Let me begin with prayer: Oh Lord, Jesus Christ, our God, by your Grace, let these words be as a healing balm, and as an illumination to the hearts and minds of those whose eyes pass over them, but, please, let it not be of my abilities, but of Thy Grace and Mercy. Amen.
My journey begins at the beginning, with parents very committed to the Methodist denomination, first as United, then as Free Methodists. To be quite honest, I’m still not quite sure what the difference is—though it has been explained to me. And, to be frank, this very confusion played a part in my leaving the church in my late teens. I became what I now know to be a “none”. Someone who would consider themselves “spiritual”, but if asked what their religious affiliation might be, would have to answer “none”.
But, the lack of Christianity in my life in any organized sense left a vacuum in my soul, and this I filled with many vanities, but always with that strong sense of searching, for Christ is inescapable for those whom He has called. I tried music. I tried substances. I tried various methods of “spirituality”. I have been a Sufi, a Buddhist, and an Animist. I have studied the Zohar and the Tao Te Jing. I did Yoga. I meditated. And one day I realized that the New Age philosophy I was engaged in only works if one has no problems in their life. But I had plenty. At that point in my life I had no job, nearly no possessions, no friends, and a pregnant girlfriend. Even in this situation I am ashamed to say I did not turn to Christ. I am dumber than that. In fact, I am a three time prodigal. If anything, my story is merely a testament to my (earthly and heavenly) father’s faith, mercy, and love—exceeding even that of the parable.
The level of blindness, of entitlement, of failure, and of uselessness that I achieved in my rebellion is rather remarkable, honestly. I say this not to beat myself up, but as an honest assessment. Somewhere along the way I had gotten it into my head that I was smarter, more talented, and better looking than everyone else. And I mean everyone. As things tend to do in this broken world, this extreme ego led me to the opposite of intelligence, with my making one utterly foolish decision after another. Until, in a nadir, I came to the full and utter realization that I knew nothing, had nothing, was nothing, because if I knew anything at all I would have achieved something. And that if I knew nothing, I should be listening to those who knew something—namely my dad.
This was all horrifying to me. My worst fear was to be like my father—self-described as “just a bit above average” and “vanilla”. Yet, he had achieved much in his life, and I, absolutely nothing. I wanted to be anything but average or vanilla. And being an abject failure was a much preferable alternative.
In the Spring of 2011 my father asked if I would like to go on a road trip with him to New Orleans and Nashville. On this trip we listened to a book entitled “Wild at Heart”. My father told me he was proud of me. He told me I was a man. This was the real turn. This was the moment I truly stopped running from life and Christ, and began the long trip back. I attended some courses and seminars that were on the periphery of Protestant Christianity, best described as “Non-Denominational” or “Charismatic”.
However, I still could not call myself a Christian—let alone a “Protestant”. What did I have to protest? I wasn’t keen on the idea of being a Roman Catholic. I just could not accept the concept of Papal Supremacy. What else was there? I didn’t know, but I kept with Christ, praying to Him, reading scripture, and learning. Eventually, this became very lonely. I had a men’s group for a while, which was very helpful and encouraging, but they sort of disbanded one day. I was bereft of fellowship. What to do? I became desperate! My dear wife was still not “into” Christianity in the slightest, but is blessedly indulgent. I remember praying, “God, I don’t care anymore what Church I go to, as long as my wife will go and be happy!” We tried every church from Merritt to Malaga. I was trying to steer us toward thee most hippest, most trendiest, most happenin’, cool T-Shirt havin’ church in town. My wife was not impressed. Like, at all. She, I believe, in frustration, spoke with a mother (who is now her Godmother and best friend—praise God!) at my daughter’s school who said, “why not come try the Orthodox Church?”
“The whuh?” said I. I had seen the storefront on Wenatchee Ave. I had also seen Fr. Michael around town (I didn’t know what or who he was at that time). Erina, my lovely wife, for a drastic change, suggested a church! To me! I would have crawled across broken glass for that!
