1) How were you first introduced to the Orthodox Church?
" My introduction to Orthodox Christianity was on the Internet, back in 1997. In those days, the web was small enough that one could read just about everything there on Orthodoxy within the space of a few weeks. What got me looking was a brief comment on the Orthodox Church in a conversation with a friend who was telling me that he was planning on becoming Roman Catholic. In the course of the chat, the Orthodox Church was mentioned -- I don't recall if it was by me or by him -- and that stuck in my mind long enough so that I did a search online for any information I could find.
Unless there's no other option, I wouldn't recommend an introduction to Orthodoxy via the Internet these days, because there are now so many people representing themselves as Orthodox who may not actually be or who are associated with the Church for secular reasons. As with everything on the Internet, caveat lector.
Eventually, I found myself on an email group dedicated to discussions between Orthodox Christians and Evangelical Protestants. I asked a number of questions there, and after some time, I received an email from one of the members inviting me to church (we lived in the same city). My first visit to an Orthodox Church was to a tiny Russian Orthodox mission with about ten members borrowing a chapel in an Episcopalian administrative building. It was humble in almost every sense of the word, but I saw Heaven meet Earth there that Sunday morning. Nothing afterward was ever the same.
Two weeks later, found myself in an Antiochian parish which was closer to my home. The pastor and the people were warm, welcoming and ready to answer my questions. I stayed and was received into the Church six months later."
2) In what denomination were you raised? and, how, if any , did those early experiences prepare you for Orthodoxy?
" I was not raised in a single denomination, especially because my family moved around so much (I've moved 19 times in my nearly 34 years). Many of the churches we attended were independent, Baptist-style churches, along with a number of bona fide Baptist churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention or others. We also attended a Grace Brethren church when I was in high school. For about three years in the early 1980s, we went to a different church every weekend -- my parents were missionaries raising support.
The greatest contribution from my Christian upbringing was a genuine love for Christ imparted by my parents, who also saw to it that I received a strong Christian identity that had no problem being different from the rest of the world. One of the memories which sticks strongly with me was the footwashing and agape meal rituals that the Grace Brethren practice before receiving communion together. Though they don't understand these things sacramentally, it helped to prepare me for liturgical worship in that I saw that deep meaning could be found in ritual, which is by no means "empty." "
3) Has there ever been a time in your life when you didn’t believe in God? And, if so, what convinced you otherwise?
" There never was a time that I declared myself an atheist, though I functioned as one a few years in the beginning of college (I was an undergraduate for seven years, working on two majors and three minors; I eventually dropped one of the majors just a semester shy of finishing it). My family was attending an Evangelical mega-church, whose Sunday morning worship consisted of a short pop-rock concert followed by 45-60 minute sermon. I believed I was "saved," and so I lost sight of what else I could actually do as a Christian. There seemed to be no real progress to make, not in any critical sense. What is "growth" when Heaven and salvation are not at stake?
As a result, I began to drift from church, and I would work on Sunday mornings fairly often. Prior to the catalyst conversion mentioned above with my incipient Roman Catholic convert friend, there began to be a slow preparation for the search for beauty and worship. I expressed this longing one time at a college student Bible study I attended and was mostly met with blank stares.
So, while I wasn't an atheist in terms of my belief, I acted like one.
The only logical consequence I could see to the theology that I'd received (particularly the "once saved, always saved" element) was that I was "saved" and there was nothing left for me to do spiritually but wait for Heaven. What changed my mind was my encounter with Orthodoxy, which teaches that salvation is a dynamic process that takes one's whole life and continues even into eternity. "Going to Heaven when you die" is really only one small step in a much larger journey of communion with God and becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.
The irony is that, while I was raised with the idea of a "personal relationship with Jesus," I really didn't find anything that functioned like an actual relationship until I came face to face with His Church."
4) What author, or other person(s), was the most influential in your conversion to the Orthodox faith?
" My theological "awakening" began with reading a few works by C. S. Lewis as a teenager and young man. That led me to want a serious faith with some actual solidity to it. Of course, Lewis, so much beloved by Evangelicals, would hardly be considered one of them if they actually had gone to church with him. He was essentially a sort of Anglo-Catholic (in current terms, though he was just a normal Anglican in his own day), believing in things like the reality of the Eucharist and even Purgatory (of course, the Orthodox part ways with him on the latter of those two and a few other items).
I also read "Becoming Orthodox" by Fr. Peter Gillquist, which, while it is simple in its approach, very much appealed to me as a Baptist-leaning Evangelical. It really started me thinking, and then I read "The Orthodox Church" and "The Orthodox Way," both by Kallistos (Timothy) Ware. I also read "For the Life of the World" by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, which brought light for me onto why Christianity must be sacramental.
