Monday, July 18, 2011

A Conversion Story (but not the one you think).....

A telephone call from a friend today prompted me to write this post. He asked me if I would mind sharing our story of how we became Orthodox in more detail. We'll eventually do that over lunch. But it occurred to me that while I have shared that story from the standpoint of a dissatisfied WELS Lutheran HERE, the WELS to Orthodox story doesn't really tell the whole story, or even most of it. Which is to say, by the time we became WELS Lutherans, my wife and I were probably 90% Orthodox already, though many of our fellow Lutherans, particularly in that WELS parish, were not even close to that number. The purpose of this post is to detail our conversion over 10 years ago to Lutheranism and how the 10 years that followed ultimately led us to Orthodoxy. While I have touched on the former very briefly HERE, what follows is a fuller explanation of that conversion and how it ultimately led us to the Orthodox Church.

My wife and I were both raised Southern Baptist. We were married in a small Baptist Church in Bremen, Georgia, the same one in which I was raised. We were both nominally Baptist at best -- we essentially went to Church on rare occasion and did not particularly pay attention to what our Church taught. You could say we were "Baptist by birth" but not really by doctrine. This was especially true when it came to such things as moderate drinking or listening to certain secular music. But it was what we knew, and it was where we were raised, and so we stayed Baptist for a time. While I was in law school, we attended a large Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and two things really bothered us. First, we seemed to only hear about what a great person the Pastor was -- liquor had never passed his lips (yes, that exact phrase was actually used from the pulpit), he didn't go out on the gambling boats, etc. Second, related to the first, we kept hearing how we just had to believe more and we too could eradicate terrible sins such as moderate drinking and recreational but non habitual gambling from our lives. It wasn't long before we became tired of hearing this week in and week out, and we quit going to Church altogether. It turns out Church with a bunch of Law and not much Gospel is not very edifying for sinners. Especially when the "Law" in question is made up out of pietist wholecloth.

This was not how we were raised, mind you. There are plenty of Baptist Churches out there that will speak the Gospel in some sense or another. The Church my parents attend is a good example of this. It is a non-sacramental Gospel. It lacks historicity and Patristic understandings of salvation. But at the very minimum you will usually get an acknowledgement that the Pastor and parishioners are sinners in need of salvation. The alter call is for people to not only dedicate their lives to Christ, but in fact to confess their sinfulness and need for the Savior. We just never got that where we attended.

After I graduated law school and began practicing law, a friend of mine went with me to New Orleans for the SHOT show. This is a firearms trade show, and my friend and I knew each other from the shooting community. He was a Lutheran pastor. We talked about Church while we were there, but on the way back he asked some hard questions. He was also a former Baptist, so he knew the language. We discussed infant baptism, the Lord's Supper, and all the other typical areas of distinction between Lutherans and Baptists, but two stuck out to me particularly. First, he asked me if I was a good person. I told him I try to be. He asked how often I went to Church, whether I truly loved God and kept His Commandments, etc. I had to confess I did not do any of these things nearly well enough to please God. Then, second, he told me about John Chapter 20, where Jesus said "receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." Then he absolved me. I had been told I was forgiven before. But that day, I believed it.

We ended up at a fine LCMS parish just around the corner from our house, and the Pastor literally lived in our neighborhood. I attended a Vespers service, and to be honest I was creeped out at first. The people were nice, but everyone chanted the service a capella, and the music was weird and medieval. But then they dove right into a Bible study (it was kind of a hybrid Vespers where we sang the first part of Vespers, had a Bible study, then sang the end of Vespers). I spoke to the Pastor for a long time that night, then went home and told my wife about it. She wanted to go the following Sunday.

Sunday was a different story. The Liturgy hooked us from the get go. There was an organ, and a choir, and the building was full, and the loudest people there were the ones who could sing. It was amazing. Very early in the service was a corporate confession of sins. The entire congregation spoke a general confession, and the Pastor faced the altar saying it with us. Then he turned around and pronounced the Absolution. I looked at my wife and we nodded. Here was a place for sinners like us. The Liturgy itself was beautiful, if still a bit off putting -- keep in mind we were raised on the very "Protestant light" worship style we eventually came to dislike. But the real key was how much Scripture there was in the service. It seemed as if every single portion of the Liturgy was pulled directly from the Scriptures, and then when you'd had enough of that, there were readings -- 3 of them -- and a sermon that focused on the readings! We began attending a Sunday School class on the Liturgy, and we attended Wednesday night Vespers and began to learn the Lutheran Confessions and the Scriptures that were so richly cited therein. We attended that Church for nearly 5 years before deciding we needed to move closer to family.

