What Can I Do?

The Lord said to His disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” -Matthew 16:24-26

My heart was heavy as I read today’s Gospel. For most Christians, this passage is a familiar one, and many of us have probably reflected on it at one time or another to some degree. We ask ourselves, what does it mean to deny myself? Six thousand miles east of the oversized, comfy chair where I’m writing this, Christians in Iraq, Palestine and Syria are answering the question in ways that most of us could never imagine. Some want to take sides in various conflicts, as if we really know what is truly going on in these regions of the world. In the midst of all of this, the human soul created in the image of God gets relegated to secondary status as it becomes about who’s right and who’s wrong. But there is so much wrong that looking for the right in all of it becomes like looking for a precious gem in a landfill.

Last night I watched a video that showed the scope of the known universe. It began with an aerial view of the Himalayas. I got tears in my eyes as the camera moved outward. The lines that separate nation from nation don’t exist. I began to think about what really does exist. The elderly Christian couple who have just been exiled from the only home they’ve ever known exists. The Christian business owner who has had everything taken away except the clothes on his back exists. The young Christian mother and father who watched as their family’s only water was cruelly poured out onto the ground before their very eyes as they face a 42-mile walk toward exile exist. The group of very young Muslim boys whose minds are being fed the lie that anyone in the world who does not conform to what their sect teaches deserves to die exists. The 1,900 Christians and Muslims seeking refuge together from shell fire in a tiny Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza exist. So many lives are being irreparably damaged right now. So many are taking up crosses that seem unbearable.

Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

We helplessly ask ourselves, what can I do? I write this on the eve of Dormition, which begins the commemoration of the falling asleep of the Mother of God.  During this period, Orthodox Christians are called to fast from meat, dairy, wine and oil. A special prayer service, the Paraclesis (supplication), is held daily in our Churches around the world. It has always been a time of renewal and contemplation for me. For many of us, it is a difficult time of year to fast or attend Church as we are traveling or for other various reasons. However, I want to challenge you to try to commit to taking some extra time each day, for the next 15 days, to pray for our brothers and sisters suffering around the world. If you can’t attend Church, pray through the Paraclesis, which can be found here. Its words are so fitting for everything that is currently happening. In Galatians 6:2 St. Paul tells us to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Maybe giving up that little bit of extra time each day is the cross that Christ is asking you and me to bear right now. I leave you with Psalm 142, the first Psalm which is prayed at the beginning of the Small Paraclesis. May you have a blessed fast.

O Lord, hear my prayer, give ear to my supplications in Your truth; hear me in Your righteousness. Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is justified. For the enemy has persecuted my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in darkness like those who have long been dead, and my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is distressed. I remembered the days of old; I meditated on all Your works: I pondered on the work of Your hands. I spread out my hands to You; my soul longs for You, like a thirsty land.

 Hear me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not turn Your face away from me, lest I be like those who go down into the pit. Cause me to hear Your mercy in the morning, for in You I have put my trust. Cause me to know, O Lord, the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul to you. Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies; to You have I fled for refuge. Teach me to do Your will, for you are my God. Your good Spirit shall lead me in the land of uprightness. For Your name’s sake, O Lord, you shall quicken me. In Your righteousness you shall bring my soul out of trouble, and in Your mercy, You shall utterly destroy my enemies. And You shall destroy all those who afflict my soul; for I am Your servant.”

 

 

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Come Forth!

Some Reflections on Lazarus Saturday

There are so many beautiful services in the Orthodox Church during Great Lent, but there is one in particular that has pierced my heart more than any of them.  It is Lazarus Saturday, where we commemorate Christ’s raising Lazarus from the dead.  At first, I wasn’t even sure why it made me feel the way that it did.  The story from John, Chapter 11 has always been one of my favorites.  As I reflect on its history in my own life, I am beginning to understand more about how the beauty of Christ’s own humanity has made it possible for me to become fully human again.  When I say “fully human,” what I mean is that it is possible for a Christian to live a life so surrendered to Christ, that His image in them is fully realized and can be restored to what God had originally intended before the fall.  This truth of restoration, or healing of the soul, has been the teaching of Christ’s Church since its beginning.  It is unfortunate that many Christians today no longer understand this truth: that the soul’s healing is a process, and not just a “right standing” before God, which often reduces their relationship with God to a contractual agreement.  This has unfortunate consequences in the lives of those who have a deep desire to seek the fullest possible relationship with God.  In my own life it led to me feeling frustrated, like I had hit a wall when I sought to know Christ on a deeper level.

So, why does Lazarus’s story so profoundly affect my own?

The winter of 1998 was one of the darkest times I have ever experienced.  I was severely depressed.  My existance had been reduced to the entrapment of myself within the prison of my own mind.  It felt like I was living in a cold, dark cave without any purpose and no hope of escape.  I wanted to die.  I don’t remember many ‘moments’ from that period, but one does stand out.  I was riding in the car with my husband and parents.  It was dark so no one could see me.  I was crying my eyes out, thinking about Jesus, entering Bethany, calling into the darkness of Lazarus’s tomb and beckoning him to “come forth.”  Just like that, he was alive after being dead for four days.  The ache in my own soul was deep as I thought about the sweetness of Christ’s voice and what it must have sounded like to the soul of Lazarus.  What joy must have quickened that soul to unite with its lifeless, earthly body – to once again experience life in the here and now?  I wanted that!  I wanted to be drawn out from the darkness of the tomb in which I had been existing for months.  I wanted to live again.  But what I think was happening on a much deeper level was that my soul, made in the image of God, yet corrupted by sin, was crying out to be healed.

