Why I chose ‘John’ as my Chrismation name

When a convert joins the Orthodox Church it is customary to receive a ‘new name’, usually the name of one of the Saints. Generally this is the name of a Saint with whom the person feels a special affinity. An exception is when your birth name is already a ‘Christian’ name, and since my first name is Andrew it was naturally assumed I would not adopt a different name at Chrismation. After all, Saint Andrew the First-Called was one of the twelve apostles, a martyr, and exemplary example of the Christian life, and I strongly suspect it was with him in mind that my parents named me. However there is different Saint who has been very formative in my ‘faith journey’ the last few years: the Apostle and Evangelist, John the Theologian, also sometimes known as the John the Beloved.

icon of st john the theologian
St John the Theologian “in Silence” (Village of Vladimir, 18th Century) Source: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/john-the-apostle-the-theologian-in-silence/

Several years ago while still in the charismatic-evangelical church, I turned again to read the gospel of St John. This was not unusual as over the years I have read all four gospels many times. What was unusual was that I ended up reading John’s gospel over and over again. Every time I reached the end I was compelled to turn to the beginning and read it all over again. I tried reading different scriptures but nothing but St John would do. As the months followed I found my view of almost everything changing. Long-held views on the person of Jesus, on the love of the Father, on redemption, on salvation, on what it is to be human and what it means to be ‘saved’, were challenged and transformed. But more than just changing beliefs, I felt a change in myself. I became more aware of the presence of God in everything around me, more aware of of my need for Him, and at the same time more aware of my acceptance and inclusion in Him.

As lovely as this sounds it was also unsettling. I am deeply grateful for the years my family and I spent in the charismatic church; for the many people who loved and cared for us, who stood by us, prayed for us, ministered to us, and by their example pointed us to Jesus. But I became increasingly dissatisfied with the culture and message I had been committed to for so long. I became convicted that I needed to change, rather than expect others to do so. I knew God was calling me to another place. And so began my journey to the Orthodox Church.

icon of st john the theologian
Christ and Saint John – Source: http://www.ukcopticicons.com/order-an-icon.html

I therefore regard John the Beloved with a special reverence. He had a special intimacy with our Lord, being the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, and reclining with his head upon the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper. He was present on the mountain of transfiguration and at the raising of Jairus’ daughter. He was the only disciple present at the crucifixion, and one of the the first witnesses to the resurrection. And he was the one charged to by Jesus to regard the mother of our Lord as his own mother. But beside these universal truths, it is the gospel of Saint John that has formed and shaped me the most these last few years, and led me to the Orthodox Church.

Therefore when I became a member of the Orthodox Church through the sacrament of Chrismation, I adopted the name of John in honour of Saint John the Evangelist.

In the Orthodox Church, the eight day of May is the feast day in honour of the holy apostle John and therefore my own Name Day.

O beloved Apostle of Christ our God,
Come quickly to deliver your helpless people.
He on whose breast you leaned, will accept you as intercessor.
Entreat Him, O Theologian, to disperse the clouds of darkness,
Granting us peace and great mercy

Troparion to St John the Theologian (2nd tone)

Why I Joined the Orthodox Church

Why does a 50 year old protestant, a deeply committed member of the evangelical-charismatic church for 30 years, suddenly go and join the Orthodox Church?

In future I hope to say more about the first part of the story, the leaving part, but I’m going to skip this for now. Suffice to say that I’d been dissatisfied with my church for some years, and slowly came to realise that it wasn’t just ‘my’ church but the charismatic church in general that had become alien to me on many levels. In this post I want to focus on the positive reasons for becoming Orthodox, rather than my dissatisfaction with my former church.

 

The short answer

holy apostlesOne of my children became Orthodox last year. I initially attended one or two services with him, including his joining service (‘chrismation’). While finding the services strange and some of the beliefs challenging, I was drawn back again and again. Over several months my questions and doubts dissolved and my heart was drawn to worship God as part of this faith community.

 

The slightly longer answer

While the explanation above may satisfy some, there is obviously more to this tale. A lot more in fact than can fit in 800 words. However I’d like to highlight here three key aspects: theology, prayer and worship. Forgive me if my treatment of these is superficial and inaccurate. My understanding is limited; moreover this is a personal reflection and space is limited.

The theology of the Orthodox Church emphasises the unity of God and the triumph of God’s love. The Holy Trinity are united in their nature and in all they do. In this framework, Jesus perfectly reveals the Father in every way, and corrects false notions of God evident in the Old Testament scriptures. Redemption is not seen as a legal transaction, where Jesus satisfies an arbitrary notion of divine justice; rather it is a rescue mission where the whole of the Trinity deals decisively with the issue of death-caused-by-sin once and for all. And although not being church dogma, this includes at least the possibility that the work of redemption will somehow be effective for all people. The Orthodox Church permits me to hope that the work of Christ is at least as powerful as the error of Adam. 1

The practices of prayer is central to the Orthodox Christian. This is obviously true for all Christians, however the Orthodox Church provides a great deal more help in making this a reality. There are set prayers to be said when rising from sleep, at 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, 6 pm, evening and before sleep (personally I aim for morning and evening!). Orthodox services are crammed full of prayers. And the prayers are crammed full of scripture and very much centred on God (not me and my needs). 2 Obviously there is room for spontaneous and personal prayer. But the essence of prayer is that done ‘in the name of Jesus’ that is, in accordance with scripture and God’s will. I have found that praying in this way is liberating, freeing me from the whim of personal feelings and distracting thoughts, and it seems to be slowly transforming my mind, bringing my thoughts and feelings in line with scripture. Some may argue that this is possible without set prayers, and that somehow praying prayers penned by others in somehow inauthentic and mere ‘religion’. I have come to believe that to neglect a practice found to be beneficial by generations of Christians over two millennia, and replacing it with whatever I feel I right on the spur of the moment, is both foolish and a little arrogant.

paschaOrthodox worship is where I have experienced the sharpest contrast with the charismatic church. Gone are the amplified music, the projected words, and ‘contemporary’ songs. Gone too are the spontaneous ‘contribution’ where songs and even sermons may be interrupted by a prophetic word or tongue. Orthodox worship is liturgical, with set services for every day. Rituals, processions, incense and icons all play a part. On every Sunday, and on other feast days, the focus is on encountering Christ in the Eucharistic meal. Superficially this looks a world apart from charismatic worship. It is hard to explain how I have transitioned to this world and reconciled the differences, and space does not permit me to try. However my experience has been that Orthodox worship is deeply infused with the presence of God, and the set form of service focuses attention on God in a way that a meeting manipulated by a worship leader seldom achieves. 3 If you want to know more you will have to try it for yourself.

 

If you want to know more, try these links.

  1. Permit me to hope, (Brad Jersak): https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/permit-me-to-hope/
  2. Orthodox daily prayers: https://www.goarch.org/-/the-synekdemos-daily-prayers-for-orthodox-christians
  3. The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom: https://youtu.be/OYg5D6gpe98. This recording is in different form and slightly more polished rendering (!) than at my church. It is in two parts, the liturgy of the Word, climaxing in the gospel reading (at about 24 minutes), and the liturgy of the faithful, climaxing in the Eucharist.