Should be interesting, hopefully, for the two people who follow my blog. Of course, they are probably the two people who already know this story.
Anyway, here goes:
On April 3, 2010, my children and I were received into the Holy Orthodox Church by chrismation.
The story of this journey begins in August of last year. I wrote this story for a private blog I kept with a friend of mind, and this was originally posted in September 2009.
Up until a month or two ago, I would have said that I’d die for Calvinism and for the “five solas” of the Reformation. I could waver on just about any other doctrine in Scripture, but if you take away man’s radical depravity, God’s election of his people based on nothing but his mercy and love, Christ’s atonement as sufficient for all but effective only for the elect, the Holy Spirit’s regeneration prior to faith in Christ, and the perseverance of Christ’s people, you would leave me with nothing on which to stand or live. Calvisnism was biblical and that was all the criteria I needed for my belief. I could see it clearly, point by point, and I was willing to give my life for those truths.
You can imagine, then, how I felt when that foundation was knocked out from under me. No one person is responsible. I look at my journey as a series of events, providentially ordered to bring me to where I am now- a Christian desirous to “come home” to the true, authentic church.
The Journey Begins
Calvinism saved my life. My belief in God’s absolute and utter sovereignty kept me from taking my own life when the Lord called home my firstborn before she ever drew breath. “And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 is inscribed on Grace’s marker. God’s purpose, albeit unknown to me, was to work for my good. I hated that fact, but it kept me alive… well, breathing, at least.
The Canons of Dordt give believing parents assurance that those children who are lost in infancy will be with the Lord:
Article 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers
Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.
I clung to that belief with all that was in me. I would see my precious, innocent child again- whole and living and vibrant. I could continue to breathe because she was held safely in the arms of my Savior- her Savior.
Just over a year later, three months after my next child was born- my father died an agonizing death from pancreatic cancer. He died the very death he feared for years- helpless, delerious, and out of control of his own body. I would be lying if I said that didn’t make me angry at God. Not only did He allow my dad to get a very painful and debilitating, incurable cancer, but He allowed Dad to die in what he thought was the worst way possible. Dad had peace when he died. He said he knew he would see us again in the twinkling of an eye, but he was still leaving us.
We were all with him when he died. As he drew his last breath, I realized that he was not only face to face with our resurrected and living Savior, but that he was seeing his own grandchild as well, living, vibrant, and whole. How blessed he was at that moment!
Several times between that day of his death and when we laid him to rest in the cemetery, I prayed that God would raise him. I was the last person to touch his flag-draped coffin and as I placed my hands on it and knelt down, I prayed again that he would be raised and that this nightmare would end. I begged and I cried. And the Lord said no. I remembered God’s promise to raise him on the last day. I made my peace, and I left.
The deaths of these two people affected me profoundly, as I’m sure is obvious. I tell these stories, not to be a downer, but because they are such an integral part of my journey.
I confess- I had an emotional connection to Reformed theology. It gave me peace during a time when my mind and my soul were in absolute upheaval. But it was so much more than that. I really believed this theology to be true and completely biblical. I despised Romanism and American Evangelicalism all in the same breath. I could put up a fair defense for Calvin’s “five points.” I picked battles with evangelicals just to stir the pot. Just your typical amateur Calvinist…
The presupposition for all these beliefs is that the Bible is the sole, sufficient, infallible Word of God in matters of faith and practice. Sola Scriptura is often called the article on which the Reformation stands or falls. To be honest- I took sola scriptura for granted. I never did a great study of the subject. I knew that Popes and councils had erred. I believed that if Scripture and Tradition held equal weight ideologically, than practically, Scripture had to be subservient to Tradition- and it is, in the Roman system. There is nothing to prevent a current pope or the Roman Magisterium from changing their minds about anything. To me, believing in Scripture and Tradition meant you had to check your mind at the door. Why bother studying the Bible when there are numbers of books/canons/councils et al to tell you what it means? It never occurred to me to look at Scripture and Tradition from an Orthodox perspective. I stubbornly held on this critical and crucial doctrine, probably even more strongly than I held to Calvinism.
My former church is pretty intellectual. I’ve brought many a friend to worship there who has never returned because it is so heady. Oftentimes, the heart is neglected, in spite of the emphasis placed on the Eucharist as a means of grace. But most of us know what we believe and why we believe it. To the naked eye, we appear to be solidly Reformed and completely Protestant.
Imagine my shock, then, when my friend Lara let me in on her “dirty little secret”: She was studying Orthodoxy and not just for fun. Initially, this little foray into “the dark side” didn’t really concern me all that much. “Each one must be convinced in his own mind,” I thought. If she didn’t believe Reformed theology anymore, who was I to argue?
