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May 28, 2013

Why Orthodoxy?

Church of the Resurrection Jesus Christ at St Petersburg, Russia

Church of the Resurrection Jesus Christ at St Petersburg, Russia

That simple question has been the subject of dreams, discussions and  a good part of my life for the last year.

There is no singular, or simple answer.

It’s more difficult to explain to friends and family, there is an unmeasurable amount of depth in the Orthodox faith. But putting that into words is difficult, because the worldview is radically different that any other faith I have ever experienced. I will mention the standard things that cause people to convert, but I’m also going to attempt to articulate the things that people don’t mention. And trust me, there is a lot they never tell you. I would love to say it’s all good, but there are some downsides to all this, and I would be less than honest if I did not mention them. While Catholicism changed me in a number of positive ways, Orthodoxy has completely turned my world inside out, I’m still trying to understand some of the things I’ve learned over the last year, and especially the last month.

For my Catholic friends, I walked away from the Catholic Faith, because I could not find the evidence to support a number of Catholic Doctrines and Dogmas (you can find them in other posts here), and I felt conflicted because the more I dug into the church fathers, history and scripture the more I began to question what I was being taught. Finally I took a leap of faith and met with the Priest at the local Orthodox church, and that discussion started a long journey into the faith. If your not questioning what the Church teaches, then stay. I love Catholicism, I just disagree in certain areas, and it ultimately led me to the Orthodox church. I have also begun to realize that the schism in 1054, can no longer be healed. The issues run too deep, and there is too much at stake for either side to fully change. And it’s more than just the Papacy or the Filioque, it goes all the way to how each side see original sin, amongst other deep issues. That doesn’t mean we can’t get along, but the world views are just very, very different.

For my Protestant friends, there is a huge resource of rich Christian teaching that is not found in the Bible, in fact you should spend some time studying how you even got the bible you hold today. Because there is no heavenly printing press popping out RSV’s, ESV’s and KJV’s, there is a deep and rich history of early church involvement in what you hold so dear today. And until you understand the times, the men, the Saints, and the church that put it together, you really don’t know what you have in your hands. Sola Scriptura is not a concept that was even conceived of until the 15th century, and more importantly it’s not a concept that the Bible it’self teaches, the  early church used tradition, and the deposit of faith to determine what books made up the bible we use today. And the current protestant versions that excludes the Apocryphal books, is a new invention started in the mid 1800’s in protestant Scotland. Which means that for almost 1500 years the church used those books as Scripture, but protestants so desperate to avoid any view of tradition they considered man made removed books THEY deemed unfit. So much for 1500 years of scholars and theologians who never had an issue with them.

So why Orthodoxy?, why after a year did we decide to finally enter into communion with the Orthodox church?

1. Apostolic Foundation, the church can trace a direct lineage back to the original apostles. It has held on tightly to the original teachings handed to it by the men who spent three years with Christ (also called the deposit of faith), and has resisted change over two millennia. We may not have a Papacy or a Magisterium like the Catholics, but we do have Bishops, Priests, Deacons and we can claim that we are the church that Christ started. We were united with the Roman Catholic Church until 1054, and once we separated, we held onto our teachings as tightly as possible. To me, this is the same faith that the Apostles and the first church fathers practiced.

2. Biblically Centered, every aspect of the Orthodox life is centered around scripture, the liturgy is fully based on scripture, as are the other services such as vespers and Matens, you will hear more scripture in an Orthodox service than any other church alive today.

3. Grace, Love and Mercy are the rule, and not an exception. This is something we had to learn on our own, the Orthodox church while very Ascetic in its every day practice (we fast weekly as part of the Orthodox faith, and have a calendar full of fasting times), it has no expectations that everyone will be able to follow those rules. There is a saying in the church, of ‘Mind your own plate’, meaning we are all sinners who are learning to be better at being Christ like. We should encourage each other in love, and show the same grace and compassion that Christ showed to sinners.

4. Deep, reverential, and love filled liturgy focused on Christ, God, The Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist. Known sometimes as the smells and bells, the liturgy in the church is taken very seriously by those attending. But there is no sense that if you don’t cross yourself here, or bow at a certain time you are doing anything wrong. The whole thing is about worshipping God, there is structure to be sure, but you can’t ruin it because you do something wrong. In both the Catholic Mass, and the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox faith, the direction of the worship is different, it’s centered on not what we get out of it, but of how we can use worship to honor God. In fact in the Antiochian Orthodox church we are part of, you will only hear singing, with no instruments, because the focus is on worshipping the Holy One and not how good the band performs today.

5. Family and Community, merged in love. This again took us a long time to see, but we didn’t join a community in the classic sense of the word, we where adopted into a family, warts and all. The love we have been shown has humbled us in so many ways, while I was Baptist we used to greet each other with the statement ‘Brother’, but I knew very few of those people personally. It’s so incredibly different in the Orthodox church, there is no pretentiousness, it really is a family, made up of smaller family’s. And loving each other, without any judgmental aspects is the rule. It’s been a truly humbling experience to see this part of the faith.

6. A faith lived out, not just on Sunday’s. The Orthodox faith is not about attending a parish, in point of the fact the church building is considered part of the church, and not just a structure we meet in. The Orthodox way seeps into our homes, our marriages, every aspect of our lives, you live this faith, you don’t just attend it. I know that can sound scary. But it’s meant in a good way, because when you begin to understand the depth of love, you can’t but help be changed. And there are no expectations, no one is there to monitor you, but as you grow you learn that living the Christian faith in all parts of our life, is the only way to grow in our faith. The same can be said of the Catholic Faith, but it means more in the Orthodox faith, it becomes more ingrained into who you are.

