From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium
Ancient Faith Radio · February 12, 2010
Ancient Faith Radio presents Fr. James Early speaking at the Festival of Icons in Houston, Texas. Fr. James Early serves as the assistant pastor of St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, and the title of his talk is “From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium.”
Thank you, Father John, it is a pleasure to be here. This is my first time, actually, to ever be at St. Jonas, so it is a real blessing.
Thank you for having me, and I just would also repeat what he said about being the second priest at St. Joseph. St. Joseph is on the west side of Houston. It is on Hammerly Blvd., right off of Beltway 8. If you know where Memorial City Mall is, it is just north of that. I am not full time at St. Joseph. Like Father John, I have a job outside of the Church, I have a full-time job with the Pasadena School District. I am an administrator there in the central office, not a principal, not an assistant principal, “Thank you, Jesus,” but (laughter) I work in the central office, mainly with testing data and other things, number crunching. I am one of the chief data geeks in the district. That’s how I support my family.
Speaking about my family, I am happily married, I have been married for 19 years, and I have four children. They are all daughters. My oldest daughter’s name is Audrey, and she is just about to turn 18. She will be starting college this fall, which I can personally hardly believe. Don’t let this young face fool you. I know you’re thinking, “My gosh, this guy is like 30, right?” No, actually, I’m almost 41, so we started pretty early and kept going for a long time in the children business.
My second daughter is Courtney and she is 10. She is in fourth grade. My third daughter is Beth, who is in second grade, and she is 7. My youngest is still a pre-schooler, she is Christine, and she just turned 4. So this coming fall I will have one in college and one in pre-school. It is a very interesting mix of children.
As Father John mentioned, I have not been Orthodox all my life, so I will go back to the very beginning and I will talk to you about my pilgrimage to Orthodoxy, which I call, “From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium.” That is also the name of my book, which should be coming out this spring, from Regina Orthodox Press, which discusses the same thing. As he mentioned, I do have a blog, “St. James’ Kids,” it is called, named after my patron saint, St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem. I have a podcast called, “Thy Word,” which features verse by verse Orthodox bible study. It is found on the Icon New Media Network. Enough of the commercials for now, if you get bored, check it out. If not, that’s fine, too.
I was raised in a home that was not a very religious home. We were very nominal Episcopalians. We very rarely went to church growing up. My parents were very good, moral people, and they taught me right from wrong. They taught me the value of hard work and self-discipline. My father was a career military officer. He was quite a bit older than me. I was born in 1968, my father was born in 1919, so he was almost 50 when I was born, and actually already retired from the marines. He fought in World War II, crawled around in the jungles of southeast Asia and fought for our country, managed to survive battles like Guadalcanal and Tarawa and Okinawa and Iwo Jima and some of the worst fighting of the entire war. He also served time in Korea, and fortunately, he retired just as Vietnam was heating up, in 1967. He retired as a full colonel.
We lived in the D.C. area. We moved to Texas when I was 4, so as the old saying goes, you’ve seen the bumper stickers, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could.” So I consider myself, essentially, a native Texan. We moved around to a couple of places, ended up down in Pasadena. My father got a job teaching R.O.T.C. at Pasadena High School, so I went to school in the Pasadena school system and he taught there for another 12 years.
As I mentioned, we never really went to church. I
didn’t have any interest, whatsoever, in the Bible, Christianity, God, the Church. I considered myself, I guess, a happy atheist, or at least an agnostic, I just didn’t really give God any thought.
That began to change when I entered high school. When I was a freshman in high school I met a girl who was a sophomore, and unlike me, she was fairly popular. She was good-looking, she was talented, and she actually liked me for some strange reason, but she said to me, “James, if you and I are going to go together,” if you remember that phrase, neither one of us could drive yet, she said, “If you are wanting to go with me, you’re going to have to go to church with me.” And I kind of thought, “Man do I have to?” That’s the last thing I wanted to do, but I said, “Okay, I’ll go.” It happened to be the Church of Christ. So here I am sitting in the Church of Christ, and I started listening to the preacher, and hearing the hymns, and the preaching actually started getting through to me. I thought, “This is kind of nice.” I kind of liked it.
After two months of that, and I was going, not every Sunday, but almost every Sunday, she unceremoniously dumped me, (laughter) but the seed that was planted in me stuck, so I started actually reading the Bible on my own, and I went to my mom and I said, “Mom, I want to start going to Church.” She said, “Great, we’re going to the Episcopal Church.” That was her background, and she hadn’t really gone much, as I had mentioned, and so we started going to an Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Meantime, it is kind of strange, because a few months after the Church of Christ girl had dumped me, I ended up going with her younger sister. (laughter) Same condition, right? Same rule, even though she was younger. So it’s less than a year later and I’m sitting in the same church, in the same pew, with the same family, listening to the same preacher, different girl next to me, it was kind of weird. So, I’m hearing the same preacher, and again, I thought, “I like what he has to say. This Christianity stuff, I might have to give it a go.”
I also had some male friends, and some female friends, who were Baptists. They were very active in the Baptist Church, and in Pasadena, I don’t know if it is still this way, I don’t really live in Pasadena any more, I work there now, but back then, something like 50% of the people were Southern Baptists. Almost every church you saw was Baptist. There was almost literally a Baptist church on every corner. One of these friends was a preacher’s kid, and they used to bring me to stuff, they would invite me, they would say, “Hey James, we’re going to have this youth retreat, or this youth walk-in, or this youth whatever, you want to come?” And I would always ask the same question, I would say, “Is there going to be food?” (laughter) If they said yes, I said, “I’ll go, I’m there.”
So I would go and eat the pizza, and the cookies, and the whatever, and I would hear this preaching, and some of the preachers were just fantastic, in the sense of fire and brimstone, in these revivals. They would talk about the end of the world. They loved to preach on Revelation. But some of them were more calm and subdued. And again, the preaching stuck with me and I really enjoyed that.
