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Again Magazine, Volume 19, No, 2 – June/July, 1996
An Orthodox Christian Returns to the Faith
The Story of Elias Issa
I was born to an Orthodox Christian family in a small town in the Phoenician mountains in Syria. Being the firstborn to my father, who was the only son in his family, made my baptism in the Church, on the fortieth day after my birth, a very special event. Shortly after my birth, my family—including my father, mother, and setteh (grandmother)—moved to Homs, a city about 90 miles from Damascus. Grandma had moved in with my parents after my grandfather died.
Both of my parents worked. My father worked for a petroleum company, and my mother worked as a seamstress. This gave my grandma the opportunity to play a very important part in my personal life and the lives of my siblings. She virtually raised us and took care of all our needs.
Grandma was a deeply pious woman who, in her younger days, had sought to become a nun. From all indications, her faith was very important to her. If my memories serve me right, she never missed a church service. We lived a few blocks from the Cathedral. On Sundays and on days I did not have school, Grandma would hold my hand and take me with her to church. She taught me much about our faith, not so much by verbal education, but by her pious example and her love for the Church.
In those days the Church did not offer Church school. Whatever we learned, we had to learn at home, often by example and through our participation in the liturgical life of the Church. My mother reinforced much of what Grandma was trying to instill in us, the Orthodox Christian values. She also was a pious woman. I remember when one of us kids would get sick how quickly she would bring us her Bible, and after placing it on our heads she would read a passage of the Scripture and say a prayer asking God to heal us.
BLINDED BY FALSE IDEOLOGY
Things remained the same until my teens. Then I began to go through a rebellious period. In those days communism and communist ideas were on the rise. All aspects of culture were impacted by atheistic thoughts. I began to go through an ideological development that had three significant stages.
The first one was an atheistic stage, in which I no longer saw God as the viable answer to creation. In my evolutionary thoughts I could not find room for faith in God. I believed that God was no more than a figment of the human imagination.
In the second stage of my ideological development, I began to entertain, and later accepted, the idea that there is an ultimate power that guides the universe due to the “cause and effect” concept. Perhaps God was the Creator of the world in which we live. But if I were to accept the God of my grandma and mother, I must understand that God is the Creator of everyone and everything. He created us and the universe in His own image and likeness.
You see, at this time of my life, due to societal rebellion and my damaged relationship with my family, I viewed the world with a great deal of hostility and discontentment. Actually, to me, the world was downright ugly. If God was the Creator of everything, His creation must reflect His nature. My view of the world as ugly and unpleasant meant God was not someone with whom I sought to have a relationship.
Thus, I echoed the German philosopher who said, “Our father who art in heaven, stay up there.” My world was full of pain, tragedies, hate, distrust, and hypocrisy. Such thinking did not leave much room for God, who represented all that I despised and hated.
Things began to deteriorate on a personal and social level. I became involved with a gang that sought to hurt others, and I lost interest in school. I became a nuisance to teachers and other students, violating all rules by becoming involved in destructive behaviors. I remember one time stealing chloroform from the biology laboratory, intending to sedate my mathematics teacher and classmates so that I could cheat on the exam. This act resulted in my expulsion from school indefinitely.
After the incident at the school, things got worse. I began to go through a period of depression and disillusionment. Hanging around with the wrong crowd did not help matters. I became the bully of the neighborhood. I picked fights with other kids and terrorized the neighborhood. Despite all outward appearances of happiness, I was internally an unhappy person. I wanted to change, but could not do it. I wanted to start a new life, but did not know how. My attempts to pray did not seem to make any difference.
ENLIGHTENED BY THE GOSPEL
Two years after the Middle East Six Day War, on December 24, 1969, while on my way to the liquor store to purchase some alcohol to celebrate Christmas Eve, I ran into my former biology teacher, Najib Jarjour. It was from his laboratory that I had stolen the chloroform a year before. He began to talk to me and seemed genuinely interested in what I had been doing since my expulsion from school. I was really surprised to find him showing interest in me after what I had done.
He began to tell me about Jesus and how He loves me. While he was talking about Christ and His love, my initial impulse was to hit him. I felt very uncomfortable carrying on a religious conversation in the street. It was an indescribable feeling. I struggled to restrain myself from doing him any harm.
As the conversation went on, I began to feel even more uncomfortable. Except this time a gentler feeling began to take over within me. He asked if I was a sinner. I replied. “No.”
He inquired. “Have you never committed any sin in your life?” He continued. “The Bible tells us that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Then I answered. “Perhaps just a few small sins.”
He responded, “You know, it’s just like someone wearing a white apron stained with a few small drops of ink. Would you consider such an apron dirty or clean?” I said, “Dirty.”
He said. “Would you not get your stained apron clean?” Again I replied. “Yes.”
Then he said, “We are considered unclean in the eyes of God and are in need of cleansing. The Bible teaches us through the epistle of St. John, ‘If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’”
As I heard the words of St. John, tears began to trickle down my face and a deep sense of remorse and sinfulness came upon me. I began to realize my deep need to be cleansed and forgiven. I asked. “Would God forgive a sinner like me?”
He replied. “The Bible tells us about God’s promise that if we ask Him with a sincere heart He will fulfill His promise.”
He then assured me of God’s love by quoting the Gospel of St. John, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
He asked me to go home and confess my sins before God that night, and God would change my life and make a new creation out of me.
When we finished our conversation. I returned home, forgetting about going to the liquor store. Upon arriving home, I confessed my sins to God in prayer and went straight to bed. The next day 1 got up and immediately realized that I had a new life. Things were not the same anymore. I began to pray and read the Bible regularly.
Everyone in my family and the people around me knew that something had happened. I did not have to say anything to anyone about what I had just experienced, because they all were able to see the change in my life.
SEDUCED FROM MY CHURCH
It did not take long for my family to figure out my new association could result in my leaving the Orthodox Church. Although everyone in my family rejoiced in seeing the grace of God bringing about a miraculous change in my life, they knew there was a danger of losing me to the Protestants. Eventually, this became a source of conflict. Later, my family and I learned to tolerate our differences, but with great difficulty.
About six months after my confession, I felt a deep sense of calling and a desire to enter the ministry. My teacher kept in touch with me and invited me to a young group Bible study that met every Thursday. In the meeting we studied the Bible and were able to establish close relationships with one another.
Innocently, I became more involved in the life of that group, without having any intention of embracing a faith other than the Orthodox Faith. However, over time I began to gradually buy into the group’s belief system. Different theology began to seep in a little at a time.
I began to spend much time with another group that met at a local Baptist church, while maintaining a relationship with the first, Presbyterian group. At that time the only thing I was interested in was my personal relationship with Christ and the other group members.
After completing high school. I moved to Damascus to study at the University of Damascus. In Damascus I met a relative of a close friend of mine who was visiting from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He learned about my interest in ministry and informed me that he was associated with the Nazarene Bible College. He told me he could make the necessary arrangements for my admission there.
After a few months of correspondence and preparation, I arrived at Colorado Springs. After two years of study, I became licensed to preach in the Nazarene Church. Not long after that, however, as I began to critically understand theological issues and discern the validity of theological teaching grounded in the scriptural truth, I started to realize that I was not in agreement with the central theological tenets of the Nazarene Church. My theological disagreement compelled me to leave the church. I felt I could not serve there as a pastor with a good conscience, concealing my profound theological disagreement.
After I completed my A.A. degree, my new bride and I moved to the Kansas City area so that I could finish my BA. at Mid American Nazarene College. In Kansas City we began to attend a new, small Baptist church in which we became very active, attempting to help this “new start” grow. In November, 1977, the Baptist Church ordained me.
In 1978, after graduating from Mid America College, I enrolled at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Being involved in the ministry as a “tentmaker” necessitated getting a secular employment to provide for my family. I managed a chain jewelry store. The demands of work, school, and local ministry forced me to drop out of the seminary, hoping to return the following year.
Eventually I closed down the jewelry business. Returning from a vacation in Florida. I felt God was speaking to my heart to return to full-time ministry and to complete my seminary education. In 1993, I completed my M. Div. and went on to serve at a local Baptist church.
CALLED HOME TO THE TRUE FAITH
During my seminary studies, I knew and was told by my professors that my writings had strong Orthodox theological content. One day, one of my theology professors in private conversation informed me about a group of evangelicals who had been received into the Orthodox Church. We talked about my Orthodox heritage, and perhaps he felt the need to keep appraised of this new phenomenon.
