Friday, April 27, 2007

Conversion (BBB Part Three)

In my last post, I mentioned two sisters whom God used to ignite my interest in Him. After my relationships with these two girls ended, God sent other friends into my life. I am convinced that He used these friends to deepen my spiritual interest and to eventually bring me to a full commitment to Him.

Two of these friends were male and two were female, but all four were Southern Baptists. Each of them frequently invited me to attend services and youth outreach events at their churches, and occasionally, they prevailed upon me to go with them. I was particularly interested in the events at which food (preferably full meals!) was served. I specifically remember one time when one of the guys asked me to go to a youth meeting, and I asked, “Will there be food?” When he replied in the affirmative, I said “Absolutely!” (Note to all youth leaders: Never underestimate the power of pizza!)

Nearly every time I went to a church service or youth event, I heard preaching that was powerful, biblical, and relevant to my life. Speaker after speaker challenged me to quit living for myself and to devote myself fully to God. And I cannot tell you how many times I raised my hand (usually “with every head bowed and every eye closed”) or signed a card saying that I was giving my life to Jesus. Still, these “decisions” never stuck, as I soon went back to living my old, essentially self-centered lifestyle. God, the church, and the Bible remained no more than a hobby for me.

In addition to bringing me to church events, my friends also testified to me about their faith in God. Slowly but surely, bit by bit, they broke through my stubbornness and skepticism and convinced me of many of the fundamental truths that I still hold today, including the truthfulness of the Scriptures, the love of God, and the importance of regular Bible study and worship. They never gave up on me; instead, they patiently and lovingly shared their beliefs with me. And while nearly all the speakers that I heard at the services were helpful, the personal witnesses of my friends were invaluable.

By the time I headed off to Austin to attend college, I decided it was time to explore some other Christian traditions besides the Episcopal faith. During my first semester, I lived on campus, but had no car. So I visited nearly every church that was within walking distance: Baptist, Methodist, non-denominational, and yes, even Episcopal. (Unfortunately, I had not even heard of the Orthodox Church, even though I lived but a short walk from St. Elias’, near downtown Austin).

In January, I moved off campus, into an apartment that was a few blocks away from a very large Southern Baptist church. Naturally, I decided to check it out. The strong preaching there reminded me of what I had heard at my high school friends’ churches, and the seriousness with which the people there seemed to take their faith greatly impressed me. And the short distance from my apartment didn’t hurt either!

Although I still felt some loyalty to the Episcopal Church, primarily due to my love for my mother, I felt like I could stay in that tradition no longer. The Baptist church’s preaching, along with the enthusiasm of its people, were something that I had never seen in my own church, and they drew me like a magnet. I correctly guessed that my mother would be hurt by my decision, but I prayed that she would agree to disagree with me about religion (which she eventually did).

For the next two years, I alternated between living in Austin and living in my parents’ home in Pasadena, where I worked as an engineering co-op student at IBM in Clear Lake City. In my church involvement, I alternated between my church in Austin and various Baptist (and occasionally other evangelical) churches near my parents’ house. In spite of attending church fairly regularly, and staying in touch with my high school friends, I still was unwilling to change my life. I wanted the ruler of my life to be ME, not God.

Over those two years, however, God gradually broke through to me, and convinced me that I could not be my own ruler and receive all the blessings of Christianity at the same time. I fought and fought him, but I finally had to give up. On January 15, 1989, at the end of the morning worship service at my church in Austin, when the invitation was given, I went forward and once and for all dedicated my life to Christ. I was baptized a week later, and I thus became a full-fledged member of the church that I would belong to for life.

Or so I thought…

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

16 Years Ago

I thought I would take a break from relating the story of my journey to Orthodoxy tonight to tell you about something that happened on this day 16 years ago. 16 years ago today, my life changed forever, for on that day Jennifer and I had our first baby. Yes, my Audrey is now "Sweet Sixteen."

Audrey doesn't like it when I brag on her too much; it embarasses her. Suffice it to say that she has been a real blessing to my life and to Jennifer's. Sure, there have been plenty of hard times, as well as many fights and arguments. Still, most parents of a 16-year-old would gladly trade places with Jennifer and me. Audrey is truly a wonderful kid. She does well in school, helps a lot around the house, is a gifted musician, and, most importantly, she loves the Lord Jesus.

I am very proud of her. I love her very much.

