I recently wrote a letter to a dear friend. In it I told her I had become Orthodox and tried to explain why. It is a complicated story and long and detailed, but I told a part of the story in an eleven page handwritten letter. Having spent the time to put this together, I am now thinking that perhaps it is worth sharing. I will change little, except to keep her name private and perhaps some details for the protection of others, but these are minor changes.
I’ve had something I’ve wanted to talk to you about for some time. Your life has been so wild, but even more than that, it has been a strange and difficult journey I have been on. It has been so very private and painful that I didn’t know how to talk about it with you—probably the one person who knows me well and deeply enough to have the right to ask questions I was struggling to coherently answer—questions I thought you might ask. Also, I have been strangely concerned that this might put a gulf between us, a thought which is unworthy of the person you are and the friendship we have.
On June 2, 2012, I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church. As you can well imagine, this was surprising, and followed many months of study and struggle.
Having become increasingly frustrated by the gulf between my parents and my brother, and seeing something new in him, I went about analyzing what he believed and what the Orthodox Church taught, so that I would know where my brother had gone wrong. He was so respectful during this time, never once trying to sway me and in fact, since we’ve been living on the east coast, the only time he has asked me to go to church with him was for his own chrismation (a service/ceremony which brings a baptized Christian into the Orthodox Church). We smiled and quietly thought my brother and his wife had lost their minds. It was so foreign that it was hard to even notice the words. None of the music was familiar, the priest and a few others (who were they?) wore robes made of brocade fabric that looked for all the world to me like very fancy tablecloths. It didn’t help that they covered the table (altar) and stands with linens of the same fabric. They swing brass censors on long chains, filling the church with smoky incense and there were candles and icons everywhere. Altogether it was foreign…and yet…over the next several weeks and months, I kept remembering all that I had read in the Old Testament about the building of the tabernacle and the ordering of worship.
Still, I could not see myself in that church and believing what they believe (although in most respects we were in agreement). I continued at my church, becoming as involved as I could be. My brother and his wife moved at some point in this process, then we moved closer to my office, but further still from my church.
Forty-five minutes is a fairly long drive for church and makes it difficult and expensive to be involved in any kind of meaningful way. I was becoming restless there as well, feeling that as much as I loved the people, the church was oddly shallow in some ways, the teaching rather shallow, the fellowship lacking and found myself longing for something which did not require such reinvention all the time. Why, I wondered, not for the first time, was it that it seemed Christians were struggling so hard to find the right way to reach people? Why were we trying to twist ourselves around to draw people to Christ? Was scripture not enough? If we invited people to share in truth, in the true Word, in true worship, would people not respond?
I don’t mean we needed to endlessly sing praises and hymns written in 1920-something, but why was everyone trying so hard to twist the church into something so unoffensive and—well—bland? And where was the respect and appreciation for those who preserved the faith, preserved Scripture, throughout nearly 2,000 years?
I was longing for something I could not quite name, but Holy Week was coming and I could not seem to find any service recognizing and “celebrating” for lack of a better word, the events of Christ’s life leading to Good Friday and finishing with a triumphant celebration of the resurrection. Had I been at home, I would have attended “The Thorn” and that may have satisfied my longing. I wasn’t looking to do this on my own, I wanted to celebrate/commemorate these things with others.
I couldn’t find any place locally to do this that wasn’t Catholic, so I was left to long for something I could not get…but there was at least Easter service. I was looking forward to celebrating with my church.
I left our Easter service in stunned disbelief. I don’t recall what the series was that the church was going through, something like Life Management or Financial Management (Christian/faith emphasis, of course), but the series continued on Easter Sunday, albeit with an almost parenthetical nod to Easter, where Christ’s resurrection was illustrated with a Jack-in-the-Box (I kid you not). I was horrified, stunned and disbelieving. The resurrection! What most Christians count as the most joyous event in human history, a mere footnote, an aside? The story told lightly with a children’s toy?
What on earth was wrong with the church? How do Bible-believing, devoted Christians get to this point? Why would anyone change their lives, their way, repent from sin, to follow a God whose followers tell His story like this?
