On East and West (and In Between!)

stereotypes

A few months ago I was invited to do an interview with Orthodox Christian Network. The interview was with Father Chris Metropulos, President of Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.

I was invited to respond to several questions about growing up in Pakistan, about living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, but mostly about some of the differences between East and West, and what building bridges might look like. Any of you who have read Communicating Across Boundaries know that this is the whole reason I began writing, so it was a gift to be able to communicate some of that verbally.

I’ve included a link to the audio of the interview, but I also wanted to write down some of what I prepared in writing to prompt me when responding on air. Building bridges, reaching across ethnic, racial, and other divides, communicating across the boundaries that divide us – these are the things that make my heart beat faster and harder. These are the things that motivate me to get up in the morning. I’d love you to listen to the interview (even if I might perhaps maybe definitely hate the sound of my voice in the audio) but if you don’t have time, here are the written responses to some of the questions that were asked.


Raised in a missionary family, Marilyn Gardner spent her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan and raised her five children in Pakistan and Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a public health nurse with underserved immigrant communities. Marilyn is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas. Her new book Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith was released in March of 2017.

  • What can you tell us about your book that will help us understand each other better and your journey of faith?

Passages Through Pakistan is about 3 things that are interwoven – being a third culture kid – which essentially means being someone who was raised in a country outside of their passport country for their developmental years – Pakistan, and faith. At the beginning, it was going to be just about living between worlds, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that the other consistent thread through the book is faith.

My parents were Baptist missionaries in the country of Pakistan. They arrived in Pakistan not many years after Pakistan’s birth as a nation and thus, separation from India. They raised five children in Pakistan.  Faith was ever-present in our home through prayer, devotions, and decision-making; but it wasn’t only in our home. Equally strong faith with all around us. The call to prayer sounded five times a day, mosques were on every corner, faith was alive and well, despite different truth claims. My childhood experience with faith set the stage for later moving into the Orthodox Church.

  • In his poem The Ballad Of East and West, Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” What is your experience of living in the East and West? Do you see yourself and your work as a meeting place, a juncture perhaps?*

Kipling does have a great way with words, particularly when talking about East and West.

There is a cartoon that I believe captures the divide between East and West. It’s a cartoon of a fully veiled woman on the left, and a blonde woman in a bikini on the right with sunglasses on. Each of them have bubbles over their heads. The bubble over the blonde’s head is “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated society!” The veiled woman also has a bubble over her head:  “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated society” This cartoon is so accurate in showing the dangerous stereotypes that are made about both east and west. The problem of course with stereotypes, is that they put people in boxes and don’t let them out.

One of my favorite authors says this about stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” As I speak and write, I am more and more aware of the complexity of human thought and experience, as well as the multiple perspectives that can be seen across almost any subject.  I’ve witnessed stereotypes on both sides of the globe, but the more resources we have at our disposal for learning about difference, the more culpable we are if we continue to perpetuate those stereotypes instead of confronting them for what they are.

In the last few years, my work has become a meeting place of sorts, as I have been able to do a lot of work as a public health nurse around cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community in greater Boston. This has been a gift and a connecting point between my past and my present.  But our home in Cambridge was a meeting place way before my work became one. At a recent Thanksgiving meal, our home was full of people from many different countries, and as I observed a Syrian and an Israeli communicating over tea and pie, I had a deep feeling of gratitude that our home in the United States could be a juncture for people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths to meet.

In all that I do both professionally and personally, I believe with all my heart that how we view the one who is other is an important conversation, and I love having those conversations.  The conversations come out in my writing and in my interactions with people from around the world who have made Boston and Cambridge their home.

  • What made you write Passages Through Pakistan? Is this a visceral reaction to the current political climate?

I began to write Passages way before this current climate. The first bits of it were written about 8 years ago, and I remember reading a couple of them to my oldest daughter Annie, who is an excellent writer by her own right. It was Annie who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to start a blog and gave me excellent tips. So I began blogging, but in between blogging I would go back to this idea of writing a memoir about my life in Pakistan. So the fact that it has taken this long to become a book feels providential. I can’t think of a better year for this book to be released so I am thrilled.

