Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Worship (BBB Part 23)

St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church, Spring Texas: Parishioners and Iconostasis


Since about the first of December, Jennifer and I had confided in our friends and colleagues Bob and Melanie about our growing affinity for Orthodoxy. They had also read the two books that we had borrowed from them, and like us, they had found much of what they read to be quite persuasive. I will never forget something that Bob said after we had spent a couple of hours discussing the points raised in the books. After I said to Bob, “We may well end up going into the Orthodox Church,” he looked me in the eyes and said, “Well, we may just go with you.” In spite of these words, Jennifer and I could tell that Bob and Melanie were not as enthusiastic as we were. One telltale sign of this was that neither of them made it a point to visit the Divine Liturgy in Banja Luka or in the U.S. (they also spent the Christmas holidays in the States).

One time when I described to Bob how wonderful I thought the Divine Liturgy was, he said to me, “Well, it is great that you love the Liturgy HERE, but if you convert to Orthodoxy, you will eventually have to go home and find a parish in the U. S. to attend. What if the services there are not quite so wonderful? You should make sure that you find the Liturgy in a parish in the States as fulfilling as you do the Liturgy here!” I thought that he had a good point. So, I searched the Internet for a parish in the U.S. that Jennifer and I could visit while on vacation.

I quickly found one that was only a few miles from my parents’ house: Saint Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Spring, Texas. On our last Sunday before we returned to Bosnia, Jennifer and I attended the Liturgy while my parents watched our two children. It was everything that I thought and hoped it would be. Even though there weren’t near as many icons, and the choir was much smaller, the service was still beautiful. And to really sweeten the deal, it was all in English! We didn’t stick around to meet any of the people, because we didn’t want my elderly parents to have to watch the kids for any more time that was necessary. Still, our experience at St. Anthony’s further confirmed our sense that God was leading us into Orthodoxy.

Our experience at St. Anthony’s was in marked contrast to one that we had a couple of weeks earlier. On the first Sunday after we arrived in Houston, we had visited the morning worship service at the Baptist church where we were members, the church in whose missionary house we had stayed two years previously. We had wondered if visiting our home church might put the brakes on our rapid march toward Orthodoxy. Would visiting a larger church with better music and a better preacher than the Banja Luka Baptist church convince us that we really were Baptists deep down?

Far from it! Whereas previously we had loved our church and its services, now we both felt like fish out of water. All I could think about was how I missed the beauty of the Orthodox Liturgy. We felt guilty about it, but we could not deny that we just wanted to get out of there and get back home. How refreshing it was two weeks later when we attended the Liturgy at St. Anthony’s!

By New Year’s Day 2001, after reflecting at length on our reading and our varied worship experiences, and after much prayer, we were fully convinced that God wanted us to convert to Orthodoxy. But very soon after that day, God upped the ante on me once more. Once again, He used a book to communicate His will to me. Late one night, only a couple of days before we were to fly back to Bosnia, I was reading the wonderful book At the Corner of East and Now by Frederica Mathewes-Green. In one section of her book, Green describes the proskomedia (preparation of the bread and wine) service that every priest performs quietly prior to celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I found myself captivated by the beautiful words that the priest recites while cutting out the Lamb (the piece of the loaf that eventually becomes the Body and Blood of Christ), “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who shall describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth” (Isaiah 53:7-8, LXX).

As I read these words, I once again felt that still, small, inaudible voice speaking to me, saying, “This is what you are going to do.” I knew then that not only was I supposed to convert to Orthodoxy, but I was also destined to become a priest! I shared this experience with Jennifer, and as always, she was totally supportive. But now I had another big problem to solve. While on the plane back to Bosnia, I kept asking myself, “how can I become an Orthodox priest while at the same time working as a Baptist missionary?”

Monday, July 30, 2007

More Reading (BBB Part 22)

As soon as we reached my parents’ house in the northern suburbs of Houston, I tore into the packages that were waiting for me and began voraciously reading the books that they contained. In the four weeks that we were with our parents, I spent every spare minute eagerly seeking the answers to the remaining questions that I had about Orthodoxy. As I mentioned before, I ordered about 12 books in all. Of course, some were more helpful than others. One title that I found especially helpful was a thick pamphlet called An Orthodox Response to Evangelical Claims, by Fr. Paul O’Callaghan. In this work, Fr. Paul follows a very simple format: he lists common objections and questions to Orthodox distinctives, and then he convincingly answers them. Many of the questions listed were the exact things that I needed clarification about, and Fr. Paul helped me overcome many of my doubts about Orthodoxy.

