I became Orthodox because I fell in love. Nobody can tell you why they fall in love. Nobody can make you fall in love. It just happens. In the mystery of Orthodoxy, I fell in love with a God who loves me, a sinner.
I came to God in a small holiness church. I was reared in the faith by wonderful people, people who taught me what it means to be a Christian. But I did not really love God. I thought I loved God in the way that a 12 year old girl thinks she loves a 12 year old boy. I was really afraid of God – afraid of hell – and tried to master my fears by mastering God. I studied the Bible, and later theology, to get God “right” and feel better about my own salvation.
Maybe that is why my favorite book is St. Augustine’s Confessions. I identify with Augustine a little (he is my patron saint). The Confessions is really a story of divine seduction. It is about how God arranged the events of Augustine’s life, toppling him from the heights of his own ambition to a place of despair over his own weakness, finally turning himself over to divine grace. I do not share Augustine’s holiness, but I can identify with his despair. I wanted to love God, but I did not know how. This led me to despair of God. As I said to Stephanie one day (when I was still a guitar-playing youth pastor, no less!), “If something does not happen soon, I am afraid I will become an atheist!”
God saved Augustine through the words, “Tolle lege! Tolle lege!” “Take up and read!” So Augustine turned to his Bible and encountered words that led to his salvation. The words I heard that led to my salvation were in Greek. “Kyrie eleison! Kyrie eleison! Kyrie eleison!” “Lord, have mercy!” For three consecutive Sundays it snowed, canceling church services all across Indiana, and for three consecutive Sundays I made my way to Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church where I heard those words repeated again and again. You would think words like that would terrify a young man who was already terrified of God. But I found them profoundly comforting, because they were prayed by everybody. You see, the church that brought me to faith in Christ teaches that the spiritually mature love God perfectly. I was terrified of God because I knew I lacked perfect love. What I heard in that church, and what I continue to hear every liturgy, are the words, “It’s okay. We all need God’s mercy. We are all sinners. Look! Even our priest asks us to forgive him! Because we all struggle. We fall down. We pray for mercy so that God will help us back to our feet again.”
I fell in love with God when I heard those words because I realized that the God whose Son suffered and died for my salvation is not a God who is keeping score. God wants my holiness, but God also accepts my brokenness. Salvation is not, as my holiness church taught, an instantaneous event. It is a process – a journey – in which we fall down and get up again, praying “Lord have mercy,” every step of the way.