by Joshua Garrett
From the blogGarrett blog, the story of one man’s journey from Oral Roberts University into the Orthodox faith.
I hesitate in writing this because my journey is not over, and in many ways it is only beginning. But my family’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity has puzzled many friends and family members. Few know what to make of it. I am not sure I know what to make of it yet. But over the past several months many people have asked me about my story. Often I make it quick, just hitting the highlights, but not addressing the core issues. These issues often are perceived as divisive and usually ought not be brought up in order to preserve harmony.
This blogging exercise is mostly intended for my own clarification and personal record, but the curious are welcome to read.
My childhood was religiously diverse, well at least denominationally diverse. I benefited from being exposed to many different protestant denominations. This created in me openness to others’ way of seeing and doing things. I was able to appreciate the vast differences of people’s spiritual journeys and to move in and out of many different theological and liturgical traditions without judgment or awkwardness. My grandfather was an American Baptist minister, and I spent a lot of time observing his life and sitting in his churches. He was my hero and I wanted to be like him. I even told classmates in the 8th grade that I was going to be a preacher when I retired, just like my granddad did when he retired from Boeing. But I lived with my mom, and my childhood experience is understandably heavily intertwined with her spiritual journey. I was sprinkled in the Lutheran Church (I have been told) when I was an infant, because my father was a Lutheran.
The marriage between my mother and father did not last long, and Lutheranism was jettisoned from my life. The next denominational landing pad that I remember was the local United Methodist Church. My mother and I faithfully attended Christmas and Easter services for several years. Many of the cool people from my school went to this church. When I entered middle school, my mother began in earnest her search and “return” to God. She found a singles group that was loving and accepting of her past. She and I, through this singles group, began attending Central Community Church, a very large Church of God church with roots in Anderson, Indiana.
Within this mega-church there was one Sunday school class and evening Bible study that was heavily influenced by the Charismatic movement. Eventually my mother began attending this class and Bible study, and for the duration of middle and high school I spent a lot of time with those people. It was here that I encountered the mystical and discovered the power of the Holy Spirit. Through my connection with this Sunday evening Bible study, I became aware of Oral Roberts University (ORU) and decided to go there for my undergraduate work in the New Testament and Theological/Historical Studies. I chose these programs so that I could learn the TRUTH.
My tenure at Oral Roberts University was a fantastic time in my life. I met people from all over the world, and cultivated many friendships. Certainly I put my social life before academic pursuits, especially early on. I had always had an inquisitive mind, but I lacked the self-discipline to follow through and do well in my classes. I wanted an intellectual challenge, but did not want to do a lot of reading or paper writing. My brain didn’t completely turn on till my junior year. That year I was fortunate to have Dr. James Shelton as my teacher for Church History I. This class covered the ascension of Jesus all the way to 400AD, 1000AD or the Reformation. I don’t remember which. Anyway, Dr. Shelton was not a teacher brimming with charisma, but he did have knowledge and passion. He explained church history as if he were there. I remember him very clearly telling us about early church father Tertullian’s warnings concerning the Eucharist.
“We take anxious care lest something of our Cup or Bread should fall upon the ground.”
This seared into my heart an elevated view of the Lord’s Supper. His retelling of the early life of the Church, the martyrdom, the theological disputes, and the importance the early church placed on unity formed in me a love for the Church, and my mind and soul became alive.
Now would be the proper time to disclose that Dr. Shelton is a protestant convert to Roman Catholicism. All of us who took his class were aware of his Roman Catholic bias. Many were concerned about being converted to Roman Catholicism and resisted any thoughts that would lead them there. We even unofficially renamed his “Jesus and the Gospels” course to “Mary and the Gospels.” But our fears were unfounded. In all the classes I had with Dr. Shelton, at no time did he attempt to persuade me to Roman Catholicism. It never came up. But sitting in his classes, listening to his lectures there was no way that I, on my search for TRUTH, could not at least consider the Church in Rome as my mother.
