Conversion Amidst Family Strife

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My posting yesterday spoke of things we could do as a family to strengthen ourselves in the common mind of Christ, allowing for the possibility of greater unity, particularly when considering something as major as conversion to the Orthodox faith.

Sometimes, all efforts to the contrary, no peace or common mind arise. If someone believes the Orthodox faith to be the true faith, then finally, it would be a tragic sin not to become Orthodox. By the same token, if someone does not believe Orthodoxy to be the true faith, they would do well not to convert.

But conversion to Orthodoxy is frequently met with strife – from family, friends, or others. The fact that the Orthodox Church does not practice open communion (a novel invention within Protestant Churches over the past 50 years) is a great scandal to others. They wonder if your conversion is a judgment on them and whether you believe they are real Christians (we do think that there are Christians other than the Orthodox). If family members are Protestant they may be upset because all of this seems rather “Roman Catholic” (since they know little about Orthodoxy) and will likely have been taught during their lifetimes things about Roman Catholics that are inaccurate and misleading.

The demands of an active life in the Church can take time away from other parts of the family (particularly the extended family). How do you explain that during Holy Week and Pascha you hope to be at Church every evening and for pretty much all of the Weekend? For American Protestants, this can feel foreign and even “cult-like.”

Most people in American culture are more tolerant of activities like soccer or swimming (which can be great time consumers) than they are of Church-going. Thus even when you become Orthodox the temptation will be to be Orthodox in a Protestant manner (keeping a life-style that is still largely secularized and centered on family).  Orthodoxy treats family very seriously, but ultimately centers the family in the life of the Church. St. John Chrysostom referred to the family as “a little Church” and meant by that to describe a family who was devout in Church and struggled to live the Christian life together.

But there are obviously times when we make hard decisions because we can do no other. We may have to disappoint the extended family or suffer the alienation of friends. All of this Christ spoke about and taught that discipleship ultimately is measured by the Cross itself. Under those circumstances we can pray for others, share with them when they actually want to listen and return kindness for insult and injury.

Entering the Church with humility is a much better route than judgment and arrogance. It is very easy to take the zeal that comes with the newfound wonder of Orthodoxy and become a one-man evangelism program, speaking of little else and telling everyone who will listen that this faith is the Truth. I can’t argue with anyone who says that, but it may not be the wisest of things to say. To speak vulnerably and to say that this is something you believe you must do is different than saying you believe this is something everyone must do.

I would that everyone was an Orthodox Christian, myself. But that, finally, is God’s problem. I am called to do the things He has appointed me to do. I have no control, and should seek no control over what others will do.

It is also possible to translate Orthodoxy into American apocalyptic terms. America is a nation born of a semi-utopian vision (a hallmark of Reformation thought). If all of America became Orthodox tomorrow, it would not be the solution of our nation’s problems. God is the solution of all things and that is as much as we can know. Orthodoxy has been the dominant religion in many places that were still very troubled places. Orthodoxy may be the truth, but it is a truth believed by sinners.

Bearing such things in mind does not minimize the truth of our faith or water it down to make it more palatable to others, but it does water down our own pride and can succeed in making us more bearable by others.

But extended families that use emotional rewards and punishments to maintain the status quo are probably dysfunctional extended families. You cannot finally shape your life according to someone else’s dysfunction. If you know the truth, you do the truth, with kindness and humility. And all things should be done with prayer and patience. It took me a long time to reach the point of becoming Orthodox (and that is then only a beginning). I should not be surprised if others take as long.

I should add a concluding thought. Many of the stories of the lives of saints include those who brought their families, even nations to Christ in the Orthodox faith. St. Monnica, mother of St. Augustine, comes immediately to mind. Great saints such as St. Olga, St. Vladimir, St. Nina of Georgia also come to mind. I would not be shy, in my prayers, to add a Troparion to one or more of these saints and to ask their prayers as well for family members. Needless to say, or perhaps yet more necessary, is to ask for the prayers of the Mother of God, who is mother of us all and would gladly see all of her children gathered together in one.

I think converts are frequently slow to ask for such help in their prayers, depending on their background. I know that whenever I am troubled and brooding about something, my wife says rather quickly, “Have you asked the Mother of God for her help?” I always feel foolish if I have to answer, “No.” My wife, good mother that she is, has learned over the years to value the prayers of a mother for her children, particularly those of the Theotokos. To which I can only say, “Amen.”