A second critical book that I read (though not in its entirety), was The Orthodox Study Bible, which is the New King James translation with commentary and study aids written by Orthodox scholars. I had wondered how the Orthodox Church “handled” certain key verses (all of which had been underlined and highlighted in my Bible!) that seemed to teach that salvation is by faith alone. The OSB helped me to understand that in the early Church, salvation was viewed more as spiritual healing that leads to godlikeness than as deliverance from the legal penalty of sin. I learned that the New Testament teaches that while salvation is by faith, it is not by faith alone. In fact, the only place where the phrase “faith alone” is used is James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” This verse, along with many others, had never made sense to me as an evangelical Protestant. My solution had been to ignore such verses that did not fit into the scheme of Baptist theology. Now, I was finally beginning to understand the verses that I had not underlined! More than ever, the New Testament seemed to be a coherent whole, with no parts that simply did not fit.

A third work that proved invaluable in moving me toward Orthodoxy was The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Fr. Jack Sparks. Here I was able to read what Christian leaders of the late first and early second centuries, most of whom had learned their doctrine directly from the Apostles, had to say about the issues that Evangelicals and Orthodox Christians disagreed on. I was able to put the claims of Frs. Peter Gillquist and Jordan Bajis to the test. In every instance, they passed! I read Ignatius of Antioch calling the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality” and urging local Christians to be obedient to their bishops. I “heard” Clement of Rome arguing for apostolic succession and describing a threefold division of Church leadership. I observed how the author of the Didache urged the use of liturgical prayer in the Eucharist, baptism by triple immersion, and fasting on Wednesday and Friday. So, as it turned out, the theology and practice of the early Church was much more like that of the Orthodox Church than my own church!

By this time, I felt that I agreed with Orthodoxy at least 90%. The final nail in the coffin of my allegiance to the Baptist church was my reading of The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church by Clark Carlton. This is the most persuasive book for Orthodoxy that I had ever read – but it is not for the easily offended. Evangelicals and other Protestants who read The Way must be ready for some “tough love!” I think that one reason that I connected so well with this book is that the author is, like myself, a former Southern Baptist who attended seminary. In The Way, Carlton powerfully argues against Protestant distinctives such as Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide, and argues for Orthodox theology and practice.

By the time I finished The Way, I told Jennifer: “The jig is up. I’m no longer a Baptist!” But I still needed to know one thing: What would Orthodox worship in the U. S. look like?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Crisis (BBB Part 21)

By the first of December, only four months after our return to Banja Luka, I had attended the Divine Liturgy several times and had read and re-read Becoming Orthodox, Common Ground, and The Orthodox Church. Jennifer had also read the books and had also found them persuasive.. As a result of our reading and visits to the Liturgy, we found ourselves in a theological crisis. When we arrived in Banja Luka, we were confident that our Baptist theology and practice were solidly based on the Bible and Church history. We were certain that the Baptist church, along with most other evangelical churches, was a “New Testament Church,” meaning that it was a faithful reproduction of the Church of the Apostles.

As late as early October 2000, we were convinced that the first-century Church was non-sacramental. In other words, Peter and Paul and the others saw Baptism and the Eucharist as being purely symbolic rituals that do not impart any kind of supernatural grace. We believed that early Christian worship was unstructured and centered on preaching; it certainly was not liturgical! We also held that the polity of the apostolic Church was more or less congregational, without any semblance of “monarchical” bishops. All these beliefs had to be true; the Bible clearly taught them (or so we thought)!

But by December, we were not so sure about any of these “facts.” We had been presented solid biblical and historical evidence that the Church was in fact sacramental in theology, liturgical in worship practice, and hierarchical in structure from its very beginning.

