Thursday, July 29, 2010

Catechism breeds impatience

I'm sorry that it's been a month since I last posted.  Felicity came down on me the other day because she's been blogging more regularly than I.  I've been through a lot in the past few weeks, and it always seems to happen when I don't have internet connection.  For example, I was in Annapolis on the world's longest job interview and had no internet connection the entire week!  So when I got the job on Wednesday, I wasn't able to do anything about it in my internet life.  Having had time to process a lot of this, allow me to start with my point made above: Catechism breeds impatience.

That could be unfair and inaccurate.  Perhaps more precisely, being catechized enhances my already natural predilection towards impatience.  Understanding that we were being patient until the notion of being catechized was presented to us by our priest last month.  After talking with him, lots of prayers, and considering our position we thought it best to step that much closer into the Church.  Since my new job brings us to Upstate, New York, we wanted to go to a new parish as Catechumens with the blessings of our priest than as "inquirers" and remain nebulous for another year.  So on July 25th all three of us were welcomed into the Church and began our Catechesis...three weeks before we move to a brand new state, city, parish, but hopefully not jurisdiction.

I had a dear friend tell me that Catechism was the beginning of a long life spent waiting.  Learning patience, I assume.  Our priest hasn't given us a lot of instruction as newly catechized members of the church, though he has given a little direction.  I think I expected a huge list of stuff to start doing (or stop doing) in preparation for Chrismation and life confession.  And that may still come from our next parish.  Right now, I'm trying to fit into my new clothes of Orthodox Christian.  It's so much the right thing and so much different from what I used to be.  I feel as though I've come home into the fold.  That The Good Shepherd finally found his 100th sheep wandering and was able to coerce it back into the fold without breaking its legs.  But maybe not.  Maybe He carried me in, and that's ok, too.

Monday, July 26, 2010

After a very busy week

This will probably not be a very long entry, but it is necessary to do a bit of updating - hopefully we'll have time to fully reflect on all these changes later on.
Over the past week or so we have had two very important developments, both in our "normal" life and our "Orthodox" life - as if one could separate the two.
The first is that Peter was able to land a teaching position at a school in upstate New York.  It is with much rejoicing that we will be moving to a more permanent location and a consistent financial stream, but with much sadness that we leave our mission church family here.  We have been well loved over the last few months.
The second development, which stems from the first, occurred yesterday - we were officially received as Catechumins. Our priest felt this was an important step to take before our move, and after consideration we agreed.
We'e looking forward to a third significant development (the birth of our second daughter) within the week.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My First Orthodox Funeral

Peter mentioned a few posts ago that we had a death in the parish.  It follows, therefore, that there was a funeral service as well.  While Peter had to work, his parents were able to watch our little one, so I was free to attend.  This was a relief for the choir director, he was happy to have another soprano at an otherwise sparsely attended service, as well as for our priest since I promised to bring a pasta salad for the after-service luncheon and he wanted to be sure there was enough outsider-friendly food for the newly reposed handmaiden's non-Orthodox family.

I'll admit that I was mostly concentrated on accurately sight reading the completely unfamiliar music and was not really able to take in everything about the service, but I did make a few observations that I'll share here.

The first thing I noticed was the set up of the room.  The casket was placed where the icon of the week usually stands in the middle of the nave.  The usual candle stands were there, but between them was a body.  The priest administered the service from the head of the casket, instead of behind the iconostasis/in front of the altar.  I know there was deep symbolism in this change, most of which at this point I don't really understand.  But, I did appreciate the fact that she both was and was not the center of the service.  While she was repeatedly mentioned by name throughout, it was clear that the point of the service was Christ and his resurrection - not her death.

Secondly, I was struck by the fact that we were encouraged to venerate the body.  I think that my terminology may be off though, reflecting the fact that I still just don't get so much of this.  It seemed more that we were venerating the body as an icon of the whole person who, though still in existence, had been unnaturally (though temporarily) separated from her physical body, and is currently in the presence of Christ.  So much of the language was similar or even exactly the same that we use during the weekly liturgy about the saint of the day.  I suppose this follows the logic: if she's actually seeing Christ face to face, why wouldn't we ask her to pray for us the same way we'd ask any other saint who is also in His presence?

