Not long ago, I read somewhere of a conversation between the author and his brother regarding monks. I’ve tried every search term I can think of to find it, but no luck so far. As I recall, the brother told the author that he admired the acetic discipline of the monks, but asked what difference all that prayer and fasting did if there was no one to see it or be inspired by it.
There seems to be an idea that virtue only “makes a difference” if it is seen. If you live a life of virtue, and it is seen by many, and causes some of them to live lives of virtue, that has value. But (in this view) if you live a life of virtue as a hermit, unseen by the world, that life of virtue has less value somehow. This idea is simply not true, as the example of St. Mary of Egypt should illustrate.
The life of St. Mary should also illustrate that God can take a life of virtue lived in complete anonymity, and not only make it public, but inspire millions with it if He so chooses.
This mistaken idea is probably particularly dangerous to those of us that have blogs or social media accounts. These mediums can provide us with a seductive possibility of “making an impact” by sounding a trumpet when we give alms or do other things that we should be doing.
Back when I had a Facebook account, there was a time when I got tired of arguing with people on every post I made. So I started posting pictures of cathedrals instead of words. People will argue with words, even when they are crafted with more skill than I posses. Yet beauty bypasses the level of argument to strike directly at the level of experiential knowledge. Unfortunately, when we seek to spread virtue by sounding trumpets before us on blogs or social media, we are detracting from the beauty inherent in virtue, and thus making virtue less attractive to those around us. On the other hand, if we can let go of the idea of “making a difference” and focus on our own repentance, on building virtue in our lives, the beauty of that virtue will shine out through us.
Writing helps me to organize my thoughts, but I know better than to see this blog as my avenue to making a difference. Any difference made through this blog will only be as a direct result of my own repentance.
In the summer of 2010, I did the same thing I had done every summer I could remember. I spent a month at my grandma’s house in Western Pennsylvania. I helped her around the house, mowed the lawn, caught frogs, and attended her local Seventh-Day Adventist church every Sabbath like I had every summer before that one. I had just graduated from my Adventist high school and this stay at my grandma’s was the first time she worried aloud that I wouldn’t be able to visit her in subsequent summers—a worry she had occasion to voice for years to come.
While I was enjoying myself in PA, several thousand of my soon-to-be classmates were undergoing orientation for their first semester at USC Columbia. Because of my traditional visit to my grandma, I elected to wait for the last orientation date of the summer.
Like I said, I had just graduated from an Adventist high school. This was after attending an Adventist grade school since kindergarten. I was a Pathfinder (an Adventist Boy Scout, in simple terms), I went to Adventist summer camp, I attended large conferences of SDAs in the Carolinas, and I had been to more “Daniel and Revelation” seminars than I care to count. Suffice it to say, I was deeply Adventist. My friends, family, teachers, and a vast majority even of my acquaintances were all Adventist. I was fourth-generation Adventist on both sides of my family. For a church founded in 1863, that’s a lot (though, some readers will be understandably unimpressed by this number).
Most of my friends were preparing to attend Adventist universities, with the bulk of them going to Southern Adventist University and others enrolling at Andrews University. Some readers will know that Adventist universities are extremely expensive. My parents had just spent the last thirteen years paying tuition to SDA schools and, for most of that time, for all their three children—no small sacrifice. They had done their part. College was up to me. I elected to pursue a less costly option.
Signing up for classes for my first semester of university was mostly an exercise in fulfilling generic degree requirements. Since I had waited so late into the summer to sign up, most classes were full. I checked for classes in the Religious Studies department and found what appeared to be the perfect class for me, so learned in theology. I signed up for Religion 110: Intro to World Religions, a Tuesday-Thursday class meeting at 2:00 PM (this fulfilled an important criterion of mine: to never wake up early). The class was taught by Professor James Cutsinger, whom I would find out was an Orthodox Christian.
Religion 110 was an experience unlike any other for me. Every week, I read about the great traditions of the world and the stories of their saints. I listened to lectures delivered by a man who took them seriously on their own terms. This was the first time I had heard other traditions than my own spoken of in a way other than to cover their most basic elements and to explain why those basics were clearly incorrect. A few weeks into the semester, I declared my minor as Religious Studies.
