Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Coming up empty

This week has been really hard.  Beginning at the beginning, Felicity's parents visited church this weekend.  We had let them read Frederica's 12 Things article to prepare them for the service.  Even though they've had a girl living with them who is also exploring Orthodoxy, they've never been to the Divine Liturgy before.  (In case you don't remember, her parents grew up either irreligious or very strictly fundamentalist.  Neither is very comfortable around a lot of ceremony.)  This Sunday being Pentecost, the service was really different.  We didn't even know what was going on, and trying to help them follow along was also hard.

The trip back home was really nice.  A lot of good conversations: what was happening when..., why did they..., what did that mean...? Good questions, good conversation.  It also continued into the afternoon and evening.  They both thanked us for taking them and I think they're doing some processing of their own.  My mother-in-law kept saying, "I'm a Protestant!  This is so different!"  Not in a bad way, just as an observation.

Sunday afternoon I also had a conversation at a McDonald's with my parents.  My mom kept calling it my "Greek Orthodoxy Thing" (she doesn't get Jurisdictional heirarchy any more than I do).  She asked me "Is this Jesus plus?"  No.  "So you don't worship Mary?"  No.  "Transubstantiation in communion?"  It's still bread and wine, but it's not just bread and wine.  I felt really blindsided by the conversation.  I knew it was going to be coming up, I just wasn't prepared for it.  Their main concern was that we spend time thinking about all that we're doing--as opposed to just popping up and doing it because it's new and shiny.  Good concern to have.  They're very wise people.

If a few weeks ago I felt fine not knowing anything, I don't feel that way anymore.  Why is it so hard to have a good day after you spend the morning and evening praying?  Why are the attacks so much more violent now?  How come I can't "greet the coming day with peace" or see "everything that happens as sent by You"?  Why does our relationship feel more strained than it used to?  How come I can't just answer the questions our parents ask?  I'm just coming up short in so many ways, and that's very hard.

The past few days have been very hard as well.  My last check from the old job comes this week.  I work for very little money--not enough to really pay all of the bills that we have.  I had a really good interview on Monday with a school down here, but I'm still waiting to hear if I'll have a job or not.  No one else is calling.  This is where real life meets fantasy, and I'm caught somewhere in the middle of it all.

It's hard to keep praying, when praying seems to make things harder.  It's hard to stay faithful, when you realize that you haven't given as much thought to what you're doing as your parents (or others) think you should have.  I know we're only in the beginning of this experience.  I know there's more, better things to come.  Right now, the sky is dark and I'm waiting for the moon to rise.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Parents' Visit

This past week we enjoyed a wonderful vacation in a beach side condo with my parents.  Oh the joy of Sabbath.  The week culminated, after our return home, with my parents coming to liturgy with us.  It was their first time in an Orthodox service and maybe their second in a liturgical service - they usually attend a non-denominational, "low threshold" church (see my previous entry about growing up in the Vineyard).  We did our best to prepare them by talking about the service and having them read Frederica Matthewes Greene's essay "12 things I wish I'd known..."
The service itself went well, aside from it being Pentecost so following the Liturgy in the book was difficult, and my mom took a break from the incense for fifteen minutes or so after the homily.  Coffee hour was great, since it gave them a chance to talk to some members of the congregation.
I think the toughest part, at least for my mom, was the lingo (Theotokos, antiphon, anaphora, Eucharist, etc.). As she said "it takes Christianese to a whole other level."  Somehow we also failed to impart the fact that the iconostasis (you know, the wall with the pictures at the front) separated the congregation from the altar, not a storage closet.
Overall, it was a good visit and led to many conversations.  My parents are very interested in parts of Orthodoxy that I haven't thought about.  For instance, missions has always been big for them and they wondered how modern Orthodox reach out to the "unchurched", both in the States and around the world.  It's definitely something we will be looking into - I know Orthodox mission organizations exist, but that's about all I know at this point.
Basically, I think as long as we can keep the communication lines open they'll be okay with our eventual conversion - if we decide to go that route.  They don't seem to be opposed to anything in particular, just ignorant.

