One of my favorite love stories, the BBC adaptation of a Victorian era novel, North & South, features two very strong and compelling characters.
The first, Margaret Hale, the cherub-faced daughter of an English clergyman, is forced to move to the industrial North after her father’s resignation over a matter of conscience. The other is John Thornton, a mill-owner, a handsome man with piercing eyes, brooding and intense, and interest in the demure young woman.
Things started fairly well. But, that doesn’t last as the differences in their perspectives becomes clear. Margaret, compassionate and having lived a sheltered life, interprets the actions of John in a negative light and pulls away after witnessing his harshness towards an employee caught smoking. What she sees as just cruelty was actually Thornton’s concern for the safety and wellness of his workers given the extreme risk of fire.
It is in the last and final act where there’s a scene where the tension between the two finally disappears. Throughout the middle-act Thornton’s truly good character is slowly revealed. And, Margaret, having returned South, has reconsidered her own idealistic notions, now sees the merits to living in Milton, and decided to return North again. Meanwhile, John is going South, the two cross paths at a station near the midpoint and cue the music.
There is this wonderful part of the soundtrack in this climatic station scene, Northbound Train (listen here), that so perfectly accompanied the moment. It is understated and elegant, reflective, that builds in waves to crescendo and then slips away as wistfully as it came. Thornton’s steadfast devotion is finally rewarded with a kiss and happily ever after begins despite the painful struggle to get there.
When the Story Goes South…
During my pursuit of the impossibly (a preacher’s daughter, like Margaret) this story brought a little hope with the similarities to my own. It wasn’t that we were so terribly different in our desires as it was she never heard me. Her conclusions formed before the conversation even began. She had pronounced “you’re thirty years old living in Milton” (the actual name of the town) meaning, in translation, that I would hinder her big plans. And could not understand it was her boldness and ability to get out that attracted me.
My thesis then was that a composite of our unique strengths, seemingly incompatible, bound together by Christian love, would exceed what those of similar abilities could accomplish. My thinking outside the box combined with her represention of the Mennonite standard. And, while I’m never good at getting things started (hence being stuck in Milton) I’m extremely loyal and willing to sacrifice for the team. I knew my age and life experience was an asset. But she could not see my value.
Still, for the year or so following her initial rejection I believed. What a wonderful story we would have when all was said and done, right?
Anyhow, that music, Northbound Train, had seemed like the perfect bridal march. Partly in innocent faith, partly to bolster my failing confidence against the deluge of rational fears, this image of the impossibly walking the church aisle dressed in white. As would be the case in real life, tears would stream down my cheeks as the nightmare of the past decade was replaced by this wonderful dream of marital companionship and completeness.
The strong emotions that came with that gentle harp being replaced with one violin and then two, have now disappeared. The music is still beautiful, but my feelings of numbness have long replaced that panging desire for a well-defined conclusion to over a decade of struggle. What I got instead was a world more complex. The cynicism that I had fought tooth and nail was confirmed.
The sunshine through the clouds, endings sweet and perfect are not for everyone. And the reason we tell such lovely tales is probably because they’re so uncommon, the exception, and not the rule. Sure, we can see ourselves as the characters. But the impossibly will likely go on seeing me as the villain in her movie, her conventional guy as the hero, and has never once shared in my fairytale that love would prevail over our differences.
As Far As the East is From the West
It is hard to believe that nearly another decade has passed and I’m still alone. I’ve moved from Milton, left the religion of my childhood behind, even traveled to the complete opposite side of the world twice, and have changed from that guy perpetually unsure of how to find direction. No, I’m not a missionary, but I do genuinely love people and probably accomplish more of actual value than those duty-bound Evangelical types who see ‘the lost’ as their get-into-heaven projects.
More importantly, I’ve found another impossibly, a beautiful Filipina flower, a little lost sheep when I found her (struggling abroad, in Taiwan, to support her son back home) and now the one who keeps me strong despite our torturous wait. Unlike the Mennonite impossibility, we do not share a cultural or ethnic identity, our lives have been very different, yet we have our simple and devoted love in common—which has been just enough to sustain us through these past years.