Truly, I ended up minoring in James. I took every class from him that I could. One of these classes was Religion 332: Christian Theology. My brother and I took this class together. Knowing Orthodoxy best and having no qualms about professing Orthodoxy to be the fullness of the Christian faith, James taught Orthodox theology in his classroom. It soon became clear to me that I had never heard theology before. Rather, I had been taught an extensive list of doctrines and some snappy proof-texts to back them up. I found theology far more engaging. I learned about the heresies that prompted the seven Ecumenical Councils, the relationship of humanity and divinity, the nature of inspiration and revelation, creation ex nihilo, theodicy, theories of atonement, and eschatology among many topics.
During one lecture, probably regarding beliefs about the End Times, my brother and I had the opportunity to discuss and explain our beliefs as Adventists to James and the rest of the class. My family was very proud of us for being unashamed of our beliefs and being open about them. This scene would be curiously mirrored a few years later.
At the end of that semester, I was an Adventist. However, I was now an Adventist whose eyebrows often shot up or furrowed during sermons I heard from my home church’s pulpit. You see, I began to realize that my pastors knew very little theology, even less about church history, and were prone to making misleading statements or declaring plain untruths. I didn’t blame them; I was simply surprised that one could make it out of seminary in that state.
I don’t mean to sound superior. I am ashamed to say that I probably felt that way at the time. Certainly, I had never received that example from James. He was always attentive, kind, and polite. I may have maintained the appearance of that attitude on the outside, but I’m sure I was prideful in my heart.
I carried on in roughly that same state for a few years. I graduated from USC and left the South to pursue an MBA in Akron, OH. I stopped attending church regularly. I was dating a girl who was not a churchgoer herself at the time and my visits to my grandma were the only times that I attended an Adventist church. I still considered myself an Adventist. I kept the Sabbath, I kept the dietary rules, and my beliefs were mostly unchanged. However, something had changed. My practice of my faith felt empty and my questions went unanswered.
I remember one day at work as a graduate assistant I was particularly unbusy. I had nothing better to do—though I didn’t know how true that was at the time—and some questions began to insistently run through my mind. I started looking for answers to those questions and happened upon a Catholic website where many questions were catalogued and addressed. As it turned out, they had heard of SDAs and addressed their objections to Catholic doctrine. Since my questions were mostly broad issues with worship on Sunday, the “state of the dead,” the use of images in worship, scripture and tradition, etc., there wasn’t any divergence in their answers from what Orthodox Christians would say.
After a few days, I was convinced that I had been wrong. I won’t go into the specifics because I don’t care to argue or seek to prove anything. I am convinced that the prompting of the Holy Spirit is the only basis for a change of this kind. Not only did I believe I had been wrong, but I thought there was an extremely good chance that James had been right about everything he ever said to me and that his church could truly provide me with the best tools to take on the likeness of God. While this was great news, it was also terrifying because it meant I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit around being a non-churchgoing, nominal Adventist with some wacky ideas.
It’s very important to me that I impress upon you that my conversion was not a simple matter of discarding a set of beliefs I found to be incorrect and adopting others that I decided were correct. My relationship with James had an enormous impact on me and it wasn’t exclusively intellectual. He was a role model. He lived a life of humility while very obviously possessing a holiness I hadn’t encountered before. He was disciplined, creative, kind, and loving. He also held me to a very high standard. Knowing that Jesus instructed us to judge a tree by its fruit made it impossible to avoid speculating on what sort of tree could have produced him. When I reached that point in my life, it was natural for me to reach out to him first for guidance.
After speaking to James, a week later, on Tuesday, June 2, 2015 I dropped by the local Greek Orthodox church in downtown Akron. I had no idea if anyone would be there. Providentially, I believe, there was a parish council meeting or something like that going on at the time. A very confused secretary answered the doorbell and introduced me to Father Jerry Hall. Fr. Jerry was perplexed and taken aback by my sudden appearance, wishing to speak to him about his church, but he was very welcoming and toured the church with me for an hour or so. I came back on Sunday and accidentally sat with his family. His wife showed me the liturgy book and helped me figure out what was going on. As much as I knew about theology already, I knew next to nothing about practice.
