Sunday, April 25, 2010

Feeling Like Such a Newbie

This morning during the homily it struck me: I know this story, but I feel like I'm learning it again.  Today was the Sunday of the Paralytic.  The story of Jesus meeting the man at the Pools of Bethesda, asking if he wants to be healed, and restoring his legs under him so that he can get up and walk home.  I've known this story since Kindergarten, I've been to Bethesda, and have even translated it from the Greek.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's not the first time I've heard this miracle of Christ retold, preached on, and/or applied to daily life.  Today it was like hearing this story for the first time again.

I'm such a newbie, and I'm actually really comfortable with that.  I have to admit that I don't know what I'm doing!  It's so bizarre to be okay with that.  I'm not the type of person who is just fine with not know what's going on, having all the answers, or teaching (read: telling other people what to do).  I'm finding that putting myself in the position of learner (not teacher) is both spiritually and psychologically beneficial.  Spiritually, I'm learning what it means to be childlike.  Psychologically, I'm finding healing in the beauty and life changing experience of the Divine Liturgy.

My previous experience in church didn't allow me to be a learner.  I had to be the teacher.  I had to have the answers to hard questions: I was a minister of the Gospel after-all.  It led to a lot of pride and judgmentalism.  I was in a position to see and experience everyone's brokenness and compare it to my own comparative wholeness.  This is the lie I told myself and heard every day for three years.  I'm finding that, as I sit on the floor of our tiny mission church, that I am too separated from what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  I am beginning to realize that I'm such a baby in the Faith.  Praise God for my parents, pastors, mentors, teachers, and others who have patiently raised me to this point; but it's time to move beyond milk toast and date syrup.  I need to eat meat--not just ground chuck (easy to chew and digest), but steak.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm contented.  I realize that I don't have all (or any) answers.  I don't know what I'm doing.  I don't know what's happening to me, but I pray that all of this means that God is at work in my life and the life of my family.  Pray for us.

Our First Sunday at Our Church

We made the decision last week.  If you've been reading, then you know this.  What you may or may not realize is that we have been sitting around as restless as if we were sitting on an ant hill, waiting for today to get here!  I haven't been this excited to go to church in well over a year.  This is "our" church now.  We have a priest.  We have a choir.  We have a calendar of church events!  What does all this mean?  It means we feel like we belong.  This isn't our first Sunday at this parish.  It is our first Sunday at this parish as our parish.  This place is where we go to church, along with so many other wonderful people!  More to come later.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Becoming Excited Again

As we begin to put some chronological distance between ourselves and the vaguely negative undertones of the previous weekend, we have found ourselves becoming excited about next weekend and our return to the OCA parish.  Partially, this stems from the wonderful reception we had there a few weeks ago.  But, additionally, we need to be part of a community again and interact with other adults.

Peter, especially I think, needs to get out into society.  I'm used to being at home all day with the baby and am actually rather excited - home now consists of a 5 bedroom, two story house with front and back yards, instead of a two bedroom apartment - but I am realizing that my introvert-self is doing just fine and I should invest in my extrovert-self, puny and neglected though it is.  For Peter, who is very much the extrovert, not only is he unemployed, and therefore spending most days on the computer filling out job applications, but he was accustomed to working at our church where, even at it's lowest points, was always filled with interesting people and work for him to do.We now have a church to call our own.  This weekend we will try to see how we can fit in there and be useful.  It's exciting to be ready for this.  We had said that we want to pour ourselves into parish life for a year, but I don't think either of us realized how much we would need that involvement for our own sanity.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

St George, Pray for Us

Last night I went to a joint Liturgy at St. George (one of the local parishes which only has occasional liturgies due to funding and size) for the Eve of St. George.  I got their late.  I always seem to arrive right at the Trisagion of Matins before the Liturgy proper begins.  I was a little disconcerted because, though it was a joint service, it was definitely more for the "regular" parishioners at St. George than for either of the other two churches.  That being said, I found my seat in a pew (still weird for me) and prepared my heart/mind for worship.

