I have had a number of people ask about my journey to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. They wonder if I’ve always been Orthodox and if not why in the world I would leave behind what I’d grown up with and accept icons and incense and honor a simple girl named Mary who just happened to say yes to God.
I have gone to church my whole life. Of course I knew that didn’t make me a Christian, but it does mean I had a deliberate introduction to Jesus from the time I was tiny. I was the little girl who went forward for almost every altar call because I was so moved by the pastor and the music and I wanted to make sure I was saved. Throughout my childhood and into my marriage I attended charismatic churches, Assembly of God, Presbyterian and finally, Non-Denominational. I learned a lot from my experiences in each church.
In 1993 my husband and I took the membership classes at a Mega Church and began ministering there in the children’s ministry, women’s ministry and youth group. We enjoyed the idea of being able to go to church on Saturday night and sleep in Sunday. The pastor was a dynamic speaker and really had a heart for God. We took the Ministry 101 classes where we took personality tests to help the staff to determine where our gifts would be most useful in the Body of Christ. We took the Christian finance classes and Evangelism 101 and many other classes.
In 1994 my Aunt, Uncle and Mom all became Orthodox. I had no idea what that really meant. It sort of looked Catholic with a pictures instead of statues. We went to her Chrismation and met some really nice people. This funny little church met in a high school gym until they could get their own building. All I saw were icons and ornately dressed pastors with collars. There was incense and they sang songs I’d never heard before without any instruments. The sermon only lasted a few minutes. There weren’t any hymns or contemporary songs. It was just plain weird. But, as time went on, we decided to participate a little, only to honor my mother…and because they had amazing BBQ meals after the major feasts of the Nativity and Pascha (Orthodox Easter). We attended the Saint Nicholas Day celebrations and were touched that they remembered our children with goody bags. But they were still wrong. They had icons which, of course, were graven images! They used incense and I didn’t see any Bibles other than the one the priest used. I was sure there wasn’t any underlining of verses or scripture memory going on there. They had no idea what the Prayer of Jabez book was and how it was supposed to change the life of each Christian who read it.
We went on like this for 10 years. My mother gave us an icon of Mary and Jesus. I thanked her but gave it to goodwill within a week or two. She took our eldest daughter to the Pascha service and our daughter came back drawing pictures of Orthodox crosses and icons of her own. She wanted to know why we didn’t like the icons. We talked about idol worship and asking Jesus into our hearts. She has already done that when she was seven, but she had a longing to be at the Orthodox Church and I had a feeling she was supposed to be there for some reason.
Orthodox Easter (Pascha) 2004 I decided to attend the actual Easter service instead of the short Agape Vespers service the day after followed by the BBQ. By this time our family had changed churches, desiring a smaller church community over the 6,000 member one. Little by little I started noticing things at our little Protestant church.
1. Most of the songs we were singing were about me. Each verse was full of "I" and "me". They were about how I felt about God or what He could do for me. They weren’t worship. Some were praise but some were very self-focused.
2. Music played a big part in the altar call. The pianist played the soft “you’re a sinner” music and my heart strings were tugged each time. I always prayed the prayer, which, according to my upbringing and understanding, wasn’t necessary because I was already saved.
3. The organization of the service was all about me. It was important to have a good band and sing contemporary Christian music with a few modernized hymns thrown in. The sermons had catchy titles with the three or five important points to each message. Media was used to keep our attention.
4. Our children had a multi-media experience during their Sunday school time but didn’t remember much of what they were supposed to have learned. The Jr. High and High School classes had video game consoles, their own band, lots of mixers and 5 minutes of Jesus and were encouraged with the idea that "Jesus is cool, just like the world".
5. When we started having our children stay with us during the service we were looked at like we were crazy and encouraged to put our children out of the service. It wasn’t because they were noisy, they were great and the elderly people loved having them there. It was the opinion of the majority of the church members that church was for grown-ups not to be experienced with the whole "body" together. Like the children had a mini Holy Spirit.
6. I struggled with the “seeker sensitive” perspective of the church. I understand being welcoming and bringing people to church, but it seemed that all the effort was put into those who weren’t “saved”. Once you were saved and made it through the introductory programs you were on your own. It seemed that over time the believers would hit a ceiling which would require wandering around on the plateau we had reached or packing up and moving to another church where we could perhaps find another spiritual morsel to keep us fed.
7. The idea that if we did ____________ we will have “arrived". There was The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life, 40 Day of Prayer. If we read through these books and applied them to our lives we would have “arrived” as Christians and need no more spiritual food. Now it wasn’t exactly said that way, but it was implied.
