Sunday, September 7, 2014

Greeks from rocks

The last week of August, 1968, forty-six years ago, my Mom and Dad dropped me off with my few belongings at Blackburn College, in Carlinville, Illinois. It was as hot that first day as it is today in Portland, high 90’s, except that it was also horribly humid. The Illinois summer, what can one expect? My room was number 22, on the second floor of North Hall. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. That first night, I shut the door to my room without locking it (no one locked any doors back then) and lay down on the little bed and tried to sleep. Too hot. I suddenly had to use the washroom, and so I went to the door to find the lavatory. The door wouldn’t budge! It had swollen shut, and did not come unstuck till the early morning when it cooled down. Luckily, it was only ‘number one’ and I had an empty pop bottle and an open window.

That first week I made my first new friends in four years, all of them strange to me, from all over the country, as well as the local counties. Right across the hall was a flamboyant and effeminate and very round young man who latched on to me as his best friend. I don’t even remember his name, though, because he didn’t even last the first semester, but dropped out. My room mate turned out to be a local farm boy with the interests of a deranged cowboy—drinking, cussing, consorting with wild girls—and there was I, quiet, reserved, studious, listening to classical music on my little stereo phonograph, and to Gregorian chant, which I had just discovered. The room mate situation didn’t last long. I found myself the sole occupant of a room for two after only a couple of weeks. Aaah… peace at last!

College years were a time of discovery for me. I quickly found out the students who had similar interests to mine. What were they? Well, really there was only one—God. I was a religious enthusiast but not yet a Christian. To me, Christ was God, but I was still interested in other spiritual paths. It was while discussing spiritual paths with my friends in the student union, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Occult, Theosophy, Atlantis and what not, that I met Andrew, a young man about my age, who was from somewhere “back East” and who was the only son of his widowed mother. He didn’t look like the type to hang around with us, but he did. I don’t have a photo of him, but I do have one of me and some of my friends gathered for my birthday in my dorm room.

Andrew hesitantly and meekly entered our discussion one day. He said something like, “What you are all talking about sounds so interesting, but let me tell you about something very, very beautiful.” We turned to him and listened as he began telling us that he was Greek Orthodox, and describing the beauty and mystery of his experiences in church, during what he called the divine liturgy. From the look of awe on his face, alternating with something like a look of love, he described the ceremonies and the prayers in detail.

He finished by saying that he didn’t know much about the kinds of religions we were exploring, but he invited us to experience Orthodoxy when we went back to our home towns on the next break, and see if what he was telling us was true. He said he didn’t know if the other paths were true, but he knew for sure, he said, that Christ lives among His people in the Orthodox Church. I never forgot my friendship with Andrew, even years later.
I remembered his witness up to the time that my family and I were actually reunited to Holy Orthodoxy almost twenty years later, and in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Fast forward to a Sunday service at Aghía Triás in Portland, Oregon, about twenty-six years ago. My wife and I and our four sons were sitting at the back of the church listening to Fr Elías Stephanópoulos (his name is the Greek for ‘Elijah’). Christopher, barely past infancy was sitting on his mother’s knee trying to hold a service book and pretending to read it. Jacob, a young teenager helped me manage his next two younger brothers. He was like a little daddy to them. Fr Elías was preaching, but I don’t remember what the theme was that day, but I do remember this…

Preaching to the empty pews, he pointed at them suddenly and then exhorted, “You Greeks, where are you? You whose places in those pews are vacant, where are you?” Then he seemed to stare right at us, though he didn’t point, and said, “Look at that, people from nations you don’t even know, converts, have come to take your places!” I began to get a bit hot around the collar, maybe blushing. Then he came out with a phrase modeled on something said by his Master Jesus, “Don’t you know that God can make Greeks out of rocks?” That was it for me. Two or three weeks later, we were marching up to the front of the church with our sponsors.
Fr Elías introduced us to the congregation with, “These people have struggled very hard to make their way back home…”

Many years had passed, in fact it was only three or four years ago. Since I had become Orthodox, I had never forgotten Andrew, and I wanted to look him up and thank him for being the first person to tell me that such a thing as Orthodoxy existed. One day, using Zaba Search, I actually found a man who I thought could be him, and it was him! How happy I was to have found him! I emailed him and identified myself and, best of all, he remembered me. I exchanged several emails with him as I told him about my life, what had happened to me, how I had come back to Christ and that I was now a Greek Orthodox. I could not thank him enough, but his response puzzled me at first. He seemed a little bit annoyed.

I questioned him then about his life, what he did for a living, why he was living in Manhattan, if he was married, was his dear mother still alive, and so on. He began to get more and more annoyed with me. He wasn’t married but had had many relationships, some of them with other men. “You mean just really good friends, right?” I asked. Again, very defensively he answered, “It’s really not something I want to go into, if you don’t mind.” Confused, I asked him if he was still a believer in Jesus. Was he still an Orthodox Christian? In an embarrassed tone of voice, he said, “Well, no, you see, I’ve outgrown all that. I mean, it was okay for a child, but…”

Flash back to that sermon of Fr Elías. So it’s true what he asked the empty pews, “Don’t you know that God can make Greeks out of rocks?” What he really meant was, of course, that God can make children of Abraham out of rocks, that is, children of the faith of Abraham.

Lord, while there is still time, help us to repent and seek the light of Your face, for apart from You, we can do nothing good.

No comments: