120 Orthodox Hours and Counting

Around 9:30 a.m. Sunday, 10 October 2010, I was chrismated and received into membership at Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral (Orthodox Church in America) in Chicago.

As of that moment, I no longer was a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament (my title for 36 years and counting). And of course, I no longer was Presbyterian, period.

As I write, that was maybe 120 hours ago. Orthodox hours now – time flowing in, through and around someone (um, that would be me) with a new identity struggling to be born. Before this, I was mostly just waiting for Heaven to happen. Now something is struggling toward birth.

It’s way too early to figure out what this means. I’m reminded of hurry-up histories of the Vietnam War that were rushed into print within a short time of that war’s end. More sober historians warned that we weren’t really likely to understand the meaning of Vietnam for a decade at least. Judging from the unending clatter and rumble of new books still coming out about our Civil War, it looks like we don’t fully understand that one yet; so, so much for Vietnam even now.

So who knows what this chrismation means … just 120 hours later, if that? Not I. Maybe 120 years from now I’ll have an inkling, but not now. Not I.

And so when a good friend asked me, three days before the chrismation, why in the world I’d give up my Presbyterian ordination, I didn’t have a coherent answer ready. I was too focused on the long-term meaning, and at that moment it was 72 hours away from having even a short-term meaning.

I admit I was grieving over the change, although it took my wife to point that out. I knew I had become irritable and touchy about everything over a 2-3 week period leading up to the chrismation service, but I never thought of that as representing “grief.” Bawling my eyes out, yes, that’s grief; grouchy as an unfed Rottweiler, no, that’s not.

Well, actually, yes it is grief. My wife was right. That's all I had been trained to do – be a pastor; and for 36 years that’s all I had done, excepting an 18-month stint with a social service agency. And even then, I was the agency’s “church consultant” for a Central American immigrant project, working to get churches involved with the immigrant population where I live.

So it had been 36 years of endless varieties of experience, some rich and wonderful, some dreadful, all full of lessons about myself, about people in general, and about life in this fallen world.

And therefore, just why in the world did I give that up?

The answer is: community.

Over a 10-year period, I had become increasingly intrigued with Orthodoxy. In fact, “intrigued” is too small a word, much as a coffee cup is too small an example of the Grand Canyon. This – Orthodoxy – suddenly was huge for me, and, oddly, I’d have to add that it was seductively huge. I was pulled into the Church.

For many of those 10 years, I tried to work Orthodox beliefs into sermons, into weddings and funerals and classroom settings or wherever else I was called on to speak; even into pastoral care (hospital calls, counseling, etc.).

But I found I wasn’t handling that very well. I couldn't shake the feeling I was living a lie, because these were proving to be deeply held beliefs, but they weren’t an authentic part of my own Reformed tradition. (My Presbyterian Church is part of the “Reformed Tradition” which is the name for John Calvin’s spiritual descendents growing out of the Protestant Reformation; the other major line is “Lutheran,” i.e. Martin Luther’s spiritual descendants.) Maybe it shouldn't have bothered me. Certainly I wasn't alone among ministers in drawing from sources outside the Reformed tradition, sometimes outside Christianity itself. But it did bother me, a lot.

And it's not that anyone really complained. It’s just that no one seemed really interested, certainly not as intrigued as I was. And that turned ministry into a lonelier form of service than it is to begin with. (And friends, it is lonely. I’m not whining. It’s just a fact.) My sense of community seemed to be getting thinner than ever.

Please understand something, however, something just terrifically important to me: I love my Reformed/Presbyterian past. I have learned a lot from John Calvin ... from the various Confessions of Faith that comprise our Book of Confessions ... from Reformed theologians, above all Karl Barth and Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr. I still turn eagerly to Paul Tillich. I fully expect that, from time to time, I will re-read hefty chunks of the works of each of those folks, and others.

What's more: early in my ministry I served little country churches, where old-timey hymnals stocked the pews and where we sang old-timey gospel hymns, revival hymns of all things! I still love those hymns. My neighboring pastors and I each "preached for a decision," for conversion. We gave altar calls. I still love, honor and even revere that way of being Christian. I no longer can do it; but by no means would I ever disparage it. And I get really aggravated when I see modern media lampoon these things that are so heartfelt and vital for these church folks.

(By the way, a highly accurate and compassionate fictional look at revivalistic worship and preaching is in the movie The Apostle. I recommend it very highly. Robert Duvall wrote it, starred in it, knows about it from his own past, and does a masterful job. And measured by my own experience, he tells it just exactly like it is, with wonderful and refreshing respect, even when he's telling the "warts and all" parts.)

The late Bishop Job, of "my" Diocese of the Midwest, still is featured on a public service spot on Ancientfaith.com. In it he tells about encountering a seminary student who was a recent convert to Orthodoxy, who spent a fair amount of time trashing his ecclesiastical past and all of its "errors." Bishop Job was appalled, and told the student Orthodoxy has no room for hatred. All of our personal past is given us by God, Who, in leading us into Orthodoxy, "baptizes" exactly that past so as to be put to work in the Church.

That is precisely what I believed, and always will believe, about my own past -- Reformed/Presbyterian, but also some in-depth and prolonged spiritual searching elsewhere (some of which is in the topics shown below).

But, just what was it that intrigued me so much that it seemed to separate me even more from my congregations and, too often, from colleagues in ministry?

These factors pulled me in. Some of them are precisely the things I now am "baptizing" into my new life as an Orthodox Christian. And there are more, but this is enough. I’ll devote a Blog to each of these in coming weeks:

[1] Two Odd Dreams

[2] Ben Hur

[3] John the Shaman, Buddhist and (Finally) Baptist

[4] Spiritual Intuition

[5] Mysticism

[6] Salvation

[7] Prayer of the Heart

[8] Iconography, Liturgical Poetry,Art and Spiritual Life

[9] The Theotokos

[10] Saints

[11] Tradition

[12] The Bible.

And that’s my short list!

“Community” has turned out to mean that I need to know I’m plunked down in the midst of a gathering of worshipers who say they believe and affirm somewhat the same things about each of these items. I need to know it every Sunday ... no, every day.

And what is the cost of getting plunked that way? My ordination as a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament.

Do I grieve the cost? Of course I do, even if (at least so far) “grief” has looked far more like a severe case of the grouches than a bout of heavy weeping. (I do rather expect the weeping will come eventually, in its own time.)

Would I do it again? So far – after 120 Orthodox hours and counting – no question. My whole life led me precisely to these 120 hours and counting.


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