Paths (Part 47: Orthodoxy)

The next month, Patty and I flew to Cyprus to renew our visas for Israel. We spent several days traveling the backroads of the island, and enjoying the relaxed pace of life there, and each other’s company. Not long after returning to work in Israel we received a call from Patty’s mom with the surprising and sad news that Patty’s father had just passed away. We quickly made arrangements to return to the US and after a week or two back home, we agreed that Patty would stay to help her mom, while I would go back to Israel to complete the remaining three months of our commitment to Holy Land Ministries.

One of the most striking features of life in Israel, which Patty and I both admired, was the observance of the Sabbath every Saturday. Nearly everything closed down throughout the entire country, allowing people to rest and enjoy life together, attend synagogue if they were inclined, and spend time on the beach or in the park. Though most of the citizenry isn’t very religious, still they all observe the Sabbath rest; and for those who were religious it was a day of worship and gratitude to God for His many blessings. It was exciting to see such a clear and practical aspect of religious faith permeate life beyond the borders of a church service, and affect the daily lives of people outside of the confines of religion. The Sabbath observance seemed to break down the boundary between religious and secular life and we found this refreshing; it was surprising to see people living a life of faith, uncompartmentalized, and spilling over into ordinary life. We both wanted to live our lives back home in the United States in this way, not literally observing the Sabbath since we weren’t Jewish, but emulating to a greater degree the life of faith, rather than as something to tick off of a to-do list on Sunday morning.

After my remaining three months of volunteering, Patty and I met up in London and finally had our honeymoon. We traveled to Paris and spent several days there and then rented a car and drove through France and Italy, spending most of our time in Tuscany and then back up around through Austria and Germany, and then finally back to Paris. Traveling together, relaxed, and free of any responsibilities, was refreshing and much needed after being apart for three months.

Not long after we returned home, the pastor at our church in the US retired. In his absence I realized that he was essentially the reason I attended that church, and though I liked the other congregants a lot, without the pastor and his teaching, there was nothing keeping me there. Patty had come to this conclusion before me, and didn’t have any problem with leaving this church. We spent several weeks worshipping together on Sundays at home, doing Bible studies, and listening to teachers online, but I wanted to see if I could find another church family.

Patty and I attended ten to twelve various protestant and evangelical churches over the next year, and discovered that all of them were very much the same, and all of them left us feeling spiritually empty and hungry. None seemed to offer anything of much depth to believers; they were focused mainly on new believers already in the church, or in trying to water down everything about the faith, so that they could coax non-believers to join. Additionally, these churches squeezed out the little time gathered for worship each week, with announcements and all manner of other distractions, diverting our focus from the primary purpose of praising and thanking God, and of deepening our relationship with Him. There was often fairly good teaching related to scripture, but even in these cases they seemed to focus on the same things over and over again, without ever getting below the surface, or exploring the greater complexities and mysteries of the faith. There is a verse in scripture about beginning our faith by feeding on easier things in scripture, which is equated with feeding milk to babies, but then St Paul admonishes the church to grow up, and move beyond these things to deeper things—solid food. It was as if the churches were only able to provide milk, and wouldn’t, or couldn’t provide anything more substantial. After months of giving the benefit of the doubt, and patiently enduring these services, in hopes of something better eventually happening, we finally recognized the reality and state of things in these churches, called a spade a spade, and stopped our hunt. For the next four years we worshipped together at home, doing our own Bible studies together on Sunday mornings, and then listening to lessons online by RC Sproul, and others later in the day.

The most instructive thing about this spiritual chapter in our lives was taking a series of courses through The Teaching Company, known as The Great Courses. Without going into great detail about any of them, briefly, these courses helped to provide context to my own theological views, expose my theological prejudices and biases, inspire me by the lives of other Christians throughout history, and open my understanding to the long history of the church, the role the early church fathers played in deciding on the canon of scripture, and the value of church traditions in opposing and resisting heretical opinions which would attempt to lead the church down erroneous paths. Up to this point, my Protestant upbringing, and the biases of my faith from this point of view, had seemed self-evident and I lived by them without very much thought; but exposing myself to the historical context of the Reformation and the relative newness and possible fallacies associated with these theologies, helped me to consider more ancient and time-tested options, and to inquire into the ideas of earlier thinkers, great minds of the church, who lived and set about the direction of all Christians long, long before Catholicism, the Reformation or Protestantism had even begun.

