The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 14 “Becoming Greek”

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

“So when are you becoming Greek?”

Come again?

I was at our neighborhood restaurant, The Village Grill — a fine dining establishment that serves the food you want most on a Friday night. Pizza, Gyros, subs, calzone, chicken kebab over Greek salad — it’s all there and it’s great.  A small framed news article on the wall from years ago depicts Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, both originally from Cambridge, in an interview stating this restaurant is their favorite Cambridge “dining establishment’.  Not only is the food flavorful and comfortable, we always get to talk to our resident Greek philosopher, Theo, the owner.

Theo knows everyone in the neighborhood.

When Theo found out we were attending the Orthodox church he was full of curiosity. He wanted to know more about it. The questions included why? Which one? The Greek church up the street? Theo was baptized in the church as a baby and though he rarely goes, his wife attends every Sunday. She loves the Church.

“You mean when are we becoming Orthodox? When are we being Chrismated?” I said, a bit puzzled.

“Yeah, you know. Becoming Greek. Ya know it’s hard to become Greek. It’s not easy”

The way much of the west understands the Orthodox church is around ethnicity. There’s Greek Orthodox. There’s Russian Orthodox. There’s Bulgarian Orthodox. There’s the Orthodox Church of America. There’s the Russian Orthodox Church of America. When people ask us about becoming Orthodox, they immediately go to ethnicity. They want to know ‘which orthodox?’. It’s valid.

Faith and ethnicity is not a problem unique to the Orthodox church, indeed it rears it’s ugly, divisive head in Christianity in many other ways and denominations.

But since my faith journey is leading me into the Eastern Orthodox church I am naturally concerned and irritated about this issue in the Orthodox church. Because no – I am not becoming Greek, despite the fact that I love Greeks and sort of wish I was one.

And this is what comes to mind as I discuss “becoming Greek” with our friend and restaurant owner.

As a blog post I don’t have either the time or inclination to dig deeply into the history of these divisions. I do understand some of them to have come from the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian diaspora and their desire to preserve their culture, which was uniquely united with their faith. To be Greek was to be Orthodox. And it’s understandable. Much of the way Orthodoxy spread has been through migration of ethnic groups as opposed to an evangelical mission movement. And the more I read, the more I realize this has been written and talked about for centuries.

As I read and study more I am heartened that I am not the only one troubled by ethnic divisions. I am encouraged by these words from Fr John Peck:

“The truth of the Orthodox faith, as presented on paper, is actually being believed – by those who have no familial or historical connection with the Orthodox. These poor deluded souls (of which I count myself) actually believe what they are reading about the Orthodox faith, and expect the Church to act like, well, the Church. They refuse to accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch….. The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.”

“So what unites the Orthodox Church?”  I ask, looking for answers. Worship of God as expressed through the Divine Liturgy. No matter what language or ethnicity, this will be the same. Holy Tradition and belief that the Holy Spirit sustains this Holy Tradition, building up the Church through the ages. These are the hallmarks that unite what ethnicity and culture tend to confuse.

There is also a distinction that should be made between the beauty of traditions made rich from the influence of ethnicity and culture and the divisions that clothing the gospel in ethnocentric robes can bring. With the first I am more aware of how big and creative God is, how much he delights in culture and ethnicity and how rich and beautiful worship can be. With the second, I am made to feel I don’t belong unless I am Greek (or Russian or Bulgarian — depending on the service)

Christianity is a faith that is available for all people in all cultures at all times. I will stand by that until the day I die. My faith journey is moving me into Orthodox faith and tradition, and I am learning more about Christ’s love for the Church and thus the importance of the Church in my faith through this. It is how God is leading me. And though divisions have come and gone through the ages, the Holy Spirit marches on at the whims of no one and nothing.

If the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the building of the Church, ethnic divisions have not a chance. 

And so “No – I am not becoming Greek.”

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 8: The Sign of the Cross”

20130928-093928.jpgThis is the first thing I notice as I begin my journey into Orthodoxy. The sign of the Cross. I shake my head because I can’t figure out when they do the sign. When I’m about to make the sign of the cross, it seems no one else is. When I am least prepared, everyone else is on board.

Always a step behind the sign of the cross.

The thought leaves me depressed. It’s what I often feel on this journey — a step behind everyone else. If I didn’t know this was the right path I would give up, just because I hate that I am a baby in the journey. At heart I know this is pride. And with the sign of the cross, I pray His grace will trump my pride, anyday and everyday.