Many of my fellow classmates in the theology department at Oral Roberts University were made to confront theological incompatibilities and, in my opinion, fallacies and shortcomings of the protestant experiment. Our chapel services and our theology classes were of two different worlds. On Wednesday and Friday, the student body was treated to a veritable “Who’s Who” in the Charismatic Word of Faith world. All the top TBN tele-evangelists visited during my four years. The student body would get all hyped up about the newest theological trend and mantra for getting God to give you stuff. After chapel my tribe would return to the classroom, where our professors would be waiting to help “clarify” some of the theology that was proclaimed the previous hour. The academic theology and the chapel theology were mutually exclusive of one another. This proved to be a difficult road to navigate for many of my classmates. Many, like myself, became cynical and too smart for normal church, and sadly some lost their faith entirely.
Even though I did become cynical, my faith remained rooted because of my involvement with the international summer outreach program. Each summer after my freshman year, I volunteered to travel overseas to put flesh on my faith. By doing this I preserved my soul.
Another soul preserving element of my time at ORU was my exposure to a non-charismatic liturgy at the Friday post-chapel Eucharistic service. My opinion of the Eucharist had been elevated through my study of the first millennium church. I knew it to be more than “Remember Jesus Time” with some grape juice and bread. But I had not been able to put this theology in practice until the Friday service. It was here that I read and embraced corporate prayers, that I examined my life before the chalice, that I learned not only of sins of commission, but also of sins of omission, that I participated in a Mystery. During this service, I parked my mind at the door and opened my heart to receive the Body and the Blood. This new practice of Eucharistic worship pushed forward my understanding of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Unity came not just by spiritually believing the same things, but also by physically doing the same things, especially by ingesting the same Savior.
After graduation, I began to search in earnest for the “Church”. I felt Rome was right, but I couldn’t come to terms with the primacy and infallibility of the Pope, the hyper-adoration of Mary, and the horrible theology and practices of the Middle Ages. So at that time the next best thing for me was….Anglicanism or in America the Episcopal Church. My wife and I had just moved to Texas (Oh yeah, I got married after graduation), and I started dragging her along to Anglican services. She was not on the same spiritual track as I. She was happy in a non-denominational service. She appreciated the liturgy of the Anglicans, but she did not want to do that EVERY week. I wasn’t totally enthralled with Anglicanism either. Any schism that is caused by a murderous man seeking a divorce couldn’t be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church I was looking for. So we found a wonderful Vineyard Church that many of our friends and colleagues attended. The pastor and the congregation were/are amazing! In many ways this is still our home church. So I put my search for the “Church” on the back burner and became part of a community.
In the ensuing years, my wife and I moved to Turkey. There we started a travel company and worked with an international protestant church. Through Drink Life Travel and Garrett Global, I took many many groups to visit the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus, and the cave churches and monasteries in Cappadocia. Right before my wife and I emigrated from Turkey, I took a group to Mor Gabriel Monastery of the Syriac Orthodox Church in southeastern Turkey. Our group had the honor of meeting with the bishop. He was a warm, kind man that was passionate about his faith, duty, and people. I remember thinking after our meeting
“this was the kind of Church I would like to be a part of, but unfortunately I am not Syrian and don’t speak Aramaic.”
My time in Turkey ought to have been pivotal in my journey to Orthodoxy. Turkey is after all the home to the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul. Turkey houses the archeological remains of 2000 years of unbroken Christian history. But somehow none of that really penetrated my consciousness. I unthinkingly assumed all those Christians had died, converted to Islam, or move to the West. I would come back to the states on visits and tell friends and family that there were only 3000 Christians in Turkey, when in actuality there are around 72,000 Christians if you include Orthodox believers.
I was clueless about the indigenous Orthodox believers whose families have resided in Turkey long before the creation of the Turkish Republic, and even long before the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. I was oblivious to the fact that the ones who had built the Hagia Sophia and lived in the Capadocian monasteries were still present in Turkey.
