Before I start, I want stress that this is by no means a rejection of the faith that was passed on to me by my family as a Protestant. For every pastor that cheats on his wife, there are thousands more who will only love one woman. For every church that is fraudulent with their money, there are thousands more who more that give more than they are able to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. There is much that I can not agree with anymore, but there is much that I still hold very dear.
3 years ago, Laura and I, sold mostly everything we owned, bought a Airstream motorhome, and hit the road. The intent of this journey was to find out where we wanted to live, what we wanted to do with our lives, and figure out what church is. So we set out with those three things always on our mind and amazingly enough we found answers. Answers we never expected, but answers none the less. Details of our adventures can be found at www.ouramericanlife.com.
Some time after Bible College and probably during, Laura and I began to become dissatisfied with Christianity as we knew it. During Bible College rather than go to church on campus we started going to a different church every week in the Temecula area. So many churches, so many different viewpoints, all saying that they knew the correct way to interpret the bible. One pastor would say, "Just read the bible. It's all there", or "We are a bible-believing church", or "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity" and so would another pastor and another pastor and another pastor.... But what one pastor read in the bible would be different than what another pastor preached and what was essential for one pastor was ignored by another. This was reinforced every week and it is truly by God's grace that we remained Christians.
After college we tried to find a "good church" and we had some luck here and there, but then we would move, or the pastor would move, and then we just started floating. Every other week turned into once a month. Try as I might, I couldn't help sitting in a pew and think, "Is this it? Is this was Christ died for? Am I closer to God by being here?" So, I eventually turned my devotion to God into a "me and Jesus" thing. I studied and read theology on my own. For a time I was happy with this arrangement, but eventually I realized the truth, I had exiled myself. A more favorable outlook would be that I had a "desert experience", but that remains to be seen. I could have embraced another church, but that would have only been the difference between exile and starvation. It was during this time that I began to long for a church I could call home, and not just a church I liked and was comfortable at, but a Church that was home ipso facto. Again, by God's grace, I remain faithful.
As mentioned earlier, there is still much I hold dear. Examples of love, faith, grace, and devotion to God are plentiful in the church in which I was raised and especially by the example of my parents. Despite all the cracks I saw forming in the faith I knew as a teenager, it was those very examples of the faith expressed by my parents that impressed in me an unshakable devotion to God and motivation to keep "carrying the fire". For the amount of grace that has already been given to me in my short life, it would be absolute blasphemy, no matter what the future holds, to consider myself anything but blessed.
And grace will lead me home...
The First Encounter
We were first introduced to Orthodoxy in the Spring of 2008 (or so it would seem, but that is another story for another post) by a friend (Forrest) who had recently spent a year hoofing it through Mexico, and Central America, and back again. During that time he came across an Orthodox monastery and was baptized there. Laura and I were able to meet up with him in Tucson after he had returned from his amazing adventure. Forrest had attended the youth group at a church in Arizona where I helped lead for a time. He had also taken over a bible study that I led during the lunch hour at our high school. Over the years, we had had similar journeys regarding our faith, and I have always felt a kinship with him. It had been over 5 years since I had last seen him face to face, so I was naturally very excited to be able to meet up with him.
He invited us to join him for church at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, and since one of our goals was to explore different churches, we happily attended. I was immediately uncomfortable. There was so much going on. Bells were being jangled. Incense filled the room. Everything was chanted. Everyone was standing. Then everyone was bowing. Pictures of saints I didn't know where all over the walls. Priests were walking up and down the aisle carrying crosses and more pictures of saints I didn't know. Mary was mentioned a lot. Too much. And no one except us had a bible!
I hated it.
Whatever that was, I didn't want any part of it. And I told my friend the same. So putting that experience behind me, Laura and I continued on our merry way to see more of the USA. Summer 2008 brought fuel prices to an all-time high and forced us off the road for a while. We stayed in Oregon with Laura's parents, Donn and Michelle, to wait it out. During that time memories of that church kept slipping into my mind, day after day, until finally I started researching it. And to my surprise most of my concerns and objections were met with reasonable answers. Things that I thought must have been foreign to Christianity and surely added at a later date by unscrupulous leaders with a lust for power were in fact part of an authentic ancient form of Christianity that I was shamefully ignorant of.
There was one aspect that I took to immediately: Pascha, or what I would have called Easter. I came across a short video on Youtube about how Orthodox Christians celebrate Pascha that made me want to visit an Orthodox church again. I had always been annoyed that we celebrate Christmas so joyfully with vibrant colors, and plays, and music, but with Easter (Pascha), the day of the resurrection of our Lord, we just wear something nice. The video does not do justice to the splendor that is Pascha, but it gives you a taste of the symbolism and celebration that is more fitting the occasion.
We decided when we got to California that Fall, we would be looking more into this thing called Orthodoxy.
Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn
When we returned to California we started looking for Orthodox churches in the area and lo and behold there was a Greek church in walking distance from where we were parked: St. John the Baptist in Anaheim.
