking to You, and guided by You in the light, and beholding You, the Light ineffable and everlasting, we may offer ceaseless praise and thanksgiving to You. A prayer of St Basil the Great from 6th hour.

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