My Visit to St. George Orthodox Church

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I wrote this blog over a year ago. Originally it was one of a three part series about different churches I had visited and was intended to be a comparison. However, much has changed since then and bringing this blog off the shelf seemed like a good way to introduce my next post.

When an friend (ex-Mennonite) invited me to attend an Orthodox baptismal service a couple years ago I had no reason to refuse. One of his college professors was the priest who would be performing the rites and had invited him to witness the event. So we met on a cool crisp October morning for the trek to St George’s, an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA.

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself to be an unorthodox guy and at one point probably wouldn’t have set foot in a liturgical church having pre-judged it as stuffy, stifling, etc. I was completely committed to my Mennonite ideals and had no intention of changing church affiliation. My visit was a nice opportunity for a different perspective and nothing more.

First Impressions: The building exterior had a foreign and very non-western appearance to my eyes. It could actually be confused with a mosque. On top of the building in a place one might expect a pointy steeple was a golden “onion” dome.

Inside there were three main rooms, a fellowship hall on the end where we entered, a sanctuary in the middle and then a kind of inner sanctum. There were paintings (or “icons”) of an ancient style were depicting various saints, Mary and Jesus on the walls.

We met Father Anthony, a man with glasses and a gray beard, and were warmly received by him before he went about his duties.

We had arrived a bit early and waited a few minutes for the service to begin. Soon we were worshiping as Christians had for thousands of years. Fr. Anthony leading out melodically “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” and the congregation giving their musical response.

The words of the liturgy were rich with meaning, the gowns, regalia, ancient rituals, intricate ceremonies and incense burning had my mind whirling about the origination of these practices. Surprisingly, as one typically a cynic of formalities, I was oddly at peace in this service.

The Message: Be On Guard Against Spiritual Pride. (That isn’t the official title to the sermon, but it is what the message was about.) The text came from the Gospel of St Luke:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

This exuberant moment for the disciples was met with the sobriety of Jesus. While listening to this passage being spoken I had a flashback that made the message especially profound.

My mind went to a vision I had during a spiritual high point a year before where I was on a ladder, having climbed far up into the clouds, and the perspective I had gained was exhilarating. However, the lofty height also made me fearful. I was afraid I would lose my grip, slip and fall. Which is what happened, I was discouraged and feeling that bitter taste of defeat.

The message spoke to me. I repented my attitude of the last while and marveled at how this text and message could reach my own heart so directly.

The Good: I was surprised. I really enjoyed the service and especially the fellowship afterwards. Fr Anthony possessed a wealth of knowledge about church history and articulated Orthodoxy in a way more compelling than the explanations I’ve heard prior. For a well-educated man he was completely humble. He has remained in communication with me since.

The Bad: The congregation was small and the church we attended at a significant distance from home. Also, as a conservative Mennonite accustomed to children and young people, there was a conspicuous absence here. I wondered where the families were. It made me a little sad because there was a depth of tradition here that makes Mennonites seem contemporary by comparison.

The Ugly: While I’m being brutally honest, the iconology did make me a bit uncomfortable. It was something completely foreign to me and it seemed like there depictions could easily become idols. However, when considering the Bibliolatry common in fundamentalist Protestant congregations, perhaps we are also guilty ourselves?

Anyhow, wherever the case, it is one of those things that made me hesitant about this most ancient of Christian traditions.

The Verdict: Ultimately our salvation depends on God and I have a great appreciation for the Orthodox acceptance of this as a mystery of God. This is a welcome relief for someone tired of the contrived (and unsatisfactory) answers of religious fundamentalists.

Orthodoxy is about proper worship of God and their perspective is that worship should be about God’s glory—not our personal preference.

What questions do you have about Orthodoxy?

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The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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Performance Anxieties and Worship

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The Mennonite culture I am a part of has had a tradition of music that spans a few generations.  The tradition is acapella congregational singing (typically in four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and hymn music.  It is my preference, it is what I am accustomed to and comfortable singing in a church worship service, but some conservatives would have it as the only right way.

The other night, as is not uncommon, we had a choral program at my church. A group of a few talented individuals (dressed with matching outfits and practiced) sang together in front of an audience of family and friends.  Their selection of music had meaningful lyrics focused on distinctly Christian themes and the Christmas season.  It was a beautiful presentation.

Afterwards, the pastor (asked to give the benedictory prayer) went to pains to explain that the presentation that preceded was not a “performance” or “entertainment” and was worship.  I understood what he meant.  However, is it actually truthful to say that a presentation to an audience is not a performance?  Are concepts of worship and performance mutually exclusive?

Mennonite Tradition, Progressive Evolution and Lingering Guilt…

Mennonites have historically avoided elevation of some in the group.  Leaders were expected to be servants to all rather than a privileged hierarchy.  In fact, even raised pulpits were a controversial topic because of the potential for pride and spiritual inequality they represented.  Traditionally there was a table for those who preached to put their Bibles on and no pulpit.  Preaching was not to be done flamboyantly or in a way that drew special attention to the presenter.

Music in worship was ordered likewise.  There were no solo instruments or vocals in worship services because it was believed that would draw too much attention to the individual(s) performing.  In the church service singing was strictly congregational and in unison rather than divided into parts.  Four part singing only became part of Mennonite practice in the late 1800’s and special singing groups likely followed some time after as Mennonites adopted more mainline practice.

But it is an uncomfortable position to the conservative Mennonite mind.  There is still an urge to distinguish between performance for entertainment and worship of God.  In my own congregation we allow solos and special singing groups.  However, we are also dutifully reminded that the point is the worship God rather than recognize those presenting and (except for a few occasional outbursts by rebels) we do not offer any applause.

It is this careful avoidance of applause and tendency towards the over-wrought explanation that makes me wonder what is truly amiss—It seems too anxious.  If nobody else but God is getting the attention, shouldn’t that just be self-evident, why the need for an explanation? Why the contrast and comparison?

Our Worship *IS* Imperfect, Be Honest…

I believe the reality is that a special group singing before an audience is obviously a performance and for entertainment.  No, this does not nullify the reality it is intended as worship for God either.  What we do for others is an expression of our worship for God and that can certainly include wholesome entertainment.  Our performance for the good of others is ultimately what brings God honor and glory, is it not?

Furthermore, we aim to be perfect expressions, but we are not and might as well be honest about it.  Of course there is potential for pride in performance.  Did anyone on the stage not want to please the audience they sang to?  It would be utterly absurd to claim otherwise and with that the danger of self-aggrandizement. 

Yet, denial of that potential for self-centered worship doesn’t get us any closer to perfection of worship either.  If anything it is the same fatal error of Ananias and Sapphira who were judged instantaneously for dishonesty in their claiming to give all while secretly withholding some for themselves. Their deception, likely rooted in their wanting to maintain appearances of perfection or religious pride, was their downfall.

We are imperfect even at our best. Yes, even in our worship we can have mixed motives. We enjoy being talented, we often keep some of the praise for ourselves, and that’s okay if we are honest about it.  We are saved by God’s grace and not by our own perfect efforts.  It is this admission of our own imperfection that leads us to be more gracious towards others and a more true expression of the worship Jesus described.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

In conclusion, we should do as Jesus instructed and learn what it means in Hosea 6:6 where it says God desires mercy not sacrifice.  This is a reference back to the religious sacrificial rituals observed as worship in the Old Testament.  Sacrifice is an impractical expression of worship whereas mercy is not. 

Our better worship is not having the right mode or music style as much as it is in our expressed in our genuine love for each other.