When I ponder what is going on in this story, it is truly astounding.  We learn that Mary, Lazarus’s sister, is the same Mary who anointed Christ’s feet with oil and wiped them with her hair.  Then, in John 11:5 it says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”   For the Apostle to point this out in his Gospel stood out poignantly to me.  Christ’s love, manifested in the lives of this family is a powerful picture of the love that He has for every one of us.  We see it illustrated also in that He was willing to go to Judea, where He knew he was in danger of being killed, to be with Mary and Martha.  When he arrives, Martha goes to Him.  Jesus proclaims the Gospel to her, that He is the Resurrection and the Life and it is clear that Martha believes in her heart this truth.  Christ then waits for Mary who, upon learning of His presence, runs to Him and falls at His feet.  When Christ sees their sorrow, He is in anguish.  Then when He is taken to Lazarus’s tomb, He weeps – God Himself – weeping for a man.  The Jews remarked, “See how He loved Him!”  Even though Christ was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, He weeps for him anyway!  Why? Because He loved  Lazarus.  He loved Lazarus’s sisters.  He wept over their sorrow.  I had to believe that He wept over my sorrow, too.

Last year was my first Lazarus Saturday service.  Great Lent has ended.  It is the day before we enter into the quiet sorrow of Holy Week, in which we remember Christ’s final days before His crucifixion.  During the Lazarus Saturday Liturgy, we sing one of the most powerful hymns ever written for the Church, “Rejoice, O Bethany!” The first time I sang it, its meaning was so heavy that it brought me to tears.  I realized that Bethany, the little village where Jesus performed one of his most beautiful miracles, is also my soul.  It is the place that contains the image of God in me.  The place yearning to be made whole again and freed from the grip of darkness – called forth by the loving voice of my Savior.  As I experienced my first Lazarus Saturday, it was like my past was finally brought to light in that present moment as I sang those powerful words…brought to life by the One Who is the Resurrection and the Life. I want to share with you the words of this hymn, as well as the music for the Koinonikon, which you can listen to here.

Rejoice, O Bethany!The Raising of Lazarus Icon

Rejoice, rejoice, O Bethany!
On this day God came to thee,
And in Him the dead are made alive,
As it is right for He is the Life.

When Martha went to receive Him,
Grieving loudly with bitter tears,
She poured out the sorrow of her heart to Him
With great sadness, wailing her lament.

She at once cried out unto Him:
“My most compassionate Lord, my Lord,
At the great loss of my brother Lazarus
My heart is broken, help me.”

Jesus said to her, “Cease your weeping,
Cease your grieving and sad lament;
For your brother, My most beloved friend, Lazarus,
Very soon will live again.”

Then He, the faithful Redeemer,
Made His way unto the tomb,
Where he cried unto him who was buried four days,
Calling him forth, saying “Lazarus, arise.”

Come with haste, ye two sisters,
And behold a wondrous thing,
For your brother from the tomb has returned to life.
To the beloved Redeemer now give thanks.

To Thee, O Lord of creation,
We kneel down in reverence profound,
For all we who are dead in sin,
In Thee, O Jesus, are made alive.


–A Koinonikon for Lazarus Saturday,
Composed in Arabic by Metropolitan Athanasios Attallah of Homs, and
Translated and arranged by Bishop +BASIL (Essey)

Get Up…and Love.

A young monk said to Abba Sisoes, “Abba, what should I do? I fell.”

The elder answered, “Get up!”

The monk said, “I got up and I fell again!”

The elder replied, “Get up again!”

But the young monk asked, “For how long should I get up when I fall?”

“Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.”

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to write and I need to tell you why. Over the past few weeks there have been times that I questioned whether or not I should have ever started this blog. On the surface, some would have said that I was crazy for thinking that. You see, I got a fair amount of positive feedback and some of my readers even shared with me privately how much they appreciated what I had written and their various reasons why. People encouraged me to “please write more!” That should motivate anyone, right? Instead, I began to struggle with myself. Sometimes when I read something that someone else has written, I tend to begin thinking that they have it all figured out and then I begin to wonder if I’ll ever “get there.”

One of the most challenging things I’ve faced since sharing my stories has been learning to give myself grace when I mess up. After both homeschooling and parenting my children for the past eight years, I have learned that this endeavor comes with many blessings and also many challenges. A priest and I were discussing an article that we had both recently read. The title was something along the lines of If You Want to See How Sinful You Really Are, Try Parenting. I quipped, “I could write one called If You Want to see how You’re Headed Straight for Hell, Try Homeschooling!” I think that any of my friends who teach in any type of school could relate to what I’m saying. We feel tremendous pressure under the weight of our calling to nurture not only a child’s mind, but also his soul. In our school, the souls being nurtured and the minds being molded are those of my own children, and yes, they get to see the very best, and the very worst of me…all day long. Having said that, know that there are times I feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite. On many occasions I have had to repent to my children, and each time I have seen the most beautiful thing happen…they forgive me, completely from their hearts, with no strings attached. They have absolutely no problem restoring our relationship to what it should be. I started to see that the real problem of forgiveness lied within me…toward myself.