We went expecting much of the same, and we did get that, but a lot was different too. The church was huge, white, and spread out. Holy Resurrection was small, woody, dark, and a bit claustrophobic. Holy Resurrection was in English. St. Johns was all in Greek and everybody but us was Greek. There is one service a month that is in English, but we were obviously not at that service. We did a lot of staring and reading of pamphlets. So our second go around wasn't that great.
The discovery of the services not being in English led me to research churches that were in English. That is when we came across St. Barnabas Orthodox Church. St. Barnabas immediately caught my attention because the priests were a part of a group of Christians that were key people in Campus Crusade for Christ. This group went looking for what the early church was really like and to their surprise they found it already existed in Orthodoxy. A bunch of them became Orthodox and some of them were now at St. Barnabas. Below is a video of their story.
So the next Sunday we went to an business office park in Costa Mesa and there on a glass door was marked, "St. Barnabas Orthodox Church". You could have mistaken it for any other business in the area. And then we went in. Again, like at Holy Resurrection, many of my senses were assaulted, but this time, not overwhelmed. Inside the main room, the service had already started and the choir was singing and to my surprise, I was holding back tears. At this time, I had a lot of questions and was nowhere near getting on board with Orthodoxy or even knew what it meant to do so. But none the less, that is what happened. I was weepy. That joyous type of weepy one gets when something amazingly good, unexpected, and undeserved is happening in your life.
After the service ended we went outside and struck up a conversation with some college age parishioners who let us ask all the questions we wanted. This led to lunch and more conversation that continued for over four hours. This happened every week for months. Sometimes after Wednesday night service we would stay up till 1 in the morning talking about all things Orthodoxy. The things we heard, we both liked and disliked. Somethings were wonderful to hear and others were very difficult. But we kept coming back every Sunday. At first, I kept coming because for an hour and half, once a week, I could be in a place that regardless of what I was comfortable with doctrinally, I knew God would be revered. But slowly, overtime, I simply fell in love with this church.
Rather than leave California in February to do some more traveling we decided to stay till April for Pascha. We participated in Lent and the fasting that takes place during that period, we observed Holy Week which took me to new heights spiritually, and then Pascha itself. Pascha was awesome! Laura said so herself and you can read all about it here on the post she wrote which does a much better job at describing it than I can.
From time to time, I still get that kind of weepy I mentioned before, but now I know I understand better what is resonating with me. After a long journey through mountains and valleys, both spiritually and literally, we were coming....
Now what? We are convinced of a faith that is familiar to what we have known and at the same time incredibly different. Our paradigm had been shifted. Reading the bible and discussing theology is like watching The Sixth Sense for the second time. A lot of, "That makes so much more sense now", "How did I miss that?", "I think I always knew that", but mostly just, "Wow". Of course, that is where the analogy breaks down. I mean who wants to see The Sixth Sense three times?
We left California, started making our way north, and, you know, mulled things over. At this point we have already been saying Orthodox prayers, crossing ourselves, and observing fasting guidelines. Catechism was on our mind and some point we just decided to get on board. After we arrived in Oregon we made plans to go back to California by September to make it in time for the start of catechism.
I had thought that we would go through catechism, become Orthodox, and hit the road again after Pascha in April. However, I learned that particular plan didn't make much sense in the Orthodox ethos. In Orthodoxy, you have a spiritual father who gets to know through conversation and confession and you are also a part of your church community. Both require a connection to be maintained. It doesn't make sense to become members of the church and then a week later, split with no intention of coming back for 3 years. That being the case, our priest at St. Barnabas advised that we not join the church until we were ready to settle down.
Now what? This part was a hard decision for us. We loved the church. We loved traveling. We came to the realization that church was a priority, so we decided we would stop traveling, but we didn't want to live in Orange County. Maybe we should continue to travel after all? We could find a place where we wanted to live that had an Orthodox church, but how long would that take? Would we be years on the road before we found that place? We were prepared to stop traveling and live in Orange County, despite the fact that we don't like it at all and couldn't afford it.
Then we remembered Prescott, Arizona. There was an Orthodox church there. They had trees, and lakes, and four seasons. It had a large artist community with a small town atmosphere. It is only a 6 hour drive to St. Barnabas so we could visit from time to time. And they had an In-N-Out! We could live there. We might not stay forever, but we could be a part of the church there and honestly not intend to leave.
So we finished catechism at St. Barnabas and watched our fellow catechumens become Orthodox. We very much wanted to be joining with them, but it was not the right time. We stayed for Holy Week and Pascha and shortly after left for Prescott with no money, jobs, or a place to live. We left dear friends behind in hopes that we would fine new ones.
And we have. We love our new church home, St. George Orthodox Church of Prescott, its parishioners, our two priests, Father John and Father Bill, and the Prescott community. We plan to not travel for a year and then later travel during non-fasting seasons and maintain Prescott as our hometown. We started catechism right away with Father John and in less than 40 days we will officially become members of the Orthodox church.
We are blessed.