Friday, April 24, 2009

Interview with Nina

The following interview is with my friend, Nina, whom I’ve known for several years through an Orthodox online community, Monachos.   Nina has taught me much about the Orthodox faith, including the lives of the saints and the wonder of her own testimony being raised under communism.    Nina’s love for God and the encouragement she offers to others are continually inspiring;  I’m blessed to call her a friend.

The icon above depicts St. Euphrosyne (pronounced you-FROZE-uh-nee) of Moscow, Nina's patron saint.

1) Where were you born and in what church were you raised?

I was born in Albania before communism collapsed, therefore religion was still banned. My family was Christian Orthodox.

2) What was your relationship like with God when you were a child? i.e, your ideas of Him, your experience of Him, what you were taught about communicating with Him?

When I was a child I did not know things about God. We were taught by communist propaganda that God did not exist. However my family (especially my grandparents) were exercising their right to religion secretly and often I would be present during such moments. These are very blessed moments in my life because this is how God called me; He showed compassion and called me through the example of the adults in my family when they were caring for their spiritual needs.

Things I learned about Orthodoxy (not directly about God) I can classify in two groups: 

a) Incidental. b) Purposeful 

In the first group belong stories when I was present by chance where there were talks, or events about Orthodoxy such as the case of my grandmother talking to her cousins and trying to figure out the saint's feastday and who was celebrating on that particular day -since they had to rely on memory because there were no religious calendars. 

In the second group I would include moments like the time when my grandfather gave me my first cross (which was made clandestinely by my uncle) and told me to hide it underneath my clothes at all times, or when grandmothers told me fairytale or chanted hymns which were from the Bible and the Church and I had no idea what these were and I was taught not to repeat them, or say them outside the house (for fear of persecution).

3) Was there ever a time in your life that you didn’t believe in God? If so, what or who convinced you otherwise?

Yes there was. When I started to read at three years old, I started also being brainwashed with the communist propaganda that there is no God. So that were my belief for some years as a child. However often at night before going to sleep I would ponder about metaphysical issues. 

I could not comprehend that from being and existing I would vanish into non-existence after death... And I would start crying silently and go to sleep. I believe these were seeds planted in my soul by God given the circumstances we lived, therefore this was another way of Him calling me to believe in Him. However it is not easy when you do not even know that there is a God, or that the word God even exists since many things were censured at that time. Therefore He decided that at some point it was good for me to learn and encounter Him. 

One day, when I was visiting with my maternal grandparents, I was in their front yard talking to my friends and discussing about the creation of the world. I told them all about the Big Bang theory and also added (as it was taught and written in the text books) that the theory that God created the world it is not true since there is no God. 

While I was so passionately talking to my friends and "teaching" them, my grandfather who must have heard my speech asked me to go and talk to him. My friends left and my grandfather talked with me for a while. I resisted a lot. However after some logical explanation which my grandfather told me, God entered my heart and has never left since! Thank God and may He bless the soul of my grandfather for being His tool for my soul's salvation. 

4) I know through our friendship that you are very knowledgeable about Orthodoxy and the saints in particular. Who is your patron saint? 

My patron Saint is Saint Euphrosyne. There are several of them and I feel connected to all of them and ask for their intercessions always. 

5) When did you come to live in the United States?

More than a decade ago.

6) Could you describe some of the differences in worshipping in Albania and the United States?

There are no essential differences. Differences are only behavioral, or cultural. Ah and the language is different. Also in Tirana I attended the Cathedral and the Archbishop was leading the Liturgy and there were priests, monks, deacons. In my present parish we have one priest (for about 500 families) and recently a deacon was assigned to our parish also. Thank God because our priests work non-stop and it is a very demanding job.

7) What do you love most about the Church? about Divine Liturgy in particular?

The Church is my Home. I can not really pinpoint what I like most about it... Divine Liturgy is also beautiful and each moment is so meaningful and expresses our entire Faith, and God's love for humanity. The Liturgy here is the Divine Liturgy that happens in Heaven where angels sing praises to our God.

8) Being recently married, could you describe some elements from the Orthodox wedding ceremony for readers who may be completely unfamiliar?

