Sunday, December 18, 2011

A week shy of a full year.....a reflection.

What a blessing to have been received into the Church at the Nativity.  A week from today (last night, to be specific) will be our one-year anniversary as Orthodox Christians.  It has been a year of learning, wonder, and joy.  Given that it is a season of joy that brought us into the Church, it's fitting.

A year has brought time for reflection, and I have to say that the decision to enter the Eastern Church has not been questioned.  Not once.  That is remarkable, because we were pretty much dyed-in-the-wool Lutherans, and while we were certain at the time we were making the right decision, I expected to have some lingering doubts.  I haven't, and I doubt at this point I ever will.  I firmly believe the reason for that is that the similarity between our very first Lutheran parish and this one is so striking in most particulars.  It is absolutely remarkable, to be honest.  A secondary reason is the things that are not similar are things that we really did not have great stumbling blocks with in the first place.  Orthodox understandings of the intercession of the departed Saints and the ever-virginity of the Theotokos were either close enough or functionally identical (respectively) to what we believed as Lutherans.  Regarding the former, I have always believed the Saints pray for us.  The only real difference is now I am bold to ask them to.

It is stunning to us how quickly this parish became "home."  The first Great Vespers service we attended was beautiful, but quite a bit of a culture shock.  I now cannot imagine having a service an other way.  The Eastern Liturgy is truly a thing of beauty.  Another wonderful byproduct of this consistent liturgical practice is the familiar rhythm of the Church year.  After going nearly 5 years without celebrating a Saint's feast, without celebrating a major festival with a communion service, without having the rhythm of life broken by mid-week services that were not your typical "Wednesday night" fare we get in the South, but rather an announced-the-Sunday-before "the Church will gather tomorrow night to celebrate the Feast of St. Ignatius," without being the only people in the entire parish to make the sign of the cross or bow during Christ's humiliation in the Creed -- after all of that we are finally at a place of peace again.  A place where the piety of the parish squares with the piety of the Church throughout time.  That is no small blessing.

The issues that divide Orthodox and Lutherans (as well as Orthodox and most Western Christians, to be fair) are still very real.  Nothing has deluded us into thinking those have gone away or that this is just some sort of "real Lutheranism," the sort of thing Dr. Luther might have come up with if he hadn't been hampered by circumstance and historical accident.  No, this is not Lutheranism and never will be.  But often, the differences are not what the Lutherans think they are, and I'm sure that's true vice versa in a lot of respects.  I do have to say, after spending 10 years as Lutherans, and now a year as communing members of an Orthodox parish, we are far closer than either side realizes.  I doubt the gap will be bridged, because the Orthodox will never let go of our ecclesiology without ceasing to be the Church and the Lutherans will never truly buy into it without ceasing to be Lutheran (the Lutheran Confessions speak directly against our understanding of ecclesiology).  Further, we tend to talk past each other a lot.  The Orthodox view of salvation is quite different from the Lutheran understanding, and different use of the same words compounds that problem.  Behind most accusations that the Orthodox are semi-Pelagian or the Lutherans are Manichean lies a simple word-concept fallacy.  That doesn't mean we believe the same things.  It just means we typically think the other party believes something they really don't, based on the other side using words differently than we do.  As I have told a good friend a few times, the road to salvation for Lutherans diverges widely from the road to salvation for Orthodox at many points.  But the gap at the end of that road is very narrow indeed.  The major differences I see now, a year down the road, are in the Orthodox understanding of the essence/energies and person/nature distinctions and in the Lutheran understanding of anthropology and the mechanism of the human will.  And these are related -- we would say Lutherans get anthropology and the human will wrong because they do not maintain these distinctions (Lutherans would say we get justification wrong because we adhere to free will -- I would say that's another word-concept fallacy in large part, and so it goes).