We attended a pre-Lenten Liturgy. It was beautiful and completely overwhelming. I can be socially awkward at the best of times, and was instantly uncomfortable. People were kissing pictures. Nobody ever sat down. I will say that the chanting immediately swept me up and into the worship. I loved it from the moment I entered. I remember looking over at my wife expecting her then constant Sunday Church ‘tude—clock watching, sleepy eyes, and sighing. But, to my astonishment, she was smiling, teary-eyed, and engaged! She loved it! After the service I asked her about it, and, of course, she loved the candles and incense! And the fact that Mary played such a prominent role. At coffee hour I grilled the Priest: What about this? Why do you do that? What’s the deal with no communion for me, aren’t I Christian enough?
To my surprise his answers were echos of things that I thought only I felt about Christianity. Namely, the idea that we know where the Kingdom of God is, but we do not know where it is not. I think he said it like that. I never framed it so succinctly. And, the idea of “Theosis”—”God became man, that man might become god”. I had thought that literal, spiritual union with Christ was the point of our walk, based on several things Christ says in the scriptures. Anyone I had been brave enough to bring this up to in the Protestant world had gone blank and changed the subject very quickly, but turns out, this is exactly what our aim is in Orthodoxy: acquiring more of the Holy Spirit and uncreated Light.
After our first Liturgy I read some pamphlets given to me by Fr. Michael, read some excerpts from books, attended a Mid-Week Vespers service in Yakima at Holy Cross Orthodox Church with a very dear old friend who I found out had converted as well, scoured the internet and by the next Sunday I was completely converted! Fully, utterly, totally. From that moment on you couldn’t have kept me away with an army. To me, the Orthodox view on just about everything lends the authenticity, nuance, and simple power that I feel when I read the words of Christ in the Scriptures—coupled with the difficulty and dichotomy that have always challenged me. Christ’s words had always had a distinct Eastern flavor. He spoke in Koans. He was not so much logical as Supra-logical. The Eastern Church is supremely comfortable and embraces Mystery. This was the penultimate break for me from Western Christianity. It is undeniable that as Christians, we worship a mysterious God (the Holy Trinity), how then can we avoid mysticism?
A couple of other things that really piqued my interest were: the Orthodox treatment of Indigenous peoples throughout the ages, namely St. Herman of Alaska; also, the propensity for the Orthodox to be killed for their faith, this may sound counter-intuitive, but I believe this to be perhaps the single most significant indicator of authentic Christianity—if the enemy is trying to destroy you, you must be doing something right! And, whether it be Pagans, Mohammedans, or Communists, if there are Christians dying, it seems to be the Orthodox doing Aslan’s share of it! Orthodoxy also provides something that we as Americans are lacking in, but which we do not often realize: culture. I now belong to something with tradition stretching back 2,000 years, unbroken, alive, and vibrant! I eat Baklava with the Greeks, dance with the Lebanese, and chant with the Slavs.
But, back to my story… I would have been baptized after that first week. We had the distinct privilege to fast for the Lenten season that year and attend every single Lenten service, which is saying something. I honestly challenge anyone to engage the Lenten fast and attend a majority of Lenten services most especially during Holy Week) and not be converted. That June, I sojourned to St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, AZ. I received a blessing from Yeronda (Elder) Ephraim of Arizona, former Abbot of Philotheou monastery on Mt. Athos. Little did I know this would be one of the most cherished moments of my spiritual life so far—like meeting your hero before realizing that he was indeed your hero. He is considered by many as a living Saint, with many a miracle to his name. I was invited to join the Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker of San Francisco and Shanghai at the Russian Orthodox Monastery on Vashon Island. I visited the place of repose of St. John of San Francisco at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Capitol Hill in Seattle. The more I learned of this man, this nearly perfect example of Christian virtue, the more it became apparent to me that he was my Saint, my guide. In Orthodoxy, I can ask Vladika (Bishop) John to pray for me. How wonderful to have such a Holy person praying for a sinner like me!
I was ready, but again, my wife, not so much. She liked it, but being a Christian? It took 2 ½ years of me praying, being patient, cajoling, losing my patience, confessing, praying some more, thinking “this is what my dad must have felt like” and more and more church attendance before—praise God! This past August, we, as a whole family, were baptized into the Orthodox Church. This is just the beginning. Further up and further in!
If you have any specific questions or would like to personally contact Josh, please send him an email.