Why We Became Orthodox Christians

Our old church in Dallas

Our old church in Dallas

This topic is bigger than one post could cover, but I at least wanted to share what my husband had to say on the matter. A few months ago, he was interviewed by Gracy Olmstead from the American Conservative. In her piece, entitled, “Why Millenials Long for Liturgy”, she writes:

America’s youth are leaving churches in droves. One in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion, according to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, and 55 percent of those unaffiliated youth once had a religious identification when they were younger. Yet amidst this exodus, some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox branches of the faith. This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.

Rod Dreher, also from the American Conservative, wrote his own take on the article here, starting with a quote from Jesse:

“If you ask me why kids are going high church, I’d say it’s because the single greatest threat to our generation and to young people nowadays is the deprivation of meaning in our lives,” Cone says. “In the liturgical space, everything becomes meaningful. In the offering up of the bread and wine, we see the offering up of the wheat and grain and fruits of the earth, and God gives them back in a sanctified form. … We’re so thirsty for meaning that goes deeper, that can speak to our entire lives, hearts, and wallets, that we’re really thirsty to be attached to the earth and to each other and to God. The liturgy is a historical way in which that happens.”

I’m way too tired to get too theological right now (plus, it’s not normally what I write about!), but both of these articles touch on why we chose to become Orthodox Christians instead of following mainstream evangelical Christianity.

Why Do We Give Presents at Christmas?

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Over coffee a few days ago, my sister in law and I were able to discuss Christmastime and how materialism has taken over, no matter how hard we try to fight it. Why DO we give gifts at Christmas, if Christ’s birth is the reason we have the holiday in the first place? (Obviously, if one is an atheist, then on this point we agree to disagree).

Many say that we give presents because of Saint Nicholas who lived close to 2000 years ago. He gave money to help those in need, so we do the same. Others have said it’s because we are celebrating Christ’s gift to us– His divinity married to our humanity, enabling us to be loved and healed by Him.

Giving gifts is fun, but when does it drift away from honoring Christ and towards celebrating materialism instead? Many Orthodox families I know solve this dilemma by giving the majority of their presents on Saint Nicholas’ Day (beginning of December) and leaving the Christmas holiday free from commercialism.

Others are trying to bring back the 12 days of Christmas, leaving the parties, cookies and presents for the 12 days AFTER Christmas, instead of letting it take over the day after Halloween ends. The premise? You can’t enjoy or fully appreciate something unless you’ve anticipated it first.

I’ve been thinking deeply over this issue, and have arrived at the following proposal. At the very least, Christmas Day should center around what we are celebrating. Not just the night before with a candlelight service, but also the morning of.

Lest this sound crazy, let me tell you that our family has been going to church on Christmas morning for the last few years, and it is wonderful. It never feels like a drag, it just feels joyful. We still have time for presents, we just don’t start them until around noon, when we get back from church. Instead of opening presents and having that, “now what?” feeling, we begin already feeling satisfied. The presents are the icing on the cake instead of bearing the responsibility of being the focus.

I don’t suggest this radical solution lightly, but I do think that where we spend our time shows where our priorities truly lie. Maybe it’s become such a tradition in our country that we don’t realize we’ve fought materialism for the weeks leading up to Christmas, only to ultimately give in to it at the final hour. Shouldn’t we spend Christmas morning centered around Christ? The name, “Christ-Mass” even suggests the tradition that used to lie within this holiday.

And what does this mean– to be centered around Christ? Are we just “remembering” Him?

Our church may be radical in this way, but we don’t do “remembering” all that well. Why remember someone if they’re still here, longing to be in a relationship with you? I can remember Jesse fondly, but the real joy comes when we decide to actually spend time together. We spend time with Christ by being in His church, celebrating with the angels, and then finishing with communion.

My sister in law (who isn’t Orthodox, by the way) and I both discussed that perhaps churches should offer a Sunday morning service, complete with communion. Presents can wait, but we need to spend time with the One who created us first and foremost.

And, as far as gifts are concerned, I am NOT against giving them. I love gifts! Everyone who knows me realizes that gift-giving is one of my love languages, programmed in from birth. But if Christmas is about communion with Him and with others,the gift givers need to have the proper perspective. The gifts should be about building relationships, picking things that don’t necessarily cost a lot but honor the bond between the giver and the receiver.

