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....