Monday, May 18, 2009

The Hales' Journey, Part Eight - Turning Point

Gung-Ho Orthodox Clint and colleague "Urmas," at the annual Desert Fathers Summer Camp at St. Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Clint and Urmas are learning humility and repentance by crawling on their bellies and eating only sand for three straight days. The experience was agonizing (as you can see from their faces).

It took nearly a year and half after our shameful entrance into the Orthodox Church before we really gave Orthodoxy another thought. After a year in language school, we realized that we would get more for our money by hiring our teacher, Merike, as a personal tutor. While it did help our Estonian to improve, it meant that we no longer met on a regular basis with His Eminence, Metropolitan Stefanos. We would occasionally run into him in town or at certain functions, but they were only incidental contacts.

But in the summer of 2004, several things happened that really got the ball rolling. On a personal level, Debbie and I decided to look into adopting an Estonian child. It is a long story, suited for a different venue, but to keep it short, we went through the process of being entered into the system, having a home study completed, etc and became eligible to adopt in early October. We only had to wait until January of 2005 for the Estonian government agency to match us up with a child. I will tell you more about that in the next installment, but suffice it to say that the adoption process was taking up a large portion of our lives during the late summer and fall of 2004.

The second thing that happened was that I began a Church History course with a Church of Christ university back in the states. (Yeah, it was online – ain’t technology grand?). The stateside church that financially supported my family agreed that I could take a certain number of classes each year, working toward a Masters Degree. I had already taken several other classes, and it is surprising that I waited so long to take a history class, as it is my favorite subject. I can only claim Divine Providence – as will be clear in a few seconds.

Finally, Urmas and I decided in that summer of 2004 to begin visiting other denominations to see “what they did” so we might pick up something to help us be more successful. For various reasons, we met for worship services on Sunday afternoons, so mornings were wide open for he and I to go to various churches. We made appointments with other ministers, visited churches, etc. for a couple of months. We visited Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists (we skipped the Catholics, since we had already ‘experienced’ that the year before). Finally, one Sunday, we decided to visit the same Orthodox Church in which we had burst out laughing 18 months previously. We weren’t sure what reception we might receive. We were both fairly conspicuous amongst the tiny Estonians, plus who would forget two big Americans who interrupted last year's Paschal Service?

We needn’t have worried. While Estonians tend to be very closed and private, the wonderful folks at Ss. Simeon and Anna welcomed us from the first moment. (When we visited the Lutheran Church, NO ONE said one word to us. We actually stood in the doorway to see if someone would simply say, “Excuse me.” Not a word). But the Orthodox Christians invited us to stay for coffee hour immediately after service. Trust me when I tell you that this is VERY un-Estonian. Of course, we stayed. It turned out that Merike, our tutor, was now attending the Orthodox Church. We hadn’t realized that before. But the people asked us to return the following Sunday. We agreed. In fact, we never didn’t go again, unless we were out of town, until we returned to the States.

Before I forget, let me go back to the Church History class. We were studying early Church History (up to the Reformation). So of course, the first 1000 years or so was about the Orthodox Church. I will give the old CoC prof some credit. He didn’t pull any punches. He talked about Apostolic Succession, The Creed, The Ecumenical Councils, and other very non-CoC things with an open mind. In fact, at one point, he had to make the comment to the whole class that he was not trying to convert us to the Orthodox Church, but rather was simply teaching us the history of the Church. Bells started going off in my head. The reason was that not only was I studying about early Church history, I was EXPERIENCING it every single Sunday! Everything we studied I witnessed each week.

It might have been in Estonian, but my language skills were good enough that I could tell what was going on. After several weeks, Urmas and I were invited to sing with the choir. That is fairly prestigious, let me tell you. Estonians are known as a singing people (their revolution against the Soviets was called “The Singing Revolution”). I will be up front and honest and tell you that it was because we had learned the commonly repeated words (Lord, Have Mercy, etc) in Estonian and sang along anyway. Now I am an OK singer. Nothing special, but OK. But Urmas has a booming bass voice. I think the choir director (who was also the Matushka) really wanted that bass voice. But I got to tag along, so it worked out pretty well.

Fr. Mattias Palli, pastor of Ss. Simeon and Anna Church, with his wife Terje and the Hales' language teacher Mereke

Each Sunday, Urmas and I would get up, get dressed, attend the Divine Liturgy, stay for coffee hour, then return home to pick up our families to head over to our own worship service (which was starting to seriously not measure up anymore…). You might be able to see a couple of issues that were developing here. First, we were missionaries, being paid to take our brand of Christianity to Estonia. But we were being converted to Orthodoxy – almost against our will, mind you. We were studying long and hard, trying to figure out what was wrong with Orthodoxy – and that university class, wasn’t helping. Also, at this point, it was Urmas and I who were buying into Orthodoxy. At this point, Debbie and Kadri were good Church of Christ ladies.

So, in typical Urmas and Clint fashion, we decided to tell them how it was going to be…


s-p said...

It was the church of Christ's Dr.Everett Ferguson's book on "Acapella Music in the Church" in 1976 that laid a foundation for me for Orthodoxy. His argument was "we know what the NT meant by what the early Christians DID for the first 4 centuries". For 25 years I wondered why we didn't extend that argument to everything else the early Christians did ...until I met the early Christian Church. I think he's closet Orthodox. :)

November In My Soul said...

Excellent story. Keep up the good work.

Clint said...