But I continued to attend the Episcopal Church on Sundays and then on the weekends sometimes I would go to these youth events at the Baptist Church. The Church of Christ was out of the picture, because the second girl also dumped me, (laughter) so that was the end of my Church of Christ career. But I still continued to go to the Baptist events, and occasionally I would go to a Sunday service with them if my mom let me. You see, my mom did not like Baptists. She had a serious chip on her shoulder against Baptists, so she didn’t like this whole Baptist thing. She’d tolerate it on the weekends, but she’d say, “You’re not going to miss the Episcopal service for a Baptist service.” Heaven forbid that that should happen.
It was interesting, because I was a little bit conflicted, because the priest of the Episcopal parish where I went was not a liberal priest, he was more traditionalist in his faith, but he also had been a literature major in college, and he had a Master’s in literature, so he would read the Scripture and he would start preaching and he was say, “You know, that reminds me of a play that I once read.” Then he would go on and talk about the play for the entire sermon and depart from the text and return not thereunto. (laughter) So I learned a lot about literature in that church, but didn’t really learn a lot about the Bible. But I was going to these other things on the weekends with my Baptist friends, and I was learning some Bible, although the teaching, we would certainly not say today, was always accurate. But it was starting to get through to me.
So I continued doing this, I went to college, and then I started exploring around. I didn’t have a car, but I would walk to church, and I said, “I’m going to try all the denominations.” I went to Baptist services, I went to Church of Christ again, I went to Methodist, I went to Presbyterian, pretty much all the Protestant denominations. I did not go to a Roman Catholic Church, and at that time I had never even heard of Orthodoxy. I did not even know what Orthodoxy was, not even Greek Orthodox. You know how it is, you say, “I’m Orthodox,” and they will say, “Oh, Greek Orthodox?” No. “Russian Orthodox?” Well, maybe, kind of, but just—Orthodox. And I was right down the street from St. Elias, which is in downtown Austin, but I never even heard of it.
Finally, after a while I ended up living right down the street from one of these megachurches, about a 10,000-member Baptist church, Hyde Park, and I started attending there, and the preaching really clicked with me. I was kind of, sort of, an intellectual type. I liked to read, I liked to study, and you know how the preaching is, it’s very analytical in the Baptist Church, very much very rational. But at the same time it was very life-based. It wasn’t about this play, or this novel, or this short story that he had read, it was always, “This is what you do with your life,” and it really clicked with me.
All throughout high school, I had kind of played with Christianity, and I kind of said, “Well, I want to be a Christian, I want to at least look like a Christian.” You know, I wanted everybody to think I was a good Christian, but I wasn’t willing to make any sacrifices, I wasn’t really willing to jump in with both feet, so to speak, and actually devote my whole life to Christ. I kind of wanted my cake and eat it, too. I wanted to be able to kind of live somewhat of a wild life—I wasn’t too terribly wild, but I wanted to live for myself—and still be able to claim the name Christian. But I finally realized through the preaching at this church that that wasn’t going to happen.
In January of 1989, I was almost 21, and I walked down the aisle and I gave my heart to Jesus once and for all. Now, I had done this before many times. You understand, right? You know how it works. You go to the Singing Christmas Tree, for example, and they give the altar call, and it’s like, “Well, how many of you want to be saved?” “Well, heck, yeah. Why wouldn’t I want to be saved? I want to go to heaven, I want to be saved.” So I signed the card and handed it in, so many times, I’d made so many “professions of faith.” This time I decided, “This is it.” I really meant it. So I went forward and I was baptized one week later, and I became a good Baptist, and I jumped in with both feet. I started attending Sunday morning, Sunday school, worship service, Sunday night. I joined the college choir, I was doing some mid-week stuff as well. I mean, I really jumped in with both feet. I wanted to really be a good Christian. I wanted to be a good Baptist.
I did this for quite a while. The Baptist church that I was a member of used to have these Friday night Bible studies. They were really fun because you would go to the home of one of the members of the church and they would have 50-100 college students hanging out around the house. It had to be a big house. And they would feed us. Of course, that’s always been a plus for me, right? You know me, you know that food is one of my things I love so much.
So I would go to these, and one day I sat down at this table and I was across the table from a young lady, a girl about my age, blond-headed, very attractive, kind of shy, soft-spoken, and we eventually started becoming friends, and we started talking on the phone, and a few months later we started dating. Well, about a year-and-a-half after that we got married. That’s my wife, Jennifer. We met at a Bible study, and we’ve had a wonderful marriage ever since then.
I got toward the end of college, I was an engineering graduate, and I didn’t really like engineering so much. I liked it for a while, but after a couple of years, I wanted to get into something else. I wanted to get into history, but I had a scholarship, and my scholarship was mainly engineering-based, so if I would have lost that, and my dad said, “Well, you can change your major son, but you’re gonna have to pick up the tab yourself.” So he used a carrot and stick approach, heavy on the stick, so because of that I stuck it out.
At the time, it was 1990 when I graduated, the Texas economy had gone south, not quite like it is now, I guess, but the economy wasn’t very good, and I couldn’t get a job in Texas. So we ended up going out to South Carolina. I had two choices: Kalamazoo, Michigan or South Carolina. Being a good southern boy like I was, I said, “Michigan? I don’t think so.” So South Carolina it was.
So we went out there and got very active in our church, and it was at that time that I experienced a call to the ministry, and it is really funny because whenever I sense a calling from God, it almost always comes through a book. God knows I am some kind of a nerd or a geek. My daughter would certainly say amen to that, my oldest. God communicates with me through books.
What happened was, after about a year of working as an engineer in a paper mill, I decided, “I don’t really want to do this.” I said to Jennifer, “I think I’m going to go back and get a master’s and a doctorate in history and become a history professor.” She said, “Okay, you can do that, that’s fine.” So I spoke to my pastor, and he said, “Well, you know, have you ever thought of becoming a seminary history professor? Maybe you could teach church history,” being a slick, good recruiter like he was. So I said, “Okay, I’ll give that a shot.” So I ordered this catalog from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, Texas. I got the catalog and I started flipping through it, and I thought, “You know, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to take Greek, I’m going to have to take Hebrew, I’m going to take all these Bible classes, and I don’t want to do that. I just want to take history. I just want to learn history.” So I filed the thing away and I put it on my shelf, thinking I’d never see it again.
