I was raised in a variety of denominations: Brethren in Christ, Nazarene, Wesleyan Methodist, Brethren. For our education, my siblings and I attended a number of Christian schools, including a conservative Mennonite school. Later, I worked at a Mennonite restaurant for about three years. Oh, and my maternal grandparents left the Amish church to become Pentecostal. I am a Christian mutt.
For many years, our family attended every possible service–Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday prayer service, and any revival that was happening nearby. We read Scripture at home, went to Bible classes at school, and were generally a very pious, devout family.
When I was eight or nine, the Brethren in Christ church closed, so we church hopped as my parents valiantly tried to find the right church. We joined, attended, and left a few places, and for a few years during junior high, my parents stopped attending altogether. That was very difficult for me.
They started going to church again when I was in high school, in part because I was such a nag–I think they wanted to shut me up. Around my junior year of high school, I became disillusioned with the vast chasm that existed between what Christians professed and how Christians lived, and by the time the pastor’s son broke up with me in my senior year, I was through with all of it.
I didn’t attend church in college. Although I went to mandatory chapel and attended required Bible classes, I just wasn’t into God. He and I weren’t speaking. I met Mel my freshman year and he wasn’t going to church either, so we just coasted along in our lives without God.
Fast forward a few years to marriage and babies. We were married by a justice of the peace because I didn’t want to go to no stinking counseling sessions (I have always been full of humility). We had a little family–mom, dad, baby–and we were just fine, thank you.
Then, when she was 18 months old, my oldest started having nightmares. I started praying with her before she went to sleep, and it seemed to calm her down, but that was the extent of my spiritual life–prayer with the little girl.
After baby number two was born, something beautiful happened. We were driving around on Christmas Eve, looking at Christmas lights, when we started talking about God, our lack of relationship with Him, and whether or not we should start attending church. It was totally out of the blue and completely life altering.
This is the part of the conversation I recall:
Mel said, “I’m going to go back to church, even if you don’t go with me.”
I responded, “That’s funny–I was just thinking I would go back to church, but only if you went too.”
Yep, an “altar call” in the car. Mysterious.
And so the parade of churches began. We agreed that we would attend/visit each church we were interested in for four weeks in order to give the church a fair shake. The first Sunday of January, bitterly cold as it was, was our first day back. We dutifully went to church A for four weeks, then moved on to church B, then church C. We had a few questions: what is the statement of faith, will they take our kids away from us as soon as we walk in the door, and do they serve donuts during Sunday School? We were pretty ignorant.
For some reason in the middle of our church shopping, our good friend So Yung got it into her head that we needed to visit an Orthodox church, in part because she had heard the priest speak during a history course at college. She also wanted to get married in an Orthodox church because they are so beautiful. We agreed to go just to get her to stop bugging us, but we were just going to go once and then return to our cycle of church visits.
So we went to the local OCA (Orthodox Church in America, formerly know as Russian Orthodox) church which was in the middle of nowhere and didn’t look like much on the inside. Lucky for us, it was the Sunday of the Cross, right in the middle of Lent. For those of you who have attended an OCA parish on this Sunday, you know that right in the middle of the service, the priest, servers, and all of the people do a full prostration during a song about the Cross of Christ, not just once, but THREE times.
We were shell shocked. What was wrong with these people? Don’t they know about idols being a big commandment you don’t break? What was with all the smoke (incense)? And why are they calling someone Father? Those people were nuts and they obviously didn’t read the Bible.
During coffee hour, the priest greeted us and joked, “I bet you thought the Ayatollah was going to come out any minute, right?”
Uh, yeah. We won’t be back.
A strange thing happened though. I could not get the music out of my head: it was so beautiful and reminded me of the singing at the Mennonite school, a Capella and enchanting. Strangely, Mel loved it and wanted to give it the full four week treatment, so I acquiesced, and each week, our new questions were answered and our puny faith was strengthened.
We learned about church history and the split that happened in 1054 between the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches. We learned that the sermon was NOT the main event for 1500 years of church history–the Eucharist was. We learned that the Liturgy was the work of the people, and that the priest and the people work together to accomplish this work. We learned that the posture for prayer is standing because you are in the presence of God. We learned about corporate prayer, private prayer, and the prayer of the heart.
We learned about sacraments (baptism, chrismation, communion, confession, marriage, ordination, unction) and their continual presence in the life of the church from the beginning. We learned about fasting and how it is connected to spiritual growth. We learned about the seven councils and how those decisions formed the theology and doctrine of the church. We learned that the canon of Scripture came from the Church, not the other way around.
We learned so much that we became obnoxious to be around, but we couldn’t help it. We were so excited about what we were learning and we had to tell EVERYONE, even when no one really wanted to know about it.
Then, after a visit to a local church when my in-laws were in town, we discovered that there was no way we could return to our Protestant roots. Suddenly, the emphasis on the pronoun ‘I,’ the praise and worship team, the words on the screen up front, and the people just sitting and watching the whole time, like they were watching a show, just seemed so strange.
Where was the historical precedence? Where was the connection to the cloud of witnesses? Where were the sacraments? Where was the holiness? Where was the corporate act of prayer? Where was the entrance into the Kingdom of God?
After that, we went full speed ahead toward the Orthodox church, reading everything we could and attending every service we could. It was an amazing year of learning, praying, and seeking after “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” Our catechism was pretty informal, but the roots went deep, and, within a few months of our first visit, we asked to be received.
Since we were very young and not overly involved in any other groups, we jumped in with both feet. The Church’s schedule became our schedule, and we loved the rhythm of the life of the Church, with its feasts and its fasts. The daily reading from Scripture and the prayer book were a novelty at first, but quickly became a source of inspiration.
At some point, I realized that the adherence to a tradition that has been handed down since the first century of Christendom is vital to a sustainable faith; I also realized that relying on my own opinions and ideas is a recipe for spiritual disaster. I am not and should not be my own spiritual boss, as unAmerican as that sounds.
Even though my parents and my brother weren’t too thrilled with our decision to convert and suspected we were going papal, we continued to attend. On the other hand, Mel’s family was just relieved we were attending church, and even though Mel’s older brother thought we should take it a little slower, he encouraged us to keep going.
Then, about one year after we started attending, our whole family was received by baptism into the Orthodox church. It was a perfect day in January, about a year after our search began, filled with light and wonder and love. My family didn’t show up, but the church was filled with our new family, the angels, the saints, and the Orthodox faithful, rejoicing that our search had ended and we had come home.
Glory to God for all things!