When we left Turkey, I decided to do something crazy. Instead of move my family back to the States to begin pursuing the American Dream, we set off for China and I began a career as an educator. (Oh yeah, we had our first baby girl a few months before we left Turkey.) Our transition to China was extremely rough. Professional expectations were not met, and Chinese culture left a lot to be desired. I was under tremendous pressure. Had I just made a terrible mistake? Are we trapped forever in China? Will we ever be successful? Will we ever be happy? What had I done? God where are you in this moment?…BANG! It happened. I woke up one morning and had lost my faith.
Not only had my faith abandoned me (as if that were not enough), but I had become acutely aware of my own future demise.
Without faith, my impending non-existence consumed my thoughts. God was a delusion, and life was a farce. One day I would cease to exist. Life had no meaning. Before the day I woke up, faith was easy for me. I had always believed. I know that I am not the only person who has had this kind of experience, and I am not trying to play some sort of special revelation card, but this moment for me was catastrophic. It was as if the rug had been pulled out from under me, my foundation removed. My life had been defined by my faith. If I had no faith, who was I? I am eternally thankful to my wife during this time.
After 2-3 weeks of darkness, she did not allow me to wallow in my self-defeat, doubt, and fear any longer. Late Thursday night May 3, 2007, she decided we needed to get home. So we put 3 last-minute airplane tickets to Texas on our credit card (OUCH!). She packed our apartment on Friday, and we were on the first flight out Saturday morning, home in time to celebrate Cinco De Mayo. Over the next few months in Texas, through worshipping with our Vineyard family and meeting with my pastor and friends, I was able to come to terms with my experience and gain my faith back. This time my faith was battle tested. I returned to China the following August to take up a lectureship at Shenzhen University, praying that I would not crash and burn as I had before.
My atheistic moment led me to reevaluate my spiritual practices. I had become extremely lazy in my pursuit of God. Often my prayer time would be squeezed in between hitting the snooze button on my alarm.
“Lord, thank you for this….ZZZZZ” BEEP! BEEP! “day. Be with my wife….ZZZZ” BEEP! BEEP!
Well you get the picture. It is not wholly unexpected that I would have lost my faith with that level of pursuit. A new level of intensity was required, and new methods were required. I was unsure where to begin exactly, but I knew I wanted to raise my God-consciousness. So I downloaded every theology class I could from iTunes University, especially Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). I started listening to these, reading the scriptures, praying, and…. well whatever else I could. One of the courses I jumped right into from RTS was Church History. I have always loved it. As I listened to the university classes, an old familiar desire made its return, the search for the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. At this point I was convinced it was the Roman Catholic Church, what else could there be, right? It couldn’t be Protestantism. Protestantism was like the fray edge at the end of a rope. I wanted to find the thick tightly woven cord, strong, unbroken from the beginning.
Even though I was convinced it was Rome, I had not come to terms with three main issues that prevented me from embracing Roman Catholicism after university: The primacy and inerrancy of the Pope, the hyper-veneration of Mary, and the excesses theologically and politically of the Middle Ages. I found some comfort in the words most often attributed to St. Augustine
“The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”
Even if the Church was totally flawed, she was the one that had given birth to all of this and it was to her that I was going to return. If there were areas of conflict between Her and me, I would learn to submit. I continued listening to the Reformed version of events to challenge my assumptions and conclusions. Hearing both sides of the issue was very important for me. Often when people make big decisions they only listen to those who will agree with them about what they already want to do or are convinced of already. I did not want to be that person. I decided that I would take the next year (2008) and search for the Church, at least the group my family and I should identify with.
It was nearing New Year’s Eve, and I marched into the living room and announced to my wife that I was taking a modified version of a Nazarite Vow until Easter. I would not eat meat, nor sugar. She had no problem with that, but then I said that I would not cut my hair either. Whoa! It is important to note for the readers that do not know me or my family personally, that my wife fell in love with me when I was a short-haired, clean-shaven ORU student.
