By James Early
Everyone who has converted to Orthodoxy from another tradition has a unique and interesting conversion story.
There is no such thing as a “typical” story.
Because of this, I cannot claim that my conversion story is all that different from the (non-existent) “typical” story. Nevertheless, after having related my experience dozens of times, I have noticed a recurring reaction: Person after person has told me that my story is “amazing,” “fascinating,” “different,” or some other such adjective (Some of my former missionary colleagues would say “insane,” but more on that later…).
Many people have urged me to put the story in writing and even to publish it. I have delayed doing this for about five years for one very simple reason: I hate to write. Not only that, but I have been very busy for most of the last several years.But now I think that it is finally time. So, I am going to try an experiment: I will break up the story into several short pieces and publish the pieces one at a time in this blog. In fact, this is one of the reasons I started the blog: to give myself an impetus to write about my conversion experience. My hope and prayer is that you will find some inspiration in reading about the path along which God has led me over the last several years, and indeed how He has guided my path my entire life.
I was born March 8, 1968, to parents who were in their late forties and who had been married for 24 years. I was the youngest of four children, with siblings who were 22, 15, and 11 years older than me. Because my brother and my two sisters were already in college or the workforce by the time I was old enough to remember anything, I spent most of my childhood living much like an only child, with parents that were the same age as most of my friends’ grandparents.
My father had served for 26 years as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, retiring as a Colonel the year before I was born. After his retirement, he worked in three different short-term jobs in three different cities, until 1974, when he accepted a position as a Marine ROTC instructor at a high school in Pasadena, Texas, a suburb of Houston. My mother and sister and I joined him there the following year, and so it was at the age of seven that I settled down in the city where I would grow up and where I currently work.
My parents were decent, moral people who imparted to me a strong sense of right and wrong. However, neither of them had much interest in God or the Church, and we very rarely attended any type of church. My only memory of anything remotely religious was attending an Episcopal school for the first half of my Kindergarten year, where on at least one occasion I was spanked by the priest/principal for some type of misbehavior that I cannot remember.
Until I was nearly fifteen, I considered myself a staunch agnostic. I never gave much thought to whether or not I believed in God, but I was unquestionably a functional atheist at the very least. This began to change, however, during my freshman year in high school…
Not long after I started high school, by God’s grace I began to awaken from my spiritual slumber. In the fall of my freshman year, I somehow managed to catch the eye of a sophomore girl. She was attractive and popular, and her condition for us “going together” (remember that delightful term?) was that I go to church with her, at least occasionally. I had no desire to go to church at all, but I figured that she was well worth a few church services. So, I agreed to her condition. When I did attend services at her Church of Christ congregation, I was struck by the challenging preaching of her pastor. It started me thinking about God and the Bible for the first time in my life.
A couple of months later, she unceremoniously dumped me for an older, cooler, and more attractive guy. At the beginning of the next school year, I found myself “going with” her younger sister (no laughing or teasing me!), and as you might expect, I found myself back in the same church being challenged by the same pastor’s sermons. Alas, that relationship was almost as short-lived as the previous one, and before long, I was once again not even, to use St. James’ phrase, a
“hearer of the Word.”
However, my second stint in the sisters’ church did lead to a major turning point in my life, for it was then that I was inspired to start reading the Bible and going to church on my own (not just because some girl said I had to). I asked my mother if we could start going to church, and she gladly agreed. Since she was from an Episcopal background and was a member of a local parish, that is where we began attending. And there I would attend nearly every Sunday for the rest of my high school years.
I was fortunate to not end up in a liberal, heretical parish. Our rector was a pious man who clearly loved the Lord and his flock and who subscribed to traditional Christianity. He occasionally went on mission trips and even learned Spanish (while in his fifties!) so that he could start an outreach to the many Hispanic families that lived around the church. Still, his sermons were more like literary analyses than true biblical preaching, and they lacked the application to life that I was hearing in the preaching in my friends’ churches. In addition, the liturgy seemed very dry to me, and very few of the kids in the youth group seemed to be serious about their Christian faith. One of them once asked me, “Why do you go to church?” I said, “Because I love God! (this was not quite true, but never mind)” He quite seriously replied,
“I wish that were my reason!”