Here's one final anecdote from the weekend that I'll share because I found it to be very encouraging:
On Saturday evening, after a long conversation about Orthodoxy and the upcoming service, my mom asked my dad if he recalled the first time my grandmother had visited their church shortly after they were married.  Oh yes, he remembered.  My grandmother had always attended very strict traditional churches (my mom grew up Brethren, at the time I think she was attending a CMA church) and my parents were worried about her reaction to their more modern non-denominational church.  I think they were mostly concerned about the extreme difference in musical style, but come the Sunday of the visit a rather charismatic guest preacher spoke on the gift of tongues.  My grandmother, however, slept through most of the service and didn't have nearly the reaction they had feared.
Hearing this story, I thought back over all the conversations Peter and I have had about how our parents may or may not react to our exploration of Orthodoxy.  While my mom had no knowledge of those conversations, it was clear in that moment that Someone who did knew I needed some reassurance.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Still on vacation

Sorry we haven't updated recently.  Currently, we're still on vacation in North Myrtle Beach with Felicity's parents.  I hope you all have had a blessed week.  We'll be updating more after this weekend.  Her folks are coming with us to church on Sunday!  Prayers, please.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Xenia and Amelia

I'm beginning to settle into the pattern of our new church life.  I find that I enjoy saying morning and evening prayers and am becoming more comfortable praying in front of/with our icon corner.  My Protestant, Evangelical, Post-Modern self is relaxing, letting the Spirit work in ways that I previously never thought possible.  For example, we recently acquired an icon of St. Xenia.  She's rather obscure, as saints go and, from what I've read, lived out her faith in a way that most people would find ridiculous.  But, she got it.  She knew what was required of her and she did it faithfully.  When I see her icon, I'm reminded of the sacrifice she made, of the life she lived and the life she chose not to live, and I pray that she can help me do the same. 
I've never before made that sort of personal connection with a dead Christian (though I realize that is very much the wrong phrase).  The point remains: the "great cloud of witnesses" has, up until now, been just that - a cloud.  It was nice to know that a nebulous group of believers who lived through history had "gone before", but for the first time I'm beginning to see them as individuals with stories and experiences.  A "great cloud" of untapped spiritual resources who all want me and my family to succeed in this crazy journey and draw closer to Christ than they did in their own time on earth.
Another saint who seems to pop into our lives a lot is St. Amelia/Emily/Emilia.  She's also not very well known, in fact I wonder how much of her popularity is due to her life's work and how much is due to the prevalence of Emilys and Amys who take her as their patroness.  In any case, I was struck by the bit of text that is often found on her icons: "I and the children I have born".  As a young mother myself, I find that this simple phrase strikes deep.  It's hard right now to imagine my daughter as doing anything great in the world when she can barely walk from the living room to the kitchen without falling over, much less this new baby who will (with God's help) be born in a few months.  Yet I know that they will not always be babies, that someday they will have the opportunity to make a significant impact in the lives of others and, as their mother, it's my job to help them recognize those opportunities and give them the courage to seize them.  It seems both a simple and an impossible task, and it is reassuring to know that at least one mother did it so well that she was made a saint.

Not yet a catechumen

Sunday morning was funny.  I had a look at "the other half" while sitting just outside the doors to our little mission at a table.  My daughter A was acting up in the service, so I took her into the other room.

A little background on our little girl.  She's one.  9:30 is nap time.  10:00 is Liturgy.  You can see the problem that would arise from the collision of the two.  We try to get her up early on Sunday (6:30ish) to put her down for an early nap (8:15-:30ish) and then get on the road by 9:30 to be there by the end of the Hours and the beginning of Liturgy.  Around the Homily the little one gets restless, and it's usually Daddy who entertains her while Momma (who is incubating #2) can sit through the rest of the service.  (We usually change an incredible amount of diapers in this 2hr period.)

