Tuesday, May 06, 2008

How I became an Orthodox Christian

I wrote this almost two years ago, and everything is still true. I love being an Orthodox Christian, and I deeply love the Church.

Here's my story, for new blog readers who may not have read all the old archives:

Here's the question:

Hi there. If you don't mind me asking...how did you come to be Orthodox? I am currently reading a book called The Way, and am enjoying it quite a bit!--abundanceinsimplicity

Here's the answer:

OK, starting at the beginning: I was raised in a very actively Christian non-denominational (or should I say trans-denominational?) home by parents who love and serve God first and foremost. For this and the faith they taught me, I am eternally grateful. Since my childhood was spent in Switzerland, where my folks were working with an interdenominatinal Swiss ministry, we attended, but did not join, the Swiss Reform Church. The issue that prevented our family from joining fully as members was infant baptism. Having come from, and out of, a strict Church of Christ background, my folks, and by extension me, just did not agree with that doctrine/practice.

When we returned to the USA, we became members of a large non-denominational charismatic Church that has also come out of the Church of Christ, so much restoration movement theology formed the thought processes of the places where I came from, even though there was some concious moving away from the CofC involved, too.

At the Charismatic Church during my teen years, I heard lots of sermon references against those "dead denominations" and there was much preaching on grace. I believed that there was nothing good or life-giving in places like the Methodist Church or the Lutheran Church, or especially the Catholic Church and that the Holy Spirit could not possibly be "moving" there. Orthodoxy was not even on my radar screen.

I started having questions, and was a serious Christian, bible reader, etc. having been baptized at the age of twelve while we were still in Switzerland. The questions during my teen years, coupled with a burgeoning eating disorder/problem centered around victory in one's Christian life over sin. Grace to cover over one's sins was good, and for that I was grateful, but I WANTED/NEEDED/DEEPLY DESIRED grace that would enable me to actually overcome sin, actually change, actually become a transformed person. I needed a God powerful enough to help me with my eating, for good.

College years: a time to meet new people and try new things. I got my hands on a copy of John Wesleys "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection" about the methodist doctrine of entire Sanctification and realized I was not the only person the planet who was asking or had asked the questions about holiness that I was asking. College was a time of contrasts: deep spiritual growth and seeking God on the one had, and violent sin, tears and repentance on the other hand. It was a time of brokenheartedness, confusion, and shame. I was, thank God, only in college for two and a half years, having accelerated my academics in High School to the point where I walked onto campus with 57 college credits under my belt. In many ways State U was good for me, and in many ways, not. While there, as I said, I familiarized myself with Methodism and ended up at Asbury Theological Seminary as a twenty year old kid.

Asbury is a non-denominational wesleyan/arminian school with the bulk of it's student and faculty population United Methodist or Free Methodist inbackgound, and it turns out my parents beat me there by one year, so even though I had the idea to go there before they did, I ended up "following" them, and living with them after college while I was in Seminary to save costs.

Between the ages of 21 and 25 I earned an M.Div., started dating, became engaged, got married and had a baby and supported my husband though shattering grief while we buried his parents and one sister, and tried to parent his youngest sister for a year (she decided to live with an Aunt and Uncle after that first year). I suppose I was pretty busy and overwhelmed during those years. Becoming a mother really changed by perspective on some of the feminist stuff that was being bandied about even at this very conservative and evangelical seminary and I retreated into motherhood. Spiritually, seminary was a dangerous time for me. In many ways, I was deeply lonely. In other ways, I was confronted with my own spiritual bankruptcy and did not have the tools or resources to know what to do with that. I felt like I was on a razor's edge, spiritually, and to stay afloat I sought out a more conservative environment. It was frightening to me to see the state of my own soul, and yet know that I'd been given the exegetical tools to make the Scriptures say pretty much what I wanted them to say and the training to preach. It felt like, if I let it, it could all become a game to me. I did not WANT it to become a game. There had to be something keeping me, as a potential minister/preacher on the straight and narrow. Something to keep me honest, and true to the core of the Christian Faith. What was that something? I did not know. (So began a felt need for Holy Tradition, that was as of yet unnamed, lurking to crop up again later) At the time, it seemed like an arbitrary decision on my part to stay conservative, to not embrace innovative theology. I decided not to pursue ordination, without even a full awareness of all my reasons.

