Friday, April 8, 2011

Conversion story

April 8th, 2011

My conversion to Orthodoxy began when I was about 8 years old, although I wasn't aware of it at that time.  Back then I lived in Omaha Texas, a small town of about 800 people.  My dad was the choir director for the local Methodist church, and along with my mom, brother and sister, we attended church regularly and as a family.  Most of the good memories I have from my childhood come from church and church related activities, such as family supper, mens breakfast, and vacation bible school.  During the summer we would often have church out at the lake on Sunday mornings, and afterward everyone would go swimming.  All of those are good memories, but I think what especially affected me about those old church days was the music.  Throughout my life I've always been touched by the memory of the old hymns we used to sing, especially the Christmas songs.  And although those years were brief, they made an impression on me which would continue throughout my life.  You could say that a seed had been planted way back then, one which would eventually grow into my burgeoning faith.

I also had plenty of opportunities to make a few negative church related memories.  One in particular involved a friend of mine who was prevented, by people I can only assume were community leaders, from playing on the little league baseball team because he was black.  Upon hearing of this, my mom pulled me from the team and then, vocally and publicly, condemned their actions as barbaric and shameful.  As a result, my mom was ostracized at church and by the church going community and became a social pariah.  This incident, more than anything else, is why I came to associate Christians - Baptists, especially - with concepts such as hypocrisy, entitlement, self righteousness, and intolerance.  I was just a little kid when this happened, so It took a few years for the memory of the incident to begin to affect me, but when it did, it really took hold and began to dramatically influence my attitude towards Christianity.

Another incident which served to distance me from the church involved the evening service of a circuit rider who was visiting our church.  He was preaching about heaven and hell, and how we all needed to be saved or we would suffer eternal damnation - scary stuff for a 9 year old.  He preached for a long time that night.  With every passing moment his voice got louder, his gesticulations more excited, and his tone more desperate, until his tirade finally culminated with an invitation to the poor, wretched sinners of the congregation (of whom I was one) to come down to the altar RIGHT THEN and GET SAVED!  Terrified and with little idea of what I was doing, I scurried down to the altar and was promptly saved by the circuit rider.  I didn't feel saved though... what I felt was terrified and threatened.  Afterward I was instructed to record the time and date that I was saved in my Good News Bible.  Because of that incident, at 7:25 pm on the night of November 16th, 1980, a bad seed found a spot next to the good one and began to take root.  Starting right then, it became a ceaseless contest between the two seeds... which would be the first to dig it's roots deep into my heart?

My mom and dad divorced soon after that, when I was 10.  For a while I continued to go to church with my grandma, but eventually my mom moved us kids to a neighboring town where I started high school.  I went to church less and less throughout my teenage years, until I finally attended my last service as a practicing Methodist.  It was the Easter service at the Methodist church in Pittsburg, in 1989, and I had just turned 18.  By the time I was 21, I was calling myself an atheist.  I began to nurture a grudge towards Christianity, and in my mind I belittled them.  My sister and I had several knock-down drag-outs on the subject, and I was always ruthless with my diatribe, especially against the Baptist church, of which she was a part.

As the years went on, I began to feel almost constant fear and despair in my life.  My 20's and 30's were characterized by what started out as a suspicion, but which eventually became a deep, abiding belief that something was fundamentally wrong with me.  I was depressed a lot.  I felt as though I had been born without some essential life survival tool that everybody else had been issued.  During this time the anger I felt towards Christianity eroded away into a kind of apathetic version of contempt, and I began to become more of an agnostic than an absolute atheist.  The faith I'd enjoyed back when I was a little kid was a remote memory, but I had never really stopped praying.  I didn't pray often, and when I did, it was always late at night while lying in bed, perfectly still, completely alone and in the dark.  It was only during these most private, reserved, vulnerable moments that I could allow myself to entertain the possibility of God.  When I prayed however, it was always out of desperation and fear, and it was always the same prayer... a plea for God, if He really existed, to please help me.  I didn't know what kind of help I needed... just help.  I would end it with a request that God, if he really existed, to please take care of my family.  At some point I found myself offering these prayers up into the void about once a week to a God who I was beginning to desperately wish existed, but couldn't make myself believe in.