Immediately upon graduation, I grew a beard! Often I let it grow out very long. She does not like that, and that night when I told her that I would not cut, nor trim, my beard till Easter, it was already beyond her maximum comfort level. My wife was NOT happy about it, but she ultimately ended up going to the States a few weeks later to give birth to our second daughter and was spared the worst. When she returned in April, I was actually clean shaven. I had never taken a vow like this before, and I am not one given to rash moments of intense spiritual radicalism. This was not the norm for me, and my wife did not really know what to do with it.
My wife returned from the States a few weeks after Easter. I had just finished up this fast with no real new spiritual insight. I chalked my Nazarite vow up to completed exercise in asceticism. I was not aware that anything significant had taken place, but I could not rule it out entirely. Shortly after my wife settled back into China, she was invited to an over-nighter with two other mothers. The sleepover was hosted by our friend Katie.
My wife had never been to Katie’s house before and when she walked in she was a bit shocked. One the wall of her house there were many different Christian pictures of Jesus, Mary, and other people from a long time ago. My wife recognized them as icons, but she had only seen them in the frescoes of the Hagia Sophia or on the ceilings of the Cappadocian cave churches, not in homes. Later in the evening Katie explained that she was an Orthodox Christian. The other lady there that evening was a Roman Catholic. My wife proceeded to tell the ladies about my journey for the Church and then asked each lady about their faith. Orthodoxy at this point had never been on my wife’s radar. It was completely new. The answers Katie gave made a lot of sense to my wife. They talked into the evening, even getting Katie’s husband David’s thoughts on his conversion. Both he and Katie had been non-denominational protestants before coming to Orthodoxy.
David credits Orthodoxy with saving his faith. My wife returned the next day from the sleep over with her overnight bag filled with books and brochures on Orthodoxy for me to read.
At first I was totally skeptical. How is this different from Roman Catholicism? I am not Greek, Russian, nor Syrian, how could I become Orthodox? What does the Orthodox Church teach about salvation? Virgin Mary? Purgatory? Praying to the Saints? What of Nationalism/Racism? Each of my questions was answered to my satisfaction in the brochures. I then turned my attention to the internet. I googled everything I could think of pertaining to Orthodoxy, positive and negative. My heart leaped at each quality answer/response I received. The next two months were full of reading and investigation by both of us. There came a point that summer when we looked at each other and came to the conclusion that we were Orthodox. Well… we wanted to be and were convinced of the substantiality of Orthodoxy, but we hadn’t even been to a church or met with a priest yet.
David and Katie were very instrumental in removing the veil over Orthodoxy. Without them in our lives, we may never have met a family that had converted to the Orthodox Church from Protestantism. Eventually we did meet with a priest in September and by April our entire family was thrice-baptized and chrismated in a wonderful Russian Orthodox parish in Hong Kong. Our priest was patient and humble answering all of our questions. I remember one of my first discussions with him. I was telling him the books on Orthodoxy that I was reading. He told me they were fine, but they were too theological. I needed to be reading books that communicated the spirit of Orthodoxy. That is when I first understood that this really was a completely different road than I had been on.
I realize that I have not actually addressed WHY I am Orthodox. So far these posts have been the story about HOW my family came to Orthodoxy. So I will address this in part. The following posts are not intended to be an overly critical assessment of Protestantism. Though certainly it will be a critical assessment but hopefully not overly critical and harsh. Those of you that are still reading this story, please take it in the spirit it was intended.
Of course to make any kind of conversion, there is a rejection of one thing and a turning to something else. This is the case for me and Orthodoxy. Historical and especially contemporary Protestantism ceased to satisfy. Protestantism was like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. The further one copy is removed from the original image, the more distorted and incomplete the copied image becomes. Protestantism has lost the complete image.
One cannot even really talk about Protestantism, as if it were one unified thing. It is not. There are Baptists (Southern, American, Independent, Regular), Anabaptist (Mennonite, Amish, Brethren), Methodists (United, Free), Lutheran (Missouri Synod, Evangelical), Presbyterian (PCUSA and Reformed Presbyterian Church), Quaker, Reformed, Anglican (Conservative, Liberal), Congregational, Evangelical Free, Christian Missionary Alliance, Church of Christ, Church of God in Christ, Four Square, Church of God (Anderson, IN and Cleveland, TN), Disciples of Christ, the new non-denominational denominations (Assembly of God, Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, Rhema, Victory, Willow Creek, Emergent) and cell and house churches.