After trying and not finding a good fit in the Free Methodist Church, my husband and I reconnected with some folks from the Mennonite Church where he'd attended while he was in college (having had an even more ecclectic church background than I"d grown up with) and we joined the Mennonite Church, not just that local congregation, but with a real embrace of anabaptism: values, theology, lifestyle, etc. We were Mennonite. We didn't drive buggies or wear plain clothes, but we did strive for simplicity and peace and I did wear a headcovering and some frighteningly ugly dresses for a while, as if ugliness an holiness were somehow on the same page.

Meanwhile, questions kept niggling. I started asking some hard questions: Why do we all individually have different interpretations of Scripture? (This in our Wednesday night Cell group meeting as we studied the Bible together, in a group of Christinas who all were Mennonite...not even to mention the vast theological and doctrinal differences between different protestant groups....) The pastor would shuffle his feet, look at the floor, and move on. I was the one who stopped the conversation every time. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.

The other big canversation stopper (but not really new to me) question that surfaced during this time was: How do we really overcome sin? What is the mechanism? How does God act? Why is this not happening in my life? From my reading of Scriptures it seemed clear that this was the expectation of St. Paul in his epistles to the Churches, but I was not experiencing the grace, even though I was a "spirit filled, tougue speaking (at this point in private), God-loving Christian person. The answers I was getting were unsatisfying: That we just go along as best we can and that God will just fix us once we get to heaven.

And another issue that was coming up: My husband and I were longing for intentional community with other Christians. Our pastor had us reading a series of articles about intentional community by some guy with connection to the Orthodox Church. Every thing we read appealed to us, but it was unappealing to others in the cell group. And it's not like the focus of these articles was overtly Orthodox, otherwise our pastor would never have used them as a discussion starter. Just an interesting coincidence.

Another question I was beginning to have was: What was the "deep magic" (to borrow a term from C.S. Lewis' Narnia series) that necessitated the atonement? The usual pat answeres were unravelling for me in the face of conversations with non-Christians who could NOT make sense of why God would be so cruel as to demand a blood price. Watered down protestant versions of Anselmian theology had come to the end of it's usefulness for me in the face of non-Christians who were deeply committed to living in non-violent ways in their relationships towards their children. It was humbling to me to see better behaviour modeled by some of these crunchy hippie types, in relating to children, than I was able to do in my own home, with my own kids, or than I was seeing modeled by others in my church.

At the same time in my life, I started experiencing a greater longing for Communion. Our Mennonite Church hardly ever served communion, and when I called up the pastor and asked him about it, he basically said it was too much trouble but if I'd bring the stuff and do the set up, he'd do it more often. So I did and we did. The mennonite belief, of course, is that it is a memorial...but to me it was something more, I think. My seminary days had infused me with the belief that whatever else it was or wasn't, that communion was a "means of grace" and that God would meet us there, spiritually. I was really longing for such a meeting. Coupled with this longing, I pulled out an old record called The Lord's Supper by John Michael Talbot (a Catholic monastic) who had the Catholic Communion prayers set to music. This record was food for my soul! It sang the Apostle's Creed, The Gloria, etc. I listened to this record every day: "Glory to God in the highest, peace to his people on earth! Glory to our Lord God the Heavenly King! O Lord Jesus Christ the only Son of the Father, Lord our God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us..." it seemed I could not get enough. I was hungry for the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. Not just a memorial meal.

MEANWHILE...back at the ranch...(not literally a ranch) my husband was getting together still with a group of guys who had known and loved each other in college. They called it Thursday night Guys Group, and would have theological discussions, prayer, scriptures, etc. A general time of male bonding and support. This group, over the years, had evolved from seeking to hammer out a systematic theology amongst themselves (having members coming from various protestant backgrounds), to studying Catholic Theology and history, to eventually studying Eastern Orthodox theology and history.
Some of the guys were in the process of joining anOrthodox group associated with the Evangelical Orthodox Church (a non-cannonical group. See Becoming Orthodox, by Fr. Peter Gilquist for the story/history of the EOC and most of the EOC became Orthodox). It just so happened that the catechetical group was sponsored by a Church in Indianapolis (at the time called Holy Trinity Evangelical Orthodox Church) who happened to be the people doing the background singing on that John Michael Talbot album I was feeding on every day. Intriguing! Coincidence?

We also wanted desperately to deepen our prayer life. We started a prayer meeting in our home monday nights and no one would come except the pastor, and eventually even he quit showing up. This was frustrating for us.

Meanwhile, I was saying silly things like: "Let's be Amish." and waiting up late on Thursday nights for all the juicy tidbits that my husband would bring home, about how he'd argued and defended the anabaptist position until blue in the face against these crazy becoming-Orthodox friends of his.

