Three years Orthodox

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I was received into Orthodoxy through the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the Sunday after Theophany, 2015 (new Calendar).  I have thus completed my third year in the orthodox church.  I suppose this is a good time as any for some reflection.

I came across this thoughtful quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago

I feel that this quote encapsulates the most important ways my thinking has shifted, having lived in the orthodox way for these three years. Contemporary secular morality defaults to dividing between “good people” and “bad people” (prompting the Solzhenitsyn quote above) and protestant thinking divides between “saved” and “unsaved” in a similar way. The “lifeboat analogy” is a very common part of protestant teaching: the idea that Christians are on a lifeboat, and our calling is to convince the rest of the world to get on.

In Orthodoxy,  the line between good and evil, between saved and unsaved is not between one person and another,  but within each person’s heart. For these first three years, the most influential lines of the liturgy for me has been these words in the prayer before communion, taken from 1 Timothy 1:15:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief…

I am very grateful how the Orthodox faith has such a healthy attitude toward guilt. We talk of sin as if it were a sickness, and the work of overcoming sin as if it were therapy. Whereas as a Protestant I believed that Christ simply and immediately removes the sin of the Christian, in the Orthodox faith Christ’s work of salvation in us is slow, gradual, and happens with our participation. We participate by being alert to our failings and repenting continually from our sins. If we do this right, we are too focused on our own faults to have time to judge the wrongs of other people. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? A lot better to regard your own sins as much worse than the sins of those around you.

For these three years, Orthodox living has been a patient, painful process of spiritual growth: “destroying a piece of my heart” as Solzhenitsyn put it, or “dying to myself” as the New Testament says. I have slowly recognized the many ways in which I have been callous and hurtful to other people, and forced myself to confront the flimsy justifications I have made for awful behavior. I am beginning to see how I am often coldly dismissive of others’ hopes, needs and vulnerabilities,   and how my desire to correct others’ faults comes not from a place of love, but self-righteousness and judgment. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!

But these realizations do not lead to despair, but to hope. I continually repent, I continually surrender my broken self, I continually acknowledge my helplessness before the God who can do all things, and today I look forward to  Christ’s victory over my yesterday failings.

It is not that I was unaware of these unhealthy tendencies before I became Orthodox. But as a Protestant my spiritual focus was outward- towards the unforgiven sin in the non-believers around me, towards the wickedness and injustice in society. I mostly saw repentance as something I did in the past, and I considered continually dwelling on my own sin after accepting Christ as something pathological.

I think I am in a healthier place now, but I am still very new to the Orthodox faith, and there is still a lot I don’t understand, and a lot that I am probably doing wrong. In particular, I hope in the next few years I will learn what it means to live an Orthodox Christian life in an unjust society. As a Protestant, I felt that I was more in tune with the plight of the poor and suffering. Now, all my energy and attention is focused towards my sin and my spiritual growth, and in building up the church in Malaysia. The author of Ecclesiastes writes that “in everything there is a season”, and perhaps my attention is focused inward just for this time. But in the lives of the Orthodox saints I see how so many of them sacrificed a great deal for the sake of the poor and oppressed, and how there was harmony, not contradiction between their inward spiritual formation and their outward action. I haven’t figured that out yet. By God’s grace maybe I will.

 

Asceticism

As a young Christian,  it seemed strange to me that the life goals I was supposed to have did not seem very different from everyone else’s. Do well in school, get a good job, make money, get married, raise a family.

Not that these are bad things- it just seemed that Christianity was supposed to be something transformative, that pursuing God was supposed to supersede other life priorities.

Furthermore, especially as a wealthy Christian in a country with stark poverty, it seemed that following Christ should have meant doing something for the suffering poor in Malaysia. It seemed to me that as Christ sacrificed himself out of love for us, following Christ had to mean making painful sacrifices for others’ sake. And growing up it just felt that I had very little guidance and encouragement as to how to do that, from church or from anywhere else.

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Much later I was introduced to the “New Friars” movement (the term comes from Scott Bessenecker’s excellent book, as a reference to the medieval Franciscan friars).  These were small groups of mostly protestant Christians who committed to live long-term in poor communities, in extreme simplicity in order to better serve their neighbours there. I spent more than a year considering whether to commit to living in a Jakarta slum for at least three years with Servants Asia.

I ultimately decided not to go through with it. Nevertheless,  it was tremendously encouraging seeing people striving to such extremes to be in community and to love their neighbors in such dire circumstances. It was as if I was seeing the Jesus in the gospels come to life in these men and women. However, they were such outliers that it seemed as if they were so far removed from my religious experience. I could give money to support their work, but there was no spiritual nudging for me to live more like they lived.

When I discovered Orthodox Christianity, I was pleasantly surprised at how important asceticism was in church practice. For example, the church calendar reinforces the idea that  the Christian life involves seasons of sacrifice and simplicity. In the regular fasting periods (lent is the most important one, but almost half of the calendar is a fasting day of some sort) all Orthodox Christians are meant to give up meat and dairy, eat and live simply, and give more to charity.  All this helps to emphasize that all of us are to strive in some small way to live out this ascetic ideal, to be “in the world but not of the world”.

Another huge blessing is the presence and participation of monks and nuns in the church life. The head priest at our local church in Kuala Lumpur is a also a monk, and we also have two nuns that run the church and the services. It it a tremendous encouragement to have people around who have taken vows of poverty and chastity, who have committed to a way of life that is so far removed from the worldly “rat race”. They are important role models, an affirmation that it is not completely crazy to renounce everything the world considers important to pursue God to the fullest.