One day I was home, kind of sick. I didn’t really like my job. To be honest with you, it didn’t take a horrible illness to keep me out of the office. So I was sitting at my desk, thinking. I didn’t hear a voice saying, “Pick up and read, tolle lege,” like Augustine, but it’s like I sensed that I needed to look over at my bookshelf and I saw that catalog and it just hit me like a lightning bolt. I looked at that catalog and it was as if I heard an inaudible voice, or a prompting, or something, I don’t know how to describe it, saying, “That’s what you are going to do, that’s where you are going to go.” And I lost all my desire to go back and do history, a master’s and doctorate in history, and I lost a lot of money in application fees, too, that I had already sent in, but that’s okay. I just knew I was going to go to seminary. I didn’t know what else I was going to do, just go to seminary.
So I worked about eight more months just to pay off some debt and save up some money. By this time we had our first daughter, and we packed up and moved to Forth Worth, Texas, and I enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the largest seminary in the world, 3000-4000 students, I think it still is. I spent some time there, and I didn’t really know, again, what ministry I was going to be doing, I just assumed maybe I was going to be one of these preacher boys, right? You know, you go to school, and you get you a country church out somewhere, and everybody stands at the door and shakes your hand, “Good sermon, preacher.” You know how it is, or maybe you don’t, but that’s how that works.
I actually did get looked at by one church, and they brought me up there, and they had me preach in the morning, they had me preach in the evening, and then I went back, and they didn’t say anything. Then they called me and they said, “We want you to come back for a second round.” I got a call-back. The second time they didn’t take me to lunch, though. “Jennifer,” I said, “this is not a good sign.” Well, I never heard from them again, and after that I thought, “Well, maybe being a pastor is not for me, maybe this is not what I’m supposed to be doing.”
So I started looking at other activities, and the one thing that I absolutely, positively refused to do, was to become a foreign missionary. I said, “That is not going to happen.” That’s a very dangerous thing to say, especially when you’re in God’s service.
So I was thinking about what to do, and they had this event every year, and they probably still do, called The Missions Conference. They do a big hoopla and they have speakers. They have missionaries come and speak. Really, the main purpose of it, ostensibly, is to tell you about missions and what is going on in the world of missions, but I think it’s also a big recruiting thing. And I knew that, and everybody was asking me, “Are you going to go to the Missions Conference? Are you going to go?” I said, “No, I’m not going to go. I’m not going to get swept up in a wave of emotion, and march down that aisle and sign me and my family up for foreign missions. No sir. Not going to happen.”
Well, I thought I had dodged a bullet on that one. But as I often say, the bullet ended up being more of a boomerang, because it came back and got me anyway. I was reading a book on Baptist history. Yes, there is a big, huge, thick book, about 3-4 inches thick, on Baptist history. I was reading this book, and I was reading about Baptist beginnings in Eastern Europe. Again, I had one of those “ah-ha” moments where it was just like—it wasn’t an audible voice, but as I was reading about these German Baptist volunteers who would go out into places like Hungary, and what is now the Czech Republic, and even into Romania and the Balkans, and yea, even into Russia, it was as if God was telling me, “That is where you are going to go, and that’s that you are going to do.” I think I misunderstood the message, looking back on it, a little bit, but certainly, I think that was where I was intended to go.
So I came to my wife and I said, “You know, I’ve got bad news for you. I think that maybe we’re supposed to go into foreign missions.” She actually took it real well. She was a little concerned about our daughter, because when you are going to go into foreign missions, people say, “Are you taking the kid? You’re not taking the kid are you? How are you going to eat? What are you going to do? How are you going to live?”
Once we worked through some of that, we were okay with it. I didn’t know what country to go to. This was after the fall of communism and there was a lot of excitement about Russia. I’m sure you all remember this, in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, there were all these Protestant missionaries that went into Russia, and they would hand out bibles and they would be mobbed and people would grab the bibles and they would preach, and people would “get saved.” They would say things like, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” A thousand hands would go up, and they would write back, “We had a thousand people saved today.” (laughter) But there was a lot of excitement about missions in Eastern Europe, and I sensed that maybe, just for some reason I felt like it wasn’t going to be Russia for us, I thought it was going to be one of the smaller countries.
I ended up signing up for a short-term mission trip to the Czech Republic, and it was really a great experience, the people were really nice, and warm, and when I was there I met a Southern Baptist missionary living in Prague who was actually pasturing an English-language church and he asked me, “Can you come up here and help me with student work?” I said, “Sure, why not.” So he wrote us a job request and we came up and we moved to Prague. I graduated from seminary in 1996 and the three of us packed up and moved to Prague, Czech Republic, which is a beautiful place, a wonderful place to live.
Unfortunately, the guy that brought me over there, when we were in our training, we hadn’t even gone overseas yet, he called me and he said, “I’ve got some news for you, we’re going to be resigning, we’re going to be going back.” So I said, “Oh great, you bring me over there, and then you bail out on me.” This guy was going to be the brains of the organization. He wanted me to do student work with international students, because there were a lot of people that come to Prague to study, and they come from all over the place. This stuff is done in English, all these people know English. I thought he would tell me where to go, what to do, and then he left. He was there about a week and then we said goodbye and then it was just us. We were all by ourselves.
Another couple came in later to pastor the church, but they didn’t know Prague very well, either, so we kind of floundered for a long time. We eventually found some places to do some ministry. We found a dorm that was all English-speaking students. Over there the campuses are really spread out, it’s not real centralized like an American university.
At the same time, not long after that, maybe just about six months after we had gotten there, we heard about Bosnia. The war ended in Bosnia in November of 1995, and they were looking to get people in there to do humanitarian work, to try to do evangelistic work, bible studies and what not. They had gotten some people to go in for a short-term assignment. Needless to say, there were not a million people volunteering to come into this war-torn country and live where there is no water, and no electricity half the time. So they had some people come in for just a few months, but those peoples’ terms were running out and they needed more people to come in. So I said to one of my supervisors one time, “Would it even be possible for us to move?” Because we went on a two-year agreement. We were going to be in Prague for two years, we thought, and we had already done 6-7 months of that, and I said, “Is it even possible for us to do this right in the middle of our term, not even in the middle, early on? Can we move down to Bosnia?” He said, “Yes, we want you to go.”