The sign of the cross reminds me I’m in a humble place of learning. I know none of the answers and am barely able to ask the questions. It’s healthy to realize I know only one thing – Christ crucified for me.

When my oldest daughter Annie was six she began making the sign of the cross. We had a number of Catholic friends, and she picked up the gesture naturally. One day I was talking to my mom about this. My mom is a lifelong believer, a mentor in my faith since I was old enough to understand anything. “There’s nothing wrong with that” she said. “It’s totally Biblical!” This is one of the many reasons why I love my mom. The stuff that counts is black and white, the other stuff is many shades of grey. The sign of the cross? In her opinion whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox the sign of the cross made complete sense.

Because this sign represents the cross itself as well as loving God with my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength. And as often as I can, I need to be reminded of this.

Orthodox make the sign of the cross differently than Catholics. Pressing my index and middle fingers to my thumb I go up to my forehead, then down toward my stomach, over to the right shoulder and across to the left: “In the name of the father (forehead) son (down) and the Holy Spirit (over and across)”

Up, down, over, across. Up, down, over, across. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity. Up, down, over, across.

There is a rhythmic prayer and beauty to this and I realize I have looked for a symbol like this my entire life. I’ve always envied my Catholic friends, feeling they could, with one sign, indicate a faith. This may sound simplistic, and I am well aware that God’s concern is the heart, not the outward symbols. But when the outward symbol can reflect the heart? This is a gift.

I look toward the altar. The choir, in exquisite harmony, is singing “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity one in essence, and indivisible”.

Up, down, over, acrossThe sign that reminds me of a love sacrificial, a cross that overcomes sin and death, a Lord who is present. I gratefully bow my head. 

Related articles

Waiting for Aslan

“WHAT an extraordinary place!” cried Lucy. “All those stone animals – and people too! It’s – it’s like a museum.”

“Hush,” said Susan, “Aslan’s doing something.”

…..Everywhere the statues were coming to life. The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. Creatures were running after Aslan and dancing round him till he was almost hidden in the crowd. Instead of all that deadly white the courtyard was now a blaze of colours; glossy chestnut sides of centaurs, indigo horns of unicorns, dazzling plumage of birds, reddy-brown of foxes, dogs and satyrs, yellow stockings and crimson hoods of dwarfs; and the birch-girls in silver, and the beech-girls in fresh, transparent green, and the larch-girls in green so bright that it was almost yellow. And instead of the deadly silence the whole place rang with the sound of happy roarings, brayings, yelpings, barkings, squealings, cooings, neighings, stampings, shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.” from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe


On our weekend walks we pass by some amazing houses. Each one is different in color, size and style. Each one with character and charm: wrap-around front porches on some, outside spiral staircases to rooftops on others, gilded turrets on still more. They are blue, white, deep orange, and green. They have gardens and window boxes full of flowers, driveways and wide porches.

It is a treat for the eyes just to look at them.

One of the houses we aren’t able to describe. It sits down a hill closer to the ocean. Large trees block the view and it’s clear by the No Trespassing sign that strangers are not welcome. A large plot of land opposite the driveway belongs to the house as well and in recent years the land was developed. Trees were removed and the land is now sculpted with bushes, plants and flowers all artistically pre-arranged so they fit in with large rocks in the area.

But that is not enough.

This year the owners have introduced stone statues of animals.

We first saw a haughty ostrich at least 10 feet tall, its neck rising above its body.

Next we saw a proud lion on a rock.

Then we saw a lioness.

And her cubs.

They stand, poised to pounce and play. But they can’t for they have no life. They are merely stone and granite statues fashioned by a talented artist.

These stone animals remind me of the castle of the White Witch, Queen of Narnia, where “Her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands” turns her enemies into stone and they sit in a large courtyard, seemingly forever trapped under a curse. Moments before they offended the queen these animals and people were fully alive with a purpose ordained by their creator. Then through the curse of this queen, they became stone.

They are waiting for Aslan.

I think of how like these stone statues I am at times. Hard. Immoveable. Lifeless. Paralyzed. Stationary. Like I’m waiting for Aslan

In Narnia Aslan is on the move and the stone statues are not beyond his reach. The breath of Aslan touches the statues and moves them from cold, grey stone to living, breathing reality full of color, movement and life. They become who they were created to be – the strength and glory of the Lion in their bearing.

