Sunday, January 08, 2006

Some Comparisons

"Well, if its a symbol, to hell with it."

(Flannery O'Connor responding to Mary McCarthy regarding the Eucharist)

Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Ralph Wood, p. 23.


In recent months, I have been making the transition from evangelical Protestantism to Orthodox Christianity. While the journey has been exciting and exhilirating, I realize that I need to curb my enthusiasm somewhat and resist the urge to pontificate on matters I am only just beginning to grasp. This goes against my nature, but I probably need to just be quiet, listen and learn. I also need to resist the natural impulse to disparage my former religious affiliation. A more productive course would be to recall my many years there and remember that the seeds that found fruition in Orthodoxy were planted in this very same church.

All that being said [my friends will recognize here that this is my cue that I'm going to go ahead and pontificate anyway!], I have recently had occasion to compare the worship in each. As I live over 100 miles from an Orthodox church, and my wife remains a faithful Protestant Christian, attendance can be a difficult proposition at times. For example, I recently attended the Feast of Theophany at my Orthodox church. Then on a recent Sunday, I found myself at the large, progressive Protestant church that I attend with my wife. The contrast could not be more striking. And it is here that I believe a few cautious observations are in order.

First, I'm still learning about the Liturgy--and know that I will be from now on. Also, the fact that about half the service is in Greek sometimes leaves me fumbling through my liturgy book. But despite this, there is no doubt in my mind what I am doing (worshipping). There is no doubt in my mind whom I am doing it with (the Body of Christ). The object of our worship is never in doubt (the triune God). I find the Divine Liturgy to always be fresh and exciting. If we were given to much sitting, you could even say that I would be on the edge of my seat :) Everything builds toward Holy Communion. As that time comes, I approach the altar, in the midst of the whole church, with a mixture of humility, joy and palpable excitement. And at that moment, time indeed seems to stand still. These are a few of my early impressions as an Orthodox Christian.

Now that brings me to my Sunday experience at our familiar evangelical church. Truth be told, this church is warm, welcoming and caring. I suppose though, as I become more and more Orthodox in my sensibilites, the more foreign this type of worship seems. The song service was actually well-done, though it now strikes me as sing-songy, sentimental and lacking in substance. We viewed a video presentation in which several of the teenagers spoke to how meaningful the youth group was to their lives. Then a couple of men gave testimonials about how a particular class or ministry had impacted their lives.

In due course, it was time for the communion service. This church is based in the Restoration Movement, so communion is faithfully observed every Sunday. The general practice is as follows: some men of the congregation come to the front, pray over the bread and the grape juice (which are viewed as only symbols) and then pass the trays up and down the pews as each individual partakes individually while supposedly thinking on the crucifixion. This particular morning, the speaker praying over the symbols also gave a short devotional beforehand. He compared what we were doing to a football scrimmage. That's correct--football. The fact that I despise our football culture and refuse to watch it made this particularly hard to stomach. The analogy had something to do with the fact that what we were doing in the "worship center" was just a scrimmage, whereas the real game would be when we left the building and started evangelizing. Our leaders were cast as coaches, and just like in a real football game, they would not be on the field with us. Incredibly, the football terminology and analogies continued into the prayers over the bread and grape juice, with some language about the Lord giving us strength to play the roles that He had set out for us. And this was my Protestant communion service.

I was dumbstruck. I'm sure the preacher had something warm and fuzzy and encouraging to say in the sermon afterwards. But frankly, I was so rattled by the communion travesty that I didn't hear any of it. In fairness, this is not usual, but next week it could be something completely different, in the never-ending effort to keep things new and interesting. That's the rub actually. There's no end to this sort of thing. Always seeking to be timely and "relevant," a church in fact loses what is timeless and ultimately become irrelevant. O'Connor's exasperated statement rings true.

7 comments:

emily said...

Wow - great post.

I, too, have been worshipping in a Greek Orthodox Church for four months now, after being raised the daughter of an Evangelical Protestant pastor. I went back to visit that church this week. And I did kinda feel like I was missing a week of worship. I definitely missed the Liturgy...

I really appreciate hearing your viewpoint on the whole thing. That football thing would have thrown me too. What craziness.

