Faith, Tradition and Culture: A Journey Towards Orthodoxy

On October 24th, Mitch and I became catechumens, marking the official beginning of joining the Orthodox Church. If you’ve talked to myself or Mitch any time in the past few months, this will probably not come as a shock to you. This new step in our spiritual journey is so exciting and contagious, we can’t help talking about it! But if we haven’t had a chance to catch up with you recently, you probably have quite a few questions. The two biggest questions we get are: what exactly is orthodoxy, and how did you get there?

Even though we have only just now started the process, God has been leading us here for awhile. The seeds were planted years ago. Let’s back it up a little and give you a little context in case you don’t know us very well.

Me and an old friend outside Belmont Church, circa 2009-2010.

I grew up in a non-denominational church in Tennessee, with some baptist experience through both sets of grandparents. Mitch also grew up in a baptist church in Washington, and then attended an Assembly of God church in Montana. When we were looking for a church to attend as a couple, we gravitated towards Judson Baptist in Nashville, TN. I had some friends there and we quickly found a good life group which we both loved. (Now before I say anything else, know that I am not speaking any ill towards Judson, Belmont, or any of the other churches we have attended over the years.) Judson was a great church and we enjoyed our time there. We had been attending for a little over a year when covid shut everything down. For a few weeks we attended a small deaf church in Clarksville where we could social distance and use sign language to communicate. But then we moved to Idaho only a few months later.

Covid made finding a new church difficult. We tried watching services online but it was very easy to get distracted, zone out, or forget to turn it on entirely. There weren’t that many churches in Twin Falls that we felt were healthy and had solid biblical backing. On top of that, my childhood church had been going through a lot of controversial changes. What I heard from my family and friends who still went there had me feeling hurt, confused, and conflicted. It brought up a lot of issues I hadn’t addressed when I was younger. Sunday was also the only day Mitch and I could really go off on our own and spend time together. So eventually, through a combination of factors, we stopped trying to find a church. We didn’t expect to be in the area for long anyway, so we figured we’d find a church when we found a more permanent home. It saddens me to say this now, but I honestly didn’t miss going to church. I was lonely and missed my friends, but it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t going to church.

Fast forward to Montana. We started going to church with some friends and then started branching out on our own. We tried a home group, Assembly of God, and a Presbyterian church. Neither of us felt entirely comfortable in any of them. Not that they were necessarily bad, but it just wasn’t what we were looking for. Online wasn’t helping either. It felt like we either found churches with people our age but no sound theology, or churches with a biblical foundation but full of old people.

We tried to find a European church near us, since we loved the style of community they tended to foster. But the only church that popped up was a Serbian Orthodox Church in Kalispell. I immediately scrolled past it. We were vaguely familiar with the concept of Orthodoxy through our work in Ukraine. Nearly 70% of the people claim their beliefs as some form of Orthodox, so we had been talking for years about how we should probably learn more about it. We had even visited an ancient monastery with our DTS team! Still, we had very little understanding of what it actually meant, since everything we heard from the monk came through a translator, and it was more a tour of the building than Orthodoxy 101.

The original space was carved in the mountain!

And then Mitch started reading a book on Orthodoxy. Three of them in one week, in fact. I’ll let him interject for a moment.

The first one was by Peter Boutinef: The History of the Orthodox Church. It is a great book. I was mainly looking to learn more about the church that is the mainstream church in Ukraine as we are still wanting to go back there. I quickly started looking for other books on the church to see if it confirmed what the first had said. I found a deep rich church history and it spurred me on to continue learning about this ancient faith. Some things weren’t as strange for me as they were covered in the school of biblical worldview that I had taken. Others were completely new and that offered questions to which answers were found.

Especially looking from the outside in, many of the practices of orthodoxy seem very foreign when coming from a Protestant viewpoint. They are often times rooted in not just biblical but also ancient traditions that can be traced back to the earliest references in the church. Learning more about the early church fathers, the ecumenical councils, and much of the writings that came in the early 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries allowed me to see a very different perspective that I had not found in other aspects of the church. During my time in Europe, it was interesting and exciting to be able to walk through churches and see not just artwork and buildings but also the expense and the time that was put into many of these churches. To be able to walk through churches that are hundreds if not thousands of years old, some of which were destroyed during WWII and are now reconstructions. But to see things like bells and other objects still preserved from those time periods and eras brings a perspective to see how valuable the church was to some of these people. Now granted, at different points in history that fell or increased or had different political motivations, but it still impacted the culture.

Too often the Orthodox Church gets lumped in with the Catholic Church. And you can clearly see differences not only in their churches but also in their practices. This I noticed well before I started reading books on either. It may seem odd but this journey actually started a long time ago. I started seeing value in some of these early traditions in other writings as well. Church history has always been of interest to me and in trying to understand different perspectives I had listened to several books and podcasts before I started looking into orthodoxy. But in my reading I came across a book on the apostles. It was from more of a Catholic perspective but it referenced Orthodoxy a lot because many of the traditions of where the apostles went came from the Orthodox east as well the Catholic and Orthodox Church did not officially split until 1054AD. To think that Thomas made it out to India, that Andrew made it into what is now southern Ukraine and Russia, as well as Lazarus having possibly reached France and another apostle having reached Britain. It is quite shocking to think how far these men’s feet carried them, or whatever means of travel they had at the time. I found this incredibly enlightening and exciting to hear about some of these ancient traditions. I really enjoyed learning about this early church history and as the Orthodox Church held to many of the early traditions I desired to continue to learn about church history.

