Monday, March 22, 2010

Transitioning away

Yesterday, the church where I (Peter) have been serving for the past three years announced my departure.  As of yet, only a handful of people know that our plan is to "depart" in so many other ways--which is probably for the best.  Nothing says, "We're ungrateful" like leaving your denominational church in the dust as soon as you leave your posting there.  Not wanting to burn any very wonderful bridges, we'll be slowly letting people in on the "secret" as we transition into our new life in a new state.

Complications as of now include getting everything in our small apartment packed up in time for the movers to come on either Good Friday or Holy Saturday to be at my parents' house by Pascha.  Thrown into the mix that neither of our families know yet of our intended move into Orthodoxy for the next year, and neither of us are really looking forward to those conversations.  My father would also like me to apply for a position at their church.  I'm trying to patiently explain that I'm not looking for church work right now, and that I'm also not going to be going to any churches that they would recognize (or probably feel very comfortable in).

I don't know what to expect out of these next few days.  We're both a little bit confused, concerned, and disconcerted.  I feel like God is going before us less as a pillar of fire, and more like a lightning bug.  We're following Him the best that we know how, and trying to take all of these things as they come our way.  I know there's more to this life than just a weekly paycheck or the daily grind, but those are things I've grown accustomed to, and I'm not sure that I'm looking to replace them with anything else.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Getting to this point - his story - part 3

Orthodoxy re-entered my life in seminary.  My friend S. moved into the fourth bedroom of an apartment I was sharing with some friends.  He had just begun his catechesis during the early spring of that year.  I have no idea what it was that drew me in, but our relationship is one of the most important in my journey to this point.  During the summer months, I read a copy of Eastern Orthodoxy Christianity: A Western Perspective in order to get an understanding of where he was coming from.  Having lived my life under Western presupposition, I was caught off guard by the stark difference I saw in his developing worldview.  That book was incredibly influential, and really opened my eyes to the "otherness" inherent in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Sometime during that year together I went to my first Divine Liturgy.  I was told to make myself comfortable, sit towards the back, and soak it all up.  Having been to enough Anglican services I guess at a couple of the crucial points where I should stand (little and great entrances, et al.); but I mostly confined myself to a pew on the side of the church where I could observe my friends and store up my share of questions.  To tell you the truth, I was mostly put out by the whole thing.  I remember being really offended that so much happened behind the iconostasis.  I was also really confused by the constant repetition of "Most Holy Theotokos, save us" and I couldn't follow along in the service book at all.  Basically, I was completely lost and felt really sleepy afterwards. (I found out later that this is apparently all really really normal.)

I talked with the priest after the liturgy, and had an excellent conversation with him.  He recommended I pick up a prayer rope and gave me some basic instruction in the Jesus Prayer.  I also prayed with my roommate every couple of mornings through the Morning Prayer rule of the Jordanville Prayer Book.  It was a very different experience.

Nativity that year my roommate was baptized and went to the service.  It was like watching someone being born again.  Literally.  The person who came out of the font was not the same person who went in.  He was truly reborn.  Holy Saturday that year another friend was baptized and I stayed for Pascha.  I think at that point I realized that someday, I would be making this choice.  I just expected that it would be year from now...a long long time.

When we moved, I got in contact with the local Orthodox priest for occasional chats about ministry, faith, and  practical spirituality.  He would give me advice on fasting and prayer and would sit down with my wife and I to talk about God or just to be friendly.  It was a wonderful relationship, and his prayers were really important to me during my time here.  Now that we've reached the point of making the decision to explore Orthodoxy, I see that God has been brining us slowly to this point without ever making us feel like we were being coerced. S. and I still talk each week about faith and life, and he's an amazing friend to listen to my rants about what we're going through.

We're nervous about the upcoming conversations that we're going to be having with our families.  It's going to be very hard to get my parents to understand what we're doing.  My father will have a very informed (usually by Christianity Today or Chalecedon Report) opinion, and my mother will have a definite opinion: This smacks of [Roman] Catholocism.  So here we are.  Standing on the brink, waiting to plunge in.  I'm excited, terrified, and very much aware that we move forward by God's direction only.

