Essays, Theology

Through the Prayer of a Saint: My Path to Orthodoxy

Why Orthodoxy? How, in the myriad of Christian denominations, interpretations, and histories, do you pick one? Particularly one that requires such a commitment? Services and fasts fill the Orthodox calendar, affecting where you are and how you eat for weeks at a time. This is also not a denomination you try for a while and then move on to the next one. When you join the church, you are joining the church for life. Why this stringent and strange branch of the Christian faith?

The answer really begins at the age of five, with one of my earliest memories, and the first memory of anything related to faith. I had just woken up from an afternoon nap, a wonderful staple of most kindergartners’ lives, and I was frightened. I was scared I wasn’t actually saved. My mother always said that I, at the age of four, asked her about the story of Enoch. She proceeded to tell his story to me. Enoch walked with God so closely that God took him away at the end of his life. When she finished, I responded that I wanted to be like Enoch. After this confession, I “prayed the prayer,” one of the most fundamental bits of evangelical language, and was saved that day.

The problem was, now five years old, I had no memory of this conversation, and I felt guilty. How could the prayer have been real if I didn’t remember it? So, with the sun streaming through the blinds, I knelt down beside my bed, and “prayed the prayer” again. I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart, and I really meant it this time, or so I told myself. While there arose fleeting occurrences of these doubts in the intervening years, they did not really plague me until high school. But this is my first memory of Christianity, a pang of doubt, not about the faith, but about my own salvation.

“The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can know it?” While I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate the concept, I had a knowledge of this reality at a very young age. I knew I couldn’t trust myself. I couldn’t even be sure that I actually wanted something. As I got older, I never had a question that God would forgive me, and I knew that no matter what I did, I could always come to him. I just didn’t know that, in my heart, I wanted to. How, with a deceitful and wicked heart, could I know that any prayer was sincere, or that I was actually pursuing God?

The heart is where the battleground of Christianity lies. My great problem with Protestantism is that in the great battle for the heart, there’s no cavalry. There’s no holy man to confess to, there’s no sacrament to strengthen you, there’s no tradition to guide you. There’s just your heart, and your hope that it’s genuine. To be fair, this does not do justice to many of the more traditionally and sacramentally minded forms of Protestantism, but this does represent a broad strain of Protestant denominations, and almost the entirety of the evangelical movement. My great problem with Protestantism was not that it treated me poorly; my problem was that it left me to my own devices.

Again, my doubts didn’t trouble me very much during my years of elementary school. Besides the carefree nature of childhood, I think my family’s dedication to church helped. Our lives revolved around church. We sat in the service on Sunday, we attended Sunday School, we participated in Awana and Vacation Bible School, we brought food to potluck dinners, we wrote letters to missionaries, we went on church retreats. While we changed churches three times during these years, the switches were minor events at best. Once we started going to a new church, we enthusiastically joined in. And that was good.

As I reflect on growing up, I guess there was a slight nagging sense of my own faith. While I was involved in church, my own prayer life was anemic, at best. As a young child, I said my prayers with my father before bed, and didn’t think anything of it. When this stopped as I got older, I didn’t really start to do much praying by myself. As I hit sixth and seventh grade, I realized that this lack of prayer was a problem, and my nagging guilt stung a little more sharply. I didn’t feel a great need to read my Bible, nor did I feel lost if I didn’t pray for a while. When I went through something difficult, I didn’t feel like God was there for me. Actually, God and my feelings didn’t go to together much at all. The only real feeling I associated with God was this vague sense of guilt. At this point, the emotion was not very intense, but it was growing.

I remember one particular exception to my emotional neutrality. When I was in seventh grade, I attended a Winter Retreat with my church’s youth group at a place called Keswick. I wasn’t really friends with anyone in the group, mostly because I was shy, and so felt out of place. Due to this general uncomfortable state, as well as an exhausting schedule, I had broken down crying by the second evening, reddening my chlorine-irritated eyes even further. That night, as is typical of evangelical retreats, we had an emotion-filled final service, and the speaker asked people who wanted to make a commitment or recommitment to Christ to come forward. I went forward, motivated by my lack of Bible reading and praying. I sat down in the pews designated for this commitment. After my initial uncertainty and awkwardness wore off, I felt… wonderful. When I would describe the sensation to people afterward, I said it felt like Christ had his hand on my shoulder. I felt comforted. I felt loved. I felt right.

I held onto this experience like a talisman for years. When I would start to doubt myself, I would wield the amulet of this commitment to ward off evil spirits of doubt and fear. In future years, when I would wonder whether I actually wanted God, I would point back to this time of certainty as proof that I desired God, so much so that I was carried away by feeling.  There were not many other times I associated emotions with my Christian walk, besides the constant companions of fear and guilt and doubt.

The next year, 1998, marked two pivotal moments in my faith. First, this was the last year we were unquestionably involved in a church. At this point, we were going to Moorestown Methodist, a vibrant community in which I had been baptized as an infant, and, after attending several churches in between, was confirmed there in seventh grade. The next year, my parents decided to leave this church and start going to Fellowship Baptist, a smaller but growing church that we were connected to through some friends. For some reason, this move wasn’t like the other ones. Perhaps it was the fact that two of us were now teenagers, but the Gordon kids rebelled against the decision. Moorestown was the last time I ever felt like I had a church home. Forever after, when I walked into countless sanctuaries, I was a visitor, no matter what church we went to. I always felt guilty about it. I knew I should get more involved at these new churches, but it was too hard, or I was too shy, or it didn’t matter, because we would just move anyway. I tried to convince myself that my lack of church involvement wasn’t really my fault, but I never succeeded. I always knew I could do more.

The other key change was that we started attending a very small private school called Heritage Christian Academy. The school was a tiny outpost of strict Baptist conservatism in the midst of suburban New Jersey. HCA drastically shaped my outlook, in both good and bad ways. It gave me a powerful appreciation of the Bible, as well as a pretty expansive knowledge of it. Heritage also showed me how excruciating fear, doubt and conviction can be.

If you died today, do you know whether you’d go to heaven? This was the terrifying fundamental question of my time at Heritage, and a question that I was always unsure of the answer. I knew it was no good to get saved just to go to heaven, but how could I be sure that wasn’t my motivation? How could I know I genuinely wanted God, and didn’t just want “fire insurance?” Many people around me struggled with this question. I heard multiple stories of Christians “making sure” of their salvation. I tried to do that, and multiple times, but how could I be sure that this new prayer was any more genuine than the prayer before that, or the prayer before that? I knew that I should probably talk to somebody, and make sure of my salvation (or get saved in the first place? I never really knew) with another person instead of whispering prayers late at night, but I never did. I can’t blame anyone. Pastor Dave, the youth pastor/teacher at Heritage, is one of the most passionate, devoted, and caring men I know, and made clear through every word and action that his door was always open. I just didn’t go. I never asked him for help, and this compounded the guilt.

Another thing added to my sense of guilt. During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I started struggling with masturbation. It’s a difficult thing even to write down, but I think it’s an important thing to discuss. I know many people think it’s a harmless habit, but I do not, not even after all these years of difficulty. The habit is demoralizing, and it satiates powerful built-in desires in the emptiest way possible. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most difficult habits to stop, especially when it isn’t talked about. So I struggled, and this led me to doubt my salvation even more.

When Christians talk about sin, they often use the biblical metaphor (and rightly so) of the spirit and the flesh, as in Christ’s famous words to Peter “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I wonder if we rely on this metaphor too much, and twist it into a power of positive thinking image of the mind being willing but the body being weak. These two statements are not the same thing, and thinking they are can cause a great deal of harm. In this chimera of mind-body relations, when we sin, it’s because we let matter triumph over mind. The conception I had was the mind being shut down by the body while the latter did its unthinking routine.

That’s what I thought a Christian’s battle with sin should look like, though I wouldn’t have been able to put the picture into words. The problem was my struggle wasn’t like that at all. My mind wasn’t a hostage, but an active participant. I didn’t feel like I lost control; or that I forgot myself for the duration of sinning and then remembered afterwards. I wanted to do what I did, even though I knew it was wrong. The question that always followed was how could I want God and want to do this as well?

What is so damaging about the aforementioned illustration is that the metaphor of the spirit and the flesh becomes an unfallen mind being trapped by a fallen body. The picture is not a new one, but the asceticism that previously accompanied it has been stripped away. Conquering sin becomes an exercise in the power of positive thinking instead of restricting the pleasures. In certain areas, we can let our desires go unchecked. We can eat whatever we want with impunity. The only restriction towards sports entertainment is if it interferes with church on Sunday. Violent television is our replacement for any programming that involves sex. I remember watching the movie The Ring with some adults at Heritage. This is a movie that involves multiple people dying in horrific ways. A man electrocutes himself by throwing himself into a bathtub with electrical equipment. A child is thrown down a well and slowly dies over the course of seven days. There was plenty of disturbing material, but the only time an adult discussed fast forwarding was when a woman was shown changing her clothes in a completely non-sexual context.

Violence, sports, and food can be enjoyed without moderation, but when it comes to sex, swearing, alcohol, and smoking, we must be as disciplined as monks. Our mind is the only way to make the distinction between astonishing indulgence and strict deprivation, and if we indulge where we should abstain, our only recourses are all mental exercises: think harder, pray harder, read the Bible more, and listen to more sermons.

I sometimes think of the movie A Beautiful Mind, when the main character as a relapse into his delusions after he stops taking his medication. Following a particularly alarming manic episode, he’s sitting in his house with his wife and his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist is pushing him to take his medication, but the main character, played by Russell Crowe, protests. He now knows that these people who keep popping up are not real, so why can’t he think his way out of his illness? The psychiatrist responds, “Because it’s your mind that’s the problem.”

While Christians believe that the problem is neither the body nor the mind but corruption and sin, both mind and matter are equally affected by this sickness. We should not be surprised when we sin consciously as well as instinctively, and our battle against sin should be multi-tiered, fighting fallenness wherever it is found, not just thinking our way out of it. This is part of why sacrament and ritual are important, because they affirm that sometimes our mind is so corrupt we need the body to fight, and vice versa. All the cosmos is being redeemed; we do not have instantly transformed minds that the body just needs to catch up to. Thought and instinct both need to be saved.

As in my struggle with doubt, part of me wanted to ask someone for help, to have someone keep me accountable for this particular sin, but I never did. It was not that I didn’t have good role models, or that the adults in my life discouraged confidences. I just never talked to anyone. There are some obvious reasons why; embarrassment was one of them, fear another, but I can’t honestly say these were the primary factors. The number one reason I didn’t talk to someone was not a reason at all. Silence was itself a habit.

Granted, masturbation was not something that was really talked about. Also, the only real confession that was emphasized was confessing your sins to God. You only went to other people when you had a problem you couldn’t handle. The idea that confession to another person was a regular part of a healthy Christian life was foreign to me. Ironically, in my first year at Heritage, we had to memorize James 5:16-17, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray to one another, lest ye be healed. For the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I never heard a sermon preached on this passage, or really discussed at all. My only knowledge of the sacrament of confession was a caricature of the Catholic version, which my Baptist school abhorred. Catholics believed, according to my Baptist teachers, that the average Christian couldn’t pray to God himself; he needed a priest to do it for him. This was blasphemy. We were to come boldly before the throne of grace, and through no intermediary.