Before we began studying Orthodoxy, we held firmly to the twin Protestant pillars of Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone is a valid source of authority; extra-biblical traditions are untrustworthy) and Sola Fide (salvation comes through faith alone; works play no role whatsoever). Moreover, the Southern Baptist core doctrines of “believers’” (not infant!) baptism and the eternal security of the believer (salvation can never be forfeited once obtained) were deeply ingrained in our thinking. Practices such as praying to saints, praying for the departed, and venerating icons were anathema to us!

But by December our thinking had changed. At this point, we were not sure what we believed. On some issues, such as the nature of the early Church and infant Baptism, we were 90% convinced of the Orthodox position. But we were not fully sold on the Orthodox view of salvation or on the validity of venerating saints and praying for the departed. Clearly, we needed to do some more study!

Providentially, Jennifer and I had already scheduled a trip to the States from mid-December to mid-January. We had been in Bosnia for nearly two years, and we needed a break. So, I got on the Internet and began ordering books, which I had sent to our parents’ homes, where we would soon be able to read them. In all, I ordered something like a dozen books. We also started searching for an Orthodox parish in the Houston area that we could visit, to see if the worship in the States was as magnificent as that which we had seen in Banja Luka. What would we discover once we arrived in the States? Would we find further confirmation of the truth of Orthodoxy, or would we find that it was merely a quaint, outdated, mainly Eastern European phenomenon based more on the traditions of men than on the teaching of the early Church?

We would soon find out…

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Heaven or Earth? (BBB Part Twenty)


“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty”

-- Envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, after attending the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia Cathedral, Constantinople, late tenth century.


Shortly after we returned to Banja Luka, we learned that we would soon be hosting two volunteer groups from the United States, whose primary activities would include observing the work we were doing, helping us see what other ministries we could be involved in, and praying for our work. Both groups would be with us for a whole week, and so I wanted them to get a good overview of both the town and the life and culture of the people there. Part of the “education” that I had planned for them was visiting the Divine Liturgy at one of the local Orthodox parishes.

Before the groups arrived, I decided to check out a Liturgy myself, so that I might be better prepared to explain what was going on, and to make sure that I was aware of any protocols or rules of etiquette that might exist. In short, I wanted the groups to be able to fit in as best as possible and to not stick out like a sore thumb. So, on the Sunday before the first group was to arrive, I headed for the Church of the Holy Trinity, the largest parish in town at that time.

I was totally unprepared for what I saw! It just so happened that the Sunday that I chose to attend was a triple celebration. The church was celebrating 2000 years of Christianity, 1000 years of Christianity among the Serbs, and 100 years of the Banja Luka archdiocese. As I entered the church grounds, I noticed a large crowd gathered outside, waiting for I knew not what. There were TV cameras and large video screens for the overflow crowd that was expected.

Soon, there came a procession, the likes of which I had never seen, and which I have not seen since. The procession contained several bishops, dozens of priests and deacons, and countless altar boys bearing candles, fans, icons, and banners. They were singing loudly, triumphantly, and beautifully. They processed into the church, and I and the few hundred others waiting outside followed them in.

And then the Liturgy began. Sweet-smelling smoke filled the room. Icons covered every square inch of the walls and ceilings, reminding me of the great cloud of witnesses that worship with us in heaven (Hebrews 12:1). A beautiful choir gave me the sense that the room was filled with angels. The pomp and solemnity, together with the non-stop prayers and expressions of worship, reminded me of the scenes of heavenly worship revealed in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. In short, I was stunned. Like the Kievian envoys a thousand years before me, I did not know whether I was in heaven or on earth!

The richness of the Divine Liturgy contrasted greatly with the dryness off the Baptist service in Banja Luka, with its few short prayers, its generally superficial songs (when there were songs!), its interminable sermons, and its four bare walls. When I left the Liturgy, I thought “Wow, now THAT is worship!”

When the volunteer groups were in town, I was more than happy to accompany them to the Liturgy. Between my reading and my previous visits to the service, I was able to explain some of the aspects of the church building and the service itself. By the time the second group arrived, I found myself actually defending the church against their Protestant objections. I also found myself crossing myself and making metanias along with the other worshippers. That group must have thought that I had lost my mind! There was definitely a change taking place in my opinion and practice of worship.

