The following was written as a bulletin insert for St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.
Father M looked me straight in the eye and said, “If you want to be a Christian, if you want to be Orthodox, then you have to love your neighbor.”
I felt pretty embarrassed. At the time I was emerging from a life that had been half-agnostic, half-Protestant, and completely full of myself. Orthodoxy I had discovered full in the face half a year earlier while studying abroad in Russia. I wandered into a cathedral at the Paschal Liturgy and knew I’d found something special. But Orthodoxy, while compelling, was little more than a thrill ride. I basked in the glorious music, marveled at the saints, was swept up in the incense and bells, and crossed myself with gusto. It was all so wonderful! It felt so spiritual!
Something deeper was happening. When I came back to Florida and settled into a local parish I started hearing and understanding the words of Vespers, Matins and Liturgy in English. Those psalms and theologically thick hymns began cracking my tough heart and proud mind. The witness of the Church and her saints throughout history was more than I could take in. The community of the faithful taught me what it meant to be the Church. But it was still mostly my own little head-trip.
During winter vacation between 2002 and 2003, I visited my parents in Kenya, East Africa, where I had grown up in a Protestant Evangelical missionary household. While in Nairobi one day, I happened upon an Orthodox church and walked in asking to speak with a priest.
Father M was busy that day. His parish also ran a hospital and there were patients waiting for him. The bishop was in town that day. And it was almost Christmas. Still, he took the time to sit with me in the temple. I asked him intellectual questions about Church history; there were canonical issues about ancient Christianity in Africa that I wanted resolved. I was using the Faith as a mind-game and I hoped the priest would indulge my curiosity. Father humored me for a while before excusing himself, as the bishop needed his assistance. As we said farewell, he looked me straight in the eye and reminded me what the Orthodox Christian life was really about.
That moment certainly made me feel ashamed. Father M had brushed aside all my spiritual feelings and intellectual games with a sharp reminder that we are saved not by our ideas or our feelings, but by our neighbors. If we love God truly, then we love those around us and work out our salvation in service to them.
It was a short-lived shame, and it was a truth that I began to understand more fully during a year of volunteer service in Los Angeles. That experience, in which the endless needs of the poor were overwhelmed by the boundless grace of the Holy Spirit, was filled with a joy that made my calling clear: a life of full-time Christian service. Now, God is fulfilling that call by placing me as a long-term missionary with the Orthodox Church in East Africa.
This is what Orthodoxy means to me. Not that each of us ought to have my job description or be any sort of ecclesiastical employee—God forbid! But it means that in all we do our orientation is towards Christ in service to others. In every Liturgy we pray that the gifts God has given us be returned to Him “on behalf of all and for all” the whole world. And when that’s the direction we’re pointed, great things will come.