This instinctive reaction to confession makes me sad now. I think many people suffer in silence, with struggles that could be overcome, if only they had someone to talk to, and particularly someone who would check up on them. It’s a lot easier to talk to someone when you’re expected to, when your faith provides a channel for confession, than when you have to do it of your own initiative. We need no intermediary before God now that Christ has come, but sometimes we do need someone to hold our hand. This is not for God’s sake, but for ours.

However, I knew nothing of confession then, so I did nothing. All through high school, I remained silent. This inaction nurtured my doubt. My fear and guilt were like rheumatic joints, flaring up when the weather changed. I would hear a particularly forceful sermon, groan a fervent prayer that night, and deem the prayer ineffectual by morning. Good habits of prayer and Bible-reading didn’t spring up alongside my bad ones. So I sat in my rocking boat, “tossed about by every wave,” hoping I wasn’t actually drowning.

At the same time I was worrying about the fires of hell, Heritage was giving me a Biblical foundation that I appreciate to this day. Even at the time, I didn’t completely agree with their interpretations. These Baptists were absurdly literal, (one teacher {a more extreme one, but not by much} didn’t wear shorts in public because of the verse in Psalms that says “God does not delight in the legs of man”) but they knew the words well. This attitude toward Scripture greatly influenced me. I remember, in 8th grade, having doubts that the massive and confusing book we know as the Bible even claimed to be authoritative. On a youth group retreat, I heard a preacher mention the verse II Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”) This verse quickly became my favorite. More and more, everything centered on the Bible. Much of my doubt centered on the fact I didn’t read it on my own enough. Much of my pleasure in school centered on Bible quizzing, where we would memorize huge chunks of Scripture to compete in quiz show like game. Much of my interest in history grew out of my interest to know how we ended up choosing what books became the Bible. I imagined the era of the Bible’s canonization as one shrouded in mystery, that I would one day research and discover the great secrets of the canon.

My time at Heritage also taught me the power of the spoken Word. The men who preached at Heritage’s many chapels, revivals, and retreats, had power over my soul. One sermon could plunge me into terror and despair that’s hard to describe to the uninitiate. This powerful emotional reaction was partly their intent. I remember talking to one of my fellow students about a speaker we had just heard, and while he said he was good, he felt he wasn’t fear inducing enough. While there were sermons of encouragement, the best messages “thrust the Nail of Terror into sleeping souls,” to use the words of the 18th century revivalist Gilbert Tennent.

I have a vivid childhood memory of a brief story aired on a local Christian radio station. During a segment discussing sermons, many callers had been asking why they were important, as the average church-goer didn’t remember the vast majority of them. One wise man called to weigh in on the conversation. He pointed out that while he didn’t remember what he had eaten over the past 60 years of his life, but he knew he would be dead without those meals, just as he would be spiritually dead without those sermons.

To this day, I have never heard a more revealing statement about the evangelical view of the sermon. The sermon is a sacrament, though the preachers I heard would have never used the term, and the central sacrament of the Christian faith. Communion takes a backseat to the words of the pastor. Instead of going to church to receive the body of Christ, you go to church to receive His mind and words, as interpreted by the preacher.

I think there are many problems with this conception of church. One, it still plays into this mind over matter view of the Christian life. We go to church not primarily to be fed and healed, but to be educated. While I think it is important for Christians to be informed about their tradition, church is not just school, (though teaching and preaching are part of what is done there) and intelligence is not a requirement for full participation in the Church.

This view also turns the Christian into a critic, assessing which local church provides the best lessons. In order to be a good Christian, we need to have a good education, and if the church in the next town over provides a better teacher, well of course he should go to that one. To reference Tennent once again, “If God’s people have a right to the gifts of all God’s ministers, pray, why may they not use them as they have opportunity? And, if they should go a few miles farther than ordinary to enjoy those which they profit most by, who do they wrong?” In my experience, the reason people most often change churches is not because of some grave issue, but because either they didn’t connect with the people at one church, or they weren’t being “fed” by the sermons. If the sermon is the central sacrament of Christian fellowship, and the value to the parishioner is mostly in the presentation, this makes sense. At best, this over-emphasis on the sermon turns church into a class. At worst, it turns Sunday morning into entertainment.

While I hate to admit it, I spent most of my time in high school as a spectator in matters of faith. I sat. I listened. I worried and agonized. What I didn’t do was do anything. I graduated from Heritage in this painful state of self induced paralysis, not agreeing with everything I was taught, but deep down, believing every word.

I want to pause here before I continue. I understand the picture I’m painting of my little Christian school is a very negative one. In truth, I look back on my time at Heritage fondly. Are there aspects of what they taught that I now vehemently disagree with? Absolutely. Yet, for the most part, the teachers there cared about their students, and were trying to prepare them spiritually and academically the best they knew how. If the picture is overwhelmingly critical, the critique is aimed at me, and how my own personal flaws and foibles reacted to what they taught. My struggles resulted from an unintentional caustic mixture rather than one malicious ingredient. To this day, I am greatly sympathetic with the motives of the evangelical movement and Protestantism in general. I can’t condemn all of Protestantism outright; I just know I was terrible at it.

I graduated from Heritage in 2003 with a great appreciation of Scripture, particularly its more literal interpretations, and a readiness to learn more about it. I was going to Eastern University, which, on my list of three colleges to which I had applied, was my third choice. I initially had been interested in studying music. Unfortunately, the schools where I wanted to learn music weren’t interested in teaching me. So to Eastern I went, my major undecided, though I was pretty sure I was going to study history. My older sister was starting her junior year there and had already told me what to expect. We had discussed some of her Bible classes, which I thought strayed too far from what I considered “traditional interpretation.” As I mentioned before, I didn’t think everything I had learned at Heritage was right, but I did think that the Bible should be taken very seriously, which meant, in my mind, very literally.

I remember two other pieces of advice from my sister concerning Eastern, in addition to her commendation of her Bible classes. First, out of all the dorms on campus, I didn’t want to live in Doane, though I don’t completely remember the reasons why. I believe a lack of air conditioning and a surplus of odd people were both cited problems. Also, she named a particular who I absolutely should not take, as he was extremely difficult, not to mention strange.

With this information in hand, I was a little upset when I received my room assignment in the mail, and I found out I had been placed in Doane. Once I arrived at Eastern, and received my class list, my worry increased when I discovered my orientation professor, the person who would be my advisor, who would teach my introduction to college course twice a week, who would have our class over to his house for Faculty Firesides, was none other than the infamous professor my sister had mentioned. While I was excited about college, Eastern certainly did not help sustain my enthusiasm.

Ironically, I loved Doane, and enjoyed my freshman hall more than any other dorm in my college career. I actually appreciated Dr. Van Leeuwen, though I admit he was certainly eccentric. Most importantly, the Bible classes were foundational in my conception of Christianity.

I walked into Bible 101, ready to learn and ready to argue with people not taking the Bible seriously. (I also had the goal to be more outgoing in college, which I never quite achieved.) My professor was a kind, brilliant man named Dr. Sparks. Within the first couple of weeks of this class, I was completely blown away and very nervous. Dr. Sparks talked about how the Old Testament compared with other ancient Near Eastern texts, how the creation story was better understood not as seven literal days, but as teaching theological truths about creation, how Abraham was probably not a historical figure. I discovered that the construction of the Biblical canon was, while messy, not mysterious at all, but well documented and recorded. This revelation, considering my ambition to discover these great secrets, actually depressed me a little.

What made these ideas all the more convincing was the professor himself. I had expected to be presented with new ideas that I would have to defend against; what I didn’t expect was that these concepts would be taught in a compassionate and gentle manner. I imagined that I would hear liberal ideology from an arrogant tyrant, crushing his students’ beliefs while delighting in his iconoclastic crusade. Instead, these difficult truths were taught by a humble servant, with gentleness and mercy. I remember during one class he asked if anyone was uncomfortable with what was being taught, and I was the only student to raise my hand. Afterwards, we talked, and he said if I ever wanted to discuss anything with him, feel free to let him know and we could meet for lunch. I never took him up on that offer, but I always remembered and appreciated it.

I cannot overestimate how important this class, as well as the New Testament class I took the next semester, was to my faith. Like at Heritage, I didn’t agree with everything Dr. Sparks said, but he dealt with major historical-critical problems in the Bible from a firmly Christian perspective. Several years later, I would read Carl Sagan’s Contact, in which his main character, Ellie, lists half a dozen Biblical inconsistencies. Dr. Sparks had dealt with every single one, and was still a Christian, and still took the Bible seriously.

Even so, questions began to trouble my very simplistic understanding of Scripture’s place in Christianity. A new verse to go along with my II Timothy citation began to crop up. II Peter, a letter written to warn against false teachers, has a peculiar admission at the end. He mentions, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Peter, the chief of the apostles, admits that some of the things Paul writes, as in some of what we call the NT, are difficult to understand. One of the attendant doctrines of sola scriptura is the perspicuity of Scripture, the idea that the Bible is, for the most part, clear and anyone can understand it. Yet the Bible itself admits that it is in fact hard to understand sometimes. I was realizing that the Bible is a very complicated book, and that interpreting it could be a tricky affair. Sometimes, the Bible had to be used like a scalpel rather than a sword. What I learned in college was that I wasn’t necessarily a surgeon just because I was a Christian.

While I was learning prodigiously about my faith, my own application of it was… lacking. I had thought having a roommate would provide a source of unspoken accountability for my struggles with masturbation and increasingly pornography. It didn’t. My daily Bible reading did not improve, and my prayer life was sporadic to non-existent. All the learning in the world couldn’t reform my actions or bring me to my knees.

I tried to do things that would keep me in the Bible. I met with some new friends for morning prayer and Bible study. We eventually turned this into a more in depth study on Tuesday evenings. I still worried about my motivations. I wondered whether the opinion of other people mattered more to me than God. My pangs about my “eternal security” were decreasing, but I worried that this was because of callousness rather than growth. Thankfully, my idea that salvation was a contract that you signed with your sinner’s prayer was being replaced with a fuller understanding of the work of Christ.

By the time my sophomore year rolled around, my spiritual state was marked by both dramatic change and dramatic consistency. I was asking very different questions of the Bible than I had ever asked before. Words like “hermeneutics” and “exegesis” were now very important. I was wondering how to consistently interpret Scripture rather than thinking that it spoke for itself. However, I was, as always, still much more comfortable with Christian piety in the abstract rather than the application.

College was an amazing time for me. While I wasn’t a model student by any stretch of the imagination, I did benefit greatly from my classes. I also made lasting friendships with people whom I talk to to this day. These friends were integral to my spiritual life.