So we moved to Bosnia, and we lived in the city of Tousla, which is in the northeast part of Bosnia. If you look at a map, Bosnia looks like a square, like this window. Let’s just pretend this window is Bosnia, it was in the northeast corner, pretty close to Croatia, not far from Serbia. So we lived there. That city is mainly Muslim, but we also worked with some people who were Serb and some people who were Croat, but mainly Muslims. I actually had a baseball ministry. I won’t go into all the details, because it was kind of strange how this happened, but I actually ended up working with a bunch of guys who wanted to learn baseball. Some soldiers had come in and taught them and then they left, and I was able to get them equipment, and I was able to teach them some of the rules. For example, they thought that if you take the ball and just throw it at somebody and hit them, they’re out—that was one way to get them out. (laughter) I said, “No, no, guys, no, no.” I helped them with their English and a couple of them became, actually, followers of Jesus, so that was kind of neat. They didn’t throw balls at anybody either, so that was good. I don’t know if I saved a lot of souls, but maybe I saved some broken bones.
Eventually our term was coming to an end and we couldn’t decide what to do. We had had some really rough experiences. Occasionally we had some struggles with some Muslim fundamentalists who disrupted some of our events that we had. We struggled even with the local Baptists there. We even got kicked out of the Baptist church, that’s how much of a rabble-rouser I am—I got kicked out. Long story on that, you can read the book, but they brought us back later.
We struggled with some of our own missionary colleagues. We had all kinds of conflict there and it was hard to live. It wasn’t just impossible to live, but it was difficult at times. So we thought maybe we would not go back. But in the end, we prayed, and decided that we were going to re-up, we were going to become career, long-term missionaries. But we didn’t know where to go. But for some reason, and now I think I know why, but at that time, we just felt like we had a bond with the Serbs, above all people, we just clicked. There was something about them. We met some Serbs that were just wonderful, delightful people. So we decided we were going to work with the Serbs full time.
So we went home, had some R&R, rested, relaxed, and had about eight months off. We had another child, our second daughter was born at that time, and January of 1999 we went back to Bosnia and this time we lived in the Serbian controlled part. We lived in the city of Banja Luka which is in the northwest corner. It is pretty close to Zagreb, Croatia. We were there for about two months.
Do you remember when the Kosovo thing broke out in 1999? The United States and other NATO allies decided to bomb Serbia and Montenegro. They didn’t bomb us, there were no bombs on Bosnia, but our supervisors felt, since we were working among the Serbs that there might be some reprisals against Americans and other Westerners. We had a team of about ten missionaries in that city, and they pulled us out, they scattered us all over the place. We ended up in Sarajevo, which is in the southeast corner, and very heavily Muslim, lots of mosques. You walk downtown and you hear the crier. One of them actually has a real guy up there who actually does the call to prayer. Usually it’s just a recorded message. In fact, we lived across from a mosque in Tuzla, I didn’t mention that, and that was interesting the very first time that woke us up at 4:30 in the morning.
So we were in Sarajevo, we studied the language, tried to hang out with as many Serbs as we could, but we made friends with all people. We became fluent in the language, I started doing bible studies in Bosnian or Serbian. It is the same language, by the way. If you hear somebody say Croatian, or Bosnian, or Serbian, that is the same language. It used to be called Serbo-Croat, but of course, the language itself became Balkanized and politicized, so they had to have three languages. There are some differences, there are minor dialectical differences. I like to compare it to British English, American English and Australian English. They are slightly different, but you can understand each other.
We were staying there and then eventually it became safe for us to go back, it was deemed to be safe for us to go back to Banja Luka, so we went back. So that was another move we made. By the way, in the first 12 years of our marriage we moved 16 times. That was a lot of fun. Thank God, in the next 7 years, we have moved zero times, so that’s been kind of nice. We’ve been in the same house since 2002, and we never thought we would do that.
So we sent back to Banja Luka and started hanging out with Serbs and trying to do our ministry, and I started thinking about some things. Our organization had devoted so much time, so many people, and so much money to raising up a Baptist church in Banja Luka, Bosnia, and had almost nothing to show for it. Our predecessors who had been there had been very successful in talking to people about the gospel, and even sometimes leading them to a profession of faith, having them profess faith, and sometimes they had even done a baptism on them, a Baptist-style baptism sometimes, sometimes not, but when the issue of joining the Baptist church came about, it was always, “No.” And sometimes the people would just disappear, we would never see them again. At the time it was my wife and me and one other couple, I’ll call them Bob and Melanie, the names have been changed to protect the guilty—oh, innocent, I’m sorry. They were innocent, we are the ones that converted them. So we were talking to them one time and I said, “What is it about this faith? Most of the people here don’t darken the door of a church hardly ever. The Serbs in Banja Luka, at least, the Bosnian Serbs are not famous for being big church-goers, but they are loyal to the Orthodox faith. And we said, “What is it about this faith that inspires such loyalty? These people will literally fight and die for it, and they have in the past, and yet, they don’t go to church, but they are still loyal. Why is that?”
So we said we needed to do some study on this. So we started studying—that was the beginning of the end. (laughter) We started reading, and it was interesting, Melanie, the wife of the other couple that we were working with, said to me, “James, I’ve got a couple of books you might find interesting on Orthodoxy.” I said, “Oh really, what are they?” And she said, “One of them is about a bunch of men who were in Campus Crusade for Christ, and became Orthodox.” I said to her, literally, “Why would anybody want to do that?”
Campus Crusade is a college ministry that is still around, and very active, and we thought they were practically saints. The Baptists don’t have saints, but if we did, Campus Crusade people, they were gung-ho—we liked these people. A little but weak on ecclesiology, perhaps, but we loved Campus Crusade people. So I had to read that book, and I said, “Let me have the book.”