It baffled me, but I loved (love) these people! I know their hearts (I think) and these folks love God, want to serve Him, and have hearts filled with generosity to the poor. They are active in caring for the underprivileged. But…
I had begun to go with my brother and his wife to their church whenever I went to visit them, treating it as an oddity or perhaps like visiting a foreign country—camera in hand. It wasn’t often we were with them, but it happened two or three times or more every six months. We’ve been in VA for about 22 months now, and they moved about two or three months after we got here. So when I say we’ve been with them 6-8 times, I don’t think it’s an understatement.
During the worst of my struggle, I confess to new despair. I had discovered some things in my search that I did not want to find. I sought to disprove the claims of the Orthodox Church only to find them to be true. While we agree with many things the Orthodox Church teaches, some things are not only against or other than what we’ve been taught, they are not what I want to be true!
Could I handle this? My first and greatest stumbling block is what the Orthodox teach about Scripture. I have been taught Sola Scriptura—or Scripture Alone. As I understood what I was taught, each and every person is able to understand and rightly interpret Scripture through personal study. No outside help or interpretation is really needed. As part of that, we believe that the Bible is true in each and every word, every dot, every punctuation or grammar mark—every single detail, and must be interpreted or read as literal (except for places that are “obviously” metaphorical, allegorical, or parable).
I despaired when I came to realize the role of the Church in creating, writing, choosing and defining what Scripture is. If men defined what is and is not Scripture—if the original documents were infallible in every single thing, how would we know that what we read is truth. No one has the actual original documents! In the case of the Epistles, well it is believed that many were dictated by multiple scribes at the same time, probably in multiple languages. So was it the words that Paul, Peter, James, etc., were speaking that were infallible and inerrant? Were the transcriptions (each one) inerrant and infallible? What about the gospel accounts? Why aren’t the events exactly the same, in the same order and having the same spoken words? Are these books perfect??
You can imagine how such a study shook me. And what did the Bereans study that made them noble? What Scripture did they have?
The early church (from Pentacost)…what Scripture did they have? What letters circulated through the church? The gospels weren’t written for some time…and yet the Church was established. People were taught, baptized, shared communion, and had services together long before what we know of as the Bible was written, gathered and determined by the Church to be Holy Scripture. How do I reconcile this with the teaching that Holy Tradition is simply the teachings of man? If the Church councils are reliable and trustworthy enough for us to rely on for the very determination and codification of what made up Scripture, can not those same folks be relied upon for other things? Or to put it another way, how can I ignore what they said and did in other matters, yet rely upon them for such a major and monumental thing? If I deny this authority and call them simply men, then is not the very nature and authority of Scripture put in doubt??
You can imagine my despair and near loss of faith. And yet…I cannot deny that I know and have known God (though certainly not in His fullness). I cannot deny what I have seen and heard, what my heart and spirit have known and witnessed.
At that point…very alone, sad and at the near end of me, I decided to rest. Rest and trust. To count on what I know, to grasp onto the goodness of God and though my entire world be shaken, to follow where this led.
It seems too late to say “…and to make a long story short…” but truthfully, I am abbreviating much, for others say it better and more clearly.
The early church used images, not as worship, but as…a focus, a reminder of those who have gone before—that great crowd of witnesses. They used incense, and in fact incense and fragrant smoke is seen throughout scripture. We sing and pray scripture throughout our services. We are liturgical, we are ornate, just as the tabernacle and the temple was ornate, as the early church (as much as possible). We are Eucharistic and we are creedal.
So much of this feels strange and foreign, but I am okay with that. I have favorite doctrines that are hard to let go, but I have determined that if the Church, that one, true, Holy, catholic (small “c”) and apostolic church teaches it, I will accept it, no matter how difficult.
I understand how horrifying this may sound. I truly do. Some have screamed and argued with me, some will scarcely speak to me. Some blame my brother, however, it is not him. He did not push me. To the contrary, he always made it clear that I was welcome to visit any other church “where I would be comfortable” when I came to visit them.
Let me end with the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
So there it is, my beloved friend. I have new (old) music which fills my heart and my head, to which I lay down and rise up singing. I have met martyred saints, and a richness that I could not have imagined.
C.S. Lewis once said that education should teach not only right thinking, but right feeling and an appreciation and awareness of what is GOOD. I feel I have been given new education.
Love to you,