Finally, I was glad to see that the service provided appropriate emotional space for grieving and yet also encouraged closure.  Now, it must be remembered that I was not in anyway related to the deceased.  In fact, I first saw her was at the funeral and her son, though he means well, rarely remembers my name from week to week.  I should also mention that my personal experience with funerals has been few and far between.  My grandfather, who died this past January, is the first person in my family to die since I was in elementary school.  Needless to say, the semi-Episcopalian memorial service held in his honor was so utterly lacking in, well, everything meaningful, it almost seems disrespectful to mention it.  In any case, I was struck by how the Orthodox funeral service encouraged the family and friends of the reposed to grieve the loss.  Death isn't natural, it isn't just the next step in nature's cycle, it is the product of our sin that both separates us from God and, in death, from each other and we should mourn that.  At the same time though, we were encouraged to remember that this separation is temporary and, while her body may be dead for now, her soul is still very much alive.  This seemed to me to be a very comforting thought.

In conclusion, I was both intrigued and impressed by the service.  I'm looking forward to attending more of the 'other' Orthodox services - baptism, weddings, etc., and learning more about how differently (refreshingly so, I think) the Orthodox view all aspects of life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Being sensitive

This is designed to be a follow-up on the last post (found here).  Felicity and I have been doing a lot of praying and self-examination, waiting to hear from God about our next move: in deeper or status quo.  We were supposed to be having a conversation with our priest late this morning, but Matushka's mother is doing poorly, and she has gone to be with her, so Father is home with the boys.  Understandable, but it means that I need to do some "out loud" thinking.

Question 1: Do I see anything in Orthodoxy (after 4 months of active investigation plus 3 years of touristing) that makes me think we won't be joining the Church in 2 years' time anyway (enshalla)?

Answer: No.  I know that I don't even come close to scratching the surface of the fullness of everything that is Orthodox Christianity, but at this point there would have to be a fertility rite or cannibalistic orgy to deter me from continuing.  For the first time in my life, I would echo the sentiment of so many converts: it's like coming home.

Question 2: What, in reality, separates us from actual catechumens?

Answer: The ceremony.  At least as we see it.  We want to have the conversation with Father about it more specifically, but we feel that emotionally and spiritually we have entered into the catechumenate already.  We want to be part of the Church.  We just don't kwon what that all entails, but I have this inkling that the answer to that question is partially answered during the process of being catechumens.  
On a related note, there is is something to be said for that missing piece.  Last night in the Inquirers' Class we discussed the Holy Mysteries and the importance of symbols: making manifest to us the Reality.  Without that symbol of being received into the Church as catechumens, it doesn't matter how we feel because that Reality has not been made manifest.  To continue...

Question 3: What happened to taking it one year at a time?

Answer: No good answer.  There are elements of that decision which are still very relevant to our situation: parents, we haven't experienced everything yet, and the list goes on.  If we're only becoming catechumens because it would be nice for all of us as a family to be received at the same time, that's a bad reason.  If we're not becoming catechumens because we're waiting to have it all together with all the answers, that's a bad reason.  No good answer.

At this stage in the game, we're still inquiring.  God is faithful, though, and we have all of Eternity to "get it right."  I'm not in a rush any longer, but I feel like, having come to the place where I want to die in the Arms of the Church, I'd like to begin forming a deeper relationship with her.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Facing facts, naming names

This post dedicated to the memory of the newly reposed handmaiden of the Lord, Anna.

There's a book written about the Church and committing to it.  It's not a Bible or a text from the Holy Mountain.  In fact, it comes from the heart of the neo-Protestant movement and a young pastor (slightly older than myself) whose fame precedes him as "the dating guy"--or maybe the anti-dating guy would be more like it.  Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Good-Bye fame) wrote a book several years ago now called Stop Dating (And Fall In Love With the Church).  His argument is straightforward: as Americans we need to stop church shopping, settling on the preaching or worship style we find the most appealing in a given month, and make a commitment to the People of God--Christ's Body.  Stop being so selfish, might be a good subtitle as well.  Where I come from we say it a little more bluntly (here self-censored) crap or get off the pot.

