Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Mormon-to-Orthodox Converts: Gregory

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?

I grew up in North Ogden, Utah. The LDS Church and our faith was definitely the center of our life as a family. Growing up in the town that my family helped settle, and playing regularly on the land that had been farmed for several generations strongly impacted me. If I didn't know anything else about myself growing up, I knew that I was a descendent from pioneers and that meant something. The strong connection to my heritage as a Mormon was a central guiding force in my life. I was
a fairly quiet, skinny kid. I wasn't athletic, and didn't really shine academically either despite the aptitude. I preferred daydreaming and tinkering to playing with balls, cars, action figures, television, or video games. So, as a daydreaming LDS kid, much of my life revolved around the ideas I was taught about pre-mortal life, post-mortal life, and the nature of existence in general. I didn't really have close friends, so God became someone I talked to a lot.

As I got older I did find some great friends, went through high school pretty normal for a kid who doesn’t exactly have a solid place in high school. Then, like most LDS young men, I was conflicted about whether to pursue my dreams right away or whether to serve as a missionary. I struggled with many of the same things most young men struggle with that might make a person feel unworthy of teaching others to repent. However, I had an experience that really impacted me. The Spring before I needed to put my mission application in. I walked out the front door of our home to sit on the porch, and was hit squarely in the face with the overwhelming acknowledgement and manifestation that absolutely everything I was seeing, everything I was, and everything I had, was given to me and there because God was allowing me to be and have what I had. It was the experience that led me to serve a mission for the LDS church as a small effort to return a small portion of my life and being to God—a sort of tithe of my life you might say.

I was assigned to the Mexico, Oaxaca mission. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to be part of the inner lives of so many wonderful people in that part of the world. It really gave me a lot of perspective on life. I saw on a daily basis what is "necessary," and what is luxury.
You asked about marriage. I wanted to get married as soon as I could. My mission tempered some of my pipe dreams a bit, and I wanted to come home, get married, and have a family as soon as I could. However, it wasn't until I was 28 that I finally found the girl I knew would be my wife. We met, had a short engagement and were married in the Brigham City LDS temple. And, if I could put a finger on the single most binding aspect of our relationship, it was that of common worship. You can imagine what a crusher it was when I found I couldn't believe in some of the things I had always taken as eternal truths in the LDS Church—and what a blow it was, in turn, on her. She stuck by our marriage when I left the LDS Church, but it nearly killed us
and is still a lot of work—as any marriage is, I suppose.

Tell us about how you transitioned from faithful member of the LDS Church to an Orthodox Christian.

Not long after my grandparents died, I started doing more genealogy work to get to know my ancestors better. I always felt a closer bond to my grandparents than I did to my parents, and doing genealogy work was my way of filling in that lost bond to the past. I began wondering what their experience of the LDS Church was like, and what it would have been like to actually know Joseph Smith. It was a huge epiphany to me that I really didn't know Joseph Smith at all, yet on a regular basis I claimed to know that he was a prophet. The handful of stories I knew about him seemed like hardly enough to continue to claim that I knew he was a prophet. So, I set out to get to know him on a more personal level.

I bought Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, and didn't make it very far before I realized that my vision of who he was didn't even come close to reality. My research into the Book of Mormon didn't have to go very far either. I simply couldn't be a believing, tithing paying LDS person. I tried being a non-believing, attending Mormon for a while—attempting the cafeteria Mormon thing. However, when we moved to a new place to establish residency for graduate school, and I had to integrate into a new ward, everything fell apart. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't go to church every week, look into the faces of everyone and try to convince them that I was one of them. It was also becoming more difficult for me to continue believing in any religious thought at all. I started reading Dawkins and Hitchens as well as Boghossian. I became pretty militant in my efforts to "disabuse" other believers of their delusions. But, there was this little part of me that, although I could deny that Jesus Christ was divine internally, I just couldn't do it vocally without feeling absolutely dead inside. And, there were parts of my life that became very difficult to explain without something greater than existence to account for it.

I had been through a really bad break-up with another church, and didn't know how God could be present in any other one. I was also very wary of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches because of the apostasy narrative I'd grown up with and what I had seen in Latin America, so I just didn't have much hope that I would be open to faith again. Given the experiences of my life, however, there was a part of me that was just holding out for something to grasp onto to give me hope enough to believe. I was an atheist because I felt I couldn't in good conscience claim to believe in God.

That was when I entered into a friendly exchange with a friend about some of the arguments for God that I had been led to believe were hollow. I have always firmly believed that the point of discourse and debate is to come closer to truth, not to simply come out on top of the argument. He asked questions about faults he saw in my logic, and I answered sincerely. I asked questions about faults I thought I saw in the arguments he posed, and he answered sincerely; and in a short time, there was enough reason to hope that my heart won out over my head, (or possibly my better educated head won out over my wounded heart?), and I had to confess to myself that I was a believer of some kind so I should act accordingly and commit myself to Christ.

