Friday, April 3, 2015

Mormon-to-Orthodox converts: Deacon Athanasius.

I am very excited to share with you this newest conversion story from Deacon Athanasius. What follows is the autobiographical account of his conversion. Enjoy!

“God forbid that I should boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus” - Galatians 6:14

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us Amen.

My journey to the Holy and Apostolic Orthodox Church is one of great turmoil and upheaval yet a story of God’s grace and mercy undeserved.  It started with my father becoming Mormon in 1966 when he found my mother was pregnant with me, being born six months after their LDS wedding. My mother was a fourth generation Mormon, whereas my father was raised Anglican in Liverpool, England.

For eighteen years I attended all and every LDS service from Sunday school, cubs, scouts, MIA, acted as a Home teaching companion for my father and went to all manner of conferences culminating in me attending one year of high school @ Church College in New Zealand (1983). My father by faith gave his all to the church and to the service of the LDS people; every spare second was spent away from home to the detriment of all family relationships – and his LDS reward, promotion to Bishop, Stake Councillor, Regional Rep and Mission Presidency etc.  

It was in this period of rapid promotion of my father that I felt a deep conflict about the LDS teachings and way of life, I completed seminary (my mother was the teacher for 3 of the 4 years) and I even interviewed to serve a mission, but in a heartfelt moment of clarity I declared to the Stake President I wasn’t “worthy” as the matter was more for the “family name and reputation” than out of any personal belief in the LDS teachings, that is not to say that the LDS church is not filled with some awesome people trying their best with the limited view of Church history they have chosen to accept.

Given my doubts and need to know the truth (by asking those difficult questions Sunday school teachers hate) it didn’t mean I hadn’t experienced the grace and mercy of God a number of times (near death in a car accident and the same when drowning whilst surfing) I had in private moments of tears and prayers been left with a sense that The Lord was near and His love was evident in hindsight of my survival to this day despite my best efforts to ignore Him and go my on way.

So I left home to wonder the world for twenty seven years – travelled extensively USA, UK, Europe, Australia, all of Asia experiencing tremendous financial success and spectacular failure which culminated in becoming homeless in 2011. In my travels I had seen first-hand many religions, from Buddha to Baptist to Jew but never felt any real connection to them and in fact found myself in a state of disdain at the “one day a week Christians”, in weakness and folly I dared to judge and formed a view that religion was made by man for man’s own ego and not to glory of Christ. Then in a state of absolute despair and contemplating suicide I meet Arch Priest James – an Orthodox Priest of 20 years serving the homeless and poor on the streets in winter. I looked on in awe at how the homeless greeted him with hugs, smiles, handshakes, sharing laughter and food, it was a his deep concern and unconditional love for the poor that struck me, time and again I witnessed his generosity and simple life style, God had planted a seed in me that yearned to be watered by Him.

May 30th 2012 I was asked to attend a meal at the homeless shelter run my Arch Priest Fr James, little was I to know that it was not a communal meal but just me, a friend and the Fr James. As I entered the small humble church (in an old warehouse) with all its icons and relics I was struck by the peace emanating from the St Marcy icon… Fr James had prepared a simple meal for us to share and in his uniquely robust and forthright manner wanted to know my story to the state of homelessness.
As I shared that journey through Mormonism, Baptist, Buddhist and through successive job promotions to CEO of public company to homelessness he said nothing, but his deep blue eyes glazed with an intense and scary scrutiny that I could feel blow right through me. At the end, he simply said “God exists, your sins and free will have brought you to this point”… I did not comprehend his statement and so asked some questions about Orthodoxy, laughing he said “come to bible study and all will be revealed”, at which point I was offered a room in the shelter, eyes filled with tears and overwhelmed I felt the Lord had shed a thousand pounds of my darkness and by His mercy shown this wretched man His love.

For three months I attended any and all bible studies (twice a week) and liturgies (twice a week) I could to understand what exactly Orthodoxy was, remarkably Fr James gave me plenty of time at the end of the bible studies and I was afforded the blessing of being able to ask many questions to fill the void and remove the misinformation I had learnt about Christ, filling my heart with joy at His life, His love and plan for me.

The catalyst for asking to be baptised Orthodox was three fold;
The one Holy Apostolic church has always been on earth since Christ and is active through Bishops, priests and deacons with the Holy mystery of liturgy and the divine body/blood.
The authority given by Christ to the Apostles to “bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven” has been passed down to this present day and that same authority provided a path of repentance and absolution of hidden and visible sin.

Christ through my weakness, frailty and sin was showing me undeserved grace and mercy calling me to Him, showing me what a Christ like life is in the service of others and the selfless attitude needed to be at peace whilst mindful of ones state at all times (evidenced by Fr James but also historically by Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Saints, Monks and lay people).
At baptism Fr James asked me if I wished to follow the tradition of being “renamed” and this I agreed to by his choice of names – hence I am Athanasius - Post baptism I spent hundreds of hours in study, pray and service to the poor and in doing so found a deeper personal faith in Christ, a profound love for St Mary and witnessed numerous miracles that served to show me that “fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Being ordained by an Orthodox Bishop to the servant office of Deacon has revealed further insight of the awe inspiring mystery of Christ’s Holy body and blood, the prayers that lift one’s soul before the Holy alter and to be content (at peace) in any and all conditions of life.

