Holy Endings and Beginnings
By Susan L. Wallace
St. Andrew Church, Oklahoma City, OK
"Let's try Tone Eight once more." As I listened to our small group struggle to sing Psalm 104 in plainchant, my mind raced back a few months to March 25. Our last service as Holy Trinity Charismatic Episcopal Church was glorious. Almost everyone had shown up to close an eleven-year chapter of spiritual life together. Our worship had been a unique combination of liturgical high church traditions and contemporary music, and for this last mass we brought out all the regalia. As the resplendent processional cross symbolically lifted Jesus high above His followers, a parade of acolytes, liturgical dancers with tambourines, festival flag bearers, and vested clergy marched down the aisle with joy, like King David when he brought the ark back home to Jerusalem. Guitars and drums accented the celebratory mood as a multitude with raised hands worshiped our Holy God.
Outside observers and visitors had also joined in for this last charismatic hurrah. They were baffled at the dramatic turn of events. Why on earth would a wonderful church that had mastered the beautiful blend of majestic, holy liturgy and enthusiastic, heartfelt adoration abandon such an alluring and “feel-good” style of worship? They could not seem to wrap their mind around the idea of exchanging all this freedom for the “religious bondage” of Orthodoxy.
Our group had been taking inquirers' classes for almost two months at St. Elijah's Antiochian Orthodox Church. It seemed as if most of us would be embarking on this journey into scary, but certainly glorious, territory. We sensed we were on an exciting adventure as we headed towards the promised land of Orthodoxy.
But no one, including our mentor, Fr. Constantine Nasr, was prepared for the sobering moment of reality as we sang our joyous recessional. My husband, Fr. Mark, turned to face the altar and slowly began to take off his chasuble. For eleven years he had put it on to serve at this sacred table, but now he was laying it down as a sacrifice. A holy hush filled the room as he lifted the priestly stole of authority over his head and offered it also in solemnity. An ache pierced my chest as I stood in the back and watched an entire congregation weep bittersweet tears.
"Lord, are we doing the right thing?" I silently prayed. "Have mercy upon us . . . show us the way."
Emerging from the Convergence Movement
Why were we making this traumatic move? My husband and I had wholeheartedly embraced the Convergence Movement of the Charismatic Episcopal Church (CEC) thirteen years before. Beginning in 1992, many spiritual seekers who were disillusioned with the condition of the Church began to flock to San Clemente, California, where a group of evangelical and Pentecostal pastors had begun a new denomination with an ancient flair. This new sect was birthed as a result of an interdenominational conference of evangelicals in the late 80s known as the Chicago Call, which initiated a national dialogue on how to bring Jesus to a searching culture.
Out of that gathering came a realization that Protestantism had overreacted for decades and mistakenly thrown out the rich sacramental life of the early Church. But the sacraments could not be practiced without episcopal government, so men who had formerly pastored in street clothes began to don collars, cassocks and miters. The unique blend of liturgical, sacramental, evangelical, and charismatic expressions of worship with bishops, priests, and deacons seemed so right. It had taken us years to find this beautiful convergence of all the streams of Christianity.
I had converted to Christianity from a reformed Mormon background after I married Mark. Several rocky years of marital discord slowly began to heal as we finally agreed theologically. Surely, we thought, we could now find the peace and harmony we needed to raise our young daughter.
We joined a tried-and-true evangelical church, but it lacked the sense of community I had known within Mormonism. So we journeyed into a passionate Pentecostal church, but it offered no grace. A nondenominational church seemed a likely option, but it struggled with constant conflict because the backgrounds of its members were so varied.
We had become the spiritual family of the three bears. This one was too rigid, this one was too lax, but nothing was right. Both of us longed for something more, until we found the CEC. It was everything wrapped up in one. And we were one big international family. Mark and I even wrote an inquirers’ curriculum that was being used as far away as the Philippines. We earnestly believed that God wanted to bring His fractured Church, His Bride, back into wholeness and unity, and that we were called to help make that happen through the Convergence Movement.