However, after all I’ve been through, holding on to hope is hard. Could my visions of her arrival at the airport, on American soil, with Y-dran in tow, also be a delusion?
It has been over two years and eight months since we’ve held each other that one last time before we parted ways in Taoyuan International Airport. I had known the immigration process would be difficult, but could not have anticipated the pandemic and travel bans that make it nearly impossible to be with Charlotte. It really does start to bring those worries that I might be cursed to the forefront again and sometimes the despair does win.
The eternal optimism of youth wiped away by the rejection of the Mennonite ideal, now facing my rational fears and the fact that I’ve been hoping longer than Jacob worked for Rachel and without so much as a Leah in between, I can now fully identify with the wife of Job, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” The frustration is real. How long does one go on dreaming? When is it justified to wither away into bones, with life never to return again?
As far as the East is from the West is an expression, in Psalms 103:12, used to describe an impossible distance that cannot be bridged. And it could seem that, despite the abiding love of my bhest to encourage me onwards, I’ve jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. We have had a bit of good news since I’ve last published a blog here, the USCIS approved the application, and yet will this impossibly ever become possible?
I see the successful couples. So lovely together. To them it feels preordained, meant to be, a dream come true. For me, on the outside looking in, there is now more uncertainty than certainty, not everyone gets that music at the end.
Writing tributes has become one of those things that I’ve done. It feels right as a way that I can give back to those who have positively contributed to my life. It is said, “a person dies twice: once when they draw their last breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.” So, by writing, I feel like I’m extending the legacy of those whom have lived as an example and deserve to be remembered.
My thoughts were to do the same for my cousin Uriah. To honor him as someone who was there for me, as the brother who selflessly cared for his special needs siblings, as the young man mature beyond his years looking to contribute to society in a positive way, as a listening ear and true friend during some of my darkest days, as someone who never complained about being dealt a very nasty card and had every right to the question God.
So far I’ve collapsed under the weight of the task. There is simply no way to put into words or adequately describe the loss of a close friend. The other tributes I’ve written were for those who had basically lived a full life and, more importantly, cases where I could take a step back from the subject to capture their character. I’m simply not skilled enough as writer to give a summary of someone who meant so much to me.
But, still, since his death is something that occupies my mind and since grieving is a process that most have experienced, I’ll write about my own experiences with him and the feelings that I’m currently sorting out. I’ve decided to talk about death and despair. And not with anything glowy to offer as an alternative either. And yet also not as someone who is defeated or ready to succumb to hopelessness. Yes, I’m battling with some depression, but down does not mean defeated.
Anyhow, the blog from here will be in two parts. First the events of the past couple of years from my own perspective. Then, after that, going back a little further for some additional stories about my interactions with Uriah and why this has brought back some of the identity related questions and traumas that has been the overall theme of Irregular Ideation. It is relationships that define and show the depths of what a person is. Hopefully by sharing from my own eyes it will be easier to understand what manner of man Uriah was.
The Strange Lump On Uriah’s Ankle
After finishing up at Bloomsburg University, Uriah decided to enlist. I’m not sure why exactly, he was always up to a challenge, the National Guard was a way to serve his country and give back, and it was always something to put on the resume. I’ve always flirted with the idea, despite being raised in a conservative Mennonite culture that preached against military service, the structure appealed to me. But, unlike me, Uriah followed through.
He excelled in basic training. He was motivated and willing to put in the work to be at the top of his class. One testament to this tenacious spirit was that a painful lump developed on his ankle. Uriah, unlike a ‘normal’ person, decided to continue with his training rather quit to get immediate medical attention. He reasoned that it was better this than to repeat basic and simply endured. I’m doubtful this made much difference as far as the final outcome, but it did mean that he was active duty military during the fight and received the very best care possible.