  • Your love for Pakistan and its culture is something that anyone who has lived in these parts of the world can relate to, and yet there is much to be desired, that it is hard for someone who have never lived there to comprehend. As you are beautifully positioned between worlds how can you help us understand what makes us uncomfortable? Is it our way of perceiving, our own fears that prevent us from connecting?

There is a French philosopher who says the first spontaneous reaction in regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.  Therein, I believe, is your answer. Which is why I think the Holy Scriptures are so full of verses about welcoming the stranger.

When we moved to the United States, I remember having our kids’ friends over for dinner. Often they would see foods they had never seen, much less eaten at our table. Their automatic first reaction to seeing this ‘strange’ food was immediate and strong: “Uuuuhhh! What’s that??” They would  look at a dish of spinach curry and immediately assume that this food was not as good as what they were used to. It is the French philosopher’s quote in action.  I believe strongly  that this is the very first, unfiltered version around the world when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger. Yet, more and more, encountering the stranger is part of our daily life. 

Sometimes the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable and fearful. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

But I believe with all my heart that the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different than we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The Bible is not ambiguous in its commands.

Ronald Rohlheiser is a an author who has written profoundly about ‘otherness’ in a book called Sacred Fire. He says this:

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269) 

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things. 

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

On Fear: I think safety has become something of an idol in the Western world. And I think many make too many decisions based on this. We are slaves to the images and stories we hear on the media, and if we’ve never met someone from Pakistan, or from Syria, or from Afghanistan, or Iraq or Iran, then our default is to cling to what we do know. And what we do know is fear-based. It tells a story of terrorism and Islam and chaos. Our faith must transcend this. We must ask ourselves the question “Does God really love me more than the rest of the world?” I think if we’re honest we think he does. We think we’re his favorites. But there’s no qualifying line in John 3:16. It says “For God SO loved the world.” Not for God so loved Russia. Or For God so loved Greece. Or for God so loved the United States.  It’s “the world” and I believe it’s important that we examine our hearts around who we consider to be God’s favorites.

  • Finally as a child of a missionary family from Pakistan, you have continued to work in the Middle East, bringing aid and working with the refugees. It seems you are in some way continuing the calling of your parents, would you agree?

You know, for a missionary kid, the word ‘calling’ is loaded. I wrote one time about  “calling” and asked the question if it’s in our DNA.  I believe that any Christian has one primary call – and that is to God and his church. Beyond that, there are all kinds of creative ways that we exercise our faith. What I do believe is that I have had wonderful, and often unique, opportunities both internationally and in the United States to interact with people who don’t share the same faith, culture, or truth claims that I do. I am grateful that I have had the opportunities to move forward in relationship with many of these people. I don’t know if that’s calling, but it is responding to opportunities that I have been invited into.

  • What would you wish to see happening as a result of the publication of your book?

Obviously, I would love it if people read it and the journey of faith resonates with them. I would love for the book to bring honor to Pakistan and the minority Christian community there. I would love for it to be a book that is a bridge-builder, for people who would never pick up a book about Pakistan to pick it up. But I can’t count on any of this. I just know that in God’s incredible grace, he allowed me to begin writing and gave me words that were well-received by others. And so ultimately, I want this to bring honor to God.

  • If there is purpose to our lives, what would that be?

I think if every day we know God a little more than the day before and translate that into loving people a fraction more every day, then that’s enough. And that really is possible. I guess if pressed,  I want my gravestone to say “She loved God and she loved people.”


*When I sent the audio link to my brothers, my brother Stan responded with this important caveat:

BTW, the quote from Kipling often (usually?) omits the last lines at the end of the poem: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”  Kipling has very often been accused of being a bigoted colonialist. In fact, when read fully, Kipling is exactly the opposite and gives dignity to every character except those on all sides who are indeed the bigots.


