A New Beginning

One chapter closes, and another begins.

My family and I were received into the Orthodox Church during Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday. Our kids were baptized, and we were chrismated, having been baptized years ago. And so begins our life as communicants in the Orthodox Church.

I just noticed that this is a year to the day from my first post on this blog. It's fitting, then, to chronicle on this day this "new beginning", as it were.

I feel good, other than being exhausted from all the services this past weekend! Again and again I am amazed and enriched by the beauty and richness of the services. The deep meaning, the symbolism, the participation -- it's all so inspiring and joyous. I can't imagine being anywhere else. As they say, I am "home".

I'll let this be a short post, I guess. I haven't really collected many thoughts right now.

CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!

The Last Few Months, Part 3

July 4, 2010 started off as a typical Sunday.  I muddled through the service, as I had the last few months.  It wasn't until after it was all over that I stood up in front of everybody to make my announcement.  It went pretty much how I expected it to.  I told them where I was going and why, tears were shed, and we talked for about an hour and a half.  They understood my need to "search" even though it hurt to let me go.  We parted as friends.  It was pretty evident that Friendship Church of Christ couldn't carry on, at least not at that time.  As of this writing, it still hasn't resumed services.

The extreme stress of the night before didn't affect me much that day, but the day after was another story.  I had the day off due to the holiday, so I went down to Jacksonville to help a fellow parishioner with computer troubles.  Sometime during the trip I felt some numbness in my right hand.  That had happened before, but this time it wouldn't go away like it normally did.  I thought at first that it was just circulation getting cut off, but it became obvious after a while that this wasn't one of my typical episodes.  Eventually it turned into pretty much full-blown numbness on the right side of my body.  I'm no stranger to stress (anxiety issues abound, and work's been crazy lately), but this had me really worried.  A few months, two MRIs and one spinal tap later, I was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis.  In the meantime, however, other things were developing that would, at least in the short term, disturb me even more.

I knew that I couldn't (and shouldn't) keep my journey to Orthodoxy a secret forever, but finding the right time and place to tell family about my decision was going to be tough.  I allowed myself a bit of time after leaving Friendship so I could recover and gather my wits.  As with Friendship, I knew there was no easy way to do this.  To be honest, I was scared.  By now it was mid-August, and the Dormition was coming up.  This was the day I was to become a catechumen, and due to a minor emergency, Mom was going to be in town around that time.  I was not yet ready, but I had run out of time.  In the interest of privacy I will not go into specifics, but it was a stressful situation, to say the least.  Though it's an understatement to say that it has put a strain on familial relationships, I think in the last several months things have improved.  I still love my family dearly, and hate that this has caused so much distress (on both sides).  And yet I can't simply give this up.  It's just not that simple.  Nor, I suppose, should it be.

We have continued to attend at Holy Trinity and have really become close with the people there.  Eventually my wife and kids joined the catechumenate as well.  We are continuing to grow in the faith, and I don't know if I've ever just enjoyed being there as much as I have.  There are days I would rather be within those walls than anywhere else.  It hasn't been easy; doubts still arise and fears still dismay.  But on the whole, I've never felt as good about my spiritual path as I have these last several months.  The transformation has been phenomenal, and I look forward to what's to come.

So, there you go.  That's my story.  Took far too long to tell, due not only to difficulties I sometimes have with writing (especially given the subject matter) and productivity (I'm lazy; I admit it) but also to my aforementioned health issues.  But I'm done, and I guess it's time to leave the past and look to the present and future.

The Last Few Months, Part 2

There are a million ways I could start this post.  I've thought of several.  Ultimately though, it all started with a Twitter post.  This one, in fact.

Seems pretty innocuous, right?  It's just a link to a blog post (that I didn't even particularly enjoy) about a strange juxtaposition that I, admittedly, probably just checked out because of its provocative title.  How then, did this seemingly insignificant batch of letters completely upend my life, sending me on a journey that would ultimately totally change my theological outlook, shake my family dynamic to its core, uncover an incurable medical problem, as well as close the doors of a 100+ year old congregation?

It was what else was on the site, of course.

