Nyssa’s Conversion Story–Or, how I discovered Holy Orthodoxy: Part 4
I bought the Orthodox Study Bible (New Testament version) and began using the prayers in the back of the book. I began practicing the sign of the Cross.
I left Evangelical forums which opposed everything even remotely Catholic, and joined an Orthodox forum to learn more.
I became more and more dissatisfied with contemporary worship services, megachurch practices and Protestant doctrines of all types–Charismatic, Evangelical, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran.
I also learned that “River of Fire” is very controversial, though I e-mailed the guy who answers questions on the OCA site, and he said that the fires of Hell are metaphorical. I also found this in catechisms here and the Orthodox Europe site.
On this and other things, I have to agree with a Lutheran blogger who wrote that it’s hard to pin down what exactly the Orthodox believe on many things, because you’ll read one thing and somebody will say, “No, that’s not true Orthodoxy. Try this website instead.”
The more I study the Early Church Fathers and histories, the more convinced I become that the Orthodox faith has the pure faith of the Early Church–and that it’s the most loving of all denominations I’ve investigated.
With our local PCUSA church going into the megachurch “relevance” mindset, I just can’t stay there anymore. There’s a huge crack in the denomination, formed over some 25 years of arguing, and a recent denominational decision has started a split.
Our local church could get silly at times in the services, with skits or people dressed as clowns or silly little movies done by people in the church, and often used Hollywood movie clips on PowerPoint to demonstrate points. Usually the movie clips were not Christian, and had very little to do with the Bible.
Purpose-Driven Life and The Message Bible were praised and encouraged, but at the time I didn’t know where you could go to get away from such things. To my dismay, the church had done “Forty Days of Purpose” (based on Purpose-Driven Life) in 2003 or 2004, shortly before we began attending in June 2004.
Adult Sunday School classes were based on such things as “praying the movies” (something about using Hollywood movies to inspire prayer–I don’t understand it) and other theologically iffy subjects.
Once, a newcomer led a class on End-Times prophecy. The PCUSA is amillennialist, and the General Assembly once brought up a resolution for churches to make clear to their congregations that Left Behind books have poor theology.
However, I later heard from other church members that the class leader, who came from a fundamentalist background, taught the premillennial dispensationalism which is in the Left Behind books, rather than Presbyterian views on End-Times prophecy.
In September or October of 2006, when we were still going to the PCUSA church, the pastor announced that the 10:30 service would be “blended,” with contemporary and traditional worship. I thought it already was blended, since we sang contemporary fluff along with the hymns. But apparently, “blended” meant even more contemporary fluff and even fewer hymns.
I sang the songs along with everybody else, but I felt so–empty, strained. I feared the songs did not please God because they did not fit a “proper” worship service–maybe a youth group meeting, but not a worship service.
I had only just read in the Old Testament God’s prescription for worship: complete with beautifully crafted artwork, rich clothing, and ceremony, far more like a Catholic Mass or Orthodox Divine Liturgy.
And sometimes the theology of the songs seemed wrong. If you don’t know what these modern praise and worship songs are like, combine Evangelical theology, pop psychology, the motions of kids’ songs, trite lyrics, and formulaic, mass-produced pop music.
I looked over the books and class descriptions for adult Sunday School for the fall. The books were from Willow Creek and other Evangelical sources; the topics included something about laughing your way to a good marriage. Was this a Presbyterian church, or an Evangelical or non-denominational church in the tradition of Willow Creek and Saddleback?
Because of man-centered worship services, weight rooms, food courts, coffee shops, iffy theology and the fact that Purpose-Driven Life and Purpose-Driven Church were written by a megachurch pastor, I had a dim view of any church trying to imitate a megachurch.
One week, after the changes of fall 2006 in our PCUSA church, I had to stay home from church, indisposed as I often was in those days. Cugan came home with notes about a sermon based on some passage in the Old Testament. A new temple was being built and celebrated, but the old folks, who remembered the old temple, cried.
I saw it as the old folks being sad over the past and happy to see a new temple to replace what was lost. The pastor interpreted it as showing that people get upset when changes are made, but changes still need to be made.
When I was able to go to church, the pastor praised the concept of making worship more “relevant.”
Another Sunday, when I was indisposed again, I recalled the sermon was something interesting, though I forgot what exactly, and asked Cugan to take notes. It was, “What does it mean to be Reformed and Always Reforming?” (This is a catchphrase of the PCUSA.)
I thought this meant, the PCUSA struck out the horrid section in the Westminster Confession about unelect babies who die being eternally condemned. I thought it meant women being preachers. I thought it meant constantly examining the Scriptures to make sure nothing has been misunderstood. But apparently, now it means how you worship.