The aside being completed, the little girl and I were sitting at a table in the hall/narthex trying to pay attention.  While we were sitting, she started to eat cheerios from her little cup.  Another little girl was sitting across from us with her mom.  They're Orthodox.  Keep in mind, we aren't yet.  Little girl, probably 3 years old (at the most) points out that my little girl is eating cheerios.  It's actually really cute, because she really needs her mommy to see that the other little girl gets to eat (and I assume that the extension is, how come I can't eat).  Her mom whispers in her ear - she informs her little girl that because we aren't Orthodox, we don't have to fast on Sundays, because we aren't taking communion.

I'm comfortable being where we on our journey.  I believe that God is directing us, and we're following His guidance as best we can.  I'm not trying to rush anything.  In matter of fact, we're very contended where we are, waiting for guidance before we move any further in.  Not yet a catechumen.  Really not much of an anything.  But we're there to worship.  We're there to offer our praises to a living God who loves us and saved us from sin.  Lord, have mercy on us and bring us safely to the harbor.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Prayer corner

Felicity and I have received a very gracious gift from some friends at church.  They're moving (sadly) and needed to pass on some of their icons they won't have the room for, and haven't used in quite a while.  First thing that I discovered, nothing is accidental.  Second thing I discovered, when you open yourself up to who may be in your life, you discover just how many people are in your life.  Here's out little icon "corner":
The icons, in order of appearance are: Christ (center), St. Damiano Cross (top-center), St Herman of Alaska (top left), St Seraphim of Sarov (Top right) St. Xenia of St. Petersburg (bottom left), St. Nicholas (Bottom right) with a synaxis of the angels center bottom.  On the table we keep some print-out icons from the GOA and a paper diptych.  The center Triptych will be going in the car, eventually.

Here's where the first of my discoveries comes in: Nothing is accidental.  I've had the St. Nicholas icon for about 3 years, now.  It was a present from my roommate.  I got him in Grad School when I learned he was the patron saint of scholars (along with, apparently, everybody else).  When I first made real steps to explore orthodoxy, some "friends" on the Monachos dot Net website told me to look into the life of St. Herman.  Someone else told me to look into the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov.  Lastly, when I lost my job, numerous people told me to pray to St. Xenia of St Petersburg.  All of these are now currently situated in our home altar.  Nothing is accidental.

I wasn't sure what we'd discover in our Eastern Orthodox year.  So far, I have to say, things are really good.  I feel like people are going to bat for us.  Our priest is watching out for us and praying for us.  People we hardly know are giving us icons of men and women who have connected themselves to our family.  What a day.  What a great God.

Through the prayers of Sts. Seraphim, Herman, Xenia, and Nicholas may God have mercy on us and save us.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Meetings with priests

Lunch this afternoon with our priest.  We don't really have a topic of conversation to throw at him, but we want to sit and talk and pray and learn from him.  I haven't really sat down next to a member of clergy and talked about something non work related in a very long time.  I'm really excited just to be around him, hear more about his story, and to hear what he has to say to us about our spiritual journey.

One thing we do want to talk with him about is our personal spiritual life as it stands.  We've been praying morning and evening for about a month, and less frequently reading the daily Scriptures.  I want to talk about his, hear his advice and direction, and enjoy his input into our lives. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Let Us Attend: Part 1

Last weekend we were finally able to give again.  It's been a long time since we've even tithed.  Not because we haven't wanted to, mind you, but we were waiting to find a church to belong to--and as such to give regularly to.  Having found this, we were able to express freedom and love in one fell swoop.  This is just introduction.  Thank you for reading.  Now let's move on from personal to religious affections.  (That's right.  Jonathan Edwards in an Orthodox blog.  Thought I'd put that out there for my Protestant brethren.)

I picked up a copy of Fr. Lawrence Farley's Let Us Attend: A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  If you haven't had a chance to read it, you can find it at Amazon and Conciliar Press.  I had listened to Dcn. Michael Hyatt's "At the Intersection of East and West" podcast about Fr. Schmemann's For the Life of the World, so this isn't new material on an intellectual level; but I've never been so blown away by the profound simplicity of the journey that is the Divine Liturgy.  Today was an example of that realization coming home to me.  I kinda want to take some time and process this book as I read it.