So what does this have to do with me not wanting to write? Well, I began having thoughts like, “What if my readers could see what I’m really like at times?” I have cultivated within myself an inability to let go of the mistakes I make—beating myself up for missing the mark over and over again. It began to hit me that we live in a world that demands perfection, but perfection is really an illusion within our own minds—an illusion fueled by fear of failure. If I constantly demand perfection within myself and my actions are motivated by fear, will I be able to show love and grace to others? Especially my own children? The Scriptures teach us that perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18). How had I arrived at this place within my own soul and how had it affected my relationships?

When you have a baby, how you see the world and your purpose within it changes. You want to pour your life into theirs and you want to do everything right. I remember wanting to “not make the same mistakes as my parents” (whatever that means). Let me assure you that I may not have made the same mistakes, but I have made just as many, and I will make just as many more. My biggest desire is for my children to embrace Christ and walk in His ways their whole lives. I began to read about child-rearing with the goal of having perfectly obedient children who would ultimately obey Christ. I found a particular set of books in which the authors assured me that if I followed their methods, my children would obey “all the way, right away, with a cheerful attitude.” Their writings continually talked about all of the things they had done correctly and how they were now reaping the blessings. They assured us that if we followed the same methods “as set forth by the Scriptures” we would have the same results. They went on to say that if we didn’t get the same results, even if we thought we had employed the same methods perfectly, we had done something wrong and we were entirely to blame. After all, God’s promises were there, but I had to parent a certain way in order to see them fulfilled in the lives of my children. We were told that if our children eventually turned their backs on the Christian faith, it was also our fault. No pressure, right???

mother and childYes, I believe that parents play a huge role in how the faith of their children comes to fruition. Parenting is a major responsibility and let’s face it, there are many who don’t take it seriously at all. However, I began to impose so many rules and guidelines and pressures upon myself that I was losing the joy of parenting. I began to judge other parents without knowing anything about them or their particular situations. About five years ago, I stopped reading the books I mentioned above. God, in His loving-kindness began to help me to see that my parenting was becoming based on fear instead of love. It started to become clear that the authors never once in their writing shared any of their own mistakes or failures as parents. Part of my goal through my writing is to be able to speak from my heart. Writers can only truly reach people’s hearts if they have a certain level of transparency. I had never once laughed or cried with these people or related to them in any way through their writings, yet I had allowed them to tell me how to raise my children. One thing that I did gain from it was a long list of do’s and don’ts.

I started writing this post a few weeks ago but I struggled with how to finish it. It seemed like part of what I really wanted to say was missing. My conclusion came in an unexpected way. I confessed to my spiritual father my fears of my children seeing my poor example and abandoning their faith. He gently explained to me that we can’t rely on ourselves, because we are all fallen, to be the standard that our children look to in order to have true faith. But that is what I had unknowingly been doing. Christ and the Saints and the Church are the standard and that is where we need to point them. We go alongside them, helping them and loving them when they fall. When we fall, we need to make sure they see us always getting back up again. That is how the Saints became Saints….they fell a lot! The key was that they never stopped getting up. I have been asking God to start softening my heart and showing me how to just love the people around me without having so many expectations of them. Love is always the first step. One of my favorite writers, St. John of Kronstadt says this:

“Love every man in spite of his falling into sin. Never mind the sins, but remember that the foundation of the man is the same – the image of God.”

As we begin to look at ourselves and others with this in mind, Christ’s love begins to chip away at the walls we have built around our own hearts. As His love begins to flow in through the cracks in these walls, the joy that we are meant to have begins to be restored, regardless of what we have experienced in our pasts. This is true joy that brings true healing, and it is meant for every one of us.

A Seamless Whole: How I learned to Embrace Scripture within Tradition, Part II

-Part I can be found here.

We are a home school family. Each year, on the morning of the first Tuesday of September, you can find our family at Pancake Farm eating breakfast together. It is a special day and my husband takes the first couple of hours off of work in order to spend that time with us. This is how we begin each new school year, and it is something that both of my children have said that they want to do with their families someday. It has become a sacred time and everyone would be quite upset if we skipped it. What makes it sacred? We are together and those moments belong only to us. We focus on what our hopes and goals are for the year and we encourage each other for what lies ahead. Every relationship we have, if it’s meaningful, usually has some traditions associated with it. Traditions have an amazing way of binding us to others. They provide a sense of comfort, familiarity and stability when things around us may be uncertain. They can become something that we run to when we don’t know where else to turn.