Getting to this point - her story - Part 2

In the past year, things have moved very fast in many areas of our life together.  We had a baby, moved three times in an unsuccessful attempt to buy a house, and finally came to the realization that Peter's position at this church isn't going to work.  Through all the stress and pressure, we've learned a lot about ourselves, our marriage, and our faith and, a few months ago, we were faced with the stark reality that, given the choice, we would not choose to attend this church.  Now, with his position drawing quickly to a close, we're not bound by a paycheck to attend anywhere and that choice again belongs to us.
This is the first time in our marriage that we've had this choice, and we've realized the importance of truly choosing together.  We did go to church together before we were married, but it was almost by accident: he was a good friend who had a car, and I wanted to go to church, which one didn't really matter.  After a while, I continued going because I liked him and our rides home usually included lunch pseudo-dates (but that's another story).  That sort of decision making (if one could even call it that) was not going to work this time around, it's more serious and we need to be intentional.  The church we choose will, probably, be the first church that our daughter (and new baby due this summer) remember attending.  It will send a message to our parents about what type of family we will be, and how we will make important decisions in the future.  There is a lot of pressure from all sides to get this right, and to be able to defend our choice.
In the midst of all this, Peter began to toy with the idea of being ordained.  I'm still not sure how serious he was (or is) about the idea, since he'd always avoided the topic before, but it certainly served as a useful way to narrow our focus.  If he wasn't comfortable being ordained in a given denomination, then we didn't want to consider it in our "church shopping" (a horrendous phrase which I dislike using - it seems to equate choosing a church with choosing a pair of shoes or a box of cereal, as if it were that trivial).  Perhaps some would resist our resolutely chopping off entire branches of Christianity in this way, and I'll allow that not all churches under any given theological or ideological umbrella are uniform in their beliefs or practices, but we simply aren't willing to wade through all the choices one by one (I don't have the stamina, frankly).  In any case, it became obvious fairly early on that we were looking for some specific things, and number one among them (Liturgical Style) cut out most denominational churches and the vast majority of non-denominational ones anyway.
Having had a very good experience with an Anglican church in college, we found ourselves leaning that way.  Peter called an old friend, who has since become an Anglican priest, for advice. His asked a simple question, which was predictable, because he knows my husband, but still caught us off guard, "what's stopping you from going all the way and becoming Orthodox?"
It took us a while to answer that.  Eventually, we realized that it was mostly fear of the unknown and of disappointing and alienating our families, that stood in the way.
I feel I should take a moment here to explain that I had not really come to feel "called" to Orthodoxy to this point.  I had always found the idea interesting, but in the same way that one finds the idea of being the star in a big stage production interesting: fun to dream about, a thrilling part to play, a "wouldn't it be cool if" scenario, but not anything that I, as a normal, average person, would ever get to do or, honestly, be very good at if given the opportunity.  Now the reality of that opportunity stared me in the face with a very real, very frightening supposition behind it: are you willing to give up your family for Me?
It had never occurred to me that I might come face to face with the choice presented in Luke 14:26: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters...he cannot be my disciple."  And yet, here was the choice: become a part of this community, take the ideas seriously, follow and support your husband, obey the tug in your heart and be willing to anger your parents for the sake of it,  and face the possibility of that relationship not ever fully recovering - or - take the safe road, keep your parents happy, sing happy songs about Jesus without ever really knowing what living them out looks like, and always live with a twinge of regret, wondering what would have happened if you had chosen differently.
I'd like to say for sake of dramatic effect that the process of making that choice was hard and that we wrestled over it for a long time, but we didn't.  Over the course of a single evening (whose date I should probably have recorded, given it's significance), we decided that, if nothing else, we needed to give Orthodoxy a try.  We still aren't really sure what that means.  We haven't had "the talk" with our parents about it (though I have gained insight, thanks to a good talk with my sister, into how best to have it with mine).
Until the end of the month, we can't really move forward.  Even though he's officially resigned, Peter's last day is still two weeks away.  After he's done, after we move, then we'll begin what we've termed our "Orthodox year".  We'll find a church, become involved and, after a year, see what steps forward or back need to be taken.  I have a lot of learning to do, a lot of Protestant assumptions to overcome, a lot of doubts and confusion to be cleared up.
It will be another busy year.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Getting to this point - his story - part 2

My first contact with the Orthodox church came on a study tour of the Bible Lands.  We saw Coptic and other Eastern Orthodox churches, chapels, and cathedrals in Istanbul, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.  We were even privileged enough to go into St. Catherine's Monastery after visiting hours and see the grounds while the brothers took their mid-day nap.  After all that I saw, I pretty much ignored it.  I was 18 and arrogant, very Presbyterian, and afraid that all of this idolatry was seeping into my system.  There are only two icons that I can remember seeing that stuck out to me--both of them frescoes of the Resurrection.  The image of the triumphal Christ remains firm in my memory.

