Closet crosser

Hi, my name is Rebecca, and I cross myself.

For years that’s how I felt I needed to introduce myself in some of my Protestant/Evangelical churches. I secretly and vigorously crossed myself for years prior to my conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, particularly after taking Communion.

Oh, don’t think I was bold about it out in Rome-a-phobic land. Nope, I was quite furtive, slipping the right hand up, across, over and down with great speed. It probably looked like I was just swatting a fly, but I’m hoping God understood. I’m sure He did.

I remember watching those Catholic neighbor kids make the sign of the cross when they would come over for dinner, and I remember being strangely drawn to it. My customary question “Why?” drew the answer “Because they’re Catholic.”

“But why don’t we cross ourselves?”

“We just don’t.”

Unacceptable.

The practice of making the sign of the Cross on one’s person is one of Christianity’s oldest, appearing somewhere before the 3rd century. I read a story some months ago of a handful of Christians working for a pagan Roman ruler. He had ordered a pagan ritual of some type to be done by his priests, and the Christians were present in the room (deeply closeted I am sure). When the priests were performing the ritual, which was to have had some whiz-bang effect, the Christians discretely made the sign of the Cross and whatever was supposed to happen didn’t. They went home and told their brothers and sisters, and all glory and praise was given to God.

The practice still exists in all the more traditional practices of Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Anglican). But it was nowhere to be found in my free-church Evangelical/fundamentalist Baptist worlds.

Somewhere about halfway through college I found myself unable to refrain from making the sign. I have no idea why or what triggered it, but often in private prayers, particularly times that felt particularly fervent or reverent or whatever, I’d zip the hand up. I don’t know if I did it from right to left (Orthodox way–oldest way) or from left to right (Roman Catholic et. al). And it didn’t happen all the time, but there were times when I needed, HAD TO HAVE, a physical expression of what I was feeling/thinking inside my head.

When I attended a small, charismatic homechurch, and then later a raucous Vineyard congregation, nobody batted an eye when I did it. It was all good, whatever you needed to do to get in touch with Jesus was OK. Besides, who noticed at the Vineyard when there were people running down the aisle waving big flags.

The mega-churches required a little more discretion, though it was easy to get lost there, too. The last Protestant church I attended used creeds, church history, and taught a little bit on the lives of the Saints (though of course they didn’t call them such), so they noticed what I did occassionally, but they didn’t seem to mind.

The snowy night before I visited St. John Chrysostom’s, as I scoped out the parking lot and its quiet neighborhood, with tears streaming down my face, I crossed myself as I drove by and looked up at the cross on top (We kinda have a steeple, and pews…our building is a bit liturgically challenged…it looks like an old Baptist church. My mom felt right at home till she saw the icons 🙂 ). That night was the last time I felt the need to be sneaky about it, though my family still looks at me funny when we bless holiday meals.

The whole idea of physical practice in worship (crossing, prostrations, standing, bowing, etc.) has been very helpful to me. I am weak and struggle with finding words for my prayers, or ways to express those things so deeply inside. Sometimes I am unsuccessful. But at those times I can cross myself, my right hand demonstrating a belief in the Triune God as it accepts for me personally the saving, life-giving Cross of my Lord Jesus Christ. When I struggle, when I feel lost and helpless to connect with that faith, it is ok to rest under that Cross , to know that He is enough and He will save me.

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Looking for the true Church

Disclaimer: I do not know where the Holy Spirit isn’t, only where He is. It is not my place to say who is a Christian and who is not. I am only recounting my own journey to the Holy Orthodox Church.

When I was preparing to go to college, a pastor at my Baptist church grabbed my hand in the hallway after church one Wednesday night and asked me where I was going to school. I gave him the name of the ridiculously expensive, but academically solid Midwestern evangelical liberal arts college, to which he responded “I’ll pray for you.”

For some reason, I didn’t think he meant that in a general way, but rather specifically, since I was venturing outside the folds of conservative Baptist land. That comment rang the gong of my childhood curiosities about the other churches in my community. “Which one is right?” “Are we right?” “What happens to those people who go to other churches?”