Everything was in Greek.  Everything.  I was also one of the the like four people who weren't Greek.  So that's not so big of a deal.  Let's just say that, where the Greek church from this past weekend was aware that there were non-Greeks in attendance, that didn't seem to make a difference at this church.  I say all of this in love.  God was definitely in that place last night.  I was blessed to sit next to a man named Paul who was that guy who exists in every church: completely in love with and devoted to Christ.  He moved to the back of the church so as not to bother people by standing or making deep bows while the majority of the crowd sat through a large portion of the service.  I felt incredibly honored to be worshiping with him.

The service wasn't what I expected.  Most of it was truncated.  The Greek liturgy seems to be shorter and less complex than the Russian.  If that's not true, or if there's a reason for that, let me know. 

The church was beautifully decorated.  St. George's icon was festooned with flowers of red and white, candles were let everywhere, and the pews were full!  There were four celebrating priests and a deacon who--if there was any English--was the one who read/spoke it.  There was a service at the end for blessing five loaves.  I don't know what that was.  I wasn't able to process the name, and the priest apparently mispronounced it, because one of the chanters corrected his Greek--which was kind of cute.  It was a very nice service.

I am so glad that I went.  There was a couple from our church (I love typing that) that I gravitated towards during the feast that followed.  They commented that they had spent a long time in the other Greek parish, and how happy they were to be part of a church where they could understand everything that's going on.  It's true.  Worship in your heart language is really important.  I'm glad that Greek, Arabic, Russian, Bulgarian, etc. are all languages of Orthodoxy and that there is unity between the Jurisdictions.  I'm also glad that English is becoming a Liturgical language as well in the US.

I'm so glad to becoming part of this community of Orthodoxy.  It's going to take quite a lot of getting used to, though.  I need to learn how to navigate between Greek, Russian, and English, it seems.  I'm really thankful for the work the OCA is doing by making Orthodoxy accessible to Americans.  Having visited so many different churches over time, I'm ready to begin my journey in my own language.  Please God, stay with us through all of this.  Holy St. George, pray for us.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Processing Elimination continued

Having reread my last post, I feel a bit guilty and need to apologize to any Greek Orthodox readers who may have stumbled upon our little experiment/lifestyle change.  I have nothing against the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America.  In fact, I often use their website for info about the lives of saints, lectionary, icons, links to other Orthodox sites, etc.  I have nothing against people who are Greek or converts who enter the Archdiocese.

One of the things we talked about when we decided to head in the direction of Orthodoxy was a want to be in an English speaking parish.  Understanding that a lot of people in Orthodox churches speak a native tongue other than English, we wanted to be in a parish where the main language of the Liturgy was English.  Nothing against Slavonic, Serbian, Russian, Greek, or Arabic; they are not our mother tongue, and being part of a church where we feel like we can be a part of the congregation without a foreign passport is very important to us.  Having a service where things take place half in Greek (or another language) and half in English is hard for the uninitiated.  Every now and then is fine, but if it's central elements to the worship, it's very challenging to walk in and have no idea what is going on.

I don't know how to best finish this thought.  I keep returning to the fact that we just come from a church that was very enmeshed.  As I said before, everyone was related and had grown up there.  There simply wasn't a schema for how to say "You are welcome here" beyond maybe asking you to volunteer for something.  They certainly bent over backwards when we first arrived, but those things disappeared rather quickly.  Felicity, especially, felt very alone and isolated from the life of the church we attended.  We don't want to be part of that again.  Psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, I need to feel like I'm part of a church and not just an observer--an attendee.  We did that, and that's been overdone in our family.