Isn't it funny the way that way that God uses seemingly unrelated things to direct us to His Church? Amazing.

Oh, and as much as the CoC tries to be logical, there are plenty of arguments that simply break down under scrutiny...

But of course, you know that.

Deborah said...

Fr. James, I have to tell you that your quote under the picture had me laughing so hard...HA!

trueseek said...

Clint, How come everyone taking the history class does not become Orthodox and how do they get around the problems of staying outside of The Original Orthodox Church?

trueseek said...

One other question: Among the evangelical seminary professors I have studied, it is common to say that constantine was the "first" emperor to be friendly to Christians and he managed to paganize all the persecuted believers who had been martyred for the faith or been tortured for Christ. Where you taught the same 320 AD conspiracy theory timeline or were you taught that the Church remained true to original apostolic teaching for 1000 years?

s-p said...

Trueseeker, I took "Church History" at a church of Christ college. The Orthodox Church was never mentioned. Essentially once past the apostolic age the prof. made fun of Origen, Marcion, Tertullian and the various heretics with "over the top" personal lives and religious weirdness to show that the Church immediately went to "Rome in a handbasket". The "true church" went underground and held to the apostolic faith in the face of civil and religious persecution by other Christians. Constantine legalized Christianity which opened the door for all the powermongers and politicians of the Church to take over, sealing its fate as a politically driven institution. We never studied the Councils or creeds, just the relationship of Rome to the rest of the Church for the next 1200 years until the reformation, which got it partly right. Of course then, Campell, Stone et al. saved the day.

Clint said...

Hi again, Truseak,

Well, the fact was that several people in the class made comments about things that led to the professor saying that he was not trying to convert anyone to Orthodoxy. Whatever happened to all of them, I don't know. It was an online class, so we didn't have any real contact with one another (heck, I lived 8000 miles away from most of them). I can't speak for them and the journey they are on, so I don't know why they make the choices they do (or did).

As to the historical question, basically your first scenario is closest to the way things were presented. Constantine was a turning point (in that view), but not necessarily a good one.

trueseek said...

Clint, Here was my dilemma: If all those guys were pagan compromisers (i.e. Basil, Chrysostom, Athanasius, etc.), how can we trust our Bible? I used to wrongly assume that we had many lists of The Bible books prior to 375 A.D. To my surprise, someone online pointed out specific quotes of all the writings we have from the 1st through 4th century and all their Bible lists from the times of the apostles on, including most books of the Bible while missing a few (i.e. Revelations, 2John, etc.) or adding a few others (i.e. letter of clement to Rome or shepherd of Hermas). If we say we believe The Bible to be trustworthy based on the historical records before Saint Athanasius mention in a letter, we don't have any, and if we say we trust the Bible that the "pagan catholic fathers" gave us, but believe them to be compromising idolaters, then we would have no logical place to go but to move on without the precious Holy Word of God. For Orthodox, it is easy to trust God's Word and His Holy Bible, since they know that the men who got together at the council, were holy uncompromising faithful men who kept the Faith once given, and kept through the blood of martyrs for 100s of years, but as an evangelical Bible believing Christian, I cannot understand how we can logically accept the faithful testimony of these men and at the same time, without any prior records of the equivalent lists of the Bible (canon), trust them ONLY for their chosen canon list. Either The Holy Spirit was there uniting the Body of Christ against pagans and jehovahs witness like heretics who were trying to use the power of Rome and authoritarian structures to change Who the Church knew Jesus to be, or we all must become ultra liberals making up things as we go, with me and 'my Bible' only , which would lead us to modern day abberations in many protestant denominations and nondenominations we have today (including homosexual bishops, women priests, denial of The Holy Trinity, denial of John 6 and Romans 6 as literally true, etc.)

And how come those alleged "compromisers" were so on fire for God and Jesus Christ that they would stand up to emperors and even Church Bishops when anyone dared to try to change Christ's original Doctrine? Sure don't sound or look like pagans to a logical mind.

I wrote to some historians at Bible believing seminaries and got horrible answers with no proofs at all to back up what they wanted to believe and teach to seminarians. Kinda seemed like something got started 200+ years ago, and the fad become dogma in the seminaries, so one teacher taught others, and those students became teachers to others who passed on the same false understanding of those Christian faithful men that just does not jive with reality of any historical documents. One professor even gave me Timothy Ware and Jaroslav pelikan as proof for his historical account, but both those men became Orthodox. Did you find any logical answers fro the professors that taught you the same belief system that mormons hold on to regarding the departure of the faithful from the first century?

humbly in Christ,

Clint said...

I agree with you about the thought process involved.

In fact, one of the major turning points for me was the realization of where authority came from. We (in the CoC) claimed the Bible had the authority.

But you touch on the problem with that view. What about those folks who didn't have all of the New Testament (or thought extra books were scripture)? How did "we" decide what books were in and what books were out?

Logically proceeding from that, even with the books we had (regardless of how they were obtained), if they were scripture and should be followed, who could authoritatively interpret them? Jesus said you can tell a tree by its fruit. Looking at the fruit of Protestantism just doesn't fly for me. Too many interpretations that are at odds with one another.

Since St. Paul said that the Church was the pillar and support of the truth, it wasn't that big of a leap until I realized that the Church was the proper interpreter of scripture.

Once I had that figured out, it was pretty easy to accept Orthodoxy (and all of the saints that came along with it - including Constantine).