It was when he came home, over the winter, to visit family and get this lump checked out that I first heard about it. I decided to visit over this time and it was definitely concerning. Still, I was optimistic, I had had a lump removed from my shoulder area before, my sister had a tumor in her abdomen removed, and there was no reason to despair about this. We would wait on the results of the biopsy and pray for the best in the meantime.
We would soon find out that this tumor was malignant and when chemo didn’t do enough, the choice was given: Allow the to cancer spread or amputate. Uriah elected to do the unimaginable for most young and active people. He had his leg removed below the knee. This was hard enough for me. I couldn’t possibly imagine having to make this kind of decision. To go from runner, weight lifter, and athlete, to having to learn how to walk again!
But Uriah, for lack of a better expression, took this huge setback in stride and committed to physical therapy. It felt very fortunate too that he was in the military, Walter Reed is a prosthetics leader and he very proudly showed me the attachments available that would eventually enable him to run again. Besides this, he also had the wonderful Shanae in his life, and knowing my lifelong struggles in the romance department, this was something significant for me. Lumps, and loss of limbs, life goes on.
The Terrible News, Moments Bittersweet
A little over a year ago, and about a year after losing his leg, soon after Uriah’s new normal began to slip from my daily prayers, came the awful news: The cancer was back, this time it was in his lungs and the prognosis was not good. My heart sank. And tears flowed. Uriah would not be with us for much longer and there was very little that could be some about it.
Still, I would not allow this dark cloud plunge me into despair. If we couldn’t save Uriah then we would give him a most glorious send off imaginable. My imagination ran wild with ideas, a day that would be unforgettable, with my brother flying him and faking an emergency landing in a nearby city where us cousins would be waiting to whisk him away in a waiting limo, maybe a mock car chase with him in the passenger seat of my Shelby, with police in on the fun in pursuit around the closed airport, me yelling “we only live once!”
Alas, that was never meant to be. Uriah needed medical treatment more than a memorable adventure, the pandemic shutdowns followed soon thereafter (briefly changing the mood from: “Oh no, Uriah’s going to die” to “Oh no, we’re all gonna die!) and then his marriage to Shanae. That last item being a far better send off than this bachelor and a bunch of crazy cousins could provide.
The last year with Uriah served to highlight his bravery even against these impossible odds. Uriah, even with late stage lung cancer, refused to stop living his life and made time to be with those who loved him most. On multiple occasions, when the restaurants were still open, we dined out together. Me and him or joined by friends and cousins. These are some of the most beautiful and cherished moments of a very stressful and emotionally draining year.
However, of those moments, one shines above the rest. Uriah, probably only because he was Uriah, asked me if he could come visit my church sometime. Of course, I was thrilled by this, that he would think of this, and soon the arrangements were made. Nobody seeing him that day would have guessed he was terminally ill. He looked as strong and vital as ever. The highlights when Father Seraphim, who I had ambushed together with Uriah, agreed to anoint him and pray for healing. I also had the opportunity to take Uriah on one more ride in the Shelby on the way home.
In the week that followed the anointing something amazing happened. A text message from Uriah with the first good news since his lung cancer and prognosis were revealed. The tumors had shrunk! Could it be possible?
But this relief would only be temporary and the next time I would see my cousin he was no longer looking so invulnerable.
Over Thanksgiving Uriah, his condition already deteriorated, became infected with the Covid-19 virus. He was not doing bad from what I had been told. Unfortunately, after walking into the hospital, he was soon put on a ventilator and his loved ones told he would likely never be taken off of it. Still, my courageous friend had yet one more trick up his sleeve. He ended up, at some point, ripping the ventilator out and was breathing well enough on his own. It was fantastic. I prayed he would be able to go home and he was going home.
My optimism remained until my last meeting with him. I figured as long as he was fighting I would keep hoping for that miracle.