Today, I share this story not to boast of myself but to show that one has free will to ask, seek and knock with an open mind, a sincere heart, surely the truth of Christ Jesus will set you free. I am no one special, yet through the grace of God He sent His apostolic priest to teach me the truth and reveal to me my weakness yet hope, my sin yet forgiveness, my need for correction and direction by example of humble and God fearing Orthodox Christians, to whom I thank God for.
Finally in the words of St Paul the Apostle “O wretched man that I am!” - Lord have mercy.

Deacon Athanasius+

For those interested in Arch Priest Fr James teachings (one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Holy Fathers, Saints and church history) go to:

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Mormon-to-Orthodox converts: Jaccy.

Today I have the pleasure to share with you my interview with Mormon-to-Orthodox convert, Jaccy. Hers is a story that I believe will resonate with many who have made the transition from Mormon to Orthodox Christian.

MtO: There seem to be two main categories that those wi
th an LDS background fall into. First, there are individuals who are or were faithful, active participants, fulfilling their callings and other LDS-specific duties (i.e. temple service, mission service); then there are those who have an LDS background, but have never been particularly active, or have been semi-active at best. Tell us about your LDS background and whether or not you see yourself as falling into one of these two categories. Where did you grow up? Were you and your family active in the LDS faith? How many generations of your family have been LDS? Did you serve a mission? Did you marry in an LDS temple? Jaccy: I didn't grow up in a very strict Mormon family. We missed Sunday services at times for family trips, fishing, and sporting events. I remember being embarrassed that I didn't know many of the Sunday School songs or scripture stories when I did attend. That being said, my identity was Mormon and I was proud of my heritage. When I was about ten I really started to read heavier books and became very interested in my faith. I read the entire volume set of Doctrines of Salvation. Despite our sporadic attendance, I completed seminary, never broke the word of wisdom, kept the law of chastity, and saw myself an ambassador of the Mormon faith. I attended BYU and got married in the temple at 19 to a returned missionary from my home ward. I became much more serious about my faith and did all that I could to attend services, study, pray, and fulfill callings. Tell us about how you transitioned from faithful member of the LDS Church to an Orthodox Christian.
We had been raising our children in Utah, when my husband joined the military. I loved Utah and leaving was difficult. I decided to take the opportunity to be a better member missionary. We moved to the Bible belt and I was exposed to many different types of Christians. I had discovered that many of them had a much closer relationship to God than I, were semi familiar with Mormonism, and had no intention of ever joining. This was difficult for me to accept. As someone who strove to live their covenants and hoping to obtain exaltation, how could I enter the celestial kingdom and not them? I just wanted to give up the spot I was hoping to achieve. I decided the problem was with my missionary efforts. I decided to double down on prayer, handing out the Book of Mormon, inviting missionaries over, fulfilling callings, inviting friends to LDS Church functions, and really studying LDS Church history.
My husband and I did this for about two years. We were happy being LDS. Everything was going smoothly, except that my studies (all from faithful LDS sources) on early Mormon history had brought more questions and I felt that my personal beliefs were becoming more and more incompatible with Mormonism. Despite those feelings, I continued on, bearing my testimony every fast and testimony meeting and fulfilling my calling in the Primary Presidency.
At this time I decided to read about Orthodox Christianity. This was not an odd thing for me to do. I often studied other faiths out of curiosity and to help my missionary efforts. I bought the book Introducing the Orthodox Church: It's Faith and Life by Anthony Coniaris. I remember reading each page thinking, "yes, yes, this is what I have always believed in my heart." It was the combination of feeling unsatisfied spiritually and that there was an intriguing new door that was open to me that allowed me to ask myself, "What if Mormonism is not true?" When I allowed myself to truly consider that question it was as if a huge weight had been lifted. I stop believing in Mormonism right in that moment.
I did not get to see my first Orthodox Church until months later. My husband was still committed to the LDS faith, dealing with his unbelieving wife. We had a very short staffed ward and I did not want to abandon my calling and everyone who had been relying on me. I simply taught about Christ during my lessons and sacrament talks. I kept my unbelief a secret. I wanted to take time to study, fast, and pray, in order to be sure of such a life changing decision that not only affected me but everyone around me, especially those I love.
This was an emotional time. Even though I had been introduced to Orthodoxy, I was unprepared for what it would be like to suddenly discard my most fundamental beliefs that largely contributed to my very identity. I felt like I was just left with a mess of puzzle pieces that didn't fit together. The frustration and exhaustion led me to profess atheism for a short time. Rebuilding my beliefs was overwhelming, especially with my new found skepticism. I needed a clean slate to build up my beliefs from the ground up. Starting from the perspective of a materialist atheist seemed to be the easiest course. Christ had always been the most important part of my faith as a Mormon. Every spiritual experience I ever had was centered around Him. Letting go of my Mormon beliefs was relatively easy compared to what it was like for me to mentally let go of Christ. I felt like I needed to see and experience Christ with new eyes. But I really wasn’t sure who Christ was. I decided to learn about Christianity from its roots so I began studying the early Church Fathers, pre-Nicene Creed. This ended up confirming my need to go and experience Orthodoxy. When LDS Church callings in my ward were being switched around, I took the opportunity to request that my bishop not call me to anything else. That was the last day I attended an LDS Church service.
I attended my first Greek Orthodox service alone. My husband, no longer a believing Mormon but not ready to explore new beliefs, was supportive. I attended for a month, met with the priest, and asked to be baptized. He kind of laughed and told me that I needed time to learn the faith. I didn't know it at the time, but I had become a catechumen. Seven months later my children and I were baptized followed by my husband six months later. I am sure that the difficulties you experienced during this transition period resonate with many of us who have converted from the LDS faith to Orthodoxy. That said, each of us are drawn to the faith for unique reasons. What are the main factors that drew you to Orthodox Christianity?
The draw to Orthodoxy was that I believed and still believe it is Christ's Church. Reading the early Church Fathers, brought me to belief in the Trinity and that the Eucharist is the literal body and blood of Christ. I wanted to be where I could touch God. I also admired the bold truth claims of Orthodoxy that were also bereft of judging the salvation of those outside the faith. Entering an Orthodox service, kneeling and praying Orthodox prayers, and living the faith brings my soul to a place of peace. Did you ever consider any of the other so-called apostolic faiths (Roman/ Eastern Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy)? If so, why did you ultimately choose Eastern Orthodox Christianity?
I had always considered Roman Catholicism. I had a pleasant experience in a Catholic parish as a child. One of my neighbors when we moved from Utah was Catholic. I felt God in her home and working through her person. My daughters were in American Heritage Scouts that worked out of a Catholic charter. I probably would have been open to becoming Catholic but I found my home in Orthodoxy. While an Orthodox catechumen I studied some of the history and divisive issues between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and I usually favored Orthodox practice and teachings. What are the main differences or changes you have seen in your life since becoming an Orthodox Christian?
Since becoming Orthodox, I have become more aware of my own failings and less judgmental of others, God help me. I look forward to attending services and am disappointed when I cannot attend. It is not a feeling of guilt but more out of loss of a missed opportunity. Praying is easier for me. In Mormonism I felt tremendous performance pressure during prayers. I love Orthodox prayers and am able to focus more on my heart. I have developed a great love for Mary. I have become more focused on the transformation of my character and less on my outward appearance of righteousness. Do you have a favorite saint? If so, why is she/ he your favorite?
I don’t have a favorite Saint. One of the wonderful things about being Orthodox is there are so many different Saints with different life stories that can appeal to our own lives at different times. My Saint name is Sophia. My three daughters also took the names of her daughters Faith, Hope, and Love. The Saint I have been thinking about the most recently is St. Monica. I will probably never be a monastic. I may never be asked to give my life as a martyr. But I am a mother like St. Monica. She became a Saint due to her love and diligent prayer for her family. When there is nothing I can do, I can always pray. Many times I forget to pray and St. Monica reminds me.
What is one thing about the Orthodox Christian faith, or your own personal conversion to Orthodoxy, that you would like LDS people to know?
I would like LDS people to know that I still love them. I loved being Mormon and will always appreciate my upbringing. I tried to live the Mormon spiritual life as much as could but there was a disconnect for me. I hit a wall spiritually. Orthodoxy is where my soul found peace and I found growth in my relationship with God. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Jaccy.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mormon-to-Orthodox converts: Josh.