One example powerfully illustrated the relationship of friendship to faith during my sophomore year. I joined an accountability group at the beginning of the second semester. Several guys on my hall decided to meet together once a week, going through the book Every Young Man’s Battle. We would confess to each other when we hadn’t been “pure in thought and deed” during the previous week. The idea was to encourage each other, while struggling with “such things are common to man.” Also, it’s a lot easier to resist temptation when you know you’re going to have to tell somebody about it within a couple days.

While I know that, to some, the group may sound bizarre, the experience was a life changing one for me. For the first time, I felt like I was doing what I was really supposed to be doing in fighting sin, and I had people supporting me when my own will faltered. This experience taught me an important lesson. For years, I had been advised by pastors, parents, and peers to “let go and let God.” While I knew much of this process was prayer and letting God work things out in His time, I was often very confused by this advice. At the end of the day, you still had to do something. You couldn’t sit twiddling your thumbs. What my accountability group taught me was that part of letting go and letting God was throwing yourself into the arms of the Church. This message cannot be preached enough, whether you’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

I took two classes that semester that continued the revolution of thought that began in Bible 101. The first was a class called Theological Thinking. This was the first time I learned about the Ecumenical Councils in detail. They had been referenced in Dr. Sparks class, and I had even heard the pivotal figure of Athanasius mentioned in my senior year of high school, though devoid of any context. Theological Thinking expounded on the topic and explained the major issues involved and decisions reached in each council. More important than imparting historical details, this class revealed that cherished tenets of the Christian faith were not believed because individual people read their Bibles and stuck around with other people who had individually reached the same conclusion. Doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ had been fought over, debated, and finally confirmed by creeds and councils. What we believed did not float down to each soul independent of human agency. Separating the truth of God from the tradition of man was a lot harder than I ever realized.

Another crucial lesson in this class was a discussion of models of church and worship. Dr. Boyer, the professor, divided conceptions of worship into three basic categories. The first one he termed the celebrational model. The gospel is good, joyful news. How can we not celebrate in response to it? Let’s raise our hands, dance in the pews, and shout to the music. Many contemporary worship services operate under this paradigm, emphasizing how much we need to express our joy in church.

A second grouping was the reverential model of church. God is a holy, righteous God, and it is meet and right to give Him the honor due his name. Why would church not reflect this reality? Many more traditional services fall into this category, congregations that sing “How Great Thou Art” instead of “These are the days of Elijah,” groups that emphasize confessions in silence rather spontaneous bursts of song. I went to many churches that fell into both of these models, and the categories immediately struck me as accurate descriptions.

The third category he listed was unfamiliar to me. This third model was the participational model. Those who subscribed to it recognized that we don’t always feel like being joyful or reverent; sometimes, the sheer effort of getting to church is all we can muster. These churches gave you direction when you were prone to wander. We can’t all dance spontaneously in the street, but we can all slowly, clumsily learn to waltz. Dr. Boyer mentioned Catholicism and certain high church Protestants as examples of this type.

Even this brief vague description of this third idea attracted me. I knew my feelings were inconsistent, my attention wavered, my mental/emotional/spiritual state wasn’t exactly under strict control, and that the cup of my heart didn’t bubble up and runneth over upon command. Here was a type of worship that gave me tools to fight against those things. In general, I love directions. My favorite toys have always been LEGOs. Dr. Boyer’s class introduced the tantalizing idea that worship could have obedience instead of spontaneity at its core. I wanted to know where I could find a church like this.

I was introduced to that type of church in the same semester. I had signed up for a course in Eastern Orthodox History and Theology. I have no grand story surrounding my enrollment in this class. I had no premonition that the class would be significant, no coincidence about how I almost didn’t get in, no bright stars lit the way to this decision. I was interested in both history and theology, and this class seemed like a good way to fulfill Eastern’s “non-Western” requirement. My older sister had had the professor before, and said that he was good. So I registered, without a second thought.

This class became significant very quickly. As in the previous classes I’ve described, I don’t remember the particular day or lesson when crucial ideas were introduced. The class covered a wide range of topics, from heretics to patriarchs, from councils to creeds. There was one concept, however, that I latched onto, one axis around which everything else turned. Scripture was not meant to be taken and interpreted on its own. The Bible had a proper context, and that context was the Church and its traditions.

This principle clicked on the proverbial light bulb in my understanding of Christianity. Traditional interpretation was just that, according to tradition. Scripture was not meant to be taken home, interpreted on your bedside, and brought back to church full of dogmatic assumptions. Dogma was the Church’s job, just as Scripture was the Church’s book.

There are, I’m sure, many reactions to this statement. Some might be horrified, thinking that my words sound like groupthink, and that I’m giving up my God-given intelligence to follow a questionable organization blindly. Others might think my stunning realization is actually quite obvious, but wonder why this would be an exclusive draw to Orthodoxy. Both Catholicism and Anglicanism have strong traditions, and don’t leave Scripture orphaned in a timeless, ahistorical sea. I understand both reactions. I’ll deal with the latter one later. All I can tell you is that this idea made sense, and too much sense for me to ignore.

I remember listening to a debate between an atheist and a Christian once, and the atheist kept referring to Christians as “the People of the Book,” a title, borrowed from Islam, which the Protestant apologist gladly accepted. I didn’t, and don’t, like it at all. The Book is a major part of the Christian faith, but God sent Moses before he wrote the Law, God sent the prophets before the prophetic writings, and when he wanted His Word to enter the world, he sent a Person (who never wrote, by the way) instead of a tome. Christianity is not a People of the Book, but a People of the People.

We need to look no further than the creeds to see the effect sola scriptura has had on Christianity. In the Nicene Creed, the major statement of the Christian faith, God is center stage (“I believe in God, the Father Almighty,”). In a many Protestant statements of faith, the first article is some variation of “I believe in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments.” Even a brief survey of Protestant doctrinal statements reveals this startling change.

I know that some might think my characterization of Protestantism ripping Scripture from context is unfair. In fact, one of the first readers of this essay pointed out that none of the Reformers would have accepted my definition of the perspicuity of Scripture. For them, this clarity only applied to the Gospel, not the entirety of Scripture. It isn’t fair to react against later Protestant abuses as being characteristic of the whole.

Unfortunately, I think the doctrine of sola scriptura is a Pandora’s box that makes later developments not abuses, but natural outcomes. If Scripture is the only authority for faith and life, in a sense, it doesn’t matter what the Reformers, or any previous figure, thought about Scripture. They can be helpful influences, but if I think that they are interpreting Scripture incorrectly, they can be tossed out, their thoughts outdated. Doctrine becomes a-historical, as what ultimately matters is the lens of right now.

For Orthodoxy, one book is not supremely authoritative, nor one particular clergy member or council. The whole of Tradition, the life of the Church throughout the ages, guides the body of Christ in the present and into the future. Christianity, as one church father put it, is “what is believed always, everywhere, by everyone.” I don’t think the fact that the Church precedes Scripture is accidental. I don’t think the best way to witness is to hand someone a Bible. The gospel is a story, and the most important part of a story is that it’s told. The story should be shouted from rooftops, whispered in alleyways, discussed in barrooms. The Gospel is in its native land when it is accompanied by a living, human voice.

What is amazing about Scripture is that it does speak even in the absence of a person to share it, and that the breath of the Holy Spirit can rustle its pages. I love stories of people who picked up a Bible and were converted by what they found. Nonetheless, Scripture is an instrument, and an instrument needs to be played, even when the musician stumbles over the notes. As the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, when asked if he understood Isaiah, “How can I unless some man should guide me?”

Once I came to this conclusion, that we need the river of the church to float the vessel of Scripture, many of the other stranger parts of Orthodoxy clicked. There is still so much I don’t understand, and beliefs and statements that hit Protestant nerves every so often, but when you enter Orthodoxy, you say yes to the Church, and everything that that entails.

Another part of this class that put me on the path to conversion was a trip to the professor’s church for the Pascha service. To sum up my experience, I loved it. I loved the incense, the ritual, the procession. At one point during the service, the congregation stands outside the church with the priest at the door. After knocking three times, he turns to the congregation and shouts, “Christ is Risen!” and the church responds, “Indeed He is Risen!” Again, he shouts “Christos Anesti!” and the response “Alithos Anesti!” There was something in this worship more than just aesthetic choice or personal preference. When the choir sang, “Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling down Death by Death! And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” they sounded like they meant it.

While there are many facets of worship that I don’t have time to discuss, one thing I do want to mention here is the Eucharist. The foundational importance of this act was introduced to me by many of traditions that take it more seriously, not exclusively Orthodoxy. I’m not going to go into a lot of theological detail, because, not being a theologian, I’m sure I would mess it up. What I do want to say is that this, beyond any debate or interpretation, is the central act of Christian worship. When we come together as the body of Christ, this is what we should be doing. Orthodoxy believes this, as does Anglicanism and Catholicism. The reason I state it here so vehemently is my own experience in evangelical Protestantism, and how many of the churches I went to didn’t know what to do with Communion. The sacrament was like a vestigial organ, something that has tagged along through the centuries that just couldn’t be gotten rid of, surviving so many drastic surgeries which eviscerated the life of the church. Accepting the centrality of the Eucharist was another turn in the road towards Orthodoxy.

To summarize this long explanation, I was mostly convinced of Orthodoxy by the end of sophomore year. I had reservations to be sure. One, I was concerned that Orthodoxy was taking a particular cultural expression of Christianity and proclaiming its peculiarities essential to the Gospel. Two, I realized that this was a decision made for life, and I knew college was a time many people rushed into things that seemed cool or new and the regretted the choice later. The huge commitment, as well as how much that commitment would change, scared me. I would no longer move to an area and search for a local church, flitting from congregation to congregation, free from obligation. I would find my local Orthodox church, and that would be that, no matter if I found the priest’s homilies particularly enlightening, or if the church offered ministries that catered to my interests and talents.

As I reflect, I wonder if these fears were more subconscious than conscious. What I said out loud was that I was excited by the idea of not church-hopping anymore, and I was intellectually convinced that you should join a church and stick with it, even if you felt you didn’t exactly ‘fit.’ My habits, however, told otherwise.  I remember leading a Bible study that I was connected to through some friends, though I was not going to the church that the group was a part of. I was going to several different churches at the time, and the decision of which one to attend was based mostly on whim.  The study’s topic, which I had chosen, was my favorite, church tradition and authority. I was emphasizing the importance of both of these, taking pride in the light I was shining into the individualist, evangelical darkness of my Protestant audience. (I, of course, was ignoring the fact I was still Protestant.) At one point, someone asked me a pointed question. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the punchline was “Why aren’t you a member of a church if you believe church authority is important?”

I had no answer to her question. Silence, I’ve found, is usually the response what someone is exactly right. While I loved the idea of being a part of the Church, I also very much enjoyed not having a local church have a hold on me. When you feel like a constant visitor, issues like tithing, serving, and general participation are much less pressing. I would hear a pastor talk about a retreat, a particular service project, or whatever version of stewardship and commitment Sunday that church would have, and think, in that level just below words, Well, that doesn’t affect me. I’m not a member! Also, by not committing to any particular church body, you’re very free to be a cynic. Anytime the church does something you think is foolish, you have the freedom to say that you’re not a part of that, thank you very much. Sure, I like a lot of what they think, but I can’t stomach that particular quirk. The outside is a very comfortable place to be, even if it is a bit lonely. In fact, that comfort is what makes loneliness so subconsciously attractive. It’s so easy. Your time, money, and habits are your own. True communion with others is life’s most challenging joy.