No doubt, my catechesis was odd. I had already decided to convert before I ever stepped foot inside an Orthodox church. I began meeting one-on-one with Fr. Jerry every week on Thursday to discuss the Church and my place in it. Despite my unfamiliarity with it, the Divine Liturgy (the central service of Orthodox worship) felt like home. The music, the icons, the vestments, the candles, the incense. Everywhere I looked, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard threads connecting me to and drawing me toward Jesus Christ.
After a couple of months, I faced my next big challenge. I had to tell my family what I had decided. They came up North to visit my grandma in mid-August and stayed for a week. Not long before they arrived, I called my brother and explained to him what was going on with me and my conversion. He knew my journey best and I needed someone to stand with me when I faced my family. He understood and agreed. One night, I called my family together in my grandma’s living room and stood in front of them with my brother and explained to them that I was no longer Adventist and I intended to join the Orthodox Church. They were all surprised and confused, but beyond that their reactions varied. Thankfully, no one was angry or condemnatory toward me. My dad was quiet. My mom was inquisitive. My sister was perplexed, but unconcerned. My grandma was quietly horror-stricken.
Though I know there were some frantic how-can-you-let-this-happen conversations beyond my hearing, to everyone’s credit, they were very accepting. I was already an adult, of course, and this decision was my own, but I did everything I could to soften the blow and explain that I was not rejecting them by leaving their church. From my perspective, I was moving deeper in accordance with what they taught me in my childhood. My mom told me that she was very proud of me for the decision I made and how I handled it.
The next year, on March 20, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, I was baptized into the Orthodox Church with James as my sponsor, my godfather. I flew down to South Carolina because it was far easier for me to come to James than for him to come to me. Normally, a baptism wouldn’t be so small an affair as mine was with just my mom, dad, sister, James, and my godmother, Carol in attendance. But the church was beautiful, the service was beyond description, and I was never made to feel like an outsider by anyone. I felt brand new when I left that day.
A lot of things changed. I do not doubt that I would still have some friends now that I don’t have any longer if I hadn’t left Adventism. I have some extended family that mostly avoids the subject of religion with me. One of my relationships suffered and ultimately ended at least in part due to my dramatic change from “something weird” to “something even weirder.”
That isn’t the whole story, though. I have a rich relationship with God and His Church. I have so many people praying for me at any given moment that it’s astonishing. I have more family. I have new friends. I have old friends. My best friend in the world is Adventist and I’m convinced that there is nothing that could stop me from loving him or him from loving me. My brother was recently baptized Orthodox with me—funny enough—standing as his godfather. My family is occasionally baffled by me, but they love and respect me.
I’ve found that I’m not the only one who has changed. Many of the people I grew up with are no longer SDA. Some are near where I once was—somewhere in between. Some are atheist. Some are non-denominational. I have had conversations with many of my friends in which we shared similar stories about realizing that we didn’t feel like ourselves where we were. Not all of them have managed to find the path to being themselves, yet. I truly believe that I am more myself now than I ever have been. I expect to be even more so in the years and eternity to come.
I attended James’s funeral earlier this year after cancer ran its course through him. Many of his students were in attendance and it was uplifting amidst my grief to see around me so many lives changed by him. He was a friend, teacher, and mentor and I long for the day I can hear his voice again.
I’ll make a small attempt at advice now. Don’t ignore your questions or your desire for more. There are answers and there is fullness. I recommend Orthodoxy for both. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t found them.
The Covid-19 coronavirus, and the Great Corona Panic of 2020 that it has inspired, have undoubtedly had some negative results. It is likely, in our degenerate culture, that some of the people who have gotten sick and have died of the disease did so without repentance, a situation that pains God Himself. Furthermore, a large number of people have lost the ability to support their families, which should be a matter of immense and pressing concern for us Christians. Thus, I don’t mean for the title of this post to be flippant, but rather for it to be a challenge to me to remember to give glory to God for all things, as St. John Chrysostom did with his last breath as he was forced to walk himself to death. Let us then turn from the enumerations of the negatives of the coronavirus pandemic and panic, which there are undoubtedly more of, and consider the many reasons to thank and glorify God for the gifts He has given of both the pandemic and the panic.