This isn't/wasn't meant to be polemical.  I'm sorry if it came out that way.  I'm trying to process this whole experience.  We were talking yesterday, and commented that were so thankful that it wasn't a matter of doctrine, theology, or worship.  These things are united.  It was where we felt most welcomed, invited, loved, and accepted.  No icy stares.  No cold shoulders.  No how-do-I-get-out-of-this-conversation fidgets.  I know that Fr. T. will be a great part of our spiritual journey, but he will not be our the sense that we will be attending another parish on a weekly basis.  Praise God for His priests!  May we always be thankful.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Processing Elimination

I want to begin by saying that the best thing we've encountered so far, aside from purity of doctrine and worship, is--for me, at least--the unity present between Jurisdictions.  One can go between churches, no matter their ethnic or Jurisdictional background, and hear the same liturgy, see the same gifts offered, and be connected in bonds of love and theology with anyone in the room.  Granted, this is an idealized picture; but it is accurate.  Having been to four different churches (across Jurisdictions), I can attest to the theological and doctrinal unity of the Church.  Glory to God in all things.  This is definitely the atmosphere we have stepped into.  Both priests in town have stood firmly behind each other, supporting the others' ministries, and offering us their support and guidance on our journey.  This is a blessing we didn't expect, but it is truly a wealth and treasure of our newly emerging Ecclesiology.

This weekend was really our first Orthodox weekend.  We spent all week saying morning and evening prayers (a rediscovered experience) and went to Vespers last night at the local GO church.  Aside from the priest, two readers, the wife of one of the readers, and their baby, we were the only ones there.  Pretty conspicuous.  It wasn't awkward, but it was disconcerting.  I knew that the service was new to this parish, but I had expected to see some more people.  The church was aesthetically very simple, but quite nice.  Beautiful stained glass windows, a full iconostasis with rather Russian looking icons.  The service was very informal (for an Orthodox service), and quite nice.  Fr. T. made sure to speak with us afterward and the reader and his wife took us out for dinner for a very honest conversation about their lives and their experiences at the two churches.

As Felicity and I were driving home, I felt very much that God was calling us to drive the extra 15 minutes to the OCA church.  No one, and certainly not this couple, has come out and said "Don't go there, it's a bad place."  That would be a lie.  It's not a bad place, and we had a very nice morning.  They were able to give us a little bit of history and background to help us make up our own minds.  One of the things they told us, and the thing I remember most clearly, is that the GO church has a history of drama.  Every 3-5 years or so something happens and people who've been in the church for longer than 20 years suddenly feel like (not being Greek), they're unwelcome.  One thing they mentioned that sticks with me is that the OCA church is a church family vs. an extended family.  That is an important distinction.

The church we left was an extended family church.  Everyone was related.  Everyone grew up there.  They weren't uncaring and unwelcoming, but they didn't see the need to open their doors wide and be inviting--which is part of what's brought them to their current state of turmoil.

This morning's service was confirmation, to me, that we aren't going to be going to the Greek church regularly during our time here.  This idea requires more processing.  To be continued...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Prepping for Another Weekend

Something original.  Finally.  There hasn't been a whole lot to write about that Felicity hasn't covered, but I wanted to process this coming weekend a little bit.  This weekend we're going to the Greek church in town.  Let me give you some background and then go on.

There are three churches in this area.  There's an OCA church and two Greek churches.  We will be going to either the closer of the two Greek churches or the OCA church.  We visited the OCA parish this past Sunday, met with the priest, etc.  The Greeks have been a harder nut to crack: no real website, no e-mail, not big office hours people--but that's neither here nor there.

Only one person that I know, love, and respect has suggested that I go there.  Everyone else has thrown their weight behind the OCA parish.  This puts me in a bit of a bind, emotionally.  I have no reason not to go to the Greek church.  I have no reason not to assume that the Greeks will be just as open, loving, welcoming, and amazing as those we met this past week....except that's not the picture being painted for us by people who either used to attend or used to be the parish priest there!  What's a guy to do?

Our plan is to go.  We'll be at Vespers tomorrow night around 5 and the Liturgy begins around 10 on Sunday.  We'll see how it goes.  I'm not really excited.  Is that wrong?  I have nothing against Greek Orthodox people.  One of the most important people in my life was this priest I mentioned above who made sure that we would be looked out for when we moved here.  He even called ahead of us to make sure that Fr. T. knew were were coming and we're beginning our search.  Leaving things in God's hands is so hard!

Is this what we have to look forward to?

