Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dave


The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. Proverbs 22:7


Do you feel like you are barely making it financially? Is there too much month at the end of your money? Are you up to your eyeballs in debt? If so, you are like most other Americans. Massive debt and poor spending habits are a sickness from which Christians are not exempt. I would like to introduce you to the "doctor" who has the cure. His name is Dave Ramsey.
Dave is a financial author, radio host, and conference speaker. By the age of 28, he was a millionaire. But soon afterward, he lost all. Afterward, he decided to radically reform the way he handled money, beginnning by eliminating his debt and never borrowing again. Then he began teaching others how to get out of debt, and his organization has since grown into a multi-million dollar ministry.

Dave is an evangelical Christian, and his teachings are based on biblical teachings about wealth and debt, such as the verse quoted above. He has helped thousands of people get out of debt and on the road to financial independence. I strongly recommend his radio show, which in Houston is on 950 KPRC from noon to 2 PM, and is in hundreds of other US cities. Also, his two best-selling books, Financial Peace Revisited, and The Total Money Makeover, are excellent. Both are available at Amazon.com and at your local bookstore.

Best of all, check out his website. Dave also speaks at "Live Events," and although I have never been to one, I have heard that they are both informative and very entertaining. He will be in Houston on September 27. See his website for more detail.

May the Lord bless you all!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thank you!

This is just a quick note to thank all of you who have been reading my blog. I especially thank those of you who wrote the kind and encouraging words in your comments. You are all truly a blessing to me. I apologize for the long waits that you sometimes had to endure. I am a little embarassed that it took me nearly five months to complete the 30-part story.

Now, you may be interested to hear my next project. I am going to turn the "BBB" story into a book! I will spend the next month or two (or three, or four) polishing it up, supplementing it, and preparing it for possible publication. Then I will submit it to one of the major U. S. Orthodox publishers. How this will affect my blog, I am not sure. I have plenty of ideas for things to write about. The problem, as always, is finding time to put my ideas into writing. I will try to keep it going. Please keep me in your prayers.

May the Lord bless and keep you all!

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!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Sorrow and Joy (BBB Part 29)

Our first year back in the states was filled with many sorrows. First of all, we suffered from reverse culture shock, greatly missing the job, the city, and the people that we loved. Often we longed to go back to our former lives, but of course that was impossible for many reasons.

Also, teaching junior high school math turned out to be one of the hardest things I had ever attempted. My only previous teaching experience had been at a non-denominational Christian school, where all the kids came from stable, devout Christian families. They were not all greatly motivated, but all were well-behaved. But in the public school where I taught, many of my students would regularly say and do things that neither I nor my students at the Christian school would have even dreamed of. I found the amount of disrespect that I received on a daily basis to be simply unbelievable, and the majority of my students had no semblance of a work ethic whatsoever. Still, things gradually improved as I built relationships with my students, and some even actually seemed to like me by the end of the first semester. Nevertheless, this did not stop me from applying for a transfer to high school in January!

Another sorrow we experienced involved our second daughter Courtney. While still in Banja Luka, we noticed that Courtney had been slow to start talking. We assumed that she was merely confused because she was hearing two languages on a regular basis, and that soon after we were in the U.S., her speaking ability would mushroom. However, this did not happen, and we soon had her evaluated for possible developmental problems. We were devastated when we received the news that our beautiful, beloved little girl had autism. We soon had her enrolled in a special program for autistic children in our school district, and we also obtained other types of help for her. Although she has learned much and developed somewhat, raising her has been a great challenge, filled with frustration but also with occasional joy. To this day, Courtney, at age nine, still cannot talk beyond a few simple words, nor can she read or write. Although we have prayed for her healing, and that she might live a “normal” life, Jennifer and I have also learned much from Courtney. Perhaps the greatest lesson of all has been to love and accept Courtney for who she is (a beautiful gift from God) and not for what we want her to be.

Meanwhile, my parents’ health continued to decline. After my mother was released from the hospital, my brother, sister, and I had to put both her and my father into assisted living. Fortunately, we found a place near where my brother and sister were living at the time. This facility had a regular assisted living section, where my mother would live, and a separate wing for Alzheimer’s patients. This made visiting my parents much easier, since they were under the same roof. Also, they were able to have most of their meals together. Still, my mother was severely depressed. We visited them at least every other week. We wanted to do so more often, but they lived 40 miles away.

One day near the end of the school year, while I was proctoring the state exam, there was a knock on my classroom door. One of our office staff opened the door and told me, “Mr. Early, there’s a phone call for you. You really need to answer it in the office.” It was my brother. He told me that my mother had died. I didn’t know what to do or say. I told the office worker, and she agreed to arrange for my class to be covered. I ran to my car and drove straight to the hospital where she had died. She had suffered a heart attack. I was devastated. Even though she had lived a good, long life of 80 years, I still had so many things that I wanted to do with her and tell her. The following Sunday was to be our Chrismation, and she had been planning to attend it. Although she was not Orthodox, she had grown to love the Lord in her later years, and I firmly believe that she is now with the Lord Jesus, awaiting me. To this day, I miss her greatly.