This week I have the pleasure of sharing with you Josh's answers to my interview questions. Josh's conversion story is a very interesting one that took him through various faith traditions. I hope you enjoy what he has to share.

MtO: Where did you grow up? Were you and your family active in the LDS faith? 
How many generations of your family have been LDS?

Josh: Brigham City, Utah... My family has been active LDS since it's inception. My fathers family were with the Smiths and Company back in upstate New York, they were frustrated with the denominationals, being in the epicenter of "the burnt over" region of New York... My mothers side joined with the LDS troop in Navoo... I am directly related to Lorenzo Snow (and just about everyone in northern Utah with the last name of -son... Neilson, Anderson, Larson, Christiansen... Our family was one of the 7 families sent by Brigham Young to norther Utah to settle what is now Brigham City.

Did you serve a mission?

I did not serve a mission, but all of my friends and neighbors did. We moved from "behind the Zion Curtain" when I was still in High School, and we relocated to the Oregon Coast where LDS' are a minority.We moved to 4 Square/Lutheran/Baptist country.

Did you marry in an LDS temple?

No, but my parents, grand parents, greats and all the like married/sealed in the temple. I did A LOT of baptisms for the dead in SLC as a teenager, collected the tithe (house to house, with a bell) fast'n'testimony, home teaching, and seminary classes while a freshman, but that is my extant of my LDS service.

 Did you leave the LDS faith before or after learning about Orthodox Christianity? If before, have you been an adherent of any other faith traditions along the way? Did you ever consider any of the other so-called apostolic faiths (Roman/ Eastern Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy)? If so, why did you ultimately choose Eastern Orthodox Christianity?

