In recent debate over on another Baptist blog, the blog's author - Jeff Wright - asked me why Orthodoxy? Why not Catholicism or some other tradition? Since I haven't previously explained why I'm drawn to Orthodoxy in any systematic way, I figured I'd turn my response to him into a post. I didn't think this would be that hard to right out, but I realized after starting it that there is actually quite a lot that is going into it. Some of it is why I am dissatisfied with Protestantism and some of it is why I'm drawn to Orthodoxy, quite apart from my feelings about Protestantism in general. This is probably going to take a few posts to get through.
My first brush with Orthodoxy had nothing to do with either disillusionment or a certain sense of spiritual hollowness. It was due to far more mundane matters. In the early spring of 2000, I learned that I was to be deployed to Bosnia for a little under 7 months. Thanks to the well established Army presence over there, I was able to find out exactly where I'd be stationed and who I'd be working with on my team. It turns out, my unit was going to be stationed in the city of Doboj (pronounced doe-boy) on a base run by the NORDPOL Battle Group. The NBG is a mish-mash of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Lithuanian and Polish forces, who were responsible for the security in our little corner of the US sector. As it happens, the boundary between the Serb Republic and the Bosnian Federation runs right through Doboj. The former, which contained my team's territory, was about 90% Serb at that point, and the latter was a similar percentage of Croats & Muslims. In preparation for my deployment, I ordered a variety of books on the history of Bosnia, the war and a few books on Orthodoxy since I figured it would help me understand Serb culture. I ended up buying Bishop Ware's "The Orthodox Church", Vladimir Lossky's "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" and a small prayer book. I only picked these books because they were on the first search page that popped up for "Orthodox church" and had gotten good reviews. Ware's book was an easy, straightforward read and I found it interesting - some very different but attractive perspectives that resonated with me, if only a little. Lossky's work, on the other hand, seemed impenetrable for someone not familiar with the Church, and I only made it through the first chapter or so. While in Bosnia, I was able to tour the ancient Orthodox church in Sarajevo, and bought a few souvenirs while there - some small icon-cards of Christ Pantocrator, a few prayer ropes (at the time, I thought they were just hand-made bracelets), a little incense holder and an incense burner. Nothing life changing happened through this time or study, at least not right then. I thought it would be interesting to visit an Orthodox church when I got back to the states in April 2001. I didn't end up going, though, until 2 years later.
Before I get into that, though, I want to tell you about a college-aged Bible study I led for a few years. It started sometime in 1998 or 1999 - I knew the people who had started it but wasn't part of the initial group. It met in our church, but wasn't just for people who went there and wasn't just for college students, either. Our church was a large-ish, upscale church in one of Phoenix's wealthier sections. It's a seeker-sensitive church, so its hard to pin down hard numbers but attendance on any given Sunday was probably around 2000, with a roster of regular attendees approaching 3000 on the adult side. By the time I left, the youth ministry had exploded and was up over 800 at 2 services on Sunday mornings. This was the church that had brought me back to the faith, so to speak. I had given my life to Christ after my freshmen year of high school at a Younglife camp but never really got involved at a church after my return. It was towards the end of my senior year that I started attending and ended up getting pretty involved in the youth group as a volunteer leader after I graduated. Within a couple of years, I had started to form some pretty solid friendships and it was a few of these people that started the college-aged Bible study. It had been meeting for several months before I finally started attending. After I a while, they asked me to join the roster of the rotating leadership position. Not too long after that, I became pretty much the only leader and that lasted for probably a year or so. In that time, the group expanded from 8 to around 30 people, most of whom were very serious about their faith and serious about the relationships in the group. At that point, we made some changes, but I was still in a leadership role and most of them probably thought of me as the top guy. For me, this was really the only time in my life where I've felt like I was really accepted by more than a few people. I was looked up to, I was respected, my gifts were honored and people genuinely cared about me. It was a very happy time for me.
But then I left for Bosnia and hardly heard from them. When I came back, I was more than a little messed up by what I had experienced over there. No combat, thank God, but we had uncovered new information on war crimes and it left a lasting impression. In my absence, the group had kind of faltered but was reconstituted within a few months and grew a little more. But for me, the bloom was off the rose, in more ways then one. The friendships had not been what I had thought & hoped they were and no one there could understand how Bosnia had affected me, which only served to drive the wedge deeper. Added to that, the church that I had loved and that had spurred me forward in my faith now felt increasingly hollow. Its style was all flash & show and the teaching lacked depth. It didn't provide me what I needed in the wake of the spiritual trauma of discovering new instances of mass murder. It didn't speak to the reality of the human condition outside the cozy little realm of upper-middle-class Phoenix, Arizona with its cookie-cutter homes, new cars and suburban apathy.
I continued on, though, much as I had. I met my wife in September of 2001 and thank God for that. Her love healed me of so much of the badness that had seeped into me. We had only dated for a few months before I got deployed again, this time to Alaska and with far less notice. Aside from getting married and growing to pretty much loathe Army life, this period passed quickly and with little excitement. She had moved up to Alaska, so the first part of our married life happened completely separated from friends and family - which I think was a good thing. It gave us time to just be with each other without distraction. We found a church up there that was better than my Phoenix church in terms of teaching - which it offered with some pretty significant depth - but I still found it lacking. I had come to find emotion-focused worship, with its constant emphasis on "me" to be extremely toxic to my faith. I would sit and calculate what I call the Me:You ratio - how many times does a given verse say I-me-my as compared to you-yours-name/title of God. Disturbingly, most songs had at least a 2:1 ratio, sometimes more. Which meant that I was singing about me, instead of God, the majority of the time. Unsurprisingly, this trend continued after we came back to Phoenix.