I sit stationary, praying for the breath of the Spirit of God. Just one breath is enough to be fully alive.








“How Much Did You Write?”

“How much did you write?” by Robynn

Our eleven year old Bronwynn was recently baptized. At our church the Pastor has each person prepare a statement to read or recite before he baptizes them. Often it’s the story of Jesus meeting them in the midst of their selfishness, in the middle of their agonies, in the center of their sin. The stories tell of hope and change, of God’s mercy, of His unending capacity to redeem.

It’s my favourite part of the service.

The night before the Big Baptism Day Bronwynn called her dad and I into our room. We sat on the bed and listened to her read through her testimony. She gave us permission to make one comment, one change. Her writing was so heartfelt it didn’t need much changing. I suggested substituting “Jesus” for “God” in talking about who died on the cross. Her dad suggested rearranging one sentence for the sake of clarity. But that was it. I went on to share that perhaps she might read it a tad slower but she cut me off mid sentence with exasperation, “You’ve already had your one thing mom!”

The Big Baptism Day was remarkable. There were five people who shared their encounters with Jesus. Five people got wet, well…six, if you count Pastor Steve who stood in the water with each person, and said, “I baptize you, my sister, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” before dunking them under the water.

I was surprised by the responses we got as parents to Bronwynn’s written testament. People wanted to know how much we had written.  Granted, Bronwynn and I are very similar. She looks an awful lot like I used to look at that age. She has a quick sense of humour. She’s tenderhearted and kind. She’s extremely talkative. We both like to write. But it was Bronwynn who wrote her story in her own words.

And yet, I like to think that Lowell and I had more than just “one thing” in her editing. I like to think that we’ve written some of our own values and virtues into her story. We’ve tried to live out our own God-stories in front of her. Surely some of that has been captured in Bronwynn’s soul and story too.

Others have written some of Bronwynn’s narrative too. Her siblings have provided personal plot twists. They’ve given her context for conflict. They’ve been an audience to some of her anecdotes. Bronwynn made reference to Sunday School in her story. Our children’s Pastor, Chris,  has loved her, laughed at her jokes, taken her seriously. Her Sunday school teacher, Miss Sue, week in and week out suggests re-writes, highlights character traits that the girls might add, circles attitudes that might need changing. Her grandparents see her in motion. They believe in her account. They take her to heart. Her teacher, Mr G, an astounding educator, has seen and affirmed potential in Bronwynn’s chronicles. She listens to him. Bronwynn has aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbours who’ve contributed to her story.

Who’s to say how much Lowell and I, as her parents wrote? Now that I think of it I suspect we did write a fair amount of it, but Bronwynn wrote it down, every bit of it, in her own words.

Oh…except we were allowed one change each!

Here’s what Bronwynn shared:

I’ll start out by telling you the most important part of my testimony. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for me.  A few months ago I was thinking about dying on the cross and I went over the list of people I cared about and made another list of people I would die for. Unfortunately none of you made the cut. The list is still sitting there, in some random notebook, empty. Though you might want to know that I did make another list of people I would possibly get unconscious for. A few of you did make that list –but only family so too bad for the others. But that doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that on that day I realized the love God must have. I believed before that day but that’s the day that really changed thing. That night I asked God to come in my heart  because I realized I had never done that either.

I like that I don’t have to impress God. Even though sometimes I feel I have to impress others I know I don’t have to impress God. But there are other things I like too, like how I can talk to him and tell him everything.

I think of God like my imaginary friend but more than 500 times stronger and more than 500 times wiser and more than 500 times more powerful and more than 500 times more perfect. And not imaginary. But like my imaginary friend God is always there for me. He’s someone I can talk to and someone I can trust.

I talk to God a lot. Sometimes about random things, like, “please don’t put me in a group with that person” and a 1/3 of the time I ‘m in a group with that person. I talk to God thanking him or I ask him for help with problems. I know God is there by the little things he does like when I’m fighting with a friend and my mind is concentrating on winning the argument a random verse that I haven’t looked at for a while or the bottom line from weeks’ past Sunday’s school lessons pops in to my head.

I do wish I could see God face to face or talk to him and know he will respond –but I guess that’s a factor I’m going to have to work around.

