by James Early
Only a couple of days after we returned to Banja Luka, we repacked our bags and rushed off to Slovenia to attend a spiritual retreat for all of the IMB missionaries in our area. The retreat included a lot of rest and relaxation, along with daily Bible study sessions led by a pastor from the U. S. Of course, Jennifer and I enjoyed the R&R, as well as the fellowship with our friends and colleagues.
Still, the whole week we were there, we experienced that same “fish out of water” feeling that we had felt when we had visited our home church in the U. S. This feeling was further confirmation that we really did not belong in the Baptist church any more.During one of the Bible studies, the pastor spoke on St. Peter’s sermon in the second chapter of Acts. As he made his way through the passage, I began to wonder how he would handle one particular statement near the end of the chapter. In verse 37, we read that after St. Peter finished his sermon we are told that his listeners
“were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’”
“’Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (v. 38).
I was curious to see what the pastor would say about the five little words in the middle of the sentence: “for the remission of sins.” For you see, Baptists and other Evangelicals strongly deny that baptism washes away sins, granting us forgiveness. For them, baptism is a purely symbolic act that makes public a person’s profession of faith and symbolizes one’s dying to self and being raised to new life in Christ.
For Christians who share this view of baptism, Peter’s proclamation presents a problem, for when we take his statement at face value, he seems to be saying that baptism, coupled with repentance, brings forgiveness of sins. Indeed, this is how the entire Church interpreted these verses for 1500 years. For many of the Protestant reformers, however, this interpretation did not fit into their theological system, and so they began to rationalize away the plain meaning of the text, or simply ignore the text altogether. In doing so, they set an example that is followed by the overwhelming majority of evangelical Protestants today.
Not surprisingly, the pastor at our retreat spoke at length about repenting, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. But he totally skipped over the controversial phrase. Once again, I realized that I could no longer accept the Evangelical hermeneutical system, which takes certain parts of Scripture and elevates them above others, making an interpretive grid out of the former while ignoring or rationalizing away the latter.
It finally “clicked” in my mind that the Orthodox interpretation of Scripture was the most consistent one, the one that takes all passages seriously, not effectively doing away with those that do not fit into its scheme.
To borrow Fr. Peter Gillquist’s sentiment given in Becoming Orthodox,
“finally I was beginning to understand all the verses that I had not underlined in my Bible!”
Before we had departed for the States in December, Jennifer and I agreed with our fellow team members Bob and Melanie to continue to study Orthodoxy and to prayerfully seek God’s will on whether or not to continue toward the ancient faith. After the retreat was over, the four of us came together to discuss what we had learned and/or decided. Jennifer and I were somewhat disappointed to learn that while we had moved toward Orthodoxy, our dear friends had moved away from it.
Whereas we were ready to convert as soon as we could, they had too many questions and doubts about Orthodoxy to do so. Many of the answers Jennifer and I had found to the questions that we had all had about the Church did not satisfy Bob and Melanie.
Soon after our meeting, Bob and I had another long conversation, in which I revealed to him that not only did Jennifer and I desire to convert to Orthodoxy, but also that I sensed that God was calling me to become an Orthodox priest. To my surprise, he was not in the least caught off guard. For some reason, I think he had been expecting this. He and his family were about to go to Prague for a nearly month-long training conference, and he encouraged me to keep praying and thinking about what to do while he and Melanie were gone. I promised to do this.
During February, while Bob and Melanie were gone, I continued carrying out my job responsibilities as best I could, given that in my heart I was now fully Orthodox. I began keeping an Orthodox rule of liturgical prayer, attended the Divine Liturgy when I could, and continued to read the Orthodox Study Bible and other books about Orthodoxy. I now felt very torn, as if I was an undercover Orthodox “agent” merely posing as a Baptist missionary!
Part of me said that I should just go home and begin the formal conversion process immediately. Jennifer agreed with this inclination. But then the practical side of me kicked in. Jennifer and I were doing very well financially, being able to save quite a bit of money each month. As had been the case when I was in South Carolina, contemplating whether to quit my job and go to seminary, I realized that I had no job to go back to. How would I support myself and my growing family (we were by then expecting a third child) if we left the mission field? Unfortunately, I had almost totally forgotten the lessons that God had taught me eight years earlier about his provision of our needs.