So what happened? Tragically, discord within the CEC’s House of Bishops began to crack open an obviously unstable foundation. Hidden flaws were unearthed, and within a period of three months, half the bishops in the United States had departed. The house was doomed to destruction.
Our own bishop, whom we loved, attempted to recover what we had known by regrouping with the other separated bishops to start a new movement. Mark began to doubt and question. "If we are called to help bring unity to Christ's Church, why are we starting yet another denomination? If we embrace the theology of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the first millennium before the schism of 1054, why are we not submitting to the authority of that Church? Why are we trying to reinvent what already exists?"
It seemed as if suddenly several other Charismatic Episcopal priests were asking the same questions. The Internet was flooded with passionate e-mails between them. All were asking one another about Orthodoxy, especially about an almost unknown expression of Orthodoxy called the Western Rite. It was a recovery of what some would call the ancient Celtic Orthodox faith of the British Isles in the early centuries of Christianity.
In December 2006, Mark nonchalantly announced to me that he had made an appointment with Fr. Constantine Nasr. I was stunned. We weren't Greek, Russian, or Arabic, so how could we really be Orthodox? (I now smile at my ignorance.) But on December 30, our new adventure began. When Mark began to inquire of Fr. Constantine about the possibility of bringing our congregation into the Western expression of the Orthodox Church, Father's face lit up. He had been praying for two years to start a Western Rite mission. To our surprise, we discovered the Antiochians had become visionaries in the task of recovering this Western Rite of the Orthodox faith. Fr. Constantine lovingly bade us, "Come home."
So, on this final worship service as Holy Trinity CEC, were we making the right move? I watched as my husband took off his beloved priest's collar and added it to the sacrificial pile of vestments. He was serious as he gathered them up in his arms and handed them to Dru, the chief acolyte. Without rehearsal or even suggestion, Dru instinctively walked down the aisle and placed the precious garments of servanthood into Fr. Constantine's arms. The torch had been passed, and divine peace flooded the room.
Months later, the changes have been dramatic. We now find ourselves worshiping in St. Elijah's beautiful Chapel of St. George. The people have so graciously and generously welcomed us, and sometimes it seems as if we have been here a long time. Yet I marvel at how far we have come in such a short time. Bishop BASIL of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America has bestowed upon our congregation of catechumens the name of St. Andrew, the first-called of the apostles. We are the first Western Rite mission of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma.
Our dynamic worship band has been exchanged for a simple keyboard that needs more volume. We sing metrical hymns rather than jazzy contemporary choruses, and we are learning the rubrics of the plainchant. Matins and Vespers are our only form of worship expression since we are on a eucharistic fast until our chrismation, scheduled for early January 2008. A regular schedule of fasting days now dots our calendars, and icons of martyrs grace our walls and bookshelves.
For emotionally charged people, it is a hard yet necessary wilderness season that is forcing us to look within and embrace obedience rather than feelings. Even Jesus "learned obedience by the things which He suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). These are days of significant transformation.
All those years of excitable worship as charismatics did not produce victory over the flesh. I've always known that God does not want robotic veneration. We are His Bride, and He created us for relationship with Him. But we were in bondage to the emotional rollercoaster of feelings without spiritual discipline.
Week after week, we came to church to encounter the awesome Presence of God. Goosebumps were a sure sign we had been visited by the Holy Spirit, and our spiritual radar was always looking for the “feel-good” feelings. Then many, if not most, would go home to become enslaved again to offenses, envy, jealousy, and covetous desires and appetites. Without our realizing it, the pleasure barometer affected our ability to "bring every thought into captivity" (2 Corinthians 10:5) and every response into obedience to Christ. Ultimately, life was based on feelings.
Even our “sacrifice of praise” was based on the standard of feeling God. Like an Olympic judge, we came away judging every aspect of the service. Producing an emotionally moving worship service became the standard for survival. If it wasn't “good,” people would leave. “Strive” became our middle name as we succumbed to the people's demands. The music had to be wonderful. The sermon couldn't be so-so; if there was a prophetic word given, we had hit the top.