In all of these things as close to our hearts as they are, as painful as they sometimes may be, we must always remember that all things are in the hands of God. We pray not as unbelievers, but as those whose hope is in God who is gracious and longsuffering, and far more ready to give than we are to receive. Trusting in His mercy it is possible to pray and be patient and be thankful in all things.

28 comments:

  1. Praise God for St. Monica and others like her! I could learn from her combination of fervor and patience.

  2. Thanks be to God! St. Anna, the ancestor of Christ (Grandmom!) is one whose prayers I entreat frequently, as well as our Holy Mother first. St. Xenia is another, as well as St. Helen.

    When a Roman Catholic I was very silent about my faith, saying it was between me and God. When Protestant, I tried and failed miserably to be one who “trumpeted the Call.” With my spiritual father’s guidance and agreement, I’ve gone back to what I used to do. Be silent about my faith unless a sincere question is asked and live it out to the best of my God given ability. Actions speak louder than words.

  3. Father, bless!

    Thank you for your two excellent posts, both today’s and yesterdays. As one who converted without my spouse, I can attest that humility and patience go much further than arrogance and arguments, though it is a lesson I am still learning. My wife and teenage daughters (well, one is now no longer a teen) remain staunchly Protestant still, though we have reached an amicable position of acceptance and, I hope, some appreciation for how God is working through the other’s faith. For those who might find themselves in similar situations, there is a Yahoo!Group that is something of a “support group” of those who have converted or are contemplating converting to Orthodoxy and whose spouse is not supportive. The link is http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oxwoms/ for any interested. I hope I am not being overly presumptuous in posting it.

    I too am guilty of too often specifically asking the Most Holy Theotokos to intercede on my behalf. Thank you for that reminder.

    By your prayers!

  4. Jfred,

    I’m not sure if you’ll read this thread, but I really hope you do. In an earlier thread, you asked about the Orthodox Church and adoption and helping the orphans in Eastern Europe. I think I could help to provide you with some (albeit limited) information on that, and also help you in other ways.

    You said that your family is going to be adopting from the Ukraine soon, and already adopted from Russia. Starting in August, I will be serving a term of half a year or a year doing missionary work for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at an orphanage in the Ukraine, so I can both tell you a bit about what the Orthodox Church is up to, and also, if you need any help translating things for your new little son or daughter, I would be more than happy to help you out. Like, for example, if you wanted to make a photo album and have all the captions translated into Russian or Ukrainian, I would gladly do that to help you out.

    Adoption is such a wonderful thing! Since you said that you had already adopted before, I’m sure you know that God will bless both you and the child beyond what you can imagine.

    My email address is email hidden; JavaScript is required. Please get in touch 🙂

    In Christ,
    John

  5. Fr. Stephen,

    You wrote, “Orthodoxy treats family very seriously, but ultimately centers the family in the life of the Church. St. John Chrysostom referred to the family as ‘a little Church’ and meant by that to describe a family who was devout in Church and struggled to live the Christian life together.”

    I agree. Can you unpack that a bit though in relation to families that are already Orthodox?

    I’ve always been troubled by this issue as I’ve seen it expressed and experienced it in parish life. A kind of dichotomy between the institutional Church’s activities (including services) vs. the “little church” that is the family seems ubiquitous in contemporary Orthodox life in America. The latter often becomes a secular stronghold where we emerge periodically to attend services (often as spectators) only to retreat back to our TVs and 50 hour work weeks; and the former doesn’t seem interested in discipling families in how to be a “little church” but substitutes the kind of hectic and busy lives many of us are trying to heal from. For example, we all know the pressure to feel like one should travel long distances to attend Vespers 2-3 times a week, in addition to serving on parish council, attending Wednesday night Bible study classes, etc….. because, well, isn’t all that stuff “life in the Church”?

    I’m not sure this is very healthy for the Church corporate or the family. As Fr. Kevin Scherer pointed out in an article entitled “A Call to Serve”, this model explains why priests and laity alike are so often burnt out and feel spiritually schizophrenic.

    Historically, Orthodox families did not travel to their local cathedral or parish for daily services like Matins or Vespers nor did they engage in an endless variety of Christian “activities” at the Church itself. Rather they did many services at home (as you so wisely did with yours) or in small groups at small, geographically close chapels. This encouraged ownership and familiarity with the faith and intimately bound Church, worship, and the family together. Orthodoxy was not something one “did” in a building, but a way of life in one’s community. When families went to Church (or when a priest was able to travel to their area) they went to be taught, to be discipled, to receive and participate in the sacraments, and to worship and work with the corporate body of believers in their geographical area. They did not feel pressured to “balance” (as if either should be sacrificed for the other!) Church and Family because the two worked in symphony.

