So it occurs to me last night after I turn the computer off that I might have left you with the impression that I found the Great Vespers service dull and boring. I can’t really say that I was bored, in all honesty. I did have an incredibly hard time paying attention to the words being spoken, though.
I found that my attention span is less than a gnat. I knew this already, of course, but I was in denial about it. When we go to our protestant church here in town, I have a hard time paying attention there, too, but there’s only one point the guy is trying to make. And ten or twelve scripture verses. At Vespers, they might have read fifteen chapters of the Bible, and I tried desperately to listen to it, because when I managed it, I could tell where they were reading from [for instance, I could tell that part of the time they were reading from Psalms, and part of the time, I could tell that they were reading prayers from the prayer book, because I recognized some of the words].
I liked the service because everyone participated for quite a portion of it. They recited prayers, bowed and crossed themselves a lot. They sang responses to prayers and parts of what the priest was saying. And the priest! He was doing something [although I’m not sure what he was actually doing part of the time] the whole time he was in there.
We did sit down for a few minutes while a lady named Lois read about the lives of the saints for that day [which I forgot to mention last night]. I liked that, but I wondered what Steve would think when she read that the relics of the saint had caused miracles. Steve likes to think he believes in miracles, and maybe he does, but if they don’t fall into a certain mental category in his mind, then they’re dismissed as fake. I get it, you know? I’ve been there, and although I was there more because I was angry than because of wrong teaching, I’m beginning to feel just how extensively different protestant teaching is from Orthodox, and I’m realizing that only a bona-fide miracle would ever convince someone to convert to Orthodoxy from Protestantism.
People seem to come to Orthodoxy from Protestantism out of sheer desperation, and I’m no exception. I just wanted to know God, to really know Him, and I didn’t really care what religion that meant I’d be a part of, I just wanted Him. So it was easy for me to chuck everything from Protestantism and start over from scratch in Orthodoxy.
Protestants don’t venerate icons, they don’t pray with saints, they don’t believe in the real Presence during the Eucharist, don’t do confession, don’t believe in elaborately decorated sanctuaries…these things are borderline blasphemy [or outright blasphemy] to my protestant friends and family.
And you know what? That’s as good an excuse as any not to convert to Orthodoxy. Because Orthodoxy isn’t just different and foreign and strange and ancient on the outside. There’s nothing ‘hidden’ or esoteric about it, but Orthodoxy quite literally means giving up your rights, giving up your very life, in every way imaginable, to God. There’s a contemporary Christian song [actually, most of them are like this, but this one is really popular right now] you can go here to hear it and read the whole song, but some of the words are:
Empty me of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition and the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me so I can be filled with you.
I love this song. It’s catchy, the tune is pretty, the words are my prayer, and always have been since I first became a Christian. And the one thing that has frustrated me beyond belief is that in Protestantism, they don’t really teach you how to empty yourself.
They try, don’t get me wrong. There’s a system and a method for reaching that goal and it is:
Study the Bible
Get involved in a local church [evangelicals will say get involved in a Bible teaching church]
Get out into the community and do a ministry of some sort
If that doesn’t work, then you read books. Lots of books. Every year or so, there’s a new book that comes out that becomes a best-seller because it’s ‘life-changing.’ Some examples of books and studies I’ve been a part of are:
The Road to Reality [I might have blogged about this one…can’t remember now]
A New Kind of Christian [for emergent Christians..I wrote a whole series of blog posts about this one]
Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire
“Experiencing God” and “The Mind of Christ”
A Ragamuffin Gospel
“The Purpose Driven Church” and “The Purpose Driven Life” [Didn’t actually finish this one]
The list goes on. Every one of these books made me think about God in a way that I hadn’t before. They all made me cry, and made me want to do better in my walk. The one thing they didn’t do for any length of time was help me succeed in doing better.
In finding a church, my three criteria for finding a ‘good one’ were: Good Preaching, Good Music, Nice People. If you have good music, it moves your spirit and gets you in the mindset of meeting God. Its purpose is to get us into a worshipful attitude so that we can feel God’s presence. It works, too. When I listen to Christian music [like the song above] I feel moved. Sometimes I cry. I praise God and feel love for Him. But if the song isn’t good to me aesthetically, it doesn’t achieve that. The words may be great, but if the music isn’t something I like, I don’t feel much. Sometimes the music is great but the words annoy me. Same result, no feeling of being closer to God, or wanting to be closer to Him.
The same is true for preaching. If a preacher is teaching the Bible, but he’s not a very good speaker, I can’t get into it. If he’s not entertaining, engaging, interesting, and funny [funny is a big thing for me] then I probably won’t get much out of the sermon.
Worship for me has always been about what I like, about what moves me emotionally. I left my last church [and so did a bunch of other people] because the music was horrible, and the preaching wasn’t any good, either. Not only that, but the personality of the pastor is about as appealing as a porcupine. He doesn’t exude love, he exudes an “I don’t really give a crap about you” vibe that’s really hard to get around.