The word tradition can mean different things to different people. It can be a positive thing or a negative thing. One of the phrases we often hear today when people speak of religion (especially when referring to Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism) is “empty traditions.” Many use that phrase as an excuse to make up their own way of doing things when it comes to worship. In fact, there were places in Scripture where Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for keeping their traditions (Matthew 15:1-20). However, He was not calling theTo-do list traditions bad in themselves. It was because their hearts were devoid of love as they were practicing them. I am a type-A personality. I like to have everything organized a certain way. To-do lists are my friends. I can become enslaved to those lists, though. There are times that I complete everything on my list, waiting for that feeling of self-satisfaction that I think will come when all the boxes are checked off. Instead, I feel emptiness. Why? Because I have become so focused on the task itself that I have forgotten to do it with love in my heart. I also forget that there are people around me who need that love. Instead, I plow through my list, pass them by in the process, and then expect their love in return when I am finished. I am like those religious leaders that Jesus rebuked. Everything around me may be squeaky clean and neatly arranged, but inside my heart there is a mess. Not to mention, I may have caused messes in the hearts of those around me in the process. Now, does what I just shared mean that having a well-organized house is a bad thing? No. The problem comes when I place my focus on the home instead of the people in the home; when I work toward a goal for the empty self-satisfaction its completion may produce and sacrifice relationships in the process. This is what Jesus hates, doing tradition for tradition’s sake. We know that He went to the temple and practiced the religious Traditions that God had set for the Jewish people. After He was crucified, rose again and ascended into Heaven, He did not tell His apostles to stop practicing Traditions and do whatever they felt like doing, making it up as they went along. He gave them Traditions, but what He did expect was for them to do everything with love.

I grew up in a church that practiced traditions. I felt safe and secure there. I have always been able to embrace them in worship. I count on them just as my children count on our yearly first day of school breakfast. What happens when we practice traditions with love in our hearts is that they do transcend into other areas of our life. Just as the breakfast with my children speaks to them and tells them that they are important to us and that what we are about to undertake (our school year) is important for our family, the traditions I was used to as a child, I believe, were how God was preparing me for where I am now. I am thankful for the things I learned growing up and for the fact that my parents chose such a place to raise me in my Christian faith. However, there are many more traditions in the Orthodox Church. When I go into Church, I light a candle. It reminds me that Jesus is the Light of the world. As I prepare to enter the Nave, I make the sign of the Cross in front of His icon. I pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I then kiss the hand of Christ depicted on the icon (I’ll talk about this more in a later post). This is something I do every week. Why? It reminds me of where I am at and for Whom I am there. Yes, I have to make a conscious decision to think of these things so that I may begin to prepare my heart to worship the Holy Trinity. I can also do all of these things while thinking of what I am going to make for dinner later that afternoon. These acts, in and of themselves, can be completely meaningless. That’s the kind of tradition that God despises and it is dangerous. It would be as though I were taking my children out for breakfast, but I would neither look at them nor speak to them the entire time. I think they would begin to have a negative view of the event and what it ultimately means. It would probably do our relationship more harm than good.

So, what about the early Church and its Traditions? Earlier we talked about the Scriptures. Do Traditions supersede Scripture in Orthodoxy? No. The Scriptures are part of Tradition and Tradition is part of Scripture. They work together as a seamless whole. You can’t have one without the other in order for them to both function properly in the life of a believer. We have clear evidence of this from the Scriptures:

In I Corinthians 11:1-2, the Apostle Paul says, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.

Notice here that Paul does not say that we are to keep the traditions that are only written in the Scriptures, but as he delivered them to the early Church. This is talking about oral traditions which are not written in the Bible. Again, remember that the New Testament did not exist in its entirety at this point.

II Thessalonians 2:15 says, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle.

This verse makes it even more clear that there were spoken traditions that were passed down and were meant to be practiced. This verse was very instrumental in solidifying what my heart had known for so long. There was a standard for worship that had been set from the beginning and we were supposed to keep it. I had been to churches that practiced certain traditions that we practice in the Orthodox Church. Some of them said the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer each week. Some of them allowed infants to be Baptized and to receive the Eucharist, but they left out other things. As I continued to learn what was taught from the time of Christ’s disciples, I realized that every single one of them had deviated in some way from the path of what was originally taught. They went to the Scriptures and to some of the writings of the early Fathers (yes, some did not hold fast to sola Scriptura when putting together their worship services) and picked and chose what to include in their worship. I finally had to ask myself, “Why in the world, when these writings and resources are so widely available today, do so many choose to ignore either all of them or parts of them?”

I was starting to realize why Tradition is important on two levels. On one level, it helps us to properly interpret the Scriptures. It is a safeguard that keeps us on the true path. The Orthodox Church holds to a teaching called ‘Patristic consensus.’ This simply means that throughout the formation of the Church, her leaders throughout the known world would meet to formulate the doctrines that became the foundations for what was to be taught about Christ (these are called Ecumenical Councils, and there have been seven of them). It was not about one man’s interpretation, but about a decision made and agreed upon by many wise and prayerful men. I could go into much more detail about this, but that is not my goal for this post. The one thing that helped me to accept this and to not question it any further was the Scripture verse Matthew 16:18: “…on this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The Church is the foundation on which the proper interpretations of the Scriptures rests. God promises that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. If this is true, then I needed to look to that Church of which Christ is speaking. The one to which the authors of the Scriptures themselves belonged.

