Take me to the river

I missed church yesterday, and that is NEVER EVER a good thing for me. My mom’s in the hospital and I was back at the ol’ hometown to kinda keep an eye on stuff for her, and bring her chai.

I hate it when I miss church. It makes me spiritually ouchy, and then when I come back to work and the everyday life, it’s like trying to drive a car on the rims. Sparks have been flying all day long.

I really expected myself to get tired of the liturgy, tired of the SAME service every Sunday and occasionally during the week. But I have found the opposite to be true. Each line of the service is so theologically rich, from the Creed, to the pre-communion prayers, to the hymns for the day’s saint and the Mother of my God, and to the veneration of the Precious and Life-giving Cross as I leave. It connects me and grounds me in a way I cannot begin to explain. But I’m going to try anyway.

The service feels like a rushing river — the prayers, the litanies, the readings, the entrances. It moves along, gathering me up and carrying me in a rush of words and incense. I chant with fervor as I pray the Lord’s Prayer–asking for forgiveness and His provision. I bow, I cross myself, and I kneel–each action connecting me physically to my faith. And there are parts of the service where we know we join with the angels, singing with the Cherubim and the Seraphim–Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! It is my spiritual home. It is the wings to my soul. It is the cry of my heart.

This is my church.

Freedom of choice

One of the things I’ve noticed is how IN LOVE we all are with choice, and we associate the freedom to make ANY choice (to do anything we want) with the freedom to make IMPORTANT choices (to be able to worship freely or not). If you doubt my assertion, please visit the toothpaste aisle in your local super(size)market the size of ten football fields. It is now absolutely impossible to discern what’s the best or yummiest product to use on your teeth. And oh how we’ve extended this insatiable desire for choice. If you doubt that assertion, please contemplate the arguments for abortion rights, all kinds of odd sexual proclivities, and income tax evasion. I think that’s what happens when one of a country’s founding documents contain the language “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I don’t believe those three are inherently equal to each other.

How does this apply to Orthodoxy? Good question. Here’s how.

Western Christians (particularly American Evangelicals/Protestants) have taken this love of choice to religious heights. If you doubt that, please visit Beliefnet and check out the interview with the illustrious head of the Crystal Cathedral, Dr. Bob, who said the church experience should be similar to that of the shopping mall. (Somewhere in heaven, venerable foreheads are being smacked by venerable palms in sheer frustration.)

But that’s how America does church in this postmodern age of Baby-boomer enlightenment. We like our Christianity on the Jumbotron, with some film clips, and a good rock and roll band. We do not like Creeds, we don’t like statements of faith that are too exclusive, and we don’t like to be told that there MAY BE A BEST way to do this thing, as opposed to the way we want to do it.

We couch the argument in language of seeker-sensitivity, in the need to be “relevant” and in the desire to approach people where they are.

I heard all that. I thought all that, once upon a time. But I can tell you when I lost it. It was about two years ago, and I had managed to push the truth of Orthodoxy into a small box in the closet of my mind, while I continued to justify to myself why it was ok to go to the easy churches. But I was fast running out of places to go. A friend suggested I check out her church, a new church, meeting in a cafeterium in some middle school on the north side of the city where I live. So I dutifully checked it out. I was looking for a church called Pathways, but pulled into the parking lot of the wrong middle school, and in the wrong cafeterium found a church called Crossroads, and I could not, for the life of me, tell the difference.

I felt like I was shopping for spiritual khakis, and all I needed to do was find the closest Gap or Anne Taylor. But I realized, again, that this had to be more than finding whatever pair of pants fit my soul the best. This was much too serious for that.

I know this sounds weird, because I can go into any Orthodox church, and with a few regional/cultural differences, find the service to be almost exactly the same as the liturgy performed at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church every Sunday morning. It’s easy to say it too looks like just another toothpaste on the shelf. But I guess the difference for me was this: the Orthodox church stands there every Sunday morning, doing the same thing it’s done for centuries. It’s not trying to be relevant. It’s not too concerned about being seeker-sensitive. It is preaching the truth, as it has done for 2,000 years. It is not a franchise, nor does it say that if you can’t find the size you like here, you can try another one on next door.

I could not make church come to me on my terms. I could not be a consumer with my spiritual life, nor should church exist to make me as comfortable as possible, like some kind of flight attendant on life’s little journey. Nope, church is CHURCH. It is stepping into the presence of the Almighty GOD and worshipping Him, on His terms. It is above me, it is beyond me, and yet, in a strange way, it is me. And because I make up that church, I want to make sure I’m at the right one. I want my worship to be as true as possible, as right as possible, and as close to that of the angels as I can get it.

It’s a bit more than choosing between Colgate’s latest whitening formula and Crest’s fancy flavors. It has to be.

The still, small voice

Every Sunday, as I listen to Fr. Isaac’s sermon, my brain is noting things to blog about. But do you think I can remember them when it’s time to sit down at the computer? Absolutely not. I should jot them down, but it just doesn’t feel right.

We’re getting really, really close to Great Lent–my first as an Orthodox Christian. I am equally excited and nervous. It’s a big deal to us. Last year, everyone around me joked I was giving up Protestantism for Lent. In a real way, I guess that was true. The crunch of my conversion began this time last year, a period of great personal doubt, spiritual wrangling, and nagging convictions.

Anne Lamott wrote once that she never really felt pursued by Christ, but rather found Him winsome, gently persistant in His love for her. She likened Him to a stray cat waiting by the porch door. In some ways, I felt that way about Orthodoxy. It just waited for me to open up to all its love, beauty, and spiritual wealth. He does stand at the door and knock, you know.

I spent a good portion of the five years after I first became acquainted with Orthodoxy trying to talk myself out of the correctness of it. I kept looking at all those other churches, looking for the REAL one, and in my heart knowing where it was I belonged. And all that time, it seemed like the Lord was gently whispering in my ear, pointing in the direction of the Holy Orthodox Church, saying, “It’s over there. That’s it and you know it.”

Each time I tried a new church, I knew it wasn’t going to work. It was like really, really liking a pair of shoes, but they don’t fit quite right. You justify why you’ll wear them anyway. You spend too much money, buy them, and then they sit in your closet because they don’t fit. (I do that, too). And it seems like the more churches I tried, the more miserable I became and the more awkward the experience in that church.

I left the Vineyard after talk of a prophecy conference, and more talk of “God doing a new thing”, which made me worry they were going to start barking like dogs or rolling on the floor. It had happened before.

From there, I went to a small, non-denominational church that wonderfully, and wisely, incorporated a large amount of church history and practice into its worship. We recited creeds, knew who Arius was, and could kind of define the hypostatic union. This, I thought, is good enough. But it was not. It was a pretty flower without the pot. There was no context for all that we were learning. We had knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It didn’t draw me closer to God, it drew me closer to my brain. But, thankfully, through a number of circumstances related and unrelated to my quest, I left, and found myself still looking.

I knew where I needed to go. It made me very uncomfortable, because there was not a doubt in my mind that I would never, ever be a Protestant/Evangelical again.

I wish that I could say that I went completely willingly. I wish that I could say that I was obedient to that voice, that I didn’t worry more about what my friends or family would say than what I knew was the right thing. But I can’t. And while my journey to chrismation was shorter than some, for me it was an agonizing process.

But I guess it should be. There is nothing more serious than faith. It would have been so much easier if Orthodoxy came to me in the form of an altar call, if it pursued me, if it asked me to do something dramatic right now. But it didn’t. It haunted me. God kept asking me what I needed. He asked me what He wanted. He asked me what was right.