The Orthodox church fell off my radar after that trip.  I still had postcards of mosaics and icons that I showed people as souvenirs of the trip, but they held no real spiritual significance for me.  I know that I was supposed to see the Sinai icon of Christ, but I have no recollection of it.  I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and my only excitement was that I had spent the school year researching it, and my interest was purely academic.  There was nothing that stuck in my psyche (my soul) to keep me attached to the Church.

One year in college, we had a day of prayer (actually, this was an annual occurrence; but this is the only year that I attended the Orthodox service) there was an Orthodox prayer service.  The flier listed it as Vespers.  I was intrigued, and so I went with a really good friend who, it turns out, grew up Roman Catholic.  The service was either a Paraklesis or an Akathist service.  I honestly didn't know the difference at the time, and I still am unsure which service it was.  Either way, it was a service in praise of the Virgin Mary.  I was slightly taken aback and refused to say things like "ever-virgin" throughout, yet the service stuck with me.  I was left with a question after that service: How do we fulfill the requirement to call Mary blessed?  My father's response: we read that passage and remember that she gave birth to Jesus--no more; no less, and that was where he left it.  That wasn't enough for me.  For me, there was something missing in that response: it wasn't enough.

I traveled about for a little bit during college.  My friend invited me to the Easter Vigil at the local Anglican church my senior year, and my worldview was blown wide open.  I had never celebrated Christ's resurrection with such joy and gusto.  People were literally whooping in the church, shouting, raising their hands, and praising God at the top of their lungs!  At that point I was hooked on liturgy; and I coincidentally went to a very liturgical Presbyterian church for a time as well.  I was being pursued by the ancient Tradition of the Church.  During seminary I attended weekly mid-week liturgy with some friends of mine and generally tried to convince my girlfriend that this was actually worship and authentic and true.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Getting to this point - his story - part 1

I was raised in a very pious Christian home.  My parents were loving, dedicated, faithful.  They were committed to seeing me and my brothers grow up in the Faith and to become leaders in our churches and our families, following God wholeheartedly in the world and in the church.  Daily prayer time and Bible study were a regular part of our upbringing.  By the time I was in high school I had read every book in the Bible several times.  One of my lasting memories of my mother and father will always be their daily prayer time-- before we were supposed to be awake-- heads bowed over their Bibles and interceding for our family, our [future] wives, and the world around them.

I was always that kid growing up.  I had all the right answers in Sunday School, and breezed through the tiny Bible school where I spent one year after high school.  I have never ever allowed myself to doubt the tenants of the Reformed tradition in which I was raised.  My TULIP was tight as a drum and not relaxing for anyone.

And then I went for a semester to a very Calvinist institution and saw the level of hubris I had achieved in my 19 years.  I couldn't take it anymore.  I still thought I was correct, but I wasn't willing to be so smug about it.  I wasn't going to sit around judging other Christians as being in a lower caste of redemption because they didn't believe the way that I did.  When I transferred to the school where Felicity and I eventually met and formed a relationship, my uptight Protestant upbringing was relaxed and my receptivity to other religious backgrounds was high.