CenserOn another level, Tradition helps me to experience worship in its fullest sense. It brings my mind and heart to where they need to be. It awakens my senses. Icons surrounding me remind me of the Saints who have gone before me, many of whom died horrific deaths defending the Faith of which I now partake. We are together in the same family. I see them and I know that they are worshiping together with myriads of angels along with us, Christ’s Church here on earth. As I smell the incense, as its smoke curls and winds its way upward, it reminds me that our prayers are to rise up as incense before the throne of God, as a pleasing aroma to Him. The lights of the lampadas (hanging oil lamps) remind me that I am to always be vigilant and prepared, lest He returns and catches me unaware, like the foolish virgins who didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps. As I look at the rounded dome and columns with the icon of Christ at the center, I am reminded that as His Church worships, He is bending down the Heavens that we may ascend to Him. As I hear the Epistle and Gospel being read, I am hearing the story of my people throughout the ages. I feel that connection to them of which I spoke earlier. Finally, as our worship culminates in the Eucharist I receive the Body and Blood of Christ, my Lord, and am reminded that I take in Christ, the One who came to heal me, soul and body.

The Scriptures are like a ship-a vessel that takes us on a journey toward Christ. Tradition is like the rudder. It guides that ship along the correct course. Without the rudder, the ship would drift off course and into potential danger. Without the ship, the rudder would be useless. They work together as one, with Christ as the Captain. I am content to ride in that ship, not knowing what lies immediately ahead, but secure in knowing that as long as I stay in it I am safe…knowing that it will lead me to the ultimate destination.

A Seamless Whole: How I Learned to Embrace Scripture within Tradition, Part I

About two years ago, the realization began to hit me that over the past two decades, I had formulated a lot of unanswered questions regarding what I was taught about how to believe in and practice the Christian faith. I also realized that I had been suppressing many of those questions, filing them away in a place in the back of my mind, not really believing I would ever find a good answer. I’m talking about questions on the basics of my faith. What I hope to attempt to do over the next few posts is unpack the answers that I believe I have received to those questions along my journey to Orthodoxy. I will be the first to tell you that I am in no way an authority or expert on matters of the Orthodox Faith. I am also not here to debate theology. There are lots of other places available to do that. If you have a question, I will be happy to try and answer it. If I can’t, I will find someone who can. People have asked me to tell them the stories of how the Lord has led me to embrace Orthodox Christianity. They have told me that they want to learn more about what my Faith teaches. Please understand that in doing this, I am not trying to put anyone down or criticize them for what they believe. However, I have to be completely open and honest about what I have learned along the way, or it ceases to be my story.

The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E! I grew up singing that song countless times in my small town Sunday School. I enjoyed singing it and it was catchy. To be honest, I never thought about the words too much. I mean, I was taught that Christians who did what was right always read their Bibles every day. If they did this enough, they would eventually grow closer to God through reading His word. I remember wanting this closeness with God from the time I was young, and I did read my Bible often. I was taught that if we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit would reveal its truth to us. I absolutely believe this can happen. However, I don’t believe it happens in every circumstance. If I were to purchase a violin and a book on how to play the violin and then proceed to tell you that I planned on becoming a virtuoso violinist by teaching myself, using only the book as my guide, you would probably look at me like I was crazy. This is why I no longer believe that a person can have the fullest possible relationship with God if they use only the Bible as a guide for how to live the Christian life.

I remember feeling frustrated when I would read the Scriptures. There were parts of them that were fairly straightforward and easy to understand, but there were also parts that, deep down inside, I knew carried a much weightier meaning. There were times I would go to various pastors and ask their thoughts or read a commentary, but I would often leave with more questions than I had when I started. The gnawing question that kept resurfacing was always, “How do I know that this person is right?” I finally decided that if the Holy Spirit reveals the Scriptures to us, I would have to set out on my own to try and figure out what they say. I decided to learn how to do inductive Bible study. What is that? Well, it’s basically where you dissect the Scriptures word by word. You color code each word, look it up in its original language (Hebrew or Greek) and eventually the meaning will become clear. You see, I’m a word nerd so this was right up my alley. Armed with my Bible, my Greek and Hebrew Word Study dictionaries and a brand new 88-pack of Crayola colored pencils, I attended my first Inductive Study. I’m not kidding when I say that the book of Ruth in my Bible looked like I had opened up a box of Fruity Pebbles and dumped it right onto the pages. I did these studies for about three years. I learned a lot and some of it was quite valuable, but I began to see that although I was gaining knowledge, my heart was not changing much. Also, the questions we were told to answer were still quite subjective, like, “What does this passage say to you?” I remember thinking more often than not, “I don’t care what it says to me, I want to know what GOD meant when HE said it!” I used to just pray that God would give me the right answer, because I didn’t know where else to turn at that point. I finally gave up on the inductive studies and just continued to read my Bible and hope that someday His words would actually connect with my heart.

