Getting married further separated me from my friends. Most were a couple of years younger than I, and only a couple had done anything college-wise - so I was in the "real world", with a corporate job and a wife, and they still had no direction, working just to get by and hanging out till all hours of the night. I'm not knocking them, since there are times when I miss that sense of freedom and limitless possibilities. I realize, too, that I would not be happy living like that. I need my work and my everyday life to mean something; I need to have direction. So my friends and I drifted apart, which only made fitting back into my old church even harder, what with the emotion-driven worship and shallow teaching. We still went some, though, mostly out of habit and some because those people were still my friends, even if we weren't close. We tried out a few other churches over the course of the winter of 02/03, but never really felt at home. Nothing clicked for us and we got rather apathetic about church.
I had read some on the emerging church movement and it was stirring up some excitement in me. One of the things that had stirred me in Bishop Ware's book was the connection to the past that was present in Orthodoxy. Even a cursory look at the emerging church will show that they are very interested in reacquiring the forms & practices of the ancient church, and I liked it. To me, the emerging church seemed like a good via media between my Protestant ideals and the history of my faith. Via an emerging blog or two, I wound up landing on Karl Thienes' blog and from there, branching out to more Orthodox bloggers. This piqued my curiosity, so one day at work (on my lunch break, I tell you!) I decided to see if there were any Orthodox churches in Phoenix. I found several, one of which was right along the route I took home from work, so I swung by one afternoon that week. I checked out the church's website and emailed the priest, who invited me to come to a service some time. I ended up going on a Saturday the week before Easter. My wife had to work, so I went alone and stood in the back the entire time, not knowing if I was allowed to go into the church proper.
I was blown away by it. This was an entirely God-centered worship! There were no praise choruses about how great and wonder I feel, or how great and wonderful I'm supposed to feel. It was unemotional, focused. The only time self-referential words came up were in conjunction with asking God's mercy, but they rarely focused on "me." The prayers were offered corporately for the Body - it was "have mercy on us". And after the forced, me-focused, emotion-driven worship I had grown to abhor, this was a most welcome and keenly felt change. The smell of the incense lingered in my nose, the sounds of the chants echoed in my mind. The reverence present was also a huge change. Everybody was dressed nicely and there was no coffee in the sanctuary. It was a place where people came to meet the creator of the universe and they did so with serious intent, not frivolity, not looking for comfort. There were no gimmicks. The sermon was short, but good. The priest spoke to the reality of sin and our constant need for God's mercy. I met him briefly after the Liturgy and went home to talk to my wife about it.
We started going fairly regularly at that point and continued to do so for a few months. I think we were both moved by it and found the changes refreshing. Looking back at it, I can't really pin down any specific reason why we stopped going. I think we just weren't ready at that point. We definitely stopped going completely after I started talking to the church in Illinois about their youth pastor position. But I carried that experience with me - the God-focused worship, the almost total disregard for emotion, the depth & richness of the theology & praxis and the rootedness in history. Its probably the biggest reason things didn't work out at that church; I wanted to make disciples in the manner of the earliest Christians. I wanted to teach the kids something real, to help them make their faith their own and something that would survive the challenges of college, which are immense. The church, on the other hand, wanted little more than a program that would get big, fast. They also wanted a program that was more about pleasing the adults of the church than it was reaching the kids. Anyone familiar with my blog knows how it ended.
So now that we are here, I think we are ready. Not ready to convert just yet, just ready to really explore it, to give Orthodoxy a chance to pull us in. I, for one, need this time. That brief experience of Orthodoxy has stayed with me, haunting my ministry. It became the measuring stick by which I judged my ministry and the ministry of my church - are we that reverential? Are we pointing people to God like that? Are we producing disciples and not just converts? Are we equipping people to live their faith and not just understand it? My experience at that church in Illinois only served to heighten the tension I feel, amply demonstrating the failures of Protestant thinking & doctrine. For me, I need to settled the Orthodoxy question once and for all, whether that is yes or no. I know I will never be able to be happy at a church until I do.
Next post, the theological, philosophical and historical reasons behind the lure of Orthodoxy.