Thursday, January 7, 2016

Five Years Orthodox – Some Backstory



Five years ago today, on Saturday morning, January 8, 2011, I was baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church of Kenya by His Eminence Archbishop Makarios.  It had been a fraught fourteen year process, beginning while I was in the midst of my PhD studies in Cambridge.  I was, of course, a Protestant at the time.  And not just a Protestant, but had been a Presbyterian pastor since 1989.  And I was pursuing doctoral studies so that I could help train the new generation of leaders in the burgeoning Evangelical and Pentecostal movement in Africa.  My friendship with an Orthodox priest and his wife introduced me to the new world of Orthodox Christianity.  I was fascinated.  And the more I learned, the more I asked myself, ‘Why hasn’t anybody told me about this?’  I was so compelled by what I was learning that I felt I wanted to become Orthodox then and there.  But my sense of obligation to my donors and my inability to figure out a way to draw my family along with me (my wife was uninterested and unsympathetic) held me back and worked to keep my on track to become a Protestant missionary.

I moved with my family to Ethiopia in 2000.  I taught at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, a joint venture of the two largest Protestant movements in Ethiopia, the Mekane Yesus Church (Lutheran and Presbyterian) and the Kale Heywet Church (SIM).  In 2004 I was asked to become the senior pastor of the International Evangelical Church, Ethiopia’s largest English-language congregation.  It was a church that drew from the international community and the community of internationalized Ethiopians.  I had a ministry staff of fourteen, and we often had 1600 in attendance at our two English languages services, as well as more than 100 at a French language service and close to that at a Korean service.  I felt we were doing well and received much positive feedback.  However, in a takeover fomented by some disgruntled  elders, one of my staff members was unfairly targeted and treated very badly and forced to resign.  When I went to her defense, the same barrage of false accusations was directed at me.  When it became obvious that for reasons never made clear to me I had no support from my fellow elders (including one of my mission colleagues, who I thought was a friend), I chose not to fight or cling to my position, but to walk away.  It was my first real experience of ugly church politics and I was stung, disoriented and hurt..  But what was even worse was how immediately I became a disappeared man.  Earlier that fall I had been celebrated by many in the congregation for my preaching.  Many had professed excitement at the vision for outreach in the expat community that I and my team had been leading our congregation into.  And then nothing.  No one called.  No one came to see if I was ok.  Word reached me that the chairman of the board of elders was making statements in public that the ‘former pastor’ was ‘mentally ill’.  Nobody stood up to defend me, no one stood up to speak truth against the dissembling and untruths that were being spoken by men (and they were men) that should have known better  - except for one man who was appalled, who tried to do what he could but who was marginalized by the people who held ‘power’.

To say that I was undone by this experience would be almost to understate the impact all this had on me, my understanding of my calling and my self-esteem.  It was a nightmare and I kept hoping I would wake up and find things back to what passed for normal.  Instead I found myself immersed in a dysfunctional mission culture where the response tended to be, ‘Oh too bad.  Buck up!  Trust in the Lord!  He’s got good things in store for you!’  Easy to say.  Hell to live through.  I was struck by how many people (usually mission colleagues) later came to tell me their own church horror stories, about pastor relatives or friends being tossed out on this pretext or that, on boards of elders gone rogue, on this scandal or that scandal.  I think the idea was that this was supposed to encourage me with the thought: ‘So you think you have it bad!?’  Gee, thanks.  To be honest, I really didn’t feel much like comparing my experience with anyone else’s.  All I knew was that I couldn’t believe that this sort of thing could happen to anyone, much less me; I couldn’t believe that ‘Christians’ could treat other Christians in such a way; I was appalled at the abuse my colleague had endured at the hands of elders; I couldn’t believe that ‘Christians’ could lie with such impunity, and that other ‘Christians’ who knew the truth, or at least knew the characters of those involved could say nothing.  And I couldn’t believe all those people in my congregation who told me repeatedly what a wonderful preacher I was and what a wonderful pastor I was suddenly went off line as if I no longer existed.  I felt hurt. I felt disoriented. I felt gutted.  But bottom line, I felt betrayed.  This was playing itself out in 2007/2008.

I mention this because my being forced out was an important part in my becoming Orthodox.  By this time I had already spent ten years reading about Orthodoxy and praying Orthodox prayers and wrestling with an Eastern theological perspective and trying to get my mind around an Orthodox understanding of Church and sacraments.  But until 2007, there had been nothing in my experience that might make me disaffected with my place in the Protestant/Evangelical world.  Indeed my experiences as a pastor in Presbyterian congregations had until then been overwhelmingly positive.  I was having increasing issues with my long-held Reformed Theology, but my church contexts had been for the most part encouraging. Nevertheless, my experience in Ethiopia gave me pause and made me think.  I experienced first-hand what happens when a group of people make themselves their own authority and then justify what they’ve done by piously taping Scripture verses to the deed.  My elders were a law unto themselves.  As an ‘independent’ church, there was no recourse I could call on – no bishop, no presbytery, no one who might engage with the situation and knock heads and restore some sense of sanity to a congregation whose board of elders had gone rogue.  And yet, I still felt too much loyalty towards my denomination, my tradition, even my mission to consider becoming Orthodox.  Even given what I had gone through, I felt that converting would be too costly.  But I was thinking about it.

