Xenia a has been an online friend and companion on my journey for many years, before there ever was a Phoenix Preacher.
Since her first comment on an old email list and still today she has exemplified the positive virtues of the Christian faith.
It’s always been obvious that she belongs to God…and her journey to the East began my journey toward a love for and an embracing of the whole Body of Christ, not just the sects I was aligned with doctrinally.
I’m honored that she wrote this for us and I do indeed celebrate her presence among us.
Why I am Eastern Orthodox
First, a little background. I was raised in a Christian home. My parents were Baptists and we attended the little Baptist church across the road from our house in rural Ohio. When I was twelve I walked the aisle to accept the Lord on an Easter Sunday and was baptized in Lake Erie soon after the spring thaw. I had a great fear of going to Hell and that was my entire motivation for becoming a Christian. I continued as a Baptist after moving to California until I was thirty when I discovered the local Calvary Chapel. I continued at Calvary Chapel Monterey Bay for the next twenty years.
So what happened? Why did I abandon fifty years of comfortable Baptistic theology, my cool media jobs at CC, my cozy place in the inner circle of women’s ministry and pretty much lose all my friends to join an obscure and ancient church that did not even seem to use English?
A few Evangelical doctrines bothered me even from my youth. The one that caused me the most grief was Eternity Security or Once Saved, Always Saved. As I have shared here before, that doctrine kept me awake nights because it seemed to be based on nothing more than my own sincerity at the time I walked the aisle when I was twelve. (“If you really meant it when you repeated the sinner’s prayer….”) Most of the time I did not feel like a Christian and I certainly did not act like one so I concluded that I must not have really meant it when I was twelve. When my parents would watch the Billy Graham Crusades on TV I became so anxious that I had to leave the room and run upstairs and “accept the Lord” all over again because the last time didn’t take. Whenever the pastor at church gave the invitation it was all I could do to keep from running up front to “really and truly” accept the Lord. Only pride prevented me. And this continued even into my Calvary Chapel days, with a new twist. Why didn’t I receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit like everyone else did? Pastors and guest speakers laid hands on me numerous times to receive tongues and it never happened. Since the CC teaching on this was “Ask and you shall receive” I always left these episodes in tears, wondering if I was really a Christian after all. So again I would go to my room and try to accept the Lord all over again. And lest you think I was being overly neurotic about it a Famous Pastor’s Wife who was a guest speaker at our women’s conference questioned whether I should even be serving in women’s ministry since I had not received the Second Baptism.
Another doctrine that always bothered me was the Baptist / CC view of communion, which as you know, is symbolic, commemorative and non-sacramental. I could never quite understand what the big deal was. “Do This in Remembrance of Me” was carved on the table, but I could not understand how eating a saltine and drinking some grape juice helped me remember Jesus. Everyone acted like it was a big deal. The lights were turned down, the Baptist pianist or CC guitarist played soft, atmospheric music as we solemnly passed around the elements and partook in unison. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t know what kind of emotion I was supposed to be feeling. I came to dread communion and went out of my way to avoid it. It was meaningless to me. When I read the New Testament and church history it seemed like communion meant so much more to those Christians of the past and I was envious of them.
A third problem was the discouragement of doing good works lest we appeared to be too Catholic. I remember sitting in a women’s ministry leadership meeting as we tried to come up with stuff for the ladies to do besides Bible studies and tea parties. I suggested volunteering at soup kitchens or working with migrant women but this was shot down as works-righteousness. This upset me quite a bit. It seemed that the only activity permissible was Bible study. And believe me, I studied my Bible continually but guess what- I was not growing in the Lord one whit. I was certainly amassing a lot of factual information but as an individual I was not becoming conformed to the Image of Christ. In fact, I was becoming a bigger jerk with each passing year. As I came to believe that the goal of the Christian life is to become conformed to His Image. I realized that what was being offered in the CC world was not going to help me in this endeavor. No amount of study was going to take the place of actually getting up and doing the things the Lord told us to do, to feed the hungry, to dress the naked, to visit the captives, to shelter the homeless.
So, what to do. That summer I visited a lot of local churches to see if I could find a better fit. This was hard for me because I had been taught for the past 20 years that God was doing a special work in Calvary Chapel and that it was God’s cutting edge church. No one else did verse-by-verse, etc. etc. I found to my dismay that most of the churches I visited were trying to copy the CC model. Even the liturgical church I visited had a drum set up front. Shoot, if I wanted that I might as well stay at CC, which did this kind of thing really well. I still believed in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith but I was seriously thinking about leaving the world of churches. I was just about out the door.