That sentiment didn’t last long. I tried to argue. I tried to convince her, but it’s very difficult to present a defense against something you know nothing about. I got frustrated and emotional (as I tend to do when my friends decide to convert to “false religions”) and, in the end, Lara and I agreed to stop talking theology for a while. But I couldn’t let it go, at least in my own mind, so I started researching. I listened to podcasts. I read. I studied the history of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. I found Ancient Faith Radio. I didn’t think any of the stuff I was learning was making much of a dent, but I now see that the Holy Spirit was chipping away ever so slightly as the days and months went by. Chip, chip, chip…
My usual MO when I find I can’t make a defense for something I say I believe is to study that belief even harder. I can’t defend Sola Scriptura? Is the Scripture and Tradition argument sounding much more plausible? Well, then, my understanding of sola scriptura must be wrong and I need to study up in order to strengthen my own beliefs. It didn’t really occur to me that no one before the 1500’s believed in this doctrine. And I am quite embarrassed to say that I never really connected the fact that the earliest New Testament writings were not composed until at least 30 years after the ascension of Christ… and yet the church was still worshipping. Chip, chip, chip…
And then I found Molly Sabourin- young mother of four, convert from evangelical Protestantism, scattered and continually trying to improve herself. She is transparent with her own trials and tribulations and she is such an encouragement. I tried to ignore all the religious stuff and just focus on the mommy wisdom. Not possible. I longed for liturgical life- to celebrate the feasts and seasons, to fast and pray in the way that Molly describes. I tried to integrate some kind of Protestant version of this life, but to no avail. I basically had to adopt someone else’s made up, wannabe Orthodox version of a Protestant liturgical year based on the Book of Common Prayer and Anglican saints. This model wasn’t through the Anglican church though, so it carried no real authority. And yet Orthodoxy had been around and practicing the Faith in basically the same way for 1700 years. So, I fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. I committed to a Rule of Prayer. I researched teaching my children about the saints (with a focus on those found within the pages of Scripture). Chip, chip, chip…
I listened to numerous podcast and a number of them stood out for me. One such podcast was an interview of Father James Bernstein- one of the founding members of Jews for Jesus. Now, I’d been involved with Jews for Jesus when I was a student at Biola. In fact, that organization was instrumental in maintaining my faith during a “dark night of the soul.” I love Judaism and Jewish culture. I really love Messianic Jewish culture in particular because they see fulfillment by Christ in everything while holding on to a lot of their beautiful, cultural distinctives. I thought I might even make a career of Jewish evangelism in Israel. God had other plans for me, but I still hold a deep affection for the Jewish people and Jewish believers in Y’shua.
Imagine my shock when Fr. Bernstein talked about his own journey to Orthodox Christianity. He was born an Orthodox Jew in Israel and then emigrated to America. Maintaining an Orthodox Jewish life is a lot more difficult here and as he grew older, he grew more and more nominal. Somehow, he converted to Christianity and helped Moshe Roisen found Jews for Jesus. When he made contact with Orthodox Christianity, he found an even greater expression of the fulfillment of OT prophecy and worship in their liturgical worship. I’d long believed that we had lost a lot of continuity with our Jewish roots. After all, the first Christians were Jewish- do we really expect that they abandoned the only form of worship they had ever known in order to create something brand new? That would be impossible! They knew the Messiah because of their worship- because they held fast to the traditions of their own faith. And so, as time went on in the early church and worship developed, the people found filled in all the shadows of temple worship with their fulfillments in Christ. When Fr. Bernstein found this, he knew he had found his home. His testimony was incredibly powerful to me. He really did connect the Orthodox Church to the first Christians and that idea stays with me even to this day as I learn more and more. Chip, chip, chip…Now, Lara had no idea any of this was going on. She continued on her own path, which seemed to be leading her closer and closer to actual chrismation in the church. We’d have conversations here and there- civil and challenging. I went my way. She went hers. Little did I know we would end up in the same darn place!
At some point, Lara and I began having conversations about Orthodoxy here and there. I could feel my resolve weakening. So much of what she said made sense and I agreed with a lot of it. Never before had I been dissatisfied with Reformed theology or our church specifically, but once I really understood the holistic nature of Orthodoxy, I found a big, gaping hole in the foundation of my faith.