During this period I also had taken a new full-time job with a large landscape company north of Seattle. My job was to meet clients, write estimates and do designs for new installation projects, and to oversee the crews and answer their questions about the installation details and methods. The volume of work was exponentially greater than what I had been used to when working for myself, and the stress of the job was difficult to endure. In order to combat this stress I reinstituted a daily prayer rule for myself, something I hadn’t really done with any regularity since my early twenties. It was a long process to create this new habit, but slowly, month by month, and year by year, I gradually carved more and more of my time and attention away from worldly concerns, and dedicated this to spiritual contemplation and prayer. I began with prayer in the evening before bed, then added prayer in the morning just after rising, and then I made daily recurring reminders in my office calendar to pray each day at nine, noon and three o’clock. This is still a work in progress for me, but now the habit is well established, and if I miss a time of prayer, I notice it very much, and find I must satisfy that need as soon as possible; whereas, for years my reminders could pop-up on my phone or computer, and I would mostly ignore them, on the excuse that I didn’t have time for that.

The goal of all of this wasn’t to ignore my worldly responsibilities, but to prioritize them properly, since I considered myself to be first and foremost a spiritual being, a soul, and only secondarily a man with a career. My first allegiance is to God and His commandments, and only after that do I work in the world, and concern myself with worldly things. At least that is the goal, and what I hope for, though the pull of worldly concerns is very strong and difficult to overcome, and they resist any relegation to secondary status. But my daily prayer rule helped keep me focused on my relationship with God, and my dependence on Him; and on a practical level, it also reduced or eliminated feelings of stress, and gave me a clearer mind, and a more generous heart, in response to difficult people and situations.

As I continued to read more and more of the works of early Christian writers, from the first few centuries of the church, I began to consider that perhaps my path was really to be found outside of Protestantism.  Though I had attended an Orthodox Church briefly in my hometown of Santa Rosa years earlier, and had experienced several others since then, while in Jerusalem and in Cyprus, I hadn’t seriously considered this as a real option for me, because I always saw the Orthodox Church as being for other ethnic groups; for people different than me, and not a place I could call home. But one thing I knew was that the brilliance of these early Christian thinkers, was still known and cherished among Orthodox believers and that Orthodox were still fed spiritually, even today, by the wisdom and insight that these church fathers have passed down. This spiritual heritage and lineage I could claim as my own, even if I wasn’t Greek, or Russian or Serbian, or any of the other nationalities I normally associated with Orthodoxy.

At first I tried a local Catholic church since it was more familiar to me culturally, and shared the same history and could claim the same leadership as Orthodoxy up until the great schism in 1054. The service was fine, but I was surprised to find in so many ways it hardly differed from the Protestantism I had already experienced, and was beginning to reject. There were of course theological differences between the two, but in terms of approach, other than being somewhat more liturgical, I hardly would know the difference between one service and the other.

Because of this, I finally took the next step, a step which today looking back seems so obvious and almost inevitable; I attended an Orthodox liturgy with a serious interest and openness to learning more about their faith, and to possibly converting to Orthodoxy.  All of my previous paths, all of my experiences in life seemed to be leading me to this decision; whether explicitly or implicitly through my seeking for true faith, true Christianity, for a fullness of worship and discipline, for a deeper understanding of the ascetic, spiritual warfare, and for a life dedicated to prayer and stillness in pursuit of relationship with God, and through my desire to give myself to God as completely as possible having given away all my money, my possessions, and desiring to give my time, my body and my life; all of these paths I had previously taken and those I still hoped to fulfill, all of these were understood and supported by the Orthodox Christian life of piety as it is still practiced today in our modern, post-Christian, seeker-friendly, watered down world.

(to be continued)

~FS

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