Cugan came home and reported some astonishing things. The pastor passed out copies of the article “Surviving the Rapids of Change?” by Herb Miller and Lyle E. Schaller. This article came from the January 2006 issue of The Parish Paper.
I don’t know much about this publication, but it’s a newsletter for pastors, published by the Conservative Mennonite Conference (source); the website is here.
Following are the pertinent points of “Surviving the Rapids of Change?”:
1) Mainline congregations with traditional services are shrinking; various congregations with modern services are thriving.
2) The American culture has moved from Producer-Driven to Consumer-Driven; people go wherever the church meets their needs.
3) There has been a shift from inherited allegiance to personal choice. Children no longer stick with one job, one career, or their parents’ church.
4) The Baby Boomer culture is driving the modern worship/church trends. (Eh, so they’re the ones to blame?)
5) Thriving congregations replace the organ with a band, replace the hymnal with PowerPoint praise music, replace missionary spending with building a relationship with a sister church in Poland or Peru, replace adult Sunday School with peer-led relational groups, and double their worship attendance within five years. (By the way, all these fit my church.)
6) A church which doesn’t change despite a push for change from the younger generations, “continues its cherished traditions, with a gradual membership decline, a rising median-age of attendees, and a slide toward extinction in two or three decades.”
7) (The Conclusion.) “Four sentences summarize the whole scenario: First, millions of Americans born and reared in a producer-driven culture view the current wave of consumerism as somewhere between a) betrayal and b) proof that the Devil is alive and at work in this world.
“Second, the most effective way to reach the generations born after 1960 is to be sensitive and responsive to their concerns. Third, changes in procedures produce conflict. Fourth, church leaders choose between a) allowing their congregations to sink and disappear and b) thoughtfully negotiating the rapids of change.”
On the front of the article was a Friar-Tuck-like figure praying, “Not my father, nor my mother, but it’s me, O Lord…looking for a place where my needs will be met!”
The church was already thriving and growing rapidly before this new relevance kick, yet starting in September or October of 2006, it seemed that the main point of every sermon–no matter the topic–was, “We must become relevant or we will die. Relevance is a good thing!”
We also had a new worship leader. (By the way, his enunciation was so poor that I had to stifle a smile whenever he spoke or sang. Without the PowerPoint, I wouldn’t have a clue what he was singing.) On November 5, 2006, right before leading a song, he went on about how relevance is important and, “If it weren’t for [relevant services/music], I wouldn’t be here [a Christian] now.”
After a series of “Dream Sessions,” in which congregational groups gave their “dreams” for the church (we missed going for some reason I forget), a PowerPoint presentation showed the results of the brainstorming.
Some ideas were fine: parent groups, SERRV (fair trade) store. But there were also pictures of a pool, a weight room, a colisseum….I had to wonder if my church was trying to be a Willow Creek or Saddleback megachurch, with all sorts of fancy, expensive trappings that have nothing to do with the Gospel. (I talk about this here.)
Then there was a series of sermons on following the dreams God gives you–hardly theological meat.
Because of some trouble with a fired secretary and questions about how the church was run, we now had deacons to help keep the congregation informed about what was going on, and to take care of the big congregation (about 600 people). Our assigned deacon called and asked if we had any issues with the church, which they were doing with everybody.
Cugan wrote his own concerns in an e-mail: This church was starting to look a lot like the Evangelical Free Church, including the music, and Cugan was feeling wary, because he had felt spiritually abused by the Evangelical Free Church. There was a push to do things for the church without much emphasis on healing a person’s own wounds first. He feared that legalistic preaching on tithing would soon follow.
I thought the church was trying to be like the megachurches–not a good thing. I also mentioned the End-Times class, and wondered what our church would do if the PCUSA finally split. Some congregations had been going to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, but that was too Calvinist.
The liberal side was doing all sorts of outlandish things; we even had people who prayed to “Sophia” instead of “God the Father.” When Cugan saw our pastor wearing a strange symbol which looked like an ankh, we couldn’t tell if she was joining the Sophia people (who also incorporate practices from other religions), or if this was a form of cross we’d never seen before.
Around this time, we were asked to be deacons. That surprised me, considering what we had just written–and that neither of us had any sort of theological training. Cugan had too much going on, and I was just about ready to escape to the Orthodox Church, so we turned them down.
By now, I came to the conclusion that the Lutheran church was the closest to correct of all the Protestant denominations. Despite Luther’s shortcomings and coming up with new doctrines and basing doctrines on Augustine’s errors, I knew that the Catholic Church had allowed in all sorts of errors and corruptions which made the Reformation inevitable.
