Transition to the Orthodox Church has been, for me, a seamless garment.
No rough places where two pieces of different cloth are joined, my faith remains intact just like the folded garment at the foot of the cross. Since forever this garment has represented unity to Christians seeking to interpret the gospel events. It represents an against-the-odds wholeness, emerging as it does out of the brokenness of the crucifixion; defeat, failure and death. That garment should have been ripped on the road to Golgotha or torn to shreds by mourners watching the Messiah hung to die like a common thief, but it somehow survived the ordeal. The soldiers who divide Christ’s processions were unwilling to cut his coat. It was too valuable to divide.
For me this whole cloth garment represents how I made the change without any deep tear in the cloth of my heart, the place where I pray and the place from which I live and love. Leaving behind deep commitment to a charismatic-evangelical church and joining an ancient liturgical church looks like a big change but it hasn’t felt like that to me. It may look like I need to explain my new allegiance to a Orthodox beliefs and practices but talking about icons or Marion theology misses the point because the essence of change in me me will not be found in outward practice. I asked Jesus, “Lord teach me to pray” and this is where that request took me. I told him that I would follow him and this is the place I find myself in.
I am the proverbial dog with a bone; I can not let it lie; the irreconcilable, the unresolved, the injustice, the imperfection and the unanswered questions. I came to follow Jesus because I had an insatiable curiosity about God and an irresistible longing to know him. I found that as a Christian my curiosity and longing for God only increased. A familiar paradox: the more we know him the more we want to know him more. For as much as he healed, restored and saved me, he also broke me, undid me and turned my whole universe inside out. He refuses to let us stay as we are when staying as we are is not the best. As American pastor and writer Max Lucado says, “God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus. ” Our faithfulness is to Jesus alone, not to a denomination or tradition, not to a particular culture or position in that culture. When we are following this Jesus we should not be surprised by unusual twists and turns in the plot.
When I left my church I did not plan to join the Orthodox Church, butI found myself by accident in the Sunday morning liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Leyland. I loved the rich scriptural tradition and the sense of continuity with the life of the first Christian communities. When I tentatively began to participate, standing for the procession of the Gospel or lighting a candle I took my first steps into an alien worship that actually felt strangely familiar. All I could say to those who asked was that I found it deeply Christian. After just three weeks I had the strangest sense that I would be a fool to leave.
I have never been a Christian who heard an audible voice or felt the need to labour hard for a directive word. These Sunday mornings had come to me as a gift and they sounded as loud as any audible voice. The nature of the gift was such that I felt declining it would, be an affront to the God who had so surprisingly lavished it upon me. With no prior effort to invite it, this is the nearest thing to a calling I have experience but it was not without its difficulties. So many Orthodox practises there were alien to my Protestant ways. Things I had long thought of as idolatrous were, it appeared, the main stay of this ancient Christian church. I thought we should visit some other churches, branch out a bit, but when Sunday morning came we had no enthusiasm for the hunt, just a longing for that Orthodox place, praying that liturgy and finding peace amongst the saints.
So we stayed and just before Easter we threw in our lot with the Orthodox Church in a ceremony that is called chrismation. For me it has been a seamless garment and the new place of belonging does not mark a change of religion (as some may see it) but the next step along the way. My new place of worship is a location in a journey I began over thirty years ago. There is only one church.
I’m grateful for the way the image of that seamless garment leapt out from the gospel over Holy Week, helping me interpret and give voice to the change and I will end with a quote from Cyprian of Carthage who, uses the image in his writings on the unity of our faith.
“When someone would be clothed in Christ he receives a perfect suit of clothing and an undamaged tunic. But what comes into his possession is common property … So truly because Christ’s people can not be torn apart, his tunic ‘woven without seam and holding fast together’ reveals the concord that holds together the unity of our people who have put on Christ. By the sign and seal of the tunic Christ has declared the unity of the church.”
Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage in 249 and was a pre-eminent Christian teacher and writer in the days prior to Augustine. He was a strong leader through turbulent times, a defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy and beloved pastor of the people. He was martyred in 258.