We've been "dating" Orthodoxy now, officially, for 5 months.  Beginning in early February, we began, in earnest, to listen, read, and learn about what makes the Orthodox Church unique and whether or not we want to be part of a tradition so rich and full yet so foreign and strange.  Through resources recommended by priests and available on Ancient Faith Radio, we've been podcasted, booked, lectured, lunched, conversationed, and prayed for in this journey and it's been incredible.  I feel like I don't know anything, but at the same time like I know more than I did before we got started.  I don't have time to go into the relationships we've discovered with the Faithful (living and departed), and the joy we experience each week in Liturgy and prayer; but know that these last 5 months have been incredibly life changing, which makes our upcoming decision so hard.

We had a memorial service this Sunday for a woman who reposed in the Lord on Friday.  She had expressed interest in joining the church, and with the blessing of Metropolitan Jonah was Chrismated and Communed last Sunday in her hospital bed in the ICU.  Her story affected me in a powerful way: I know how I want to die.  When I go, I want to be buried in the arms of the Church.

I'm not sure how to describe the moment.  It was like being in church, but we were surrounded by clouds and voices and singing.  We hadn't left the ground, but I was aware of being part of something so much larger: as though our hymns and prayers joined with the voices of angels and saints welcoming this woman into the eternal rest prepared for her.  I don't know that the unOrthodox can't go to heaven, but I know now that the Orthodox can.

Our priest presented us with a question which has really unsettled me.  Having gone through that experience, the next phase in our journey was opened to us.  With our second daughter on the way, Father commented to Felicity that he would like to receive the whole family together (it being slightly awkward to baptize a little one whose parents aren't Orthodox), and that he would be willing to receive us as Catechumens within the month.  We don't really know what to do.  Our plan was to take everything one year at a time both for our own mental and emotional well being and that of our families.  No sense in rushing in and playing catch up later, right?

I don't know what we're going to do--except talk with Father about it.  He's a wise, sensitive, and compassionate individual.  We want to make sure that he is aware of all of our concerns and fears before moving forward.  The question I'm now asking myself is, what holds me back from becoming a Catechumen?  Why not just do it?  I can't think of anything (except for externals) that make me believe we won't be joining the Church within 2 years anyway, so what am I worried about?  Doing it wrong, I guess.  Thoughts?

Friday, July 2, 2010

A thought on relevance

You probably remember my saying that I used to work in a church.  Working in a church is a special kind of hell (read heaven).  I absolutely loved my job, my co-workers, my kids, the building, everything.  Even the custodians were awesome!  This post isn't really about working in a church.

Once I remember having a conversation with my boss about preaching and teaching.  Our senior pastor had a habit of picking a new Christian book to preach out of that was based on a biblical passage rather than just preaching straight through Scripture.  All of this is fine, except people started to realize that our sermons month after month were based on something by Chuck Colson or Rick Warren rather than St. Paul or Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  This presented a problem for those of us on staff, especially in ministry.

My boss commented once that what people, especially people who are struggling, really want (read need) to hear is the Bible.  They don't want gimmicks.  They don't want bestsellers.  They want to hear God's words, not another author who has an opinion.  This idea came back to me this afternoon, after we had returned from another beautiful, moving, wonderfully mundane Divine Liturgy.  Orthodoxy's main concern isn't relevance in the modern understanding of the word.

As a youth pastor I was always concerned with being relevant.  New technology, new movies, new music, new clothes, new new new new new new...  You get the point.  If it wasn't cutting edge, it wasn't relevant.  As long as the kids were shocked and amazed, it was relevant and we had truly communicated the Gospel to them.  What I've noticed about our weekly services is that they're incredibly Relevant without being at all relevant.  The question isn't how do we make this more accessible? but how do we adequately and accurately communicate the truth of the Gospel to every person who walks through these doors?  That to me says more about the love the Church should have for a fallen and dying world.

Ask yourself, am I telling people that Jesus loves them?  When they come to my church, do they understand what it's all about?  For a newcomer, the Liturgy can be very confusing and overwhelming.  We need to hear the message spelled out: God loves you so much He died for you, and He wants to make you into His image. This is the most Relevant message available.