I left LDS and went directly into the Occult/New Age. From there I went, seriously, into Rastafarianism. This is where I picked up my Bible for the first time and studied, albeit through the lens of natty dred, I turned vegetarian, made my own clothes, and lived in the woods in an old Hippie Commune. The hippies led me to Zen and then to Penchant Lama Buddhism. From the baobab tree I turned to charismatic holy rollin' snake handlin' Christianity. I mellowed out from that madness when I couldn't lie to myself any longer. Then I was a great proponent of the gospel according to my own liking and bent the scriptures to suit my needs... from there I, and to my shame, went to "2 seed line Christian Identity" and thought I finally found a home. Christian Identity was just sooo subversive I had to be right. Then when I saw that compassion was overlooked because of race, I became disillusioned for good, or so I thought. I met some "liturgical" Christias and started going to an Anglican Church. At the same time I was meeting and talking to 2 Muslim brothers who wooed me strongly in the Zim Zam spring. Islam made a lot of damn sense. The world had it wrong and Muhammad came to set the record straight. But history was my ally and I couldn't stomach the Kabba for long. I started going to an Anglican Seminary and felt a little tug into the clergy, but alas I think I liked the Idea of it more than the reality. I moved and as there was no Anglican church to attend I went to Rome. I went to mass as often as I could (high Latin mass) but ALWAYS felt empty afterwards. Like, what the hell? I had travelled the worlds religions... where are you?

How did you find out about Orthodox Christianity?

I learned about Orthodoxy in seminary, and at first was atracted to the Maronites and Copts.

What are the main factors that drew you to Orthodox Christianity?

What drew me to Orthodoxy first and foremost was the community. When I saw for the first time families sitting on the floor during the Gospel Homily, and wives resting their heads on their husbands chest, children cuddling up on the rugs under the candle light, I thought that THIS... THIS is what it's all about, community. Damn the rules and theologies. Finally, Jesus in community, with us. I had come home.

What are the main differences or changes you have seen in your life since becoming an Orthodox Christian?

The main change? I have learned to freaking relax and not worry so much. I have found rest. The liturgy is a deep cleansing breath. I don't have to fret about getting it right all the time.

What is one thing about the Orthodox Christian faith, or your own personal conversion to Orthodoxy, that you would like LDS people to know?

What I would tell my LDS family, frends, and neighbors is never stop wondering. Keep seeking the heart of all things. Truth will find you.

Do you have a favorite saint? If so, why is she/ he your favorite?

I favor John the Forerunner. As an Anglican and RC we shared the same birthday/feast day and as a whole we have been simpatico. I have, and probably will again, say something that will get my head cut off. In Islam John the Baptist is revered, in Christian Identity he is a hallmark of the out cast. I see my Icon of John and it comforts me; it is a deep emotional connection, a yearning almost.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Mormon-to-Orthodox converts: Symeon.

This week I am excited to present my interview with fellow Mormon-to-Orthodox convert, Symeon. Symeon was the first LDS person I met who shared my interest in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and has been a great conversation partner along the way. I hope you enjoy what he had to say.

MtO: There seem to be two main categories that those with an LDS background fall into. First, there are individuals who are or were faithful, active participants, fulfilling their callings and other LDS-specific duties (i.e. temple service, mission service); then there are those who have an LDS background, but have never been particularly active, or have been semi-active at best. Tell us about your LDS background and whether or not you see yourself as falling into one of these two categories.

How many generations of your family have been LDS?

Symeon: Multi-generational active Mormon. Lived the complete, full Mormon experience: born under the covenant, primary, priesthood, served a mission, married in the temple. Taught early morning seminary and Institute for a period of time, as well as adult Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Principles. My father's family were the first to join and stay in the state of Kentucky (around 1900 CE) and pretty much every ward and branch in Kentucky has at least one cousin of mine in it. My mother's family are direct descendants of Ezra T. Benson, apostle to Brigham Young. They crossed the plains and had multiple wives. Ezra Taft Benson, the president of the LDS church in the 1980s, was my grandmother's cousin.

Where did you grow up? Were you and your family active in the LDS faith?

I grew up in rural Kentucky. This means that my branch was very small, and my father was the branch president. We were very active. I rarely missed a week of church, and missing two weeks in a row was unheard of. Never smoked a cigarette, never let alcohol touch my lips. We had Family Home Evening pretty regularly and lots of scripture and gospel discussions.

Did you serve a mission?

I served in the Texas Lubbock Mission from 2004-2006. It was by and large a pleasant experience where I learned a lot.

Did you marry in an LDS temple?

Yes, I married in the Louisville, Kentucky temple, which my grandfather helped to build. He was also a sealer and performed our sealing ceremony.

Did you leave the LDS faith before or after learning about Orthodox Christianity? If before, have you been an adherent of any other faith traditions along the way?

Long after. I've known about Orthodoxy since I was a teenager, though it never seemed like a church I could actually join until a couple years ago.

How did you find out about Orthodox Christianity?

This is an interesting story (to me anyway). When I was a young deacon in the LDS church (around 12 years old or so) I filled out a card I found in a magazine to join the "History Book Club," which meant that I got to choose 5 free history books to be delivered straight to my door. Unfortunately, it also obligated my parents to buy more books, but I wasn't really thinking about that when I filled out the card. I had read a little bit about the Byzantine Empire in my world history textbook and I was intrigued and wanted to know more, so one of the books I chose to get was called A Short History of Byzantium by a man named John Julius Norwich.

The book was a quite unflattering treatment of basically the most sordid details of Byzantine history. When the Church was mentioned it was typically in a cynical and light-hearted way. I came away from the book with a burning wonder in my heart. On the surface I thought, "those poor apostate Christians, if only they hadn't rejected the true church they wouldn't have suffered so much." I truly bought the whole Mormon Great Apostasy narrative and the awful details of Byzantine history confirmed to me that the light of the Church had left the Earth by that time.

