Monday, November 06, 2006

Alta Alpina Junior Team

Alta Alpina Junior Team

The Critical Hour at the Russian Orthodox Church

I have been all over the world and have never made an effort to visit another church on my travels. I am reading this book: Blue Like Jazz which inspired me to see what other christians are up to since I am in my own box of christians in Carson Valley. Plus, I hadn't been to church in a couple of weeks and I wanted to go. I also heard that both the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic churches are worth visiting. Many of the churches around look fairly new and are beautifully made of wood on the outside. Many of the older buildings here are made of wood... probably since most of Sakhalin Island is wooded. The Soviet era buildings are worn and concrete, as opposed to worn and wood for the older ones.

I started off by asking the desk where the church was, you know, the big one in the city. I felt two headed or something because they looked at me that way. The front desk staff's english isn't great, but enough for them to know I wanted to go to the church. They finally caught on and we figured out where it was on the map. I asked what time the service started... I must have sprouted another head because they looked at me that way again. They couldn't understand why I wanted to go to the service, plus they didn't know. So, I figured I would take a cab and shoot for a possible 10 AM service. I figured if I was early I could just people watch etc. I showed up a little after 10 and sheepishly walked into the in progress liturgy. I stood in the furthest back of the church I could so as not to disturb anyone by walking into the nave. I stood next to a short 45ish woman and behind a shorter 65ish woman right next to the door. Everything was in russian... which is not like other languages that we can pick up other words or they have similar words to english... like most of the cab drivers here... not a word of english. I carry around a pocket full of business cards to show them the name of my hotel, because I can't say it in Russian and they don't know it in english. I also have the front desk write down in russian where I want to go so I can show it to the cab driver. So back at church there is lots of chanting, singing from a choir that I can't see... must have been from the heavens and some mumbling of the folks. Upon entering, there were a lot of people standing in the back and the front. There were no chairs, pews or anthing. Another thing I figured out, was that all the women had their heads covered. Some had knit caps, some had stylish hats, some had pretty cool scarves, a few just put the hood up from their jackets. My wife and I visited a church like that in France and she kind of freaked in an indignant way. I thought it was cool. The dudes took off their hats, since many of the people here wear hats, kind of old school and cool, but in the winter, they need to because it gets booty cold here. It seemed like it was another way the women could express themselves. The women here are beautiful in general. Most are pretty trim, do their hair, makeup and dress well. The style for shoes is upper calf boots with about 3.5 inch heels and a really pointy toe. It looks kind of goofy really. It was odd to see most of the people wearing their jackets in church. In most churches, you are supposed to take off your jacket... I used to get scolded from the nuns at catholic school for not taking off my jacket. In russian customs, when you enter a house or establishment, you check or hang up your coat. There are coat racks all over the place and one in my hotel room. So it was odd that people kept their coats on.

The feeling was great to be in a worship service with my fellow christians. I was in the back so I figured out that it was normal (maybe not good) but normal to pass in and out of the church as often as you wanted. People were also moving around the back of the church and up the sides during the service. They were lighting candles and all that stuff. There was a lot of action and I started to wonder if it was disrespectful or just people doing their candle lighting and moving around to pray at pictures along the walls and stuff. I figured it was no stranger than a charismatic service where people can be all over the place. I decided it was all a way of self expression in the House of the Lord. There was lots of movement up front too. There is the front of the church with some cool pictures at three layers of elevation on the wall. I later looked up on the internet what some of the rituals meant and the three layers have a spiritual significance: like top is the God Man himself, with Old testament dudes and then some saints. Behind the front wall is the Iconastasis (not sure if that is spelled right). This symbolizes the Holy of Holies. The doors in the middle open and close at different part of the service with a curtain too. At one point, there was a priest in the Holy room with that round tube hat on and a black veil covering everything. I am really curious as to what that was, but couldn't find anything on the Russian Othordox site. There are two doors on either side of the center Heaven's Doors which the not so holy people can go in and out of, and no lay people go in that room. I read on the web that the Eastern Orthodox church holds to its practices and teachings of old times on purpose as to not get wrapped up into to modernize the church and possibly lose focus and let stuff get watered down. I have always respected that of churches, especially the catholic church i grew up. There were always a lot of people who said that the catholic church should modernize because society is changing. Like God changes over time and his church should modernize to meet our desires. Let's take sex for example, our modern society has pretty much normalized sex outside of marriage as acceptable and perverse stuff happens on public air waves all the time. Most would say that the church's view of celibacy and marriage only sex is an icon of past times and that people these days can handle the emotional issues with having sex with ease and fight the spread of STDs with condoms, prevent pregnancies and if the birth control doesn't work or wasn't used, you can kill the result of sexual indescretions. Well sex does have its emotional baggage and I found it extremely obtuse to watch a commercial for venerial warts on television which affirms the statistics I have seen on the likelihood of young people getting STDs at an alarming rate. You google it yourself on that.