Audio Interview: On Understanding the Differences Between East and West – Marilyn Gardner

 

On Monasteries, Children, and Loving Our Enemies

Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt

The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick. 


During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited.  The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well. 

Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!”  This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined. 

These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.  


The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:

Father – Forgive Them. 

In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul. 

These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them? 

And yet – still they echo. 

After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:

‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’ 

Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever. 

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 28 “On Mother Susan and Popadia Paula”

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“That Mother Susan is really wise.” We had arrived back home after Divine Liturgy and the welcome “post-fasting” coffee hour, designed to be substantial since we fast before communion. My husband burst out laughing. “She’s not Mother Susan” he said. “She’s Popadia Susan.”

Once again I find myself traveling into the land where I forget titles, where I sit at the wrong times, where I finally get up the courage to go to the front and venerate icons only to have a deacon pop out of nowhere and look at me over a sensor with an “I am on a mission and you are in my way!” Will I ever get this right? Probably not, but at least I no longer go into crisis mode and immediately dismiss this ancient faith simply because I don’t like the way I feel during these times.

But back to Mother Susan. In the Orthodox church for the most part priests have wives. Not only do they have wives but the role is respected and honored as such. They are called different things depending on the jurisdiction — khouria in Arabic; presbytera in Greek; and in the Russian Orthodox Church they are even called “matushka .”little mother.”
One person described them as having wonderful titles with no real job description

Four years ago I would occasionally visit the church that we now regularly attend, the community that has walked with us these past two years. I visited as a complete outsider, ill at ease and out of sorts. I froze when greeting Father Patrick or Father Michael, both of whom communicate well and make all feel welcome. I sat on the sidelines, an observer – alone and foreign.

I would console myself that I was used to sitting on the sidelines, alone and foreign. But I still wasn’t okay with it. There was a piece of me that desperately wanted this Orthodox faith to work for me – but I wouldn’t admit it.

As I observed from the sidelines I watched the women of the church and I was fascinated. There were young women of college age, women with young children or newly married, middle-aged women, older women, and old women. They were from Bulgaria and Romania, Russia and the Ukraine, Greece and the United States. They were dark-haired and blonde haired, some with head coverings, some without. Some in long skirts and some in shorter skirts.

The interactions were multicultural and multigenerational. It was common to see older women pick up little children to comfort them, regardless of who they belonged to. I watched young women seek advice and comfort from older women, talking earnestly together with heads bent forward. In the churches I had attended I was used to a far more fragmented system where young marrieds were in one place, young moms in another, empty nesters were usually traveling, and older women set to the side.

Two women stood out and it was clear that they were seen as leaders. But their leadership was winsome and drew people in. They laughed a lot and sometimes talked during liturgy – something that attracted me immediately.

After some time I found out that these were the priests wives – Popadia Paula and Popadia Susan (the one I had mistakenly referred to as “mother”). I was fascinated by their engagement with the church. It didn’t come in the form of leading Bible studies or playing the piano, a non-existent instrument in the Orthodox Church. Instead they seemed to function as unofficial mentors. They seemed to know every woman, man, and child in the church by name. They had a security and confidence that was refreshing and admirable. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was attracted to this.

And so I watched them. For about a year I didn’t have many conversations with either woman. I just observed. But what I saw reminded me of the women that surrounded me while growing up in Pakistan. They were women with a solid security not based on an agenda created by the broader culture that surrounded them. They knew who they were before God and it translated into a confidence in all they did. The women who surrounded me while growing up were Dr. Mary and Auntie Hannah, Auntie Phyllis and Auntie Bettie, Auntie Connie and my mom. Some were single, others were married; some were doctors, others were nurses; some were teachers, others were linguists. But all were strong in who they were. They did not let either American or Pakistani culture dictate who they should be and what they should care about, instead they knew who they were before God. In short they knew what a woman was worth – that as women they were understood by God, called by God, most of all beloved by God.