We thought surely God was pleased with us. And He was pleased with us, but not because we produced the expected good feelings. We were genuine seekers. He heard the cry of our hearts and saved us from ourselves. His goodness and mercy have patiently led us towards the Church of the Book of Acts, which was birthed in the Upper Room and has been around for two thousand years—the Church that has been the guardian of truth by refusing to bend to cultural fads and “feel-good” heresies. We are learning to offer worship that pleases God—not ourselves.
I am beginning to understand the scripture verse, "to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Samuel 15:22). Obedience trumps preference. Sometimes I feel like the rebellious teenager who had to go out and do it my way, only to realize that Mom (the Church) and my heavenly Father were right all along. It is sometimes unsettling, yet I know God has ordained this path towards home.
Are we still a charismatic church? Yes, in the sense that God is showing us that His ministry of the Holy Spirit has been in His Church since its birth at Pentecost. The third Person of the Trinity is continually guiding, teaching, and comforting us, just as St. John said He would. And there are signs and wonders quietly happening all the time within His Holy Orthodox Church.
Frequently, I am asked if I miss the exuberant worship style of my charismatic past. Despite our unstable self-focus, God was gracious to our CEC flock. However, I see an unshakable foundation slowly emerging. Spiritual fun-seekers would not be found numbered among the heroes of Hebrews 11:35–36, who "were tortured, not accepting deliverance," who "had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment . . . were stoned . . . sawn in two . . . slain with the sword." Each Sunday, as I gaze upon the iconic faces of the "great cloud of witnesses" who so willingly laid down their lives for His sake, my resolve to throw off the bondage of spiritual pleasure-seeking is strengthened.
On March 25, Holy Trinity ended its season as a Charismatic Episcopal Church, but it did not lay down its calling to help searching evangelicals and Pentecostals come home to the ancient Church. More than ever we know we are called to help restore Christ's fractured Bride to wholeness and unity. On May 6, 52 of us became catechumens, and as we spit on the devil our hearts were set like flint toward the promised land of Christ's Kingdom. At times we see giants in the land, but with God's grace and courage we will overcome. When we finally cross over at our chrismation, I pray that we become a more mature bride who continues to grow in the fruit of self-control and obedience.
Ironically, that same weekend in May, without orchestration, Christ the King (another Charismatic Episcopal congregation in Jacksonville, Texas) also became catechumens, and two former Charismatic Episcopal priests, Denny Roland of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Patrick Cardine of Warrenton, Virginia, were ordained deacons.
I eagerly anticipate the first time that St. Andrew's celebrates the Divine Liturgy, when once again the processional cross will shadow our bowed heads and we will sense His pleasure—not because we have created a “feel-good” arena for Him to grace us with His Presence, but rather because we will have entered into His Kingdom of self-denial. Genuine humility infused with the Blessed Trinity's awe-filled holiness defines beautiful worship.
We are called to help recover the Orthodoxy of the ancient West so that East and West can once again be united. Perhaps our pioneering days in the Convergence Movement were training and preparation for a holy beginning in the Western Rite of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. One thing we all know for certain—there is no place like home. And quite surprisingly, chanting is beginning to sound somewhat heavenly.
Susan Wallace works at the Oklahoma State Capitol as a legislative assistant for a member of the Oklahoma House of Reprentatives. She and her husband, Mark, have been married for 31 years. As a mother of three daughters, and three grand-daughters, she is passionate about teaching women who they are as the Bride of Christ, and how to walk in that calling. She is a frequent retreat speaker and teacher for women's Bible studies, and writes Christian curriculum for both children and adults.
This article was originally published in AGAIN Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter 2007. AGAIN Magazine is published by Conciliar Media Ministries, a Department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Learn more about AGAIN online.
Photo courtesy of www.PrintsCharmingPhotography.com