So, it was good to see that tradition and respect for God was still happening here. Sure there were the latecomers coming in and going out, likely to have a smoke. There were the typical pre-adolescents running around with their bed head hair and a couple of men with the same Sunday Morning grooming routines along with some hung over looking young people, but where else should people be on a Sunday morning, but in God's House. As part of the service, there was a lot of doing the sign of the cross and bowing. They do it often, like after every sentence the priest said something I couldn't understand. The way the orthodox to the sign of the cross is : forehead, chest, right shoulder then left, with the right hand. Catholics go left then right, shoulder that is. Then the bow. Catholics don't bow. There is the short bow and some did the waist bow. You could tell who did the waist bow... they had space in front of them to go all the way down. The lady next to me had the bow space and she used it. I didn't to the sign of the cross nor bow. I didn't think it was right... it wasn't how I did things at home. But I figured that if I were in another church in the states, I would sing their songs and do some different things in their service, so I was going to bow with my brothers and sisters. When in Russian Orthodox church do as the Orthodoxians do. In this book I am reading, the author, Don, mentions about loving other people and especially christians who may worship, drive, pray and even vote different than you do. So, I was loving my Orthodoxian brethern. It was good timing, because by this time, my back was starting to hurt and doing the bowing thing helped. God loves his children... they stand out of respect and honor for him and he gives them the ritual of bowing to stretch out their backs. To figure out when to bow, I found a deep bower to follow, because not everyone bowed at each time. Plus, it would be easy to spot him when he went all the way down. We bowed so often we got an aerobic workout. You see, God Loves his children, he keeps us trim in his house.

During the service, the lady next to me started to cry. It was the kind of cry that seemed like she might be a widow. I wonder why church causes people to cry who are mourning. I figure it is because God wants us to go to him and bring our sorrows so that he can console us. Who better to bring our sorrow to than He who CAN console us. I felt really bad. I wanted to give her one of those side hugs, but I didn't have the guts. I convinced myself that she would be uncomfortable and what could I offer? I don't speak a word of russian, nor she english, I can't talk to her or anything... what a worthless christian I was and it made me cry. But that passed. She stopped and so did I. Her daughter showed up with her 6 month old daughter and she was joyful, and so was I that she had someone to be with her and that I have a 6 month old waiting at home for me.

So there was communion, but it happened all different parts of the church. There was a sermon part too, which gave a moment for people to leave, get some candles and kiss some paintings etc. There was no sound system and the acoustics weren't that great for someone just talking so those who wanted to hear gathered around the sermoneer like people may have gathered around Christ closer to hear him better. I didn't get closer... I don't understand russian and it was crowded up there.

After about an hour of service, many of the kids began to crack. This was very understandable since there were no chairs, no toys, no crying room etc. I guess the crying room was the back of the church, which was where I was, so it seemed like the kids had reached their critical hour and their time in God's house was over. many of the parents took their kids out for some fresh air.

The service came to an end or kind of. It kind of petered out and then some people went to a candle table and they started to chant, pray and sing. A few people were sitting around the church making lists. And some people took those lists to the candle table with a relic on on it. I think it was kind of a petition thing.

After watching that for a while, I went outside to call my Mom and wish her a happy birthday. It was nice outside and it was fun to watch people too. Mama told me that a while back in the states women covered their heads too. I guess we got modern here in the states.

I saw some people going into what looked like the basement. I went down to check it out. It was a relic shop and JACKPOT a mass baptism. There were a bunch of people standing around in the basement. I like baptisms and waited around, but it took forever and I didn't understand anything, so I was out of there.

I walked out the same way I came in... it was lined with people asking for money... I always don't know what do to in that situation, are they going to go and drink? Can they work? What is their problem? Or would God question them on what they are doing? Would God ask us to question them? I am not sure, I would suppose God would ask us to show compassion. Probably even go a step further and show them kindness, hospitality and love most of all. In the book, Don reminds us of the story where the religious people were going to stone an adultress, because that was the law and they asked Jesus what to do to taunt him, he said Let him who is without sin throw the first stone. They all left. He then reached out to her in Love and told her to sin no more. That is a really good story, but is Jesus being really unreasonable? We know that she nor anyone else can live a life with absolutely no sin? That is a question I have for God when we talk next.

It is funny, I totally expected going to Russian Orthodox Church would be a great spiritual experience and God met me in his house, on the way there and back. I like him. I would also suggest you read the book, it is funny and genuine.

Anyway, the bus ride is over and I need to get some dinner.

God Speed,