Coming Home

“So, why the Orthodox Church”?  Reverend John Montgomery wanted to know.  It was a reasonable and anticipated question.  Judith and I had been members of River Oaks Presbyterian Church (where John was the minister) for two years, and we had both been in “mainstream” Protestant churches since childhood.  We actually felt like we owed him this meeting because we considered him to be more than a minister; he was our friend.  He had married us. That is why the announcement that we were converting to Orthodoxy must have come as a surprise to him. I don’t know what he expected to hear, but what surprised me was how difficult it was for me to answer.  Now that he posed the inevitable query, I found myself struggling with a response.  In my mental preparation for this tête-à-tête, I had thought I had an appropriate explanation, but now our story seemed so difficult, like trying to explain the color blue to a blind man, a destination without the journey, or a solution without the formula.  When it came to Orthodoxy, sound bites just wouldn’t do.

Why Orthodoxy, indeed?  It’s not like there are no other options.  A quick survey of the Central Florida Yellow Pages reveals that there are no fewer than 134 churches listed in our supposedly conservative metropolitan area.  Not individual temples, mind you: one hundred and thirty four separate groups that believe them selves to be different enough as Christians that they began their own sects.  Only in America does opportunity extend even to the “business” of God (that’s Gaahwad to televangelists); where anyone with a bold dream and a new twist on the old Bible can throw up a sign and welcome one and all to a new “church” catering to everyone from West Virginia snake handlers to born-again Rastafarians.  Religion is being mass marketed to appeal to literally anyone with even a vague theological interest, and the “product”, like cheap beer, luxury automobiles, or snack food, is targeted at people like us, the religious consumer.  For perhaps the first time in history, the common man can choose a religion that will validate virtually any lifestyle, no matter how grotesque or obtuse.

While many regard this as merely a straight forward example of freedom of religion, I’m afraid that we’ve gone straight past liberty directly to a kind of religious Tower of Babel.  Typically spoiled, Americans expect to be “sold” on religion just as we’re sold on consumerism. You can choose your church based on your (ahem) ethnicity (Greek, African, Armenian, Spanish, etc., etc.), home state (which Church of God-Cleveland, Tenn., or Anderson, Ind.?), or philosophy (Independent, Metaphysical, or Scientific?).  Or, you may prefer one that agrees with and sanctions your current lifestyle.  Gay?  No problem!  You can be a bishop!  The sky’s the limit for a man (or woman) with ambition.  We don’t discriminate!   How about an abortion-friendly church?  We’ve got those too!  Looking for love?  Try our Singles Group.  Maybe you just like to be entertained.  Have we got a deal for you!  I once went to a church that staged a rock concert every Sunday as part of the service.  Included in the show (I can’t call it a liturgy with a straight face) was a big screen movie theater complete with a laser light extravaganza.  It was so large (“how-big-was-it?”) that you needed to remember which parking lot you were in or you might be marooned like a bad trip to Disney.  There’s even a descent into the outré` provided for those of us who are just plain bizaare.  How about this: when we die, we all live in outer space on our own planet, where we are Masters of Our Universe!  Weird enough?    Even Martin Luther would be appalled at the result of his revolution.

So what’s wrong with choice?  Nothing, when you’re trying to decide between Hottie’s or Krispy Kreme.  Religion, however, is supposed to be serious, or at least that’s the way it was in the home town where I grew up.  Of course we had religious diversity in South Alabama also.  We had both Southern Baptists and Primitive Baptists!  I’m sure that in the great coastal cities of America there were always splinter groups of all faiths that were represented in small concentrations, even in the 1950’s, and I believe that an enterprising young student could write a fascinating term paper (or even thesis) on how the fragmentation of our culture, particularly during the Boomer years, has been mirrored by an erosion of the then dominant Catholic and Protestant faiths and the subsequent exponential growth of what once were merely the theological equivalents of  a circus freak show.  But the fact is that it doesn’t matter how these groups came to claim their obligatory “fifteen minutes of fame” for purposes of this discussion: what counts is that they are (and continue to be) taken seriously by a great many Americans, and they are a part of the vast smorgasbord of available church-going alternatives on “any given Sunday”, as the saying goes.