I recognized that the commitment to any local church body was a weighty decision. To become Orthodox seemed like jumping into an abyss of obligation. The Church would affect what I ate (not at all a trifling concern), how I prayed, who I married (this thought was terrifying), how I raised any potential family. Nothing was off limits. You didn’t get to join and then pick and choose what you gave up, or what you took on. The choice was simple, yes or no. And Christ warned against not counting the cost of yes.

There were 8 years in between when I first learned of Orthodoxy, in 2005, and when I became Orthodox in 2013. I wish I could say that the reason I waited this long was because I was diligently counting the cost, that I was reading everything I could find, or praying without ceasing for direction. While I made ineffectual forays into all three of these activities, none of them really describe these 8 years. Unfortunately, the actual reason I waited so long was the same reason I never talked to anyone about my doubts concerning salvation: I just didn’t. Sloth is an insidious sin, and often results in paralysis.

I was thinking about this issue periodically, and did start to consider other traditions, and whether they incorporated these I had become so convinced of. Catholicism, to be honest, was never a serious consideration. The main reason was papal authority. According to Catholic teaching, the pope has the power to confirm doctrine. The instance I was most familiar with was the filioque. This is a Latin phrase which means “and the Son,” and, among Western churches, became a popular addition to the Nicene Creed. After the change the creed read “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The pope then made this statement official dogma. While all of the West uses this statement when reciting the Creed, only Roman Catholicism accepts the authority of the pope to make this change.

I accepted Church authority, but there is a crucial difference in the way the West and the East understand authority that made me lean towards the East. When the pope speaks as pope, ex cathedra, he is infallible, and his decree is instantly authoritative.

The East, while it has a high view of authority, does not think that any leader or council speaks infallibly. Decisions made by councils must be confirmed by the whole of the church over time. There have been decisions made by councils that were later declared invalid, the “Robber Council” in Ephesus in 449 and the Council of Florence in 1439 being two examples. This does not mean that all the people vote and then the majority rules. The Church is not a democracy. What this does mean is that a patriarch’s word is not law. Truth, according to Orthodox belief, will come out, even if it takes centuries to do so.

The above description, I recognize, does not sound like a very practical way to deal with controversies. I took an Eastern Christianity class in graduate school, in which about half of the students were Catholic. This discussion of authority in the Eastern Church appalled them. “How does anything get done?” they wondered.  The structure of Catholicism is much more rigorously organized, its doctrine explained with legal precision, its decisions made meticulously.

Orthodoxy does not have this juridical structure in its makeup. This lack extends to more than just authority. So much of the West has explained the concepts of religion in legal categories. In Catholicism, the system of confession and penance became paying off a penalty. Purgatory itself was explained as fulfilling any leftover legal obligations you might have from venal sins; hence, the faithful on this earth can do things to get their loved ones “time off” from purgatory. The doctrine of transubstantiation explained the Eucharist in terms of essence and accident, making sure that the exact nature of the sacrament is meticulously detailed.

Most strands of Protestantism still have this legal understanding of belief. This was the paradigm I grew up under, where my salvation depended on properly signing the contract, a contract offered to me by the work of Christ. The validity of that contract depended on praying that prayer and my sincerity. If those things were not properly affixed to the document of my salvation, the agreement would be considered null and void, and my request for entrance into heaven denied. Instead of works paying of the penalty of sin, they became evidence that I fulfilled my two conditions.

In the West, the central principle that the universe operates by is law. In Orthodoxy, that axiom is not law, but mystery. While the law is our teacher, God, in his essence, is not law, but love. Love, the most commonplace, foundational, and beautiful reality we know, is a very mysterious thing. I think of the famous I Corinthians 13 passage, which I’ve heard read at countless weddings. Verses two and three have always fascinated me. We’re told in these verses that we can give all we have to the poor, and give our body to the flames, yet these actions count for nothing if we don’t have love. We can die for something and yet not love it. “Love is a verb” is a popular cliche, yet love is more than a verb. Love is also more than belief in something. We’re told in the same passage we can have faith, and not just the faith of the demons as described in James, but the type of faith that can move mountains, and still have not love. Love transcends both faith and works. While it contains these things, and has patience, and keeps no record of wrongs, and believes all things, it is something beyond all these things.

Love, the center of the universe, the thing that defies all definition, is exactly what we’re called to do. The greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We must do both to receive eternal life, as we’re told in Luke 10. My confusion as a child, wondering if I actually wanted something, makes sense. There is no indisputable evidence that I love God. If I love God, I both believe in Him and obey his commandments, but I can do both of these things and do them without love. This is why, as an Orthodox Christian, if asked the question of where I was going if I died today, I would respond with my hope as opposed to with a fact. It is impossible to speak with complete assurance about something as mysterious as love. Orthodoxy believes in Love, which exists eternally, in Faith, which sustains us in this awkward age ‘between the times,’ in Hope, which we have while we wait for all to be renewed, but is not very big on certainty. In one of those ironic twists of which life seems so fond, the one thing I was looking for in Christianity is the one thing Orthodoxy doesn’t give me. Instead, I’m told I really didn’t know what I wanted in the first place.

To many of my evangelical Protestant friends and family, the idea of not having “eternal security” is terrifying and would have been to me as well. Part of why this no longer scares me does have to do with this corruption and healing understanding of salvation rather than the crime and punishment conception. If God is predominantly a judge, who let Christ provide a loophole to get us into heaven, it makes sense to be scared of i‘s not being dotted and t‘s not being crossed. However, if we think of God as a doctor, what he is trying to do is heal us so we can live. In order to be healed, we need to do what the doctor says, not because some arbitrary penalty may come crashing down on us, but because life itself requires His direction. If the doctor tells us we have high cholesterol, and we then proceed to eat nothing but steak and fried food, we’re going to die. Not because the doctor executed us, but because even he won’t override what we do to ourselves.

Growing up, I always had this image of life being a test, and when you died, you found out whether you answered the question correctly. People who went to hell would find out they failed the exam, look up to heaven, and mourn, “If only I had picked C instead of B!” That’s not Christianity. God doesn’t give trick questions. Whatever the details are at the end of the ages, we’re going to look around, see the beauty of God, and say, “This is good.”

Before I move on, I need to return to Anglicanism, and why I didn’t join the Church of England. I considered this for a long time. Anglicanism had the tradition and ritual that I had come to love, and did not have a lot of the theological problems that I found in most other Protestants. There also wasn’t the rigidity of Orthodoxy, and the change wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as becoming Orthodox would be. I went to an Anglican church for a while that I had become familiar with through a friend. I enjoyed this church, and particularly their traditional service. I thought for a little while that this denomination would end up being my home.

Unlike my attitude towards Catholicism, I do not have one particular solid doctrinal and intellectual reason for becoming Orthodox instead of Anglican. In a way, my decision was partly based on those things I am most suspicious of: feelings. The more I thought about it, the one thing that really scared me about Orthodoxy, the commitment, actually started to make more sense. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and joining the Church should be more like marrying someone than like joining a club. That depth of commitment does not seem to be a part of Anglicanism. I knew I needed, the wandering soul that I am, a place that would hold me accountable, that required much of me. I’ve mentioned before that dogma is the church’s job, and part of what Protestantism gets wrong is that it places that burden on the individual parishioner. While Anglicanism does a better of incorporating tradition into that equation, the ultimate arbiter of interpretation still seems to be the individual, and the individual seeing how the church lines up with his assumptions.

So 8 years passed, with these ideas jangling about in my head. From the moment I was first was drawn to Orthodoxy, I had this grand idea of researching it painstakingly, looking through every last doctrine, weighing each belief against tradition and Scripture and coming to an informed and sure decision. That never really happened, whether for good or for ill. Instead, as time rolled on, I slowly realized I was becoming less and less Protestant. The more I read, and the more I talked with others, the more Orthodoxy attracted me. I led a few Bible studies and jumped from church to church. I would start going to a place fairly regularly, and then move on to the next one. I even attended an Orthodox church once or twice.

When I make big decisions, or even small ones, I often delay for a while, hoping that some new bit of information will make things absolutely certain. I often joke with a friend of mine that if you actually had enough information that made a decision absolutely certain, it wouldn’t really be a decision anymore. Eventually, you have to make a choice, most of the time in the absence of indubitable proof. If anyone reading this is still looking for an airtight, rational argument for why I became Orthodox, let this be the last pronouncement of disappointment. For all the worrying and thinking that I do, my choices rarely have absolute assurance at their core.

So, one summer day during 2011, I went to St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, which was the closest Orthodox church to me. For some reason, that day the service struck me as more foreign than it ever had in my few previous experience. I felt like I had just entered a church in the Middle East, or walked straight into another century. It was very small, only 60 or so people. When I left after liturgy, the priest’s wife, Renee, ran after to me to make sure to say hello, and was very friendly.

I didn’t go back to that Church until Fall 2012. I still wasn’t ready to make that decision. I tried a few other Orthodox churches, went to some of the ‘normal’ places (I had quite a list), but kept being drawn back to that small community. I went back, became a catechumen on Palm Sunday, 2013, and was chrismated on Sunday, November 24.

Why did I become Orthodox? While I just spent a long, blustering essay trying to respond to that question, the answer is actually very simple. The second time I ever attended St. George’s, I had every intention of becoming a member of that church. I knew my tendency was to leave immediately after the service, in order to avoid any awkward conversation with people I didn’t know. But not that Sunday, I told myself. I was going to go to coffee hour, get to know people, and begin the process of joining the church.

So I went to liturgy that fateful Sunday, and as the service wore on, I thought maybe my decision to stay afterwards wasn’t a great idea. There was no reason I had to do it that Sunday. I wasn’t feeling that great anyway. Even if I ignored my sudden illness, maybe this wasn’t the right Orthodox Church to go to. There was one in Broomall that had a much larger congregation, and would more likely have newer people like me. So I told myself, in those powerful thoughts kept just below words, the ones that would fall apart if you ever fully articulated them.

At the end of the service, after a brief moment of indecision, I made my characteristically quick walk to the exit. I made it out of the sanctuary without anyone talking to me. I was in the narthex, with my hand on the door which would lead me back to that very comfortable outside, when I heard the voice of an older woman coming from behind me.

“Are you coming down for coffee?”

I paused, slowly took my hand off the door, and turned to face the voice.

“Yes, I’ll come down for coffee.”

God must have laughed for a long time at that one. That’s how I get to tell my anti-Catholic, Baptist friends I became Orthodox. Through the intercession of a saint.

Why Orthodoxy? How, in the myriad of Christian denominations, interpretations, and histories, do you pick one? Particularly one that requires such a commitment? Services and fasts fill the Orthodox calendar, affecting where you are and how you eat for weeks at a time. This is also not a denomination you try for a while and then move on to the next one. When you join the church, you are joining the church for life. Why this stringent and strange branch of the Christian faith?