Sometimes I would attend Bible studies at church with people who were earnestly seeking the truth as well, but it would almost always turn into a discussion on each person’s (including my own) opinion of the passage at hand. I would end up leaving with that all too familiar empty feeling, that feeling that I wasn’t taking anything tangible away from it. I look back at this time now as a true test of my faith. I knew deep down that there was something more. Before really knowing anything about the Orthodox Faith, I would read the writings of early Christians and feel jealous because they had something I did not – a sort of connection with Christianity that transcended ordinary life. I finally got to the point where if I didn’t find it soon, I was ready to be done. I dug deep and began to ask myself whether the beliefs that I held and had been taught my whole life concerning the Scriptures were accurate. After all, at this point I had nothing to lose.

Poster with the Scripture, John 1:1

Poster with the Scripture, John 1:1

The other day, I came across a poster that is circulating the Internet.  It was a picture of Earth from outer space and the caption was John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word.” Emerging from the bottom of the picture was an open Bible.  I realized two things:  1) how completely absurd this was and  2) that the notion that the Word is something abstract and disconnected from Christ Himself was something that I had unknowingly allowed to implant itself into my belief system. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t think that the Bible was actually Christ. However, I did have a misplaced view of the Scriptures, and I know that it was a result of being taught incorrect doctrine. Remember that whole “standing alone on the word of God” thing? In 1522, a doctrine was developed by Martin Luther called sola Scriptura which is a Latin term meaning “by Scripture alone.” This, in its most basic sense, is the belief that the Scriptures by themselves contain everything necessary for a person to come to salvation and grow in their relationship with God. This was not a doctrine held by the early Church. When I reflected on all the times I came away from reading my Bible feeling unsatisfied and incomplete, I realized something. I realized that sola Scriptura had failed me.

I love to read books, but the problem is that sometimes it’s difficult for a busy mom to find time to read weighty material. I wanted to begin to learn the pre-Reformation history of the Church. I discovered Ancient Faith Radio. It has literally thousands of podcasts ranging from daily Scripture readings to seminars on how to learn Byzantine chant, and everything in between. This became the way in which God provided for me to take my crash course in Church history. I began with a podcast called At the Intersection of East and West. It was the perfect introduction for someone like me who knew next to nothing about the early Church. One evening, as I began to cook dinner, I decided to listen to a series of podcasts on Scripture and Tradition. I decided I was going to have an open mind and just listen to was being said. What happened was not what I expected, but something much better.

When something is important to us, part of our human nature desires to know where that something came from. “Who actually decided what was going to be in the Bible and what authority did they have?” It was one of those questions…one of the nagging ones. I tried to just be content to let it go and blindly accept that whoever it was knew what they were doing and I needed to be okay with it. I did know that a bunch of men came together at some point and decided on it, but that was it. To tell you the truth, I think that most people don’t give it a lot of thought. That night I learned some very important things:

  • For nearly 400 years, the Church survived without the complete set of books that we consider today’s Bible.
  • The books that comprise the Old Testament were not even decided until late in the first century.
  • The Old Testament books (scrolls) used by Christ and His Apostles in the early Church were in Greek, not Hebrew.
  • There were many ‘gospels’ in circulation in the early centuries of Christianity.  The four that we use as Scripture today (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were not officially chosen until the  second and third centuries.

The final Canon of Scripture was decided in 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage. So, I had to conclude that if sola Scriptura were true, how could the early Church have survived and thrived for that long without it? I haven’t even mentioned the fact that most Churches didn’t even have full copies of the Old Testament, let alone all 27 books of the New Testament (which weren’t even all completed until late in the first century, nearly 60 years after Christ ascended into Heaven)! So I had to ask myself, “If there was no Bible in the early Church, then how did the first Christians grow in their faith?”

There are certain Bible verses that have always stood out to me personally. Every time I would read the story of Philip and the eunuch in Acts 8:26-31, I felt pierced to the heart. I could never really explain why. It was like God always wanted to show me something there. Here is what it says:

Icon of the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Orthodox Icon of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.

The phrase, “Scripture interprets Scripture” became a mantra of sorts in my inductive Bible studies. This was the idea that if we looked at a verse and then looked at all the other verses in the Bible that had to do with that verse (cross-references) we would come away with a clear meaning. Sometimes it works, but again, this assumes that when we are doing this, we have the whole Bible. Therefore, since the early Church only had portions of the Bible and individuals in that Church had no Scriptures at all, someone must have been guiding them. I began to think of all the “guides” I had had throughout the years. Many of them were sincere, godly people who truly wanted others to come to the knowledge of the truth. But, many of them had completely contradictory interpretations of certain portions of Scripture. Again, if sola Scriptura were true and these people were really seeking the truth, why would God give them conflicting insights? However, I believe that an even bigger problem for this doctrine exists. Just take a drive through the streets of any typical town in America. On one corner is a Baptist church, on another is a Presbyterian church and down the street is an Assembly of God church. I had to ask myself why all of these different types of churches existed in every town and city. The truth is that the Protestant Reformation of 1517 has resulted in the creation of over twenty-five thousand (yes, thousand) different Christian denominations. Why? Because they all have differing views of what the Scriptures teach. Most of them would adhere to the doctrine of sola Scriptura.  Titus 1:2 tells us that “God cannot lie.” So, I had to come to one of two possible conclusions. Either Titus 1:2 was not true and God was lying to some of these branches of Christianity, or sola Scriptura was simply a false doctrine and men were coming to all of these varying conclusions on their own.