And that’s what I saw in Mother Susan and Popadia Paula, no matter what their titles.

As time has gone on I have gotten to know both these women a bit better, a gift during this time in my life. Popadia Paula has walked beside me as my sponsor during the months of preparation before getting baptized. In that role she also stood with me during our marriage ceremony. I have found that these priests wives are fun and strong, they are wise and sensitive, they are imperfect and know their flaws. They are moms and mentors, sisters and sinners. They are and will always be Mother Susan and Popadia Paula.*

*Pronunciation is (PO pa DEE ya)

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 24 “On Pascha, Sophia Maria & Isaac”

 

The Orthodox hymn gets in your brain and you find yourself wanting to belt it out in loud measure everywhere you go.

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

Pascha in the Orthodox Church begins with a darkened sanctuary. The light of one candle is held by the priest and as one we move forward as he calls us to “Come, take the light!” Candles now light up the church and we head outside around the church as though to the tomb. We come back to the door of the church and are told “He’s not here – He is risen from the Dead!” As we enter again into the sanctuary we move forward in joyous hymns and priests rushing joyfully into the congregation declaring in many different languages “Christ is Risen!” to which we reply in various languages “Indeed! He is Risen!” or “In Truth, He is Risen!”

And all this happens between midnight and three in the morning.

The first time I went to a Pascha service I lasted from 11:30 until 12:30. I was beyond reluctant – I was like “You all are, in my daughter’s words, ‘cray-cray’ (the vernacular for crazy)” Now I’m like “When will I get to take grandchildren to this glorious service?!”

A lot has happened in 11 years. And today – Holy Saturday – the reluctance was buried in an Orthodox Baptism, and as reluctance died, acceptance rose. Yes – my husband and I were baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church. We were cheered on by a church body that has loved us well these past couple of years, by a Poppadia (priest’s wife) who walked beside me these past weeks, even when I sent emails saying “I can’t do this thing!”, and by two priests who we trust and who have heard the bad, the hard, and the ugly, telling us there’s nothing we could tell them that they haven’t already heard in some form or another and assuring us that God’s grace covers all.

This is not new information. I was taught and loved well in my life by parents, brothers, sister-in-laws, friends. So many who have reflected love and grace and the very best of Christianity. But as I’ve said before, sometimes old information needs new clothing. And so it has been in our case.

We celebrate Pascha as “Sophia Maria (Marilyn)” and “Isaac (Cliff).” I figure that two saints are better than one. The lives of both Sophia and Maria (Mary of Egypt) exemplify Wisdom and Repentance and I find I am in need of both of those, in abundance. You can read up on their lives here and here.

This step in no way erases all reluctance or all questions. Indeed, the more I learn the more I realize this Grace is a mystery and confounds much of the time. I’ll be writing a bit more in later posts on going from reluctance to acceptance; on being Sophia Maria; on legalism and grace; and on some of the more humorous ‘mistakes’ I have made (including calling the priest’s wife a “PoppaDokka” and our son calling Father Patrick “Pope Shenouda.”

But tonight I celebrate Pascha, Sophia Maria, and Isaac.

Because with Christians all around the world I sing the words:

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

“*A few drops of blood recreate the whole world and become for all human beings like a curdling agent for milk, binding and drawing us together into one.” 

 
Nazianzen, Gregory. Festal Orations. Trans. Verna E. F. Harrison. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2008. Print.

Baptismal photo credit: Dn Tudor Sambeteanu

 

 

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 16 “A Physical Faith”

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

From the beginning I noticed that worship in the Orthodox church is physical. It demands your body. From standing for long periods of time to prostrating, making the sign of the cross and venerating icons, there is constant movement.

When you walk into an Orthodox service, the first thing you will probably notice is that people are standing and children are ever-present. “Holy Noise” they are called. I have never felt disturbed by kids. They tend to wander around but with boundaries. There is no giggling or chaos, and generally if a little one begins to cry they are taken out until the crying stops. Children are an integral part of the service.