Of course, having said all of this, I feel compelled to mount a vigorous and politically correct defense against those who would place me among the zealots who, with sneering contempt, denigrate the doctrine of our non-Orthodox Christian brethren.  For make no mistake: I do consider them to be Christian, at least in most cases, and I believe we could learn much from them, especially, for example, in their zeal for proselytizing. After all, I was a Protestant for my entire adult life, and do not consider myself to be a fool, and while that point may be argued by you, dear reader, I am sure that we have all been agreeably acquainted with intelligent and happy people from other faiths who we not only believe to be sincere, but good Christians as well.  And so I believe also.  None of us should sanctimoniously believe that we are superior as Orthodox simply because of an accident of birth or marriage.  Orthodoxy is a gift from God.  It should be axiomatic that we use it wisely and humbly with respect to other sincere Christians regardless of their particular faith.

And yet.  And yet the problem is that even smart people make the wrong choice sometimes (or are born into the wrong situation).  It was easy for me to discount the idiotic television spots, ignore blatant appeals for lucre from the junk mail crowd, and happily speed past the “Jesus Saves” billboards, sublimely immune to the in-your-face allure of the advertisements.   Church Lite or Hi Test?  Regular or Super Size?  The “Have it your way” absurdity of it all offended me.  Besides, I was fairly happy in my Protestant faith: why should I change?  Certainly not for the carnival atmosphere that prevails at many modern churches. I was already going to a “real” church, full of very sober and conservative Presbyterians, for God’s sake!  You couldn’t get much more serious than that!  Genuine conversion generally occurs when we seek it out.

I began my journey for many reasons, ranging from the banal to the profound, but the first step was a growing sense of the inadequacy of the worship service itself.  The centerpiece of a Presbyterian Sunday morning is the sermon, which typically lasts for 30 minutes, or approximately half of the total devotion.  Typically, there are no Saturday services, although most will hold a Wednesday night session of some kind.  There are very few special events of any kind, with the rare exceptions of Easter and Christmas.  This dynamic encourages an exclusive focus on the Sunday sermon, and the minister is expected to deliver.   That is why you will find that most successful Protestant ministers tend to be truly gifted public speakers who work well under pressure.  Their congregations expect to be entertained as well as educated and enlightened, and failure to do so generally leads to a decline in attendance. It is a true statement that it is impossible for a Presbyterian Church to truly thrive without an inspired speaker at the pulpit.  But this begs the question: should God’s church really depend primarily on the popularity of its minister?  It was a question I began to ask in the summer of 1999.

I had other concerns with my native religion as well.  There was very little in the way of a formal education process required to become a Presbyterian.  It was possible to become a church member via a group training session lasting one day!  This left some significant knowledge gaps, both concerning Christianity and Presbyterianism, and you were more or less expected to fill those in on your own as you attended adult Sunday school or worship service.  The facility with which one became a member was therefore matched by the ease of one’s exit, as the schooling provided very little intellectual foundation or time investment to abandon.  I wanted to know about Christianity from the beginning, in depth.  The Cliff’s Notes version just wouldn’t do.

Still, Judith and I were relatively happy at River Oaks; we had good friends and we had just helped the church move in to a brand new building.  I even cared enough about it to mow the expansive lawn a couple of times!  I enjoyed the worship services.  Reverend Montgomery was a smart man, capable of deep insights into human nature, and he was as I indicated earlier a friend.   The services were familiar: a comfort to those seeking a cultural touchstone.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel, as I sat there in the pew every week, singing my favorite hymns (yes, accompanied by music) that while I felt good about being there, the service was missing something; something elemental.  I had to admit to myself that I was experiencing a little alienation from the church body due to the inevitable influx of new faces that a new building brings, but what I now believe is that I was missing a sense of continuity, a connection between this church and a more historic Christianity.  This longing for a connection to the past was no accident: I was desperately searching for something I could hang on to in an increasingly insane world.

Many writers have noted man’s sense of alienation in modern society: to say that I was unaffected by this would be absurd.  The general malaise of a bland secular monolithic society, combined with Big Brotherism on a Stalinesque scale designed to crush any sense of liberty or individualism was anathema to me.  I found myself more and more at odds with acquaintances and coworkers on issues ranging from the quality of television programming to the moral legitimacy of the New World Order.  One manifestation of my revolt was to find freedom in those things that society would rather have me forget: whether that be in my European heritage, my Southern roots, or my Christian values, I was determined to search out the genesis of these core values, celebrate their music, writing, philosophy, theater, architecture, art, and yes, religion, and, to the extent possible, incorporate these things into my own life.