    How can we recover this model or one like it?

  6. Father Stephen,

    Forgive the rather dumb question: When saying the Trisagion prayers as a family, does one person lead and others listen, or are they said together?

    From a clueless Anglican;-)

    RD+

  7. Thank you, Father. Your recent posts on family have come at a perfect time. My wife has been largely “marked” by her family (from a rather extreme branch of the “Churches of Christ”) as we move nearer to our entrance into Orthodoxy. She is often pressed to try to convert them with statements like, “If Orthodoxy is true, then you ought to be converting us.” It’s difficult, because we know that is easy cover for an invitation to pointless debates. It is difficult to swallow one’s pride and not seek to justify what one is doing when such efforts would likely only serve the purposes of strife. Your words have been helpful to us; thank you again.

    KB

  8. Fr. Ron,

    We sang the “O Heavenly King” and the “Our Father” as well as a the “Rejoice, O Virgin” to traditional settings. Other prayers were done by one of us. Of course we all sang “Lord, have mercy,” if we were doing a litany.

    There were other hymns that became known to us and used in additon to the Trisagion prayers. The Hymn, “Beneath Thy Compassion” comes quickly to mind. My daughters and wife were very much taken by St. Nectarios’ Hymn to the Virgin, “Rejoice, Bride, Unwedded” which is in a Byzantine setting and they loved to sing that.

    At the time there was a publication, since defunct, I believe, that had lots of family articles and frequently music printed that we treasured.

  9. Karl,

    What you are describing is a major problem, I think, for Orthodoxy in America. And you are quite correct in your descriptions. Some of our members are over an hour away from Church. I do not expect them to be at everything. But the pattern of family prayers was indeed very normal and would do well to be again.

    Our culture is atomizing the family itself, so that common activities, even common meals are uncommon in a growing number of households and Orthodox have not been immune to this.

    Our culture, which I describe as “secular Christian” has many aspects that are not very congruent with either Orthodox living, or healthy human living, for that matter. There has to be thinking and teaching in this area as well as a transformation of the home for Orthodoxy not to shrink into a secular protestant orthodoxy.

  10. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for these articles which address the situation so many of us find ourselves in these days. I converted to Orthodoxy in 2005, my wife remains staunchly Protestant and our adult son attends Orthodox services. My decision definitely strained family relationships. While the situation has improved, we find ourselves in the strange position of avoiding all conversations of a religious nature.

    Kevinburt,

    I sympathize with you in the situation with your in-laws. I became Orthodox in 2005, but my wife was not at all interested in leaving the Churches of Christ. You are wise to avoid all “pointless debates,” particularly with a religious heritage that feeds on that sort of thing. I am always interested in talking with those moving into Orthodoxy from the Church of Christ. You may email me at tcowan at jcowaninc.com

  11. Haven’t posted to this topic before, but have been reading it avidly. I see a couple of familiar names here — hi, all — and can only agree that “possessing our souls in patience” is the way to go — just working steadily on our own failings, and making allowances for the failings of others. I’ve found that it’s most effective, when people criticize others, just to say that God knows the heart of each of His creatures, and therefore is the only effective Judge of what’s really happening.

    Kevinburt — does the expression “casting pearls before swine” ring any bells?? 😉 That’s the essence of pointless debate. Suggest you take a leaf out of St. Photini’s playbook and invite the relatives to come and see for themselves, and maybe, at some point in the distant or not-too-distant future, they will say, like her village, “Now we believe because we have seen for ourselves!”

  12. “I’ve found that it’s most effective, when people criticize others, just to say that God knows the heart of each of His creatures, and therefore is the only effective Judge of what’s really happening.”

    Meg, thanks, this is good.

  13. I take it to heart from our responses that this does indeed touch a chord for many people. I will bear it in mind and, as God gives grace, will try to post helpful thoughts or mediations on this from time to time. We have had, I think, the second largest number of views on this post of all that I have put up. So, for what it’s worth, it’s clearly of interest for many of us.

    I would add that in the area of conversion, the most likely people to be affected and drawn to the Church through someone’s conversion are other family and friends. Sometimes its fruitful in an obvious sense, other times the fruit may be far more hidden. But always prayer with patience is good.