I had not been able to see him for months, partially due to my own bout with Covid-19, and also because he was under the care of his parents and Shanae. I may have missed the opportunity to see him entirely had it not been for my cousin David declaring that he didn’t think Uriah wanted visitors. I thought to myself, “we’ll see about that,” and I sent a text message soon thereafter. Uriah told me he wanted to see me and directed me to Shanae, I asked if David and another friend Derek could accompany me. We planned for the next Saturday.
I had known, with the cancer spreading throughout his body and now unable to walk because of diminished lung capacity, that Uriah wouldn’t be an image of health. Still, actually seeing him was a little jarring, he looked rough, and I realized that, even if the lastest longshot treatment option would work out, there was irreparable damage. It was a struggle for him to breath. But he still ate a slice or two of the pizza that I had brought. It was their wedding anniversary and an honor to be able to be there despite the circumstances.
When David and Derek said their goodbyes, they offered a fist bump. But it did not seem appropriate. I offered a hand shake, I wanted to clasp his hand and look him in the eyes. My last words to him were to tell him how proud I was of him. It was only a few days later that I received a phone call during the day from David. Uriah had passed away that morning. We had done we could, he fought like a true warrior, never complaining or falling to despair. He died short of his twenty-fifth birthday.
The Time Uriah Asked Me For Advice
I am a good bit older than Uriah. I can’t remember exactly how and when our relationship took off. But he had his own unique version of the Moyer cousin humor and a rare determination. I recall him out running, as teenager, with bricks in the backpack he was wearing. He wanted to be the best at what he did and put the work in too. He was a decent athlete, played basketball and soccer, and I knew he was becoming a man when I could no longer take him in a wrestling match.
When Uriah enrolled in Bloomsburg University, I had very little doubt in his abilities. He was extremely intelligent, someone mature beyond his years, and thus it came as a bit of a surprise when he reached out to me asking for advice. We met at Weaver’s for some pizza and ice cream. And when there he expressed his doubts. He was thinking about dropping out and wanted to get my opinion.
Of course, as one who has long struggled with feelings of having buried my talents, having quit college before obtaining a degree, to open I urged, “don’t be like your loser cousin!” I went on to explain the lifelong benefits of a degree, my own regrets, and encouraged him to continue on pursuing his dreams.
Uriah would go on, finish that first year, and continue through the next year. He was on the Dean’s list, evidently a good student, and would graduate with his criminal justice degree. It was something that made me immensely proud, especially that I had a small part in his success, and it seemed as if even the sky wasn’t the limit for him. He had done the thing that I failed to do. Not only that, but he had met Shanae while on campus and there was a budding romance between them.
As I look back my feelings are mixed. On one hand, my advice came with an assumption that he would live a long life, that his degree would open career opportunities. Uriah never did get that far, he never had an actual career, so what was the point of all that hard-work and discipline? My nihilism creeps in. As the book of Ecclesiastes begins: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” But, on the other hand, and as if to throw a wrench in my despair, had Uriah quit he would not have Shanae to accompany him during the last two years.
The Friend That I Didn’t Want
I’m a very idealistic person and loyal too. I remember my plans, as a child, to eventually live with my brother Kyle. I mean, we were peas in a pod, we understood each other, why would we ever go our separate ways, right? But, eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that my siblings, including Kyle, are very motivated people and were destined to have their own lives away from me. Our childhood together a passing phase and not permanent. It’s tough, yet necessary for progress.
However, having learned this, I was not prepared for what happened when a close friend, a wingman for many years, got married. I’m not sure what happened, but right after his wedding he basically disappeared. And, after the first efforts to reconnect failed, I decided that he simply didn’t need the relationship anymore and had moved on. To this day his wife is the only person who has shown any interest in maintaining a connection and it truly is baffling to me. Is this normal behavior? Should I be concerned?