In his recent article, Fr. Stephen Freeman talks about how Christmas is about communion with one another as a way to honor His own gift to us. We all know we’ve had certain gifts that meant more than others, years down the road, and it’s because we remember the giver and the relationship that they had with us. Otherwise, why not just buy the present yourself?

Last but not least, if we are trying to defeat the commercialism that plagues the holidays, what if we acted like the shepherds, coming to meet Christ in his lowly manger? We would have to find those who are lowly, and choose to spend our time and money with them instead of with those who already have much.

In one of my interviews last week, someone asked me if I felt that spending time with my foster boys opened my eyes to the true meaning and impact of Christ’s birth. And I realized that it did, and not just because we read them the Nativity Story for the first time. Proximity to those who have suffered and have little opens your eyes to your own blessings and your own appreciation of the gifts you’ve been given.

What if, just, what if, we decided on one gift to give those who meant a lot to us and spent the rest on others? We wouldn’t have problems like, “What to give the person who already has everything”, that’s for sure.

When we first received our foster boys, they didn’t even have jackets. They had 3 pairs of pants between them. They had never owned a single electronic, never worn a shirt with a button or collar on it.

And yet, I decided that they would help us sponsor a boy through our church. We picked out clothes for this boy to wear, because I wanted them to participate in the joy of knowing that the moment we have clothes on our backs, we give to others like there’s no tomorrow.

I didn’t even have to encourage this much. Later, they even came to me, asking if I would buy cans of food for their school’s canned food drive! They wanted to give cans of food to the very food bank that probably fed them for years!

I don’t mean for any of this to come across as preachy, I just have done a lot of thinking on this subject and felt the need to share.

What did you all do in order to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas this year? How did you find ways to give or make presents more meaningful?

The Christmas Story as you’ve never heard it

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I can’t guarantee that I won’t cry a few times while writing this. But here it goes.

For the past 10 days, we’ve been opening up one “advent” bag every evening over dinner. Each bag contains four pieces of candy and a piece of paper containing 1-2 verses of the Christmas story told by St. Matthew in his gospel.

The first two days were a little boring for our 4 boys. I mean, Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem? A Roman emperor taxing people? What does this even mean for little kids who’ve never paid for anything?

But then we reached the part of the story where Mary and Joseph were forced to stay in a stable outside, cold and alone. No one had any room for them. They did the best they could, even though it was lower than low.

I looked up at our 10 year old foster boy, and his head was bowed, his face drawn and serious.

Unlike his 5 year old happy go-lucky brother beside him, he remembers. He remembers the cold nights sleeping on the street or in someone’s car because his mother had nowhere safe for him to stay. Instead of protecting him and reaching out for help, she eventually abandoned him at a mobile home park.

My heart caught in my throat. I looked at him.

“How do you think Mary and Joseph felt?” I asked him.

“Sad. Cold.” he responded quietly, looking away. There were tears in his eyes.

I remember what he’s told me about this time last year. He, his mom and his brothers had just been evicted from their apartment. They spent months living on the streets, begging for their mom’s drug money on street corners before DSS finally took them into custody.

Suddenly, Mary and Joseph’s plight hurt my heart in a way it never had before. The Christmas story came alive and stuck with me all through the next day like a bad toothache.

The next night, we read about the Baby Jesus being born.

“Is that the guy we heard about in church on Sunday?” one of them asked.

“Jesus?”

“Yeah, Him? Who is He?”

It was all I could do to keep my own tears away.

The next night, we read about the shepherds lying out in the fields, watching over their flocks of sheep. Once again, both of our foster boys were paying close attention.

“What were they doing out there?” the younger one asked.

“Watching over the sheep so that they wouldn’t die!” I exclaimed. “There were LIONS and BEARS out there!”

The look of awe and excitement on his face was more than enough reward. He was hooked.

And the next night, we got to hear about the angels who appeared to the shepherds.

“Oh MY GOSH!” the little one exclaimed. “What did the angels say? What did the angels say? I CAN’T WAIT TO HEAR WHAT THE ANGELS ARE GONNA SAY!!”

“Be patient!” I said. “We get to hear that tomorrow!”

And then, tonight. The angel telling them not to be afraid because he has good news for all people.

At that moment, I had a sudden flashback to our conversation the night before. As I was tucking them in, the younger brother said, “Night night, don’t let the bedbugs bite!”.

Out of the blue, his older brother said to me, “You know, I’ve had bed bugs before. My grandma’s house was really old. She didn’t have anywhere else for me to sleep so I just had to deal with it.”