One month, it was our turn to host guy's group. I sat, nursed my baby, and listened to the mens' rather rousing and spirited debate. I realized two things: My husband was doing an excellent job with Mennonite apologetics. He could tow the line and do it well. And he was doing it well. I was so proud. BUT, it was also clear that we knew nothing about what he was arguing against. Nothing.

Me, being the well educated intellectual breastfeeding mother that I was and the only M.Div. in the room, decided that it would be best to know what he/we were up against. So I innocently asked brother Bert for something to read, anything to read, that would acquaint us with this Orthodoxy stuff. He pulled out of copy of a book called "The Orthodox Way" by Kallistos/Timothy Ware. Being a nursing mom at the time meant I had lots and lots of reading time. I started the book right then and there. I read the entire thing pretty much in one sitting with a few hours of sleep that night.

It answered every question I had ever had on a deep and profound level. It was like, all the niggling things that had been "off" were set aright. My response was: "This is the BEST theology I've ever read! All my questions answered in one place!" I called up my husband all enthusiastic and said: "We need to be Orthodox!" I think my response was much akin to St. Photini's response (the woman at the Well) when she rushed back to the village and said: "Here is a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he be the Christ?"

So, the next night we decided to visit a Vesper's service, which at the time was being held in someone's living room. We went. It was humble, but beautiful and we prayed. There were some small icons at the front, incense, old old prayers that had been being prayed for two thousand years. Most of vespers, in fact was straight from the Psalms. Spiritual Food. Structure and words given for those too broken to find their own words to pray. Balm for our grieving hearts. People we could pray with. People who were intentionally seeking intentional Eucharistic community.

For six months we did Vespers (Evening prayers) on Saturday night and attended our Mennonite Church on Sunday morning. It shortly before Easter, when we'd made our "break" from the Mennonite Church and started going to Christ-the-Lifegiver full time. It was a hard break and even though we tried to do everything in a wholesome way, we did get accused of idol worship, and it ended up being ugly in the end. This breaks my heart to this day. (We Orthodox do NOT worship idols or icons at all. We only worship the Holy Trinity. We don't even pray TO saints, we pray "with the saints" and ask their intercessions before Christ, just as we ask each other for our prayers. They are alive in Christ, more alive than you or me.)

I started reading more of the early Fathers of the Church: Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Clement of Rome etc. Who were these men who led the Church in the generation after the apostles? In the generation after that? And the next, etc.? What was THEIR theology on such matters as apostolic succession, the eucharist, baptism, etc. Was I in commonality with them, or did my theology differ? Where was the "big break" between the early Church and that which was supposedly corrupted by Constantine? I found there was no such break, no great apostacy, no corruption, but rather a Church that continued to fight heresy on all sides, struggle against sin from within, and "hold the traditions [it was] taught, whether by word or our epistle." (2 Thessalonians 2:15). As Christ Himself prayed in his high priestly prayer: "Keep through your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are." that this unity still exists in the Church today, unbroken since the ministry Christ entrusted to the Apostles.

That summer we were received as catechumens in the Evangelical Orthodox Church, and the following Easter the kids were baptized and we were all chrismated. Orthodox in theology, but not yet under an Orthodox bishop. This was the year 2000. Our entire parish knew that eventually we would need to become canonical, that is, the Evangelical Orthodox Church would need to find a way to move into full communion with the historical Orthodox Churches to not only be Orthodox in our prayers and theology, but in our ecclesiology. This, for us and for several other mission churches that had been started by Holy Trinity E.O.C. happened early in 2002, much sooner than we'd all at first anticipated, due to some divine appointments and God-orchestrated meetings between our priest and an OCA (Orthodox Church in America) priest while he was on vacation. Our "mother Church" Holy Trinity, is now renamed St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church, OCA under Archbishop Job of the Diocese of the Midwest, and our parish is renamed St. Athanasius Orthodox Church under Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas and the South.

This is a story largely about the interworking of theology and human relationships and about the hand of God.

Through the sacrament of confession, repentance and reconciliation I have found the ancient means through which Christian change truly IS possible. Just ask my priest or my friends: I am changing and becoming a bit more like Jesus.

Through the sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, I have found the time tested means by which I experience the living reality of "Christ in me the hope of glory".