He lent me a few copies of AGAIN Magazine and one of Father Peter Gillquist’s book, Becoming Orthodox. I read the book and the magazines very quickly, subscribed to AGAIN, and began to pursue further study on my own. Reading about the Church made me feel at home. It was a case of déjà vu.
All along 1 had been longing to find a deeper understanding and a valid biblical hermeneutic that was missing from my Baptist and academic theology. The question that kept popping into my mind was this: Who is more qualified to explain theology and ecclesiology—those eyewitnesses who were there from the beginning, or those of late (seventeenth century) theological development?
I faced a crisis of belief in my pastorate regarding our liturgical practices. Church services seemed disconnected from the historical Church cycles and calendar. The only two things that had any continuity were Christmas and Easter. The services for the rest of the year dealt more with national and denominational emphases than with the Faith of the Holy Fathers. The church appeared to be influenced more by individualism and consumerism than by biblical truth. Churches all around us seemed to be splitting over insignificant differences of opinion, to start a new church or even sometimes a new so-called denomination, under the guise of becoming the New Testament church.
The straw that broke the camel ‘s back was my development of a new outreach program and strategy for my church. The program was very successful in bringing to the church 120 new members. However, in teaching the classes for new members, I found myself constantly making the claim that we were wanting to be the New Testament church. Although I was quick to qualify this by saying that we were not there yet, my statement came back to haunt me. One day I began to question my sincerity in making this claim, and discovered that such a claim cannot be made with any validity without the apostolic teachings and practice in succession and continuity.
This crisis of belief, coupled with my continued study, made me realize that the Orthodox Church is the right Church. However, I had many questions that needed to be answered. I wrote a letter to Father Peter Gillquist to learn how his journey into Orthodoxy was coming along and how his group was making the adjustment.
I also wrote to His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP, describing to him my journey. His speedy response was very encouraging. He told me to get in touch with Father Chad Hatfield of Salina, Kansas. When I talked with Father Chad over the phone, he informed me that Metropolitan PHILIP would soon be coming to visit Salina. I asked him if he would be kind enough to arrange a meeting with His Eminence, which he did.
Meeting with Saidna PHILIP was very helpful to me in feeling the pulse of the Church. I was very encouraged to learn about his vision for the Church and his commitment to see the Church live the mandate of our Lord for evangelism and proclaiming the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20).
My desire to return to the Church was sparked by many people. It has been a community effort and has taken a long time. In 1974, my uncle, Peter Farage of Cleveland, sparked the fire. The late Father James Meena of Cleveland gave me his very own hardcover copy of Vladimir Lossky’s book, The Mystical Theology o/ the Eastern Church. Francis Frost of Kansas City encouraged me and gave me many Orthodox theological books. Father Theoharis has been my mentor and liturgical teacher. To all of them, thank you, and IT IS GOOD TO BE HOME.
SHARING THE TRUTH
Since my return to the Church, I have been busy studying and preparing for the holy priesthood and serving the Church in various ways. Writing this article gives me great joy. I am happy to have the opportunity to share my story with the readers, that we may become more active in proclaiming the gospel to those around us. A good beginning is to share this Good News with those whom we love.
Also, I wanted to share my story with those who are traveling the road I have traveled before, to help them rediscover the truth about our rich Orthodox spiritual heritage. I am writing to encourage those in responsible positions in the Church to be proactive in reaching our own people and to become intentional in guarding the Faith.
I hope through reading my story, you will learn how God worked through events, encounters, and people to bring me back home. Perhaps you would want to take the time and make the effort to hold someone’s hand, as Grandma held my little hand. Take the time to be deliberate in teaching your own children God’s precepts. Remember, you are the steward of God’s gift to you, your children. Perhaps you want to teach someone how to live the gospel by example and pass on orally the tradition of the Fathers. As you seek to travel the road less traveled, the Word will become flesh and will dwell among us.
Elias Issa currently lives in Overland Park, Kansas. He is working towards a doctorate (D. Min.) through the Antiochian House of Studies in preparation for the priesthood.
Glory be to God! •