But deep down it still impressed itself deeply upon me. It was a strange mixture of feelings. I wondered what the Byzantine church was like, why it seemed to generate so much controversy and conflict, what the Byzantines were seeing in church that I wasn't seeing. Why these Christians would willingly go to their deaths to defend what I saw as an apostate form of Christianity. It planted a seed within me that didn't sprout for some time.

Along the way I picked up little bits of interesting facts about Orthodoxy: their view of the priesthood, early narratives about the Apostles and early Christianity that seemed to run counter to the Great Apostasy narrative, and especially views about Theosis. I still found many foundational doctrines to be ridiculous (like the Trinity) but I couldn't shake this idea that Orthodoxy had kept true doctrines in a special way through history.

On my mission I considered myself an "expert" in early Christian history based on my knowledge gained from my history books as well as The Great Apostasy by James E. Talmage. I studied that book front-to-back and believed every word of it. One day, while knocking doors in West Texas, I knocked into the house of an Orthodox deacon. I believe he was a deacon - I have searched through my journals and can't find a precise retelling of the event. In any case, when I started to talk with him about all the errors that I saw in early Christian history, he quickly put me in my place. He repeatedly stated that he didn't want to argue with me, but I kept badgering him and finally he threw down a bunch of facts and saints from the first few centuries of Christianity that really shut me up. I realized that I had swallowed the Mormon narrative of early Christianity but that this narrative may have very little to do with what actually happened. I was pretty humbled. But again, this nurtured the seed that had begun to grow within me.

After my mission, I decided to begin to learn about Christian doctrine, not from the point of view of Mormon apologetics, but from the point of view of faithful Christians. It's the same courtesy I wanted others to take from Mormons.

At this same time my faith in Mormonism began to waver. Deep down, Mormonism had never really answered the deepest existential questions I had about reality. Why is reality the way it is and not another way? Where did God come from? Is God the member of a heavenly family? What grounds goodness and morality? Even as a young teenager these questions bothered me (in a very rudimentary and undisciplined way, before I really studied philosophy and theology). I had this unmistakable feeling that Mormonism didn't have any rational grounding - that at its core, it really couldn't answer questions like, "Why are we here?"

This, combined with 1) an increasing awareness and engagement with the biggest problems of Mormon history, and 2) a complete and utter void in my Mormon spiritual life (I found Mormonism to be largely a superficial "feel good" religion that focused so much on "testimony preservation" but no tools for deep spiritual growth as I wanted it) resulted in a blossoming in my heart of the Holy Spirit. I'd always thought I had felt the Holy Spirit in Mormonism, but when it finally hit me (the actual Holy Spirit) everything changed.

So it was the combination of losing faith in Mormonism and really looking into traditional Christianity that my faith in Orthodoxy blossomed. It never would have happened if I'd closed my heart to it.

What are the main factors that drew you to Orthodox Christianity?

At first, it was the superficial resemblance of Orthodox theology to many Mormon doctrines. So when I really examined my beliefs in Mormonism, I realized that what I actually believed was far closer to Orthodoxy than it was to Mormonism.

I'll give one example to keep things short: theosis. I always found the idea that God was one member of an infinite family tree of Gods to be difficult to believe. I just couldn't accept it fully, even though I argued for its truthfulness. Eventually, I gave up trying to defend it and just thought to myself: "I can't accept that there is an infinite or very large number of Gods. The only way that I can really nuance Joseph Smith's teachings in a way that makes sense is by believing that there is One God that exists from eternity, and that we are his spiritual children. And we can progress to be like God and eventually join with Him in his divinity. But we don't take His place or become essentially like Him - instead, we just participate with His divinity, becoming 'gods' in a sense but not becoming God."

But eventually I realized that that's just the Orthodox view of theosis (essentially). That information didn't need to be "restored" by a guy in New England in the 1840s - it has existed on the Earth for 2000 years.

I came to this realization with many doctrines - I rejected Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I realized that the Orthodox temple represents a seamless theological transition from the Old Testament temple (while the Mormon "temple," at best, represents a superficial borrowing of some elements of the temple as understood by the KJV translation of the Old Testament, combined with Freemasonry), I eventually determined that the Mormon concept of "sealings" was completely redundant if you properly understand what our relationship with God is, etc. I even came to accept that the creedal doctrine of the Trinity was far from being the incoherent mess that I believed it was - it was actually a gorgeous, powerful doctrine. And above all, I believe it is True.

So that was the sort of rational conversion to Orthodoxy, but then there was the spiritual conversion. I have experienced the most incredible spiritual depth of my life within an Orthodox context. When I felt the Holy Spirit for the first time it completely blew any conceptions I had of a "burning in the bosom" away. It involved every part of my being. Following a prayer rule (though I struggle with this) has resulted in the strangest but most wonderful spiritual revelations.