7. Correct Theology, this is a personal item, but as I came out of the protestant church, and especially Calvinism. I spent a good deal of time working out biblically things like Soteriology (the study of salvation), and dug through the early church, the formation of the Bible, and the church fathers. I have found few things in the Orthodox church that concern me, but there are no areas where I theologically disagree. And that’s huge, in fact in some of my studies on energies and essence, I’ve had to go back to reset some of my thinking, because what I found matched with what I had researched. I had just put a western spin on it, and once I began to understand what the original church believed, I found my thinking was off.

8. Synergism, meaning God and Man working together. This concept is one that drives reformed Christians crazy, they are monergists, meaning that in their world view God is always in full control and free will is an illusion. But scripture does not agree, God certainly has foreknowledge (knowledge of things that have not happened yet). But I could never buy that a truly loving God, would limit free will, or that he did not make his creation truly free, it just doesn’t fit the model that we see in scripture. It’s a far more loving act for a parent to say, you have free will, and I will honor your decision fully. Over the years I came to believe that the Reformers had it dead wrong, and that God truly grants us free will, because anything else changes the very loving nature of God into something terrible. The Orthodox church believes that our salvation is not a one time event, it’s a process of growing, and learning and changing. That we live it out in our prayer, and that together with God’s help, we become more like Christ. It’s not meant to be an easy path, it’s meant to help us grow into something more.

9. Economy, meaning the handling or housekeeping of a thing, or in this case a rule. In practice, this is the rule of love, rather than the strict application of a rule. It means that some things can be set aside in order to help someone grow in the faith. For instance I see this in effect, when in the Orthodox church a married couple can meet with their confessor and discuss options around birth control, it becomes an issue between the three. Not one that is strictly dictated by the Bishop (although he could do that) or rule, this handling of things that fall outside the normal realm, by using love and grace as the guiding principle is something that is hard to explain. In contrast, in the Catholic Church if you purposely miss a weekly mass, there is a dictated consequence (mortal sin), and a determined outcome (no salvation, unless you confess your sin). The Orthodox church doesn’t work that way, the rules are there to help mold you to be more Christ-like, not to punish you because you didn’t meet the criteria. This is one thing that I hear from Catholics, who disagree with the Orthodox position on Contraception, they want solid rules and ideas that have absolutes. But love and grace are never absolute, they have a mystery aspect to them, applying a set of dictated rules never works when it runs into the reality of human frailty.

10. Tradition, the foundation of the church is based on what has been handed to them by the Apostles, and their successors all down the line, unbroken to this very day. In the Orthodox faith you will find icons, lots and lots and lots of icons. There are the Saints, they are there to remind us of the men and women who have gone before us and shown the way. There are the Angels, and then there is Christ and the Theotokos or Mary, the one who said yes to the Angel, the God Bearer. We keep these traditions, icons, feast days, handed down since the beginning, as part of what makes us Orthodox. Traditions help us to grow in our faith, but it also grounds us in the very teachings of those who sat at the feet of Christ, there have certainly been changes over the years. Some parts of the liturgy have changed with the times, but the core of what we believe and practice has remained steadfast for over 2000 years.

One thing that I can’t stress enough, is that the Liturgy is not about ceremony, I used to think that way. Until I realized that ALL churches, even the most open and free-will ones have some type of liturgy. Without it, you don’t have worship, but chaos, and no one benefits. It’s not about what we get out of it, it’s not about the music, or the preaching. It really is about worshipping God, plain and simple.  In the Orthodox faith, vespers which is a prayer service done on saturday nights, is done no matter how many people are there, because it’s not for us, it’s to honor the creator. Think about that for a minute, even if no parishioners show up, the service will still continue. It’s a huge difference in focus from what we did when we where protestant where the bigger the crowd the better the show. Gone are the video clips, sound systems, and 10 piece band. We worship with what God gave us, our voices, our bodies, our minds, it’s not a performance, it’s gratitude for a merciful and awesome creator.

You will also find a great deal of piety in the Orthodox faith, people ending messages with things like ‘Pray for me a sinner’. Coming from a fundamental world, it can seem like a race to be the most humble, but in reality we are all sinners and we need all the help we can get. The piety that at first glance is so external, is really part of the Orthodox experience, I am a sinner. I do terrible things, and it’s only through prayer, and the difficult task of dealing with it (with God’s help) that I can overcome it, it’s a struggle and so I need to be remind myself and others that I am no better than they are. This kind of humility is found in the monastic life of Monks, and we would do well to learn from their examples.

The Orthodox faith for us, has been the destination of the last five years of looking, we would have no appreciation unless we had spend so much time in other faiths learning. Looking back we can see how we where slowly led to this point, and now that we are here, we are finding that things are not how we expected them to be. They are better and more difficult, which I suppose seems odd, but that’s being brutally honest. We knew this would not be easy, we talked about it for weeks before we even finally making what was already a forgone conclusion, that we belonged in the Orthodox church. And the great thing is she didn’t change to meet us halfway, she just opened her arms and took us as we where. She will change us, but it’s not through rules, or catechisms, it’s through love, grace and mercy. The piety that we are now beginning to experience isn’t because anyone is telling us we have too, it’s because we realize that without it, our growth would be stunted. The Orthodox church is the church that Christ left behind, it’s full of sinners, and full of grace, and it’s a mystery that we will live for the rest of our lives.

Please Forgive Me A Sinner.

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