The answer really begins at the age of five, with one of my earliest memories, and the first memory of anything related to faith. I had just woken up from an afternoon nap, a wonderful staple of most kindergartners’ lives, and I was frightened. I was scared I wasn’t actually saved. My mother always said that I, at the age of four, asked her about the story of Enoch. She proceeded to tell his story to me. Enoch walked with God so closely that God took him away at the end of his life. When she finished, I responded that I wanted to be like Enoch. After this confession, I “prayed the prayer,” one of the most fundamental bits of evangelical language, and was saved that day.

The problem was, now five years old, I had no memory of this conversation, and I felt guilty. How could the prayer have been real if I didn’t remember it? So, with the sun streaming through the blinds, I knelt down beside my bed, and “prayed the prayer” again. I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart, and I really meant it this time, or so I told myself. While there arose fleeting occurrences of these doubts in the intervening years, they did not really plague me until high school. But this is my first memory of Christianity, a pang of doubt, not about the faith, but about my own salvation.

“The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can know it?” While I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate the concept, I had a knowledge of this reality at a very young age. I knew I couldn’t trust myself. I couldn’t even be sure that I actually wanted something. As I got older, I never had a question that God would forgive me, and I knew that no matter what I did, I could always come to him. I just didn’t know that, in my heart, I wanted to. How, with a deceitful and wicked heart, could I know that any prayer was sincere, or that I was actually pursuing God?

The heart is where the battleground of Christianity lies. My great problem with Protestantism is that in the great battle for the heart, there’s no cavalry. There’s no holy man to confess to, there’s no sacrament to strengthen you, there’s no tradition to guide you. There’s just your heart, and your hope that it’s genuine. To be fair, this does not do justice to many of the more traditionally and sacramentally minded forms of Protestantism, but this does represent a broad strain of Protestant denominations, and almost the entirety of the evangelical movement. My great problem with Protestantism was not that it treated me poorly; my problem was that it left me to my own devices.

Again, my doubts didn’t trouble me very much during my years of elementary school. Besides the carefree nature of childhood, I think my family’s dedication to church helped. Our lives revolved around church. We sat in the service on Sunday, we attended Sunday School, we participated in Awana and Vacation Bible School, we brought food to potluck dinners, we wrote letters to missionaries, we went on church retreats. While we changed churches three times during these years, the switches were minor events at best. Once we started going to a new church, we enthusiastically joined in. And that was good.

As I reflect on growing up, I guess there was a slight nagging sense of my own faith. While I was involved in church, my own prayer life was anemic, at best. As a young child, I said my prayers with my father before bed, and didn’t think anything of it. When this stopped as I got older, I didn’t really start to do much praying by myself. As I hit sixth and seventh grade, I realized that this lack of prayer was a problem, and my nagging guilt stung a little more sharply. I didn’t feel a great need to read my Bible, nor did I feel lost if I didn’t pray for a while. When I went through something difficult, I didn’t feel like God was there for me. Actually, God and my feelings didn’t go to together much at all. The only real feeling I associated with God was this vague sense of guilt. At this point, the emotion was not very intense, but it was growing.

I remember one particular exception to my emotional neutrality. When I was in seventh grade, I attended a Winter Retreat with my church’s youth group at a place called Keswick. I wasn’t really friends with anyone in the group, mostly because I was shy, and so felt out of place. Due to this general uncomfortable state, as well as an exhausting schedule, I had broken down crying by the second evening, reddening my chlorine-irritated eyes even further. That night, as is typical of evangelical retreats, we had an emotion-filled final service, and the speaker asked people who wanted to make a commitment or recommitment to Christ to come forward. I went forward, motivated by my lack of Bible reading and praying. I sat down in the pews designated for this commitment. After my initial uncertainty and awkwardness wore off, I felt… wonderful. When I would describe the sensation to people afterward, I said it felt like Christ had his hand on my shoulder. I felt comforted. I felt loved. I felt right.

I held onto this experience like a talisman for years. When I would start to doubt myself, I would wield the amulet of this commitment to ward off evil spirits of doubt and fear. In future years, when I would wonder whether I actually wanted God, I would point back to this time of certainty as proof that I desired God, so much so that I was carried away by feeling.  There were not many other times I associated emotions with my Christian walk, besides the constant companions of fear and guilt and doubt.

The next year, 1998, marked two pivotal moments in my faith. First, this was the last year we were unquestionably involved in a church. At this point, we were going to Moorestown Methodist, a vibrant community in which I had been baptized as an infant, and, after attending several churches in between, was confirmed there in seventh grade. The next year, my parents decided to leave this church and start going to Fellowship Baptist, a smaller but growing church that we were connected to through some friends. For some reason, this move wasn’t like the other ones. Perhaps it was the fact that two of us were now teenagers, but the Gordon kids rebelled against the decision. Moorestown was the last time I ever felt like I had a church home. Forever after, when I walked into countless sanctuaries, I was a visitor, no matter what church we went to. I always felt guilty about it. I knew I should get more involved at these new churches, but it was too hard, or I was too shy, or it didn’t matter, because we would just move anyway. I tried to convince myself that my lack of church involvement wasn’t really my fault, but I never succeeded. I always knew I could do more.

The other key change was that we started attending a very small private school called Heritage Christian Academy. The school was a tiny outpost of strict Baptist conservatism in the midst of suburban New Jersey. HCA drastically shaped my outlook, in both good and bad ways. It gave me a powerful appreciation of the Bible, as well as a pretty expansive knowledge of it. Heritage also showed me how excruciating fear, doubt and conviction can be.

If you died today, do you know whether you’d go to heaven? This was the terrifying fundamental question of my time at Heritage, and a question that I was always unsure of the answer. I knew it was no good to get saved just to go to heaven, but how could I be sure that wasn’t my motivation? How could I know I genuinely wanted God, and didn’t just want “fire insurance?” Many people around me struggled with this question. I heard multiple stories of Christians “making sure” of their salvation. I tried to do that, and multiple times, but how could I be sure that this new prayer was any more genuine than the prayer before that, or the prayer before that? I knew that I should probably talk to somebody, and make sure of my salvation (or get saved in the first place? I never really knew) with another person instead of whispering prayers late at night, but I never did. I can’t blame anyone. Pastor Dave, the youth pastor/teacher at Heritage, is one of the most passionate, devoted, and caring men I know, and made clear through every word and action that his door was always open. I just didn’t go. I never asked him for help, and this compounded the guilt.

Another thing added to my sense of guilt. During the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I started struggling with masturbation. It’s a difficult thing even to write down, but I think it’s an important thing to discuss. I know many people think it’s a harmless habit, but I do not, not even after all these years of difficulty. The habit is demoralizing, and it satiates powerful built-in desires in the emptiest way possible. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most difficult habits to stop, especially when it isn’t talked about. So I struggled, and this led me to doubt my salvation even more.

When Christians talk about sin, they often use the biblical metaphor (and rightly so) of the spirit and the flesh, as in Christ’s famous words to Peter “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I wonder if we rely on this metaphor too much, and twist it into a power of positive thinking image of the mind being willing but the body being weak. These two statements are not the same thing, and thinking they are can cause a great deal of harm. In this chimera of mind-body relations, when we sin, it’s because we let matter triumph over mind. The conception I had was the mind being shut down by the body while the latter did its unthinking routine.

That’s what I thought a Christian’s battle with sin should look like, though I wouldn’t have been able to put the picture into words. The problem was my struggle wasn’t like that at all. My mind wasn’t a hostage, but an active participant. I didn’t feel like I lost control; or that I forgot myself for the duration of sinning and then remembered afterwards. I wanted to do what I did, even though I knew it was wrong. The question that always followed was how could I want God and want to do this as well?

What is so damaging about the aforementioned illustration is that the metaphor of the spirit and the flesh becomes an unfallen mind being trapped by a fallen body. The picture is not a new one, but the asceticism that previously accompanied it has been stripped away. Conquering sin becomes an exercise in the power of positive thinking instead of restricting the pleasures. In certain areas, we can let our desires go unchecked. We can eat whatever we want with impunity. The only restriction towards sports entertainment is if it interferes with church on Sunday. Violent television is our replacement for any programming that involves sex. I remember watching the movie The Ring with some adults at Heritage. This is a movie that involves multiple people dying in horrific ways. A man electrocutes himself by throwing himself into a bathtub with electrical equipment. A child is thrown down a well and slowly dies over the course of seven days. There was plenty of disturbing material, but the only time an adult discussed fast forwarding was when a woman was shown changing her clothes in a completely non-sexual context.

Violence, sports, and food can be enjoyed without moderation, but when it comes to sex, swearing, alcohol, and smoking, we must be as disciplined as monks. Our mind is the only way to make the distinction between astonishing indulgence and strict deprivation, and if we indulge where we should abstain, our only recourses are all mental exercises: think harder, pray harder, read the Bible more, and listen to more sermons.

I sometimes think of the movie A Beautiful Mind, when the main character as a relapse into his delusions after he stops taking his medication. Following a particularly alarming manic episode, he’s sitting in his house with his wife and his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist is pushing him to take his medication, but the main character, played by Russell Crowe, protests. He now knows that these people who keep popping up are not real, so why can’t he think his way out of his illness? The psychiatrist responds, “Because it’s your mind that’s the problem.”

While Christians believe that the problem is neither the body nor the mind but corruption and sin, both mind and matter are equally affected by this sickness. We should not be surprised when we sin consciously as well as instinctively, and our battle against sin should be multi-tiered, fighting fallenness wherever it is found, not just thinking our way out of it. This is part of why sacrament and ritual are important, because they affirm that sometimes our mind is so corrupt we need the body to fight, and vice versa. All the cosmos is being redeemed; we do not have instantly transformed minds that the body just needs to catch up to. Thought and instinct both need to be saved.

As in my struggle with doubt, part of me wanted to ask someone for help, to have someone keep me accountable for this particular sin, but I never did. It was not that I didn’t have good role models, or that the adults in my life discouraged confidences. I just never talked to anyone. There are some obvious reasons why; embarrassment was one of them, fear another, but I can’t honestly say these were the primary factors. The number one reason I didn’t talk to someone was not a reason at all. Silence was itself a habit.

Granted, masturbation was not something that was really talked about. Also, the only real confession that was emphasized was confessing your sins to God. You only went to other people when you had a problem you couldn’t handle. The idea that confession to another person was a regular part of a healthy Christian life was foreign to me. Ironically, in my first year at Heritage, we had to memorize James 5:16-17, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray to one another, lest ye be healed. For the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I never heard a sermon preached on this passage, or really discussed at all. My only knowledge of the sacrament of confession was a caricature of the Catholic version, which my Baptist school abhorred. Catholics believed, according to my Baptist teachers, that the average Christian couldn’t pray to God himself; he needed a priest to do it for him. This was blasphemy. We were to come boldly before the throne of grace, and through no intermediary.