The blog is Path of the Weis, written by a (apparently recent) convert to the Orthodox Church.  As I browsed his site, I saw some things I'd never seen before, information that somehow had never really been on my radar.  Two posts in particular changed my worldview.  Not overnight, and not alone of course, but they are the definitive starting points.

The first one is basically just links to some videos on YouTube of a short documentary on the Orthodox Church.  As I watched them, I was astounded by what I saw.  Could it be?  A continuous line of faith and practice all the way to the beginning, not just a series of apostasies and reformations?  A consistency that spans not decades, not centuries, but millenia?  And, of all things, a guy who traces his ancestry (through church records) to Zaccheus (the "wee little man")?  Wait, what?  Oh, sure, I'd heard of the Orthodox Church.  I knew of one or two when I lived in Memphis.  The Greek church there holds Greek food festivals.  I'd visited the Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock back in my college days, while on a field trip for a class on church history.  Like many people, as far as I knew it was some variant of Catholicism, except that priests can marry and there's something about kissing pictures.  Certainly, I would find out how mistaken I was.  But while they left me reeling, a few videos did not a convert make.

The other post that I found which profoundly affected me was this one, which links to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio (a site dedicated to Orthodox podcasts) which is a series of lectures that compares the Orthodox Church's teachings to those of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and other religions.  As I looked on AFR, I also discovered At the Intersection of East and West, another podcast that serves as a great introduction to Orthodoxy.  Over the next few weeks, I made my way through these MP3s, unraveling an entirely different way of looking at the Christian faith than I'd ever encountered before.  Suddenly, I had this vast array of new information before me.  A whole new world had opened up to me.  But what was I to make of all of this?  Was this a new dawn in my Christian life, or just another rabbit-hole I would find myself in for a while, only to emerge the same as before?

By the time I started this blog, I was already fairly well introduced to Orthodoxy.  I could by no means have called myself a scholar, but I at least had an entry-level view of it.  I even found myself identifying with many of the concepts to which I'd just been exposed.  But I was still searching, still unsure (although it felt different by then).  I went ahead and started this blog, as I had planned, still wanting to start from square one and work from there.  Only it wasn't quite the totally-tearing-down-and-rebuilding I wanted it to be, though I worded it that way and still felt -- to some degree, at least -- like I was doing so.  I still wanted this blog to be about a process of searching, of starting over and really re-evaluating that which I'd believed all my life.  But in retrospect, it wasn't.  That had already taken place.  Perhaps I needed to catch up to where I was.

Through many, many hours of podcast listening, as well as reading -- primarily online -- I'd fairly well immersed myself in Orthodox teaching.  I'd re-molded my thinking in light of this new information.  I even felt as though I was "one of them" in a very loose sense.  Only there was a huge problem:  I'd never attended a single service.  My previously-mentioned visit, which was essentially a chat with the priest and enjoying the icons, was the only time I'd set foot in an Orthodox church, and that certainly wasn't with the notion of conversion or even real curiosity.  It was a field trip.  Sure, I enjoyed it, and I was fascinated on a surface level, but it didn't leave much of a lasting impression on me spiritually.  So here I was, through head knowledge, trying to identify with a tradition that I hadn't actually experienced.  Rectifying that situation, however, proved problematic.  Never mind the fact that the closest Orthodox churches were in Little Rock (about an hour away).  That's no big deal; I work in Little Rock and am accustomed (though not particularly enamored) with the drive.  I began attending Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, and loving it.  But if it wasn't for Great Vespers services on Saturdays, it might have been much longer before I could go, especially with any regularity.  And that is where the 100+ year old congregation comes into play.

Friendship Church of Christ, from what I've been told, is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) Church of Christ congregations in White County.  It's speculated that it's been around since the last decade or two of the 19th century.  Membership waxed and waned over the years, and recently (since the 1990's) it had been in decline, due to people moving away, or elderly members passing away.  The congregation depended on college students (like me) to keep it going, but the problem there is summed up in a single word:  graduation.  So, as students came and went, the congregation survived, barely, but never really returning to its former self.  Few probably wanted to admit it, but it was a dying congregation.  But I was doing my part to keep it going, though nostalgia played a bigger part that it should have (and probably more than I would have admitted, at least for a time).  Nobody wanted to see it close its doors, however, so we soldiered on.