Destination: The Kingdom of Heaven.  When the priest stands up at the front of the church, makes the sign of the cross with the Gospel book, and makes the opening benediction, he is inviting everyone around him--the whole world--to come with him on a journey to the Kingdom of Heaven.  I'm sure most of you realize this, have read it, or have heard it explained to you before.  To me, this is revolutionary.
        As a Protestant so much of our services seemed to be focused on "getting God to show up;" as though if we sang the right songs, prayed the right prayers, and preached out of the right book (biblical or not), then God would show up and we'd sense His presence in an exciting way that moved everyone in the room to tears.  All very contrived.  All very artificial.  All very subjective.  All of it dependent on the person in the pew, and if you don't have that experience it's that other person's fault.  (so there!)
        We've now been going to an Orthodox church for a month, and the expression "God really showed up today" has yet to be said.  If this were a new Protestant church, I'd be tempted to blame it on the music, the preaching, the whatever.  I think the reason no one says that in the Orthodox church, is because it's assumed that God is there already; and we're on a journey to meet Him.  He's there whether we realize it or not, but what a brilliant experience of transcendence if we're able to recognize His presence among us and celebrate along with the whole of Creation in its beauty.  God is in this place.  Come and meet Him.  That's what I hear the priest say when he invites us to come along to the Kingdom.

Reminder/Invitation: Right after the priest sets our spiritual compass toward the Kingdom, we pray.  We pray for everything and everyone.  According to Fr. Lawrence, this is called either the Litany of Peace or the Great Litany, depending on the church or the person.  Apparently, this was once said right after the Catechumens went out of the room and before the Faithful took communion.  It wasn't until the 13th century that it found its home at the front of the service. 
        Fr. Lawrence describes this action as an incredible act of love.  That the Church gathers into its arms the hurting, the poor, the lost, the suffering, the defenseless and places them before the Throne.  "[The Church] may think their work hopeless and beyond their strength.  But in this petition, the Church invokes a strength beyond theirs; and all such workers for peace, whether Christian or not, are helped by the Christian God, the Savior and Lover of all men, and the Giver of peace to His world." (Farley, pg. 18)  Everything in the natural and political world is prayed for.
        Praying for mercy at the end of each petition, the Church is asking for God's covenant loyalty or hesed.  i was really struck by this idea.  When I first heard "Lord have mercy" in my first Orthodox services, I was taken aback by how pejorative it sounded--as if God were angry and needing to be appeased by our feeble, human petitions.  This isn't the case!  This is about calling on God to remember His loving kindness and everlasting loyalty.  Christ's promise before leaving this world was, "I am always with you."  We're taking that promise to heart and asking Him to be with everyone--this whole sick, broken, twisted, dark planet that He came to save.  It's like the church invites everyone to come along with them on that journey to the Kingdom.  "Give me your huddle masses..." and let me care for them, she says to the world that is so tilted and slanted towards the rich and powerful.  Whoever you are, whatever you've done, come to the Table and taste of the good things of the Lord!
        I know that, technically, the priest gives the invitation; but the people gathered, the laity--the people of God--echo that invitation to those around them (both inside and outside) to come and see.  We're not just inviting people to church so that hopefully they'll pray the prayer and escape the fires of hell and the fear of the "rapture".  We're inviting people to a celebration, and singing festal songs as we go.  I was realizing today that the Antiphons are really processional/festival songs.  In the OCA we sing Psalm 102/3, 104 and the Beattitudes.  We sing to "hallel" Psalms (Bless the Lord, Oh my soul... and Praise the Lord, oh my soul...) and then remind ourselves what Kingdom citizens look like: poor in spirit, meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the persecuted--outcasts and underdogs whose God loves them and blesses them and invites them to have a relationship with Him.

I'm still processing all of this.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that, it's not about God showing up and us having an experience to tell others.  It's about going to meet God, experiencing His real presence in our lives, and telling others of the love that we've found.  God doesn't "show up".  We show up; and He invites us to follow Him further up and further in, singing as we go.