This instinctive reaction to confession makes me sad now. I think many people suffer in silence, with struggles that could be overcome, if only they had someone to talk to, and particularly someone who would check up on them. It’s a lot easier to talk to someone when you’re expected to, when your faith provides a channel for confession, than when you have to do it of your own initiative. We need no intermediary before God now that Christ has come, but sometimes we do need someone to hold our hand. This is not for God’s sake, but for ours.

However, I knew nothing of confession then, so I did nothing. All through high school, I remained silent. This inaction nurtured my doubt. My fear and guilt were like rheumatic joints, flaring up when the weather changed. I would hear a particularly forceful sermon, groan a fervent prayer that night, and deem the prayer ineffectual by morning. Good habits of prayer and Bible-reading didn’t spring up alongside my bad ones. So I sat in my rocking boat, “tossed about by every wave,” hoping I wasn’t actually drowning.

At the same time I was worrying about the fires of hell, Heritage was giving me a Biblical foundation that I appreciate to this day. Even at the time, I didn’t completely agree with their interpretations. These Baptists were absurdly literal, (one teacher {a more extreme one, but not by much} didn’t wear shorts in public because of the verse in Psalms that says “God does not delight in the legs of man”) but they knew the words well. This attitude toward Scripture greatly influenced me. I remember, in 8th grade, having doubts that the massive and confusing book we know as the Bible even claimed to be authoritative. On a youth group retreat, I heard a preacher mention the verse II Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”) This verse quickly became my favorite. More and more, everything centered on the Bible. Much of my doubt centered on the fact I didn’t read it on my own enough. Much of my pleasure in school centered on Bible quizzing, where we would memorize huge chunks of Scripture to compete in quiz show like game. Much of my interest in history grew out of my interest to know how we ended up choosing what books became the Bible. I imagined the era of the Bible’s canonization as one shrouded in mystery, that I would one day research and discover the great secrets of the canon.

My time at Heritage also taught me the power of the spoken Word. The men who preached at Heritage’s many chapels, revivals, and retreats, had power over my soul. One sermon could plunge me into terror and despair that’s hard to describe to the uninitiate. This powerful emotional reaction was partly their intent. I remember talking to one of my fellow students about a speaker we had just heard, and while he said he was good, he felt he wasn’t fear inducing enough. While there were sermons of encouragement, the best messages “thrust the Nail of Terror into sleeping souls,” to use the words of the 18th century revivalist Gilbert Tennent.

I have a vivid childhood memory of a brief story aired on a local Christian radio station. During a segment discussing sermons, many callers had been asking why they were important, as the average church-goer didn’t remember the vast majority of them. One wise man called to weigh in on the conversation. He pointed out that while he didn’t remember what he had eaten over the past 60 years of his life, but he knew he would be dead without those meals, just as he would be spiritually dead without those sermons.

To this day, I have never heard a more revealing statement about the evangelical view of the sermon. The sermon is a sacrament, though the preachers I heard would have never used the term, and the central sacrament of the Christian faith. Communion takes a backseat to the words of the pastor. Instead of going to church to receive the body of Christ, you go to church to receive His mind and words, as interpreted by the preacher.

I think there are many problems with this conception of church. One, it still plays into this mind over matter view of the Christian life. We go to church not primarily to be fed and healed, but to be educated. While I think it is important for Christians to be informed about their tradition, church is not just school, (though teaching and preaching are part of what is done there) and intelligence is not a requirement for full participation in the Church.

This view also turns the Christian into a critic, assessing which local church provides the best lessons. In order to be a good Christian, we need to have a good education, and if the church in the next town over provides a better teacher, well of course he should go to that one. To reference Tennent once again, “If God’s people have a right to the gifts of all God’s ministers, pray, why may they not use them as they have opportunity? And, if they should go a few miles farther than ordinary to enjoy those which they profit most by, who do they wrong?” In my experience, the reason people most often change churches is not because of some grave issue, but because either they didn’t connect with the people at one church, or they weren’t being “fed” by the sermons. If the sermon is the central sacrament of Christian fellowship, and the value to the parishioner is mostly in the presentation, this makes sense. At best, this over-emphasis on the sermon turns church into a class. At worst, it turns Sunday morning into entertainment.

While I hate to admit it, I spent most of my time in high school as a spectator in matters of faith. I sat. I listened. I worried and agonized. What I didn’t do was do anything. I graduated from Heritage in this painful state of self induced paralysis, not agreeing with everything I was taught, but deep down, believing every word.

I want to pause here before I continue. I understand the picture I’m painting of my little Christian school is a very negative one. In truth, I look back on my time at Heritage fondly. Are there aspects of what they taught that I now vehemently disagree with? Absolutely. Yet, for the most part, the teachers there cared about their students, and were trying to prepare them spiritually and academically the best they knew how. If the picture is overwhelmingly critical, the critique is aimed at me, and how my own personal flaws and foibles reacted to what they taught. My struggles resulted from an unintentional caustic mixture rather than one malicious ingredient. To this day, I am greatly sympathetic with the motives of the evangelical movement and Protestantism in general. I can’t condemn all of Protestantism outright; I just know I was terrible at it.

I graduated from Heritage in 2003 with a great appreciation of Scripture, particularly its more literal interpretations, and a readiness to learn more about it. I was going to Eastern University, which, on my list of three colleges to which I had applied, was my third choice. I initially had been interested in studying music. Unfortunately, the schools where I wanted to learn music weren’t interested in teaching me. So to Eastern I went, my major undecided, though I was pretty sure I was going to study history. My older sister was starting her junior year there and had already told me what to expect. We had discussed some of her Bible classes, which I thought strayed too far from what I considered “traditional interpretation.” As I mentioned before, I didn’t think everything I had learned at Heritage was right, but I did think that the Bible should be taken very seriously, which meant, in my mind, very literally.

I remember two other pieces of advice from my sister concerning Eastern, in addition to her commendation of her Bible classes. First, out of all the dorms on campus, I didn’t want to live in Doane, though I don’t completely remember the reasons why. I believe a lack of air conditioning and a surplus of odd people were both cited problems. Also, I definitely didn’t want to take Dr. Van Leeuwen, who was a difficult professor, not to mention a strange person.

With this information in hand, I was a little upset when I received my room assignment in the mail, and I found out I had been placed in Doane. Once I arrived at Eastern, and received my class list, my worry increased when I discovered my orientation professor, the person who would be my advisor, who would teach my introduction to college course twice a week, who would have our class over to his house for Faculty Firesides, was none other than the infamous Dr. Van Leeuwen. While I was excited about college, Eastern certainly did not help sustain my enthusiasm.

Ironically, I loved Doane, and enjoyed my freshman hall more than any other dorm in my college career. I actually appreciated Dr. Van Leeuwen, though I admit he was certainly eccentric. Most importantly, the Bible classes were foundational in my conception of Christianity.

I walked into Bible 101, ready to learn and ready to argue with people not taking the Bible seriously. (I also had the goal to be more outgoing in college, which I never quite achieved.) My professor was a kind, brilliant man named Dr. Sparks. Within the first couple of weeks of this class, I was completely blown away and very nervous. Dr. Sparks talked about how the Old Testament compared with other ancient Near Eastern texts, how the creation story was better understood not as seven literal days, but as teaching theological truths about creation, how Abraham was probably not a historical figure. I discovered that the construction of the Biblical canon was, while messy, not mysterious at all, but well documented and recorded. This revelation, considering my ambition to discover these great secrets, actually depressed me a little.

What made these ideas all the more convincing was the professor himself. I had expected to be presented with new ideas that I would have to defend against; what I didn’t expect was that these concepts would be taught in a compassionate and gentle manner. I imagined that I would hear liberal ideology from an arrogant tyrant, crushing his students’ beliefs while delighting in his iconoclastic crusade. Instead, these difficult truths were taught by a humble servant, with gentleness and mercy. I remember during one class he asked if anyone was uncomfortable with what was being taught, and I was the only student to raise my hand. Afterwards, we talked, and he said if I ever wanted to discuss anything with him, feel free to let him know and we could meet for lunch. I never took him up on that offer, but I always remembered and appreciated it.

I cannot overestimate how important this class, as well as the New Testament class I took the next semester, was to my faith. Like at Heritage, I didn’t agree with everything Dr. Sparks said, but he dealt with major historical-critical problems in the Bible from a firmly Christian perspective. Several years later, I would read Carl Sagan’s Contact, in which his main character, Ellie, lists half a dozen Biblical inconsistencies. Dr. Sparks had dealt with every single one, and was still a Christian, and still took the Bible seriously.

Even so, questions began to trouble my very simplistic understanding of Scripture’s place in Christianity. A new verse to go along with my II Timothy citation began to crop up. II Peter, a letter written to warn against false teachers, has a peculiar admission at the end. He mentions, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” Peter, the chief of the apostles, admits that some of the things Paul writes, as in some of what we call the NT, are difficult to understand. One of the attendant doctrines of sola scriptura is the perspicuity of Scripture, the idea that the Bible is, for the most part, clear and anyone can understand it. Yet the Bible itself admits that it is in fact hard to understand sometimes. I was realizing that the Bible is a very complicated book, and that interpreting it could be a tricky affair. Sometimes, the Bible had to be used like a scalpel rather than a sword. What I learned in college was that I wasn’t necessarily a surgeon just because I was a Christian.

While I was learning prodigiously about my faith, my own application of it was… lacking. I had thought having a roommate would provide a source of unspoken accountability for my struggles with masturbation and increasingly pornography. It didn’t. My daily Bible reading did not improve, and my prayer life was sporadic to non-existent. All the learning in the world couldn’t reform my actions or bring me to my knees.

I tried to do things that would keep me in the Bible. I met with some new friends for morning prayer and Bible study. We eventually turned this into a more in depth study on Tuesday evenings. I still worried about my motivations. I wondered whether the opinion of other people mattered more to me than God. My pangs about my “eternal security” were decreasing, but I worried that this was because of callousness rather than growth. Thankfully, my idea that salvation was a contract that you signed with your sinner’s prayer was being replaced with a fuller understanding of the work of Christ.

By the time my sophomore year rolled around, my spiritual state was marked by both dramatic change and dramatic consistency. I was asking very different questions of the Bible than I had ever asked before. Words like “hermeneutics” and “exegesis” were now very important. I was wondering how to consistently interpret Scripture rather than thinking that it spoke for itself. However, I was, as always, still much more comfortable with Christian piety in the abstract rather than the application.

College was an amazing time for me. While I wasn’t a model student by any stretch of the imagination, I did benefit greatly from my classes. I also made lasting friendships with people whom I talk to to this day. These friends were integral to my spiritual life.

One example powerfully illustrated the relationship of friendship to faith during my sophomore year. I joined an accountability group at the beginning of the second semester. Several guys on my hall decided to meet together once a week, going through the book Every Young Man’s Battle. We would confess to each other when we hadn’t been “pure in thought and deed” during the previous week. The idea was to encourage each other, while struggling with “such things are common to man.” Also, it’s a lot easier to resist temptation when you know you’re going to have to tell somebody about it within a couple days.