Most of all, conceiving of God as truly a Ground of All Being that is present everywhere I go, who sustains my body and soul in existence, who loves me from the inside out, has completely enlarged my soul in ways I never thought possible. As a Mormon, I truly conceived of God as a kind of physical space-man who lived millions of light-years away on another planet, who didn't ultimately create the world (he just shaped or formed it) and did not bring my "intelligence" into existence. I just had to have faith that somehow this being could hear my thoughts, prayers, and could love me. The idea that I could go back and find any help or meaning in that conception of God, at this point, is just laughable. I respect my faithful Mormon family and those really smart Mormon thinkers and philosophers like Blake Ostler and Falcouner, Terryl Givens, Bushman, and the like. But I just don't see any coherence in any Mormon conception of God, except those that more closely resemble the Classical Theist conception.

Did you ever consider any of the other so-called apostolic faiths (Roman/ Eastern Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy)? If so, why did you ultimately choose Eastern Orthodox Christianity?

It would be strange of me not to at least consider the Roman Catholic Church, given that being Catholic would be far easier on me and my family than driving an hour each week to a tiny Orthodox parish. Unfortunately, there were just a number of theological issues within Catholicism that I couldn't accept. When I visit Catholic parishes I feel like something has been watered down or lost, especially in the liturgy. There's too much effort to be hip and fun. But that's just my conception. Though to be fair, Aquinas (and really, Edward Feser) was a HUGE influence on my realization that the Mormon conception of God couldn't possibly be correct even in principle. Aquinas converted me to classical theism.

That having been said, I am not a hardcore "the Romans are heretics who need to repent and crawl to Constantinople on their hands and knees" Orthodox either. I see the two churches as a lot closer than probably most Orthodox, and I pray and long for unity. I really like Pope Francis.

What are the main differences or changes you have seen in your life since becoming an Orthodox Christian?

Incredible depth in prayer life. Total peace in a grounded ethical and cosmological worldview. A personal relationship with God in a way that I never thought possible. I wish I could tell myself at 15 that I could have more of a "personal" relationship with a God "without parts or passions" than a God who is literally a super-human person!

What is one thing about the Orthodox Christian faith, or your own personal conversion to Orthodoxy, that you would like LDS people to know?

When I was Mormon, I looked out at the world and viewed it as sinful and unholy. I looked at other Christians with pity that they didn't have the "fullness of the Gospel." I wondered how anyone could be happy knowing that they weren't "sealed to their families for eternity."

I remember being on a mission and riding in a car with a few other missionaries. It was Sunday, and we drove past a liquor store where there were a few people going in and out. I remember we all let out a condescending huff when we saw people buying liquor on Sunday. One of the other missionaries actually said, "I wish we had the authority to just... kill people."

Yep, not only were we all disgusted by these poor souls at the liquor store, but this missionary actually thought that it would be best and most merciful if we were given the authority as missionaries to go and kill them. Like, murder them. I want to think that his statement was in jest, but nobody laughed. I perceived that it came from a weird authentic place.

When I became Orthodox, all those arrows of judgment and pride were turned inward. Suddenly I realized that *I* am the problem. My struggle shouldn't be with other people. My judgment shouldn't point out at others. It should point at myself. I am a violent person. I'm a prideful person. I'm an arrogant person. I'm a sinner. If I really want to make the world a better place, my struggle should be with myself. It's a much harder battle, but way more rewarding and rich. Every time I get tempted to look down in judgment on another person, I look inside myself and ask, "Do I have some of the same qualities I look down on another person for having? How can I fix those things?" Rather than try to fix other people.

Do you have a favorite saint? If so, why is she/ he your favorite?

St. Symeon the Stylite. I read about him when I was an early morning seminary teacher and he just spoke to me. I was floored by the whole story. I just thought, "What could possibly inspire a guy to do something like that?" I was so amazed that I spoke about him in my next sacrament meeting talk! A number of ward members came up to me afterwards and were also amazed by the story. When I became a catechumen I took the name Symeon in his honor. I also like St. Thomas the Apostle, and I've always been drawn to the Archangel Gabriel.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thanks for the opportunity to get some of these thoughts down.

My pleasure! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Symeon.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Mormon-to-Orthodox converts: Jim.

This week is a bit different than the other interviews that will be posted on the blog over the course of the next few months. Jim has written his own conversion story, and I have posted it here for you to read.

I was born in 1957 and raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
(Mormon). I remember attending church regularly; I attended Sunday school, the main church
meeting and all the activities, boy scouts, plays, dances, cook outs and many other things
associated with the church. Like all Mormons I was taught about Joseph Smith, the first vision,
and mostly from the book of Mormon every Sunday. I was taught that the Mormon Church was
the only true Church and other church doctrine. I believe I had a good understanding of those
teachings presented.

Our neighborhood consisted mostly of Mormons, however we had one Catholic family and I
think one that was some form of evangelical.  All the kids got along really well, at least to me
there was no religious tension, and I had no restriction placed on me to not associate with non
Mormons. I knew several kids who were not allowed to play with non Mormons and I found this

At some point (pre teen) I remember receiving a little green covered bible and reading it. After
reading the bible and listening to my Sunday school teachers I started having questions.  I cannot
remember the exact things I questioned (should have started a diary but didn’t) but I know that
the answers did not sit well with me. Either the question was not answered or I was told that the
question was not important. I started to have reservations that later in life developed into doubts.
During this time we started to attend church less often, due to our family getting into snow skiing
and boating, but still went on a fairly regular basis.