Before I had children, I would occasionally attend different Christian conferences and retreats. I would find myself sitting in a huge auditorium with other women singing upbeat praise songs, or my husband and I would be listening to some Christian speaker talk about how understanding Song of Solomon properly would help us to have a better marriage. At the end of every session, we would be given a plug for the speaker’s latest and greatest book, which would be “filled with new insights into the Scriptures” and then told to make a beeline for the bookstore before they sold out. This kind of thing has been going on in Christianity for centuries. Why do people write books about what the Scriptures say? Why can I still purchase a book written hundreds of years ago containing some classical Biblical scholar’s interpretation of the Scriptures? Again…people who hold to the doctrine of sola Scriptura (remember, it means, “by Scripture ALONE”) write books about what the Scriptures mean! This must mean that they think that people need help interpreting the Scriptures.

I was perfectly fine by now rejecting the notion that the Bible alone was a sufficient guide to lead me to salvation and to help me grow in my faith. The other conclusion I had come to was that any tradition that developed after the Reformation was likely quite different from the original Church that Christ had founded, and was probably lacking things that had been taught by the Apostles. I began to think about the men who decided which books were to be included in the Canon of Scripture (canon, by the way, means ‘a rule set by the Church’) and the Church of their time. By this point, I knew that the Church they belonged to was the Orthodox Church. I also knew that it had remained consistent in its teachings and practices for over 2,000 years. This would also mean that they were the ones who had been interpreting the Scriptures longer than anybody. However, the way they approach the Scriptures differs from the way I had been taught throughout my life. They approach the them as a Church, not as individuals, and they interpret them within the context of Holy Tradition.

-Part two can be found here.

Finding Home with No Regrets – Part 3

Keith Family Chrismation

Keith Family Chrismation

Read part two here.

I decided at this point that I needed to keep pressing on and investigate further. My husband gave me the blessing to do so. He just said, “Don’t expect me to ever go with you.” I didn’t worry too much about it at that point because I was still in the curious stage and didn’t think anything would ever come of it. I attended a couple more services and eventually set up a meeting with a priest. I just wanted to ask him some basic questions about some of the studying I had been doing and to share a bit of my story with him. We had a great talk, and I left thinking to myself: “Wow! What a different and refreshing way of understanding our life in Christ.” I realized through that meeting that since I had come out of the Pentecostal church, I had reduced my faith to a set of ideas and facts. I was so disillusioned by the negative experience that I had in the charismatic church, that I wanted to know God, not through experiencing a life lived in Him, but instead through making sure I had the correct ideas about Him. I had spent the last few years studying about God, but not getting to know Him. Eventually, my heart became empty because there was no desire or love in it for Him, or for others. I realized that I needed to find that balance again, and Orthodoxy seemed to have it.

By God’s love and grace, my husband agreed that we would attend the Orthodox Divine Liturgy once each month. At first it was awkward for both him and my children, but he agreed to keep coming out of love for me, because he could see that it was having a positive effect on me and on our marriage. Interestingly enough, once a month quickly turned into every Sunday and my children began to tell us how they looked forward to Church. This obviously spoke volumes to us, especially as they would tell us what they learned in Sunday Church School and would ask questions about the sermons on the way home. This had never happened before. We eventually began attending the Orthodox Church full time. In February of 2013, our whole family was received into the Church and my husband and I also had our marriage blessed. It was such a wonderful day! We knew we were finally home.

Do I regret spending so many years in the Protestant church? Absolutely not! One evening, shortly before we were Chrismated, I was listening to one of my favorite songs and the reality of where I have come from hit me. Part of the lyrics say, “This is our beginning, comin’ to an end.” I think those words sum up the first thirty-five years of my life. All the things that I have learned about my faith, my self and those I love are only the beginning. That beginning led me to the threshold of the Orthodox Faith. I am grateful for every church experience that I have had up until now. I think it has helped me to better relate to others who are struggling in their journeys. The most beautiful thing about the Orthodox Faith is that it is about the whole person…mind, body, soul and spirit. As I started to see how Protestant worship lacks this approach, I began to be able to let go of so many of the preconceived notions I was holding on to and was able to let Christ begin to work in my life again. I did this by attending services, meeting with a priest to help me work through my struggles and developing a daily rule of prayer. I began embarking upon a journey into the unknown. A journey which, at times feels like I am standing at the edge of a precipice where God asks me to just jump and trust Him to catch me. In His faithfulness, He always does. Then He gently leads me to the next precipice and asks me to jump again.

For years, I prayed for peace and joy in my life. Dealing with fear and anxiety has always been a struggle for me. Before, I was always told the old adage, “Just let go and let God.” That was so terribly frustrating for me because although this was the right idea, no one could ever tell me how to let go. I began to read what the Church Fathers had to say about this and realized that they, through their study of the Scriptures and through living a life of unceasing prayer, held the answer. I wrote to my spiritual father about this and he summarized it beautifully: The Church is the best psychologist…if we follow the wisdom and practices of the Church, we will live healthy and balanced lives. The Church Fathers and Saints have studied the mind, the body, and the soul to discern what is best for us – what is illness – what is healing and wholeness.” I have discovered that by partaking of the fullness of the Faith as handed down by the Apostles, there is true healing of soul and body. This consists of repentance and Confession, attending the services of the Church, regular partaking of the Eucharist and participating in the life of the Church.