  14. Thank you for this post. I’ve been a (mostly) silent reader for a while, and have found your blog to be very helpful as I, myself, have been considering Orthodoxy. Since I first visited an Orthodox parish, I have had trouble with my family (raised definitely Southern Baptist)

  15. Thank you for this post. I’ve been a (mostly) silent reader for a while, and have found your blog to be very helpful as I, myself, have been considering Orthodoxy. Since I first visited an Orthodox parish, I have had trouble with my family (raised definitely Southern Baptist), who are absolutely opposed to my interest in Orthodoxy: and I’ve not even decided to be chrismated yet! So, thank you again, for this encouraging post, and, if you wouldn’t mind, please pray for me.

  16. Matt,

    I will certainly pray for you. My Archbishop was raised as a Southern Baptist, converting in 1940 (his story is most interesting). I was born in a Southern Baptist home as well and still have plenty of relatives that are Baptists. Who will, nonetheless, attend an Orthodox Church when my parents (who are now Orthodox) pass away and are buried. I buried a cousin (with the Bishop’s permission) at a graveside service in a Baptist Churchyard with the family present. I think, over time, patience and kindness does not settle theological disagreements, but can create mutual respect. I would not expect a Baptist, who believed his church’s teachings, to find no fault with the Orthodox. The disagreements are there. But Archbishop Dmitri (whom I’ve mentioned) has said that he thought that in today’s world we probably have more in common with Baptists than with the average mainline Church. This is certain true on a number of public issues, as well as certain bedrock matters such as the divinity of Christ, His bodily resurrection and the like. May God keep you and preserve you in your journey.

  17. Father, there seem to be a couple of themes here conversion and building genuine spiritual community. They are certainly entertwined but may benefit from separate treatment.

  18. Indeed, you’re correct Michael, except for that the problem of conversion and family, community, etc., get all intertwined in the process. But this has been an insightful post for me – clearly something that needs to continue to be looked at, prayed over, and treated.

  19. Fr. Stephen,
    Christ is Risen!
    I am a lurker and large admirer of your blog and the thoughtful commentators on it. I don’t ever comment but this time had some information that might be of use. When refering to the “out of print” info that is helpful in establishing the family as “the little church” I believe the source you might have been refering to was the old Orthodox Family Life Journal. Unfortunately they are no longer in print but they were gracious enough to compile their best material into a single spiral bound handbook that is available from http://www.ocs-neo.org. The ISBN number is 0-9723694-2-2. It is a fantastic resource full of ideas, prayers, lives of the saints, music and other material for establishing the family as the “church at home”, as we like to call it. Hope this is useful for those interested.

  20. Fr. Stephen, thank you for your words. I am a new inquirer to Orthodoxy, and just today I was speaking with some dear friends about what I have been learning. I am beginning to see that converting (if that is what my husband and I decide to do) may cost us. God bless you.

  21. I have been Orthodox nineteen years, and my wife did not follow me into Orthodoxy. We were of one faith Anglican for many years. We both left Anglicanism over the Ordination of women to the Priesthood. When this happened I was moving more and more Catholic and my wife more and more Protestant (Methodist). Today she has become more Orthodox and less Methodist although I cannot expect her to ever convert.
    With this in mind I must then become a living example of my Orthodox faith to her or we shall indeed fail as a marriage. To those converting to Orthodoxy without their spouse; I would say that this is even more of a reason to be faithful to the faith and the Orthodox way of Life. Either Orthodoxy works all of the way in our daily lives or it does not work at all. Love your spouse and continue to be Orthodox and all that Orthodoxy means. Half measures will not work!

  22. Thank you for the pair of posts on this issue. I am actually in the opposite position of many other commenters. My wife is the one who wants to convert to Orthodoxy, while I am still mostly Protestant. I thought it might be edifying to bring in the “other side’s” perspective.

    My wife and I both strongly want to be unified in our faith, and currently attend together both our Baptist church services on Sunday morning and Vespers at an OCA church Saturday evening. But that really doesn’t solve the growing spiritual separation. We both have issues with various things in both Protestantism (sola scriptura, etc) and Orthodoxy (relics, etc). But we differ on which issues are fairly major, and which are vanishingly minor. What we share is more than what we differ on, but the division is real and is painful for both of us.