After the volunteers had gone, I continued to attend the Liturgy, going nearly every Sunday. When possible, I took Jennifer with me. I would attend the Liturgy in the morning and the Baptist service in the afternoon. Whereas my attendance at the Baptist service was done totally out of obligation, my participation in the Orthodox Liturgy was done out of pure joy. Although I wanted to, for various reasons I never spoke to a priest in Banja Luka. Still, through the Liturgy alone, the Serbs were beginning to convert me!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Saint James (BBB Part Nineteen)

At roughly the same time that I began reading about Orthodoxy, a couple of other things happened that helped nudge me in the direction of the Ancient Faith. I have already written about the first of these in an earlier post, so I ask you to forgive me for the repetition.

One of the things that I did while in Banja Luka was to lead an intensive Bible study on the book of Acts for a couple of members of the Baptist church. One day, the day on which we were to study the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, only one of my students was able to come. He was a very devout young man whom I shall call David. Of all of my Serb friends in Banja Luka, David was the one that I felt the closest to.

In Acts 15, we see the Apostles and the other leaders of the Church gathered to discuss a criticial issue which had arisen as a result of St. Paul's first missionary journey. The problem before them was, in essence: Did Gentiles converting to Christianity have to first become Jews, or could they be received directly into Christianity, without first being circumcised or submitting to the full Old Testament Law? As David and I were studying the text, we noticed that after the council discussed the issue at hand, St. James said, "Simon [i.e. St. Peter] has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree." Then, after quoting a passage from the Prophet Amos, he concludes, "Therefore, I judge that they should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:14-15,19-20).

James' words "I judge" are key here. At the Council, there was much discussion, during which at the very least Peter, Paul, and Barnabas spoke. But then all were silent, waiting for James to make a ruling. There was no vote, and after James ruled, there was no further discussion. Rather, the Scripture tells us that "it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church" (15:22) to send people out to the various churches with St. James and the council's ruling. As David and I said to each other "i to je bilo to" (and that was that)!

As I mentioned, David's and my study of this passage actually occurred shortly before I even read Becoming Orthodox. The "ball" of my movement toward Orthodoxy was not yet rolling (or was it?). But I remember looking at David and saying, "That sounds like something a bishop would say and do." David looked at me and said, "Yes, it sure does." David and I, happy Baptists that we were, learned on that day that the first century Church really did have bishops that made rulings, just as the Orthodox Church has always taught. This experience definitely planted a seed in both David's and my mind. For the first time, I learned that at least one of the claims of the Orthodox Church, namely, that the early Church was hierarchical and not democratic and congregational, was not “unbiblical,” but was actually firmly grounded in Scripture. It wouldn’t be too long until I would learn the same thing about other Orthodox teachings.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Wife of Noble Character

A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.
She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She makes coverings for her bed; he is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
"Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all."
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
(Proverbs 31:10-20)

On this date a number of years ago, a beautiful person was born into this world--my wife, Jennifer. She is truly the best wife in the world. Now, some of you men who are reading this may disagree, but we will just have to agree to disagree!

Few men are blessed to have a woman that comes anywhere close to the ideal wife described in the 31st chapter of Proverbs. I thank God that I have been so blessed for 17 years. My wife has worn a variety of hats over the years: wife to me, mother to four children, homemaker, missionary, full-time student, Sunday School teacher, and occasionally, breadwinner (I am probably leaving some out!). She has done all of these jobs exceptionally well. Most importantly, she truly loves the Lord Jesus and her family.

Jennifer has been a full-time stay-at-home mom for most of our years together. This summer, however, she has been taking three graduate classes and has been incredibly busy. Since I have had most of July off, I stepped in and took over most of her household chores. Yes, I have been “Mr. Mom” for most of the summer! In doing so, I gained a new appreciation for all that she has had to do over the years. Now I know from experience that being a stay-at-home mom and homemaker is one of the hardest, perhaps THE hardest, career paths that one can follow!