In 2008, in the wake of my church debacle, our youngest daughter finished high school and my wife received a job offer for her ‘dream job’ in Nairobi.  And I was not feeling any desire to continue being the invisible man of Addis Ababa.  It was a good time to move.  So after 8 years in Ethiopia, we made the shift to Kenya.  My wife was given a position at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (now Africa International University).  I was given an adjunct’s position.  We were given a small house with a wonderful garden, and we inherited the previous occupants’ sweet but very large Rottweiler/lab who went by the name Rambo.  With no church responsibilities, I used the opportunity to start visiting an Orthodox church.  I also started attending with my wife a Pentecostal church that some of our friends had recommended.  On the outside, things were going well.  On the inside, however, not so much.  Without going into detail, I’ll simply say that I was not coping well with all that had happen and realized I needed help, and took steps to get it.  Turns out the turmoil of Ethiopia was turning up much more about me and the way I dealt with conflict and the way I coped with challenges than I ever dreamed.  But the process of identifying these issues and doing the hard work of changing took on a life of its own and lead in directions that would eventually lead to the worst upheaval of my life.

My difficult marriage affected my decision to become Orthodox, just as my decision to become Orthodox affected my marriage.  But I am still too close to those events not to sound defensive or self-serving in my account.  I have written about it, just not for public consumption. 

I made the decision to become Orthodox in the summer of 2010 during more than a month of intense inner wrestling.  I didn't want to become an Orthodox Christian just because I thought it was something avant garde to do, or just because I was unhappy about this experience or that theological position.  I needed to know that this was not just my idea, but that God, somehow, was in the middle of it.  During the Divine Liturgy at Church, while the congregation was going up to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, and I was feeling powerfully the desire to be with them, I was also telling myself - 'You can't do this.  You can't convert.  It will be too costly.  You will lose too much.'

To distract myself from the interior fight, I looked up at an icon of Christ and decided to try to translate the modern Greek inscription on the open Gospel book that the Lord Jesus was holding.  Working my way slowly through the stylized script, I read: 'If anyone wishes to come after me and be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.'  I suddenly knew in my heart that He was speaking this to me.  He was calling me to follow Him, regardless of the cost, to follow Him into the Church.  And that's what I determined to do, right then, right there.

I knew that the choice to become Orthodox would cause turbulence.  After initial encouraging conversations with the leadership of the graduate school where I taught and my mission agency, I was hopeful that they might see having an Orthodox layperson on their team as an asset.  But in both cases, after receiving rather fraught complaints about how accepting an Orthodox Christian as a faculty member or a mission team member would affect fundraising, I was shown the door by both organizations rather abruptly.  So I began looking for a new position.  To my great relief, I was offered an adjunct position at St. Paul’s University.  And after six months, I was taken on as a Senior Lecturer in Theology and History.  I was welcomed at St. Paul’s with open arms.

After just a year as Senior Lecturer, I went home for what I thought would be a brief mission furlough.  The brief mission furlough turned out to be a 2 ½ year leave of absence in an unsuccessful attempt to work through some family issues,ending in the destruction of my marriage.  During those long, disorienting months, I was adopted by a Ukrainian Orthodox Church that was near where I was living.  This Church turned out to be God’s oasis in the midst of a fierce wilderness.  And when a new door opened for me to return to St. Paul’s as well as the Orthodox seminary in Kenya, my American parish gave sacrificially and became one of the main means God used to make my return possible.

So to my own amazement, I'm back in Nairobi.  Five years after my baptism and chrismation, I'm still teaching bachelors and masters and PhD students at St. Paul's University.  And now I am also a member of the teaching staff at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi.  After having thought that my missionary career was dead, and my teaching career was dead, and my Christian ministry career was dead, I now found myself part of a Church that takes resurrection seriously.  To say I am here by the grace of God is not just pious claptrap; it's my daily experience of reality.  And now if only God's grace would in His mercy touch those other broken parts of my life, as well as those people I love so much but who are beyond me now.
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There is always a backstory to the big events of our lives.  And I’ve gone into some detail about one of the major events in my life that pushed me further in an Orthodox direction as an example of just how complicated these things usually are.  Rarely are there straight lines in life.  To be honest, I am not where I thought I would be, had you asked me twenty years ago what I thought God would do with my life. But I am very much where I need to be.  And for that, five years on, I am grateful.

Receiving the Eucharist after my baptism