I didn’t know what to say.

He continued. “Where are we going to be living?”

“With us for a while.” I responded.

“What about after that? Like forever? Who’s going to take care of us?”

And I was once again struck by the good news of the angels. The people of Israel, who had been waiting for their Messiah, were about to be delivered. Their deepest need was about to be met.

Our foster boys constantly wonder about the same thing. When is my deepest need going to be met? Who is going to love me? When are the adults in my life going to stop failing me? When am I going to have a home? When is all the waiting going to be over?

I want to tell them about the One who will never leave them. The One who was despised and forsaken so that they don’t have to be.

Back in the present, I heard the conversation going on at the dinner table. The older one was looking at me intently.

“This is so cool.” he said, smiling. His face was absolutely radiant. “Have YOU ever heard this story before, Kelly?”

This comment stung most of all. The Christmas story is so often just a stale set of verses we read on Christmas Eve at an advent service. When you grow up with a story like this, you forget how awe-inspiring every single detail of Jesus’ birth really was.

How does one forget the wonder? All of nature rejoiced at the coming of the savior! Even the stars re-aligned around their focal point–the Savior of the World.

“Are you going to read this story next year too?” he asked.

I was taken aback. “Yes, it’s the Christmas story. We get to read it every year.”

“Oh.” he said. “I’ve never heard it before”.

No.

Neither have I.

Not like this.

 

Controlling My Thoughts

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Perhaps it’s just the fact that in 2 days, I will have FOUR KIDS to take care of. Maybe it’s the business of the holidays approaching (we’re hosting Thanksgiving tomorrow!). Maybe it’s the fact that I just held a piano recital– one of the two major events that keeps my self-employment afloat.

Whatever it is, I am having a hard time keeping my thoughts in check.

By this, I don’t mean that I am thinking about the wrong things, necessarily. But the Orthodox church is very Eastern in that they teach we should be aiming for stillness of mind. God can, but usually does not speak into a whirlwind. He waits for the calm. He waits for when we can actually hear Him without hearing our own echos instead.

And I am anything but “still” inside these days. I am eager to get “back on the horse” with foster care, because I cannot bear the thought of any child going without a loving home. But there are costs associated with caring for two boys, like personal time and space. We had both of them the other night for dinner and it was a MADHOUSE in here. 3 were jumping on the couch at one point, while AJ was tossing glass things out of cupboards.

But when I think of problems other Christians have to face in order to fulfill the calling of the church, ours look insignificant. It’s good to remember, not just as an antidote, but as a reality check. Christians in Syria are being told at gunpoint convert to Islam or die. Most have already fled their homes and are refugees. Other Christians, including priests and bishops, are getting beheaded with pocket knives (so as to inflict the maximum amount of pain).

Hmm. My kid had to give up his playroom. I won’t get “time to myself” until after kids are in bed at 8:30. Yesterday, I did 4 loads of crusty socks/underwear (their old foster mom dropped off all their clothes in trash bags, completely dirty!). I might have to make two dinners most nights, taking 5 minutes in a microwave.

Perspective, it’s good.

But stillness is not an option. It’s necessary. I need to find a way to carve this out every single morning. I know that many Christians talk about their daily mornings reading the Bible, and I in no way want to discourage that. But reading the Bible has almost never worked for me, unless I just read Psalms.

I also don’t want to journal requests or just “talk” to Him, as these often become a hollow echo chamber. I never felt closer to God when I did those things– I felt closer to myself. And when I was miserable, near myself was the last place I wanted to be! My thoughts are a whirlwind, and I need an outside source to clear them.

I want to talk to God. I want to use the prayers of the church to clear my mind and wait for Him to speak to me. Every Sunday when I reach church, my mind settles. Things become clear. I feel at home and at peace. Last Sunday evening, I cried and told Jesse just how frustrating it was to have to leave church. Going back into the whirlwind of the world is so grating and painful after the peace of worshipping with the angels.

The last thing Satan wants is for us to find this stillness with God, and foster care/adoption is the ultimate battle ground. I know from experience that I will have to fight tooth and nail to find this stillness. It was harder than ever to find that when we were in the midst of our crisis with C, and it nearly destroyed us.

But Satan messed up. Because I was under such distress, I finally reached out to God in a way I never had before. I found and experienced that peace in a direct way for the first time. I have experienced it first hand, and I want it more now than I ever did.

Please, pray for me, a sinner.