Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Tighter Conversion Story

Somewhere on this blog, I have a pretty lengthy conversion story... but it is LONG and needed to be tightened up a bit.  My priest asked me to write it out for our parish newsletter (I'm kinda freaking out!!), so I took what I had already written and tightened it up.  This is sort of the "events-based" conversion story.  I don't talk theology a lot, but believe me- if I did not believe the theological and historical positions of the Orthodox Christian Church were true, I wouldn't be Orthodox.  So, here goes:

I have been a Christian almost all of my life.  I grew up in the Evangelical-Free Church and eventually  made my way from there, through Calvary Chapel to the Reformed Church.   If you have talked to me 18 months ago about my dedication to Calvinism and Reformed Theology, I would have told you I was ready to die for the core principles of the Protestant Reformation.  I believed so strongly in the theological system that I never managed to develop a relationship with God or realize that He actually loved me.  When I found Orthodox Christianity, I wasn't looking for it.  But somehow, as God pursued me, He brought me through a series of events, providentially ordered to bring me to where I am now- a member of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

The Journey Begins

Calvinism saved my life seven years ago. My belief in God’s absolute and utter sovereignty kept me from taking my own life when the Lord called home my firstborn, Grace, 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.

Just over a year later and only three months after my next child was born, my father died an agonizing death from pancreatic cancer.  My dad was everything to me: my hero, my confidant, my best friend... Losing him, and so quickly, became another nearly unbearable loss.

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.  

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. 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 was not even aware that there was an Orthodox perspective.  I mean, aren't Orthodox just Catholics without the Pope?

My former church is pretty intellectual. A great emphasis is placed on cultivating the life of the mind.  We were trained to know what we believed and why we believed it.  And we were PROUD of being Reformed!  At least we weren't like those other happy-clappy American Evangelicals!  It was a rare occurrence indeed for anyone to "swim the Tiber" and become Roman Catholic... and even MORE rare for someone to "swim the Bosporus" and become Orthodox!

Confronted by Orthodoxy

Imagine my shock, then, when Heather, my best friend and fellow church member, let me in on a little secret: She and her husband, Marcelo, were studying Orthodox Christianity and not just as an intellectual exercise.  I tried to talk her out of Orthodoxy, but it’s very difficult to present a defense against something you know nothing about. Of course, I started off on a one woman crusade to take down Orthodox Christianity (you can laugh at this point... its okay!) in order to save my friends from what I considered to be a false religion.  I listened to podcasts (and argued into the air with the teachers I listened to... it was pretty funny).  I read books.  Lots of books.  I tried to keep all that I was learning at arm's length, but really, all that information was starting to chip away at my defenses... 

On September 1st, 2009, I first walked into the doors of St. Paul's after a weekday liturgy.  Heather's husband, Marcelo, offered to take me inside and give me a tour.  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 Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I could see all the beautifully lit candles in the nave and the icons of St. Paul and the Theotokos on either side of the doors. And of course, I walked inside those doors and immediately confronted the enormous Platytera icon.  My mind was screaming "See!  They DO worship Mary!" 

We sat down in the middle of the church and Marcelo showed me all the elements inside- the altar, iconostasis, and 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 left the church intrigued and unsettled.

The Walls Come Crumbling Down...

That night, somehow, Marcelo and I started chatting on Facebook. We talked about a wide range of things- sola scriptura, justification, salvation… and the Saints. At this point, I really didn’t have a problem with the idea of asking the Saints 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. Marcelo 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.  So true.

And then I asked him one of the most important questions of my life- the answer to which changed everything. 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?”

Marcelo'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 members are 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 finally 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!

Eventually, I found myself sitting in Orthodoxy 101 with Father Steve and many others.  Last year, my children and I were received into the Church.  This year, my husband joins us.  I am so grateful to the people who shared with me and prayed for me.  My family has been absolutely enveloped by the love of St. Paul's parishioners.  We have found our home.

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