Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Story of Conversion and Struggle

Lately, I have enjoyed the influx of younger people into the church but also have been a little dismayed at their casual attendance. I enjoy conversation with them but I looked back at my own life and found the pattern to alarmingly familiar as we struggled at that 20 to 30 something age to find some common ground and then muster what we needed to become regulars on Sunday mornings.

I converted to Orthodoxy at the age of 11 after we were evacuated from Cyprus due to the escalating tension with Turkey and finally settled in Omaha with my Dad's parents.  My mom and I attended  a South Omaha Catholic Church during the Vatican II transition and my Dad and sister went St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox church.

At a family discussion I was given an option to convert or remain attached to the Roman Church. No small decision on my part, I was an altar boy in the Latin tradition which now was changing but decided to be chrismated Orthodox with the rest of my family. I served the altar for many, many years at St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox till I hit my late teens when my attendance dwindled due to job commitments and my new lifestyle as a sulky teen.  I rarely attended Liturgy during those years but remained in my head staunchly Orthodox though I knew little of my church or its teachings.

In college I had some passing interest, read a few things, studied the art but really failed to become engaged  in the faith. I met Brenda who was from a Evangelical background and we rarely attended services together as we courted and eventually became engaged. The wedding planning became the glaring fly in the ointment as we struggled with faith and beliefs and tradition in order to become wed. It was important to us to married in church and for some reason I thought it would always be mine but she balked at the Orthodox service and I started to learn the art of true compromise.

We searched for common ground but found little. I didn't like the post Vatican II Roman Church. She didn't like anything that had, what I thought to be,  traditional elements (they were not traditional to Brenda)  I was as completely unfamiliar with Evangelical teachings as she was with Orthodox teaching. On top of that, a lot of her tradition taught my tradition was heresy and idolatry. We were at an impasse and to add to the mix, her family preferred we marry in her home town.

That Thanksgiving, we met with her pastor several times over the weekend. He was a typical Evangelical preacher throwing biblical darts which I was unequipped to defend myself. He eventually refused to marry us as I refused to be baptized (again) and condemned our relationship warning Brenda's folks that marrying this idolator would surely be the end of her. Tough time for us. We really had no platform to stand on and felt lost at sea.

Brenda's aunt was kind enough to introduce us to her Lutheran pastor who counseled us wisely, found us some religious middle ground and we  married in his church.  We rarely attended any church after that and lived in a religious vacuum until our next hurdle, children.  Another element immediately presents itself and all the baggage that goes with it. Baptism. I knew enough that this had to happen but where? The Lutheran tradition was not specific enough for me and again, we are without a church.  I insisted on a Orthodox Baptism though we did not attend the church of my youth, we,  like so many of the churchings I see at our own church, were strangers. My parents still went there but really? Who were these people? Why are they here? And like so many of the churchings and Baptisms I see at our church, we were not seen again until kid #2 of course.

We had moved to Cedar Rapids before Ben was born and Mackenzie was getting to the age where we needed to make a decision and attend some service so we began to hunt in earnest again for a church we could both love. We tried the Lutherans again. The problem was me. Always me.

I was raised in the smells and bells tradition. I needed the visual pageantry and sounds of the familiar. I eschewed the "white bread" tradition of  other faiths including the Lutherans. I felt like the service was sanitized and plain without substance. My wife was offended by my insistence and selfishness and I was pretty offensive at insisting on my own way for sure. We found ourselves dropping off the kids at Sunday school but not attending the services ourselves and I hated that about us so I made an executive decision and started attending the Antiochian Orthodox church, kids in tow. Brenda could opt out if she wanted but rarely did.

It seemed I simply could not wash off that chrism. It felt familiar and spiritual in the Orthodox tradition and teaching but I could not express to you why. I had not really been Orthodox that long, at least in practice,  but it was my way or nothing and I took the kids with me, Brenda followed reluctantly. We began fasting on Wednesday and Friday. I and the kids took communion every Sunday. In her head Brenda was looking for the idolatry
that her pastor had seeded in her head. I was unaware of her struggles but she was kind enough to indulge me and quietly ruminate things in her head. I don't believe I could have allayed her fears anyway. I was still Orthodox stupid, following the tradition I hardly understood myself and unable to explain myself.

Eventually, back in Omaha, we started attending the local Antiochian church since the priest was American and easier for Brenda to understand but still her doubts nagged her. She watched every Sunday and wondered what was wrong with this? Where is the fault? The kids questioned why she did not have to go to communion.  She attended convert classes of her own volition  with a large number of folks and we had many a discussion about the faith before she converted. It was here that I finally learned about my own church, through her conversion. Her inquiries sparked my interest and need to know. In reality, Brenda brought me to the church, I certainly did not bring her.

After many years of marriage, Brenda converted to Orthodoxy and we raised our family in the tradition of the church rarely missing a Sunday Liturgy.  Our kids attended Liturgy when they lived at home but have sadly followed our same path, although they have more knowledge about the church than I did, they have fallen away somewhat but I am sure they will find their path eventually but it may not be Orthodoxy.  I think my personal struggle with priests and my constant questioning and relationship with pastors may have taken the shine off the faith for them and for that I am truly sorry.  I should have been a better man.

On our 30th wedding anniversary in 2011, we finally blessed our marriage in the Orthodox Tradition and became 'legit'. The final sacrament we were lacking in our life as Orthodox Christians. Why did it take so long? Struggles. Always struggles either with pastors or with ourselves we could not all seem to get on the same page.  We had a lovely little ceremony with our kids and our chosen Koumbari, Paul and Dora Bitsos. To this day we wear our rings on our right hands as the priest put them and there they stayed. 

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