As the priest who crowned us said to the guests (the majority of whom were not Orthodox Christians) in the church: "What do we do in a wedding? We celebrate the couple, we dance, we eat, we drink. All these happen also during the Orthodox wedding ceremony." 

There is the blessing of the rings and the betrothal before the couple is crowned. And after the couple is crowned the common cup (symbolizing the common life the couple will share) with wine is given by the priest and afterward the dance of Isaiah around the altar takes place, during which the hymn: "Isaiah dances..." is chanted and the couple and the sponsor all connected to the priest and the Gospel leading the way circle the altar three times. 

9) What resources would you suggest to someone interested in learning about the ancient faith?

It depends on the preferences of different people. For me personally, hagiography (lives of saints) was very crucial when learning about Orthodoxy since it gave me plenty of examples to admire and motivated me. Lives of Saints are Orthodoxy in practice. Also attending Divine Liturgy and other Services of the Church is a very profitable way to learn more. I would also recommend books, and online material and talking to Orthodox priests and believers. 

10) How do you share the treasures of the Orthodox faith with people you meet in day-to-day life?

I try to keep in mind the saying from a Church Father who said: "Daily preach the Gospel, if necessary use words." However it is very difficult for me, the sinner that I am, to be able to preach the Gospel through my actions. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Remembering the Martyrs Under Communism

"A flower, if you bruise it under your feet, rewards you by giving you its perfume"
Richard Wurmbrand

Previously, I shared with you a saint, Pastor Wurmbrand, the founder of Voice of the Martyrs.
Pastor Wurmbrand was a Romanian evangelical minister who spent 14 years in communist prisons including three years in solitary confinement.  His book, Tortured for Christ, had a profound effect on my life, as it widened the scope of my understanding of God and theosis.   Even after 32 years of christianity, I saw myself as an infant, not comprehending the love as evidenced in the lives of those who have suffered for Christ.

As far as I know, he is not officially canonized in any church, I call him a saint because of his extraordinary testimony to the power of love through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.   As 2009 marks a centennial celebration of his life, I wanted to share a recently discovered video of Pastor Wurmbrand.  In this clip, he is telling his own story of being in solitary confinement in a communist prison and the truths he experienced that are for all christians.

As we go through the prayers and services of Holy Week in our free countries, let us remember those who have suffered for Christ in hostile nations.  May his memory be eternal!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Interview with Fr. Andrew

I am honored to share with you an interview with Rev. Fr. Andrew S Damick, our assistant pastor at St. George Orthodox Cathedral. I appreciate his time, especially considering his full schedule during Great Lent and pray that his insights and experiences may bless you. Thank you, Fr. Andrew, for being so approachable and willing to share your faith and testimony with others.  

1) How were you first introduced to the Orthodox Church?

" My introduction to Orthodox Christianity was on the Internet, back in 1997.  In those days, the web was small enough that one could read just about everything there on Orthodoxy within the space of a few weeks.  What got me looking was a brief comment on the Orthodox Church in a conversation with a friend who was telling me that he was planning on becoming Roman Catholic.  In the course of the chat, the Orthodox Church was mentioned -- I don't recall if it was by me or by him -- and that stuck in my mind long enough so that I did a search online for any information I could find.

Unless there's no other option, I wouldn't recommend an introduction to Orthodoxy via the Internet these days, because there are now so many people representing themselves as Orthodox who may not actually be or who are associated with the Church for secular reasons.  As with everything on the Internet, caveat lector.

Eventually, I found myself on an email group dedicated to discussions between Orthodox Christians and Evangelical Protestants.  I asked a number of questions there, and after some time, I received an email from one of the members inviting me to church (we lived in the same city).  My first visit to an Orthodox Church was to a tiny Russian Orthodox mission with about ten members borrowing a chapel in an Episcopalian administrative building.  It was humble in almost every sense of the word, but I saw Heaven meet Earth there that Sunday morning.  Nothing afterward was ever the same.

Two weeks later, found myself in an Antiochian parish which was closer to my home.  The pastor and the people were warm, welcoming and ready to answer my questions.  I stayed and was received into the Church six months later."

2) In what denomination were you raised? and, how, if any , did those early experiences prepare you for Orthodoxy?

