A New Beginning: My First Month at a Greek Orthodox Church
Life is strange indeed. The way in which God works through different people guiding their lives in various ways is truly amazing. For a little over a month now, my family and I have been attending Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem, NC. This is especially remarkable considering my attitude towards religion and Christianity only a few years ago.
Five years ago this week, I gave up my career as an aircraft mechanic to attend UNC-Chapel Hill. At the time, I had a strong interest in politics and was a die-hard libertarian-leaning Republican. I thought I wanted to get involved in politics somehow and planned on majoring in political science or some related field to prepare myself for law school. I was deeply materialistic and although I believed in God at the time, I held a more deistic view of Him and His role in the world. Organized religion was not something I even remotely thought about. However, I have always considered myself a very curious person and I wanted to get the most out of my opportunity to attend college. Thus, I took a wide-range of courses in many different fields including religious studies.
Ironically, studying religion from an empirical non-theological perspective at a secular state-run university lit a spark inside of me. I fell in love with the field of religious studies and found myself stockpiling books and spending my summer and winter breaks reading and studying just as vigorously as during the school year. Many of the misconceptions I held about both Christianity and Islam were shattered as my studies progressed. I read Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu. I also began to read and contemplate the gospels in a way that I had never done before. I began to fully understand Christianity as it should be understood. I finally realized why the gospels tell the greatest story ever told.
By the age of 12, I had given up on God and Christianity. I saw no point in attending church anymore. In the year or so leading up to that point, I had been quite serious about going to church. I even got “saved” one Sunday, although I was never baptized. But it did not take long for me to realize that something was wrong. The church I had been attending was your standard fundamentalist church – “hellfire and damnation” preaching was the norm, the Bible was the inerrant “word of God,” and Jesus was reduced to something you must believe in to avoid eternal damnation in hell. I do not recall ever learning about the Sermon on the Mount or any of the brilliant parables Jesus used in His ministry. I was made to feel guilty for watching TV or listening to the radio. I got the sense that the world was not only worthless, it was downright evil. I was scared into believing, but I was not taught why I should believe. I was taught how to avoid hell, but not how to love as God instructs us to. I was taught that God was a vengeful judge, not our friend and loving Father.
By the time I had reached my final year of college, I decided I wanted to get back into church. After discovering the fullness and true essence of the Christian faith, my monolithic stereotypical view of what it means to be a Christian was destroyed. With a stronger and deeper knowledge of Christianity and the Bible, I was in a much better position to find the right church for me. The first rule for my family was that we would not attend a church that taught biblical “inerrancy” since this doctrine is so closely tied to fundamentalism and has led to some novel theological innovations. A second rule was that I would not attend a church that taught dispensationalism, or “rapture” theology. I have spent a great deal of time studying the theology of the Left Behind novels and how “prophecy” writers have influenced American attitudes towards the environment, Israel, and Islam. This eschatology has also deeply influenced American foreign policy. In fact, my M.A. thesis examined how dispensationalism has promoted and helped to sustain the Islamophobic discourse in America. A third rule was finding a church that focused heavily on the teachings of Jesus and placed Christ at the center of everything.
These factors, along with a few others led me to explore Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox Church, for me, seems to hold the best view of the Bible. They understand that the Church came first and that the Bible came from the Church, not the other way around. The Orthodox view of the Bible holds that it must be understood according to the traditions of the Church and that exegesis is a communal act done within the Church. Orthodoxy also avoids the “cults of personality” that often arise around certain mega-church pastors since worship in the Orthodox Church requires the participation of every member and the sermon is not the central focus of the service.
During my initial exploration of Orthodoxy, I learned that Revelation, although canonical, is the only book of the Bible never read aloud in church due to its history of misinterpretation and because many in the early church, and indeed throughout Christian history, have questioned its inclusion. I also learned that the Church does not focus on eschatology at all. The Orthodox Church teaches that the end times were inaugurated by Jesus on the cross. Thus, God is already working through Christ and through His Church to renew creation. Therefore, speculations about the “end times” and Jesus’ return are non-existent.
While at UNC, I had the great pleasure of reading several works of Islamic Sufi literature. Sufism is Islam’s brand of mysticism. Some of the most prominent Sufi writers include Rumi, Farid ud-Din Attar, and Ibn Arabi. These writers move away from legalistic forms of Islam and focus solely on loving God completely and wholly with their mind, body, and soul. Sufis vehemently admonish greed, pride, and teach that the self, the ego, must be destroyed in order to love God properly. Sufi writings contain beautifully written poetry featuring wine as a metaphor for the divine love of God and garden imagery to invoke heaven. These works influenced such Western giants as Chaucer. My favorite work of Sufi poetry thus far is The Conference of the Birds by Attar. These works moved me so much that I wanted to find out if Christianity had any equivalent. I discovered that the Orthodox Church contains strong mystical leanings.
Two years ago, I began reading about Orthodoxy. I read The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware, Encountering the Mystery by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. I also read a good bit online. I became convinced by the theology of the Church, but I still had many reservations about the Church and its practices. I wanted to visit an Orthodox shortly after moving to Winston-Salem to pursue my master’s degree at Wake Forest but ultimately did not.
Now, fast forward two years. Back in May, my family and I attended the Greek festival at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem and we had the opportunity to sit in the chapel. I had seen pictures online, but the church was even more stunning in person. This renewed my desire to attend the church, so a few weeks later I finally went.
I was extremely nervous before my first visit. I had only been to Baptist, Methodist, Moravian, and non-denominational churches up to that point. But I was immediately greeted and welcomed. Someone sat with me and explained the Divine Liturgy, which is the main service of the church. I was struck by just how biblical the church actually is. Every liturgy contains a reading from one of the epistles of the New Testament and a reading from the gospels. Something from the Psalms is also sung at every liturgy. It was by far the most beautiful service I had ever attended. Now, this is probably the most trivial reason for wanting to attend an Orthodox Church, but I’ve never cared much for Western church hymns, so the Byzantine-style chanting is much more appealing to my ears. The beautiful icons, the smells, and the sounds, make it a very peaceful and joyful church experience.
The focus on aesthetics in the Orthodox Church is central to its theology. Orthodoxy teaches that all of creation is good as God proclaims in Genesis. God does not create in vain. Every single mountain, bird, blade of grass, every single human being on earth has a purpose. Because the Orthodox believe in worshipping with one’s mind, body, and soul, material elements such as icons and incense are incorporated into the liturgy. This is also why Orthodox Christians make the “sign of the cross.” I once thought of the “sign of the cross” as something only Catholics did, but after examining some of the statements of Church Fathers, this was indeed a dominant practice in the early church. The early church was also very liturgical. They used icons, they burned incense, they chanted, and communion (Eucharist) was the central feature of worship.
As I look back on my life, I cannot help but realize that I could easily be in a much different place today. A few ironic events have led me to this point in my life and without those events I would be a much different person. I cannot help but believe God has led me here. Without a particular event occurring in Tennessee, I would not have moved to North Carolina. I would have attended Middle Tennessee State University instead of UNC. I would never have majored in religion. I would still be an agnostic deist. I probably would not have my new baby girl who was born in January. It is hard to explain in words here, but the dramatic changes that have taken place in my life over the past few years are no accident.
So today I find myself ready to begin a new journey and a new phase in my life. The love I have in my heart for God, for humanity, for the earth, and for my family has never been stronger. I am ready for God to continue transforming me, my family, and all of humanity.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages, amen.