More important in the reckoning of things was probably the acknowledgement that if God were the being I had known most of my life as a being of love, a relationship with Him would entail choosing Him. How could I choose if I were forced to believe? I had to admit to myself that ultimately I had to choose to believe. I had to choose to enter into a relationship with God. (This is very difficult for us. We like to know the end from the beginning. We like to know that our investment is safe. But, this is the way things are in a trusting, loving relationship.) And, it was a leap I was willing to take after several agonizing days of internal struggle.

At this point, this friend passed along some good books on Orthodoxy and I visited a local parish. The first time I attended Divine Liturgy, the worship spoke to me. The songs being sung had nothing to do with anything besides the worship of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and petitions for the benefit of all people. I cried as I stood in the presence of God's Kingdom. There were so many things I didn't understand. But, I knew that the choir singing and the smoke of the incense, and the physical worship of God was right. I made an appointment to meet with the priest and began devouring as many books as I could get my hands on about Orthodoxy. I found that the theology spoke to my soul and matched with my experience of God. There were quirks I didn't quite understand, but I was willing to withhold judgement in favor of the theology and my desire to unite myself to Christ, the lover of my soul.

Somehow it was all so complex, but as simple as the Cross itself. It made all the sense in the world, but at the very same time was beyond understanding and crazy.
Interesting enough, my introduction to Orthodoxy was around the beginning of Lent, and I was baptized a few weeks after Pascha. Somehow the spirit of Great & Holy Lent reached out to me although I still was not baptized and pulled me into the embrace of our loving mother, the hospital of my soul, The Church, and Christ's love.

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?

I am a physical/tactile person, so the physical form of worship is good for me. My soul and body are found in the same place and created by the same God. I like that they get to worship as one person. The balance of mysticism and philosophy in the Orthodox tradition appeals to me as well. The coward in me likes to keep my feet on the solid ground of good philosophic rigor, while the poet in me likes to simply BE with God and let Him teach me in ways that are beyond speaking. The ascetic nature of Orthodox life is good for me. I need the constant opportunities for self-deprivation and struggle, and I like the way that the Orthodox tradition gives me plenty of room for this.

I also find a lot of value in the variety of perspectives and practices within Orthodoxy. Despite being on the outside very rigid in its hold to tradition, it is surprisingly extremely flexible, and fosters the life of Christ in every way. Be strict with yourself, but charitable and forgiving with everyone else. There is a lot of openness for a variety of views on theological and practical matters. This is good. The runners are allowed to run, while those who can only walk are just as acceptable in their walking.

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

I really had no need to look further once entering an Orthodox church and experiencing the worship there. I was open to possibly being disappointed by it and needing to visit other churches. But, I really didn't need to go very far to know that I was where I needed to be.

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

My wife might disagree, ha ha, but I feel that I'm a more patient, loving person than I used to be. Orthodoxy has entirely changed the way I relate to the world around me. Although I still struggle, I am more willing to accept each person with his/her weaknesses struggling in the same fallen world. Glory to God for any good change that has happened to me; it's not my grace that has worked any change in my heart, but His.

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

My patron saint is St. Gregory Palamas. I really admire his ability to know when to keep his mouth shut and when to open it. Although he preferred a solitary, silent life, he was prepared to open his mouth and defend the faith articulately. He was well-versed in philosophy, but was also a major defender of the mystic traditions of the Church.

The other Saint whose life I frequently think about is St. Nikolaos of Myra. Charity and love are everything—but don't toot your horn about it. Do good because it is right, and let God see if He wants to.

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

Orthodoxy may be very different from the type of worship you are used to. It may seem strange to stand for nearly an hour and a half, burn incense, kiss images of holy people, or make the sign of the cross over oneself. But, withhold judgment long enough to listen, watch, and attempt to understand, and He who gives understanding will open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. And, even if you still disagree with many things, you will come away understanding why we love the God who loved us first. This is the cornerstone of all of existence—that God loved the world enough to bring it into existence, and enough to save it when we screw it all up. And, we having been created in His image, must also make love the cornerstone of our lives. If “(I) have not love, I am nothing.” It is the motivation of our repentance, our gratitude, and our life in Him who is Love.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I've been perusing this blog for about an hour––and it's been an immensely pleasurable hour at that! I'm a journalist/writer working on a book about religious conversion; if you get this note and have a second to email me, I'd greatly appreciate it. (I think my address would come up automatically but if not it's kelsey dot osgood at gmail dot com.)