While I know that, to some, the group may sound bizarre, the experience was a life changing one for me. For the first time, I felt like I was doing what I was really supposed to be doing in fighting sin, and I had people supporting me when my own will faltered. This experience taught me an important lesson. For years, I had been advised by pastors, parents, and peers to “let go and let God.” While I knew much of this process was prayer and letting God work things out in His time, I was often very confused by this advice. At the end of the day, you still had to do something. You couldn’t sit twiddling your thumbs. What my accountability group taught me was that part of letting go and letting God was throwing yourself into the arms of the Church. This message cannot be preached enough, whether you’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

I took two classes that semester that continued the revolution of thought that began in Bible 101. The first was a class called Theological Thinking. This was the first time I learned about the Ecumenical Councils in detail. They had been referenced in Dr. Sparks class, and I had even heard the pivotal figure of Athanasius mentioned in my senior year of high school, though devoid of any context. Theological Thinking expounded on the topic and explained the major issues involved and decisions reached in each council. More important than imparting historical details, this class revealed that cherished tenets of the Christian faith were not believed because individual people read their Bibles and stuck around with other people who had individually reached the same conclusion. Doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ had been fought over, debated, and finally confirmed by creeds and councils. What we believed did not float down to each soul independent of human agency. Separating the truth of God from the tradition of man was a lot harder than I ever realized.

Another crucial lesson in this class was a discussion of models of church and worship. Dr. Boyer, the professor, divided conceptions of worship into three basic categories. The first one he termed the celebrational model. The gospel is good, joyful news. How can we not celebrate in response to it? Let’s raise our hands, dance in the pews, and shout to the music. Many contemporary worship services operate under this paradigm, emphasizing how much we need to express our joy in church.

A second grouping was the reverential model of church. God is a holy, righteous God, and it is meet and right to give Him the honor due his name. Why would church not reflect this reality? Many more traditional services fall into this category, congregations that sing “How Great Thou Art” instead of “These are the days of Elijah,” groups that emphasize confessions in silence rather spontaneous bursts of song. I went to many churches that fell into both of these models, and the categories immediately struck me as accurate descriptions.

The third category he listed was unfamiliar to me. This third model was the participational model. Those who subscribed to it recognized that we don’t always feel like being joyful or reverent; sometimes, the sheer effort of getting to church is all we can muster. These churches gave you direction when you were prone to wander. We can’t all dance spontaneously in the street, but we can all slowly, clumsily learn to waltz. Dr. Boyer mentioned Catholicism and certain high church Protestants as examples of this type.

Even this brief vague description of this third idea attracted me. I knew my feelings were inconsistent, my attention wavered, my mental/emotional/spiritual state wasn’t exactly under strict control, and that the cup of my heart didn’t bubble up and runneth over upon command. Here was a type of worship that gave me tools to fight against those things. In general, I love directions. My favorite toys have always been LEGOs. Dr. Boyer’s class introduced the tantalizing idea that worship could have obedience instead of spontaneity at its core. I wanted to know where I could find a church like this.

I was introduced to that type of church in the same semester. I had signed up for a course in Eastern Orthodox History and Theology. I have no grand story surrounding my enrollment in this class. I had no premonition that the class would be significant, no coincidence about how I almost didn’t get in, no bright stars lit the way to this decision. I was interested in both history and theology, and this class seemed like a good way to fulfill Eastern’s “non-Western” requirement. My older sister had had the professor before, and said that he was good. So I registered, without a second thought.

This class became significant very quickly. As in the previous classes I’ve described, I don’t remember the particular day or lesson when crucial ideas were introduced. The class covered a wide range of topics, from heretics to patriarchs, from councils to creeds. There was one concept, however, that I latched onto, one axis around which everything else turned. Scripture was not meant to be taken and interpreted on its own. The Bible had a proper context, and that context was the Church and its traditions.

This principle clicked on the proverbial light bulb in my understanding of Christianity. Traditional interpretation was just that, according to tradition. Scripture was not meant to be taken home, interpreted on your bedside, and brought back to church full of dogmatic assumptions. Dogma was the Church’s job, just as Scripture was the Church’s book.

There are, I’m sure, many reactions to this statement. Some might be horrified, thinking that my words sound like groupthink, and that I’m giving up my God-given intelligence to follow a questionable organization blindly. Others might think my stunning realization is actually quite obvious, but wonder why this would be an exclusive draw to Orthodoxy. Both Catholicism and Anglicanism have strong traditions, and don’t leave Scripture orphaned in a timeless, ahistorical sea. I understand both reactions. I’ll deal with the latter one later. All I can tell you is that this idea made sense, and too much sense for me to ignore.

I remember listening to a debate between an atheist and a Christian once, and the atheist kept referring to Christians as “the People of the Book,” a title, borrowed from Islam, which the Protestant apologist gladly accepted. I didn’t, and don’t, like it at all. The Book is a major part of the Christian faith, but God sent Moses before he wrote the Law, God sent the prophets before the prophetic writings, and when he wanted His Word to enter the world, he sent a Person (who never wrote, by the way) instead of a tome. Christianity is not a People of the Book, but a People of the People.

We need to look no further than the creeds to see the effect sola scriptura has had on Christianity. In the Nicene Creed, the major statement of the Christian faith, God is center stage (“I believe in God, the Father Almighty,”). In a many Protestant statements of faith, the first article is some variation of “I believe in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments.” Even a brief survey of Protestant doctrinal statements reveals this startling change.

I know that some might think my characterization of Protestantism ripping Scripture from context is unfair. In fact, one of the first readers of this essay pointed out that none of the Reformers would have accepted my definition of the perspicuity of Scripture. For them, this clarity only applied to the Gospel, not the entirety of Scripture. It isn’t fair to react against later Protestant abuses as being characteristic of the whole.

Unfortunately, I think the doctrine of sola scriptura is a Pandora’s box that makes later developments not abuses, but natural outcomes. If Scripture is the only authority for faith and life, in a sense, it doesn’t matter what the Reformers, or any previous figure, thought about Scripture. They can be helpful influences, but if I think that they are interpreting Scripture incorrectly, they can be tossed out, their thoughts outdated. Doctrine becomes a-historical, as what ultimately matters is the lens of right now.

For Orthodoxy, one book is not supremely authoritative, nor one particular clergy member or council. The whole of Tradition, the life of the Church throughout the ages, guides the body of Christ in the present and into the future. Christianity, as one church father put it, is “what is believed always, everywhere, by everyone.” I don’t think the fact that the Church precedes Scripture is accidental. I don’t think the best way to witness is to hand someone a Bible. The gospel is a story, and the most important part of a story is that it’s told. The story should be shouted from rooftops, whispered in alleyways, discussed in barrooms. The Gospel is in its native land when it is accompanied by a living, human voice.

What is amazing about Scripture is that it does speak even in the absence of a person to share it, and that the breath of the Holy Spirit can rustle its pages. I love stories of people who picked up a Bible and were converted by what they found. Nonetheless, Scripture is an instrument, and an instrument needs to be played, even when the musician stumbles over the notes. As the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, when asked if he understood Isaiah, “How can I unless some man should guide me?”

Once I came to this conclusion, that we need the river of the church to float the vessel of Scripture, many of the other stranger parts of Orthodoxy clicked. There is still so much I don’t understand, and beliefs and statements that hit Protestant nerves every so often, but when you enter Orthodoxy, you say yes to the Church, and everything that that entails.

Another part of this class that put me on the path to conversion was a trip to the professor’s church for the Pascha service. To sum up my experience, I loved it. I loved the incense, the ritual, the procession. At one point during the service, the congregation stands outside the church with the priest at the door. After knocking three times, he turns to the congregation and shouts, “Christ is Risen!” and the church responds, “Indeed He is Risen!” Again, he shouts “Christos Anesti!” and the response “Alithos Anesti!” There was something in this worship more than just aesthetic choice or personal preference. When the choir sang, “Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling down Death by Death! And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” they sounded like they meant it.

While there are many facets of worship that I don’t have time to discuss, one thing I do want to mention here is the Eucharist. The foundational importance of this act was introduced to me by many of traditions that take it more seriously, not exclusively Orthodoxy. I’m not going to go into a lot of theological detail, because, not being a theologian, I’m sure I would mess it up. What I do want to say is that this, beyond any debate or interpretation, is the central act of Christian worship. When we come together as the body of Christ, this is what we should be doing. Orthodoxy believes this, as does Anglicanism and Catholicism. The reason I state it here so vehemently is my own experience in evangelical Protestantism, and how many of the churches I went to didn’t know what to do with Communion. The sacrament was like a vestigial organ, something that has tagged along through the centuries that just couldn’t be gotten rid of, surviving so many drastic surgeries which eviscerated the life of the church. Accepting the centrality of the Eucharist was another turn in the road towards Orthodoxy.

To summarize this long explanation, I was mostly convinced of Orthodoxy by the end of sophomore year. I had reservations to be sure. One, I was concerned that Orthodoxy was taking a particular cultural expression of Christianity and proclaiming its peculiarities essential to the Gospel. Two, I realized that this was a decision made for life, and I knew college was a time many people rushed into things that seemed cool or new and the regretted the choice later. The huge commitment, as well as how much that commitment would change, scared me. I would no longer move to an area and search for a local church, flitting from congregation to congregation, free from obligation. I would find my local Orthodox church, and that would be that, no matter if I found the priest’s homilies particularly enlightening, or if the church offered ministries that catered to my interests and talents.

As I reflect, I wonder if these fears were more subconscious than conscious. What I said out loud was that I was excited by the idea of not church-hopping anymore, and I was intellectually convinced that you should join a church and stick with it, even if you felt you didn’t exactly ‘fit.’ My habits, however, told otherwise.  I remember leading a Bible study that I was connected to through some friends, though I was not going to the church that the group was a part of. I was going to several different churches at the time, and the decision of which one to attend was based mostly on whim.  The study’s topic, which I had chosen, was my favorite, church tradition and authority. I was emphasizing the importance of both of these, taking pride in the light I was shining into the individualist, evangelical darkness of my Protestant audience. (I, of course, was ignoring the fact I was still Protestant.) At one point, someone asked me a pointed question. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the punchline was “Why aren’t you a member of a church if you believe church authority is important?”

I had no answer to her question. Silence, I’ve found, is usually the response what someone is exactly right. While I loved the idea of being a part of the Church, I also very much enjoyed not having a local church have a hold on me. When you feel like a constant visitor, issues like tithing, serving, and general participation are much less pressing. I would hear a pastor talk about a retreat, a particular service project, or whatever version of stewardship and commitment Sunday that church would have, and think, in that level just below words, Well, that doesn’t affect me. I’m not a member! Also, by not committing to any particular church body, you’re very free to be a cynic. Anytime the church does something you think is foolish, you have the freedom to say that you’re not a part of that, thank you very much. Sure, I like a lot of what they think, but I can’t stomach that particular quirk. The outside is a very comfortable place to be, even if it is a bit lonely. In fact, that comfort is what makes loneliness so subconsciously attractive. It’s so easy. Your time, money, and habits are your own. True communion with others is life’s most challenging joy.