So, if you see her in the near future, please wish her a happy birthday.

May the Lord bless and keep you all.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Movement (BBB Part Two)

Not long after I started high school, by God’s grace I began to awaken from my spiritual slumber. In the fall of my freshman year, I somehow managed to catch the eye of a sophomore girl. She was attractive and popular, and her condition for us “going together” (remember that delightful term?) was that I go to church with her, at least occasionally. I had no desire to go to church at all, but I figured that she was well worth a few church services. So, I agreed to her condition. When I did attend services at her Church of Christ congregation, I was struck by the challenging preaching of her pastor. It started me thinking about God and the Bible for the first time in my life.

A couple of months later, she unceremoniously dumped me for an older, cooler, and more attractive guy. At the beginning of the next school year, I found myself “going with” her younger sister (no laughing or teasing me!), and as you might expect, I found myself back in the same church being challenged by the same pastor’s sermons. Alas, that relationship was almost as short-lived as the previous one, and before long, I was once again not even, to use St. James’ phrase, a “hearer of the Word.”

However, my second stint in the sisters’ church did lead to a major turning point in my life, for it was then that I was inspired to start reading the Bible and going to church on my own (not just because some girl said I had to). I asked my mother if we could start going to church, and she gladly agreed. Since she was from an Episcopal background and was a member of a local parish, that is where we began attending. And there I would attend nearly every Sunday for the rest of my high school years.

I was fortunate to not end up in a liberal, heretical parish. Our rector was a pious man who clearly loved the Lord and his flock and who subscribed to traditional Christianity. He occasionally went on mission trips and even learned Spanish (while in his fifties!) so that he could start an outreach to the many Hispanic families that lived around the church. Still, his sermons were more like literary analyses than true biblical preaching, and they lacked the application to life that I was hearing in the preaching in my friends’ churches. In addition, the liturgy seemed very dry to me, and very few of the kids in the youth group seemed to be serious about their Christian faith. One of them once asked me, “Why do you go to church?” I said, “Because I love God! (this was not quite true, but never mind)” He quite seriously replied, “I wish that were my reason!”

All of these experiences led me to think that there had to be something more out there. I wanted to worship God and get to know him. I wanted to be involved in church, but I also longed for stronger, life-based preaching and teaching and a more meaningful worship experience. Enter the Baptists…

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium (Part One)

Everyone who has converted to Orthodoxy from another tradition has a unique and interesting conversion story. There is no such thing as a “typical” story. Because of this, I cannot claim that my conversion story is all that different from the (non-existent) “typical” story. Nevertheless, after having related my experience dozens of times, I have noticed a recurring reaction: Person after person has told me that my story is “amazing,” “fascinating,” “different,” or some other such adjective (Some of my former missionary colleagues would say “insane,” but more on that later…). Many people have urged me to put the story in writing and even to publish it. I have delayed doing this for about five years for one very simple reason: I hate to write. Not only that, but I have been very busy for most of the last several years.

But now I think that it is finally time. So, I am going to try an experiment: I will break up the story into several short pieces and publish the pieces one at a time in this blog. In fact, this is one of the reasons I started the blog: to give myself an impetus to write about my conversion experience. My hope and prayer is that you will find some inspiration in reading about the path along which God has led me over the last several years, and indeed how He has guided my path my entire life.


Beginnings

I was born March 8, 1968, to parents who were in their late forties and who had been married for 24 years. I was the youngest of four children, with siblings who were 22, 15, and 11 years older than me. Because my brother and my two sisters were already in college or the workforce by the time I was old enough to remember anything, I spent most of my childhood living much like an only child, with parents that were the same age as most of my friends’ grandparents.

My father had served for 26 years as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, retiring as a Colonel the year before I was born. After his retirement, he worked in three different short-term jobs in three different cities, until 1974, when he accepted a position as a Marine ROTC instructor at a high school in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston. My mother and sister and I joined him there the following year, and so it was at the age of seven that I settled down in the city where I would grow up and where I currently work.

My parents were decent, moral people who imparted to me a strong sense of right and wrong. However, neither of them had much interest in God or the Church, and we very rarely attended any type of church. My only memory of anything remotely religious was attending an Episcopal school for the first half of my Kindergarten year, where on at least one occasion I was spanked by the priest/principal for some type of misbehavior that I cannot remember.

