Well, as noted in my previous blog, yesterday was Palm Sunday. I had a totally awesome time and I feel really excited now to dive into Holy Week! But before I do, I’d like to share with you some thoughts about the Church, why I love the Church and how I came to be here. This is long, and perhaps somewhat rambly, but stay with me, if you will.
I was raised in the Orthodox Church. My parents are both Orthodox and so, I was churched after I was forty days old, and I was baptized and chrismated soon after (chrismation is the anointing of a person with Holy Oil and in our church, takes place at the same time as baptism). My parents were not big church-goers, but, like many people of all faiths, my parents followed Orthodox tradition, without really practicing or regularly attending services.
When my sister and I (some of you may fondly recall us as “the twins”) were six years old, we moved here, to Oregon. I will always be profoundly grateful (and I have tears in my eyes as I write this), for Bill Bitar and Kent Lucas, and their love for and dedication to the Church. Because they rented a school bus. Yes. Every Sunday, for several years, they rented a big, yellow school bus, and drove it all the way out to Gresham, to pick us up and take us to church. They started with me and my sister because we were the farthest away from the church. As we got closer and closer to the church, they picked up other kids along the way, bringing as many of us to church as possible. I don’t know how much time they spent doing that, but I suspect it took at least three hours, on top of the three hours or so that we’re at the church on Sundays. That’s a lot of love and dedication.
Anyway, had it not been for them, I may never have formed an attachment to the Church, or developed my faith. As it was, we sang songs and played word games all the way to church and back, and in the church we sat in the front, left pews, all of us in a neat little row, shushing each other when someone started talking, and trying to practice sitting up straight and listening to Father Anthony.
By the time the church bus was retired, I was firmly involved in the Church, in the sense that I personally, strongly and deeply believed in God and Christ. I enjoyed our church services and I wanted to come and worship every Sunday. When I think back on it now, it really amazes me, the pure beauty of the relationship I had with God. I really felt a deep relationship with and connection to Him. But now, I had to get there on my own. My dad drove me there every week, while my mom and sister stayed home. During liturgy, my dad would hang out with the guys and smoke, downstairs at the old church in the early days (when EVERYONE smoked EVERYWHERE), and later, outside on the front steps.
Sadly, in high school, everything changed. I started to question my faith, which in and of itself, is not a bad thing (in that it can ultimately lead to a deeper understanding of God), but at the same time, I started to be, well, a teenager. I was young, foolish, self-absorbed, and very, very arrogant. And so began the next phase of my life. We’ll call it, “I Don’t Need God, I Can Make Totally Awesome Decisions All By Myself!” A phase during which I made some very good decisions, all by myself. And really awful decisions, all by myself. And finally, ultimately, I smooshed myself down into a big, fat, blubbering mess.
But I don’t want to get into all that. Suffice it to say that through God’s Mercy and Love, I was fortunate enough to survive the big, huge mess I made out of my life, and move onto to the next phase in my life. We’ll call this one, “I Make Awful Decisions All By Myself, Hey, God, Wanna Help Me Out a Little Here?” We might categorize this phase as something akin to, “God is awesome and I’m so glad He’s here for me. I’ll ask Him for all the things I want and He will answer my prayers” (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. No, Virginia, he’s not God). And hey, while we’re at it, I think I’ll worship Him in whatever way I want. Which certainly didn’t involve getting up every Sunday morning, and schlepping myself to church! (We could also call this phase, “Hey, it’s cool, God is everywhere. God is in the garden!”).
Then came Joey. Joey, my beautiful baby boy, the most miraculous thing that’s ever happened to me, and along with his sister, Madelaine, the greatest gift He could every give me. And Joey started talking. And when he talked, Joey started asking me questions. Like, “where did I come from Mommy?” and “where do we go when we die?” Now, I know that every kid asks those questions, but they are significant here because of what I learned about myself when I answered him. This is what I learned: despite my desire to make God into an image of MY choosing and to worship him in a way that pleased ME, it turned out that all the things I had been taught about God and worship as a child, were, nonetheless, EXACTLY WHAT I STILL BELIEVED! Regardless of what I WANTED to believe, I believed what I believed. So I hightailed it back to the Orthodox Church. Ha ha ha, I’m so funny!