Our children continue to grow in the Faith, and that is perhaps the greatest blessing of all.  All three children understand the Faith better than they did a year ago.  All three have a piety they never had before.  And we are constantly reminded of the influence of the Church's piety on children as, for example, when our niece this morning began to make the sign of the cross every time our eldest did it.  We neither asked nor encouraged her to do it -- she is not Orthodox so it is expected that she participate in the service only in the most basic and polite terms -- standing and sitting where appropriate, not talking over the readings, etc.  And yet she picked up the piety on her own.  The Church sets a good example that children naturally follow.  Our children also have a better appreciation for poverty and human suffering, since the Church's fasting and prayer disciplines constantly remind them that we are to care for the poor and suffering, and their Patron Saints (two of whom are martyrs) remind them they could quite easily find themselves among them if they are given the grace to suffer for Christ.

There is a grounding in the life of an Orthodox Christian that keeps a certain balance.  Selfishness and greed are still passions we all struggle with, and yet it is in the struggling that we are reminded of how grievous these sins really are.  In Orthodoxy, we take sin seriously and strive to eradicate it from our lives.  That does not mean that we believe we actually accomplish that.  In fact, the greatest Saints in the Church are often quoted on their deathbeds as praying for more time to repent.  It seems the closer one gets to God, the more one realizes they aren't really close to God.  Not in any sense that one might feel safe or secure.  Sinners in the presence of God are always terrified.  The preaching of the Law in Orthodoxy is usually geared more to this eradication of sin than toward the "you're a sinner, you're forgiven" Law/Gospel model.  It would sound semi-Pelagian to a good Lutheran or Calvinist.  This is likely not the only place we Orthodox come across as Pelagian (or superficially Arminian).  But we are not.  We do not believe our lawkeeping is the cause of our salvation.  We believe, rather, that this is how salvation is played out.  Put another way, God does not save us because we keep the Law, but rather He saves us in order that we might keep the Law.  As Ephesians 2:8-10 states so expressly, "by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."  Or, as an Orthodox Christian once told me "you are not saved by your good works, but you will not be saved without them either."

I could go on and on.  The purpose of this post is to mark the approach of one year in the Church and to express our absolute delight at having found her.  What absolute joy to be in the Church, surrounded by our Holy Fathers, the martyrs and all the Saints and heavenly host.  What wonder to find ourselves looking back 2000 years and seeing our own Church's founding referenced specifically in Acts.  We are blessed.  As I write this in the evening, I will close with our evening prayer, which contains a slight variation of the wonderful and comforting phrase that I chose as this blog's title.

O Lord our God, if during this day I have sinned, whether in word or deed or thought, forgive me all, for thou art good and lovest mankind. Grant me peaceful and undisturbed sleep, and deliver me from all influence and temptation of the evil one. Raise me up again in proper time that I may glorify thee; for thou art blessed: with thine Only-begotten Son and thine All-holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Good night, and a blessed Nativity to all.


James said...

I truly enjoy your occasional comments on your Lutheran to Orthodox journey. (I like "journey" rather than "conversion." Conversion implies unbelief.)

I continue to struggle between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy. I was raised Lutheran. But later in life I realized I didn't have a full understanding of Lutheran theology (e.g., pope as antichrist, no free will, basically autonomous churches). I didn't even know there was a Book of Concord until my late 40s. Many of my personal beliefs did not agree with confessional Lutheranism. That was quite a shock.

I have some familiarity with the Orthodox church because my wife was Orthodox. I have read and continue to read many books on Orthodoxy. I try to attend Orthodox churches when I can. I love the beauty of their churches, the unchanging liturgy, and the seriousness of their worship. No entertainment in an Orthodox church.

I continue to struggle with my spiritual journey. Your blog is helpful in that in reflects many of the questions and concerns I have. Thank you.

I hope you will continue to share your thoughts on this journey every now and then. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Christ is born!

David Garner said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, James. I like "journey" -- it is probably more accurate and it accurately describes that we are all on a walk of faith that is never static.

I will continue to discuss things as they arise. I prefer not to be polemical, since this is more of a story than an apology. But I will absolutely write more compare and contrast stories as they come up. The great thing about Orthodoxy is there is 2000 years of history, so you're always digging deeper!

May God be with you on your journey, and I pray you find yours as fascinating as we have found ours. A blessed Nativity to you and your family.

Fr. John A. Peck said...

David, would you please contact me privately? I'd like to post this reflection on Journey To Orthodoxy!

frjohn at journeytoorthodoxy dot com