So, by the time all this was happening, Friendship was down to single-digit regular attendance, with me and my wife and kids comprising the majority.  All worship service duties were divided between me and the preacher.  To say that I played a huge role there is, of course, grossly understating things.  Me and my family not showing up one Sunday morning would not only have not gone unnoticed, but would have reduced the service to (mostly) a sermon being preached, and only listened to by two people.  So I couldn't just not show up one Sunday.  And I certainly didn't want to ask for a leave of absence to go.  It certainly wouldn't have gone well.  So, for a time I was primarily just heading down on Saturdays for Great Vespers.

This could only go on for so long, however.  As I gravitated closer and closer to Orthodox thought, I felt increasingly uncomfortable back at the Church of Christ.  It got harder and harder to go along with what I felt less and less in agreement with.  Carefully I worded things so as to balance the two drastically different worldviews.  I became more and more selective as to what songs I picked to lead.  As the weeks went by, I began to increasingly feel like I was living a lie.  Something had to give.  It wasn't going to be easy or pleasant, but it had to be done.  After talking with my pastor, I knew that I had to come clean and tell everybody what was going on, and finally announce my departure.

At this point, it must be said, I was still unsure of things.  Sure, I'd done a lot of studying over the course of several months.  I'd been attending services and talking with Fr. Joseph several times.  Although I was really feeling like my search was over, on one level I still felt like it still needed to be a search.  Like I would seek out the Orthodox faith and see if it is true, then either commit to it, or come back having learned my lesson.  Whether or not that was the case, I certainly wasn't going to learn it totally by listening to podcasts and periodically attending Vespers.  I had to immerse myself in it, and to do that, I had to leave Friendship.  It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make.  Saturday, July 3, 2010 was one of the most stressful nights I've ever had.  Sunday was coming, and that was the day I was going to end this chapter of my life and move on to the next one.  Little did I know what that stress would do to me....

The Last Few Months, Part 1

It's been a while, hasn't it?  I've let over a third of a year go by since my second post.  A bit too early for a hiatus, I know, and for that I apologize.  It's been quite a summer.

As you can tell from my previous two posts, I'm in a state of searching.  I've been here a while, but it had been more or less in the background until February of this year, when things got "kicked up a notch" so to speak.  This intense period of doubt, seeking and confusion ultimately manifested itself in the publication of this blog, which I'd had the idea for several years ago, but lacked the motivation to really get it going until this Spring.  I finally got it going and began writing, even got a small community going over at Facebook (see link at right), and then I suddenly stopped.

What happened?  It's not easy to say.  For starters, I could go on about lack of energy, combined with laziness and writer's block, and that would be correct, but it wouldn't be the whole picture.  It could be due to the direction my spiritual life has taken in the interim (I will discuss this shortly), which is probably correct as well, to a degree, but that still doesn't encapsulate the reason for my leave of absence.  It's all these things and more.  I could probably say there is no one big reason.  But as with many areas of my life, lots of things all coalesced into an impediment that kept me from going, even though the individual excuses themselves might not necessarily have had that same effect.  The straw that broke the camel's back wasn't actually strong enough to do so; it merely completed the work started by all the other straws.  So that's my excuse, for what it's worth.

I've felt bad about starting and then immediately stopping, yet coming back wasn't easy either.  I let the change in hosting (and subsequent re-doing of the template) delay it further, but it had already been quite some time even by that point.  And as of right now, the template still isn't 100% done, but it's far enough along that I don't mind people browsing the site.  Additionally, I have struggled with what to write, and I figured a "how the last few months have gone" type post was the best way to go.  I didn't really want to just pick up where I left off (because I would like to move on to other topics for the time being), yet simply forging on didn't seem appropriate without some context.

So here it is.