I wanted to attend a service with Lara, but my husband wasn’t too keen on the idea. He didn’t want me giving “tacit approval” to Lara and her husband's probable conversion. Well, since I couldn’t go to a service, I thought maybe I could just get in and see the inside of the church. So, I cleverly orchestrated a meeting down at St. Paul’s on September 1st, with the secret hope that I would get a peek inside. We were all going to the beach anyway, and I saw no reason for the my friends to drive all the way up to Brea just so we could drive all the way down to the coast once again. This provided the excuse, er, reason to drive all the way down to Irvine.
We drove in just as the they were walking out to the parking lot. The kids each had icons in their hands (St. Paul and St. Katherine). I was… unsettled… but tried to keep my cool. Lara handed me a few bits of Blessed Bread, which I promptly handed to my children. I could feel my Reformed blood racing through my veins. As curious as I was, I still thought of myself as a good Calvinist who would never EVER let go.
Lara asked me if I wanted to see inside the church. Jackpot! I agreed and Lara's husband took me inside.
My five senses were immediately hit. I could smell the incense… a very distinctive smell, by the way, and one that I remembered from my brief tour of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I could see all the beautifully lit candles in the knave and the icons of St. Paul and Mary on either side of the doors. Mr. Husband crossed himself a few times between the narthex and the knave. At this time, I didn’t know that he was planning to convert, but I knew that this church was “for real” for him. I kept thinking about the appropriateness of my pastor worshiping in this place… but I tried to set it all aside and really learn.
Mr. Husband showed me all the elements inside- the altar, iconostasis, the incredible dome. For some reason, the dome really struck me. Seeing Christ as King looking down on the church- it became apparent that He was the person the Orthodox worship and not Mary. She may be the first icon you see, but she is placed there as an example of how our lives need to be, with Christ at the very center.
I felt out of place and yet strangely at home.
That night, somehow, Mr. Husband and I started chatting on Facebook. We talked about a wide range of things- sola scriptura, justification, salvation… and the Saints. Now, I really didn’t have a problem with the idea that the Saints pray for us. I didn’t understand the idea from an Orthodox perspective at all, but the idea of asking for their intercession in the same way that I would ask for the intercession of my family and friends for whatever need seemed reasonable.
My grandma, a cradle Roman Catholic, has prayed out of the same prayer book every single day for at least my entire life. Mr. Husband asked me why she would stop praying for us once she reached heaven. Surely she could pray more fully when in the presence of Christ.
And then I asked probably one of the most important questions of my life- the answer to which really sent me into a tailspin. Here is where the walls of my Reformed heart tumbled down and turned to dust.
“Do you think my dad and my daughter are praying for me?”
Mr. Husband's answer: “I would be certain of it.”
Remember how the deaths of my daughter and my dad profoundly affected my theology and made me hold on even more tightly to God’s absolute and unwavering sovereignty? Remember how the only way I could accept their deaths was by trusting that God somehow had a plan for my good? Suddenly, that didn’t seem to be enough anymore, but in a good way! Their Christian lives were carrying on even now! To know that my beloved family is praying for us night and day- that brought me such comfort. I can’t explain it. I really wish I could understand how this particular issue pulled down the stubborn strongholds of my faith and allow me to see Orthodoxy for what it is and not for how it is different from “the true faith.” I’d wanted to believe or just to begin to learn without being critical. I finally had a reason that I could live with. Somehow, in this faith, my loved ones didn’t seem to be so far away. To know that we are worshiping with them in the Divine Liturgy, to know that we are participating with them in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb as we commune and they are separated from us only because we cannot see them or hear them… I had to know more! I’m getting ahead of myself here though…
The next day, I was panicked. I have real and true obsessive-compulsive disorder and when I don’t take my meds, things get a bit worse. “What if I’m wrong? Will I lose my salvation? What about my children? Am I turning my back on the truth? Does that mean I never truly believed? Am I going to hell? What if I convert and my children and husband convert and this is the wrong choice? Have I just made a decision that will send THEM to hell?”
Now, these are legitimate questions when posed by a rational mind. However, when a person is having an “OCD attack” for lack of a better word, well, let’s just say that it makes for one ugly day.
I needed to talk with Mr. Husband again, but this time, face to face. I needed a certain kind of counseling here, the pastoral kind, even in the midst of our conversation about Orthodoxy. I needed to hear that I did not need to worry about “losing my salvation.” I needed to hear again how sola scriptura is a 16th century invention and how the church viewed itself for its first 1500 years. Somehow, I knew there was no turning back. I had to know more. Lara and Mr. Husband loaned me a bunch of books. I started reading… and reading… and reading…
The walls had come down. The floodgates were open. I was now a sponge, soaking up anything and everything I could find. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. I had to set aside everything I’d ever learned in order to allow Orthodoxy to paint on a clean canvas.
And it is a beautiful painting…