It was sometime in my early teens that I started to question fully the teachings of the Mormon
Church. There were many things, after reading the bible, I could not square with those things I
was being taught. I remember while attending Sunday school thinking, that I had heard this same
thing over and over every year. I felt I was being brainwashed and I resented it. I started not
wanting to attend church and resisted when asked. After a while my parents let me decide if I
wanted to attended church, which eventually became infrequent and finally never.

It was during my junior high school years that really planted my rejection of Mormonism. In
Utah, when I was in school, you were allowed to take LDS seminary as an elective and therefore
it was used by a lot of kids as an easy class. It was in this class, the only one I attended, that I
came to the conclusion that the teachings of the Mormon Church were wrong.  The teacher,
when pressed, would tell us that the subject in discussion, had been determined by a church
prophet, or was not important and that was that. There was not room for questioning or
discussion. This really did not sit well with me, I wanted real answers.  My parents had always
encourage us to question everything, which now that I look back on I did quite often.
I ended up rejecting the Mormon Church and the any idea of an organized religion. I felt that
religions run by men were going to be incorrect. Over the years I had questioned the different
definition(s) of God I had encountered but never stopped believing in a Him. I still believed in
God, the bible, and family. I just did not feel I needed anything else.

I had read a book on North American Indian spirituality (Seven Arrows) and felt that the Indians
had a good understanding of things. It showed their belief in a higher spirit and how life’s
journey, (the medicine wheel) was a guide to reaching full spiritual awareness. This was what I
was feeling and it had a great impact on my outlook and mindset.

I continued in this manner until I graduated from High school. At that time I decided to join the
Navy. When entering in the Navy you are asked to state your religious orientation, I selected
none. During boot camp I looked into other religions to just see what it was all about.  I looked at
the Catholic Church, did not like the thought of the Pope who decides doctrine, been there done
that. A few evangelical faiths, did not like that there were always different views/interpretations
on everything, and decided to not participate in anything.

All this time I still felt God was with me. I believed and He watched over me, we were good.
While serving on an aircraft carrier I developed a back condition that is still with me to this day.
This condition would prevent me from finishing my tour of duty and resulted in my being
honorably discharged from the Navy.

Upon returning home I entered College in my home town. I don’t remember going to any Church
during this time and did not feel that I needed to.  None of my friends were very religious and it
just did not seem important. I still was where I wanted to be. God and I, in my view, were still

It was in college that I met my future bride and best friend. We had gone to junior and senior
high school together but never dated. She was working in the college cafeteria and I used to go
there to study after classes. We would talk and she would on occasion take a break and sit with
me. I finally asked her out and we began dating.

Religion really never came up, because I don’t remember ever really discussing it in any depth.
She knew I was raised Mormon and that I did not believe in it any longer, other than that it was
not on our radar. It did not even occur to me to find out what religion she was. It finally came up
when we decided to get married.

I discovered she was an Orthodox Christian (Greek) which was never on my radar, nor did I have
a clue what that really was. Did not even know we had that church in our city. It was very
important to her that we get married in her church and seeing as I did not care one way or
another that was fine with me. We arranged to meet with her priest to find out what needed to be
done so we could get married in the Greek Orthodox Church. It was during these meetings that
we were informed that my baptism in the Mormon Church was not recognized as valid by the
Orthodox. They do not baptize in the name of the Trinity.

This really did not surprise me as I knew that the Mormon beliefs were really different from that
of the mainstream Christian community.  During this time the priest gave me materials to read to
see if I was ready to enter into Orthodoxy. I read the materials and through these and
conversations with the Priest I found that I already believed in what I was being presented.
Christ is the head of the Church and not man. The Church through an Ecumenical council can
refine doctrine but not add or delete doctrine.  In Mormonism the current President/Prophet can
establish/change doctrine.

God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were one God, the Trinity. In Mormonism each is a separate
being and not God except for the Father.

Baptism is putting on Christ, uniting with him, and removing of your sins. In Mormonism
baptism is not about putting on/uniting with Christ, but remove sin, and making a covenant with
God promising to keep his commandments and is a specific requirement to get into heaven,
which is why they baptize dead people,. This practice has always seemed wrong to me seeing
that when you are alive you make your decisions on what you believe and the bible says once
you are gone it’s over.

The bread and wine were the blood and body of Christ, in Mormonism the bread and water is
just a symbol and used as a renewal of your commitments to God.  There were other things but
you get my drift.

After a few meetings and discussions the priest determined that I was ready and could be
baptized into the Orthodox Church.

The baptism service was awesome, the spitting on Satan and turning to and accepting Jesus was
enlightening. The church where I was baptized had a large metal box for its adult baptismal font.
As most know during an Orthodox baptism the person is anointed with oil before emersion and
the water is also blessed with oil. After the third emersion the priest asked me to standup. To my
chagrin I was so oiled up that each time I tried to stand up I slid and went under again. After
numerous times the priest reached in and helped me to stand telling me that that was enough
emersions and I was good to go. I received my first cross and I felt very much renewed and new.
We proceeded to get married. The wedding service had a major impact on me. Never had I
experienced anything like it. The service was not just getting married and exchanging vows (no
exchanging vows in the Orthodox wedding service), but God uniting us into one with him. The
emphasis on self sacrifice to the other, as Christ sacrificed himself for the church and becoming
one. That has stayed with me to this date.