From the get-go, I've tried to be very careful as to how I wrote, so as to not give away much of anything about myself or my specific worldview / belief system.  The reason for this anonymity was to take the focus off of me personally, in order to allow what I say to be read without any bias on the part of the reader (since knowing a person's background can often unnecessarily color the text).  I wanted my words to be read objectively.  It was a lofty (and perhaps misguided) goal, to be sure, and one that may not even have been truly achievable, but it was my goal and I worked toward it as best as I could.  It seemed like the best route to take (at least to me) -- especially at a point where I wasn't very sure what to believe -- to not give any particular slant, but to just put the ideas out there unencumbered.  Now that I'm more focused, this no longer makes sense, as everything now needs to go through this filter at which I've arrived.  So, no more hiding beneath a wall of non-specificity.  I'm going to be forthcoming about myself and what I believe.  But first, a little history.

For the bulk of my 32-year life, my faith has been more or less the same.  Doubts have come and gone, and my stances on Issue X or Argument Y haven't always been consistent, but I've pretty much been on the same general path from the get-go.  I was raised in the Church of Christ, which -- for those of you who may not be familiar with it -- is a particularly conservative body of believers whose practice and theology are descended from the 19th-century Restoration Movement in America, usually defined more or less by its extremely strict interpretation of the Bible and its claims to represent the original church teachings and practices.  There is much I could say at this point, especially with regard to how I now feel about those teachings, but I don't want to get off-topic here, so I'll save this for another discussion for another day.  Suffice it to say that is my background, which I'm sure will be evident by my approach to theology.

As a child, I didn't have much knowledge of other churches.  I knew they existed, but I didn't know much about them, except that they were different somehow, and we were doing right what they were doing wrong.  I grew up with pretty much no knowledge of church history or theology; I was taught the Bible itself was the only thing we ever needed to study, and that sometime in the distant past, the bulk of Christians left the true faith and went in sinful directions, hence the existence of "the denominations."  Thus there was no real distinction between "denominational Christians" and people who didn't believe in God at all.  As I got older, particularly as I went through college, those notions seemed to make less and less sense.

It's a road-worn stereotype, the story of the "cradle Christian" abandoning his faith when going off to college, but for me it wasn't a matter of leaving it behind, but attempting to really define it for myself, to figure out if what I'd always been taught was really true.  Gradually, I had a harder time reconciling the notion of Restorationism in and of itself, and of putting more stock in the actions of 19th-century reactionaries than the teachings of those who lived in the first few generations of Christianity.  But still filtering everything through that lens, no other "version" of Christianity seemed to be right.  It seemed like nobody -- not even those with whom I'd associated all my life -- were "on the right path."  It almost seemed like I could let go of the Christian faith altogether (if there is no valid path to God, why try?), but I couldn't.  I still can't, even in the depths of theological despair.  I can't simply give up on what is true just because I can't figure out how to get there.  Hard as it was, I still had to try and figure things out.

Then, in February this year, I started down a path I never would have thought I'd go down, and wound up somewhere I didn't expect to be.  In my next post, I'll describe that part of my journey in more detail.

To put it another way....

One of the most troubling things to me, as I look at the state of Christendom, is the widespread division, both in terms of doctrine and practice (to use fancier words, orthodoxy and orthopraxy). It's not just that there is so much in-fighting and church-splitting (though that is a tragedy in its own right), but that the teachings, traditions and practices are so divergent as to almost make them separate religions altogether. This problem, because I find it so troubling, is actually a large part of this blog's raison d'être.

We all have the same starting point: the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. His death, burial and resurrection is at the heart of all Christian teaching. Though many of us disagree on some things about Christ, we are all, in essence, trying to follow the same Savior. It's not as if we have different Bibles either (Deuterocanon/Apocrypha aside). We are still primarily looking at the same Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation. Translations come and go, and with them different wordings, and sometimes the books get moved around and/or combined, but ultimately, we have the same Holy Scriptures, and we're all looking to them, to learn about the truth of God's love for us.