Anyhow, this friendship of over a decade that vanished overnight left me wondering what friendship really is? It also made me wary of making such an investment ever again. If someone like this other friend could completely abandon our relationship, effectively ghost me, was it truly worth becoming connected at this level again? I almost felt lonelier having lost a friend, my romantic life wasn’t helping that, and when someone else started to emerge as a friend (Uriah) I wrote the following in a journal:
Uriah is a faithful something. I suppose he is a friend, although I don’t know if I want any friends really, not after [omitted]. I feel antisocial, I am sick of people and yet would not fare well alone. Last weekend proof of that.
I was dealing with many things at the time, in rehab and off of work because of a knee injury, and still reeling from the loss of a friendship. Once bitten, twice shy, right? I was reluctant to allow someone else to become close. I felt better to be in control, to keep some safe distance between myself and other people.
Nevertheless, a stronger bond did continue to develop between Uriah and myself, he was capable of intelligent discussion, completely trustworthy, and never judged me. My ideations, given the feelings of betrayal, were extremely dark and it was safe to express them with him. He helped me to not take them, or even myself, too seriously and provided a bit of a reprieve. And when I holed up he persisted. There were times we sat quietly together. I knew that he cared.
When I left the Mennonite church many of the people that I spent years with made no attempt to connect. There were so many relationships pursued and never reciprocated. Or, when there was relationship it was forced, a part of their religious duty and not real. Uriah was always genuine, like I try to be, and was never going to be a fairweather friend like so many others. That’s what makes it so especially hard to lose him in a manner completely unexpected.
He’s the friend that I didn’t want because losing friends is too painful. In the weeks following his death my desire was to withdrawal, avoid intimate relationships, and protect against future disappointment. Of course, avoiding pain and risk is not a way to live and in the intervening weeks I’ve started to force myself to reengage. I can’t bring Uriah back, he’s gone. But there’s no point in joining him in the grave.
The Questions That Cannot Be Answered
The hardest part of Uriah’s death is where it leaves his parents. Ed and Judy are two of the hardest working and most dedicated parents I know. And for reasons we’ll never know three of their four children suffered terrible seizures. Renita Gail, I carried out to the cemetery on a cold day many years ago. Uriah’s two remaining siblings, Aleah and Isaiah, have not developed beyond a certain point and require constant care.
It goes without saying that there were many hopes that evaporated with the passing of Uriah. He was the strong and healthy son, someone more than willing to help with Aleah and Isaiah, and now he’s gone. It is unfair. There is no way to understand why misfortune visits some. Perhaps that is why the book of Job was written? To put to end this notion that people get what they deserve only good things happen to good people?
There is nothing I can offer that will come close replacing a young man who was my better in so many ways. It would be silly to even try, he was one of a kind, tall and handsome. He got the intelligence and work ethic from both of his parents. He had the compassionate heart of his mother and quirky humor of his father. He was their legacy, the one who was supposed to carry the Derstine name and support them in their old age.
Being a pallbearer for Uriah was a great honor. However, carrying that casket up that icy hill, like I had with Renita many years before, came with the burden of the many unanswerable questions. I won’t even attempt to answer. But maybe if I have another son, I’ll name him Uriah Edward and tell him someday about my cousin, my aunt and uncle. I have not heard one complaint from them Uriah’s parents. They feel the loss more than anyone else and yet their resolve to trust God is encouraging to those of us with our many questions.
Dealing with death isn’t easy, especially not when it is someone so undeserving and special. I’ve been battling against depression and despair over the past few weeks, despite having a year to prepare, and I suppose it would be strange to feel nothing in such circumstances? But I don’t plan to linger here. I acknowledge the feelings, I lost a friend, a rare kind of individual. There will never be another Uriah. There are no easy answers. But I will try to carry the legacy of Uriah as far as I am able.
Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.
During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1938, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed:
The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.
However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.
The divided (and dying) church of America
America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.
But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.
The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)
Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.
Is Orthodoxy any different from this?
Yes and no.
At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.
The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest-ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.
(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)
The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.
Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?
But, I do digress…
Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts. The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.
Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.
The triumph of Orthodoxy…
Like King Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.
It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.
To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.
There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.