Borrowed from Fr. Joseph Honeycutt's blog.


Number 10) At Pentecost, your church is decorated with Kudzu.

Number 9) You spell "feast" with only three letters: B B Q.

Number 8) You say "Father," "Barsonuphios," and "Monastery" without any pronouncing an "r."

Number 7) You drive 3 hours to an Orthodox Church. But, could hop, on one foot, with your eyes closed (and a rock in your shoe), to the nearest Baptist Church.

Number 6) Your services are all in English -- at least that's what YOU call it.

Number 5) There are women in your church known as: Photini Beth, Thecla Beth, and Elizabeth Beth.

Number 4) There are men going by: Athanasius Lee, Euphrosynos Lee, and Vasiliy Lee.

Number 3) You got white folks, black folks -- even Democrats -- in your parish, but no Russians, Serbians, Arabs or Greeks.

Number 2) You know someone who knows someone who knows someone with a velvet picture of Elvis celebrating the Last Supper.

AND ... the number one sign that you are an Orthodox Southerner:

You think grits are too good to be considered fasting!

(Original found at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The will of God

I'm not trying to swipe anything from Molly Sabourin's Close to Home blog or podcast, but I wanted to share this prayer.  Since Felicity and I arrived in our new locale (and I'm still unemployed), I have been pondering what God wants from us and from our lives.  The priest at the OCA church we visited this Sunday mentioned this prayer, and I wanted to post it here.

The Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.
(copied from the website of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let Tomorrow Worry About Itself

Over the past few days we have been profoundly blessed by God's grace and provision.  Through a series of little instances (coincidences, one could call them) we have found ourselves taken care of - financially, spiritually, relationally - in the midst of this tough transition.  It began with unsolicited gifts from members of the church we left in Michigan.  People who wished us well and wanted to help with the move, show appreciation or just felt God's prompting to bless us monetarily.  Then we came here and were showered with love by Peter's parents who took our little one for a few days so we could breathe, scream, cry and generally recover ourselves from all the emotional wreckage of the past few months.  When the movers brought our things the weather threatened, but held off and didn't soak everything.  We then discovered that the moving company refunded part of our deposit - a significant sum.  And, just today, I received an online order of diapers and baby wipes in duplicate due to a system snafu, customer service said I should thank my lucky stars.  I also got a call from the apartment complex where we had lived asking for a forwarding address so they could fully refund our security deposit. Cap all this off with the wonderful experience from Sunday which still leaves me with a warm glow and the message is clear: you are where I want you to be, and I will take care of you - trust Me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beginning to Pray

Felicity and I used to pray together all of the time.  We would pray Morning Prayer from the BCP, read the Psalms morning and evening month to month.  It was a pattern we both really liked, appreciated, and enjoyed.  It wasn't something we ever intended to stop doing, but we did.  Somewhere between Thanksgiving and the birth of our little crumbcatcher, we lost the plot and just stopped praying together.  We'd do it every now and then--fits and spurts mostly.  We were reading My Utmost for His Highest until the move (haven't done that in a month's time, either).  We stopped; and that was it.

Sunday night we started praying together.  I have a little blue prayer book (for personal prayers) that was given to me by the priest at the Greek church before we left.  I figured if we were going to actually begin our Orthodox year, we needed to begin.  So I found my icon of Christ in its box and put it on a little table we bought, and we started praying.  It was weird.  It was awkward.  It was a relief.  Our plan (until we settle in at a church and have a priest) is to continue in this method (morning and evening) until given further instruction.  This is good for both of us.  It keeps me from running ahead of her and prevents her from "lagging" behind.  This puts us on equal ground together, and that's a good thing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Content just to be there

I don't just want to just rehash the post that Felicity wrote yesterday.  I simply want to add a thought or two to the experience as a means of reflection for myself.  I want to think about obedience, hospitality, and contentment.