I left because I felt like I was starving spiritually. Like I wasn’t “being fed” at all. My walk was getting more difficult. It was getting easier to skip church altogether, and skip Bible reading, and studying, and praying and all the rest. I felt like the pastor wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain. He wasn’t making me feel like I wanted to continue in my Christian walk, and that scared me. A lot.
But then I gotta wonder. If I depend on the music or a good sermon to worship God, and I can’t feel His presence if I’m not moved emotionally, then am I really feeling His presence, or am I just moved emotionally and nothing else? What if what I thought was the Holy Spirit is just an emotional reaction? I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’d like to believe that it isn’t, but what if?
At Vespers the other night, I got the distinct impression that the service wasn’t about me at all. The priest didn’t even face us except when he was giving a blessing or flinging the incense all around. He faced the icons [which are representations of the people who are already in heaven: John the Baptist, Jesus, The Virgin Mary, and St. Basil the Great at this church because St. Basil is the Saint that the church is named after] he bowed to the icons, and he went into this little room with more icons and a table with some stuff on it [I saw a candle and some holy water, but I have no idea what the other stuff was] and he prayed out loud while the reader was reading part of the time, and basically did what he was supposed to do and it had little to do with me.
They read tons of verses from the Bible, but there was no interpretation. The priest didn’t tell me what the scriptures meant, he just let the reader read, and sometimes the people chanted along when they knew the verses and prayers that were being read. The whole thing was about focusing on God, not on what made these individuals happy, or what made them “feel” closer to God.
It certainly wasn’t about my comfort. We sat for about five minutes during the whole service and stood the rest of the time.
Now after the service, everyone was incredibly nice and went out of their way to make us feel welcome. They were all converts from Protestantism, so they answered some of the typical concerns that Protestants usually have coming into an Orthodox service, and mostly, we just visited for a couple of hours. Like I said before, I felt at home there, and understood for the first time in a long time.
Heh. These people were just as crazy as I am. They know that from the outside, converting to Orthodoxy doesn’t make a bit of sense. They’ve had to deal with the scoffing and the “That’s great for you, but it’s not for me” and “Why are you going so overboard with this?” from Christians who you’ve talked to about the ache in your heart because nothing you do seems to effect a lasting change in your life. How sin is just as rampant as ever, and why doesn’t God do more to help you out of this miserable state you’re in? They’re in pain, too, just like you, but they’re still clinging to the hope that if they just keep plugging away and doing the things they’re supposed to do, eventually, something will change and they’ll have a breakthrough and be able to live a holy life.
All of the things I listed above are good things. I’m still reading books, but I’m reading stuff that’s almost 2000 years old now instead of the ‘latest greatest’ thing. I’m still studying my Bible. I’m still praying, but I read prayers that were written by saints who already led the kind of life I aspire to. Their prayers are a lot less selfish than mine. Instead of praying for what I want, I pray that God will have mercy on me, a sinner.
And I can’t quite put my finger on it, I have no idea exactly what happened, or how, or why, but after one Vespers service, I’m suddenly able to write about Orthodoxy. I made the decision to become a ‘card-carrying member of the Orthodox church’ 😉 months ago, but I’ve been terrified to write it down and post it publicly. And I’ve been afraid to step out and actually take the steps necessary to really join the Church. Why all of a sudden am I able to write volumes about it, and why is my fear suddenly gone? Why am I suddenly willing to join the Church even if Steve won’t? Why is it that I suddenly know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’ve found the Way when I questioned everything about Protestantism almost from the beginning?
Something happened to me Saturday night. While I was looking around and trying desperately to listen to the words being spoken and failing miserably, this strange peace and, absence of fear, I guess you’d call it, snuck in and took hold of me and hasn’t let go. None of the things I used to look for in a good church service happened Saturday night [except for the Nice People part], and yet my fear is gone. I’m changed, and although I’ve been changing since I first started this journey into Orthodoxy, the fear has been a constant companion, the ‘biggie’ that I couldn’t conquer no matter how hard I tried. And suddenly, without even asking God to take it away, the fear is gone and I am free. Wow.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a sinner, but I have hope. I know that it’s possible to really, truly change and become the image of Christ, here on this earth, in this lifetime, because many, many people have done it. The Orthodox church has a ‘system’ too, but it’s so different from what I’ve known that I’m still no good at explaining it. It’s all still too new, but I’ve got bits and pieces, and the biggest thing has been letting go of my hangups about having a system. I guess it’s not really a system, then, is it? It’s a way of life. It changes everything, and turns stuff upside-down, and it’s strange and wonderful and terrifying and difficult and downright hard a lot of the time.
heh. it’s just like Jesus said it would be. Man. I gotta be nuts.