Conversion StoriesEastern OrthodoxMethodist

Taking God out of My Pocket: A Journey from Methodism to Orthodoxy to Rome

Frank L. Johnson
July 20, 2015 45 Comments

St. Paul — perhaps the greatest convert of all — was nonetheless suspicious of converts. In his First Letter to Timothy 3:6, concerning one who aspires to the office of bishop, St. Paul says: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit.” So it may be a good thing that I am not a recent convert. I have had time to cool down, to reflect, and to mitigate, if not eliminate, the “puffiness” and “conceit” to which St. Paul refers. The main part of my conversion story happened, or at least began, about 15 years ago in 2000.

For the first 55 years of my life I was an active Methodist — beginning in Methodist Youth Fellowship in my local church in Daytona Beach and continuing in Wesley Foundation at University of South Florida in Tampa where I received my first degree in English Education. After teaching junior high English for a year in Tampa, I went to seminary at Southern Methodist University in Dallas where I received a Master’s of Theology. I had met my wife, Patricia, while we were students at USF, and we got married between my first and second years of seminary at SMU. She was originally Presbyterian, but converted to Methodism since she was marrying a future Methodist minister. I then served as pastor for United Methodist parishes in the Florida Conference for several years, eventually leaving the ordained ministry to return to English teaching until retiring in 2004. Though I had left the ordained ministry, I continued active membership in the United Methodist Church, which I continued to love.

The vacation that changed my life

In 2000, Patricia and I took an inside passage cruise along the coast of Alaska, making stops along the way to tour towns such as Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka. In Juneau and Sitka, my wife and I visited historic old Russian Orthodox churches where I was struck by the beauty of the iconography and picked up some brochures on the history and theology of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy’s claim to have an unbroken Tradition going back 2000 years to the time of Christ especially impressed me since I was part of a Protestant denomination that began only about 200 years ago with John Wesley. When I got back home from that Alaskan cruise, I did a lot of computer searching on Orthodox Christianity, and so began my journey.

When I was a little kid, I had a sense that God was bigger than I was, and that big God pulled me through a lot of tough times in my growing-up years, and I believe He inspired me to go on and be ordained as a United Methodist pastor. But I also found that as I grew up, my God didn’t. In fact, as I grew bigger, my God got smaller. My Protestant heritage encouraged me to analyze God, to rationalize God, to privatize God, and to individualize God — and so I did — to the point that I trivialized my God. It seemed as though my God was no bigger than I was — in fact, my God was in the spitting image of me! I had successfully re-shaped and re-created God in my own image. God was pretty well reduced to nothing more than “the man upstairs” that the “jocks for Jesus” so often talk about. I lost respect for the God that I had so neatly tucked away in my hip pocket.

In my nearly 56 years of Protestantism, I experienced that Protestantism glories in its pluralism — and well it must — for there is no one unifying Holy Tradition to hold Protestantism together. Each Protestant denomination has its own general concept of God, but it doesn’t end there. Most Protestants, at least Methodist Protestants, are encouraged to go on and come up each with his or her own private and individual concept of God.

But then I discovered in Orthodoxy, through the Divine Liturgy and my studies of the 2,000-year-old Tradition, the “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” — the One that so shook the Temple and so shook the earth and so shook Isaiah that all Isaiah could say in response was “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-8) In Orthodoxy I met the God who cannot be analyzed and rationalized and trivialized by little old me. I met the God who does not yield or give in to my judgments of Him, but rather who stands in judgment of me. I met the God who is not the result of my personal creative imagination, but rather the God who created me out of nothing. I met the God who will not allow Himself to be re-molded by me into my image, but rather who seeks to re-mold me into His image and likeness.

In Orthodoxy, I met the God that challenged and confronted me, even as out of the whirlwind He challenged and confronted Job, with these words: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?…I will question you…Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding…Who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1-7) Yes, and where was I when God sent Jesus, called the Apostles, and laid the foundation of One Church with Christ as its cornerstone? Who am I that I should try to change God’s revelation as it lives on in the continuous 2,000-year-old Christian Tradition? Does it not make more Christian sense that I should change myself or let God change me in accordance with His revelation? In Orthodoxy, I met the God who prodded me as He prodded Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) So I walked away from my Protestant past, even my family, and began my Orthodox journey. In Orthodoxy, I met the BIG God who came to me like a bolt out of the blue and struck me down, even as He struck down St. Paul with blinding light on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9: 1-19), but then He raised me up so that I can say with the hymn: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” — thanks to the “amazing grace” of a big God — a truly BIG God.

The beauty of early Christian traditions

I finally got the nerve to call the Greek Orthodox Church in the Orlando area to set up an appointment with a priest to discuss what was happening to me. I ended up meeting with the parish’s associate priest who was a former Texas Methodist and had himself converted to Orthodoxy in his earlier life. I began meeting even more Methodists who had converted to Orthodoxy, so I decided to become a catechumen. After several months as a catechumen, I was chrismated (confirmed with holy chrism) in the Greek Orthodox Church in January 2001.

It was not all that difficult to convert from Methodism to Eastern Orthodoxy, because I found the two churches share a similar theology of salvation, thanks to the fact that John Wesley (the Anglican priest who founded Methodist societies that became the Methodist Church) was greatly influenced by the early Christian Greek Fathers. Wesley’s idea of “going on to perfection” is similar to the idea of “theosis” or “deification” that is at the heart of Eastern Orthodox theology. Both traditions share the idea that salvation is a growing experience.

