I love the people on this board who so kindly provide such great resources for us all. Must be hard to have been raised in the Orthodox faith and wonder why so many of us struggle with what seems like basic issues to ancient Christian faithful.
Ben, I would like to share with you a few thoughts that have helped me in my journey. I know they are not complete yet, but I am hopeful that maybe, these findings might also provide some extra glimmers of light on your journey.
On the subject of talking to the dead and praying to saints- This was a major stumbling block for me for the longest time and I'm still growing in my understanding. According to modern versions of Bible interpretation among most evangelicals, this is completely forbidden and some have assumed that all who believe in living saints are pagan heretics, rather than faithful Christians worshipping the Living God. I had been taught that Saul's talk with Samuel and the old testament Prohibition against divination-based talking with the dead had made it clear that it is against God's Word and nowhere would one ever find God presenting this practice in a positive light.
What surprised me, since after reading God's Word approximately 14 times in my walk thus far, I had never seen the following passages that are clear for early church Christians:
The Holy Words of Jesus recorded in the canon of Scriptures tells those from the Sadducee's' sect of Judaism, who do not believe in the resurrection, that God is the God of the "living", and He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the living, not the "dead". Also, it is written those who "die" in Christ, are not "dead" but bodily "sleep", and fully alive in Christ, for Christ has delivered us from the sting of death and death has no longer power over those hidden in Christ's power by His Holy Spirit. Christ as God in the flesh has already overcome death.
In the Bible of the new testament believers, King Saul practiced forbidden divination to talk to Prophet Samuel. Clearly forbidden to practice divination to sacrifice to other gods and go through those who worshipped other gods to try to connect with the dead; but a man who would not listen to God's prophets when they are alive and who was set himself against many of God's men, (i.e. David and Jonathan), and one was clearly working against God's plan for Israel to raise up David as His godly king, it was his "natural" means of not facing God but still trying to receive God's will. But no one can run away from God (psalm 139), and even in the midst of evil life, Saul had the chance to repent of his sins. God's Mercies are wonderful and great, but unfortunately, Saul looked to other gods to receive his answers.
When reading the Bible, it is important to not skip over whole sections and build a theology by taking one part and not "seeing" the other connected sections that contradict it. Evangelicals teach this also, but I have come to realize that the modern westernized theologian does not practice this when it comes to understanding "praying for the dead or to Christ with the saints in His Presence". By not knowing the teachings of the early church, I have been guilty of this in my past messages and talks. Faithful Christians were kind enough to show me a couple passages I had been blinded to:
Matthew 17:1-9, Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, "Get up, and do not be afraid." And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead."
For the first time, I and some of my Christian brothers discovered that Jesus is speaking with "dead people". Obviously they are not "dead", but fully alive. Did Jesus ever sin? Of course not (Hebrews 4:15 Jesus, our High Priest, was without sin). So, Jesus talking with the living, is not considered sin by God's Word, and not rebuked by his Jewish disciples either. If Peter's Jewish teaching had taught him it was wrong to talk with Moses and Elijah, he would have probably rebuked Christ and had Christ rebuke him once again, but rather, he offers 3 tabernacles for Jesus and the two "living visitors". Doesn't seem like he thought it against Jewish laws to have Jesus speaking with "the dead". If Jesus could talk with "the living holy ones", it could not have been as "forbidden" as I and my evangelical brethren taught.
Another passage that helped me on my journey thus far, was shown in Matthew 27:52-53:
"And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose
, And came out of the graves after his [Jesus’] resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."
"dead saints" arose from their graves and went into the holy city and appeared unto many. God had the living resurrected from their graves and go into the holy city, spending time and showing themselves as alive to many living people, who had not died yet.
Ben, The Holy Scriptures speak against those of us who wrongly believe the saints are "dead" and that God's Word forbids us talking with them, since for the first time in my life, in the past year, these two passages, opened my eyes to see that God's Word says otherwise. However, when I thought about it, which "denomination" believes the Bible more? Those who live as if these Bible passages are trustworthy and reliable and living influence on their lives (i.e. Orthodox and Catholics), or those who deny the reality of these passages and "privately interpret" anticatholic sentiments that have thrown out the baby with the bathwater (most of our protestant brethren)?
The Pentecostals in assemblies of God and other protestant denominations do accept the reality of dreams revealing Truths to the faithful Christian. Many martyrs who glorified Christ faithfully to the end, have recorded dreams of visitations from living saints (i.e. Polycarp, The Apostle John's personally trained and trusted disciple that led His Church after John's death.).
The continuity that your family members may one day be open to seeing is that "holy" visitations may be found by seeing that according to the Holy Scriptures, the living saints appeared during Christ's life and after His Resurrection. The historical records after the apostles' deaths, also record the faithful apostolic church, led by the Holy Spirit, to continue to receive testimonies of living saints' visitations. At times also recorded dreams written by the faithful confirm the continuous prayers of the saints in Heaven on our behalf(Revelations 5:8 "When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints").
fyi: The somewhat deistic theological perspective by my baptist brethren does have God stopping with revelations right after John's vision recorded in Revelations, and although that view has been contradicted by the faithful who gave their blood to keep the faith pure and true for our generation, even with that limitation, no one could deny that the canon of Scriptures clearly speak of talking with "the living" by Christ and "many" in the holy city.
The assemblies of God influenced interpretations of the Bible should have an "easier" theological time accepting the reality that some believers endowed with special Gifts of God's Grace by His Holy Spirit, may receive Godly dreams and visions of Heavenly beings.
Ben, I honestly do not know if this will help your family's upcoming struggles with your findings of the early church, but the scriptural and historical understanding of the Living Church has helped me a lot in my journey so far. The "early church" continued faithfully beyond the death of the last apostle John. Eusebius' church history (found at http://www.amazon.com/History-Church-Constantine-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140445358/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1200340753&sr=8-4
) was the first account I read describing how the Church faithfully continued after the book of Acts was finished, and may be of some help to you at some point as well.
I hope I have not inadvertently offended my Orthodox brethren with any of my understanding and my many quotes. I am Christ's humble servant growing in my understanding. Please pray for me and Ben and our families as we grow in the faith of the "early church" and thank you for allowing us to find out more about our ancient Christian faith.