Fast forward to the fall of 2009, when I met someone through work who was an Orthodox Christian.  We quickly became friends and began going to church together.  I was instantly intrigued by Orthodox services, which were different from any church services I'd ever encountered.  The atmosphere was completely different, for one.  Things were much more reserved, solemn and orderly than a protestant church, and there was a feeling of it all being part of ancient tradition.  The low candlelight, the ubiquitous incense, and the constant singing also set the services apart from anything I'd ever experienced.  Even when someone was reading from the Gospels, it was done in a kind of singing chant.  Very rarely were words ever spoken in a regular conversational tone... the only two instances I know of are when the priest gives the homily, and near the end of Saturday night vigil when the priest describes the life of the saint for that particular day or occasion.  Then there was all of the bowing, venerating, and crossing of selves in which everyone participated, which all added up to an immediate and intense interest in the Orthodox church and a growing sense of hope.  I feel I must particularly emphasize the music though... the music is what really pulled me in.  Without the music, even with everything else, I don't think I would have developed a lasting interest in Orthodoxy.  Thank you, God, for the music.  Thank you for implanting in my heart, early on, a deep and abiding sentiment and love for church music.  For basically planning my conversion to Orthodoxy 30 years in advance.

I attended classes and services regularly for about a year, starting in early January of '09, and in December I finally decided that I wanted to become a catechumen.  During the course of that year I discovered that it was possible for me to believe in God, and that my prayers don't just fly away into the void, never to be heard or answered.  For the first time in a long time, I experienced hope for my life.  I learned about the Orthodox church, and found its history fascinating.  I especially developed an interest in icons and actually painted a couple of them.  It was the first time I'd set paint to anything since 1996, and I began to grow interested in the possibility of actually becoming an iconographer.  I was making friends at church, participating in two choirs, and the future seemed like a bright, shining prospect to me.  I think I was actually in danger of becoming happy... until a very sad thing occurred in April of 2010, right after Pascha and about a month before my upcoming baptism.  Everything I'd learned, all of the faith and hope, the happiness... it was all suddenly as fragile as a cast off piece of rice paper blowing through a dry bramble filled with thorns.  Literally overnight I found myself faced with the possibility that everything I'd worked towards for the past year might come crashing down, on and around me.  Then I realized something else; that the sadness was a test of my faith.  I was about to learn if I was really serious about this.  The time had come to either put up or shut up.  In the words of... somebody... well, whoever said it.  In the words of him or her, "Shit had just gotten real."

Life went on and the date of my baptism approached.  Instead of anticipating it with excitement and hope, however, I began to dread it.  I'd always pictured the event as a joyful ceremony, but the sadness which was enveloping me promised that it would be nothing like the way I had imagined.  When the day finally arrived, I was a ball of frazzled nerves.  I panicked about my baptismal cross not being just perfect, and I was almost late getting to the church.  My memory of the process is a jumbled mess, and the entire affair pretty much seemed like one long blur to me.  However, I do remember, very clearly, getting dunked and greased (Orthodox slang which I find humorous) with ceremony, and immediately after that I began my life as an Orthodox Christian.

It definitely didn't happen the way I imagined it would.  I had always pictured it as being a lot more joyful.  During the whole thing I was in a fair daze because of the weeks leading up to my baptism, which had seemed more like a bad dream than actual reality.  Something definitely seemed 'not quite' about the experience, as if an essential ingredient had been missing.  It was funny... on that day, I knew that I'd finally found where I belonged.  However, since the beginning of my new journey, I'd assumed that things would always be a certain way, and that happiness would be easy... and that I'd have company.  Maybe I will eventually, I don't know the future.  Whatever the case, God's will be done.

Right now the seed is rooted firmly and still growing.  The good one, that is.

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