I’m not perfect. Sometimes I doubt God or I think the Bible is (just) an amazingly written novel. I join in on the gossip and I treat others unfairly. I cheat in monopoly and I always want my way. I’m not perfect and I never will be. I have a long way to go to even be close to perfect. But I am forgiven.  I’m here to say that I want God to teach me and to guide me through the rough times that lay ahead. I want God to lead me no matter what happens. I want him to use me in whatever way he wants to. I want to be baptized because of this.*

*Truth be told—I did add some punctuation and some capital letters when I borrowed her writing for the blog. But I guess that’s what Moms….I mean Editors do!

And I am Cold

Silent_Night_Holy_Night_28The instrumental music to Silent Night plays and my tears begin to fall. It is a few days before Christmas and I am in Chicago, away from my parents for the first Christmas ever.

And I am cold.

I am a student nurse at a small school in the city. In the four short months since I have been here I have ballooned from a curvy teen to a size 16 – the chapatis, curry and chai of my upbringing replaced with midnight study breaks of trail mix and Chicago’s famous deep dish pizza. I have gone from cute to fat.

And I am cold.

I feel the strangeness of this city and the contrast between the life I have left and the one I am currently living. I have left family and community. I have left winter Bougainvillea and am now surrounded by trees with no leaves. I have left belonging and am now a stranger. I have left peace and I now feel conflict.

And I am cold.

My tears fall into the cold. It’s almost Christmas and even now my parents are gathering for the annual Christmas pageant with Christians in Shikarpur, Pakistan. They are making sure they have sweets to give all their neighbors, my dad making last-minute trips to the bazaar for mittai (sweets), packing them in square pink boxes. And I hope my mother is missing me.

I am so alone. And I am so cold.

And I think back on the story I have heard since I can remember. The story of a baby and a mom and a dad. A baby and a family away from their family home on that first Christmas. A teenager who is giving birth without her mom by her side; a young man who is walking by faith and that’s about it. A baby who has left, not only the womb, but something far bigger, and is experiencing the strangeness of a new place with a first cry, a first experience of cold and pain.

A baby who has left belonging and is now, like me, a stranger; has left peace and entered conflict.

In what can only be the comfort of the Holy Spirit, that mysterious third person in the Godhead, there is a breath of warmth, light, remembrance. Although nothing has changed, all of this feels different–And suddenly I am not so cold.

Reader Response: Tea and Soul Care

Tea matters
. The responses from readers on tea gave personal pictures from Laos to Pakistan to South Africa of what tea means and why tea matters. All the comments were rich with memory and feeling, but I’ve picked one that spoke to my soul today. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging – I am the recipient of wisdom and challenges through reader comments. I have turned this one comment into a post and pray that it will speak to your soul the way it spoke to mine.“Tea and Soul Care”  is penned by Ruthie McCurry Dutton, a former class mate from Murree. We reconnected this past year through Facebook and blogging and it makes me want to see her again in person and share a cup of tea.  Ruthie has lived a nomadic life and offers a glimpse of her life in this piece.

Tea–my “go-to” for every occasion and metaphor for qualities that I find important. Tea meant comfort and happiness in my early memories of Pakistan: sweet and milky, sitting in my beloved nanny’s lap; a strong brew capping off my first exciting day at boarding school; the mad rush at break, when I was finally old enough to get my tea from the hole-in-the-wall stall across the road.

As a newly married bride, my mother-in-law introduced me to ritual and reverence through the very rare occasions when we used her exquisite collection of bone china cups. We carefully warmed the pot while boiling the water. We added just the right amount of leaves and waited patiently for it to steep. Aaaah….the perfect cup.

When life and ministry took me to the frontiers of Laos, I traded delicate cups for floral- patterned china mugs each one unique. They reminded me to look for the beauty all around me—be it the landscape or in the variety of people with whom I shared a cup. Each person and scene had a beauty of their own to be savored and appreciated.

In my newly nomadic life, a delicate china mug accompanies me. I love sipping from it as I share the pre-dawn hours with Jesus. This delicate mug, so easily chipped, reminds me of the importance of soul care. Each reverent sip is an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit, a source of strength for what my day brings. Now, instead of my beloved nanny, I feel the warm embrace of Abba Father.

Crossing both the globe and the span of time tea remains my constant companion, its symbolism and meaning growing and changing. For today it means warmth and comfort, sacred ritual, unique beauty, and God’s goodness. Life is richer over a cup of tea.