So, I decided to continue to be an “undercover” Orthodox Christian while continuing to work indefinitely as a Baptist missionary. This would have been hard enough if I was still a regular missionary, serving with only Bob and Melanie. For example, if and when I led a Serbian unbeliever to faith in Christ, what church would I encourage them to join? I knew it couldn’t be the Baptist church! My “undercover” plan was complicated further by two things:
First, I had just been placed in a supervisory role, and second, another missionary family was about to come join our team in March. This couple were to be under my supervision. As Jennifer pointed out to me, I was soon going to have to carry the Baptist “flag” and lead a team, which would be impossible to do convincingly if I no longer even agreed with much of the Baptist church’s teaching.
As a new supervisor, I was scheduled to attend the same training conference in March that Bob and Melanie had attended in February. I had absolutely no desire to go, but in keeping with my plan, I resolved to attend anyway. The day after Bob and Melanie returned from Prague, Jennifer and I met with Bob. Trying to avoid the subject of us possibly leaving the mission field, I rattled on for nearly an hour about all the things that had to be done to prepare for our new team members, what I had done, and what still needed to be done. Bob patiently waited until I was done, and then he turned to me and abruptly said,
“So, have you decided what to do about converting to Orthodoxy?”
I was busted!
I told him of my plan to stay in Banja Luka, while Jennifer and I would be undercover Orthodox Christians. Boldly and wisely, Bob said, “That’s not going to work.” He proceeded to explain how at the training conference, I would be asked to share my own vision for the expansion of the Baptist faith in my adopted country and to develop a plan to make it happen. He described how the entire month would be, in his words, “one big pep-rally for the Baptist missionary effort.”
Finally, he said with love and frankness, “If you two are definitely planning to convert to Orthodoxy, then you need to go ahead and go home now.” It is not that he wanted to get rid of us. But he knew that my “undercover” plan was complete folly. Jennifer fully agreed with him, and between the two of them they persuaded me.
The next day, I went and obtained a partial refund on my plane ticket to Prague. Then I called my supervisor Ted in Zagreb. I said,
“Ted, I’m not going to Prague, and I need to come up there and talk to you about something.”
After speaking to us, Ted assumed that the reason I had decided not to go on the trip to Prague was simply because I had decided not to serve as a supervisor any more (after only three months of holding the position!). In this he was correct. However, he was not at all prepared to hear the specific reason why I no longer wanted to be a supervisor!
A few days after I called Ted, Jennifer and I drove to Zagreb to meet with Ted and his wife Teresa. After a little bit of uncomfortable small talk, I said,
“Ted, I don’t want to beat around the bush with you. Jennifer and I have been studying the Orthodox Church, and we have decided to convert to Orthodoxy. Therefore, we will be resigning our positions as missionaries and returning to the States.”
Ted was stunned. I don’t think he would have been more shocked if I had told him that I had murdered 50 people and was on the run from the Banja Luka police! At first, he didn’t know what to say. Finally, he began to try and talk us out of it. He raised objection after objection about Orthodoxy, and I answered them as best I could. All of his objections concerned issues that Jennifer I had grappled with ourselves and had eventually overcome.
His greatest problem with Orthodoxy was that the Church does not agree with any of the five points of Calvinism! At one point, he even ran out of the room and brought back a paper that he had written in seminary about the alleged errors of Orthodoxy. Needless to say, I did not find the paper persuasive.
After an hour or so, he realized that he was not going to talk us out of becoming Orthodox, so he changed tactics. Now he tried to convince us to stay in spite of the fact that we were Orthodox in heart—the very idea that I had entertained, but which Bob and Jennifer had talked me out of. I’ll never forget what he said to me, while he was on the verge of tears: “You could open up the Orthodox branch of the International Mission Board!” We were touched and flattered by his persistent attempts to keep us around, but we knew that this idea would not work.