We began attending services. The church services and songs were mainly in Greek therefore I
followed along in the Liturgy book which had both Greek and English text, not the easiest thing
to do. I was really taken with the beauty and majesty of Holy Week and the Pascal midnight
service. Attending Pascal service was enlightening, so much different from my youth, which was
just another meeting.

After our first child we began getting more involved, helping in Sunday school and participating
in the yearly festival.  I found that I was comfortable, I believed, was involved but not fully
immersed in worship. This situation remained for a number of years and two priests.
Things changed when we got a new priest Father Dan. He is an excellent witness for Christ. He
made some amazing changes that took awhile to be accepted by the parish. Services were now
mostly in English He requested everyone to participate in services, to sing (now a lot in English),
to actively join the worship and get involved. Bibles were placed in the pews, weekly bible study
and classes. He had classes on the history of salvation and the ecumenical councils.
He taught me that communion was not something you did every so often but should be done as
much as possible (except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no
life in you, John 6:53), as long as you are right with God. I participated in my first sacrament of
confession with him. Confession really had not been made a priority to me before and I never
really thought a lot about it. I knew we had the sacrament but I thought after baptism unless you
did something really bad you were ok. He taught me that as we get closer to the light (Christ) we
begin to see all the little marks the light exposes on us.  He used the onion as a metaphor that as
we continue to strip away the layers we expose those underneath. What a liberating and
humbling experience and I still strive to continually strip away layers.

Wow what a difference this had on me. Now I started to see what a treasure I had been given.
What a pearl of great price this was. This man had changed me forever, I was now participating
fully, I was no longer just there.

I had joined the Orthodox Church, its worship and all, but now I was actually fully engaged.
Services have greater meaning, things like daily prayers are something that I looked forward to
and most of all the doctrine and theology is now mine.
It has been 30 years and I still continue to deepen my understanding of the faith; the depth of
which still surprises me, no matter what I learn there is always more.
As I look back over my journey I see God was always with me, he did have a plan for me, finally
guiding me to the truth.

“We have been saved by the death and resurrection of Christ. We are being saved by our active 

participation in the Sacramental life of the Church as a work of love manifesting the fruits of God's 

Grace. We will b saved if we remain in him at His glorious Second Coming.”

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Introducing Mormon-to-Orthodox Converts: Thomas.

This is the first in a series of interviews with Mormon-to-Orthodox converts I will be publishing periodically. I am looking forward to seeing what those interviewed have to share.

I first interviewed Mormon-to-Orthodox convert, Thomas. Here it is!

MtO: There seem to be two main categories that those with an LDS background fall into. First, there are individuals who are or were faithful, active participants, fulfilling their callings and other LDS-specific duties (i.e. temple service, mission service); then there are those who have an LDS background, but have never been particularly active, or have been semi-active at best. Tell us about your LDS background and whether or not you see yourself as falling into one of these two categories. Where did you grow up? Were you and your family active in the LDS faith? How many generations of your family have been LDS? Did you serve a mission? Did you marry in an LDS temple? (Please answer as few or many of these questions as you wish)

Thomas: I grew up in Whittier, California, and attended the 7th Ward. We were (active) and I was at maximum on activity. My mother converted when I was an infant, my father a decade later. I was sealed to them in the Los Angeles temple.

Did you leave the LDS faith before or after learning about Orthodox Christianity? If before, have you been an adherent of any other faith traditions along the way?

I left the LDS faith before learning about Orthodox Christianity. I realized I could not believe in the truth claims of the LDS Church while preparing for my mission. When I left I had no faith. I converted to Christ several years later while taking a required religion course on the Pauline Epistles. Instead of using the course syllabus I used a Catholic patristically sourced commentary.

This all occurred during your time at Brigham Young University, correct?

Yes. The class was at BYU.

How did you find out about Orthodox Christianity?

I began going to various churches but none felt right until I went to an Orthodox Church. I chose the GOA because this was the Church I went to.

What are the main factors that drew you to Orthodox Christianity? Did you ever consider any of the other so-called apostolic faiths (Roman/ Eastern Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy)? If so, why did you ultimately choose Eastern Orthodox Christianity?

I am a little different than most Mormon Orthodox converts because I did not reject other versions of Christianity. I followed God where he led me just as Joseph Smith taught me. I am very uncomfortable with standard antiMormon rhetoric. I simply followed the Light the Lord sent my way and I advise everyone to do the same.

That is great. I think it is beneficial to see conversion as acceptance of a chosen path rather than rejection of alternatives.

What is one thing about the Orthodox Christian faith, or your own personal conversion to Orthodoxy, that you would like LDS people to know?

I became Orthodox because of Joseph Smith not despite him.

Very interesting. One of the most pivotal points in the LDS narrative is indeed when Joseph Smith Jr. asks God to reveal to him the true faith. 

Do you have favorite saints? If so, why are they your favorite?

The Panagia (the Holy Virgin Mary) because I am attached to Mount Athos, her garden and I feel closest to her. Saint Simeon of Simonopetra because of being attached to the monastery and having visited his cave many times and hearing personal testimonies from the monks about his constant miracles and presence at the monastery. Mary Magdalene because I have venerated her incorrupt hand, the hand that touched the Lord, many times. Saint Thomas the Apostle because he was not a go along to get along guy.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Thomas.