Until I was nearly fifteen, I considered myself a staunch agnostic. I never gave much thought to whether or not I believed in God, but I was unquestionably a functional atheist at the very least. This began to change, however, during my freshman year in high school…

Friday, April 13, 2007

Gone

In yesterday’s post, I talked a little about the Christian rock band Switchfoot and their song lyrics. Today, I would like to share an excerpt from another great Switchfoot song with you. In this song, entitled “Gone,” the band sings about the need to make every moment of our lives count, since “today will soon be gone.” Toward the end, they sing:

We are not infinite,
We are not permanent.
Nothing is immediate
We're so confident
In our accomplishments
Look at our decadence…

Life is more than money
Time was never money
Time was never cash,
Life is still more than girls
Life is more than hundred dollar bills
And roto-tom fills [Fr. James’ note: Sometimes they like to have a little fun!]
Life's more than fame and rock and roll and thrills
All the riches of the kings end up in wills.
We got information in the information age,
But do we know what life is outside of our convenient Lexus cages
She said he said live like no tomorrow
Every moment that we borrow brings us closer to the God who's not short of cash…
[Fr. James’ note: See Ephesians 5:15-17 and Psalm 90:10-12]
(Written by Jonathan Foreman; Copyright 2003)

I heartily commend Switchfoot’s music to you. If you have a teenager or preteen, I strongly recommend that you buy them a copy of Oh! Gravity or The Beautiful Letdown, at least for starters. Their positive message is a refreshing change from the unbridled narcissism, hedonism and nihilism (not to mention just plain pointlessness) that makes up the overwhelming majority of today’s popular song lyrics.

Here are some other outstanding bands and/or solo artists who also have positive lyrics inspired by the Scriptures. I will list them by genre:

Alternative Rock: Sanctus Real, Audio Adrenaline, Kutless, Newsboys
Rap/Rock: DC Talk, TobyMac
80’s/90’s Rock: Petra, Whiteheart
Alternative Folk/Rock: Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call
Mellow Folk: Michael Card, John Michael Talbot, Rich Mullins

Of course, this is only a partial list. There are hundreds of other groups and solo artists that I have not mentioned; these are just my personal favorites. For more information, check out the Christian Music Database. Each of these artists and bands also have their own website, and their music is available at Amazon.com as well as other places. The nice thing about Amazon.com is that you can buy the CD’s used (or sometimes even new) from third-party merchants at greatly reduced prices.

It is also noteworthy that there are several Orthodox recording artists similar to those above, except that their music is mainly limited to acoustic folk. They include Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist, Justin Mathews, and a duo called Joyful Sorrow. For more information, see St. Romanos Records.

I hope that you will try out some of these artists’ music, and that the music will become a major source of blessing to you, as it has to me.

May the Lord bless and keep you.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oh! Gravity


Recently, I wrote about the importance of listening to music that has a positive and uplifting message. Doing so is important for both young and older people alike. I mentioned that there are many bands that perform contemporary music but with a Christian message. Now I would like to discuss this subject in a little more detail.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my daughter Audrey to an oustanding concert by a Christian rock group named Switchfoot. Switchfoot released their first album in 1997, and for the first five years of their existence, they remained a little-known band, followed mainly in evangelical Christian circles. This changed after four of their songs were featured in the 2002 film A Walk to Remember. Soon the band was catapulted into national stardom, and their 2003 album The Beautiful Letdown sold 2.6 million copies. Since 2003, Switchfoot has achieved a good deal of crossover success, including five Billboard Top 40 singles and three Top 20 albums.

Switchfoot’s lyrics are seldom explicitly Christian, and they rarely mention God by name. Nonetheless, Christian themes and ideas permeate their songs. Common topics addressed in Switchfoot songs include the futility of materialism, our sinfulness (they use the terms “fallen” and “broken” rather than “sinful”), and the need to live our lives for something (or someOne!) more than ourselves. Switchfoot is often called a “thinking person’s band,” as their lyrics are often inspired by classic literary works as well as by Scripture. Rather than just preach the Gospel directly, their lyrics often employ a form of Socratic dialogue, posing questions about key life issues before ultimately arriving at an answer.

Here is an excerpt from “American Dream,” my favorite song on their new album Oh! Gravity:

When success is equated with excess,
The ambition for excess wrecks us.
As top of the mind becomes the bottom line,
When success is equated with excess.

