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.

What I got out of today

I just realized I've been praying Psalm 103 all day.  I feel as if I learned something I thought I already knew... that there is a mystery to prayer, as if there should be a kind of involuntary method to it.  Like the Jesus Prayer, in that if we practice it enough, ideally we will eventually enter into ceaseless prayer which requires no conscious thought, like the pilgrim.  This sounds simple, but as a concept it is difficult to put into practice, as it requires more than just logical intent.  Like today... it seems merely circumstantial that I had Psalm 103 in my head all day, but it filled me with joy constantly and never stopped.  It wasn't voluntary... it was just there.  The practice of the Jesus Prayer is meant to fill us with a similar experience, I think.  It's that mystery, the presence of prayer with substance, and not just the repetition of words.  I prayed involuntarily all day.  Not that it was against my will... I just wasn't conscious of a voluntary action of prayer.  But I was praying nonetheless, and I felt joy countless times and didn't even realize the real reason why.  It's hard to explain, because I can feel joy by hearing a secular song in my head all day... and in a way, I think that's also similar to prayer.  It's a hard concept to grasp, and I don't think it's completely possible... because while we're here on this earth, life is a constant struggle and mystery.  There is no point where we can say, "I did it!  I made it!  I got here, and I'm successful, and I'm perfect!  I'm one with God, and my struggle is over!"  No, it isn't like that.  The struggle is continuous, and even dangerous in that we can become complacent when and if we achieve a measure of success in our striving for asceticism.  We can succeed, and fail, and succeed again, and fail again, and succeed again.  And fail again.  It doesn't end, I think, until we are standing before God with our souls laid bare.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Church music

I've always had a special place in my heart for church music.  It goes back to when I was a little kid in Omaha, when my dad was the choir director of the Methodist church.  Back then I went to church regularly, and the Christmas hymns especially worked their way into my heart.

When I was introduced to the Orthodox church, the two main things which drew me in almost instantly were the solemn candlelit and incense permeated atmosphere, and the music.  The Litany of the Catechumens was the first song to really make me sit up and take notice.  I was so taken with it when I discovered its beauty that I would spend long stretches of time just strumming the main chords for it on my guitar.  Next was The Magnificat, a hymn honoring the Theotokos, followed by the third Cherubic Hymn (that's how we refer to it in the choir, as there are several versions we do which vary from Sunday to Sunday).  There are others, such as a version of Let My Prayer Arise which we sing during what I refer to as 'prostration week', a particular version of The Wise Thief which which we sing in the male choir, and the one I call 'The Pascha Song'; somber and triumphant.  Those are the main ones, and there are many others.  Of course, all of these songs have composers, but I can't remember all of those weird, tongue twisting Russian names.  Except for Kedrov - he composed the Litany of the Catechumens - and Bortniansky, who I believe composed the version of Let My Prayer Arise which I like so much, along with many others.  I may be wrong about that though.  Anywho...

A couple of months ago I had just started going back to church after a long bleak hiatus, and I was attending my first vigil in several weeks.  We started out with Psalm 103 which, according to Dax, we've always sung at the beginning of vigil.  I can't believe I've never noticed it before, having apparently sung it at least several times.  Well, I noticed it that night, and I just couldn't believe the beauty of it, imperfectly though we sung it.  I've kind of been infatuated with it ever since, and I've looked online for a good version but have only come across a few similar versions with surprise changes to my favorite chords.  Unacceptable.  So, last Saturday during vigil I snapped pictures of each page of the sheet music with my camera phone with the intention of learning each part, laying down separate vocal tracks, and mixing them together so I could hear what it sounded like from beginning to end at my leisure.

Well, last night I finally got around to trying it.  I downloaded a free piece of recording software called Audacity, along with a basic metronome program.  After spending about 10 minutes learning the program, I loaded up the sheet music in a picture viewer and got to singing.  It took about 3 dozen takes, but I finally had the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts of the fist two pages recorded, layered, and rendered as one audio file.   I've never really been a great singer - I can carry a tune, and that's about it - so I wasn't exactly satisfied with the quality of my voice.  Also, the tenor is hard to hear in some places, and at times the bass tends to overpower the other parts.  All in all, however, it was ok.  Oh, and by the way, the music for this one was also composed by Kedrov.

Today Dax posted a link to the Vivian Klochkov Orthodox Ensemble singing Psalm 103.  It was so perfect that it brought me to tears.  Hearing it after hearing mine was comparable to being shown the original Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh after seeing a crude crayon copy of it done by a fairly talented 8 year old. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Happy - part 3

Right now, at this moment, I'm happy.  Another great day.  I don't know why these days happen but I'm grateful.

There were some bumps however.  A customer accused Brittney of stealing two dollars from her.  Well, I just seen red again.  I have to learn how to control my anger when people insult my friends.  I went off on her like I did the bus driver... well, not as bad as that.  But I did confront her and make it clear to her that it was far more likely that she had misplaced the two dollars (Brittney had seen her put it in her purse, and it was on the security cam) than it was for a 7-Eleven clerk to steal it from her.  I felt absolutely terrible afterward.  When she comes in again I'm going to apologize to her.

Brittney brought her computer to work and showed me her old MySpace page, the one for the band she used to be in.  It was called Phoenix Soul, a play on her name.  She is a really great singer.  Professionally good.  She wrote the song.  She's always telling me about her church experiences as the keyboard player.  I tell her about mine as a singer in the two St. Maximus choirs.  It's fun, relating our tales to each other.

Ellie came into the store again today.  I was looking down, as usual, and I didn't notice her at first.  Then I heard 'Hi, Elias.'  I looked up and it was her.  I said hi, scanned a few items, and then looked at her and said, 'Ellie, right?'  Confirmed.  She remarked about how long it had been since she'd been in the store, and we talked for a bit about what we'd both been doing since then.  For her, school.  For me, work and church.  We chatted a bit more, and she left.

Ellie.  It's a nice name, and I like being called Elias.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Wow.  I've gone from 156 lbs to 144 lbs since the beginning of Lent.  Might I eventually get my flat tummy back?  130 lbs would be it.  Some extra muscle would be nice though...

They say 40 is the new 20.  What if I just busted my ass and got into shape and started my life over?  I mean, my life is cauterized right now anyway.  Me, weighing 150 lbs with no fat?  That would be... hmmm.  I dunno if that's a good idea.  If I actually started to look good naked in the mirror, my ego might inflate all over again.

But I'd be healthier and I'd have more endurance.  I could start running and working out again, like I was doing the entire summer of '08.  Only this time, I'd stick with it for the entire year, or two years.

Anywho... wow.  I haven't weighed under 145 since 2004.