Orthodoxy is faith for all of life. It has been a journey of letting go and allowing God to slowly reveal to me what is in my heart; who I really am. It’s hard. It has made me begin to dig deep inside the recesses of my soul and unearth the sins that I have hidden there for so long; sins that I didn’t even know I had because they had become such a part of who I was. I will not find them all in this lifetime. Through it, God has put beautiful people in my life and made me realize how unlovely I can be toward them. But He has also helped me to begin to see the image of Christ in others, that beautiful image that He wants to restore in every human being. Now I’m learning how God wants to really and truly heal me because His love for me is like that of the father for the prodigal. It’s a love that is so vast and deep that I will never fully comprehend it. He’s not distant. He’s not an abstract reality. He’s “everywhere present and filling all things.” He’s standing there with arms wide open saying, “Come home, my child.”

Finding Home with No Regrets – Part 2

Read Part One here.

It was during this time that we began going to a church where the pastor was a closet Calvinist. As we got to know him and his wife, we began discovering the history of Protestant Christianity. For the first time in a long time, it seemed as though we had finally unlocked a door to really growing in our faith and in our knowledge of God. As we read the writings of Luther and Calvin and the history of the early Protestant church, we became excited about our faith again. We decided we wanted to home educate our children and teach them the things we had never been taught about our faith. We eventually had an opportunity to move to Pennsylvania and become a part of a covenantal, Reformed church that taught the things we were beginning to believe.

Our move to Pennsylvania was such a huge, new beginning for us. Those at the church we were attending really made sure that we were part of their family and we fit in well there. We were learning a lot about Christian education, child-rearing, and changing the culture for Christ. There were many positive aspects of this church. However, what I didn’t realize was that I was slipping into spiritual pride. We knew we had found the way. There were certain standards (due to the black-and-white approach that this particular branch of Reformed Christianity embraced) that I felt I needed to meet. This applied to how we educated our children, how we lived out our marriage, and how we raised our children. After a couple of years, I began to feel like I was failing at every turn. I hadn’t taught my children this or that, or they were not responding to me the way I had “trained” them. I started to go to bed every night feeling like a failure. I never reached the end of the day anymore knowing that we had had a good day. This started to wear on me. I had my quiet time with God nearly every morning and remember feeling so alone. I asked Him to show me what to do, but I never seemed to get an answer. It was like my relationship with Him was non-existent. As I read my Bible, it seemed like a bunch of empty words. I didn’t feel connected to it. I couldn’t pray because my thoughts were so distracted. I remember getting to the point where I would just pray, “God, help me to love You…to really love You like I have never loved before. I don’t even know what it means to love You. I can’t go on like this. If this is the best that a relationship with You gets, I don’t know if I can keep doing this.” Being a Calvinist, I think I had an underlying assumption that no matter what, I couldn’t really change outcomes because God had already planned it anyway. In all honesty, I stopped caring. I didn’t feel mercy or compassion for others. There were times when I actually wondered if I really knew how to love others anymore. Let me say here that I know we aren’t supposed to base everything on how we “feel,” but I was getting numb to everyone around me. Sometimes it’s nice to feel. I began to see that I was having a quite unbalanced approach to life, and it was starting to take a toll on my marriage and my children.

Then something strange happened. My husband told me of a friend he knew who was dating one of my former music students. Both of them had become Orthodox. I asked him if it was the same thing as that little Greek Church in the town where we grew up. He said it was, and for some reason I became intrigued. I think it was mainly because I was so interested in what would make someone who was a reformed Calvinist change their faith so radically. Because I am intrigued with theology and the belief systems of others, I started doing a little research online and found Orthodoxy interesting. I was more curious than anything, so we set up a time to hang out with one of them. I asked him a lot of questions about his faith. Thankfully, he was more than gracious and gently and humbly answered everything I asked him. I decided I needed to investigate this further.

As all of this was going on with me, God was also working in the life of one of my friends. My friend had a client who was Orthodox and would always ask her about her faith. She was going through many of the same spiritual struggles as I was and so we started reading and discussing Orthodoxy together. I now see what a huge blessing it was to have her in my life as we began to travel this journey together. We spent countless hours outside on the deck reading and discussing Orthodox materials. It was one of the most challenging, yet blessed times of my life. Finally, we decided to go to a service and see what it was all about. September 14, 2011, the Feast of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross, was my first Orthodox Liturgy. I had never really seen anything like it before. Some of the service was in Greek and we really didn’t understand what was going on. Thankfully, there were Liturgy books and everyone we met was welcoming and kind. I honestly couldn’t even tell you how I felt about it; it was so strange and unfamiliar. The best way for me to put it into words is that I felt completely torn. Part of me was strangely drawn to it; the other part of me wanted to run away.

-Part Three will be published tomorrow.