My journey to Orthodoxy

(Readers of these columns have expressed regrets several times that although there are columns describing myself as evangelical, pre-Orthodox and Orthodox, there's really no one column describing my transition journey. In response to another request for such a narrative today, I wrote the following.—"Theo")

Dear Mary —,

I'm glad to share what I can of my journey to Orthodoxy with you.

Most of it is told in the articles on my Theophilus and Friends website, though perhaps the "nodes" are all there but some of the lines connecting them are missing.

After seeing the movie about C.S. Lewis, Shadowlands, in late December (I believe it was) 1993, I started reading Lewis in earnest for the first time in my life, though I had known of him for over 30 years. Reading Lewis made me realize that my own Christian life was very shallow and lacking, though I was in church every Sunday and often teaching and for a time serving as a guest preacher (I'd been ordained and worked in campus and youth ministry almost 20 years). I also was reading through the Bible beginning with the new year ('94) and when I got to the book of Leviticus, though I had read it before this time it really came to life. I found myself saying "I can't believe that the God I have known all my life wanted to be worshipped in this way," with incense and carved cherubim and seraphim and a structured liturgy. "Did God change how He wants to be worshipped in the New Testament?"

I was attending a large community church that had grown out of the Bible church movement (an offshoot of the well known Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto)—several thousand members, all kinds of weeknight programs, excellent and erudite preaching that was largely Calvinistic...but after being there two years I still didn't feel that I belonged. I was an observer. In fact, the church having gone to Willow Creek to learn how "seeker friendly" churches operate, I felt that the whole program was intended for observers more than participants, and certainly more than worshippers. Although they had a "worship committee," I never saw anything that seemed like worship to me. Still, by everything I had been professing all my adult life, I had to say it was a "great church." I even toured England, Wales, and Ireland with the pastor and his wife and a busload of other members in May-June and had a great time.

When I got home, the letter that's on the website from the "San Jose attorney," Jeff Rickard, was awaiting me. My initial interest in it was entirely "professional." Here was the biggest "story" that I as a journalist had ever been handed. Everyone in greater San Jose who had any interest in religion at all would want to know the inside story of what happened at Los Gatos Christian Church, why Jeff's father had left its ministry after building it from around 100 to 4000 members. But out of professional ethics I called him and asked, "are you sure you want to publish this?" He was sure, and invited me to come to his office and go to lunch to discuss it further.

I was intrigued by his conversion to Orthodoxy, but after all he had just been through a traumatic upheaval, his mother's brother was a high-profile Orthodox priest, so it didn't seem that unusual. His purpose in writing the letter was to attract others to Orthodoxy, not turn them against evangelicalism. He sent me away after lunch with two books, Franky Schaeffer's Dancing Alone and (I believe the other was) Becoming Orthodox, a collection of personal testimonies of converts. I thoroughly disliked Schaeffer's book. It played fast and loose with the historical truth of the Reformation and Anglo-American history, I thought; it flew in the face of the main points his father's apologetic had made throughout his life, and I found that distasteful to say the least (no one had appreciated Francis Schaeffer's apologetic ministry more than I). But nevertheless, Franky's testimony came through and between the "errors" a strong apologetic for Orthodoxy was made.

Shortly before finishing Dancing Alone, the pastor of the local Orthodox church that Jeff Rickard belonged to, Fr. Charles Bell, sent me a copy of his little book, Discovering the Rich Heritage of the Orthodox Church (that's at least close to the title!) and it appealed to me much more. Fr. Charles had earned his doctorate at a Presbyterian university and was not only steeped in Reformed theology and faith but was still very sympathetic toward it. He treated Calvin and Luther not with the snarling contempt of Frank Schaeffer, but with respect and love. That was much more fitting.

I finished his little book a small step closer to Orthodoxy, but still telling friends "there's no way I'm going to convert." At the same time, though I've never been "charismatic" myself, I had started attending a kinship group of the local Vineyard Christian Fellowship that had grown up where the one that had converted to Orthodoxy (Jeff Rickard's and Fr. Bell's church) used to be! Some of the people who'd been on the England-Wales-and-Ireland trip were in the kinship, and after a few Wednesdays of prayer and fellowship with them, I also started attending the Sunday services, which were held in the evening and so didn't conflict with the morning services at the evangelical megachurch that I was in.

I began reading Timothy Ware's books, The Orthodox Church (considered one of the best histories) and The Orthodox Way (the author has since been made a Greek Orthodox bishop in England and given the name Bishop Kallistos). Then I read Fr. Alexander Schmemmen's history of Orthodoxy, and continued from one book to another. I accepted Jeff Rickard's invitation to attend Sunday service at his uncle's church 30 or 40 miles away, and was greatly impressed. I had, however, attended liturgical churches several times earlier in my life. When I was a student at the Reformed Episcopal Seminary, weekly chapel attendance was required. Later, while ministering at Stanford, my family and I tried the local Anglican Orthodox Church, which is high-church episcopal. In both of those cases I found that once the liturgy was so familiar as to be virtually memorized, it became almost meaningless.

I bought and started to use the Orthodox Study Bible, reading all of the notes and study aids to pin down as much of the theology as I could, and found it could serve as a virtual catechism (Orthodoxy had no catechism comparable to the Westminster, Heidelberg, or Baltimore Catechisms at the time). By this time, my main quest was to find something that would convince me Orthodoxy was or had once been apostate, a false and unfaithful bride of Christ. If it had once apostatized (as I have no doubt Catholicism has, with its sale of indulgences, doctrine of papal infallibility and the immaculate conception and other issues), even if it had reformed itself enough to be "a" true church, that was short of its being "the" true church. If it was just another denomination, I wouldn't be compelled to join it. If it were still the same church Christ and the apostles founded, I now had to concede (though certainly others aren't as compelled on this point as I was and remain) that it would behoove me to join it.

By mid-summer I had decided that I'd take a couple of years and read all about it and, if not persuaded that it had gone apostate, I might join it. By November, every book I was reading was just another confirmation of the dozens of books already read, so I decided my earlier course decision was already pretty much fulfilled. In early October I wrote to a number of respected leaders in the Reformed faith, including the retired former missions secretary of the Presbyterian Church in America, asking if they could pinpoint a time or issue on which Orthodoxy had gone apostate. None of them could supply such a time or point. The missions secretary said he had often worshipped in Orthodox churches while in Europe and found it acceptable within his belief structure, but that for him becoming Orthodox would mean a betrayal of this own ethnic roots (!). He essentially "gave me permission" to become Orthodox.

By October 20 I'd made my decision and was so spiritually enthused about it that I wrote my Christmas letter to my "list" at that time, explaining the transition from evangelical to Orthodox to them. I knew this would be one of the most difficult tasks and that while I was so enthused I should do it, even though I had no intention of mailing it until December, and every intention of rewriting it if I found impediments to converting in the meanwhile. I was already enrolled in catechism class, though as an observer not an official catechumen.

The Sunday before Christmas, 1994, I was chrismated into the Holy Orthodox Church. I'm still in the same parish—St. Stephen's Antiochian Orthodox Church—and though it has good and bad points like any local church, I have never doubted that becoming part of the "denomination" that our Lord himself established was the best decision I've ever made. The liturgy has not become tedious or lost its freshness; it is still 100 percent worship.

That's my story in a nutshell, Mary —. If you have questions about any specifics, like "how did you resolve the conflict between this and that" teaching of my former church and Orthodoxy, please feel free to ask.

Best wishes on your journey, and may the Lord of light lead you into all truth.

Feedback is welcome in care of jrk@svtoday.com; click the envelope icon below.

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1998 Jon Kennedy