She has followed me through thick and thin, through good times and some very hard times. She married an engineer, but soon had a Baptist preacher, then a missionary, then, finally, an Orthodox priest! She has followed me halfway around the world and back. She is truly a “wife of noble character,” and every day I “arise and call her blessed…and praise her.” May God grant her many years, and may he also grant me many more years with her.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reading (BBB Part Eighteen)

What really caught my attention about this book was the fact that it was not just about Protestants converting to Orthodoxy, nor even just about evangelicals converting. I had heard stories before about both of these types of conversions occurring. What amazed me was that the book was about a group of leaders of Campus Crusade for Christ converting. For those of you who have never heard of Crusade, it is an evangelical organization primarily devoted to evangelizing college students. Campus Crusade was an organization that nearly all evangelicals, myself included, held in high esteem; its workers we practically viewed as saints. They ranked right up there with missionaries and martyrs in the evangelical “hall of fame.”

So now I was being told that not only did Orthodoxy inspire great loyalty among the Serbs and Eastern Europeans, but it also attracted some of the most dedicated evangelical Christians in the world. Needless to say, I had to find out why these high ranking leaders of an esteemed evangelical ministry, along with two thousand of their followers, found so persuasive about the ancient faith.

The book, of course is Becoming Orthodox, by Fr. Peter Gillquist. It is a quick, easy read, and the story it narrates is gripping. I read the book in one day. After I finished it, I remember thinking, “Well, Gillquist raises some interesting points, but I need to do some further research.” I was not able to reject his arguments outright, but neither could I immediately accept them.

So, I called Melanie and asked her if she had any other books.
Sure enough, she did; this book was called Common Ground, by Fr. Jordan Bajis. Whereas reading Fr. Gillquist’s book was like nibbling on an hors d’oeuvre, reading Fr. Bajis’s book was like consuming a hearty meal. In Common Ground, Fr. Bajis makes a very persuasive case for infant baptism. He also convincingly demonstrates that the evangelical method of interpreting Scripture comes not from the Bible itself, nor from the first century Church, but from sixteenth-century religious humanism. One by one, the doctrines that I had believed since I first began to follow Jesus, including Sola Scriptura, justification by faith alone, believer’s baptism, non-sacramental theology, and the idea that the Bible alone is a valid source of spiritual authority, began to fall.

(Note: The reader may be wondering exactly what the authors said that I found so persuasive. At this time, I will not go into much detail about this. Rather, I plan to write a completely different series on the Orthodox view of key evangelical Protestant distinctives in the future)

After reading Common Ground, I decided to reread Becoming Orthodox. I did so even quicker than I had read it the first time. After my second reading, I thought, “You know, I think that Fr. Gillquist is absolutely right. I think that I have been mistaken about a lot of key theological issues.”

That evening, I said to Jennifer, “You know what? I think that we might be in the wrong church!”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

New Features!

Just a quick note to let you all know that I have added a picture and some new links to the sidebar. Eventually, I plan to add some more links to blogs. For those of you who are not Orthodox and would like more information on Orthodoxy, I suggest the Antiochian, Greek Orthodox, and Orthodox Church in America website. Also, Monachos.net is an excellent place to post a question, if you have one or more.

I hope to have part 18 of BBB up by tomorrow. It is just starting to get good! I am just on the brink of converting to Orthodoxy, at least in my heart.

God bless you all,

Fr. James

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Commencement (BBB Part Seventeen)


We were overjoyed to be back in Banja Luka and nearly fluent in the Serbian language. We were more than ready to at last commence our full-time ministry. Before I continue the narrative, I will answer a question that I am frequently asked: “Why did you go to try to preach the Gospel to the Serbs? After all, aren’t they a Christian people?” Well, yes and no. It is indisputable that the overwhelming number of Serbs consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians. Still, most of these are Christian (and Orthodox, I might add) in name only. In fact, of all the peoples of Eastern Europe, the Serbs rank near the bottom in the percent that attend church regularly. In other words, very few possess the living and active faith that all real Christians believe is necessary for salvation.

So, our aim was not to try to turn any pious, active Orthodox believers (of whom there were few in Banja Luka) into Baptists. Rather, our goal was to find people who were not active in church, share the gospel as we understood it with them, hopefully persuade them to accept baptism (in the Baptist fashion), and begin attending either the local Baptist church or at least a small-group Bible study.

