I am taking the title of this post, as I often do, from something written at or very near the end. The title of this testimony, as written by its author, is Exiled from My Own Life. It is not my intention to improve on his testimony, but to every reader different points will of necessity stand out or be more meaningful.
After reading what he wrote, for me it can all be summed up by the last line. Here is a word that I can fully endorse, because like Onesimus, I too have learned that ‘taking the lower path, the way of the servant, choosing not to defend myself, not having to be right, or even heard’ is worth it.
I discovered this a couple of years ago when, by not heeding his call to ‘repent’ of my Orthodox faith, forcibly delivered, I also was excluded from the society of a friend whose fellowship had meant a great deal to me.
The following testimony should not, I think, be taken as an indictment of ‘non-Orthodoxy’—if there really is such a thing apart from denominational considerations—but simply as a look at what happens when we ‘cross the line’ in a way that others cannot accept. I too am a heretic to somebody, because I don’t believe in imaginary lines. What I do believe in, or rather, Whom I believe in, for me just makes all the lines look very silly. Yet I know they are real enough to destroy friendships and even lives, because people insist on drawing and keeping them. Alas! these are the true ‘graven images’ that the Lord prohibits from Sinai; the golden calf was just a particular instance of one. Onesimus writes [italics added]…
Choices have consequences.
We all make use of this cliché when the choices are bad and the results are painful. But the same is true when one opts for what is good. Sometimes one reaps rewards and is applauded by all around. Sometimes one is met by conflict, disagreement and alienation. The chooser and his choices may then be understood as the source of the conflict and disagreement, the cause of the alienation and the problems. And while his choice is understood by the one making it as something good, essential and necessary, it can be seen instead by those well-meaning souls around him as something bad, foolish and destructive. Refusal to perceive these negative consequences and to change course is taken as unwillingness to heed the wise advice of friends who care for him. This can place the chooser in a very difficult position.
I have made the decision to become an Orthodox Christian.
This has meant leaving my life as an ordained Protestant minister, as a member of a Protestant missionary society, as a member of a Protestant theological college faculty. These have been some of the challenging consequences to my decision to be baptized and chrismated an Orthodox Christian. All of the former memberships and professional identities that once defined my life and filled my CV now no longer exist. I certainly do not contest the right, even the obligation, of all of my previous associations and institutional affiliations to exclude me from their society.
Whatever case one might make that their action was based on an inadequate understanding of Orthodoxy, the reality remains that I myself am no longer what I was when I was ordained a Protestant minister or made a missionary or invited to teach. I’ve been shaken to the very core of my being through a decade of illness and loss, through years of holding onto a version of Christianity that seemed to leave my sins forgiven but my heart unchanged, which seemed of course to call into question the genuineness either of my faith or Christ’s ability to save. It was, for me, a construct that became untenable; indeed, unbearable.
I have found relief in the mysteries of the Orthodox Church, in her relational understanding of the gospel and of the saving warfare of the Trinity to defeat the power of sin and the devil and death in every life, in her understanding of prayer, and of humility and of repentance.
It is a strange place to be—me, in Orthodoxy. Unlooked for and unexpected. And yet, to my amazement, my internal compass has found true north, and there is now peace where there was nothing but internal inconsistency and unhappiness before. And I’m learning how to bring all the other points into alignment, which is a challenge, but one made much easier when one knows that taking the lower path, the way of the servant, choosing not to defend myself, not having to be right or even heard—this is much easier when one comprehends that these things are what Christ had in mind when he said to love one another. How could I have gotten it so wrong for so many years?
If one is a Christian, one is, of course, not supposed to want to be a somebody, especially in this age of so-called ‘servant-leadership’. But that doesn’t appear to stop many people, and it certainly didn’t stop me. Under the veneer of ‘I will go where Christ leads me and do what Christ wants me to do’, one could be pardoned for amazement at how often ‘what Christ wanted me to do’ coincided with what I really wanted to do. It got to the point where my assumption was, ‘I’ve submitted my life to God so whatever opportunity comes up must be what God wants me to do for me.’ And so up and up it went.
But Christ’s call on my life is taking me in a different, downward direction.
I am used to the landscapes of Christian ministry success—of academic success, of institutional success, of pastoral positions and teaching positions and all the ‘ministry opportunities’ such success opens up. These all defined my context.
So how does one follow Christ without all the props provided by a ‘successful ministry’?
No office, no classroom, no paying students, no colleagues, no courses to teach, no meetings to attend.
Without the busy-ness generated by all the above, I’m left with bare relationships.
With my spouse, with my children, with our neighbors, with our workers, with the cashier at the store, the matatu tout, the people at my church, the beggar on the street.
And this becomes very humbling very quickly.
As much or as little as I reflect Christ into each of these relationships is actually the measure of my ‘ministry’. It’s humbling because I can’t hide behind my so-called ‘Christian-calling-as-a-missionary-theological-educator’ and pretend that that is my ‘ministry’. I can no longer shield myself with titles, appointments, meetings, engagements and Christian leader what nots. With that all gone, I’m free to understand my life as it really is. I’ve lost a lot, but it is a loss that rather sets me free from pretense and self-delusion to give. Such loss enables me to see much more clearly how much more I need to learn when it comes to love, and self-denial, and self-sacrifice, not to mention repentance and faith. Rather than being a somebody who knows something, I realize I’m a sinner saved by grace who can only follow Jesus.
I was a somebody before. And now I’m not. I’ve been exiled, exiled from what defined me, exiled from my own life. And I’m in unfamiliar territory, having to trust not in my experience or my CV or my identities as a Christian somebody. There’s a pearl of great price here. And the seller told me that it would cost everything I had. I've gotten rather used to bartering. I confess I’ve tried to get around letting him know the extent of my empire of self, but in the end it became clear that he knew all along. It is costing me everything I have, this pearl, just as it will cost you everything you have. We give it all up in faith. We choose to trust this merchant, who turns out to be the Lord Jesus himself. It is a high price, a very high price. And there are lots of other merchants offering their pearls for much less.
But nothing except the real thing can help me now.
John writes in his gospel about a conversation that Jesus had with the twelve after a number of people were disillusioned with Jesus and what it would mean to follow him. ‘Then Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”’
Whatever the price, it will be worth it.