Perhaps the most obvious gift, and simultaneously one of the hardest for us sinners to glorify God for is the gift of physical pain, sickness, and suffering. Our first response to sickness and suffering is not generally to glorify God for it, but rather to ask Him to take it away from us, or even to question how He can allow it to fall upon us. Yet we are told by St. Peter that bodily suffering cleanses us from sin. This is echoed in the Akathist of Thanksgiving:
+ Glory to Thee for raising us from the slough of our passions through suffering.
Priest: How near Thou art in the day of sickness. Thou Thyself visitest the sick; Thou Thyself bendest over the sufferer’s bed. His heart speaks to Thee. In the throes of sorrow and suffering Thou bringest peace and unexpected consolation. Thou art the comforter. Thou art the love which watcheth over and healeth us. To Thee we sing the song: Alleluia!
I am reminded of a man I remember from my childhood. His name, appropriately, was John Christian, and he emanated holiness. He also suffered from very severe and crippling gout. And yet he was joyful. I remember hearing him say that getting gout was the best thing that ever happened to him, because it brought him to God. The pain and suffering of his body purified and perfected his soul.
Suffering is not the only gift God has given through this situation. Another rather obvious gift is that families are once again spending time together. The artificially created fast pace of life has shattered, as families are no longer running back and forth between dozens of obligations. This creates time for family togetherness, and also creates time for silence and thought. Modern man tends to fill his every waking moment with work, entertainment, or noise to avoid ever having a moment alone with his thoughts and God. This escapism has become harder to maintain in the current situation.
Finally, the much bemoaned economic collapse is a gift of God. Realize the the majority of what we refer to as “the economy” is an edifice built on two pillars of sand: Materialism and Usury. Both of these pillars are collapsing before us. With non-essential retailers shut down, and significant restrictions in place at essential retailers, with people freed from the soul-draining daily rush of dozens of artificially created obligations designed to reduce man to nothing but a consumer, the veil of materialism is being lifted from many people’s eyes. People are even turning back to the true and original toil of man, as can be seen by the fact that seeds are sold out in so many places. Furthermore, the inevitable collapse of the predatory system of usury is well underway.
People often state that fractional reserve banking creates money out of thin air, but this is not quite right. In fact, usury within fractional reserve banking creates money out of thin air. To quote the late, great Zippy Catholic:
When you introduce usury, though, is when the black magic appears. If the loan issued by the bank is usurious then the bank is issuing a new security against its balance sheet in return for a wink and a promise by the borrower. The bank then enters the wink-and-promise of the borrower onto its balance sheet as if it were actual property. So in the case of banks which issue usurious loans, many of the loan ‘bricks’ in their balance sheet castles are imaginary; and in the case of collateralized full-recourse loans the ‘bricks’ are made of weaker material than they appear.
The majority of the current “economic collapse” is really just a collapse of a false economy as banks are erasing money from the books that never really existed in the first place except as debt.
So let us care for those around us who sick and suffering, for those who have lost their jobs, and for those whose allotted time for repentance on earth is drawing to a close. Let us be merciful and compassionate. But let us not forget to glorify God for the many goods things that He is bringing out of this crisis.
+ Glory to Thee for all things, Holy and most merciful Trinity.
I can remember hearing many times growing up that Seventh-day Adventists never convert to any other religion. Supposedly, they may stop coming to services, but the SDA “truths” are so incontrovertible that those who once believed them are never able to stop believing them. I also remember, sometime around the age of 12-14, meeting a former SDA who had converted to Lutheranism and thinking she must be an extremely rare individual, a statistical anomaly, the exception that proved the rule.
It wasn’t until after I was well into the process of my conversion to Orthodoxy that I realized that there are plenty of former SDAs who have converted to other religions, particularly Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism. For example, my family aren’t even the only former SDAs in our small parish, and I have come to know of many others.
So, this post is for those SDAs who are searching, reading, studying, and finding answers that are leading them away from Seventh-day Adventistism. I am certainly not trying to dissuade you from this path, but I would like to warn you of some pitfalls that I discovered along the way on my own journey to conversion. Perhaps you can learn from my mistakes, and not repeat them.
One of the first mistakes I made in my conversion process was falling into the trap of anger. As I began to read church history and the writings of first-century Christians, I began to be angry at Seventh-day Adventism, at the SDA high school and college I attended, and even at individual people for not teaching me any of this information. In my mind, there was a plot within SDAism to hide information about the early church and the writings of early christians like St Ignatius and Justin Martyr, because these writings so clearly and easily proved that the church of the Apostles explicitly rejected certain SDA doctrines. Now, a few years later, I can see that there was no ill-will on the part of my various teachers. One cannot teach what one does not know, and they were as illiterate about the early church as I was. What they did know they taught well and diligently. I now thank God for this early molding, where I was taught to love God, to read the scriptures, and where the hunger in my soul that eventually led me out of SDAism was first awakened.
Another trap I fell into on my journey was the trap of pride. As I gained a minuscule amount of knowledge of the early church and early christian writings, I began to compare myself to my SDA friends and feel pride over this new knowledge. I felt that I was somehow better because I knew this little bit of information, even though I wasn’t fully applying what I knew and living up to it, while many of my SDA friends were living up to the knowledge they had.
A third trap I fell into was retaining the SDA love of argumentation, proof-texting, and “convincing” people for far too long. Rather than simply living out the teachings of the church, working on my own repentance and salvation, and doing my best to be prepared to give an answer when asked the reason for my hope, I got drawn into countless arguments to no profit. I tried to convince people of the truth, instead of letting God do the convincing. To be honest, I still struggle at times not to be drawn into profitless argumentation.
So these are three mistakes I made while leaving SDAism. I’m sure I made far more mistakes than just these three, but these ones stand out. I hope that this post can help you avoid making these same mistakes in your journey.
Some of my Roman Catholic friends have asked me in the past what the real difference is between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Other friends, like the protestants I grew up with, are even less sure of the differences. Many of the videos on YouTube that address the differences do so pretty superficially, without going deeply into the theology behind difference practices or beliefs. I came across this video the other day that I think does a good job of explaining the theological differences, and I share it here for those who are interested.
My Godmother, encouraging me to persevere in the rather unique (and for me, difficult) Lenten struggle that God has seen fit to allow us to undergo this year with the Great Corona Panic of 2020, provided me with a helpful little booklet. With the Churches temporarily closed (at least to laity like myself), having this simple guide to celebrating Holy Week and Pascha at home has greatly eased my mind. This booklet is published by the American Capatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese, and can be accessed here. I hope you find it helpful as you prepare for the struggle of this particularly holy time at home.
[W]hen one pauses to think about it even for a moment, it becomes rather uncomfortably clear that the Lord at no time encouraged His followers to go about demanding various and sundry rights to such things as whatever form of government happens to be currently in vogue.
The Declaration of Independence asserted “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, [evincing] a design to reduce [the Colonies] under absolute despotism.” Regardless of the veracity of such a claim (regarding which there exists some cause for doubt), there can be no question that throughout the history recorded in Sacred Scripture, the Israel of God was often to be found in such straits — whether under the Egyptians, the Babylonians, or the Romans. Nevertheless, at no time did God urge His people to sedition and rebellion — and even when Pharaoh betrayed them and sent an army to return them to slavery, Moses said only: “The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” When the occupying forces of pagan Rome habitually subjected the people of Israel to “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” the Lord, far from urging His followers to stand up for their rights, famously counseled them rather to meekly accept even violent mistreatment, and to freely give to their enemies twice as much as was being stolen. And in the Sermon on the Mount, He commanded not only to allow all men to mistreat us as much as they like, but even to rejoice in this — since it is actually much better for us than the alternative — and above all else, to love even our enemies and repay them only with good for the evil they have done us.
