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.

Breaking of Bread

He walked all afternoon out the dry hot rod toward Cuatro Cienagas. No one he met passed without speaking. He walked along past fields where men and women were hoeing the earth and those at work by the roadside would stop and nod to him and say how good the day was and he would agree with all they said. In the evening he took his supper with workers in their camp, five or six families seated together at a table made of cut poles bound with hemp twine. The table was pitched under a canvas fly and the evening sun resolved within the place beneath a deep orange light where the seams and stitching passed in shadow over their faces and their clothes as they moved. The girls set out the dishes on little pallets made from the ends of crates that nothing overbalance on the uneven surface of the table and an old man at the farthest end of the table prayed for them all. He asked that God remember those that had died and he asked that the living gathered together here remember that the corn grows only by the will of God and beyond that will there is neither corn nor growing nor light nor air nor rain nor anything at all save only darkness.  Then they ate. 

From ‘The Crossing’ by Cormack McCarthy

Psalm 104 says that God has given us

…wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. 

We have come together, to share a meal together. Just as Jesus shared his last meal before his death with his disciples so we as his disciples share a meal together. And because of his death and resurrection he is here too. 

Like the old man in the story we recognise that God is in everything that we can see or feel, and without his will and presence there is only darkness. God is present in the air we breathe, in the sunshine, in the rain we feel on our faces, in the stranger we sit next to on the bus, in our colleagues at work or college, and in one another. 

And because God is present everywhere he is also present here and present in this bread and in this wine. 

Martin Luther said that although God is present everywhere, he is not visible everywhere.  

In some places God appears hidden, or we do not perceive him. 

But in this meal we see God revealed. 

We see the love of Jesus, self-sacrificing and overcoming. 

We see his victory over sin, disease and death. 

We see his glorious resurrection. 

We see his redeeming work, that has rescued us from death and brought us into life. 

And we see ourselves, once separated from God and from each other, but now bound up together in life-giving and life-sustaining fellowship with him. 

The bread and wine we share represent a meal. This is ordinary bread and ordinary wine. Yet if we can see it, there is more going on, a deeper reality. 

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10.16:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf

We have all eaten the bread of life, that is, Jesus who declared:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

We have feasted on Jesus and he has become part of us, we are in him and he is in us. 

And today as we share this meal, we recognise the presence of Jesus in one another and we feed once again on Jesus. 

I invite you all to come. The only qualification is that you know you need Jesus and that without his presence all is darkness. 

Come and and freely enjoy his gift of grace. Enjoy his forgiveness and grace. Let go of your burdens and feast on him. 

The wine of God will make your heart glad, the bread of life will strengthen your heart, and the anointing of his Spirit will fill you with his radiance and glory.