Monday, September 10, 2007

The End of the Beginning (BBB Part 30)

In the fall of 2002, I began my studies in the St. Stephen Course of Orthodox Theological Studies. St. Stephen’s is a (mainly) correspondence course designed for anyone interested in deepening their knowledge of Orthodoxy. In the Antiochian archdiocese, it is the minimum educational requirement for someone interested in being ordained as a deacon. In addition, with a bishop’s approval, a person who has converted to Orthodoxy from another Christian tradition and who has a Master of Divinity degree from a non-Orthodox seminary can substitute the St. Stephen’s course for a degree from an Orthodox seminary, and can thus be considered for ordination to the Holy Priesthood.

Since I did have a Master of Divinity from a Southern Baptist seminary, and since attending an Orthodox seminary would have been next to impossible for me (with my growing family), Fr. Matthew encouraged me to ask my bishop (bishop BASIL)’s blessing to enroll in St. Stephen’s. Bishop BASIL agreed, and I jumped into my studies with gusto. Each semester, I was sent a list of books to read and a set of study questions to guide my reading. At the end of the semester, I then had to write 7-10 essays on the readings. The best part of the program, however, was the three weeks (one week per year) that I was required to spend at the Antiochian Village in Ligionier, Pennsylvania.

At the Antiochian village, we had the chance to listen to lectures given by our professors, as well as other gifted teachers, and fellowship with other students from around the country (and, increasingly, the world). We worshipped at least twice a day, and to make things even better, the food was great! Though often physically exhausting, these three weeks were spiritually fulfilling, and I will always cherish them.

In the meantime, Jennifer and I continued to grow in our practice and appreciation of the Orthodox faith. Shortly after our Chrismation, I began serving as a reader and chanter. Later, I began teaching adult Sunday School, served as an altar server, and sang in the choir. By the end of 2003, Fr. Matthew suggested that it was time for me to apply for ordination to the Holy Diaconate. I was humbled and yet excited at this possibly opportunity.

During this time of spiritual growth, my father’s health continued to deteriorate. In April of 2003, he suffered a massive stroke, which his doctor said would be fatal. Still, like the tough old Marine that he was, he recovered, although he could no longer swallow and had to be fed through a feeding tube. In June of the next year, I received a phone call from my brother-in-law Jace, who said simply, “We lost the Colonel.” Even though I had been able to grieve for several years, as he gradually succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, I was still devastated when my father finally passed on. No mortal man had ever been more influential in my life, nor will any. My father served his country in uniform for 26 years, and he trained young men and women to do so for another twelve. He taught me right from wrong, along with the great value of clean living and of excelling in all that I do. May God have mercy upon his soul.

Soon, our sorrow turned to joy again. Only a few days after my father’s passing, Jennifer and I received an unexpected blessing. Once again, we were expecting a child! Nine months later, in January of 2005, we welcomed our fourth daughter, Christine Grace, into the world. Jennifer had begun studying Communication Disorders the previous fall, with a view toward becoming a Speech Language Pathologist, but now she gladly put her studies on hold for a year. Christine has turned out to be a beautiful and sweet child. She helps keep Jennifer and me young!

Meanwhile, in August of 2004, I was blessed to be ordained to the Holy Diaconate by Bishop BASIL of Wichita and Mid-America. I had to drive 12 hours to Wichita to be ordained, but it was well worth it. Serving as a deacon under the godly tutelage of Fr. Matthew was a blessing beyond compare. Fr. Matthew was also grateful for the help around the altar, for he had been serving alone for ten years. I was grateful to be able to help him!

The following November, when Bishop BASIL was visiting our parish, he gave me his blessing to apply for ordination to the Holy Priesthood. He graciously agreed to let me stay in Houston while working a secular job and to serve as the unpaid part-time assistant to Fr. Matthew, until Jennifer finished her studies and Audrey graduated from high school (scheduled for 2009). My application was accepted by the Archdiocese, and with joy that I cannot describe, on February 12, 2006, the goal that I had been working toward for over five years was at last fulfilled! Finally, I was an Orthodox priest!

Since then, it has been a joy to serve with Fr. Matthew at St. Joseph’s. In addition, I have been able to fill in for vacationing priests in (as of this writing) ten other Orthodox parishes, in 4 different jurisdictions. I have also been blessed to serve for over a year as the chaplain of the University of Houston Orthodox Christian Fellowship and, more recently, as the advisor of the St. Joseph Teen SOYO. Fr. Matthew has also allowed me to teach the adult Sunday School class at St. Joseph for two years and to direct the St. Philip Prayer Discipline for the same amount of time.

In one sense, I feel like I have finally “arrived.” But I know that in reality, this is just the beginning. I am certain that God has even more planned for me in the future, possibly including my own parish. Until then, I plan to serve him with fear and trembling, but also with joy. My life up to this point has been a wild ride, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. To God be the glory forever! Amen!


Clint said...

Fr James,
thank you so much for sharing this with us. I know I have been blessed by reading it. It is an encouragement to read your experiences as we try to navigate our own. I look forward to speaking with you in person some day.

James said...

Fr James,

Bless. As another former Protestant missionary to eastern Europe (in my case Romania) whose time away lead to a conversion to Orthodoxy, I was greatly touched to read your story. I am very glad to have read it. Your journey home to the Church really has been very interesting and you have inspired me to perhaps try to write my own (less inspiring, I'm sure) story, for my own benefit if nobody else's. Maybe one day I might even blog it! Thank you.