Despite all the sorrow we experienced, our first year back from Bosnia ended with a joyful experience: our Chrismation, our children’s baptism, and our first Holy Communion. We were finally full-fledged Orthodox Christians. The process that had begun a year and half ago was finally complete. Now I was ready to immerse myself in the life of the parish and to begin my preparations for my new calling: the Holy Priesthood.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Changes (BBB Part 28)

Jennifer’s father, a Baptist pastor for some twenty-five year, was not terribly excited about our decision to convert to Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, he and the rest of Jennifer’s family were just glad to have us home for good. Our first few days at their house were a wonderful time of rest, relaxation, and getting caught up. Still, I had to start working on getting a job – and fast. On the evening of Audrey’s tenth birthday, I got on a Greyhound bus bound for Houston, headed for my parents’ house in northern suburban Houston. My mission was threefold: buy a car (we hadn’t owned one for nearly five years), get accepted into the alternative teacher certification program in my former school district, and get a teaching job in the district. I stayed there for about a week, and I succeeded in the first two parts of my mission. Unfortunately, however, I did not land a firm job offer, although I did have several leads.

While in Houston, I decided to visit an Antiochian parish that I had found on the internet: St. Joseph’s, in west Houston. Their website was excellent, and their parish priest looked even more impressive. He had a long beard, just like one would expect an Orthodox priest to have, and he looked resplendent in his vestments. It took me an hour to get to St. Joseph’s from my parents’ house, but it was worth the drive! The music was beautiful, the Liturgy majestic, and the people friendly. After the service, when the people went up to venerate the Cross, I followed. The priest greeted me warmly and asked my name and what I do for a living. A little embarrassed, I said “Well, I am a Baptist missionary…or at least I WAS! I just came home four days ago. I have come home in order to convert to Orthodoxy.” He seemed genuinely surprised and impressed. He invited me to come again. Little did I know that this godly man would become my spiritual father, counselor, and dear friend. Even less did I imagine that I would eventually serve this parish as a deacon and then become its assistant pastor.

A few days later, I returned to Texarkana to rejoin my family. By this time, Jennifer was nearly eight months pregnant, and so naturally, I did not want to be away from her if I could help it. By the first Sunday that we were all in Texarkana, Jennifer and I were eager to attend a Divine Liturgy together. Unfortunately, there is no Orthodox parish anywhere near Texarkana (God grant that this will change soon!). So, on the first Sunday in May, we piled the kids into the car and drove an hour and forty-five minutes to St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. We loved the service, and the people were as friendly as those at St. Joseph’s had been. Their priest at that time, Fr. John Morris, was very kind and patient, staying after the Liturgy for more than a half hour to answer the many questions that we had. We liked it so much that we returned again the next Sunday.

A week or so after our second and last visit to St. Nicholas, I received a phone call that changed my life. My uncle had called to inform me that my mother had suffered a massive stroke, but that she was stable. By now, it was near the end of May, and I was reluctant to leave my great-with-child wife. My uncle said that he did not think it was imperative that I rush to Houston. Mom’s life was not in danger, and she seemed to be improving. A couple of days later, however, my brother called to say that Mom did not seem to be improving any more. She was paralyzed on her left side, and she could not speak intelligibly. After hearing that, I immediately left to go and be with her. Sadly, my brother’s description of her condition was right on target. I wept over the sight of my mother. She had always been active and full of life, and she had always loved to talk. Now she could neither walk nor talk. To make things worse, my father had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for over five years, and Mom had been his primary caretaker. Who would take care of him now? My uncle agreed to take him in temporarily, and this relieved our stress for a while. But my brother, sister, and I were about to face some hard decisions.

After about a week with my parents, I returned to be with Jennifer again. I was scheduled to start my classes for the alternative certification program on June 4, which was three days past Jennifer’s due date. Needless to say, we were all on pins and needles. Our mission board, on our kind former boss Ted’s urging, had granted us two extra months of medical insurance, and we also had a couple of months of severance pay. Still, I had no job. So, Jennifer and I agreed that she and the kids would stay with her parents in Texarkana during the summer. I would spend the weekdays in Houston, staying with a single fellow who was a friend of a friend, and go back to Texarkana on the weekends to be with the family. Finally, on June 9, our third daughter, Elizabeth, was born. We were overjoyed, but our joy was mixed with the sorrow of my parents’ situation, and also with the fact that I had to be away from Jennifer and the kids so much.

Soon after Beth was born, I was hired to teach seventh and eighth grade math by my former high school Chemistry teacher, who was now an intermediate principal. Although I had really wanted to teach high school, I was just thankful to have a job. A few weeks later I found us an apartment near the school. We all moved to the apartment in July, and I started teaching the next month. Now, I was facing one of the greatest challenges of my life: persuading a bunch of hormone-driven seventh and eighth graders to want to learn math! Jennifer and I had frozen in Prague, battled drought and angry nationals in Tuzla, been evacuated from Banja Luka, had nearly been snowed under in Sarajevo, and had experienced a crisis of faith that lead to the end of our careers after our return to Banja Luka. After all this, I thought that teaching in the good old U.S.A. would be easy. Boy was I wrong…