What’s in a worship service? (Part 2)

June 26, 2012

As many different churches as I visited as a child and young adult, I never had occasion to visit an Eastern Orthodox church. I didn’t know anyone who attended one, and the only time I lived near one was the year when I was teaching Spanish at a Christian school in Levittown, PA. I walked or drove past it often, and wondered what it was like.

My curiosity didn’t extend to actually visiting it, however. The school where I taught had a list of acceptable churches for its teachers to attend. I don’t remember whether all the churches on the list were Baptist, but an Eastern Orthodox church would most certainly not have been acceptable.

After I married and became a Presbyterian, I had more contact with people from other Christian traditions. The church we attended in Langhorne participated in ecumenical activities with other churches in town (with the notable exception of the fundamentalist Baptist church I had attended previously). I remember discussing church and theology with the priest of the Episcopal church on Good Friday during the Walk behind the Cross, and one year I attended a Saturday retreat held at the Friends meeting-house and getting to know some Roman Catholics.

I also read a lot, and I was particularly intrigued by accounts I read of former evangelicals who had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I couldn’t imagine following their example, but I understood some of the factors that seemed to motivate them.

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The Way of a Pilgrim

November 19, 2011

I had come across passing references to this spiritual classic at least a few times before I decided to see if I could get it from the library. I assumed the book was primarily didactic in nature, and that the title was metaphorical. So I was surprised, when I started reading it, to discover that it is – apparently – an autobiographical account by a Russian pilgrim of the 19th century.

I say “apparently” because the author is unknown, and some people think that it was written as though it were a pilgrim telling his story, but not by an actual pilgrim. I suppose that is possible, although I would think that a made-up story would be told in a much less disjointed manner, with fewer extraneous details and going off on “rabbit trails.”

But regardless of how the story came to be written down, it is a striking example of applying spiritual teaching to everyday life – in a time and place very different from our own. The pilgrim is a peasant who travels from village to village, occasionally requesting husks of dry bread for his pack, but for the most part seeking nothing but quiet and solitude to pursue communion with God through constant prayer.

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Reading: At the Corner of East and Now

September 12, 2008

This is the kind of book I would love to find any time I want to learn about an unfamiliar faith or church tradition. Frederica Mathewes-Green tells how she came to be an Orthodox Christian, what their worship service is like (including explaining all sorts of words and customs that would make little or no sense to an outsider), the history behind it all, and Orthodox views on a variety of topics. Interspersed with all this, she introduces the reader to various Orthodox Christians, mostly from her own parish but some she met elsewhere, in all their quirky individuality (no cookie-cutter Christians here!).

I was particularly interested in Mathewes-Green’s comparisons of Orthodox tradition to Protestant Christianity, from which she and her husband converted to Orthodoxy. She can explain effectively to evangelical Christians how and why the Orthodox believe and practice what they do, because she knows how both think. (She gives examples of lifelong Orthodox who find evangelical views incomprehensible.)

Evangelical Christianity has been concerned, especially in recent years, about being “relevant” to the culture. Worship services, music, language, teaching styles, and evangelistic methods are all designed with a view to speak to people in the context of what they already are familiar with. While Mathewes-Green does give an example of Orthodox monks publishing a punk-style ezine to reach young people crippled by the nihilism and despair of the punk subculture, Orthodox worship has no concern for cultural relevance.

This is a good thing, Mathewes-Green says. “People newly coming to church should have an unfamiliar experience. It should be apparent to them that they are encountering something very different from the mundane. It should be discontinuous with their everyday experience, because God is discontinuous. God is holy, other, strange, and if we go expecting an affable market-testing nice guy, we won’t be getting the whole picture.”

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