Yes, you heard me correctly! There actually was a Baptist church in Banja Luka, although whether it deserves to be called a church is debatable. It had always had only about 5 active members, with a few other occasional attenders. The group was led by a young Serb couple from Serbia. The husband served as the pastor, and I ended up being the music leader by default. The service consisted of a brief opening prayer, a few songs led by me as I played my guitar, another prayer, a scripture reading or two, a sermon of about 45 minutes to an hour, and a closing prayer. Occasionally, a guest or two from out of town would give a testimony. The services were held on Sunday afternoon, because the group was renting the space owned by another church. The space was a small room with completely white walls. In short, the Baptist services were very different from an Orthodox Liturgy.

In addition to working with the Baptist group, I also did whatever I could to build relationships with locals, with a view toward sharing the Gospel with them. This I did with gusto; I quickly made many new friends and told them what I could about Christ, the Bible and the church. Most of them listened politely, and even agreed with much of what I said. Still, I saw no conversions.

We were blessed to be able to work as a team with another couple, whom I will call Bob and Melanie (not their real names, of course). They had served in Belgrade before the NATO bombing and had been given the opportunity to move to Banja Luka a few months before we did. They were wonderful people, and we became fast friends. Bob and I met once a week to plan and strategize, and all four of us met another time during the week to pray, read Scripture, and fellowship together. We took turns leading a brief devotional.

One time, when it was my turn to lead the devotional, I chose as my text 1 Cor. 9:19-22: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” I discussed the fact that our organization had spent a great deal of money and manpower (12 adult missionaries had each spent 6 to 18 months ministering there prior to our arrival), trying to build up the Baptist church in Banja Luka, but with little to show for it. Our people had been able to lead people to make professions of faith in Christ, and had even baptized a few. But when they had challenged people to join the Baptist church, virtually no one had been willing. They were unwilling to leave the Orthodox Tradition.

I surmised that the problem was that our predecessors had perhaps been “too Baptist.” I suggested that if we could “become all things to all men,” which in our case meant being as Orthodox as possible while still remaining faithful to Baptist principles, we might be more successful. How exactly we were to do this, I wasn’t sure. But all four of us agreed that this was a good idea, and we all decided to think about it and try to figure out how. Clearly, however, the first step was to be more educated about Orthodoxy.

This devotional prompted me to entertain another thought. I asked myself, “What is it about this faith that makes the people here be so loyal to it? Few of the Serbs (at least here) ever darken the door of a church, and yet they will not leave their tradition. In fact, many have been willing to fight and die for it!” I resolved right then and there to study more about the Orthodox faith and see if I could solve this mystery.

Unfortunately, I only had one book, The Orthodox Church, by Bishop Kallistos, and one pamphlet, the one on the basics of Orthodoxy, by Archbishop Dmitri. I read them both and thought, “Well, that was interesting. We really have more in common with the Orthodox Church than I had thought.” Many of the Orthodox practices that had seemed so bizarre and “unbiblical” made a little more sense, even if I still did not agree with them.

But still, I had nothing else to read (at least not in English; I wasn’t quite ready to try to read any deep theological works in Serbian!). That is, I had nothing else until I received a phone call from Melanie. She said, “James, I have a book here that you might find interesting. It is about a bunch of guys that used to work for Campus Crusade for Christ who all became Orthodox.” I thought to myself, “Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” I had to read why.

I had absolutely no idea that this book would totally and irrevocably change my life!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Redeployment (BBB Part Sixteen)

We joined all of the other missionary evacuees in a hotel in Croatia, where we spent a week grieving, praying, and talking with our colleagues about where to go. We were determined to one day return to Banja Luka, so we decided that it would be best to go to another part of Bosnia, where we could continue studying the language. Although Tuzla seemed like an obvious place to go, we felt that there would be too much pressure to immediately get involved in ministry, and our language learning would suffer. Finally, we decided to go to Sarajevo. To be exact, we would settle in the suburb of Ilidza, which had been predominantly inhabited by Serbs before the war, and which still had a fairly large Serb population.