My neighbors, across the street, neighbors and friends, attended a Baptist church. Hmmm, I’d never been to a Baptist church. I thought I’d better check it out (one last ditch effort to choose my own path of worship). Let me just say, Baptist churches ROCK! No, literally, they rock. That is to say, they have a full band, complete with electric bass and drum set. I’m sure they’re not all the same, but this one was AWESOME! First, you drop your kids off in Sunday School, that’s right, no keeping them quite during liturgy, carrying them out when they cry, shushing them all through the service, making them keep their hands and feet to themselves. They are in Sunday School, and you are blessedly freeeeeee to enjoy the service. Which starts with, PRAISE AND WORSHIP! And everybody sings, and there’s a band, and you can cry with the joy of it, if you feel like it. And it feels WONDERFUL! Then, Pastor picks a bible verse, and preaches about it – kind of like our homily, only he’s VERY EMPHATIC and most of us take notes. As an aside, I just want to give a big shout out to Pastor and Sister Martin, truly a man and woman of God! Anyway, we write down the lesson he’s teaching from the Bible, and I’m a happy student again, with my notes, Big A, Roman Numeral One, little a, little b, little c. Big B, etc. And once a month, the ushers pass around little plastic cups of white grape juice and those really thin wafers, that are made of I-have-no-idea-what. And we all take communion. I want you all to know that I am NOT mocking the baptist church, quite the contrary, I LOVED it there, I made a great many friends, and we all worshipped together and it was wonderful. But, it is VERY different from the Orthodox church.
So how did I come back? Well, whenever my parents came to visit, they wanted to go to church and see all their friends. So we went to the Orthodox church, and every time we did, I thought how nice it was to see Penny and Fairouz, girls I’d been in Sunday School with when I was young. And I enjoyed seeing the grown-ups too, people I said hello to every Sunday, and kissed on the cheek, Hi Aunt Mary, Hi Uma Khalil, Hi Sitto (any REALLY old lady), Hi Giddo (ditto). But now, they’re still grown-ups, and I’m a grown up too! That was interesting.
After awhile, I went to a Women’s Retreat in the Baptist Church. And while I was there, I asked God to show me His will and to help me align my will with His. Yes, I was finally ready to try to do this thing (living), His way, not mine. Try. Anyway, this is what I heard. “You say you want to do things My way, but here you are, trying to worship Me the way YOU want to, when I already gave you a church.” And so, I left the Baptist Church, and came back home.
Sorry, this is a REALLY LONG blog, but, hey, we’re talking about 38 years here. So here I am in the Orthodox church, and I am so full of joy! Particularly so because my children are here with me. And yesterday, Maddy and I helped Suzy with Palm Sunday Brunch. And I served the lunch with Penny. And I ate with Jane, a new and very dear friend I’ve made since rejoining the church. And every week, I see people who’ve known me since I was a child (I’m getting teary again), and I see people I’ve met since returning, like Kyrie and Ola and Majdolin and Robin. And we worship together, and our children go to Sunday School together and we drink coffee and visit, and cook and bake together for Palm Sunday and the Festival. We share our faith and we share our lives. And I watch their children grow in the church, just as we did. And now I really am crying, but they are absolutely tears of joy.
As we move into this week, the Church takes on a more somber, and reverential tone. As we contemplate the suffering and crucifixion of Christ, we think of our own sins and the need we all have for salvation. And yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel this current of joy running through it all. God and Christ bless us every day, in so many ways. Some we realize, and some we don’t. But in writing this blog, I become aware of some of the blessings I wouldn’t otherwise think about.
“Lord, thank you for all the blessings, seen and unseen. Thank you for showing me Your love in the Church and in the people of our congregation. Thank you for answering that prayer I made so long ago. With such a gentle, loving rebuke, you returned me to my church home. And thank you for all the people in my life that worship You with me. Thank you for the fellowship.”