So, I read through that thing in one day, I slapped through it, I could not put it down, it was fascinating. And this book, of course, is Becoming Orthodox, by Fr. Peter Gillquist, which has been the point of departure for many, many a convert from Evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy. So I read the book and I thought, “Well, yeah, maybe, he had some interesting points, I don’t know.” I read this other book, which is called, Common Ground, by Father Jordan Bajis. That was a really good book, more scholarly than the other, more in depth.
So I re-read Becoming Orthodox, and I read it slower that time, and I was really persuaded, because Father Peter points out that the early church was liturgical, it was sacramental, and it was hierarchical, which were all three things that the Baptist church does not teach.
The Baptist church doesn’t believe in monarchical bishops or anything like that, you just have the pastor of the church. They believe, not all of them, but a lot of them believe, as I had been taught, that the worship was more spontaneous and it was just kind of like a Baptist service.
And sacramental, certainly that was anathema. Of course the Baptist church teaches that the eucharist is purely symbolic, it is not the literal body and blood of Christ. So those things really shocked me, it really shook me up, and I thought, “I need to do more study on this.”
I also started attending the liturgy in the main church in town at the time. Since then they have built a cathedral. It’s kind of neat, there is a new cathedral that was complete, I think, just in 2005, in the middle of Banja Luka. It is an interesting story because this church had been consecrated in 1938, 1939, or something like that. They had just finished it and then World War II broke out.
The Ustachi from Croatia were the Croatian Nazis and they were super-violent and really barbaric. The Nazis had to scold them a few times about being too barbaric, that tells you something. They came out and blew up the church, not even five years after it had been consecrated.
Of course, the communists took over later. They weren’t going to let them rebuild the church, so there was just nothing, but we got to see the beginnings of this church. Anyway, that’s a side note. So we went, not to that church, because it was just being begun, but we went to the Church of the Holy Trinity and I didn’t mention that I was going to be bringing some volunteer groups in to do some short-term stuff, and I said, “Well, if they are going to get a full education, they need to go to an Orthodox service. And I thought, “I’d better go first, just to see if there is any protocol, I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.” I did anyway, but I wanted to try not to. So I went to a service. I had no intention of converting to Orthodoxy at this point, it was purely innocent, right? I had no ulterior motive. But I went to this service, and when I got there, it was amazing, it was a special service. They had these big old TV screens, these giant jumbo-trons outside and they had police there and they had an ambulance there, they had all kinds of things, and I’m thinking, “Okay, what’s going on?” All of a sudden here comes this procession around the corner, and there were several bishops, many, many priests, dozens of altar servers, icons, and incense, and banners, and I’m just thinking, “Whoa……what is this? I’m a Baptist preacher from Texas and here comes this… look at all this!”
It turned out they were having a triple celebration, they were celebrating 2000 years of Christianity, this was the fall of the year 2000, and 1000 years of Christianity among the Serbs, and 100 years of the local diocese of Banja Luka. They were having a major celebration.
There was this procession, and they all filed in, and I got in, and the service was just amazing, I was blown away. You know the story about the envoys from Prince Vladimir who was trying to figure out what religion he was going to convert to? He sent people down to Constantinople and they went to the Hagia Sophia church and afterward they came back and they said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” They said more than that, but I felt like I was in heaven.
In the worship they had wall-to-ceiling icons, and they had incense, and they had a beautiful choir singing. They had all this, and I thought, “Yes, now this is worship.” I was smitten. A lot of Protestants go in the first time and they say, “Ooo, this is weird.” They kind of get freaked out a little bit. The icons, especially. Since this was a festival of icons, I thought I would comment, the icons really touched me, I thought this was great.
In the afternoon, then, I would go to our local Baptist service and there would be a couple of prayers, maybe a psalm read, songs sung—if I brought the guitar. If I brought the guitar and led them, then we would sing. If we didn’t do that, we would just go straight to the sermon, right? Because that’s the main thing, the sermon is the most important thing. The sermon would last 45 minutes to an hour, and all in Serbian, of course. I was fluent by that point, but still, it was just white walls, just really plain. I didn’t feel the presence of God there, but when I went into the Orthodox Church, I said, “Yes, this is worship.”
I went back a second time, and then I went a third time, and I kept going, and I ended up going there almost every Sunday. I would go there Sunday morning, and I would go to the Baptist service in the afternoon, and then eventually I just quit going to the Baptist service. I felt kind of bad because that was part of my job, but (laughter) I loved the Orthodox liturgy. And then we went home on a vacation and I ordered all these books. I got on the internet and I ordered 15 different books. “I’ve got to study more, I’ve got so many questions, I’ve got to read.”
I read, and read, and read, and read. I read books like Frederica Mathewes-Green, At the Corner of East and Now. I read Clark Carlton’s books, all four of them—really good books. The Way was especially helpful for me. I read other things. I did not read your pamphlet on Sola Scriptura at the time, I didn’t find it. I read it later, and I think, if you don’t mind me saying, I don’t want to embarrass you, I think it is the best treatment of that subject there is.
But I read all these other books, and let me tell you what I said to my wife, because I want to brag on her for a minute. Back in December, before we went back to the States, after I had just read Becoming Orthodox and Common Ground I said, “Jennifer, I think we might be in the wrong church.” (laughter) Which is unfortunate when you are employed and paid by the Southern Baptist Convention, right? I didn’t know what she was going to do. I thought I was maybe going to get thrown out or something. but she said, “You know what, James? Even if you want to be an Orthodox priest, I’ll go with you, wherever you want.” (oo’s, ah’s) Yes, ahhhh. Of course I was thinking, “Now, who said anything about being a priest?!” (laughter) Maybe that was prophetic. Lord have mercy, I don’t know.
Finally after I had read these other books, we were staying partly with my parents, and partly with her parents. Her parents live in Texarkana. My parents lived in the Woodlands—they have passed away since then. I have been to St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church, and really loved the worship there.
It is interesting, the other couple were doing some of the reading, too, and we talked, and I finally confided in Bob, and said, “You know, Bob, I think we may end up going into the Orthodox Church,” and he said, “You know, we might just go with you.” That was affirming. Sadly, they ended up not doing that, they ended up pulling out. In fact, they are trying to start house churches in San Antonio right now.