The other Protestant denominations seemed ever more schismatic; Lutherans kept many good things from Catholicism, while the other denominations kept coming up with all sorts of outlandish things, from the Puritans to the Charismatics. If you disagreed, you split and formed your own denomination or synod.
But from what I now knew about Orthodoxy’s claims, even Lutheranism had its doctrinal problems, many of which were based on the errors of Catholicism.
I wavered between becoming Orthodox, staying where I was or becoming Lutheran with Cugan. At first, Cugan promised to go with me wherever I decided to go. But I could tell he didn’t want to become Orthodox, so I released him from his promise.
For a long time, I figured I could be Presbyterian with Orthodox theology, because the PCUSA allows such a huge diversity of beliefs among its members. But what I heard in church kept grating more and more on my soul as I learned more and more about Orthodoxy.
And what about the liberal members? Though for a while I was about ready to be liberal myself, I had discovered the errors in their doctrines. (Some of them even wanted to ditch the creeds, the Virgin Birth, a literal interpretation of the Gospels, and other essentials of the faith. The Bible was more a tool to prove points by twisting it however you liked.)
But the liberal side continuously fights the conservative Presbyterians, always chipping away at the rules in the Book of Order until one day they make the PCUSA completely liberal–whether by changing the doctrines, or by chasing out the conservatives. (I’m not talking about political liberals; politics are another matter entirely.)
Then in November 2006, I read Bishop Kallistos Ware’s story of his conversion to Orthodoxy. His concerns with the Anglican church were the same as mine with the PCUSA–answering questions I had, such as, is it okay to stay where I am, and should I become Catholic rather than Orthodox?
By the time I stepped into an Orthodox church in November 2006, I was finally ready to submit myself to the teachings of the Holy Apostolic and Orthodox Church. I was exhausted.
The mere thought of going back to the PCUSA church the following Sunday, made my stomach twinge. I was looking for the oldest, purest doctrine and practice, something I could trust; I found it here. Here I also found holy worship, and a means to union with God.
Every day that passes, I feel more sure that Orthodoxy is the original faith of the Apostles–that I’ve finally found what I was looking for. And that’s why I entered the catechumenate of the Greek Orthodox Church on December 2, 2006, and joined the Church on January 10, 2009.
By the way–Cugan has gone back to the Lutheran church and is happy again, as well.
Why I feel that St. Gregory of Nyssa, my patron saint, also led me to the Orthodox Church:
First, “Nyssa” was one of my favorite characters on Dr. Who. In high school, I began using the name as one of my many handles on a local Dr. Who-based BBS, the Panoptic Net.
I also happened across an article on St. Gregory of Nyssa while looking through an old Collier’s encyclopedia at my house, as I often did, and was surprised to discover “Nyssa” was a real place name, and that a saint was attached to the name.
I used “Nyssa” after high school/college as my main handle on BBS’s and Internet forums. I also used it as my SCA name, though not officially because it was hard to document it to satisfy the heralds, even though I have found “Nyssa” is a real-life name that has been used in some cultures in a few variations–Scandinavian, Jewish, Greek.
I began looking into claims of universalists back in 2005 because some commentator in Presbyterians Today wrote that some people in the church are universalists.
I was intrigued, since for years I had been wondering if God truly would condemn, say, a religious Jew killed in the Holocaust, or a Muslim woman who was sweet and followed her religion and did her day-to-day stuff and took care of children just like I did, trusting that she would be saved.
Some people are truly evil and may not even want to change that, even if they have all eternity to do so.
But most people–Christians or not–are just trying to do the best they can with the knowledge they have.
In poking around universalist sites, I found St. Gregory of Nyssa and Origen most often referenced as universalists; I also checked out St. Gregory’s “On the Soul and Resurrection,” which was often cited.
One day, I began thinking it was time to join the church officially, after being an inquirer/catechumen for a couple of years. That same time, a guy at church asked me when I was going to join, which almost seemed like a sign from God that it was indeed time.
I was not paying attention to what day it was when, soon after, I picked a date, and told my priest that I would be chrismated as Gregoriana, with St. Gregory of Nyssa as my patron saint.
After everything had been decided, I discovered that I was to be chrismated on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s name day, which happened to fall on a Divine Liturgy day that year, which makes me think St. Gregory was guiding me to choose that particular date. It also gave yet another reason to think that St. Gregory had been guiding me all along to come to this church.
Update 3/25/14: I am still Orthodox, though my opinions on PCUSA theology have altered a bit: I have gone back to being more liberal on the homosexuality debate.