At the start of a new year, we usually come up with new resolutions and look forward to making some change in the coming year. Today, however, I’m struck, not with a desire for a different future, but with a gratitude for my past.
While I’ve done things that I’m not proud of, I can’t help but be thankful for my experiences, because without my past, and the way the Lord used even my most embarrassing mistakes, I wouldn’t have my present.
I grew up in a charismatic tradition of Protestantism. Sermons would last nearly an hour, and people would bring their own bibles (!) to follow along as the pastor explained a passage. But the primary thrust of the charismatic service was on spending time in corporate worship, allowing the Holy Spirit to do work through the gathered assembly of Christians.
For some congregations, this looked like speaking in indiscernible languages called tongues (a hallmark of the tradition), with someone chosen to interpret the speech. Others would lay their hands on the sick and pray for healing; some times, people would testify to having actually been healed! And whatever else was going on, people would continually attribute these things to the power of the Holy Spirit, whom they confessed worked through them.
I know many people who have converted to Orthodoxy from similar traditions, or least from mainline Protestantism. I often hear them look back on their old congregations with a sense of superiority, “That’s SO Protestant.”
This may be in response to someone saying that they had read the Bible recently. Or that they had “quiet time.” Or that they prayed without a prayer book. Or that they called the Lord by the Name He gave Himself: Jesus.
All of these things: SO PROTESTANT.
And frankly, dismissing them as merely Protestant missed the point. Because they are good things, and I’m glad they’ve been a part of my life in Christ.
I’m glad that I came from a tradition that overtly emphasized the reading of Scripture. I’m glad that I heard about “quiet time” as a discipline. I’m glad that people encouraged me to pray what was “on my heart.” I’m glad I know the Lord’s Name.
Because this past has led me to be Orthodox. While I could never leave Orthodoxy for Protestantism, I am grateful for what I learned and experienced given what they were for me at the time. They were the path I needed to take as Jesus (Yes, Jesus) has continued to lead me to Him.
Instead of looking at my past as a Protestant and judging the worship songs, judging those who lift their hands in praise, judging those who lay hands on each other to pray for healing, today, I’m simply grateful that this tradition prepared me for the bodily realities of worship in the Church.
Instead of being weirded out or making fun of the fact that those Protestants believe in the crazy movement of the Holy Spirit who makes them speak in tongues, today, I’m grateful that I was given a sense of the Transcendent One’s ability to take even the most mundane things and transform them for His Glory (think, “This is my body…”).
My past has led me to this very point; how can I be anything but grateful?
Sure, there are some things that were incomplete about my experience of Christ as a Protestant. But that upbringing gave me the desire to have a complete experience of Him, a desire that led me straight into the Orthodox Church.
And I thank God for it.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading points to the fact that even the Lord sets this up as somewhat of a precedent. As we discussed last week, John the Baptist was given the task of preparing the way for the Lord. Ultimately, St. John was arrested.
When Jesus learns of John’s imprisonment, we read that He withdrew into Galilee, where He took up St. John’s message, which the Baptist continued to preach until his martyrdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).
Christ didn’t look at John’s ministry and say, “Ugh, that is SO John the Baptist!” Rather, Christ took up the message that John began preaching and completed it Himself, revealing to us in His very Person the Kingdom that John spent his life proclaiming.
We don’t need to be afraid of our pasts or hate them. We don’t need to be ashamed of where we came from. We all have lessons to learn, and regrets about things we’ve done. But rejecting where we’ve come from is not the path to our salvation.
If we want to be truly Orthodox Christians, we must incorporate our past into our present identities. A convert cannot dismiss his past saying, “That’s so Protestant,” any more than a cradle Orthodox can look down on his years in Sunday School or youth group. Even if those experiences are not enough to sustain us now, they are a part of the nourishment that led us to our present state of spiritual development.
To be truly Orthodox, we must look at the whole of our lives, both the awesome parts and the not so awesome parts, and lift them all up to God. We should say with St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for all things!”
And so today, I say, “Glory to God for my Protestant upbringing, because it brought me here; it is what brought me and continues to bring me to Christ.”
In addition to the resolution I wrote about last week, I resolve to give thanks to God for all things. I resolve to put my trust in God, knowing that He alone can take the whole of what my life, your life, and our lives have been, and cause all things to work for the life of the world.
So let’s give thanks in the New Year, not only as we look into the future for what He has in store for us, but as we look back on our lives, seeing the winding road of the past as that which has prepared the way for us to meet the Lord today.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.