Bob had said to me, “Well, you know what? You may go into this church here at Banja Luka with the big choir and with the beautiful icons and everything, and lots and lots of priests, where there is an Orthodox tradition, and you may love the worship there. But you know, if you do this, you are going to have to quit, and you are going to have to go home, and then, what is it going to be like in the U.S.? You know, maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” So that’s why I visited St. Anthony’s, and I thought, “This is just as good as the other.” You don’t have to have wall-to-ceiling icons, and you don’t have to have all the bells and whistles, for God to be present there. It’s nice, but God is where the Church is, where the Orthodox Church is.
After I had read all these things, and we had visited the liturgy at St. Anthony’s, I said, “Jennifer, I think I’m done, I’m not a Baptist anymore.” And thank God, she was right behind me. She just said, “Well, let me just read a little more, too.” So eventually we went back, and we were back on the mission field and she and I both just said, “Okay, we want to convert to Orthodoxy.” So here’s our dilemma. Again, we were employed and paid by the Southern Baptist Convention, but we were Orthodox in heart, so what were we going to do? I thought about that, and I came up with a solution. I said, “I’m going to go under cover, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be Secret Agent Man. I’m going to continue to try to my job as best as I can, be the happy Baptist on the outside while I’m secretly Orthodox on the inside. I can still go to the liturgy on Sunday morning. Maybe I’ll go to the Baptist service in the afternoon, you know.” And I said, “What do you think, Jennifer?” She said, “No, stupid, it’s not going to work.” (laughter) You know how wives are, I mean us guys come up with stupid ideas sometimes, that’s why God gives us wives to shut that down, right? She didn’t say that was stupid, but she said it’s not going to work. And the problem is, we don’t listen to our wives, do we father? Sometimes we don’t listen, we think we’ve got it all figured out. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to go talk to Bob about this.” I told Bob, I had confided in him earlier, and he said, “Well, you still think that you are being led into Orthodoxy?” I said, “Yes, and I think maybe even perhaps to the priesthood, I’m not sure.” And he said, “That’s not going to work around here.”
You see, I was just about to have to go to this three-week-long training conference, and he said, “You’re going to go to this conference,” which was in Prague, ironically, “and you are going to be told you have to come up with a strategy for planting Baptist churches all over your area.” I had just been made a supervisor of all my area, which was basically the Serbian part of Bosnia, including Banja Luka. It’s like a big Baptist pep rally, I was going to have the carry the Baptist flag, and we had other people that were coming in to be under my supervision, and he said, “You can’t do that.” Which is the same thing my wife had told me, but for some reason, when he said it, I listened, and it got through to me.
So I called up my supervisor and I said, “Ted, I’m not going to the conference in Prague, and I need to come up and talk to you.” So I went up there and talked to him, and I said, “Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. Jennifer and I have decided to convert to Orthodoxy. So we are going to be resigning and leaving the field soon.” Well, he was not happy. Which is kind of funny because the first thing he said was, “You know, the Orthodox Church doesn’t follow the Augustinian principles on which the church was founded,” or something like that, as if Augustine had started the church, right? (laughter) And then he said, “Well, you do believe in the five points of Calvinism, right?” I said, “Actually, I don’t think we believe in a single one of them.” (laughter). I said, “I personally don’t, nor does the Orthodox Church. I think we’re 0 for 5 on that.” (laughter). He said, “Well, the fact that you don’t believe in Calvanism bothers me more than the fact that you are going into the Orthodox Church!” And he brought in this paper he had written in college or seminary or something, exposing all the so-called errors of Orthodoxy. “Read this!” He put it in my hand and said, “Read this!” I read it, and I said, “Now, you’re not going to be able to talk me out of this.” And then he changed tactics. He said, “Well, why don’t you open up the Orthodox branch of the International Mission Board?” Which was exactly what my undercover strategy had been. I said, “Look, I can’t do that. I’m sorry.” And it was hard, because we loved being there. We loved the people. We loved the culture. We loved the food. Bosnian food is great. There is a Bosnian restaurant [in town] by the way. I was just there last night, ummmm. Hurry, before Lent, or go after Pascha.
It was hard. We had made so many good friends, but we realized we couldn’t stay. So we came home. And I know I didn’t go into a lot of detail on reasons why, what changed our minds, and it really happened quickly, because I started studying Orthodoxy in October of 2000, and we had pretty much made up our minds by January of the next year, so it was about a three-month process. It was just the experience of the liturgy and the reading I did. I never actually sat down and spoke to a priest or a deacon or anybody over there. I was going to, but I just couldn’t seem to find the time to do it.
So we resigned our position, we came home, I got a teaching job. We had our third child. This was in 2001. And just to finish out the story, and then I’ll take some questions if you have them, I ended up becoming a member of St. Joseph’s. We joined St. Joseph’s. We went from being inquirers, to catechumens, we were chrismated and received officially into the church at Pascha of 2002. Eventually I got into the St. Stephen’s course, which is a correspondence program of studies, and I was ordained deacon in August of 2004, and then I was ordained as a priest on February 12, 2006. I just celebrated my three-year anniversary. I’ve been serving there as the assistant priest. I’ve done everything. I’ve been altar server, choir member, Sunday School teacher, deacon, priest, pretty much everything. I do a lot of supply work, too. I move around and fill in at other churches. I’ve served in Greek Orthodox churches, I’ve served in OCA, Serbian—that’s kind of fun because I get to pull out my Serbian and use it a little bit. Never done ROCOR, but who knows, maybe one day.
That’s my story, that’s how a Baptist Missionary traveled halfway around the world to find the Orthodox faith, and then went back again. Anybody have a question?
Questioner #1: My ex-wife is Russian. She actually converted and got Baptized by a Baptist in Russia. But just like your experience, you can put the Baptist into the Russians, but you can’t take the Orthodoxy out. And one thing led to another, and after we got married and went through all the paperwork and hassle to move over here—and by the way, I used to go to Hyde Park Baptist Church, which is kind of strange—but we started attending a Baptist church in Austin, Gray Hills Baptist Church, and she finally said to me, “No, can’t do it anymore, I’ve got to go back to Orthodoxy.” And so she kind of dragged me along with her, and one thing led to another, and a couple of years later, bingo. I got chrismated in 2007. But I never did quite understand why—I mean, it’s wonderful that they do—but I’m not sure if you have given much thought to, why, even if they are baptized, let’s say in the Baptist church or another church, they still won’t let go of the Orthodoxy. Have you ever elaborated on that?
