I’d like to share another change our family is experiencing. Debbie and I haven’t shared it with too many people, partly because we are in the very beginning stages and partly because of the potential misunderstanding our new journey may create. But it’s an important part of our lives right now and will become increasingly significant after we move into 2008.
Debbie and I are exploring the reality of our family joining Eastern Orthodoxy. Our journey together has brought us through Protestant evangelicalism longing for something deeper, richer and more significant.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Several years ago, as a professional pastor, I experienced severe burnout. I emerged from that experience questioning both my practices as a pastor and a Christian. I was doing everything I had counseled others to do in order to be strong and mature Christians — church attendance, small group attendance, tithing, participation in ministry, evangelism, prayer, practicing spiritual gifts, regular Bible study, daily quiet times, worship, etc. And yet, while doing all of these activities, inwardly I was angry, stressed, jealous, competitive, greedy, lustful, afraid, insecure, and manipulative. Even though I loved God and truly desired to follow him, everything I was practicing was having virtually no effect upon my inward life.
My burnout became the catalyst for my journey into spiritual formation. I soon discovered the practices of spiritual disciplines and community that were beginning to reshape and renew my inward life.
But this journey quickly led me to realize that even deeper than my false practices lay my false theology and worldview from which those practices were nurtured and strengthened. And this theology and worldview was deeply ingrained within the entire structure of popular Protestant evangelicalism. It’s popular music, books, teaching, radio programs, and even local church infrastructures perpetuated theology, practices and ultimately a life that claimed to be biblical, but was far removed from anything Jesus and his early followers envisioned.
In my search for a theology that would sustain a life of spiritual formation, found myself drawn to theologians and church leaders such as N.T. Wright, Alexander Schmemman, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Father Thomas Hopko and others. Soon I found myself mentally embracing a fuller theology and faith that was significantly different from my Protestant roots. It seems that every facet of my theology underwent tectonic shifts. And all of this while pastoring a Protestant church.
The last four and half years away from professional ministry, while difficult in regards to understanding my calling as a pastor, have been wonderfully liberating in my personal exploration in theology and practice. The emerging church has provided an extended conversation that fueled my theological shifts. I love the faith-community in which God has placed my family. I love the new avenues of influence God has opened through my blog, writing and work at Asian Access. I have loved walking with two Fuller Theological Seminary students as they worked on their field education projects.
Yet, in all of this, there has been something missing. And it was especially noticeable when our family attended a local church on Sunday mornings. Debbie and I decided a couple of years ago to attend a local Vineyard Church that was pastored by my friend. This would allow our kids to participate in a youth program and allow Debbie and me to join in larger corporate worship, both missing within our small home church.
I discovered that the more I was away from professional pastoring, the more difficult it was to attend a local church. Don’t misunderstand me. My friend is an excellent pastor. He is perhaps one of the healthiest pastors I have ever met. I wish he had been in my professional life earlier on as a mentor. I probably would have avoided a lot of pitfalls.
Despite his excellent pastoring, I would leave Sunday morning worship meetings miserable and depressed. It is very difficult to explain what I was experiencing. At first, I thought Sunday mornings simply reminded me of everything I had lost when I left my last pastorate. But it was something else.
The worship, sermons, and fellowship at the local church were superb at one level. But everything was… how do I put it?… unreal. I kept seeing a structure with programs and budgets and people all perpetuating something that wasn’t real. It wasn’t real to Jesus’ vision. It wasn’t real to the Bible. It wasn’t real to the early church and to those who lived, labored and died for the doctrines and practices we now take for granted. It wasn’t real to any authentic spirituality. And it wasn’t real to life. It was like entering some weird fantasyland reality that didn’t make sense anymore.
Again, please don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t a problem with my friend’s church. In fact, of all of the evangelical churches I have visited lately, his was the most comfortable and healthiest.
As I met with my pastor-friend for coffee over the last year or so, he would tell me repeatedly that because of who I have become theologically, it would be very difficult for me to find a church that I would fit. The truth of his statement hit me one day as I was emailing Mark. I suddenly realized that I embrace and believe more core Eastern Orthodox theology than I do Protestant evangelical theology. And although I disagree with some Eastern Orthodox theology, they are more peripheral areas. On the other hand, I disagree with most core Protestant theology. (I’ll need to unpack that in a future post.)
I was leaving Sunday worship meetings depressed because I was so out of sync with everything there — the music, the teaching, the subculture, the worldview — that it was a constant reminder of how much I don’t fit anymore.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Eastern Orthodox podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio. As I listen to their discussions of faith, practice, theology and sacramental worldview, I’m discovering that I’ve believed this stuff a looooooong time already. In fact, I told Mark that I think theologically, I’ve been Orthodox for quite a while and it’s just taking time for the rest of me to catch up.
So our family is beginning a slow and cautious journey into Eastern Orthodoxy. We have visited a friend’s church for Vespers several times. It is so foreign and strange. After spending my entire adult life both academically and professionally pursuing ministry in a Protestant context, it is weird being a “beginner” all over again. But there is such promise in Eastern Orthodoxy for both me and my family. The thought of being part of a faith-community whose entire reason for being is to become like Jesus and to live and practice toward that goal together within a rich and deeply historical system excites me.
But I’m very anxious as well. In many ways, I feel there is no where to go from here if Orthodoxy isn’t for us. I cannot go back into evangelicalism. And because Roman Catholicism is inherently a western worldview like Protestantism, moving there seems to be only a lateral move.
So as our family explores Eastern Orthodoxy, I will be posting our experiences and reflections.