by Jamey Bennett
I am asked fairly regularly to share my conversion story. I haven’t really written out my journey into the Orthodox Church in a full narrative. I hinted at some things related to my Mormon heritage here, but even that doesn’t quite tell the story. Honestly, I’m not sure I am interesting enough to put my story down on paper, so for now, we’ll settle for some glimpses into the journey. I leave this unedited and unvarnished.
I was received into the Orthodox Church at Pascha (Easter) of 2009. This doesn’t come as a shock to most who know me, but definitely has ruffled some feathers of a few people I love and respect. I want to set out ten (of many) reasons I became Orthodox. (In what follows, I assume a basic understanding of Christianity and Protestantism.)
1. Liturgy, Sacraments, and All That Jazz
I have personally been on a liturgical-sacramental trajectory for a long time. I fell in love with the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) years ago, as well as a liturgical approach to prayer. As a Presbyterian, I began using prayer ropes, praying the hours, and even included an icon in my private devotions. This led me out of Presbyterianism and into five wonderful years as an Anglican, and I acquired the conviction that whatever church I was to join in the future needed to be under the oversight of a bishop in Apostolic Succession.1
Somewhere along the way I encountered Orthodoxy. Every chance I got while travelling, I would visit Orthodox churches. It didn’t matter if I was in a Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, or American Orthodox church, I felt comfortable and at home. To me, it felt like the fullness of all that I was looking for in Anglicanism.
As I have now immersed myself in the Sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, I am ever more convinced that it is my home.
One time I was visiting a friend’s church, and the pastor was pounding the pulpit, “Don’t you dare imagine anything when you’re praying! That’s idolatry!”2 I never really bought that line. I never understood why Old Testament worship utilized all the senses, and then suddenly we get a new and better covenant (Heb. 8:6) and switch to plain white walls free of any symbolism. Orthodox people taste, touch, see, hear, and smell virtually everything!
Orthodoxy is exceedingly beautiful. The Psalmist exults,
“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him” (96:9).
Worship is beautiful in Orthodoxy, as it should be. And every detail of worship is carefully designed for the honor and glory of God – from the way we sing to the images that adorn our walls to the vestments of the clergy.
Part of what attracts many people to Orthodoxy is the love of mystery. Now, this is counter-intuitive to me. I want to figure it all out. When I began studying theology in high school and college, I was always asking people,
“What’s your position on _______?”
My first impulse is not in praise of mystery, but in solving mystery. I am by nature a rationalist.
But the truth is, we live a mystery-filled existence. I currently live in Hawaii, and I sit here at my desk at night and watch geckos run across my window with their “magic” toes to catch and munch on moths. This “mystery” is something held together by an incredibly imaginative God who called all things into being – and it just so happens that none of us were there when he did it.
Evagrios of Pontus has famously said,
“God cannot be grasped by the mind. If He could be grasped, he would not be God.”
Orthodoxy is not irrational. However, we believe that mystery is fundamental to Christianity, and should be embraced and celebrated. Evangelical theologian Daniel Clendenin writes, “The great mysteries of the faith are for the East matters of adoration rather than analysis.” I think that’s right. And so I rest in mystery.
4. Systematic, Bah!
Which brings me to systematic theology. I’ve never been satisfied with systematic theology. One summer I took evangelical family writer Nancy Wilson’s challenge to read 10 chapters of the New Testament a day, making it possible to read the whole New Testament in a month. Each day I watched my systematic theology “systematically” dismantled. My tight categories had previously made sense when I assembled Bible verses in a logical construct. But when I just read the Bible in large helpings, I began to see my thinking reshaped. And it was a bit messy!
If we must categorize “types” of theology, I’d say we have four main categories: Systematic, Biblical, Conciliar, and Liturgical. In Systematic theology one tries to carefully line up all the “data” and harmonize it. In Biblical theology, one teases out the text and takes it wherever it goes – keeping in mind its flow in historical context. Conciliar theology is what is worked out in the great Councils of the Church in response to various attacks on truth (this, in concert with the creedal statements growing out of those councils). Liturgical theology (at its best) is the developed and mature use of Conciliar and Biblical theology in the context of prayer.
There is plenty of room for Systematics in Orthodoxy. However, it’s not a particular interest of most of the Orthodox world. We’d rather pray our theology. I’d say that Orthodoxy beautifully harmonizes Biblical, Conciliar, and Liturgical theology.
5. Unwavering Theology
I was talking to my good friend Ken Petty, a Calvinist, who related a conversation to me that he had with an evangelical leader. This leader described Eastern theology as having been
“stagnant for the last thousand years.”
I laughed and asked him,
“And this is a problem, how?”
We don’t believe in doctrinal development. Sure, the way we articulate our theology has been historically shaped over-and-against creeping errors, but the essence of the faith has been fiercely defended.
It is the position of the Orthodox Church that we are preserving the faith of the Apostles, not re-inventing or re-discovering their faith. In 2004, I read through much of The Seven Ecumenical Councils and was continually struck by the minutes of the Councils. Repeatedly, you find the bishops shouting out things like,
“This is the Orthodox faith! This is the faith of the Fathers! Into this faith we were baptized!”