Probably the most influential person in my conversion was Fr. Nicholas Sorensen, the parish priest at my home parish. He took a brash, egotistical young man and brought him into Orthodoxy. I still have the same weaknesses, but thanks to people like Fr. Nicholas, I know there's actually a point to struggling against them."
5) What theological obstacles did you face as a catechumen, if any?
" The biggest issue for me was the relationship between faith and works. I mostly dealt with it before I became a catechumen, but it had been so ingrained in me for so many years that the two were opposed that it took a minor miracle before I could in any sense see their true connection. There was no logical argument that lead me to conclude that they were not opposed, but rather experience of worshiping in an Orthodox manner showed me that opposing them made no sense. Of course one cannot earn salvation! But to sit back and just wait for God to bestow it on me without any cooperation on my part other than mere assent makes no sense either. Such an approach implies that God gives me free will for one moment only and then violates it at all other times.
I really had no problems with the usual things that normally give Protestant converts difficulty: venerating Mary and the saints, icons, sacraments, hierarchy, etc. I think that my theological imagination had been so shaped by reading men like Lewis and Tolkien that I had a built-in longing for the holy in terms of the physical. The truth of the Incarnation makes a Christian faith with a physical side to it completely logical."
6) When and how did you know that you were called to the priesthood?
" People ask me this every so often, and I really have no good answer. There was no moment that I knew, except perhaps when the bishop put the Eucharist into my hands just after ordaining me! For me, it was something of a growing realization, and at some point (not sure when), I found that my desires to be (first) a musical theatre writer and director and (later) a professor of English literature had been replaced with a desire for the priesthood.
The priesthood is really the only thing that remotely fulfills everything I have ever loved my whole life: Christ, poetry, music, beauty, truth, care for others, conversation, etc. I'm not really as enthused about the administrative part of it, but thank God, that's not critical to the ordination! That can always be delegated where necessary."
7) What new insights have you gained about your calling during your time at St. George Orthodox Cathedral?
" One of the difficult lessons I have learned since my conversion and during my time at the cathedral has been that piety is not equal to faith. There are people who have one without the other. Ideally, both should work together and each should inform the other, but they are not the same thing.
I've also learned from my mentor here, Fr. Olof Scott, that not every hill is worth dying on. The wise man tries to pick the ones worth charging up and leaves the rest alone. With some, you tunnel under.
One of my greatest joys in emerging from the rarefied seminary life into parish life has been the discovery that people really do yearn for the Gospel. It can be easy to lose sight of that in seminary, and it feeds my soul to see people meet Christ and grow in their love for Him."
8) You have often stated that evangelism is a priority in your ministry. What positive changes in this area have you witnessed in the Orthodox Church over the last few years? What still needs to be addressed?
" While there are some encouraging things in Orthodox evangelism over the past number of years, overall, the state of the Orthodox Church, both in America and abroad, is absolutely terrible in this regard. There are of course historical reasons for this, but our first fathers in the faith lived in times far more difficult than our own and yet still managed to turn the Roman Empire upside down.
I am encouraged, however, both in what I've seen in our parish here and elsewhere. People are becoming more serious about their faith. The percentage of Sunday-only Christians is shrinking in the face of a growing awakening of the people of God. Many new parishes are being founded, dedicated not to the preservation of a national culture but to the expansion of the new nation, the Christian race, which welcomes every human being into it and shares the one common Blood of Christ.
It fascinates me to see that people who become serious about their faith almost automatically begin to invite people to church and to share with them Christ's power and energy. As such, while I do believe that there is an urgent need to train all parishioners to become missionaries, I believe firmly that the first step in that training is the formation of a strong, consistent and frequent worship life informed by a vigorous education in the doctrine and practice of our faith. These are the things I've tried to do in my priesthood and will continue to do, God willing. "
9) To someone who is from another faith or denomination who is interested in Orthodoxy, what resources would you suggest?
" There is no better resource than a visit to an actual Orthodox Christian worship service. That's where we do the real work of our faith. Nothing can ever substitute for an encounter with real Orthodox Christians. Ours is an incarnate faith, not something one can learn from a book.
If people are interested in reading something, however, the books I mentioned above by Gillquist and Ware are of course fine introductory material. ("The Orthodox Church" is more informational and educational, while "The Orthodox Way" is more formational and "spiritual.") I also highly recommend "Beginning to Pray" by Anthony Bloom, which is easy to read but genuinely profound, as well as Schmemann's "For the Life of the World," which shows how the only bulwark against secularism really is a Christianity expressed in sacrament and the holiness of the physical."
*Photo is courtesy of Fr.Andrew, from October 2006 when he was ordained to the holy priesthood in the Orthodox Church by His Grace, Bishop Antoun (Khouri) of Miami and Southest at All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, NC.