But probably no book in all of human history has been interpreted and re-interpreted in so many different ways as the Bible has. For centuries, its contents have been presented in so many ways (often very contradictorily), the cacophony of hermeneutical options can be truly dizzying to anybody approaching the text, even those (like me) who have spent their whole lives being familiar with it. How can we have one faith when we can't agree on what that faith is? As far as I can see, the confusion, at least to some degree, comes with the fact that the New Testament does not seem to go into a lot of detail on many issues. Often we are told to do something, but not how to do it.

Take, for example, the Lord's Supper. While we are instructed to do so when we gather together, we aren't given explicit instructions on what we do when we partake of it. All we know is that the Lord took bread saying "this is My body," and took the cup saying "this is My blood." In the process He told the Apostles to "do this in remembrance of Me." Beyond that, it would appear we are more or less on our own to figure out what to do. Therefore, over time, different people have come to different conclusions as to how to do certain things. It's not too hard to get the impression that it doesn't matter what you do, so long as you're getting the gist of it.

And yet, it does matter: Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church, tells us that we must "examine ourselves" when we take it, for doing so "in an unworthy manner" will eat and drink judgment on ourselves, and for that reason many of his audience were sick or even dead. However, he does not elaborate on exactly what this means. Those looking for a detailed theological treatise will not find it there; in these passages you get only a general description of what should take place. Thus, practice in this regard varies widely among churches, from the elaborate ritual of Catholic Mass to the simple Lord's Supper service many Protestant groups participate in.

Likewise, we have in Scripture no formal order of worship, no format for preaching, no specific instruction for many of the things which we as Christians are commanded to do, yet it is clear that these are actions we should be taking, that they are to be important parts of our lives. Worship isn't an extra-curricular activity; it is one of the central aspects of the Christian life. And yet, the details, it would appear, are left up to us. Neither in the epistles nor in the book of Acts do we find full descriptions of the early Christians' meetings; only that they did meet, and did so regularly, and that certain things went on (breaking of bread, preaching, etc). What we wind up doing is gleaning what we can from the New Testament what we should be doing, and filling in the gaps according to the tradition of our choice.

In contrast to this, worship in the Old Testament was different: the descriptions of the Law (primarily in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) go very much into detail on the various practices, whether it's the various burnt offerings or cleanliness laws. There was no ambiguity. It was to be done exactly that way. And punishment for doing something wrong was often severe, including death (as in the case of Nadab and Abihu). Likewise Uzzah was struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant, which was specifically prohibited. God let the Israelites know, in no uncertain terms, exactly what He wanted them to do.

So why, then, did He not do the same thing with the New Covenant? Certainly we have no need for sacrifices and such because Christ became the one final sacrifice for us, but why were we (apparently) given so much leeway in determining how we conduct ourselves in worship? Why is there no New Testament version of Leviticus? Does how we serve the Lord no longer matter? While it is true that not every single facet of the Jewish religious experience was mapped out in the Old Testament Scriptures, they were prescribed far more specific actions that we as Christians have been.

However, though much of early Christian worship services was based on Jewish synagogue services, the early church's teachings (and, presumably, practices) came from both epistles and unwritten traditions prescribed by the Apostles themselves. Writings from the Church Fathers describe more fully the practices of the church in its first few centuries, but since they are not Scripture, they are regarded as non-authoritative by many Christians, and so are often completely overlooked, despite some having been written by people who studied directly under the Apostles (such as Ignatius of Antioch). If Scripture only tells us so much, and we do not rely on the witness of those closest temporally to the era, is it not then just guesswork?

Thus we find ourselves coming to our various conclusions, at odds with each other in nearly every way imaginable. Over time, group has grappled with group, be it over the nature of Christ's divinity, heresies such as Gnosticism, methods of baptism, hymnody, iconography, and so on. There are few topics over which Christians will not quarrel. And it's not a new phenomenon: groups threatening to split apart the church by preaching distorted Gospels popped up immediately, and are even addressed in the Epistles (for example, Galatians 1:6ff). Despite Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians, to this day we fight and divide, giving no quarter to those who do not see things our way. Those that do try and bridge the gaps are seen as compromising. Thus by building some bridges we burn others.

How then do we handle trying to do what God wants, while maintaining relations with those who argue with us over how? I've seen far too much of the "us vs. them" mentality to believe that that's the way we ought to act. And yet, you don't have to look far to see that this is the way things are.