Orthodoxy is not blown about by every wind of doctrine, but has ferociously preserved, defended, and died for the faith
“once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
6. I Don’t Trust Myself
I stopped trusting myself a couple of years ago. I used to think that I am always right, and I’m still fighting that deception inside of me. One day many aspects of my world came crashing down – and I realized that I don’t know everything, I don’t have it all together, and I am a participant in broken humanity.
I find the remedy for this in Orthodoxy. For one thing, the Orthodox Church doesn’t rest on one man, whether he is a pastor or a Pope. The Orthodox Church is conciliar, and depends on the totality of the Church across national, cultural, and ethnic lines. It is faithful to the Fathers of the past, and the Brothers of the present.
The second way Orthodoxy provides the remedy for my self-mistrust is in confession. In Orthodoxy, we confess face-to-face with a priest, and he brings the comfort of the Gospel to us, personally. At the end of a confession, I kneel and my priest covers me with his robe, places his hands on me, and proclaims to me that God has forgiven my sins. What a picture of Jesus!
“For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:12).
7. Corporate or Individual?
One day it occurred to me that corporate worship and private devotions are threads in a tapestry woven together. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.
In Orthodoxy, we bring our individual petitions into a larger corporate context – and we do this for the life of the world. “My needs” join in harmony with other individual needs and broader needs of all the world. The individual finds fulfillment in the corporate setting.
8. Historical “Accidents”
My move to a more liturgical way of praying happened on “accident” – as did my ultimate destination in Orthodoxy. My life was badly shaken around 2003. I didn’t have the words to pray anymore, and I didn’t really like God that much. Then I picked up a copy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It gave me the words to pray that I didn’t have on my own, and it strengthened my weakened faith. I have described it on many occasions as the anchor that held me through the storm. And it did.
So I joined an Anglican church. Over the next five years, living in Tennessee, I felt the strong pull to Orthodoxy several times. But my involvement at that wonderful “continuing Anglican” church, and the relationships that I had developed there, really made joining the Orthodox Church rather difficult to do. I felt that if I were to join an Orthodox Church, that move would have to coincide with another move – to a new city.
In 2008, I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii to live with my sister. Before I got here, I knew I had three possibilities for a church home: Lutheran (LCMS), Anglican/Episcopal (TEC), or Orthodox (OCA). In my mind, those were my only three options. I attended the Lutheran church a bit, but was turned off by a few of the local practices (plus, well, no bishop). The Episcopal option was nearly bearable, but I wouldn’t have truly participated in the life of the community. We were just on different pages.
At first, the Orthodox Church did not seem a real option for me, despite its attractiveness. It was over 100 miles away, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to part with some lingering Protestant impulses. But I got word that the bishop was coming for a visit, and I didn’t want to miss that. So I spent the weekend in a hostel near the church. Before the Divine Liturgy was over, I knew I was home.
One thing I have heard time and again from converts to Orthodoxy is that the services and Sacraments are healing. In fact, our liturgy describes Christ as the physician and healer of our souls and bodies. This is definitely true in my case.
I once met a guy in Tennessee who had been a member of a Presbyterian church before becoming Orthodox. His wife had left him, and he was devastated. He got invited to an Orthodox service, and was drawn in by the constant refrain of
“Lord have mercy.”
He told me that six months of immersing himself in that liturgical context absolutely healed him.
I’ve had a similar experience. My life was rocked in late 2007, and it made the ‘03 rocking look like a gentle back and forth of a cradle. When I began regularly attending Orthodox services, I could feel that very same healing taking place in my heart. Honoring the majesty of God and getting down on your face before him (sometimes literally) to ask for his help, his grace, his mercy, and his strength, has quite a healing effect.
10. Jesus Called Me to It
I have been in love with Jesus since my earliest memories. In fact, my mom will tell you that I spoke with angels as a toddler. I’m not sure how objectively true that is, but I do know that I have had faith in the Triune God for as long as I can remember. And for all of my doubts over the years, I have never let go of Christ.
This is really the only reason that matters. When I came to believe that I was being called by Jesus Christ into fuller fellowship in him and with his Bride, the Holy Orthodox Church, I couldn’t help but become Orthodox. At that point, all the beauty, mystery, liturgy, and theology did not matter in comparison to the joy of fuller fellowship with Jesus.
I think it was Frederica Mathewes-Green who advised Anglicans not to come to Orthodoxy because it seems attractive or because a person is disillusioned with the state of their current church. Come to Orthodoxy, she beckoned, because you’re in love with Jesus and you see him there.
If you’re interested in exploring Orthodoxy, Frederica’s books Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now are a great place to start. For something more academic, check out Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church. For sympathetic treatments of Orthodoxy from Protestants, see Eastern Orthodox Christianity: A Western Perspective by Daniel Clendenin or, my favorite, Through Western Eyes; Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective by Robert Letham.
1. In Orthodoxy, however, we insist in a continuity of credal faith and communion for a proper Apostolic Succession.
2. This is actually a decent warning in an Orthodox context. We do use icons, but icons reflect a very real and incarnational existence, and are not simply imagined. However, in the bleak context in which this was spoken (with not so much as a cross on the wall), it seems pretty funny that picturing Jesus is idolatry when he had corporeal existence.