" I was not raised in a single denomination, especially because my family moved around so much (I've moved 19 times in my nearly 34 years).  Many of the churches we attended were independent, Baptist-style churches, along with a number of bona fide Baptist churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention or others.  We also attended a Grace Brethren church when I was in high school.  For about three years in the early 1980s, we went to a different church every weekend -- my parents were missionaries raising support.

The greatest contribution from my Christian upbringing was a genuine love for Christ imparted by my parents, who also saw to it that I received a strong Christian identity that had no problem being different from the rest of the world.  One of the memories which sticks strongly with me was the footwashing and agape meal rituals that the Grace Brethren practice before receiving communion together. Though they don't understand these things sacramentally, it helped to prepare me for liturgical worship in that I saw that deep meaning could be found in ritual, which is by no means "empty." "

3) Has there ever been a time in your life when you didn’t believe in God? And, if so, what convinced you otherwise?

" There never was a time that I declared myself an atheist, though I functioned as one a few years in the beginning of college (I was an undergraduate for seven years, working on two majors and three minors; I eventually dropped one of the majors just a semester shy of finishing it).  My family was attending an Evangelical mega-church, whose Sunday morning worship consisted of a short pop-rock concert followed by 45-60 minute sermon.  I believed I was "saved," and so I lost sight of what else I could actually do as a Christian.  There seemed to be no real progress to make, not in any critical sense. What is "growth" when Heaven and salvation are not at stake?

As a result, I began to drift from church, and I would work on Sunday mornings fairly often.  Prior to the catalyst conversion mentioned above with my incipient Roman Catholic convert friend, there began to be a slow preparation for the search for beauty and worship.  I expressed this longing one time at a college student Bible study I attended and was mostly met with blank stares.

So, while I wasn't an atheist in terms of my belief, I acted like one.

The only logical consequence I could see to the theology that I'd received (particularly the "once saved, always saved" element) was that I was "saved" and there was nothing left for me to do spiritually but wait for Heaven.  What changed my mind was my encounter with Orthodoxy, which teaches that salvation is a dynamic process that takes one's whole life and continues even into eternity.  "Going to Heaven when you die" is really only one small step in a much larger journey of communion with God and becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.

The irony is that, while I was raised with the idea of a "personal relationship with Jesus," I really didn't find anything that functioned like an actual relationship until I came face to face with His Church."

4) What author, or other person(s), was the most influential in your conversion to the Orthodox faith?

" My theological "awakening" began with reading a few works by C. S. Lewis as a teenager and young man.  That led me to want a serious faith with some actual solidity to it.  Of course, Lewis, so much beloved by Evangelicals, would hardly be considered one of them if they actually had gone to church with him.  He was essentially a sort of Anglo-Catholic (in current terms, though he was just a normal Anglican in his own day), believing in things like the reality of the Eucharist and even Purgatory (of course, the Orthodox part ways with him on the latter of those two and a few other items).

I also read "Becoming Orthodox" by Fr. Peter Gillquist, which, while it is simple in its approach, very much appealed to me as a Baptist-leaning Evangelical.  It really started me thinking, and then I read "The Orthodox Church" and "The Orthodox Way," both by
Kallistos (Timothy) Ware.  I also read "For the Life of the World" by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, which brought light for me onto why Christianity must be sacramental.

Probably the most influential person in my conversion was Fr. Nicholas Sorensen, the parish priest at my home parish.  He took a brash, egotistical young man and brought him into Orthodoxy.  I still have the same weaknesses, but thanks to people like Fr. Nicholas, I know there's actually a point to struggling against them."

5) What theological obstacles did you face as a catechumen, if any?

" The biggest issue for me was the relationship between faith and works. I mostly dealt with it before I became a catechumen, but it had been so ingrained in me for so many years that the two were opposed that it took a minor miracle before I could in any sense see their true connection.  There was no logical argument that lead me to conclude that they were not opposed, but rather experience of worshiping in an Orthodox manner showed me that opposing them made no sense.  Of course one cannot earn salvation!  But to sit back and just wait for God to bestow it on me without any cooperation on my part other than mere assent makes no sense either.  Such an approach implies that God gives me free will for one moment only and then violates it at all other times.