We didn’t know what to do. We wondered if we should start attending a family friendly “home church” or start one in our home and just do what we believed the Early Church did. So, I packed up two of my three girls and headed over the hill at 10pm to attend the Pascha service at my mom’s church. I remember my girls falling asleep, along with most of the other little children, and me just standing there crying. I cried because the choir was singing scripture. I cried because the words were all about God and not about me or how I felt. I cried because the music was what it had been for thousands of years and wasn’t being sung for my enjoyment or to make me feel a certain way, but to glorify the Lord. I cried because the priest faced the altar most of the time and it wasn’t about him being a great orator or being “relevant”. I was amazed. How could this place with all these nice people who were so wrong be so holy?!
I went home and talked with my husband. We decided we’d do some research to prove Orthodoxy wrong and then we’d move on and figure out what we were really supposed to do. After all, if nothing else we figured we’d get a good church history education. To our utter astonishment we found we couldn’t prove it wrong. If we based our conclusions on what the historical documentation supported and not what a particular denomination taught we couldn’t deny what the Early Church was. We were also confused and frustrated to discover most Protestant churches gloss over or ignore 1100 years of Church history. Our own pastor said he had only spent a day or two on that part of history in seminary! Somehow we jump from the death of John to the Bible being shoved together and skip right over to the Reformation. But we don’t discuss what was taught by the Apostles and what the Church looked like as they traveled and spread the Good News. We ignore the fact that they didn’t have the Bible when they went out into every nation baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They were Jews and the first Christians. They went out and taught the new believers what to do and how to worship by example. They wrote letters that were later compiled into what we have received as Holy Scripture.
We came to the conclusion that either Orthodoxy was THE Church or we were in big trouble. We had to challenge and question everything we’d been taught and find out what the origins were for each teaching. We were undone. We had no choice but to become Orthodox or choose not to with the understanding we were walking away from the faith of the Apostles. I read a lot, listened to my husband who’d read even more, threw a few books and finally came to accept the Orthodox Church as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
October 31, 2004 my husband and I, along with our three daughters became Orthodox. So many puzzle pieces finally fit together as we discovered this early faith. It was truly glorious and has been such a blessing ever since. Yes we have had to change our thinking quite a bit, but isn’t that what is supposed to happen with the renewing of our minds?
Here are some of the things I love the most about being Orthodox:
- The idea of Salvation being three fold. We are saved, we are being saved and we will be saved. I was raised in a once saved always saved church community. The idea that we had the free will to choose Christ but somehow that free will disappeared once we'd been saved. Instead we believe in the idea that Paul taught, working out ones Salvation with fear and trembling and running the race in such a way that at the end we will not be disqualified. Salvation doesn't just disappear, but just like we can choose to accept it we can choose to reject it. We can choose to jump out of the lifeboat and tread water and it doesn't mean we were never in the boat.
- I love that we go through the life of Christ each year.
- I love that we enjoy and use the Tradition of the Church to help us with understanding the scriptures and how we should live our lives. We believe they go hand in hand, like a map and a compass. Relying on scripture alone is like what has happened with the Constitution of the United states. Our understanding of the Constitution has changed since the time it was written. If we were to interpret the Constitution based on how the founding fathers meant for it to be understood and interpreted and implemented, we'd be doing things a lot differently. When we interpret based on our own personal, modern, understanding we can come up with all sorts of things that were never intended.
- I love the Theotokos, Mary, the mother of Jesus. I love that for the first time in my Christian life she is recognized and honor like she said she would be in the Bible. I'm not sure how she went from being a holy servant of the Lord to just some young girl who happened to say yes with the idea being if she hadn't said yes some other young girl world have...no big deal. B ut that wasn't the case at all! She was hand picked. She was from the line of David. She was set apart. She said yes and by doing so is the mother of all Christians.
- When we first started going to the Orthodox Church we wondered why we did the same thing every week. For one, it helps us to understand our faith more clearly through repetition, but it is also like C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle when the children find themselves back in Narnia, but it is the perfect Narnia. Aslan tells them to go farther up and further in and they will learn more and more about the new Narnia. There is always something new to learn and ways to grow and an aspect of the faith we come to understand in a new way.
- I like that the service is for believers to be taught and prepared to go out and tell others about Christ. Our church experience as Protestants did try and equip us to go out and tell others about Christ, but it didn't really feed the believers, it was all about getting unbelievers to believe and then, after a few years, you were kind of on your own. It was about getting people in but not about making sure the flock was always fed.
- I was struck by the fact that God never told us to change how we were to worship Him. We have the Old Testament where God was very specific and was not dependent on how I felt about it. Christ came as the final blood sacrifice, but, historically, the apostles worshipped the way they always had, as Jews, but instead of a sacrifice they would partake of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
May the peace of Christ rest in your hearts today!