Beyond the standing there is general movement. Up to the front to venerate icons, over to the side to venerate icons, across the altar making the sign of the cross, up to the front of the church to greet the priest, up to the front of the church to take communion, over to a pew to sit for a homily, up again to stand, prostrating during certain points in the service, out to the narthex to get a candle to light in prayer for someone. Along with that is the movement of the priests with their censers and incense, the procession of the bread and wine through the congregation, the lifting up of the word of God.

There is also the verbal participation. The chanting, the reciting of the Nicene Creed, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, singing the Beatitudes, the phrases “Lord have mercy” and “to thee O Lord” in sung over and over in harmony with the choir.

And it doesn’t end when you go home. Because at home there is the physical act of fasting and the venerating of home icons. It is a faith that demands your body and all of your senses.

It is an active, physical faith.

A 2007 article called “Men and Church” by Frederica Matthewes-Green speaks to the physicality of the faith. She says this: “People begin learning immediately through ritual and symbolism, for example, by making the sign of the cross. This regimen of discipline makes one mindful of one’s relation to the Trinity, to the Church, and to everyone he meets.” 

I’ll admit – it’s taken a while for me to adapt to this physical faith. I’ve written before about sore feet and physical irritation, about how long the services are, about how awkward I’ve felt at points. Bottom line — I’m lazy and would love to be coddled. But more and more I am grateful to be challenged in this way, challenged with a physical response, a physical faith. Because all of this reminds me that this is not about me. This is designed to be Christ-centered and everything is designed to point me to a single truth: that this is about the triune God and as such demands all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my body.

“[Orthodoxy demands] the self-denial of a warrior, the terrifying risk of loving one’s enemies, the unknown frontiers to which a commitment to humility might call us. Lose any of those dangerous qualities and we become the ‘JoAnn Fabric Store’ of churches: nice colors and a very subdued clientele.” from Men and Church by Frederica Matthewes-Green

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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 13: “Taught by a Star to Adore Him”

On Tuesday, while the rest of the world donned work attire and trudged off to jobs at offices, restaurants, hospitals and more, we prepared to head to our second Christmas – Holy Nativity celebrated on January 7th.

Before that day part of me struggled. While in theory it sounded nice “Two Christmases? Wow!” when reality hit I was done. We’d had a great western Christmas — the candle light service, the Christmas eve brunch feast that has now become a tradition at the home of our best friends, the presents, the joy, the laughter. And now I was in the aftermath when lethargy hits and you’re just done.

I kept on trying to push myself into excitement, into ‘feeling’ something. It didn’t work. So on Monday night – spent from a long day of work, I ended up with tired legs and weary heart at the vigil service, a Christmas eve service, to prepare for the Nativity celebration the next day.

And it was there that my tired heart found solace and a rest for its longing. For in that vigil there were not gifts, no tree, no Santa, no wrapping paper – pretty and shiny at the beginning but cast off with the garbage at the end. In that vigil was my call to remember the incarnation, remember that God became man and we were never the same.

Over and over we sang these words – words that I had not heard before but have now found a resting place in my heart:

“Thy Nativity O Christ our God has shown to the world the light of wisdom. For by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Son of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!”

With tired feet and revived heart I left the church that night. Mystery replaced magic –  the mystery of the incarnation, that act that has confounded and comforted through the ages. “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One”

The next morning we arrived to a church bathed in sunlight, the gold of icons reflecting the light from stained glass windows. We arrived to witness and participate in the joy and celebration of the birth of Christ. With the choir leading, we sang the words “Taught by a star to adore him” over and over, planted in my brain forever I think. The Nativity – showing to the world the light of wisdom.

Our second Christmas — my journey of faith, continuing to see the world in new ways through the Orthodox church. It’s not that I don’t know all of this — it’s that sometimes I need to hear it in a new way, so that my old heart can be resuscitated and reminded that just as those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore him – I too need to be taught to adore him.

Blessed Nativity! Christ is Born!

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