The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 1 “Ten Years Ago”

IMG_2776It was 10 years ago when my husband entered an Eastern Orthodox church in Chicago and felt like he had come ‘home’. He was there with our oldest son on a college search and happened upon this church in the middle of the city.

I had no idea when he came home that our spiritual journey would take a sharp and unmistakable turn into the mysteries of the Eastern Orthodox faith and we would never be quite the same.

A couple of months later he urged me to attend a vespers service, a Saturday night service, call it “Orthodox light”.

Saturday night vespers begins with the setting of the sun and precedes Divine Liturgy, which will be held the next day. It’s a service with a lot of Psalms and a quiet, contemplative tone.

Everyone likes Vespers….everyone except me it seemed.

So we attended vespers. I did not like the service. I disliked how long it was on a Saturday evening and day dreamed of being back home sitting on our patio, enjoying the Phoenix sunset. I was irritated by the women who attended, their faces and voices raised in out of this world peace. I was annoyed by the icons. I quickly dismissed the whole package.

“We’ll get through this eastern orthodoxy stage” I thought, and continue doing what we knew well: vacillating between feeling sometimes alienated and sometimes a part of the American evangelical church. Nothing would really change.

But a month later he invited me to Pascha, that great and glorious resurrection service signifying the end of the great fast and the Risen Saviour. And I disliked that even more. My feet hurt. My back started to ache. The apostles glared at me from Iconic holiness and I wanted to cry. I barely made it past midnight in a service that would go on until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite all this, every Sunday I get up and head to Holy Resurrection in Allston, a part of Boston known for its high population of students, bars, and ethnic restaurants. There I humbly take part in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. I reverently venerate icons and make the sign of the cross, and I  say “Lord Have Mercy” many times. I hear the priest say “Thine own of thine own we offer up to thee” and join my voice with a hundred others singing “We have seen the true light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us”

Because I am a Reluctant Orthodox. I am an unexpected, but thoroughly committed catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox Church, learning daily about this ancient faith that I sometimes doubt, other times believe, and all the time feel compelled to pursue until I reach the other side, and all is made clear.

And today marks a new edition to Communicating Across Boundaries. I will publish The Reluctant Orthodox every week on Sunday. My goal is to articulate my journey of faith, and through doing so perhaps others will see some of their own journey.

Welcome to the Reluctant Orthodox.

“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!

How Do I Live out Sunday Rest in my Monday Chaos?

With the sweet taste of communion bread still on my tongue I curse Monday morning. How can this be? How can I so quickly forget Sunday’s rest and grace as I step into the day after?

There is always a Monday after. It might not be the literal day, but there is always a Monday after. Whether it be a big event, a transformative experience, a high from a retreat – reality comes after with its sharp teeth and caustic tongue.

What use is Sunday if it doesn’t translate to Monday morning? 

If my calling ignores Mondays then it is of little use. If the clarity of Sunday cannot be applied to the muddy waters of Monday then how can I live effectively?

In a book called Finding Calcutta, the author Mary Poplin, takes a journey to Calcutta to work with Mother Theresa for two months. Through service she discovers a Christianity that she had never experienced before and her heart is changed. But her struggle comes with finding her own Calcutta once she is back in the United States. How can this experience be translated into her work? Her life? She is at a university, not in the slums; surrounded by grey cells and academics, not by nuns; committed to students and learning, not the poor and starving. Yet she was called to apply the same principles to her work that Mother Theresa applied in her calling by God to the poor. Mary was called to translate her Sunday moments into her Monday work.

Memorial plaque dedicated to Mother Teresa by ...

“Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are. . . . You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.” –Mother Teresa

I don’t know much today – but I know I am called to translate Sunday into Monday – I am called to remember the sweet taste of communion bread, the body and the blood, as I move forward into the work of today. I am called to seek God in the details, to understand that nothing is beyond the redemptive work of God, to ‘find the sick, suffering, and lonely’ hidden behind grey government cubicles, to live out Sunday in this Monday.

How do you live out Sunday rest in your Monday chaos?

Upside Down Teacups

china“I was once told that certain spiritual masters in Tibet used to set
their teacups upside down before they went to bed each night as a
reminder that all life was impermanent. And then, when they awoke each
morning, they turned their teacups right side up again with the happy
thought, ‘I’m still here!’ This simple gesture was a wonderful reminder to celebrate every moment of the day.“–Susan Jeffers in Embracing Uncertainty

This quote, posted on my friend Bettie’s Facebook wall this past week, appealed to me. The idea of starting each day by turning an upside down teacup right side up, symbolic of embracing the day and all that it brings, was a picture I wanted to embrace.

Just me and the Monks and our upside down turned right side up teacups.

But then the 5:30 alarm rang on a Monday morning. The 5:30 alarm went off and the teacup just wanted to stay in bed, curled up, safe from the potential assaults of the day. The 5:30 alarm went off and there was no thought of turning it right side up – there was just the thought of somehow protecting it so it didn’t break.

And that’s the deal isn’t it? In our human frailty what we embrace on Sunday as Truth feels a far away dream replaced by life in all its complexity.

Monday morning life.

Deep in my soul I know that the God of the Sundays is also the God of the Mondays, the Tuesdays and on through the week. The God of the week-end is the God of the week-day. The God beside me in joy is the same God who upholds me in crisis.

It’s me who is different.

And that’s why I need reminders and help. So that I can reach out and turn the teacup right side up, confident that He who holds the universe, holds my frail and sometimes breakable as a china teacup faith in His hands.

The upside down teacup might not work for me. But the God of the Mondays surely will.

How about you? Do you struggle to translate your Sunday faith to your Monday reality?