Father James: Well, I think it’s hard for us here to imagine, because we have had separation of church and state from the get-go, and we have such diversity. From the very beginning of the foundation of this country we have had diversity, and now we have more diversity than ever. And over there—I can speak for the Serbs—to be Serb is to be Orthodox. One of their idioms for to be a Serb is [a saying which means] “to cross yourself with three fingers.” It means you’re a Serb. “I’m a Serb, I cross myself with three fingers.” As opposed to two fingers, like the Croats, for example. And I think it’s probably true in Russia and Greece and most of the countries over there with an Orthodox tradition, the two are together. To be Orthodox is to be Serb, and so on. And that can be a two-edged sword, because I’ve heard people say, “Well, I’m atheist, but I’m Orthodox.” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, right, that’s the ticket.” But what they meant is that they are culturally Orthodox. See, it’s entertwined with the culture, whereas to be American, it doesn’t mean to be Baptist. It almost means to be Protestant, but even that’s going away. There is no one faith associated with being American. I don’t know if that helps.
Questioner #2: Could you tell use two or three key theological differences or things that might have attracted you from the Baptist church to the Orthodox?
Father James: Yes, that’s a good question. Well, I’ll tell you what. One thing was the issue of faith and works. In classical Protestant teaching, and particularly in Evangelical Protestantism, which the Baptist church is part of, they will fight and die over faith alone. We were just joking about this, there is a church right across the street, a Lutheran church, do they still have it up there, Father? It says, “Faith Alone.” Salvation is by faith alone. Works play absolutely zero part in it. That is the classical teaching of Protestantism, and of course, I had always been taught that, and I had been taught, well, that’s what the Bible teaches. Clearly, the Bible teaches that. But there are other verses that do not seem to teach that. In fact, they do not teach that. And one particular verse that I had always struggled with was in my patron saint, St. James’, epistle. In fact, St. James uses the phrase, faith alone, or faith only, but it is in a different context. That is the only place, by the way, the only place in the entire New Testament, where is says faith alone, is James 2:24—see, I can still quote chapter and verse like I used to when I was a Baptist. He says, “You see brethren, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”
That was a verse that I just never had known what to do with, so I skipped it. I just didn’t pay any attention to it. Orthodoxy teaches the Scriptures consistently and interprets them consistently, doesn’t come up with a preconceived idea and make the Scriptures fit into that particular notion. Luther long ago decided that salvation was by faith alone, based on his reading of some of St. Paul’s writings, not even all of St. Paul says that. But it never says faith alone. The Orthodox Church believes that salvation is by faith, yes, but faith always includes works. Salvation has to have works, because it has to have faith. There is not this dichotomy, or contradiction, between faith and works, the two go together hand in hand, they are two sides of the same coin.
Another thing was the eucharist. In the Southern Baptist Church, as in most Evangelical Protestant churches—I kind of touched on this earlier—the communion is seen as purely symbolic. The wine, or actually, the grape juice in the little shot glass, or the little plastic cup, is not, by any means, the actual body or blood of Christ, nor is the bread, the little matso cracker—break your teeth on it—that is not the real body of Christ, there is no real presence. And you cannot support that based on the Scriptures, even less than faith alone, I would say. Jesus said, “Unless you eat my flesh, and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” That’s in John, Chapter 6.
We had always interpreted that spiritually. “He is speaking symbolically. He means, not literally, my flesh and blood, but that means belief, it’s an odd way of saying belief.” Which was kind of funny, because the Baptist Church always prides itself on interpreting the Scriptures literally—but not that passage. We don’t interpret that one literally. As long as the passage doesn’t teach us something in which, we don’t want to go there, then we interpret it literally. As long as it suits our purposes. And I don’t mean to condemn. But that was another verse that we just always passed over.
How about Baptism? You asked for two or three, let me give you a third one. It’s funny, Baptism is seen, again, as purely symbolic. In the Baptist teaching, it is a visual way of showing the world your allegiance to Jesus Christ, that you have been saved, that you have received Christ, and it doesn’t wash away your sins, at all. I could give you about six or seven passages in the New Testament that do say, very clearly, literally, straight out, that it washes away your sins. So what do you do with those?
When St. Peter was preaching on the Day of Pentecost, in the second chapter of Acts, it is recorded, the people said, “What shall we do?” And he said, “Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit.” Baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.
It’s funny, because we had gone home around Christmas and New Year’s of 2000, we had studied Orthodoxy and we decided to become Orthodox. The first thing we did when we went back to the mission field was that we went to a spiritual retreat, and they brought in this Baptist preacher from who knows where, and he is preaching on Acts 2, right? He was preaching on that very passage. And so I thought, hmmmm. I just sitting there thinking, “What is he going to do, what is he going to say when they get to the part about being baptized for the forgiveness of your sins?” So he preached very eloquently and powerfully about the need to repent, and the need to be baptized, but guess what he did with the part about for the forgiveness of your sins? He skipped it, totally skipped it. Next thing was, you were receiving the Holy Spirit. So I thought, that’s pretty typical. And I didn’t even realize I had done that, but in my own teaching ministry and preaching I had always just ignored passages that didn’t fit into my personal theology.
There are plenty of other things, too, but those are three things that jump out. What else? Any other questions? Yes, sir.
Questioner #3: As a new convert, what would you do if you have to miss a liturgy, what do you do at home to make it up, because you had to miss that Sunday? How do you make it up if you have to stay home?
Father James: Are you saying if I have already converted to Orthodoxy?
Questioner #3: If you are Orthodox, and you had to miss that Sunday, and you have to stay home for some major reason.