It was with this mission in mind that I first began to study the faith that I found myself a part of.  How did I come to this church?  What are its origins?  Why do I feel so estranged?  This feeling of spiritual isolationism was manifested most prominently in the questions that the Protestant values did not answer, or raised even more doubts when the solution was available.  These difficulties filled my head and wouldn’t go away.  Why is communion only a once a month affair?  Why is it served with unfermented grape juice?  Why do members come and go so frequently?  Why are there two major branches of the Presbyterian Church?   Why are there hundreds of different Protestant churches?  They can’t all be right, can they?  If the Bible is the only blueprint for Christianity, what did people do before it was written?  By the way, who exactly wrote the Bible?  What happened before John Calvin and the Reformation?    Who were the first Christians?  What happened to them?  Where is that church?  The trouble is, discounting an encounter directly with God Himself, how do you know which church is authentic?  The self evident answer is that it’s the church that was there at the beginning.  Find that church, and you’ve found what God had in mind.

This conclusion is essentially the response to Reverend Montgomery’s “Why the Orthodox Church” inquiry.  I can vividly recall my Methodist and Presbyterian Sunday school lessons pouring over coloring books which consisted in the main of facts and stories from the Bible.  There was no mention of  Christianity’s past, at least beyond the Pentecost.  While the focus on God’s living word was admirable, church history was reduced to this: God’s church was planted at the Pentecost and then the Protestants came from Western Europe to America.  I may be stupid (and here you don’t have to agree so quickly with me), but doesn’t that leave something out?  We may have spent a very small amount of time studying the history of our own particular faith (Methodist or Presbyterian), but of course this was a history of at most 300 years and was very sketchy even then.  The Church of Christ (I was a member during my first marriage), in a kind of pious existentialism, does not even really allow that there is any important church history beyond the immediate here and now:  it is considered a kind of miraculous event that all Churches of Christ are in substantive agreement on the Scripture.  It seems insane to me now, but most churches seem to believe that it’s OK to simply ignore the first one and a half millennia of church history.

Judith and I mutually sought answers to the primary question of church genesis, and our research took us in many directions.  Initially, she wondered aloud what the Catholic faith was like.  I did not know: or, at least, I did not know enough, so we both began an Internet search for the answer.  What we found were some very sharp Roman clergy who were eager to answer our questions.  They sent us literature.  We corresponded with them via “chat” rooms.  We visited web sites of various quality and design.  We became familiar with some of the more esoteric terms without even visiting a church.  Eventually, we heard of something called (depending on the source) the Christian Church of the East, the Oriental Church, Orthodox Catholic Church, or, simply, the Orthodox Church, and we began to make some on-line inquiries.

Suffice it to say that we were educated through the Internet and the OCA web site before we ever set foot in a church.  I am sorry to say that all of this correspondence is now lost, a victim of too many household moves and a new computer.  I would have liked to credit the many orthodox faithful, both lay and clergy, who took the time to patiently answer our foolish and sometimes inane questions without making us feel like dolts.  It was a yeoman’s task, but they were more than equal to it, and eventually they convinced us that the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church are the only ones that can claim apostolic succession, a concept that was very important to us, and which in effect answered the question of “What went on between the teachings of St. Paul and the Renaissance”?  In my mind, this precept was so fundamental that it only remained to choose between the two.

I’m not going to delve deeply into why I chose Orthodoxy over Catholicism, mainly because by now you’re probably saying “When do you finally get to our church?” or “If, as Shakespeare said, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, then this guy’s an imbecile”.  So I’ll only say that I had issues with the doctrine of papal infallibility, strictly celibate priests, and

the advisability of allowing one man to rule over anything without the benefit of a normal system of checks and balances provided by his peer group.  I knew, too, that the Roman church had changed its canons over the years to become more progressive.  By now you know I didn’t want that.  I wanted the Church that was there at the beginning and had not changed, whose worship and principles were essentially intact.  After all, if Orthodoxy stands for “true worship” or “right worship”, what is the antonym of that?  Did I really want “wrong worship”?  I had therefore already decided before I ever walked into an Orthodox Church that it should be, theoretically at least, the right one for us.

But like the song says, you’ve gotta “Taste and see”!  So Judith and I made our first trip to St. Stephen’s in January of the new millennia, and we were hooked right from the start.  To our wide open eyes, it all seemed so mysterious: the incense, the murmured prayers, priestly vestments, etc. were so exotic and wonderful to us that at first we felt estranged, like we had somehow passed a border checkpoint to a foreign country.  But we quickly became acclimated with the help of what are now close friends (especially the Vandenbergs and Kindalls), so we soon felt right at home and were being taught as catecumens by Father John Ealy by that spring.  Our first Communion was celebrated about one year later (we are VERY slow learners), and we feel like at last we have found our true spiritual home, thanks to God.

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