When we arrived in Sarajevo around the first of April, 1999, we were totally unprepared for what we saw there. As I mentioned before, Tuzla and Banja Luka had suffered little damage during the war. This had not been the case in Sarajevo, where some of the worst fighting took place. During the four-year long war, parts of Sarajevo had changed sides dozens of times. As we drove around the city, we stared in utter disbelief as we saw entire neighborhoods that had been reduced to mere rubble. Graveyards with hundreds of fresh graves were ubiquitous. It seemed as if a perpetual dark cloud hung over the city, along with a spirit of deep, dark depression. Once again, we asked ourselves what on earth we were doing here! Once again (the fourth time in three years), we struggled with depression and culture shock.

We soon found a nice house in which to stay and immersed ourselves in language study. We did nothing but study the language for several months, because we wanted to be completely fluent by the time we returned to Banja Luka—though we had to idea when that would be. Between the 13 months that we had spent in Tuzla and the several months of intensive, immersion language study that we did during our first several months in Sarajevo, we became essentially fluent in the Bosnian/Serbian language. By the end of the year, I was able to lead Bible studies entirely in Bosnian.

In the fall of our first year in Sarajevo, we began teaching ESL at our organization’s educational center, to have a means to build relationships with people with whom we could eventually share the Gospel. One day in December, as I was walking home from my last class, I noticed that there was a crunching sound coming from under my feet. I immediately realized that it had begun to snow. This was no surprise, for it had snowed many times before that day. What made this snow different was that it did not stop for several days. In fact, the snow did not stop until we had about 3 feet worth. Then it did stop for a day or so, which gave me enough time to shovel our walk.

Soon the snow began to fall again, and again it did not stop for several days. By the time the snow had finally stopped for good, we had a total of nearly six feet on the ground! Needless to say, we Texas natives had no prior experience in dealing with so much snow! Our car was completely buried, and even if it had not been, it took nearly a week for the roads to be clear enough to drive on. So, if we needed food or anything else, we simply put on our snow boots and trudged through the snow until we had what we needed. Thankfully, we did not lose water or power (at least not for long). I will never forget the sight of all that snow, which in places was piled up over my head, and which took about two months to completely melt.

The rest of our time in Sarajevo was relatively uneventful. We taught a few more English classes, and I led a few Bible studies and even preached in a local church (in Bosnian) once, but we mainly just kept on studying the language. In November of 1999, one of our colleagues who had lived in Belgrade before the bombing was offered the opportunity to move to Banja Luka. He accepted the offer, and I helped him move. This was my first time to be in Banja Luka for 8 months. It was wonderful to be back. Nothing seemed to have changed. Although we too could have moved back then, we decided to wait until the school year was over, for Audrey’s sake. She was attending a local public school (having become completely fluent in the language), and we felt it was important for her to be able to finish a whole school year in one place, for the first time in her life.

While in Sarajevo, I met a man who was a devout Orthodox Serb. One Sunday, I attended his church, known popularly as the “Old Orthodox Church.” Old it was indeed; while the majority of the structure dated from the 18th century, parts of it were actually built in the 6th century. Now that is old! Unfortunately, the service did not make much of an impression on me, partly because we arrived very late (classic Orthodox!), and I could not understand most of the service. Still, it was neat to be in such an old and historic church.

Finally, in late July, it was time to return to our beloved adopted city of Banja Luka. After yet another long delay, we were about to “arrive.” We would finally be in the place we wanted to be, doing what we wanted to be doing, and fluent in the language to boot. I am sure that God must have been laughing as we were having those thoughts!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Return (BBB Part Fifteen)

We flew into Sarajevo in January of 1999, with our seven-year-old and our four-month-old in tow. From the airport, we took a van to our mission’s Sarajevo headquarters, where half of our things (17 bags and trunks in all) were loaded into another van, and then we and our guides immediately began the drive to Banja Luka. It was evening, and a fairly heavy snow was falling. Between the darkness, the snow, the many curves in the road, and our unfamiliarity with the road, it was a slow and grueling trip. Thankfully, we were following someone who knew the way. After several hours, we reached our temporary apartment in Banja Luka, where we unloaded our things and collapsed, exhausted.