We assured him that we were as sorry to leave as he was to see us go (we would later realize just how sorry after we were back home!). He finally gave up, and made one request of us: that we not tell anyone why we were leaving until after we had arrived home. He wanted first to protect us from incessant questions and possible scorn from colleagues and nationals, and also to make sure that our team’s and our organization’s mission was not undermined. We had no desire to do anything that could possibly hurt our employer, and so we wholeheartedly agreed.
We asked him if we could have six weeks to sell most of our things, pack the rest, and say goodbye to all our friends. He readily agreed, and wished us the best. Even though he could not understand why we wanted to do what we were planning to do, he was still kind and supportive of us as people.
After having talked with Ted and Teresa for over two hours, we drove back to Banja Luka, relieved that this difficult step was over with. Now we were faced with the difficult task of preparing for another cataclysmic change in our lives. Once again, we would be starting over…
For the eleventh time in as many years of marriage, Jennifer and I began the process of packing all our things and moving. This time, however, we had more possessions than ever before, because for the first time in our married life, Jennifer and I had established our own home from scratch with our own furniture and other belongings. Now we had to get rid of them all! The new couple who had just come to the field blessed us by buying nearly all of our furniture, along with many of our other possessions. They needed furniture, and we needed to get rid of quite a bit, so the deal worked out well for all. We still had to have a small crate built to contain a few remaining things that could not fit in our generous luggage allowance.
After we worked out all the details of our flight home, we were faced with the awkward task of telling our national and missionary friends that we were leaving without explaining why. We revealed the news about our resignation gradually, so as to minimize the amount of awkward time in between the announcement and our departure.
When Southern Baptist (and probably all) missionary families resign from the mission field, it is usually due to one of a handful of reasons, including failure to adjust to the new culture, children going to college, health problems, financial problems, illegal or immoral behavior, and (too often) marriage problems. Everyone knew that our reason for leaving had nothing to do with the first two of these, and we took pains to assure everyone that it was not due to the latter four. Still, it must have sounded fishy: “We’re leaving, but we can’t say why. Really, though, everything is just fine! Just trust us!” I don’t know what everyone must have thought, but I was certain that no one guessed that we were leaving because we wanted to convert to Orthodoxy. Later, after we arrived home and told the whole story, my suspicion was confirmed. No one had been even close!
Even worse than the awkwardness of not being able to tell people why we were leaving was the deep sadness we felt about leaving the country and people whom we had grown to love. After a year and a half on the field, we had finally “arrived,” both literally and figuratively. And now, we were having to give it all up. Still, we trusted that God would give us even more in return, and he certainly has.
I also realized that I was going to have to find myself a new career, at least for a while.
I knew that the only field I could get into relatively easily, without the hassle and expense of years of further schooling, was teaching. I looked into several school districts and their alternative teacher certification programs. Unfortunately, the application date for someone wanting to start teaching in the fall of 2001 had passed in all but one. Ironically, it was the same suburban Houston district where I had attended from grades 2-12! Via email, I set up an interview with the director of the alternative certification program. The interview would be only a few days after we arrived home. All of us were thankful that God provided the means for us to not starve!
On April 21, 2001, we said goodbye one last time to our colleagues and our closest national friends. With tears in our eyes, Jennifer, Audrey, Courtney, and I left Banja Luka for the last time and drove to Zagreb. We spent the night in Zagreb at our missionary guest house, and boarded our plane the next morning. In passing, I must note that our colleagues, and indeed our whole missions organization, treated us very well.
Even though they hated to see us go, and they certainly disagreed with our new theological position, they dealt with us with the utmost of integrity and Christian love. To this day, I will not allow anyone to speak badly of Southern Baptists, particularly not their missionaries, in my presence. Even though I now disagree with much of their theology and practice, I still believe that the overwhelming majority of them are kind people who love God and are seeking to serve him as best they know how.
The plane touched down in Dallas later the same day. We were greeted at the airport by Jennifer’s parents and sister, who drove us to their home in Texarkana. We were thankful to be safely back in the U. S. Now we had but a simple task ahead of us: starting our lives over from scratch!
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…