Getting to this point - her story - Part 1

Years ago when my future husband and I began exploring the possibility of being in a relationship, we spent many an evening doing laps around our small Christian college campus talking about our lives - past, present and future.  I quickly realized that he had something of a jump start on me in the theological realm.  He had very definite views on many issues, many of which had never even been discussed in the non-denominational, come-as-you-are, theater-style mega-church that I was raised in.  Needless to say, I felt a bit intimidated, as well as challenged to learn more and decide for myself whether or not I agreed with him.
Also about this time, I noticed that while my soon-to-be husband had been raised in the conservative branch of a  mainline denominational church, he had this strange fascination with very traditional churches - namely Anglican/Episcopalian.  (At one point I even thought that he had been raised in that tradition, he seemed to know and care so much about it.)  While I went with him to services and gradually became accustomed to the arcane style, the idea of considering it "my" (or, rather, "our") church never occurred to me.  Surely, I thought, this is just a phase.  It's novel, but not anything to seriously consider.  After all, these churches are dying out for a reason, right?  People who grow up in a church like this become "Chreaster" Christians or reject the faith entirely, don't they?
I'd always been taught, and therefore intrinsically believed, that "real" and "alive" churches were the ones with contemporary music, young families, and crazy holy spirit stuff.  A sign of a "good" church was one where the services were so full that you needed a team of parking people and an army of greeters.  Anything less was either a church plant of the above mentioned church, or a kingdom leftover: it was nice a hundred years ago, but we've moved on to the bigger, the better and the more relevant.
All this to say, the whole traditional thing was nice for visiting, nice for an intellectual change, but I knew it would lose all of its significance as soon as it became normal; when I had memorized all the prayers and didn't have to think about saying them, when I could stand up, sit down, kneel and cross myself without thinking about it - literally going through the motions - then it would be dead to me, just like it surely was for all the sorry people in the pews beside me.
It took me a long time to really appreciate denominational churches.  Eventually, I began to recognize that knowing academically what one believes can (and should) play a role in how one worships on Sunday.  I began to appreciate the truth and beauty of hymns and memorized prayer.  Shockingly, even though we said the Lord's Prayer every week, it didn't become a meaningless recitation.  By the time I left college, I was ready to join a denominational church, and my fiance was thrilled.
By the time we got married, my family was beginning to understand that I was moving away from the church of my youth.  I had attended various denominational churches through college, was marrying a man who would soon start a position at a denominational church, and we used hymns and a piano in our wedding (no drums, no guitar, no giant screens).  My sister had even come with us to an Anglican prayer service, though she roundly denounced the whole thing as stiff and unapproachable.  "No outside person would feel comfortable in there," she told me, and she was right.
But, I made the switch.  I joined a denominational church, with all its tradition hanging around like Miss Havishams' wedding cake.  It would be acceptable to assume that I used this to justify all the things I had thought about such churches before and would be high-tailing it back to a "living" non-denominational church.  To the contrary, I grew to appreciate the traditional aspect of the church and was deeply saddened by the spiritual apathy around me.  The general congregation seemed unable to connect their real lives to the life of the church, and it was that disconnect which led to spiritual death, not the traditions themselves, as I had previously thought.  Through this realization, I felt a pull towards the more ancient roots of the church, the source of those traditions which had piqued my interest.
As one might expect, my husband's fascination with all things old and ancient was not a phase, and did not end, but had indeed grown stronger over this time.  For a while we attended a midweek service at the local episcopal church. (We usually doubled the attendance - the priest, a woman of course, was very nice and grandmotherly, her usual assistant was a lesbian - and they didn't seem to know what to do with us.)  He established a small closet in our apartment as an icon corner, saying prayers every morning while I either read my bible or slept (usually the latter).  Then he announced that he had struck up a relationship with a priest at a nearby Greek Orthodox church.  I wasn't really sure what to make of this (found it rather strange, to be honest), but the guy was very nice and cared about us quite a bit, so I let it go.  While I wasn't hostile to it, I wasn't on the bandwagon either.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

So this is it

I wasn't planning on writing anything like this any time soon.  I had expected that years from now, when my parents were too old to care, my wife and I would finally decide to make the slow, arduous journey towards the Orthodox church.  That's not the case, as it turns out.  In light of recent, painful, but not unexpected events we've been asked to take a hard look at our lives as a young family and decide: are we where God wants us to be?

When faced with that question for the first time (really for either of us in the past two years of our marriage) the answer was a resounding "we don't know."  That was a little disconcerting.  I think we assumed that we would continue in our little wayward path for as long as we could until something came along to shake us up a little bit.  As it turns out, something did, and now we're asking the question for which we don't really have a good answer. It seems that in the realm of Important Questions, "we don't know" is a bad answer.  When in the realm of important life-altering, theological questions about the very nature of the Church, Salvation, and family unity "we don't know" is a safe answer.  Safe is, apparently, not the road we're going to walk; because our road is pointed directly into the miry clay of an Eastern Orthodox Year, trying to decide if we'll ever make the full switch.

I say "miry clay" not as pejorative statement, but as an honest look at the coming year.  It's not going to be easy, it's not going to be very fun most of the time, and it's going to be really frustrating before it gets any easier--if it ever gets any easier.  We have a lot to consider in all of this.  There's a whole new epistemology to consider.  There's a new ecclesiology to come to grips with.  There's a new heirarchy.  There's a whole new lifestyle that neither of us is really sure we're prepared to step into.  But into it we step, eyes as open as they can be and with faith like a mustard seed.

We don't have much of a road map.  I'm not sure if that's good or bad, really.  But here's the general idea: spend a year, completely involved in parish life, and at the end of that year, decide if we're going to become catechumens and join the Church.  So there it is, in brief.  Let's see how this all progresses.