Father James: Well, if you are unable to attend the liturgy due to, perhaps illness, or for some other reason. If you are just flat out not able to go, then the Church has prayers that you can do. You could do a reader’s matins service all by yourself without a priest there. You don’t have to have a priest there. There is typica. There is matins and typica you could do at home. There are plenty of different prayer books that you can use to do that, as well. What I would recommend to somebody, maybe they are out of town and there is no Orthodox Church around, on business, or for whatever reason, rather than just do nothing. As long as you are physically able. If you are flat out with the flu, obviously, you just pray, “Lord have mercy on me, please heal me!” There are resources out there, certainly.
Questioner #4: Considering Roman Catholic versus Orthodox Christianity, is the Bible used, perceived, or read differently?
Father James: The Roman Catholic Church’s approach to Scripture is very different from the Orthodox.
Questioner #4: And what would that be?
Father James: I would say the Roman Church looks at it a little bit more legalistically, more forensically, maybe more analytically, scholastically. The Orthodox Church has have a tradition of scholastic scholars like St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, or some of the others. Augustine really was the beginning of that. We looked at it more as a book of prayer, a book of worship, a book of modifying our own life, and I’m not saying we don’t look at that at all, but we don’t look at it quite so analytically, and just try to dot all the is, cross all the ts. I don’t know if that helps. That’s the short answer.
Questioner #4: It seems like it has been said that with the Roman Catholic Church, it is for the priest to interpret to the people?
Father James: Right, well that would not be the case in the Orthodox Church.
Questioner #4: So the Orthodox would say everybody will read … ?
Father James: Yes, but at the same time, it is that we don’t have the Protestant idea—there is a Protestant doctrine called the perspicuity of Scripture, which basically means that Scripture is alleged to be clear, simple enough so that anybody can read it and come to the right interpretation. See how well that has worked for them? I think there are 22,000 denominations or something like that. And that was one thing that helped me to come to Orthodoxy, because I thought, “If the Bible is so clear, and if every person can interpret it perfectly fine on their own without any help from any outside authority, then why do we have all these disagreements? You need a central authority.
The Church has been around for 2000 years, and people a lot smarter than me, probably not smarter than Father John, (laughter) but smarter than me, have spent their entire lives studying the Scriptures. Monastics, and other great fathers, have studied the Scriptures and there has been a tradition of interpretation that has been handed down, going all the way back to the first century. And I realized, if my interpretation of this passage is different from, for instance, Irenaeus, or St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of us can’t be right? Well who it right? Before I would have said, “Well, me. Sorry, Irenaeus; sorry, guys. Never mind the fact that you literally sat at the feet of the Apostle John, in the case of Ignatius—I’m right and you’re wrong.” I realized, no, I lose.
It was a humbling process, but I realized that the Scripture is not self-interpreting, it is not always real clear. Some parts are pretty clear, other parts are very complicated, and I need somebody to explain to me. Philip appeared to the eunuch and he said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man was reading Isaiah, and he said, “No, how can I understand it unless someone explain it to me?”
That is the conclusion I had to come to. I need the Church to explain to me what the Scriptures mean. In that, we agree with the Roman Catholics, that not everybody is their own professor of Bible, their own brilliant, inspired interpreter. But there are differences, as well. You had a question, ma’am?
Questioner #5: A friend of my mine has son who is a Baptist missionary. He is in Peru. He is very humble and very strong, and I really admire him. My husband tries to do it in a forceful way, and I was wondering if there is any way to approach somebody like that with one or two books that they could read and it would open their eyes to that, or…?
Father James: I think that the Holy Spirit has to be preparing them first. I think you can say, “Here’s something interesting, maybe you could look at this.” Give them something short to start with.
Questioner #5: He is very devoted, so I think he would make such a great Orthodox, because he is so devoted, so humble.
Father James: When I came home from the mission field, I said, “Man, I’m going to give these books to all my colleagues. If they just read the same books I did, they can’t help but come to the same conclusion I did. So I bought like three copies of The Way by Clark Carlton, three copies of Becoming Orthodox, just so I could loan them out to people. And I would hand them out, and one guy read The Way and he gave it back to me and he said, “I’m not going to read this, this guy called me a heretic in the first chapter.” (laughter) So, I think there has to be some preparation. (laughter) I had zeal without knowledge. Father and I were talking about this earlier, a lot of converts come in, guns blazing, wanting to win the whole world to Orthodoxy, and that’s a noble sentiment, I suppose, but you need time to just sit and soak, and learn from the Church. Sit at the feet of the fathers, and sit at the feet of the Church. You might try to say, “Here’s something you might find interesting,” but we can’t force people into the Church. Do we have time for one more?
Questioner #6: I have a hard time with all kinds of different Protestants who say, once you are saved, you are always saved, you cannot lose your salvation.
Father James: Yes, that was another issue, that was another thing…
Questioner #6: One of the five points…
Father James: Yes, Southern Baptists are either two-pointers or five-pointers, although some of them try to split the difference. I had seen so many times where I would share a presentation of the gospel with someone, and the person would get all emotional, and they would pray to receive Jesus, they would give their heart to Jesus, and I would say, “They’re saved. That’s it. Henceforth and forevermore, forever and ever, Amen, right?” And then I would meet with them for Bible study 101, I would disciple them, and so on. And eventually they would start getting colder and colder and colder, and then they would quit coming to church, they wouldn’t want to do Bible study, they wouldn’t want to do anything, they would just go back to their own way of life.
So I was faced with that dilemma. I thought, “Were they really saved, and then they gave it up, they forsook it?” But as a good Baptist, I would have said, “Well, he was never really saved in the first place.” It’s a vicious circle there, because if I said, “He was never really saved, “Well how do you know that?” “Well, because he didn’t have works later to prove it.” “So in other words, no works, no salvation?” “Oh no, no, no.”
The Evangelicals stressed the importance of works, and I think, really, deep down, they are not as far from us as they think, but that’s just a slogan—faith alone, or once saved, always saved. They don’t even all believe once saved, always saved. You have free-will Baptists and some others who say you can forfeit your salvation. But that was another problem, because there are so many scriptural passages that seem to talk about people being in the fold, and then forsaking it. St. Paul mentions some people in his letters, that’s a major theme in the book of Hebrews. So that was an issue, that’s difficult.
Thank you so much.