I recognized that the commitment to any local church body was a weighty decision. To become Orthodox seemed like jumping into an abyss of obligation. The Church would affect what I ate (not at all a trifling concern), how I prayed, who I married (this thought was terrifying), how I raised any potential family. Nothing was off limits. You didn’t get to join and then pick and choose what you gave up, or what you took on. The choice was simple, yes or no. And Christ warned against not counting the cost of yes.

There were 8 years in between when I first learned of Orthodoxy, in 2005, and when I became Orthodox in 2013. I wish I could say that the reason I waited this long was because I was diligently counting the cost, that I was reading everything I could find, or praying without ceasing for direction. While I made ineffectual forays into all three of these activities, none of them really describe these 8 years. Unfortunately, the actual reason I waited so long was the same reason I never talked to anyone about my doubts concerning salvation: I just didn’t. Sloth is an insidious sin, and often results in paralysis.

I was thinking about this issue periodically, and did start to consider other traditions, and whether they incorporated these I had become so convinced of. Catholicism, to be honest, was never a serious consideration. The main reason was papal authority. According to Catholic teaching, the pope has the power to confirm doctrine. The instance I was most familiar with was the filioque. This is a Latin phrase which means “and the Son,” and, among Western churches, became a popular addition to the Nicene Creed. After the change the creed read “the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The pope then made this statement official dogma. While all of the West uses this statement when reciting the Creed, only Roman Catholicism accepts the authority of the pope to make this change.

I accepted Church authority, but there is a crucial difference in the way the West and the East understand authority that made me lean towards the East. When the pope speaks as pope, ex cathedra, he is infallible, and his decree is instantly authoritative.

The East, while it has a high view of authority, does not think that any leader or council speaks infallibly. Decisions made by councils must be confirmed by the whole of the church over time. There have been decisions made by councils that were later declared invalid, the “Robber Council” in Ephesus in 449 and the Council of Florence in 1439 being two examples. This does not mean that all the people vote and then the majority rules. The Church is not a democracy. What this does mean is that a patriarch’s word is not law. Truth, according to Orthodox belief, will come out, even if it takes centuries to do so.

The above description, I recognize, does not sound like a very practical way to deal with controversies. I took an Eastern Christianity class in graduate school, in which about half of the students were Catholic. This discussion of authority in the Eastern Church appalled them. “How does anything get done?” they wondered.  The structure of Catholicism is much more rigorously organized, its doctrine explained with legal precision, its decisions made meticulously.

Orthodoxy does not have this juridical structure in its makeup. This lack extends to more than just authority. So much of the West has explained the concepts of religion in legal categories. In Catholicism, the system of confession and penance became paying off a penalty. Purgatory itself was explained as fulfilling any leftover legal obligations you might have from venal sins; hence, the faithful on this earth can do things to get their loved ones “time off” from purgatory. The doctrine of transubstantiation explained the Eucharist in terms of essence and accident, making sure that the exact nature of the sacrament is meticulously detailed.

Most strands of Protestantism still have this legal understanding of belief. This was the paradigm I grew up under, where my salvation depended on properly signing the contract, a contract offered to me by the work of Christ. The validity of that contract depended on praying that prayer and my sincerity. If those things were not properly affixed to the document of my salvation, the agreement would be considered null and void, and my request for entrance into heaven denied. Instead of works paying of the penalty of sin, they became evidence that I fulfilled my two conditions.

In the West, the central principle that the universe operates by is law. In Orthodoxy, that axiom is not law, but mystery. While the law is our teacher, God, in his essence, is not law, but love. Love, the most commonplace, foundational, and beautiful reality we know, is a very mysterious thing. I think of the famous I Corinthians 13 passage, which I’ve heard read at countless weddings. Verses two and three have always fascinated me. We’re told in these verses that we can give all we have to the poor, and give our body to the flames, yet these actions count for nothing if we don’t have love. We can die for something and yet not love it. “Love is a verb” is a popular cliche, yet love is more than a verb. Love is also more than belief in something. We’re told in the same passage we can have faith, and not just the faith of the demons as described in James, but the type of faith that can move mountains, and still have not love. Love transcends both faith and works. While it contains these things, and has patience, and keeps no record of wrongs, and believes all things, it is something beyond all these things.

Love, the center of the universe, the thing that defies all definition, is exactly what we’re called to do. The greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We must do both to receive eternal life, as we’re told in Luke 10. My confusion as a child, wondering if I actually wanted something, makes sense. There is no indisputable evidence that I love God. If I love God, I both believe in Him and obey his commandments, but I can do both of these things and do them without love. This is why, as an Orthodox Christian, if asked the question of where I was going if I died today, I would respond with my hope as opposed to with a fact. It is impossible to speak with complete assurance about something as mysterious as love. Orthodoxy believes in Love, which exists eternally, in Faith, which sustains us in this awkward age ‘between the times,’ in Hope, which we have while we wait for all to be renewed, but is not very big on certainty. In one of those ironic twists of which life seems so fond, the one thing I was looking for in Christianity is the one thing Orthodoxy doesn’t give me. Instead, I’m told I really didn’t know what I wanted in the first place.

To many of my evangelical Protestant friends and family, the idea of not having “eternal security” is terrifying and would have been to me as well. Part of why this no longer scares me does have to do with this corruption and healing understanding of salvation rather than the crime and punishment conception. If God is predominantly a judge, who let Christ provide a loophole to get us into heaven, it makes sense to be scared of i‘s not being dotted and t‘s not being crossed. However, if we think of God as a doctor, what he is trying to do is heal us so we can live. In order to be healed, we need to do what the doctor says, not because some arbitrary penalty may come crashing down on us, but because life itself requires His direction. If the doctor tells us we have high cholesterol, and we then proceed to eat nothing but steak and fried food, we’re going to die. Not because the doctor executed us, but because even he won’t override what we do to ourselves.

Growing up, I always had this image of life being a test, and when you died, you found out whether you answered the question correctly. People who went to hell would find out they failed the exam, look up to heaven, and mourn, “If only I had picked C instead of B!” That’s not Christianity. God doesn’t give trick questions. Whatever the details are at the end of the ages, we’re going to look around, see the beauty of God, and say, “This is good.”

Before I move on, I need to return to Anglicanism, and why I didn’t join the Church of England. I considered this for a long time. Anglicanism had the tradition and ritual that I had come to love, and did not have a lot of the theological problems that I found in most other Protestants. There also wasn’t the rigidity of Orthodoxy, and the change wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as becoming Orthodox would be. I went to an Anglican church for a while that I had become familiar with through a friend. I enjoyed this church, and particularly their traditional service. I thought for a little while that this denomination would end up being my home.

Unlike my attitude towards Catholicism, I do not have one particular solid doctrinal and intellectual reason for becoming Orthodox instead of Anglican. In a way, my decision was partly based on those things I am most suspicious of: feelings. The more I thought about it, the one thing that really scared me about Orthodoxy, the commitment, actually started to make more sense. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and joining the Church should be more like marrying someone than like joining a club. That depth of commitment does not seem to be a part of Anglicanism. I knew I needed, the wandering soul that I am, a place that would hold me accountable, that required much of me. I’ve mentioned before that dogma is the church’s job, and part of what Protestantism gets wrong is that it places that burden on the individual parishioner. While Anglicanism does a better of incorporating tradition into that equation, the ultimate arbiter of interpretation still seems to be the individual, and the individual seeing how the church lines up with his assumptions.

So 8 years passed, with these ideas jangling about in my head. From the moment I was first was drawn to Orthodoxy, I had this grand idea of researching it painstakingly, looking through every last doctrine, weighing each belief against tradition and Scripture and coming to an informed and sure decision. That never really happened, whether for good or for ill. Instead, as time rolled on, I slowly realized I was becoming less and less Protestant. The more I read, and the more I talked with others, the more Orthodoxy attracted me. I led a few Bible studies and jumped from church to church. I would start going to a place fairly regularly, and then move on to the next one. I even attended an Orthodox church once or twice.

When I make big decisions, or even small ones, I often delay for a while, hoping that some new bit of information will make things absolutely certain. I often joke with a friend of mine that if you actually had enough information that made a decision absolutely certain, it wouldn’t really be a decision anymore. Eventually, you have to make a choice, most of the time in the absence of indubitable proof. If anyone reading this is still looking for an airtight, rational argument for why I became Orthodox, let this be the last pronouncement of disappointment. For all the worrying and thinking that I do, my choices rarely have absolute assurance at their core.

So, one summer day during 2011, I went to St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Upper Darby, which was the closest Orthodox church to me. For some reason, that day the service struck me as more foreign than it ever had in my few previous experience. I felt like I had just entered a church in the Middle East, or walked straight into another century. It was very small, only 60 or so people. When I left after liturgy, the priest’s wife, Renee, ran after to me to make sure to say hello, and was very friendly.

I didn’t go back to that Church until Fall 2012. I still wasn’t ready to make that decision. I tried a few other Orthodox churches, went to some of the ‘normal’ places (I had quite a list), but kept being drawn back to that small community. I went back, became a catechumen on Palm Sunday, 2013, and was chrismated on Sunday, November 24.

Why did I become Orthodox? While I just spent a long, blustering essay trying to respond to that question, the answer is actually very simple. The second time I ever attended St. George’s, I had every intention of becoming a member of that church. I knew my tendency was to leave immediately after the service, in order to avoid any awkward conversation with people I didn’t know. But not that Sunday, I told myself. I was going to go to coffee hour, get to know people, and begin the process of joining the church.

So I went to liturgy that fateful Sunday, and as the service wore on, I thought maybe my decision to stay afterwards wasn’t a great idea. There was no reason I had to do it that Sunday. I wasn’t feeling that great anyway. Even if I ignored my sudden illness, maybe this wasn’t the right Orthodox Church to go to. There was one in Broomall that had a much larger congregation, and would more likely have newer people like me. So I told myself, in those powerful thoughts kept just below words, the ones that would fall apart if you ever fully articulated them.

At the end of the service, after a brief moment of indecision, I made my characteristically quick walk to the exit. I made it out of the sanctuary without anyone talking to me. I was in the narthex, with my hand on the door which would lead me back to that very comfortable outside, when I heard the voice of an older woman coming from behind me.

“Are you coming down for coffee?”

I paused, slowly took my hand off the door, and turned to face the voice.

“Yes, I’ll come down for coffee.”

God must have laughed for a long time at that one. That’s how I get to tell my anti-Catholic, Baptist friends I became Orthodox. Through the intercession of a saint.

Written by Matt Gordon

Matt works at an insurance company, but he doesn't want to let you hold that against him. His passion for stories, both fact and fiction, led him to an absurd number of used bookstores as well as through two history degrees. During this very impractical education, he got paid once for his writing, and has been chasing the feeling ever since. When not indulging in the written word and pretending he has never even heard of equipment breakdown insurance, Matt spends his time traveling, trying to make his beautiful wife laugh, and searching for inexpensive food.

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