When we arrived in Georgia, we began attending an LCMS Church near our home. That parish used TLH as the hymnal, so it was by appearance more traditional than the one we came from (which used Lutheran Worship at the time). But our very first meeting with the Pastor raised red flags. We were told they were trying out contemporary worship there. My wife and I probably did not react as charitably as we should have. We had left this type of freestyle worship to become Lutheran. And we had been taught, rightly I still believe, that Lutherans maintain the historic forms of the Western Mass. But this Pastor had determined, for whatever reason, that guitar based, upbeat songs should be used, and began incorporating them in the Liturgy more and more frequently. This, in and of itself, is not so bad, but the songs used a more lightweight Protestant theology -- a lot about us and what we do, and very little about Jesus and what He has done. I once remarked to him that this use went against the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (as we pray, so we believe), and he said "I don't believe that (lex orandi, lex credendi) is true." This came to a head when he started a Liturgy shortly after Easter with a "hymn" called "Let Our Hearts Burn Within Us." The LCMS has blessedly removed it from their website, but you can listen to it HERE. Suffice it to say, it was sappy, emotion-driven and hardly weighty in theology. It reminded me of the quote by Hank Hill "you're not making Christianity better, you're making rock and roll worse!" It was the embodiment of everything we thought was wrong with where this parish was headed. We never went back to that Church. It shut its doors a couple of years later after declining attendance took its toll. I'm convinced to this day that they had a vibrant Lutheran Church that they turned into a generic evangelical Protestant Church, and in the process ran off all the Lutherans. And as I've said a million times, Lutherans are horrible at doing evangelical style worship. It's like watching a polka band cover a hip hop song. It just doesn't work.

So from there, we joined a great WELS parish, and made a ton of good friends and generally had a very nice time. But there were gnawing issues. We missed the higher view of the Liturgy at our old parish, and we didn't like the fact that the Sacrament was only offered every other week, and never on Christmas or Easter or any other time visitors were likely to be present. The lectionary was sometimes eschewed, and more often when it was not, the sermon text was not from the day's readings, so we were getting a lot of sermons that did not deal with the readings of the day even when those readings were used. The piety of that parish was somewhat more "low Church" than what we were used to, so our oldest daughter fell out of the habit of making the sign of the cross and paying attention during the Liturgy. We still said our nightly prayers, but beyond that there was very little real catechesis going on that they couldn't get at a local Methodist or Baptist Church. A large part of that is my fault -- I was not particularly excited about the more Protestantized nature of the parish and did not take great pleasure in teaching my kids a historic catholic faith that wasn't really reflected outwardly in that parish. So I didn't. I take full responsibility for that. Another issue was that my wife no longer wanted to go to Church. Whereas I was content to "just go" and receive the Sacraments, she was concerned about herself and our children and how the lack of a strong piety and historic catholicity were affecting her and them. Eventually, she prompted me to look elsewhere.

She wanted another Lutheran parish. Unfortunately, pickins' are slim in these parts, and we had exhausted the best we had. If this parish where we loved the Pastor and had a lot of good friends who loved us and our children, and which was conservative and not too "evangelical" in style -- if this wasn't what we were looking for, any other Lutheran parish in the area was realistically going to be less so. I began considering our options and I saw three: Roman Catholicism, High Church Anglicanism, or Orthodoxy. High Church Anglicanism wasn't a real option. There were no parishes near us that fit that bill. That left two, and while as Lutherans, Rome was not as good an option as Orthodoxy, in the end there was an Antiochian Orthodox Church near our home, so we visited there first out of sheer convenience.

The rest, as they say, is history. We saw in that parish exactly the living, dynamic, historic, Gospel-centered Sacramental faith being lived out by the parishioners that caused us to become Lutheran to begin with. While no one would enter our parish and confuse it with a Lutheran parish, I have to say that the similarities are far greater than the differences. And the differences have turned out to be great blessings.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council

"On this Sunday, in the Holy Orthodox Church, we commemorate the 630 holy and God-bearing Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which convened in Chalcedon in 451 against the Monophysites.

The Holy Fathers were, once again, concerned with the nature of Jesus Christ. The false teaching arose that Christ’s human nature (considered by heretics as less perfect) dissolved itself in His divine nature (considered by heretics as more perfect): like a cube of sugar in a parcel of water. Thus, in that scenario, Christ had only one nature, the Divine. These false preachers were called Monophysites (“mono”, meaning “one” and “physis”, meaning “nature”), and they were led by Eutyches and Dioscorus. Monophysitism overemphasized the divine nature of Christ, at the expense of the human. The Fourth Ecumenical Council condemned Monophysitism and proclaimed that Christ has two complete natures: the divine and the human, as defined by previous Councils. These two natures function as equally perfect, without confusion, and are neither divided nor separate. The Fathers declared that at no time did they undergo any change.

By the intercessions of Thy Saints, O Christ God, have mercy upon us. Amen."

-- from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the West:

Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4, 1776

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Home, sweet home! Otherwise known as "the other side of catholicity"

My last post, like a few before it, was about the great benefit of catholicity in the Church.  The idea that when we travel (or, God forbid, move) we pretty much know what to expect in whatever Orthodox Church we end up visiting.

Having said that, after two weeks away from our home parish, it was awfully nice to be back.  Catholicity is wonderful, but home is home.  I've mentioned before how our parish "smells like a Church."  We had visitors to our parish today, and one of them walked into the narthex and the first thing he said was "it smells good in here!"

Yes, yes it does.

Familiarity is an interesting thing.  Everything about this parish was foreign to us when we arrived for the first visit over a year ago.  And yet, then and now, it felt like home.  Orthodoxy has been wonderful to us, and I don't mean this at all to suggest other parishes would not suffice.  In fact, if pushed to the wall, I could suggest several areas I actually prefer the piety and practice of other parishes I've visited, though they would be few (getting rid of the pews would be my first suggestion -- Lent was nice without them).  But at the end of the day, this one is home and likely always will be.  We cannot imagine being anywhere else. 

Orthodoxy is one big family, and without a doubt the relation is visible in other parishes we visit.  But they are still distant cousins and step-siblings.  It's nice to be back home with the immediate family again.  We missed y'all.