While at that college, I talked with devout Catholics, Pentacostals, Presbyterians, etc, etc. It was like a Christian zoo–as many species as you could think of were represented in chapel every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I saw my first Advent candles. I started wearing a cross. And I really, really wanted to know where we came from. I found a few other students who had similar curiosities and we debated the issue for hours, talking about what it meant to be an authentic Christian, about how the earliest Christians must have done church. I didn’t have the answers, but I began to understand that you absolutely could not have Christianity without the Church. The institution itself mattered at the most basic levels.

The newest edition of Christianity Today has an article about this. It examines how this generation is OK with just spirituality, a more virulent form of “Jesus and Me” then we have probably seen in a long time. Take a good helping of American individualism, mix in some free-church Protestantism, and some Baby Boomer feel-good spirituality, and wha-la…

What’s interesting to me is the big, chain-rattling ghost in the CT article…the ghost of the “True Church”. The article says, for the most part, that Christianity cannot be done outside the confines of the church, that church matters, and it needs to be the right church. Herein enters the ghost (hear his chains rattling). He asks “Who decides what is the True Church?”

As I thought about and wrangled over this issue years ago, I got spooked by those echoes. Somebody has to decide. At the end of the day, there has to be an authentic measurement of what makes a church OK, and what makes it qualify as preaching “go-to-Hell” heresies. It’s the question too many don’t ask for real. Our culture does not want to really know where the boundaries are drawn. If they do, then maybe they’re not standing on the right side.

When God commanded Noah to build the ark, he said those inside would be saved. But Noah had to do it in the way he was told.

Why do we think Church is any different?

Apologies and some more musings on Christmas

To my few loyal readers discouraged by my lack of posts…I’m sorry. I’ve been away from a computer, and am now away from a high speed connection. (I know, I know…there’s always some type of excuse with me, isn’t there?)

Tomorrow marks the end of the Nativity season with the Theophany. My work schedule has taken me from my parish home and will make it impossible to get to a service. (I’m seriously bummed)

It’s been a difficult Nativity season, for probably a number of reasons, but one being that it’s hard enough to be the one of the only Orthodox Christian I know outside my church on a normal Sunday, but it’s harder by far on a major American holiday. My deep thanks to my mom and grandma for traveling with me to my parish on Sunday, Dec. 26. It meant so much.

But I did have a little bit of time to reflect on a few things, and one was how much the Christmas season has always spoken to me spiritually, though it has often been an extremely difficult time personally. One of the things I’d noticed was how reverent the period was for so many Evangelical Christians, not particularly known for their love of tradition and symbol. There’s more candles, more artwork, more somber hymnology (Silent Night, O Come O Come Emmanuel). It almost felt, to me anyway, that Christians seemed to need to reach backward in their history a bit to make the holiday even more meaningful. They talk more about Mary and, occasionally, they use words like “advent” and even “vespers.”

I have a theory about this. I not only think many do reach further back into their history to make the holiday more meaningful, but I think they do it at some kind of subconscious level. In some earlier posts, I have written I believe, truly, God created us with an internal understanding/need for symbol. We understand the meaning of things, even if it is not explained to us outright. It’s something basic, yet beautiful, about our nature. Christmas (and Easter) is one of few days left in the modern Protestant church calendar with any symbolic weight left. And I believe that resonates with those in the pews.

It resonated with me before Orthodoxy. Baptists (particularly fundamentalists) are not known for their Christmas Eve services (too Catholic), so we would often venture to a nearby United Methodist Church to sing Silent Night while holding lighted candles. I LOVED IT! It was the most beautiful thing and I felt it connecting somewhere deep inside me in a way I rarely felt throughout most services. I guess in some ways the earliest steps to Orthodoxy for me led through that Christmas Eve service at that church, along with my Christian college’s insistence on lighting the Advent candles.

What is it they say? “The chief end of man is to glorify God forever.” We are hard-wired for worship. And I believe we know the difference between emotionalism and worship. We know reverence whether we practice it on Sundays or not. That is in part, I think, why Christmas remains so darn-near liturgical. (Prediction: As American Christians try to figure out how to wrestle the day away from the retail establishment and experiment with “emerging church” and other post-modern inventions, Christmas will only get more liturgical in the next few years.)

Yet one more ghost…

That’s it for now, I guess. I’m having more internet troubles. I’ll try to get more up this weekend.