There are many that I have not mentioned. Literally there are thousands of independent Bible churches that teach and do very different things: pre-tribulation or post-tribulation, cessation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit or continuation of the gifts, predestination or free-will, ancient liturgy or rock band with PowerPoint, God loves sinners or God hates gays, Transubstantiation/Consubstantiation or Memorial, Hymns or Praise songs, Mega-church or house church, grape juice or wine. There are many many more issue that have kept groups of protestants from one another. Where is the unity in that? Some call it diversity, but I say disagreement. Disagreement in method, theology, and emphasis. So which Protestantism is the Church? Which group is most representative of the true Protestant ethos? I couldn’t choose one. Some were more right than others in my opinion. But who am I to determine such things?
I now need to say that I am convinced of the innate truth of the Christian meta-narrative. I have never considered other religions on my quest. They hold no sway over me. So my journey was focused on exploring the thousand protestant strands, Roman Catholicism and finally Orthodoxy.
So out of the three, why choose Orthodoxy? Well for starters lets push protestantism to the side for the simple reason that Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are the only groups that were not started by individual men or women because of theological difference.
Prior to the Great Schism of 1054, the Church was one. It had preserved the oral and written traditions of the Apostles. It is unfortunate that the East and the West did not maintain unity. But the unity was (to over simplify a fairly complex relationship) severely wounded when one man, or maybe more accurately one small group of people, unilaterally desired to adjust the agreed orthodoxy of the church by altering the Creed. The addition of the phrase “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed represented a break in the conciliar tradition of the Church. Previously the five major centers of Christianity had used councils to address and solve disputes in the Church. The five centers of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome had always been more or less equal. Rome was given honorary primacy, but not universal jurisdiction over the rest of Christendom. Rome separated its self from the Church by editing the Creed on its own without the agreement of the other four patriarchates. The other four patriarchates have remained faithful to one another for the last 2000 years.
This is Orthodox Christianity.
Rome left the four others in 1054, and thus the Great Schism began. The schism ruptured 500 years later with Anglicanism, Luther and Calvin. Each group was convinced of its own “rightness” and removed its self from the previous expression of schism. This continues to this day and is expressed in the smorgasbord of Protestant groups.
There were splits in Christianity prior to the Great Schism, but these splits were an attempt to maintain unity and right theology. One example is the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox Church. These groups discontinued communion prior to the Fourth ecumenical council. I don’t want to actually address the issues of this separation, but I find it quite interesting that these two groups, which have not been in sacramental fellowship for 1500 years, are virtually the same in worship/practice/belief. There is something to the Orthodox claim that they have preserved the traditions of the Apostles from the beginning.
Ultimately Orthodox Christianity addressed all my questions to my satisfaction. But that does not mean that all my questions were answered. One of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy is that the Orthodox Church does not attempt to answer every spiritual question. Mystery is embraced, and questions are part of the Faith. The Church humbly accepts that there are some things that we cannot know. Union with God is the goal, not knowledge about God. Orthodox spirituality is highly mystical and non-systematic. The Western Church categorizes and labels what to believe. Belief becomes systematic theology. But in the Orthodox Church not so much. The Orthodox Evagrius of Pontus wrote,
“A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”
Practice over Methodology.
These are the most important elements to me in my journey to Orthodoxy. Do these few paragraphs address everything or express every feeling? Certainly not. Does my journey end here? I hope not. I know that I have not delved into the theological differences between Protestants/Rome/Orthodoxy.
This is intentional.
I did not convert to a theology. I converted to Christ and his Church.
Where there are gaps between my ideas about God and the Church’s teaching about God, I pray that the merciful Father will work that out in me. I strive to believe what the Church teaches.