All of these experiences led me to think that there had to be something more out there. I wanted to worship God and get to know him. I wanted to be involved in church, but I also longed for stronger, life-based preaching and teaching and a more meaningful worship experience.
Enter the Baptists…
In my last post, I mentioned two sisters whom God used to ignite my interest in Him. After my relationships with these two girls ended, God sent other friends into my life. I am convinced that He used these friends to deepen my spiritual interest and to eventually bring me to a full commitment to Him.
Two of these friends were male and two were female, but all four were Southern Baptists. Each of them frequently invited me to attend services and youth outreach events at their churches, and occasionally, they prevailed upon me to go with them. I was particularly interested in the events at which food (preferably full meals!) was served. I specifically remember one time when one of the guys asked me to go to a youth meeting, and I asked, “Will there be food?” When he replied in the affirmative, I said “Absolutely!” (Note to all youth leaders: Never underestimate the power of pizza!)
Nearly every time I went to a church service or youth event, I heard preaching that was powerful, biblical, and relevant to my life. Speaker after speaker challenged me to quit living for myself and to devote myself fully to God. And I cannot tell you how many times I raised my hand (usually “with every head bowed and every eye closed”) or signed a card saying that I was giving my life to Jesus. Still, these “decisions” never stuck, as I soon went back to living my old, essentially self-centered lifestyle. God, the church, and the Bible remained no more than a hobby for me.
In addition to bringing me to church events, my friends also testified to me about their faith in God. Slowly but surely, bit by bit, they broke through my stubbornness and skepticism and convinced me of many of the fundamental truths that I still hold today, including the truthfulness of the Scriptures, the love of God, and the importance of regular Bible study and worship. They never gave up on me; instead, they patiently and lovingly shared their beliefs with me. And while nearly all the speakers that I heard at the services were helpful, the personal witnesses of my friends were invaluable.
By the time I headed off to Austin to attend college, I decided it was time to explore some other Christian traditions besides the Episcopal faith. During my first semester, I lived on campus, but had no car. So I visited nearly every church that was within walking distance: Baptist, Methodist, non-denominational, and yes, even Episcopal. (Unfortunately, I had not even heard of the Orthodox Church, even though I lived but a short walk from St. Elias’, near downtown Austin).
In January, I moved off campus, into an apartment that was a few blocks away from a very large Southern Baptist church. Naturally, I decided to check it out. The strong preaching there reminded me of what I had heard at my high school friends’ churches, and the seriousness with which the people there seemed to take their faith greatly impressed me. And the short distance from my apartment didn’t hurt either!
Although I still felt some loyalty to the Episcopal Church, primarily due to my love for my mother, I felt like I could stay in that tradition no longer. The Baptist church’s preaching, along with the enthusiasm of its people, were something that I had never seen in my own church, and they drew me like a magnet. I correctly guessed that my mother would be hurt by my decision, but I prayed that she would agree to disagree with me about religion (which she eventually did).
For the next two years, I alternated between living in Austin and living in my parents’ home in Pasadena, where I worked as an engineering co-op student at IBM in Clear Lake City. In my church involvement, I alternated between my church in Austin and various Baptist (and occasionally other evangelical) churches near my parents’ house. In spite of attending church fairly regularly, and staying in touch with my high school friends, I still was unwilling to change my life. I wanted the ruler of my life to be ME, not God.
Over those two years, however, God gradually broke through to me, and convinced me that I could not be my own ruler and receive all the blessings of Christianity at the same time. I fought and fought him, but I finally had to give up. On January 15, 1989, at the end of the morning worship service at my church in Austin, when the invitation was given, I went forward and once and for all dedicated my life to Christ. I was baptized a week later, and I thus became a full-fledged member of the church that I would belong to for life.
Or so I thought…