I really had no problems with the usual things that normally give Protestant converts difficulty:  venerating Mary and the saints, icons, sacraments, hierarchy, etc.  I think that my theological imagination had been so shaped by reading men like Lewis and Tolkien that I had a built-in longing for the holy in terms of the physical. The truth of the Incarnation makes a Christian faith with a physical side to it completely logical."

6) When and how did you know that you were called to the priesthood?

" People ask me this every so often, and I really have no good answer. There was no moment that I knew, except perhaps when the bishop put the Eucharist into my hands just after ordaining me!  For me, it was something of a growing realization, and at some point (not sure when), I found that my desires to be (first) a musical theatre writer and director and (later) a professor of English literature had been replaced with a desire for the priesthood.

The priesthood is really the only thing that remotely fulfills everything I have ever loved my whole life:  Christ, poetry, music, beauty, truth, care for others, conversation, etc.  I'm not really as enthused about the administrative part of it, but thank God, that's not critical to the ordination!  That can always be delegated where necessary."

7) What new insights have you gained about your calling during your time at St. George Orthodox Cathedral?

" One of the difficult lessons I have learned since my conversion and during my time at the cathedral has been that piety is not equal to faith.  There are people who have one without the other.  Ideally, both should work together and each should inform the other, but they are not the same thing.

I've also learned from my mentor here, Fr. Olof Scott, that not every hill is worth dying on.  The wise man tries to pick the ones worth charging up and leaves the rest alone.  With some, you tunnel under.

One of my greatest joys in emerging from the rarefied seminary life into parish life has been the discovery that people really do yearn for the Gospel.  It can be easy to lose sight of that in seminary, and it feeds my soul to see people meet Christ and grow in their love for Him."

8) You have often stated that evangelism is a priority in your ministry. What positive changes in this area have you witnessed in the Orthodox Church over the last few years? What still needs to be addressed?

" While there are some encouraging things in Orthodox evangelism over the past number of years, overall, the state of the Orthodox Church, both in America and abroad, is absolutely terrible in this regard. There are of course historical reasons for this, but our first fathers in the faith lived in times far more difficult than our own and yet still managed to turn the Roman Empire upside down.

I am encouraged, however, both in what I've seen in our parish here and elsewhere.  People are becoming more serious about their faith. The percentage of Sunday-only Christians is shrinking in the face of a growing awakening of the people of God.  Many new parishes are being founded, dedicated not to the preservation of a national culture but to the expansion of the new nation, the Christian race, which welcomes every human being into it and shares the one common Blood of Christ.

It fascinates me to see that people who become serious about their faith almost automatically begin to invite people to church and to share with them Christ's power and energy.  As such, while I do believe that there is an urgent need to train all parishioners to become missionaries, I believe firmly that the first step in that training is the formation of a strong, consistent and frequent worship life informed by a vigorous education in the doctrine and practice of our faith.  These are the things I've tried to do in my priesthood and will continue to do, God willing. "

9) To someone who is from another faith or denomination who is interested in Orthodoxy, what resources would you suggest?

" There is no better resource than a visit to an actual Orthodox Christian worship service.  That's where we do the real work of our faith.  Nothing can ever substitute for an encounter with real Orthodox Christians.  Ours is an incarnate faith, not something one can learn from a book.

If people are interested in reading something, however, the books I mentioned above by Gillquist and Ware are of course fine introductory material.  ("The Orthodox Church" is more informational and educational, while "The Orthodox Way" is more formational and "spiritual.")  I also highly recommend "Beginning to Pray" by Anthony Bloom, which is easy to read but genuinely profound, as well as Schmemann's "For the Life of the World," which shows how the only bulwark against secularism really is a Christianity expressed in sacrament and the holiness of the physical."

*Photo is courtesy of Fr.Andrew, from October 2006 when he was ordained to the holy priesthood in the Orthodox Church by His Grace, Bishop Antoun (Khouri) of Miami and Southest at All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, NC.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Upcoming Interviews

For a while now, I’ve wanted to share with you a few individuals that have blessed my life. These are people who radiate light from heaven and who, in a multitude of ways, have enriched my understanding and experience of God. I am pleased that several of them have agreed to be interviewed for this blog and I’ll be sharing their words with you soon. Through their unique gifts and triumphs in life, I hope to bring you a measure of joy, wonder, and comfort in your journey with Christ. Stay tuned!
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