The journey of infinite miles begins with a single blog post.

This world exists.

As far as I know, unless I am dreaming, I am in this world, and this world exists.

Even if I am dreaming, and this world is not real, I exist. I know, "cogito ergo sum" and all that, but still.... if I am here, or am dreaming I am here, regardless, I must be somewhere, feeling these feelings, thinking these thoughts.

And if somewhere exists, it had to have come into existence somehow. And by that logic, I too must have come into existence as well, at some point. Therefore, by some process, this world, and the things and people in it, were caused to exist (created, if you will), at some point in the past.

I have on good evidence that I came into existence a number of years ago, born to a mother and father. Medical records (amongst other things) attest to that fact. That matter is pretty simple. As for this somewhere, wherever it is I exist, that's a whole different thing altogether.

To simplify greatly, there are two explanations that you typically hear. Painting in broad strokes, I will refer to them as Science and Religion.

Science tells us that everything that exists came into being on its own, more or less at random, for no reason, through no fault of its own, or anybody else's for that matter. Out of nowhere, by accident, the world just came together perfectly, and we are the sum total of many other such random, causeless "happy accidents" that have happened over an indeterminate period of time. In short, we just happened.

Religion, on the other hand, tells a different story. Though the various religions differ on the details, ultimately, it comes down to a god (or gods) deliberately, purposefully (for whatever reason) crafting and fashioning the universe, and us (that is, human beings) to live in it. In this case, our very existence is a gift, given to us for a purpose.

In looking at the two options, I have historically gone with Religion, specifically Christianity. That is how I was raised, and is how I have lived for most of my life. My level of faith hasn’t remained constant, however, and many times I have doubted Religion's view, and wondered if maybe Science was right after all.

But it made no sense. As far as I know, nothing of value has ever created itself. To take it one step further, I have never heard of anything ever creating itself. Science has done a pretty good job (for the most part) in describing the world in which we live, but has not yet, in all this time, given a good explanation as to how it got here. The closest it seems to have come is in postulating a starting point (the big bang), and extrapolating from there. Essentially, it’s describing a what but not a why. Most people seem to be content with this as an explanation. But not me.

Even in the depths of my doubt of the existence of God, I have not been able to shake the idea that this world had to have had a creator. Can Science really come up with an explanation as to how something - everything, really - seems to have created itself out of nothing (ex nihilo) at some point in the past, and that this type of event has yet to happen since? Deep in the core of my being, I believe that this what has a who behind it, and not only a who, but a why.

The question then becomes, who is this who? There is, however, no shortage of options offered by various people at various times. As I said before, I have been raised to believe in God as described by the Bible, as worshiped by Christians. Examination of other concepts of God haven't, to my mind, proved superior, or even sufficient. The God of the Bible makes the most sense. I have chosen to remain with the identity and description of God that I have held as far as I can remember. So, since I believe in God, and hold the Scriptures to be the truth, it is my duty to seek out God, to live in what way He prescribes, since I owe Him everything, even my very existence.

But how? Even at this point, there are so many options. Seemingly countless ways of interpreting the Scriptures pop up everywhere. I've often said if you asked 100 Christians about a particular topic, you'll get at least 200 different opinions. The differences among various Christian denominations aren't all inconsequential, either. There are monumental clashes of ideology, and since it's as important as we are told (because we are talking about devotion to the Almighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe), this is not a decision to be made lightly. Resting on the laurels of the traditions I've been raised on just won't cut it, for if we were mistaken, the consequences are eternal.

So who has it right? The Catholic church? What about the Orthodox? Is it one of the mainstream American Christian groups, such as the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians? Should we follow the Emergent churches, bursting with new ideas, or the Restorationists, those who eschew tradition and history in order to go back to the "original" church? Is it the Amish, who shun the outside world and its technology, keeping themselves separate from everybody else? Or how about the plethora of independent "non-denominational" groups? Or can anybody just come up out of the woodwork with an idea and a passion and still please God?

This is where I'm starting. This is where I am. Where do I go from here?