Many of the traditions of where the apostles went and early church were preserved in orthodox tradition and tradition that is older than the Catholic Church itself. This book made me want to read more about the Orthodox Church to understand better the differences. As I read it seemed to bring an understanding of the practices that were held to in the east and have been maintained, and how different they were from the ones that developed and evolved through the Catholic Church in the west. To understand how the church split and how those issues developed, but also to see how Catholicism has influenced Protestants, not just how they view certain aspects of the Bible, but also how the Protestants have become anti-Catholic. (Emily’s note: in trying to steer away from the dangers and heresies of Catholic theology, the Protestant church threw out a lot of good traditions and have since shunned practices that the Orthodox Church still holds today.) It is important to be able to see this to understand where many of the biases and reflexes we have towards Orthodoxy come from. Once you start understanding those biases, you can allow yourself to pull back those scales and see Orthodoxy in a new light. This is what happened when I started reading about Orthodoxy more and more. It also gave me the desire to visit an Orthodox Church as many of the writers of the books understood that there are many aspects of Orthodoxy that you do not fully understand just from reading about it. They come together when you visit and Orthodox Church, seeing and hearing it in person, which brings much greater understanding than just reading or hearing about the motions of the service or the aspects of orthodox art and culture.

At this point Mitch became super excited and in our search for a church suggested visiting an Orthodox Church. For a few weeks he pestered me to go, at least once, so we could see what it was like. I dragged my feet and resisted, a lot. In my mind, it was the same as Catholicism, and I knew I disagreed theologically with that. I also had some not so great experiences with priests in an Episcopalian church before, so I was against any major liturgical churches in general. I imagined a stiff, legalistic church with a bunch of oppressive rules, “worshipping” with dead eyes and no passion for life. But then I remembered my class on Christian Tradition back when I went to Trevecca Nazarene University. Over the course of the semester, our professor taught us about the different branches of Christian faith and tradition, from the ancient liturgical denominations to the Protestant evangelicals. The class challenged us to look at not just the commonalities between us, but also the value and beauty of it all. So I internally braced myself and we went to St. Herman’s for the first time.

We were immediately greeted by a lovely woman from the choir who immediately set me at ease. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. They encouraged us to sit or step outside if we needed a break. Most of them had also come from other traditions and knew it could be a lot to process on your first visit.

“By the way,” our now dear friend told us, “you’ve come on a great day! It’s Pentecost.”

“Oh, cool!” I knew the Orthodox followed the Julian calendar when celebrating holidays, so their pentecost (June 20th) would come a few weeks after most other churches following the western calendar (May 23rd).

“And…the Bishop is coming.”

“Oh!”

“So the service is going to be extra long today, maybe around 3 hours.”

“Well ok then!”

We were really thrown in the deep end for our first visit, but we stayed the entire time, including the weekly potluck afterwards! And we came back the next week. And the week after that, and almost every week since. We had a LOT of questions, and usually ended up talking for hours over lunch with other people about theology, tradition, and our spiritual journeys. Everyone was so eager to engage and talk about their experiences. We were talking about deep, heavy, scholarly topics that normally would make your head spin, but the conversation was so lively and full of passion that it went by so easily. And then we would talk about it the whole hour drive home as well!

St. Herman’s ended up being everything we were looking for. It is a truly multi-generational church, with a healthy dose of almost every age range. But the beauty of it is that we all come together as one, and there is no age gap. We have a potluck every week after the service where we talk for hours. Even better than the community though, is that we finally feel like we are being fed spiritually. Our biggest questions and concerns have been answered, misunderstandings have been cleared up, yet every week we have more, only now they are out of a desire to learn. Almost every week we encounter something that answers a question or an issue we had been wrestling with long before we ever thought about Orthodoxy. There is so much that we never thought about before, and the atmosphere really allows for conversations that lead to spiritual growth. As we have heard from many people in the church, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there, they are always learning more!

Where I thought there would be legalism, we found freedom. Where I dreaded a spirit of apathy, we found life. And where I feared judgement, we were welcomed with open arms.

Our first visit was on June 20th. My mom’s cancer diagnosis came mid-late July. We made plans to visit before chemo started and quarantined as much as we could, even staying away from church. For the first time I actually missed going to church. And not just for the community, although that has been wonderful, but also for the spiritual side as well. I wanted to go and pray for my mom. I still did at home of course, but it was different to go and pray for the sick in unison with the rest of the church. Remember from my last post, my conversation in the lake with my friend who helped me stop spiraling?

“Emily, it’s not a coincidence you found this church right before your mom found out about the cancer.”

No. No it wasn’t. Our faith is so much stronger now. We are going to be baptized on January 22nd and have so much peace and assurance that this is the right move. Our commitment to return to Ukraine and the mission field has been renewed. And our excitement about this journey is contagious.

I’m planning a blog series on Orthodoxy over the next few weeks or so. I want to talk about the history of how Orthodoxy came to Ukraine (which I learned about in my Russian history course, also from Trevecca, long before we got here!) and more about what orthodoxy looks like today. So if you have any questions, please feel free to ask! I will gladly incorporate them into this series, and if I don’t know, I’ll ask someone who does and learn with you.

Until next time, thank you for reading and your continued love and support!

2 thoughts on “Faith, Tradition and Culture: A Journey Towards Orthodoxy

  1. Just curious if there is a certain Orthodox branch you will be joining? And how do the different branches differ? Greek Orthodox vs. Russian Orthodox vs. Oriental Orthodox, etc.? Best wishes!

    1. St. Herman’s is technically under the Serbian diocese but in Ukraine we will likely be at a Russian Orthodox Church. I’ll do a post about the different dioceses soon!

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