by Patrick Keenan
My parents brought me to Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church for Baptism as an infant. Somehow, someway a grace entered my life that has resided as long as I can remember. The quest as to who He is and how I should know him has been a lifelong pursuit.
It was an evening in 1966. Our modest North Dakota apartment housed my Mother, Father and myself. Dad was at the family Drive-In. Mom and I decided to watch NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. It was a Rock Hudson Movie called ‘The Spiral Road’. Rock’s character was an Atheist Doctor in a south pacific Island who had fallen in love with a Christian nurse. She asked Rock why he didn’t believe in God, to which he replied something like:
‘because at one point I challenged God to show himself to me. I told God ‘If you are there- strike me down!’ He did nothing and that is why I do not believe.’
Well the next day, of course, was Sunday morning. Our Redeemer’s was a large Church with a huge wooden cross hanging on a rock wall behind the pulpit. As I recall, the church was full and we were sitting in the fifth row on the right side. Thoughts about the previous night’s movie were running through my mind as we were standing and singing hymns.
Looking up at the cross with great intention, I softly said,
“God, if you are there- strike me down”.
I am not sure what happened but, the next thing I was able to focus on was the faces of church ladies staring down at me as I was laying face-up on the tile floor. Then I remembered what I had said to the Lord.
That event instilled in me an unshakable knowledge that God is real and God is here. I spent the week telling a number of people that God is real. The following Sunday I sat in the back of Church with my Mother, looked up to the cross and apologized. It was a serious moment that my Mom noticed. She asked me if I was alright? I was.
It would be wonderful to say that dramatic and miraculous things like that continued to occur, but they didn’t. That event, however, began my quest for what I should do with my life.
About seven years later, while hitchhiking in Michigan and still in the pursuit of meaning, I camped next to a family from Canada. The father asked me to join them for dinner, which I did. He began to witness to me about the reality of Jesus Christ and spent many hours sharing scripture relating to humbling ourselves before the Lord and asking him to actually be both Lord and Savior. I asked a lot of questions. To which he answered each with scripture. This seemed right and that night, in my tent, I prayed unto the Lord to forgive my sins and to be the Lord of my life. That night marked the beginning of my new journey….to actually go from believing He is there to being proactive in surrendering my life to Him. It was August 3, 1973.
The Jesus People Movement was in full tilt at this time and I plugged right into it. I fellowshipped at a variety of Evangelical Churches for the next ten years.
The Lord blessed me in many ways. I met and married my beautiful wife in 1980. We have been gifted with four children. We were a Church going family, we were members of a Calvary Chapel. Our bookshelves are mostly Christian Literature, Bibles or birdwatching books. We were an Evangelical family striving to do right. However, as the years went by, I began to change.
I wish I could say it was a restlessness in my soul looking for a deeper meaning, but it wasn’t that. It really boiled down to compromise, luke-warmness and a growing belief that we are saved by grace and there is nothing we can do to improve our lot. My motto morphed over time to ‘Our righteousness is as filthy rags’ and ‘we are saved by grace and not works- lest a man boast’. Even our best efforts to change really didn’t have an effect on our salvation.
The conduct in one’s life becomes somewhat like a wild dog when your theology excuses sin.
It was in 1995 that I met Roger. He lived in our neighborhood and I sold him a car. We became casual friends and at one point he told me about a girl he engaged to. He said her religion was so very important to her. The way he portrayed it made her sound almost unbalanced but he respected her.
A year later I saw Roger again and he told me sadly that his fiance’ had died.
I never met her, but out of respect to Roger I went to the funeral being conducted at a Lutheran Church. To say it was an interesting funeral would be an understatement. Though it was in a Lutheran Church the service was being conducted by a Greek Orthodox Priest. Incense was flowing out of a censer as smoke filled the room. The chanting and words were unfamiliar to me. I was somewhere between very confused and curious.
The Priest stepped forward to share a message. He said the departed wanted him to share with those who came to her funeral what Eastern Orthodoxy was. He then began to explain the difference between western and eastern theology. Some of the points I remember regarded Communion and how the bread and wine of communion is actually Christ body and blood –a mystery the Orthodox do not try to explain. That salvation is an ongoing and dynamic work of grace in our life and not a static historical event. How Christ is seen in everyone we meet and our response to Christ in them has a bearing in our Christian journey/salvation. How the Eastern Orthodox service has followed the same format since the establishment of the Church by Jesus as he commissioned His disciples with instructions as to what to do and how to build His Church. The form of worship being virtually unchanged over 2,000 years. That every Eastern Orthodox Priest could follow the hand on head blessings, Priest by Priest all the way back to the Apostles.
It was amazing to me that I had no knowledge of this Church for my whole life. After the funeral I went back to work and tucked this knowledge away for another day. That day came 13 years later.
The years that followed saw me to be successful in a business way but arid and empty in my personal walk. The walls of integrity had fallen, the one Christian standard that supported me was my creed:
“we are saved by grace!”
The low point came in 2008. My theology led to presumptive forgiveness after any bad behavior.
We were buying a house and land in the country. A place that looked like a National Park. Beautiful riverfront property, tall trees, a stream and pond. A paradise. But, all I wanted to do was go build a hut, go inside it and pray. I was miserable.
It was during that time that I remembered the funeral. Thought more about Orthodoxy and eventually looked online for any books that may explain it further. Fortunately, I found ‘Becoming Orthodox’ by Peter Gilquist. In this book he describes how he helped establish Campus Crusade for Christ which in turn sent him looking for the original New Testament Church only to find it in Orthodoxy.
This began my journey through Orthodox books, podcasts (Ancient Faith Radio) and blogs (Journey to Orthodoxy). One day my wife noticed an article in the local newspaper about an Orthodox service that was going to be held and gave a contact number. I called the number and set up a meeting at Starbucks with a local couple who were Orthodox. They helped bring the picture into focus. I began attending the Orthodox mission. Visiting other Orthodox Churches. Studying. Listening. Praying. Accepting. Finding a Spiritual Father. The gentle love and patience all along the way ministered to me. It took awhile but…
On August 2, 2015 I was Chrismated into the Orthodox Church.
I am thankful to God for giving me a good family in childhood. Parents who brought me to Baptism and surrounded me with a loving environment. For people who have been used by Him throughout the years to cocoon me in an ongoing Christian environment of love, acceptance and grace. For my wife who has proved to me that how we live is important and that pleasing the Lord should be our chief aim in life.
So thankful for all the people and events that influenced me, changed me and brought me to the point of being able to humbly recognize that I was not alone in my walk towards wholeness. To see the beauty of the Church and understand that Christ did not leave us on our own to work it out but he is physically present in our midst as we worship Him in the ageless, timeless Liturgy which culminates in partaking of His Body and Blood. That what we do matters. It is true, we are working out our own salvation but He has given us so many tools!
Life is no longer passive. Following Christ has become an adventure offering great opportunities to grow and be healed. That every moment and each encounter is precious and Christ is present.
Today, I realize my sin more than ever. But my life is fuller. Christ is present in a tangible way through the Sacraments of the Church. There are now so many ways to address those things that have haunted me in the past: the Eucharist, Confession, my Spiritual Father and a legacy of prayers from early Fathers to name just a few. The Bible says
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”.
I can now better understand that command in context of in the Ancient Orthodox Church. Praise God!