I especially liked this line:

Always seeking to be timely and "relevant," a church in fact loses what is timeless and ultimately become irrelevant.

Luke said...

As the person responsible for reining me in, I am eager to assist you in the same manner.
First, I must completely agree with your statements. They mirror conversations that we have had in the past. Now comes the "BUT" part of my comment. Be warry of pointing your finger at others, and always ask why you pointed in the first place.
I am always amazed at what touches people to become closer to God and become involved in any Church. You heard testimonials on Sunday, of things that brought someone closer to God. Maybe like you it didn't do anything for me. The football comment comes after the college national championship game, so to that extent it was timely. But I would bet that it got someone's attention in the audience and provided motivation.
One of the great values of the Orthodox Church is the constants in Litergy (which I love) and presentation. For you and others there has been a long journey of research and history lessons that has brought you to the Body of Christ on Earth, and is a beautiful gift. But remember that the gift you are now receiving began in a protestant church, and may have even been sparked by what would now be looked back upon as a horibble analogy.
When given a gift, say thank you. When you think of it, I bet you will find that a protestant church was a gift along the way.

Mimi said...

I've not spent a lot of time in Protestant churches, but I can see my eyes rolling on the scrimmage analogy.

John said...

Emily,
Thanks. I know what you mean about missing the Liturgy. How much of your service is in Greek? I am slowly beginning to pick up bits and pieces of the Greek parts. I love singing the Trisagion Hymn in Greek.

Luke,
Slow down, pardner! I think you misunderstand me. First, I am not pointing any fingers--merely making some observations with both hands clasped firmly behind my back :) Also, I AM appreciative of my Protestant background, as I noted in the last 2 sentences of my 1st paragraph and in the kudos I gave this church in the 4th paragraph. And I was not really commenting negatively on the testimonials, other than trying to set the tone for the overall church service. And I was not even dumping on football analogies per se--God knows I've heard enough of them in devotionals through the years. But my point is this: that even in the cramped, limited Protestant understanding of the Communion, there is no place for football analogies. Even if you are merely viewing it as a "remembrance" and the matzo bread and grape juice are nothing but symbols to you, there is still no place for football. This is not the time for "touching people," being motivated or getting someone's attention. Protestants have preachers and sermons for that. The communnion service--even in their understanding of it--is something altogether different, with a different purpose altogether.

Mimi,
I HAVE spent a lot of time in Protestant churches, have seen a lot through the years, but this got a major eye-roll from me!

Anonymous said...

All interesting observations and comments. It is hard to make "comments" about other people's worship without sounding judgmental or triumphalistic, and ESPECIALLY in our PC environment where whatever rings your bell is good for you, let's embrace it, celebrate it and hold hands and sing Kumbay yah together.
I think the REAL issue is not so much whether WE get ANYTHING out of either form of worship, but rather are we willing to worship as the Church through its apostolically ordained Bishops have directed the Church to worship. It is really an issue of humility, obedience and willingness to conform ourselves to the Church, let the prayers of the Church form us and not do what seems right in my own eyes regardless of how I feel or how much I personally connect with it.
Subjectivity is always open to condemnation and another subjective opinion about the issue at hand. I've seen crazy things at the communion table in my days in the church of Christ, but nothing as crazy as me approaching the true body and blood with my sinfulness.

Can God use the "mile wide and inch deep" worship forms of some protestant traditions to reveal Himself to human beings? I guess so, He used a burning bush, a brass snake, frogs, water and fish...why not? Hopefully folks would move beyond those things.
s-p

John said...

s-p,
Great comments, as always. I think you put it in proper perspective when you say "but nothing as crazy as me approaching the true body and blood with my sinfulness." That about sums it up.

emily said...

john -

I'd say the service is close to 50% Greek. It's interesting: Fr. Constantine will chant the petitions in English, and then we respond in Greek (of course, you pick up "Kyrie Elaison" pretty fast anyway).

The antiphons go back and forth between the two languages, and The Lord's Prayer and Nicene Creed are recited first in Greek, then English.

The majority of the members are the children of the church founders, and very adamant about having Greek used. Up until recently, the Liturgy was entirely in Greek, but that has begun to change.