Thursday, October 30, 2014
Bringing God on Vacation: Georgia
Encountering different Christians
My wife and I went to the Holy Trinity Cathedral on our first day in the country. It was a massive church that overlooks the entire city. The cathedral had a very large area around it for gardens, fountains, and other aesthetically pleasing structures. It was interesting to note that nearly all the women who went inside the church wore a head scarf, which is not too different from the hijab, which is a head scarf that covers the hair of Muslim women in Kuwait and the Middle East. There was no requirement that women had to wear a head covering to enter the church, but I think most women did this as a sign of respect. My wife left her scarf at home, so she decided not to enter and waited outside.
As I entered the church, it was a very different experience for me. As a man who has grown up in the evangelical tradition, I find the beauty and intricacies of orthodox Christianity very different. The inside of this building was as beautiful as the outside. There were paintings and icons everywhere, and incense burning in several places. There were candles set up in a few locations, and even the inside of the building was symmetrical and made the shape of the cross, where the top of the cross is where the priest would give his sermon. It was extremely fascinating. Even though I don't believe in the spiritual value of icons and burning candles as prayers for loved ones, it is nice to see that there is care taken to the beauty of the church, both inside and out. Most evangelical churches are not nearly as ornate, and the churches I've often attended have been in re-purposed warehouses or school gymnasiums.
Another thing I noticed was the quiet and reverence that people had in the church. Even though there were well over 100 people walking around, lighting candles, reading the Bible, and praying, it was very quiet. Most people didn't talk to each other, and when they did, it was a whisper. It really felt like you were in a holy and unique place. This is also very different from the evangelical tradition. We are quite loud, and for good reason. Every week, people are happy and excited to see each other, so there is a lot of socialization before and after each service. There is also a time of greeting during the service, and I try to talk to as many people as I can. I think this is a good thing. However, I do think there is value in reverence and respect in church.
The other thing I noticed was some of the sincerity that people had towards praying and reading. There were a lot of people who were praying, and, at least, looked earnest in their prayers. Many people were praying in front of icons, and I wasn't sure what to think of that. However, it could be that some of the images in the cathedral, such as Jesus on the cross, were just a reminder to these people to encourage them to pray and give thanks. There were also a handful of people who were standing up and reading the Bible quietly to themselves. It was in Georgian, so I didn't know what they were reading or praying, but there certainly was a level of devotion in the people. In a very different way, I believe that many of them were truly expressing themselves to God and loving Jesus for saving them from their sins by His death on the cross.
Do I believe that all of the people in the church were Christians? No. Do I believe that all of their practices, such as candle lighting and praying to icons, are biblical? No. However, even in the evangelical tradition and at the church I attend there are plenty of people who are not Christians, but attend because they are culturally connected or are socially interested. And I am sure that when I get to heaven, I will discover there are things that we have done wrong as well. Through that experience in Georgia, God taught me that there are Christians who look very different from the style of Christianity that I like and that I am used to. However, it doesn't mean that their faith is necessarily different from what I believe. I pray for the Christians in Georgia, that God would be with them and show Himself to them in a very real and authentic way, and that the Holy Spirit would empower them to not only look inward to the Georgian orthodox church, but would reach out to other religions and those who are not religious and share the gospel with them.