Through the ancient offices, prayers, liturgies of the Church, I have experienced a time tested way to be drawn into and taught deeper prayer. Given words to pray when I'm too weak to come up with my own, taught to pray by the masters, so to speak. Carried in the arms of the Church.

Through the fasting disciplines of the Church I have begun, just barely, but begun nonetheless, to bring my body and my passions under greater control of the Holy Spirit.

And in Holy Tradition there is nothing which supercedes the Scpriptures, or contradicts the Scriputures, but rather like the banks of a river, Holy Tradition preserves the shape of interpretation and understanding of Holy Scripture to keep the Church and all her members in unity.

There is so much more that could be said. Forgive me, a sinner.

Recommended reading:

The Orthodox Way, by Bp. Kallistos Ware
The Orthodox Church, by Bp. Kallistos Ware (Church History from an Eastern Orthodox perspective...or the REST of Church history)
For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemmann
Q&A at www.oca.org
www.athanasiusoca.org (For a more complete history of our local parish which I heavily alluded to here.)



I hope this account is written in love in humility. For all my life, I will give thanks and glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, for being patient with me, a sinner, for answering my hard hard questions, and bringing me to a place of peace, of healing, and of growth. To God be the Glory in all things!

14 comments:

H and S said...

Thanks so much for posting this Alana, I LOVED reading it. Coincidentally (actually I don't believe in any such thing but you know what I mean) I have just finished reading Fr Gilquist's book 'Becoming Orthodox'.

Maggie said...

Dear Alana

I'm so glad you haven't posted my bitter comment from last night. I should know when I feel like that to go for a walk or clean the bathroom or do anything but communicate with other people in any way.

Your blog is lovely and your post was interesting and very readable (didn't see it first time around). Please forgive me for posting my nonsense on it.

In Christ
Maggie

Tamara said...

Oooh, please post on the new www.orthodoxchat.com.

Alana said...

Dear Maggie, our internet connection is down, so Dh and I went for coffee and some "war driving" to find a connection. Did not see your other comment until just now, so as per your request, not posting it.

It's a good perspective, though, for someone like me to have. The truth is, I have no clue about so much of that. It's just like: here's how to pray. Here's the Eucharist. And it's everything I ever needed. That other stuff you mentioned...I simply have not paid any attention to it.

Dixie said...

I just loved this story and really reasonated with "this is the best theology I have ever heard".

I am truly awestruck by the paths God can use to bring His people to Holy Orthodoxy. I just read a story the other day from a guy who came via a Hatha yoga class!

It is clear those of us who come by conversion are not all captivated by the same things. God uses the things that are most likely to capture our attention. One thing though that seems to be pretty much a constant is the gnawing need for more...the seeking, the searching, the looking for something to fill us up. Seek and ye shall find...indeed.

Anyway...thanks for taking the time to share with us.

chaqar said...

Alana,
Christ is Risen! I found this post while looking for something else online. I enjoyed reading your story of how you became Orthodox. I was just christmated myself this past Holy Saturday. And oddly enough, I'm from Kentucky myself, and what's more, I was raised in the Church of Christ. Go figure! Here's my blog if you ever want to check it out: http://chaqar.wordpress.com/
God bless you in your continued journey in, to and through Him.
~Seraphim

Spyro said...

Dear Alana,
Greetings in the Lord! This is a very good witness of your faith. I pray it can be helpful for other people who are seeking this Light-Giving Church in world. After reading your blog and the good responses listed here, I'm inspired to share yours, and God willingly do a blog of my conversion as well.
Thanx in Christ,
Spyridon Scott

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I just read this article on JTO, and I wanted to say thank you for posting this. My background is a little different (grew up Catholic, been wandering the Non-denominational world for several years now- I was doing some Mennonite Bible study for awhile too, but never tried that church). But I have had that same experience so many times, of being the one who seems to be stalling the Bible study with my unanswered questions, and then FINALLY finding answers in Orthodox theology. (I also know what you mean about reading a lot while breastfeeding :) It's great!) I don't know if I should actually make the jump to Orthodoxy, or just absorb some of the theology and stay non-denominational, but I am so glad that God is reaching me in this way, and I am so glad he is reaching you and you found the church where you can really follow Jesus in Spirit and in truth.
God bless you,
Ruth

Alana said...

Dear Ruth, I will unequivocally say: you should become Orthodox! There is so much healing in the life of the Church that just cannot be got by merely absorbing some Orthodox Theology. The Church (and by that, I do mean the Orthodox Church) is a hospital, and we members are the sick who are being healed by the Great Physician. Come on in...the water's fine. Of course you want to visit first...this link will help you find a parish: www.americanorthodoxy.org

Ruth said...