Like other converts from Protestantism to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, it took me time to understand and adjust to the emphasis on Mary in the more ancient Christian Tradition. But I finally came to see Jesus’ mother Mary as chief among the saints and our friend in Heaven who lives there to intercede for us. We can ask her to pray for us even as we might ask a friend in this world to pray for us. And, yes, as the mother of Jesus — who is the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity — she can be and should be called the Mother of God.

Another matter to which I had to adjust was the veneration of sacred images — mostly icons in Eastern Orthodoxy and statues in Roman Catholicism. Orthodox people are frequently found kissing icons. I came to realize that Christianity is truly an incarnational faith. We believe the Divine comes to us “in the flesh.” The spiritual comes to us and is revealed to us in the material. Orthodox and Catholics do not worship images, but we can and do honor and venerate the holy persons represented (or re-presented) by the images. Icons are like “windows to heaven” through which we can look to see the sacred realities behind the icon and depicted in the icon or statue.

Full of history, but lacking unity

I was “head over heels in love” with Orthodox Christianity — the beauty and mystery of the Liturgy, the iconography, the history, the theology. It was like, after 55 years of “wandering in the wilderness,” I had finally found the Truth — yes, the Truth with a capital “T.” And here is where that “puffiness” and “conceit” that worried St. Paul entered in. I am sure I unfortunately beat a lot of friends and family over the head with my new-found faith. After all, I had found the Truth, and I could not understand why other folks could not see what I was seeing.

Then in 2005, shortly after Benedict XVI became Pope, came the second major part of my conversion and my move into the Roman Catholic Church. Why? I loved Orthodoxy — and I still do; I long for the day when the East/West Schism of 1054 will be healed — but the longer I was in Orthodox churches, the more I became aware of inherent weaknesses and problems that disturbed me.

I think it can be said in fairness that Eastern Orthodoxy is not really one church, but a kind of loose confederation of various, nationally-oriented churches. There are the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Egyptian Orthodox, etc. — each with its own patriarchal leader. As Orthodoxy entered the United States, the multiplicity of Orthodox churches led to the problem of “overlapping jurisdictions” in America. So, for example, for Orlando, Florida, there is not one Orthodox bishop, but many — one for the Greek Orthodox, one for the Antiochian Orthodox, one for the Orthodox Church in America (the OCA with Russian heritage), one for the Coptics, etc. Though the various Orthodox churches cooperate with each other to some extent and have inter-communion, they do not manifest for me the true Oneness and Catholicity that are marks of Christ’s Church. One of the reasons I moved on into the Catholic Church is because I became convinced that Jesus really did know what He was doing when He put Peter (now Francis) in charge of His Church. We need that strong central leadership or otherwise we degenerate into the ecclesial confusion of Eastern Orthodoxy and the denominational confusion of Protestantism. Our unity as Roman Catholics enables us to be more effective in such matters as evangelism, missions, and service to the world at large.

My years in Eastern Orthodoxy taught me to love and appreciate Tradition, side-by-side with Scripture, each complementing the other. But the longer I was in Orthodoxy the more I became concerned that a lot of little “t” traditions were accumulating and over-powering big “T” Tradition, like a snowball rolling down hill that just gets bigger and bigger. One aspect of tradition in Orthodoxy that I think has gotten out-of -hand is the fasting regimen. Sometimes I think our Catholic fasting regimen now is too puny and weak, but I also think the Orthodox regimen represents the other extreme. Orthodox can spend a major part of the year in fasting — and the fasting regimen is so strict and lean that it is just plain unhealthy. I have known Orthodox folks who have destroyed their health trying to abide by all the fasting rules and disregarding good nutrition. Though perhaps too easy, Catholic fasting rules are at least reasonable — and I do think God expects us to use good sense.

Professing the Nicene Creed

Since I had already been anointed with holy chrism in the Orthodox Church and since the Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of Eastern Orthodox priesthood and sacraments, my move into the Catholic Church was relatively easy. I did not have to go through the RCIA process and be confirmed again. During a weekday Mass, the priest of a local Catholic parish had me recite the Nicene Creed and then he shook my hand and welcomed me into the Catholic Church. By the way, since Baptism is a one-time event, both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches accepted my Methodist baptism in the name of the Trinity.

I am now actively involved in Orlando’s Good Shepherd Catholic Parish. I teach a weekly Faith Formation/Confirmation class for youth and a monthly Baptism class for parents and godparents of the babies or children to be baptized. I am also an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion and I serve as a Lector at Sunday Mass. In addition to all the reading and studying in the Faith that I am constantly doing on my own, I also fully participated in the Orlando Diocese Catechist Certification Program (DCCP) and am certified as a Master Catechist.

As a sidelight, I might add that my wife did not convert to either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. She continues to be active in her local United Methodist parish. I visit her church occasionally for special programs and she visits mine — most recently for the Easter Vigil Mass on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. At first, my wife’s not seeing things the way I did bothered me, but I have come to see it as God’s will. For one thing, I am still friends with many folks in her Methodist parish, including the pastors, and this positive relationship provides me with an avenue to share my Catholic faith with non-Catholics. Additionally, this situation has taught me a lesson in love: if we love only those who are like us, that is nothing — the sign of true godly love is to love those who are different from us. One of the beauties of Catholicism since Vatican II is that, as we now look at non-Catholics, we see their glasses as half-full instead of as half-empty — a major attitude change on our part and probably a very good one as we witness to the world around us.