I went to church expecting another indescribably mystical experience of God's presence through His people, the hymns, and the Eucharist.  I didn't get it.  What I got was incredibly mundane and full of God's presence.  I needed those huge moments in church before to get me here.  God knows me, and He knows how I operate.  I need something spectacular to draw my attention away from whatever is the most glitzy thing towards the most important.  I've had a lot of "mountain top" experiences up until now.  This Sunday, however, was blessedly normal.
I don't mean to belittle the church, it's people, or the holiness of the Liturgy.  I am only expressing to you that it wasn't anything more than church on Sunday!  It was beautiful, sensual, and mystical; but it wasn't explosive or breathtaking.  There was no overwhelming sense of the presence of God hovering over the building.  I'm glad there wasn't.  I needed to see that this service, like so many others around the country, is made up of sinful people in need of Jesus who have come together to worship Him.  That was the most important thing I could have experienced.  Felicity and I were talking on the way home and she mentioned that we were simply being obedient to what God had called us to do.  I suddenly got a picture of the Israelites wandering through the desert, following the firey column.  Sure they were following God's brilliant presence, but they were only walking--nothing special about walking.  I realized that what I felt was content.  What I felt was at home.

The people at this church were the friendliest I have encountered in years.  In fact, the last Orthodox service I went to was decidedly unfriendly.  No one greeted me.  No one made me feel welcome.  I got icy stares from old ladies and indifference from the deacon.  At this church, I think 8 people made sure we knew about the "coffee" hour (really more of a potluck) afterward.  Before the priest had even finished his prayers, it seemed, one of the readers came up and offered to hold A. while Felicity and I went through the lunch line.  People made it a point to say hello, to welcome us, to talk about our story and theirs.  It was a truly heavenly experience.  I felt welcomed, embraced, and loved by everyone in that room.

Contentment is not something I do well with.  Like I said earlier, I crave the flashy thing in the room--not the dull brown thing I have.  I was incredibly contented yesterday.  I liked the people, I had a wonderful experience, and I felt like my family could plant itself in this church and prosper.  This coming Sunday we will be at the local Greek church which is both closer and the priest is expecting us.  In the most reasonable way possible, it is my contention that this church is going to have to be pretty amazing for us to decide on it over the OCA church.  No offense to either, and without trying to be drawn to the flashy thing; our experience was incredible this past Sunday.  I hope it is again next week.  I want to find a church home here in this new place, and I think we may have found it yesterday.  I don't know what I'm really saying anymore, so I'll stop.

Christ is risen!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Our First Sunday

This morning we went to our first service at the local OCA mission church.  We left about an hour before we needed to, but stopped at Walmart to get some snacks for the baby and arrived on time, or thereabouts.  Keeping A quiet during the service ended up being a daunting challenge, especially since Divine Liturgy began right about the time when she would usually be going down for her morning nap.  The congregation was full of small children, a number right around her age, so we were able to follow their example - taking her out when she got too fussy, making liberal use of the changing table and fellowship hall, pulling out quiet toys to keep her amused and, when all else failed, letting the older congregants take turns holding her so she could examine their necklaces, scarves, glasses, etc.
I was surprised to find that I recognized some of the music from having listened to Ancient Faith Radio.  I had assumed that the tunes were so foreign to me that I wouldn't be able to recognize them.  I have since learned that the Russian tradition has a more western tuning than the Byzantine/Greek tradition.
I enjoyed the homily, though I caught myself thinking that the service would be ending soon after it finished.  Silly me, I forgot about the whole Eucharist part.  (I actually appreciate the fact that Communion is the focal point of Divine Liturgy, not the rushed afterthought that it is in so many Protestant services.)  
Talking to Peter on the way home I related that it is hard for me to follow what is being said when it is being sung or chanted - I'm more apt to follow the melody.  He suggested that next week we grab a copy of the Liturgy so I can follow along to some extent.  We'll see how well that works.
The highlight of the morning was definitely the "coffee" hour after Liturgy.  Yes there was coffee, and birthday cake, and brownies, and about six different main dishes, three types of potato salad, two types or rice and lots of bread.  I think we met about half the church - parents of other small children, the choir director and his wife, the priest and his wife, and any number of other people who came by just to say hello.  I'm not sure how much of this is an Orthodoxy thing, how much is the small church with obvious visitors, and how much is Southern Hospitality.  I suppose it doesn't really matter.  We felt welcomed and affirmed.
Over all, about as positive an experience as one could ask for.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tomorrow and tonight