Our temporary apartment was a truly depressing place. It was on the top floor of a very large house, each floor of which had been made a separate apartment. All the rooms of our apartment except the central one had ceilings that sloped down, making it impossible for an adult (especially one that is 6’ 2” like me) to stand in half the room. To enter the kitchen, you actually had to leave the apartment! The lack of lighting and insulation made it constantly cold and dark. Some colleagues of ours who had lived in it before also said that it was unbearably hot in the summer. We resolved to get out of there as soon as we could!

After a couple of weeks’ searching, we found a three-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a much newer and nicer house. It was several miles from the center of town, but since we had a car, this was not much of a problem. On a side note, every time we traveled to or from the center of town, we passed right by the Bosnian headquarters of the International Orthodox Christian Charities. We had no idea that this fine organization would eventually be one of the main charities that we would support.

We soon found a school for Audrey and language tutors for ourselves, and we made friends with the other members of our missionary team and with the nationals with whom we would be working. Still, life was hard for the first couple of months. There was always a foot of snow on the ground, and plenty of ice thrown in as a bonus, so that driving around and even walking was a challenge. For the third time in the last two and a half years, we had to get used to a new city, new people, a new culture, and so on. By the first of March, we felt that we had turned a corner—we were going to make it!

But just as we had begun to feel comfortable in Banja Luka, the uprising in Kosovo broke out. When the government of Yugoslavia sent troops into Kosovo to suppress the rebellion, NATO decided to bomb Yugoslavia to try and bring its military activities to an end. When the advance warning of the bombing was given, our supervisors decided to evacuate all of our missionaries that were living in Serb lands—two families in Belgrade plus the three families and two singles in Banja Luka. Although Banja Luka was not bombed, our bosses felt that there might be reprisals against westerners, and they wanted to take no chances. We had only a few hours to pack. With great sadness, we gathered as many things as we could fit in our car, and left the home that we had grown to love in only just over two months to go…who knew where?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Intermission (BBB Part Fourteen)


Near the end of April 1998, we flew back to the U. S. After a couple of months living with our parents, we moved into a missionary house owned by a large Baptist church in northwest Houston. We spent our time there resting, visiting family and friends, speaking in various churches about our time in Bosnia, and preparing for the birth of our second child. This new baby arrived on September 4, 1998. She was another beautiful girl who we named Courtney.

The next month, we headed up to our mission board’s training center for two months of training. It was located in a beautiful, peaceful, quiet rural setting near Richmond, Virginia. There we both attended classes and studied on our own to prepare for our next assignment.

We knew that we would be working with a people who were traditionally Orthodox, so we began studying a little about Orthodoxy. I reread The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware, this time more slowly and carefully. I also read a booklet by Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas about basic Orthodox beliefs. I made a Xerox copy of the entire pamphlet, and in my copy, I carefully highlighted each part where Orthodox doctrines differed from my own beliefs. I found that although there were significant differences, at least 75% of Orthodox beliefs seemed to agree with those of the Baptist Church.

But the most significant encounter that Jennifer and I had with Orthodoxy that fall was when we were given the assignment of visiting an Orthodox church. We had attended one Orthodox Liturgy two years before when we had been in training for our first missionary term. However, the parish we attended was a Greek church, and at least half of the service was in Greek and therefore unintelligible to us. That Sunday happened to be a day when the parish was holding their annual Greek festival, and we enjoyed visiting the various craft booths and eating the delicious food. I remember one man telling us, “We are the oldest Christian church in the whole world.” I also remember that as much as I would have liked to, I could not argue with him on that point.

This time, we were assigned the task of taking a trip to St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend a liturgy, because we could only travel there on a weekday. Instead, the Dean of the Cathedral, Fr. Constantine White, spoke to us on Orthodoxy and showed us around the church. He was very patient in answering our questions and very persuasive, particularly in explaining the meaning and function of icons. Before speaking with Fr. Constantine, I, like most evangelicals, assumed that having icons in church was tantamount to idolatry. Fr. Constantine convinced me that they have value in teaching the Gospel story in pictures and reminding us of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and worship with us in heaven. I walked into the church anti-icon and left pro-icon.

When our training was over, we returned to our temporary home and began packing and preparing for our trip to Banja Luka. After years of preparation, we were finally about to attain our dream of being career missionaries. We were ready to stay in Bosnia for many, many years and minister to the Serb people. We were finally about to “arrive.” At least that is what we thought!