If your time ain’t been nothing with money,
I start to feel really bad for you, honey.
Maybe honey, put your money where your mouth’s been running,
If your time ain’t been nothing but money.

I want out of this machine; it doesn’t feel like freedom.

This ain’t my American dream.
I want to live and die for bigger things.
I’m tired of fighting for just me.
This ain’t my American dream.

(Written by Jonathan Foreman, Copyright 2006, Publishing Schmublishing (ASCAP))

This song is a modern expression of biblical passages such as Matt. 6:19-34, Luke 12:15-34, and 1 Tim 6:6-10. Not only that, but it flat out rocks!

More on Switchfoot and other Christian bands tomorrow. May the Lord bless and keep you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Christos Anesti!


Christ is Risen! I apologize that this is a couple of days late. I hope that each of you had a blessed Pascha celebration.

One of my favorite parts of the Orthodox Pascha service is the reading of the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom. Written around 400 A.D., this masterpiece of preaching has been read immediately before the Paschal Divine Liturgy each year since. I bet when St. John was writing this sermon, he had no idea that it would be repeated year after year for over 1600 years (and it may be many more if our Lord tarries).

Those of you who are not Orthodox may never have had the pleasure of hearing or reading the homily. Those who are Orthodox have no doubt heard it several times, but you may not have ever looked at it closely. So, for the benefit of all, I am reproducing the text of the homily here. Enjoy, and may the Lord bless you during this Bright Week.

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Is there anyone who is a grateful servant? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages! If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
"O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?"

Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday




Today is suspended upon the Tree,
He who suspended the earth upon the waters.
A crown of thorns crowns Him,
Who is the King of Angels.
He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery,
Who wrapped the heavens in clouds.
He was struck, who freed Adam in the Jordan.
He was transfixed with nails,
Who is the Bridegroom of the Church.
He was pierced with a spear,
Who is the Son of the Virgin.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ!
Show us also thy glorious Resurrection!


--15th Antiphon of Holy Friday Matins






May God grant each of you a blessed Holy Friday. Take some time to meditate upon our Lord's suffering and death. Go to Church if at all possible. He died for you; now live for Him!













Monday, April 2, 2007

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely…meditate on these things.
(Philippians 4:8).

Words that are set to music are easily remembered. If this were not true, then corporations would not spend millions of dollars each year trying to write new jingles to sell their products. If you are over 35 years old, I bet that you can not only hum the tunes that go with the following words, but also finish the songs:

1. “Two all beef patties …”
2. “I’m a pepper…”
3. “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce…”

Feeling hungry or thirsty yet? It has been more than twenty years since any of the commercials with these songs aired, and yet you probably remembered them all. When we hear the same words over and over again, we not only remember the words, but we also tend to be influenced by them. In other words, the music that we listen to can be a powerful force that affects how what and how we think. This is especially true for young children and teenagers, whose brains (as science tells us) are not fully developed and who are especially impressionable.

A parent of one of the kids in our parish's youth group recently told me “all of the music my kid listens to is about drugs, sex, or killing people.” Most of the music that our youth is listening to, while probably not quite so bad, still does little for their growth as a Christian. The fact is, most of the music on the radio today sends messages that at best ignore and at worst flatly contradict the Gospel of Christ. If you don’t believe me, grab a few of your kid’s CD’s and read the lyrics. How do the lyrics compare with the teachings of the Church? My guess is not favorably.

It would be nice if our kids would listen to nothing but Orthodox Church music, but we all know that this is not realistic. However, there is a solution: contemporary Christian music. For many years, there have been groups and solo artists who are Christians and who write and perform songs that contain messages about loving God and each other and living a pure life. Some of these artists do not mention God explicitly in their lyrics, but at least the lyrics are positive. Even better, the music is in the styles that our kids love, including rap, R&B, alternative, hard rock, punk, country, and every other style that you can imagine (there is also “softer” stuff for us “old” folks!). And although most of the musicians are evangelicals, their lyrics are usually non-sectarian: they rarely ever preach Protestantism, but simply love, faith, and purity.

Jennifer and I have listened to Christian music for over two decades, and doing so has greatly helped our spiritual lives. I firmly believe that it can do likewise for you and your kids. If you would like some more information about some good Christian groups to listen to, I will be glad to help. Tomorrow, I will discuss at least one in some detail…