 

 

 

Communion

When I was in primary school, one of the other parents approached my mom and rather tactlessly asked if there was something wrong with me. I was running around by myself, jumping, kicking when all the other kids were playing together.

I enjoy being lost in solitude.

The parts of the Christian faith that appealed most to me in the beginning were the contemplative and mystical: prayer,  scripture, worship, meditation, fasting. Christianity was purely a way to connect with the divine, to develop this “relationship with God” as some Christians like to put it. I regarded spiritual mentorship and accountability as important, but I dismissed the spiritual value (necessity, even) of just showing  kindness and enjoying the company of others.  I put up with the social aspects of the faith, the church attendance, the prayer meetings, the youth camps – but purely as an act of obedience, not because I really felt that they were important in themselves.

Eventually if you read enough of the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ emerges, the Jesus who opens up and affirms the outcast Samaritan woman, the Jesus who miraculously conjures wine at a party, the Jesus who said to let the little children come to him, and not to hinder them. I slowly understood that the ideal Christian wasn’t the aloof hermit, but this joyful, warm, present Jesus.

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Change was both slow and difficult. I invited small groups of friends over and made them dinner. I started saying yes to more social invitations. I made it a point to stay at parties as long as I could. All this social contact was emotionally exhausting, but the more I did it the better I coped with it. My growth in this area was so gradual that I did not realize what was happening- I was still saying that I was the type that didn’t like people when I was throwing parties for a hundred guests. Thanks be to God for grace, and for the patient, transformative power of the Holy Spirit.

It was a pleasant surprise that the time I invested in these social “distractions” wasn’t detracting from the contemplative, prayerful parts of my spirituality. On the contrary, I found that rather than  just contemplating Christ’s death and the Christian calling to “carry our own cross”, I found more opportunities to sacrifice things that were important to me for the good of my neighbor. Rather than just meditating on the majesty of the divine,  I found myself having to recognize the image of God in difficult people, to appreciate the essential beauty of the human person even when it is distorted by brokenness, hostility, or fear. Rather than just grappling with the abstract theology of sin and forgiveness, I found more situations where I could encounter wickedness and yet choose the path of reconciliation rather than anger, and repent of my sins rather than judge the failings of others.

Only by bringing the inward and outward parts of my faith together could I begin to discover the fullness of joy that is in Jesus Christ.

Charismatic

The charismatic movement had a large impact early in my Christian life. I use “charismatic” to refer to a movement in modern Christianity that emphasizes the Holy Spirit, and places heavy emphasis on prophecy, miracles, speaking in tongues, and other supernatural manifestations. Charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit is capable of working as powerfully in modern times as it did in the time of the early church, if only Christians would display enough faith.

One major appeal of this movement to me was the possibility of a direct encounter with God. I had good friends who believed that God spoke to them directly, giving them guidance in major decisions. I had friends who had testimony of miraculous, medically impossible healings. And plenty more still who claimed to be able to speak in a mysterious, incomprehensible language of angels.

I was never able to really experience these more esoteric experiences for myself, despite longing for it, and trying really hard. I was also unnerved by how charismatic ideas led to unhealthy individualism. If I can hear from God directly, what use is there for church, for Christian community? Later in life, I drifted away from the charismatic movement. Nevertheless, it has had an immense influence on my faith today, an influence that I think is mostly positive.

Most importantly, I think these early charismatic ideas inoculated me from over-intellectualizing my faith, despite my career in academia. I did (and still do!) enjoy abstract theological philosophizing, but since it was drilled in me from so early on that it was this mysterious, supernatural connection with God that was most important, I never felt that it was possible to truly understand the divine through logical argument. The charismatics thus gave me an early introduction to the Orthodox idea of “mystery”, that there are things about God that are beyond the reach of human reason.

It strikes me how some key ideas from the charismatic movement are present in Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox church enthusiastically affirms the possibility of miracles in modern times, and also emphasizes that the Christian needs to know God experientially. Indeed, one way of explaining the filioque controversy, the formal reason that Rome split from the Orthodox Church in 1054, was that the Eastern churches were standing firm on the importance of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to say that I left the charismatic movement. Rather, the charismatic ideas I found most compelling were present in a different form in the Orthodox church.

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The Prodigal Son

I think it would be useful to start this blog with an account of my journey in the Orthodox faith. This will probably be a multi-part series of blog posts. I will not attempt to explain Orthodox theology beyond what is necessary for the narrative. I would recommend Father Thomas Hopko’s excellent series The Orthodox Faith (full text available at that link for free!) for readers who want to learn what Orthodox Christians believe.

The first time I recall grappling with the idea of God was when I was 12, at a church retreat organized by St. Ignatius in Petaling Jaya. I was only there because I had a good friend who was also going. There was a short skit where the senior campers performed Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is the NIV version of Luke 15:11-24:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

I found this depiction of God’s love toward fallen humanity deeply compelling. I had a 12-year-old’s basic understanding of right and wrong, and I was struck by how the father’s actions turned that understanding upside down. To show such extravagant compassion to someone who had wronged you so grievously? Unthinkable!

I recall almost nothing of the play itself, or of the rest of the church retreat. But that awestruck feeling at the beauty of the story is still seared in my memory. It is in pursuing that beauty that I became a Christian.

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