All of this sounds remarkably dissimilar to Jeffersonian democracy and the Rights of Man.
“But wait!” someone cries. “Yes, it is true that the Lord did not command us to demand rights for ourselves. But surely the Lord desires us to protect the rights of others, and especially those of the downtrodden and the oppressed!”
This is so near to the truth that it is exceptionally easy to be seduced by such an idea — and many are they who have been thus seduced. But read the Gospels carefully: the Lord commanded us to treat all men with love. But He did not command us to take it upon ourselves to ensure that all men are treated with love. The modern proclivity to fight evil primarily on the battlefield of society, rather than on the battleground of our own heart, is one of the most pernicious traps into which it is possible for us to fall: it breeds self-righteousness and alienates us from a spirit of repentance, which is the only method by which authentic goodness, virtue, and love can possibly be brought into the world.
If you doubt me, consider this: when Christ came, even His disciples expected Him to bring about an end to the heavy injustices and profound sufferings of His people. But that is not what He came to bring.
Today, Elgin and I went on our first trip to a monastery. We went with Elgin’s Godfather and another friend from church to St. John Chrysostomos monastery, which is a women’s monastery in the Greek Archdiocese. Because today is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Metropolitan Nathaniel was there presiding, and the service was in the chapel, where is an Icon of the Theotokos Quick-to-Hear, rather than in the big church. The chapel is about the size of our home church, and was packed so full that there was no room left to stand in the Nave, and the Narthex and an adjacent hallway were also filled. The service was entirely in Greek, so my ability to follow along was limited. The singing and chanting of the nuns was extremely beautiful.
Elgin especially enjoyed watching the nuns light the candles on the chandeliers and the set the chandeliers spinning. He did really well during the service, despite having far less freedom to move around and play than he typically does at our church. After the service, we were served a meal of Greek pasta salad, some type of flaky pastry with a spinach center, cold fried fish, and very garlicky mashed potatoes, which we ate outside. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. If you had told me that I would eat cold fried fish and enjoy it, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but this was some of the best fish I’ve had in my life. After lunch, we went to the bookstore, where Elgin and I each bought a book.
I’ve been thinking about what I can do to make a difference. My focus is not on reforming society from the top down, but from the bottom up. The survival of Christianity in Russia despite the years of Soviet persecution is an example of how regenerate families eventually destroy degenerate government. The fall of America into today’s cesspool of moral turpitude shows how degeneracy in families quickly leads to degeneracy in government. So here are 12 ways that you can have a positive impact on the nation and your community. None of them require you to be married or have children–these are things that can be done by anyone, no matter his situation.
Here’s what I mean by Christian: a person who had subjugated all agenda of his own to the agenda of spreading the message of Christ. A Christian is a person who says “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!“
With me so far?
Good. Now we will define “bad things.” Simply put, “bad things” is nothing but shorthand for “things which inconvenience me.” However, we must note that the same situation (“thing”) may be inconvenient or convenient (“bad” or “good”) depending on one’s agenda. If my agenda is to become a concert pianist, traumatic amputation of my left arm is a bad thing. However, if my agenda is to become permanently ineligible for the draft, traumatic amputation of my left arm is a good thing.
Convenience is determined by agenda.
Archie Campbell makes the relationship between convenience and agenda more plain.
This is why bad things don’t happen to Christians: because absolutely nothing is inconvenient to you when your purpose is to preach the Gospel.
So, when I find myself starting to think my circumstances inconvenient, when I start to feel like bad things are happening to me, I remind myself that bad things don’t happen to Christians. I unfuck my priorities, and re-subjugate my agenda to Christ’s. And then I start noticing how the situation I was complaining about presents opportunities to pursue Christ’s agenda.
So, are bad things happening to you? If so, remember that bad things don’t happen to Christians. Change your agenda. Subjugate it to Christ’s. Suddenly, despite being in the very same circumstances, you will find that nothing bad is happening to you.
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. —Colossians 3:1-3