One Sunday morning, when my cup of disgruntlement was full to overflowing, I visited the Russian Orthodox Church here in Seaside on a whim. A whim. It was to be my last hurrah before I left churchianity for good. I entered the mysterious, jewel-like little building with the attitude more of a tourist than a seeker. But that’s where God grabbed me. As I stood there in that tiny candle-lit space I had THE major mystical experience of my life. I knew this was God’s Church. This was the place. I was full of faith and joy. I was home.
Home… odd thing to say about a Church that was not even using one word of English the day I visited. But I felt like I was home just as I expect we will all feel when we cross over into Heaven one day. I felt like I was in the presence of God and the hosts of Heaven. I felt like I belonged, that I knew with a certainly that eluded me most of my life that I really and truly was a child of God and that He loved me. I was in the presence of a holiness that I didn’t even know existed on earth. After maybe five minutes I knew I had to join this Church, that my very soul depended on it. The simplest answer to “Why I am Eastern Orthodox” is that God grabbed me and told me I was home.
So, I joined up. Not the Russian parish but a Greek parish in Salinas that used a lot of English. The first thing I had to do was make a “Life Confession,” a chat with the priest where I confessed my major sins over the last fifty years, as best as I could remember them. We got stuck on a biggie, but God forgave me. This was big. I had a load of guilt over a certain matter and the relief I felt at being able to confess it with the help of the priest is hard to describe. It was more than just saying “Sorry, Lord.” I felt truly forgiven and released from a big burden of guilt that I had carried around with me for a long time.
After I was received into the Church by the rite of Chrismation (anointing with oil) I was able to receive the Holy Eucharist, which we believe is truly the Blood and Body of the Savior. I now look forward to Communion and believe that I am truly being fed by the Blood and Body of our Lord, for strength and for salvation. Like the Lutherans, the Orthodox also practice closed communion. To receive, one must be a baptized Orthodox Christian who has been to confession fairly recently and who has fasted since midnight. I have seen strangers approach the Chalice who were grilled by the priest: Are you Orthodox? Who’s your Bishop? Did you eat breakfast? When’s the last time you went to Confession?
There are many things I love about the Orthodox Church; here’s a few:
The Divine Liturgy, which is beautiful, heavenly, timeless and Christ-centered.
The veneration of the Saints, which is not worship but rather a way to cherish the heroes and heroines of the faith.
Icons, beautiful timeless windows into heaven.
The Liturgical Calendar, with its feast days, fasting days, Saints’ days and scripture readings. It is good to be literally on the same page as the rest of the Church.
The Orthodox prayer book with its morning and evening prayers. I appreciate the fact that many Christians have a vibrant prayer life by praying spontaneously, but this was a very weak area in my life and I am so thankful for my prayer book which has enabled me to pray consistently each day. Well, at least most days.
The wisdom, humility, kindness and gentleness of the Orthodox clergy.
Monastics and their monasteries, an integral part of Orthodox life.
Orthodox Church government, with an elected parish council to oversee the building and other earthly matters and the Bishops to oversee spiritual and ecclesiastic matters. Everyone is accountable to somebody.
“Small” things, such a sweet smelling incense, candles, church bells, clerical vestments, standing during Liturgy, head coverings for the women, a cappella singing…. These things make the Liturgy heavenly and help us set aside all earthly cares.
Antiquity. It goes without saying, this a is very old Church. No fads, no attempts at coolness, no electronics. It is not what you’d call “seeker friendly” but as my story (and many others) demonstrate, God can grab you anyway.
Of course, of the utmost importance are the Sacraments, especially baptism and the Eucharist. We believe that God works through His material creation, such as in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
In Orthodoxy, salvation is a journey along a life-long path with Christ leading you, nudging you from behind, holding both hands and carrying you as well. He is in us and we are in Him. As long as we stay on the path we are safe. He enables us to stay on the path. He gives us things to do which help us stay on the path. If we say we cannot do the things He gives us to do we need to remember that with man, nothing is possible but with God, all things are possible. We can do all things through Christ Who gives us strength.
I am convinced that the Eastern Orthodox Church contains the fullness of the Christian faith and is the Church that was born on the Day of Pentecost. I think when it comes right down to it, this is the reason I am Orthodox: I believe it’s the Church. (To anticipate the question “Do I think people outside the Orthodox Church are genuine Christians” the answer is Yes.)