by Forrest Long
The pungent aroma of incense fills the air. In the dim candle light, smoke ascends high toward the domed ceiling and, as the eye follows its upward spiral, one can imagine gazing into heaven itself. The architecture, the icons, the aroma, the awesome silence — the sensory perception of all that surrounds you transports you into another world. No, this is not your typical Baptist church, far from it.
So what is a Baptist pastor with over twenty-five years of ministry doing in a Russian Orthodox chapel? The male choir is in place and the priest comes out to begin the evening liturgy of vespers, all in Church Slavonic, the language of the “old country.” Not a word is understood as I listen intently to the progression of the liturgy, yet deep in my soul there is a sense that I have entered heaven itself. For an hour and a half the service continues and no one seems to mind standing through it, even the frail old monks who have experienced this for a lifetime.
This was my first experience of an Orthodox vespers and it was a life-changing experience, an affirmation that I was on the right path.
Going back to the question, what was I as a Baptist minister doing in a Russian Orthodox vesper service at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York?
And why over the past several decades have so many evangelicals in North America made the journey to the Eastern Orthodox Church?
I have read the personal pilgrimage of others, Peter Gillquist, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Jaroslav Pelikan and others, but I can only write out of my own experience.
As I look back now over my training in preparation for ministry I realize I learned nothing about the Eastern Orthodox Church; as I have talked with other Protestant ministers, for the most part their knowledge runs between minimal and non-existent. If I were asked I suppose I would have said that it was some ancient Eastern form of the Church, just another denomination but comparable to the Roman Catholic Church. The architecture and vestments may have been different, but apart from that I knew nothing about it. To be honest, its existence probably never crossed my mind. But other things did and that is where the journey began.
Coming out of ministerial preparation and being thrust into pastoral ministry, I was an idealist filled with answers, cutting-edge techniques and right theology. I was ready to ignite my first church with new life.
The early 70’s was a time of change in the church. New winds were blowing. Contemporary theology was challenging how we thought about God and the church; charismatic teaching and practice were challenging how we worshiped and “did” church; the “Jesus movement” was challenging the church to a more vibrant life. Changes were coming in worship, early stirrings that have led to where we are in the contemporary worship scene today.
As a pastor, part of my responsibility was to give leadership in worship; the more I read about and viewed the changing scene, the more I was coming to understand that modern worship could be just about anything you want it to be, just about anything was pleasing to God.
The walls were being pushed outward, sometimes beyond the limits in the minds of an older generation who sometimes were resistant to change. But the doors of change were open and a new contemporary breeze was blowing in, perceived by many as salvation for churches in decline that were running out of ideas of how to attract the un-churched.
During these early years of my ministry I began to broaden my reading as I focused on the church and on worship. I came across the writings of Robert Webber, who opened a new door for me and challenged me with a whole new perspective on worship and the church. It was a challenge to look beyond the familiar, not to discredit the old, even ancient forms of Christian worship, expressed in various liturgies.
I was a novice in this area, being immersed in the simplicity of non-liturgical Baptist worship. Slowly I began to open my thinking to a form of worship that was so rich with meaning and theological depth.
As a “good Protestant,” I had always considered such worship as being “too Roman Catholic.” In searching, I came to see the depth of my prejudice and my bias toward one particular form of worship, a perspective which would change gradually over time.
About the same time I read a book by another author previously unknown to me, Peter Gillquist. In The Physical Side Of Being Spiritual, Gillquist, who was himself on a spiritual quest that would eventually lead him into the Antiochian Orthodox Church, pushed my inquisitive door open a bit wider. He challenged me to think deeper about worship in its physical forms and symbols and challenged me to explore spirituality from a perspective previously unknown to me. The journey continued.
Over my years of ministry, as I sought to give spiritual leadership to the congregations I served, I was at the same time on my own spiritual pilgrimage. Many times I was uncertain of where I was going, but I kept pushing doors and exploring different pathways. As I looked around me at contemporary church life, I was disheartened by the all too-visible “easy-believism” and “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote so disparagingly about in his Cost Of Discipleship.
I came to realize that the church was so often a follower of trends and “here-today-gone-tomorrow” ideas on methodology, ministry, worship, church growth and spirituality. Everyone seemed to have their own concept of the “New Testament Church,” resulting in a dizzying array of books and programs offering the answer.
Sadly I watched as many well-meaning, but I believe misdirected leaders divided churches (yes, often Baptist churches) and went off with a handful of followers to build their own version of “the New Testament Church.”
My quest was never an obsession, but always in my field of vision as I read and thought in areas of worship, personal spiritual development and the church. I always believed there had to be answers to my questions. I never thought that those answers would take me back beyond the Reformation and my divided Protestant heritage, to a time when the church spoke with one voice. I began reading some of the early church documents as well as writings of the early Church Fathers, all of which opened a whole new world to me.
Time moved on. It was not until the late 90’s, after twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, that I was introduced to the Eastern Orthodox Church. One Sunday morning before worship, one of our couples came through the door with a friend who was visiting for the first time.
The introductions were made and there before me stood an imposing and impressive gentleman about my age, but with a long flowing, graying beard and long hair, dressed in a “ministerial” black suit. I had no idea at the time that he was a Russian Orthodox priest and I couldn’t see the clerical collar under his beard. He appeared to be intently interested in our worship and to my surprise remained after the service to join in my Sunday School class.
I was teaching a series of studies on the spiritual disciplines and happened that morning to be teaching on the discipline of prayer. Here I was, the “expert” with all the answers. My class was very interactive and discussion played a key role in the learning process.
Our guest felt very comfortable to enter into the discussion, and I discovered as I listened to him that here was a man with an understanding of our topic that ran deeper than the level at which I was teaching that morning. I found that my heart was hungering for a deeper experience of the spirituality of prayer and here was someone I wanted to get to know better. It was only after the morning was over that I was told this visitor, a quiet and unassuming man who displayed a sense of deep spirituality, was Father Innocent, a Russian Orthodox priest.
The friendship that developed out of this initial encounter led to many visits to his home, times of question and discussion, good conversation that gently nudged me toward the Orthodox Church.
Never once did I ever hear him criticize the Baptist church or put down my theology or practice. But gradually and gently he led me far beyond where I was. I would come home with a book to read, an Orthodox magazine or some article he felt I would find interesting.
My questions were being answered, the issues were being diffused and in the depth of my soul I knew I was on the right path. But it took moving from Nova Scotia to Birmingham, Alabama to actually become Orthodox.
In 2005 at Pascha, I was chrismated into the Antiochian Orthodox Church at the Church of the Annunciation, under the spiritual leadership of Father Nabil Fino, who brought me as a catechumen into the Church. From Father Innocent to Father Nabil, God has graciously led me step by step into the Church.
There was a time when I was so theologically opinionated and narrow in my views, that I wouldn’t have given a thought about moving toward the Eastern Orthodox Church. In my Protestant frame of mind I wouldn’t exercise such freedom. God does work in mysterious ways.
Today, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, my questions have found answers and I have discovered a well-grounded, unchanging liturgy, theology and spirituality that have stood the tests of time, being rooted in the Apostles, the Early Church Fathers, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the saints through the ages. The rich spiritual heritage of the various forms of the Eastern Orthodox Church enrich my soul, as I have come to understand and appreciate those ancient forms that are so spiritually relevant for our world today.
My journey has led me to a true spiritual sanctuary.