I (Peter) have been to any number of Orthodox services.  I've even been to one completely in Slavonic/Russian.  I've met bishops, lit candles, venerated relics, and talked with countless priests.  I have never been more nervous than I am right now.  I'm jittery.  I'm biting my nails.  I'm not sure why, but I haven't felt this way before attending services.  I like it.  It means that I still have no idea what I'm doing.  I'm not going in as an insider.  I know how the service works, I feel comfortable crossing myself, etc; but I am not on the inside yet.  I'm just now coming to the place where I'm willing to sit "outside" the church and listen and watch the way the ancient catechumens did before the were allowed to come in and actually hear the services.

I cannot wait until tomorrow.  God is so good!  I can't believe this past few months are going to culminate in this event tomorrow morning.  It's going to be a long drive "just" to get to church.  It's like the pilgrim trail to the holy shrine.  A journey of three years is going to "end" here and begin here as well.  To quote someone from outside of the Church: The journey of a thousand miles is beneath your feet.  In other words: if you want to make it to your destination, you have to begin walking--even if the trek is a total of a thousand miles.

I have no idea what this next year is going to throw at us.  We may be here in my parents' old house for a very long time, or it may be very short.  We may be attending this church for years to come, or we may be called overseas to serve as missionaries.  All I know is this: I want it.  Whatever this year is going to bring.  I want to experience it all with an open mouth and a heart willing to receive whatever God has in store for us.  We'll be setting up an icon corner in our house.  We'll be beginning to say morning and evening prayers together and reading the lectionary.  From there, we don't know.  Come and join us!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Now that the moving is over

We have made it to our new locale.  We're camped out in a beautiful house in the Southeast, and waiting for all of our earthly possessions to arrive.  We know they're coming, we just don't know exactly when.  Glory to God in all things!  We love our new neighborhood, though, and are currently preparing to enjoy a grilled sweet potato, onion skewers, and some marinated chicken breasts.  I don't even care how long it takes to cook!

We got a chance to sit down with Fr. C. at the OCA church we're going to visit this weekend.  I have been such a fan of the priests we have been talking to.  Fr. Ph. back home was a loving, caring, grandfatherly figure.  Fr. Hans from Orthodoxy Today was an intellect and a compassionate heart.  Fr. C. was like a dear friend.  It seems that Felicity and I are being watched over by any number of God's servants as we try to follow His leading in our lives.

There's a lot to unpack before we start to post about our experiences in our Orthodox Year.  First, we have started telling our families about our decision.  Felicity's parents have a girl living with them who is also considering Orthodoxy (an unexpected blessing) and we let them know that we'll be visiting an OCA church as well this weekend.  My parents will find out on Saturday when they ask (as they no doubt will), "Where are you going to church tomorrow?"  Our take: very humble and honest--we're going to visit an Orthodox church.  Hopefully the response will be honest curiosity and not antagonism.  Either is possible with my family.  We love each other, and we like to argue--go figure.

God is so good.  This morning while considering our upcoming conversations, I received an incredible peace about everything.  It was as if the Holy Spirit was reassuring me that He (and not we) is in charge of our salvation.  If we are faithful to Him, He is at work in our lives to shape us into the likeness of Jesus.  When it comes to telling my family about the decision to explore Orthodoxy, I know that He has already gone before us.  The funny thing is, is that I once went to an Episcopal church while living with them, and they never had a problem.  I'm not sure what I think the difference is going to be.  Maybe it's that this is going to be so different.  I've just stopped worrying about it.  With God's help, we'll be able to have mature conversations and real dialogue about theology, doctrine, etc. and hopefully they'll come with us some week!

So here we stand.  Nervous, but not afraid.  Apprehensive, but not alone.  Excited, but trying not to overdo anything.  Ready...steady.....