    I can’t deny that she seems to have found greater life in the Spirit in the short time she has been pursuing Orthodoxy, than in all the time she has spent in Protestant churches. Neither will she deny that I’ve found a strong life in the Spirit through the Protestant churches we’ve been part of, while not experiencing any draw towards the Orthodox faith. But pursuing our spiritual lives separately is not appealing to either of us, especially as up until recently (namely, until my wife began investigating Orthodoxy) we had been drawing continually closer to each other in faith and practice as we drew closer to God.

    My wife, out of submission to my position as her head (Eph.5:21-24) has submitted her desire to pursue official conversion to Orthodoxy to my approval, but has made it clear (humbly, without any arrogance) that in her heart, she is already Orthodox and no longer Protestant. Right now, weighing everything, I cannot in good faith or conscience say either “yes” or “no” without some clear guidance from God (my own wisdom is insufficient, especially as it is her life in Christ at issue), but my prayers for guidance are answered with “wait” and the assurance that God is using the current tension and division to work in both our lives. Such assurance is heartening, to be sure, but does not much ease the pain of current division.

    And that pain is what I particularly wanted to point out. While the relational difficulties endured by a convert – or by one desiring to convert – to Orthodoxy can (and I’m sure often do) spring from all the things Father John has mentioned, do not discount as a cause the very real pain that perceived spiritual separation can inflict on one who has been, and still wishes to be, close to you in spiritual life and practice. It is obvious that many of you have experienced this pain; remember that those of us on the other side of this issue can and do experience it as well.

  23. Mike,

    I well understand that pain works two ways, and I’m sure most people who post here are aware as well. I’ll certainly pray for you and your wife – patience and prayer with each other are important. If I can help in any way I’m glad to. God keep you both.

  24. Father Stephen,
    I have long waited for a quiet moment to write you. I want to thank you for two entries–one of which I cannot pinpoint in the archives, so I’m writing from the second. I shall begin there. I came to Orthodoxy–a little over a year ago now after a long time of searching in “the desert”–a time I took as a gift from God. I came alone. My husband was very supportive up until it became a reality, and then that reality was rather hard to bear. We are working on it, but there is little in a Protestant background that prepares one for the idea of going to separate churches. So many of the things that you mention in this post hit home for me. And it was good to see that there are others out there like me. It took me 3 years to decide to be chrismated, but, still I came alone; I’ve felt the guilt of wondering whether I should have waited longer. My own priest has been a blessing in helping me learn to love and be accepting of both my husband and the situation in which we find ourselves. It is interesting to note that several of the people who posted comments about joining alone came from the Church of Christ–which is the background of both my family and that of my husband. My husband is a man of great love and compassion, and even as I am often discouraged at coming to Orthodoxy alone, I’m thankful that he is my life love.

    My second thank you is for a posting on the meaning of life and the quality of life. Three weeks after I became Orthodox, my mother suffered a heart attack and massive stroke. The neurosurgeons had no hope for her–they removed the cranium and her brain continued to swell another inch with no signs of relief. One of them later said, “I’d never seen a brain swell that way”–I’m sure the second half of that sentence was “and seen the patient survive.” By the grace of God, she has survived and can still correct my French, tell me where certain castles are in Scotland, and listen appreciatively as I read Schmemann to her or a friend reads the Narnia Chronicles. She has tremendous pain and physical limitation. One of the many things I’ve wrestled with during the past year is the number of people–including Christian friends (not Orthodox)–who have been so quick to assume she wants to die or to counsel us to let her die–because after all “what quality of life will she have?” As a new Orthodox, I’ve wrestled to have an Orthodox understanding and perspective on my life and hers (and the rest of the family). It wasn’t until I read one of your blogs that I felt I could articulate what I felt in my heart. You wrote something to the effect that, “The quality of life is not the meaning of life.” I cannot tell you the resonance and release I felt upon reading those words. I do not desire a life of pain for anyone; yet, I’m so thankful for the truly good moments I’ve had with her since the stroke. My father had written Mom an anniversary song 3 months before the stroke and one line of the lyric became his daily prayer: “God grant that I may give back to one who gave so much”–God appears to be honoring that. Life now is not easy for any of us, but it is intensely meaningful.

    Forgive my slowness in responding to these two postings. My whole life centers around communication and its study; immediately relaying thoughts almost becomes an occupational hazard. Since becoming Orthodox, I’m learning the wisdom of saying less and reflecting more.
    God bless you.
    Allyson

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