Thanks for the encouragement and advice. There are so many things I want to discuss, but I don't want to just fill up your blog with my questions and concerns. But if you have time, maybe we can talk some more, or even email or converse on fb or skype or something. My nearest Orthodox church is about an hour away, so, unfortunately, it is a little hard for me to just accidentally, non-noncommittally, stumble in there, but I hope to get over there and try in a few weeks. I really need to talk to a person, and it's nice to talk to another female too.

My big concern is that I might be going on the wrong track again. (well, also, I'm concerned because my mother-in-law hates anything resembling Catholicism with a vengeance, but that's another conversation).

Ever since I left the RC church (which I grew up in) I feel like the ball in a pinball machine, bouncing from one interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition to another. I feel bad about being so fickle. Am I ardently seeking the real Jesus and His Church, or am I just playing the Old Testament harlot, running to every new voice, and now intrigued by the handsome stranger from the east?

Also, I wonder, will I be damaging my "relationship" with God by putting myself in bondage to a "religion?" And the whole icons and saints thing is a little worrisome too.

Ruth said...

Yet, on the spiritual side, I feel like I need somewhat solid theology to develop discernment. All these people are quoting from the Bible, but Pentecostals, Ana-Baptists Catholics, Calvinists, Evangelicals, etc all seem to have a different slant. At the same time they are often freely cross-contaminating each other through music, popular practice, books and internet sermons without knowing it, without discernment(not to say we can't appreciate things from various Christian backgrounds, but as an individual I need a sound theology, so I'm not just believing contradictory interpretations, but putting them to the test to find if there is anything good there).

I think the assumption is that all Christians should be reading the Bible, and have developed their own sound interpretation, and then are able to discern without a religion to teach them theology, but you don't just open the Bible and become an impeccable theologian overnight. The Spirit guides us, it doesn't instantly perfect us. But I think there's an unrealistic expectation of that, so we try to pretend we understand, and so we oversimplify, and just nod our heads. Or, just fill in the blank on that Bible study sheet with the answer provided (noticed this a lot in the Lamp and Light Bible study I did), and we swallow so many doctrines this way, yet claim to be free to interpret the Bible.

Also, and the physical side, it seems unrealistic to fully exclude religion/ritual from Christianity, because we still live in a physical world, and Christ came to us in a physical form, and instructed us not only to do spiritual, but physical things (unless you go with an extremely loose interpretation of charity and the sacraments, as in spirit baptism only/free-grace type, and I've been there too, but I just don't think it makes sense). Anyway, I guess I shouldn't say that formalizing a relationship necessarily damages it (look at marriage), so maybe religion is like that.

Also, without choosing a Church, how can I baptize my son, how can I have a church wedding, etc. I don't know. As you can see, I've been doing a lot of thinking, and I've experienced a lot of different theologies.

So, perhaps we can't escape having some religious side to Christianity, and perhaps it's a good thing. So the question is, is Eastern Orthodox the real deal? I'm worried because I just don't have much experience with it. Maybe it looks good to me because I'm an outsider, but years later, I'll get closer to the center and find it is rotten, and that I should have chosen something else.

I am an indecisive person, please forgive me. I'm often that person who holds everyone up at the restaurant, carefully analyzing the menu, and in the end panics and orders the bean burger, then gloomily eats it, picking off the iceberg lettuce and mayo, wishing I'd stuck with the fajitas, or maybe just stayed home. I'm afraid it's going to be like that with religion for me too.

Sorry about the long comment, and thank you for your kindness. God bless you!

Ruth :)

Ruth said...

Please don't take my concerns as too negative, though. Besides these concerns, I am pretty much with you- I feel like I found a million bucks, and for the first time really want to tell people all about it- it sounds like really good news that I can share. I just still have a lot of questions and fears too.

Alana said...

Hi Ruth, you can email me: alanasheldahl @ gmail.com (without the spaces, of course).

Kate Park said...

I'm starting to delve into the Orthodox faith- raised agnostic/athiest by ex-mormon parents then converted to catholicism then fell back into spiritualism/agnosticism again.
Alana- I find hope in your conversion and also love hearing a woman's perspective.
Ruth- thank you for sharing your concerns and worries. I am also afraid of being indecisive and I love your restaurant comparison. I feel the same way but also do not want it to hold me back from something wonderful and healing.
Thank you both.
Kate