Over the years I have shared thoughts on faith, both serious and humorous, including 2 sets of 30 Days of Gratitude series (Nov. 2012 and July 2013), as part of my own personal journey and even had a poem lead to an extended discussion related to faith.
Before moving to Houston the last time I had attended church of any type were one time visits to the church of my father and Crystal Cathedral for the Hour of Power.
Of particular relevance to this post are these...
The event I am about to share took place 6 days after the first of the two "pencil" posts, on December 1st, 2012. The story appears as written soon after.
I've long since forgotten the reason I didn't share this story at the time, but I believe that, with all that is going on in America culturally and politically and in my own personal journey that it is time I finally do so.
I don't want to risk my personal testimony gettting lost in the shuffle of what will soon be 5000 blog posts that I will attempt to organize for future use.
Since the end of August 2010 I have been unemployed and during the second year of that period endured a broken ankle. During this time I took up reading books of an inspirational nature, both of a personal life sort, and a creative writing sort, finding reason to express myself in more than a few blog posts.
While having a faith in God, and an interest in the Holy Bible, for the past 30 years I’ve not been the church going type of Christian, settling instead to watch the sermons of Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, and others I liked, on TV, on a regular basis, in the 70’s and the 80’s. In the past decade I actually attended an Hour of Power service, and went once to the church of the faith of my father on a genealogical expedition.
My love of films led me to enjoy the various “life of Christ” films, Christian themed films, old and new “gladiator” type films, and the like. My love of reading has led me to many books of a historical, and inspirational, nature. All of this inspired me to write a Creative Writer’s Prayer, and create an “inspiration” themed wall board, with various expressions of faith and encouragement that I read every morning.
I have attended Lakewood Church, in Houston, TX for a month, enjoying the services, and sermons of Pastor Joel Osteen. As I’ve begun to read his books, and deal with being not only unemployed, but having serious medical issues in my eyes, I began to connect with my faith in a deeper, more meaningful way than I ever have before.
Unlike the members of the Pentecostal church of a woman I called “grandmother” while growing up, I’m not the type to go prancing up and down the aisle doing back flips for Jesus, and speaking in tongues, nor am I the type of person I see at Lakewood, raising hands to the sky, and singing the songs.
Like my mother, my faith is of a more quite sort; I read the scriptures, and other books, write my thoughts when inspired, listen quietly to, and enjoy, the singing, guest speakers, and sermons. I hadn’t given the notion of baptism a 2nd thought.
I mean, I’d gone through it once, when I was about 6 months old, as part of the ritual of the Greek Orthodox faith of my father, but whether it “took” or not is hard to say.
So why was I contemplating it now, at age 52?
People baptized as adults do so to become "born again" and this, in their minds, changes the meaning of any baptism when an infant. An involuntary act, replaced by one that is voluntary, often into a different religion. In most corners of the Christian faith that believe in it, being “born again” means experiencing a "spiritual rebirth", or refreshing of their soul or spirit and, to many, it is an extremely emotional, profoundly transformative, experience.
I moved to Houston as an act of faith and trust that it was the right thing to do at this time in my life, for personal and creative reasons. There was nothing left for me in a CA with high unemployment, high rent, and high cost of living, and while I would miss being near my sisters that was not enough of a reason to keep me there. Unemployed, with the benefits due to end in December, I arrived in mid-Sept. expecting to land a job by the end of the year.
That hasn’t happened, and instead I suddenly find myself, just after Thanksgiving, with both eyes suffering serious medical conditions, one of them even cancerous in nature (I have a vitreous hemorrhage, in the left eye, being treated with 3 types of eye drops, and a medium malignant melanoma, in the right eye. While easily treatable, it's getting it that I'm working on.). While I have not found a job I am finding encouragement and advice as I hesitantly begin to move forward with the creative side of what brought me to Texas.
When I learned of the seriousness of my eye issues, I began to look into how to care for them and how I will live through the next few months. I didn’t freak out, pull out my hair and moan “woe is me”. I’ve actually taken things rather calmly. At the same time I found myself wanting to express my faith and trust in God, in ways different from just expressing my thoughts in writing. That’s how the idea of going through baptism took root.
The liberal Kiril of 20 years ago would not have even contemplated the idea, but I’ve become a different, more conservative, person over the past decade, and while hesitant about it, not entirely closed to the idea. The day before being baptized I made the decision to go ahead with it, still coming to terms with the why.
I am very concerned about my short-term future, job-wise, and medically, and optimistic and hopeful about my creative future, and wanted some way to express my faith and trust in a higher power guiding me in the way I need to go, and getting me safely through my current housing, financial, and medical crises. The best way I knew how to do that was to publically express that faith and trust in one of the most well-known houses of worship in the nation, and by going through one of the most public expressions of faith that an adult can experience.
The baptism that a baby experiences in the Greek Orthodox Church is vastly different, and more ritualized, than what one experiences in most Protestant American churches, including a non-denominational place like Lakewood.
When I was around 6 months old my Godparents sponsored me through the elaborate ritual.
The baby wears white and is held facing east, while the priest breathes all over him or her three times, and makes the sign of the cross to make Satan know he’s better off looking elsewhere. The godparents then face west, tell Satan to go pound sand on the child's behalf and spitting on the floor for good measure before facing east again.
The godparents assure everyone that their little darling will be faithful to Christ when the priest asks. The priest then blesses and consecrates the water used for the baptism as the godparents take the kids attire off and splash its forehead, nose, ears, mouth, chest, legs, feet, hands and back, with this water made cool with God. The little darling is then dunked three times by the priest given back to the godparents, wrapped in a white sheet, rubbed with Holy Myrrh for good measure, a lock of hair cut in the shape of a cross from the baby's hair, and blessed yet again, as the Myrrh is washed off, in a symbolic fashion.
During all this, when they have to carry the baby, the godparents walk around the baptismal font.
Scriptures are read, the baby fed its first taste of Holy Communion, and then everybody goes off to a post baptismal shindig, as the baby either continues bawling and squalling, or resumes its nap. I don’t remember any of it, which is a shame because it sounds like fun was had by all, judging by the 3 photos I have of the event.
Compared to this what I experienced at Lakewood, while emotional, and filled with ritual, was vastly different.
Pastor Osteen’s message this night was on themes found in his book Your Best Life Now, which I had been reading the last 3 days (synchronicity?), and thoughts I’d been expressing in recent days on my blog, about old doors closing, and new ones opening, and trusting God to take care of you in His own time, and His way. In the last minutes of the service he asked for those in the audience to shed any embarrassment they might have and stand up before God, and 10,000 strangers, and either profess, or rededicate, their faith in Christ.
And so I found myself standing, eyes closed, head bowed, hands folded in front of me, as Joel asked those standing to repeat a prayer and the audience whooped it up in support and encouragement.
Afterwards I felt a strong slap on the back, and heard a hearty “God Bless You!” glad that it wasn’t some ex-Texan linebacker doing the slapping.
I felt calm and relaxed, at peace with the decision I had made, not only to stand, and re-dedicate myself to a further “walk with God”, and exploration of my faith, but to go through with the baptism, and so made a beeline for the elevator to the 3rd floor chapel where the baptismal pool was.
Lakewood believes that water baptism in the Holy Spirit is “a symbol of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ and a testimony to our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In this “believer's baptism” the water itself is not special, “but a demonstration that you no longer are your old self; been buried, and now resurrected in Christ and walk in His power, purpose and love.” It is, like the dunking of the baby among Greek Orthodox, a “full immersion” experience, except you only go under once, in a simple, quick, ceremony.
The ritual begins with you signing a form where you put your name age, and sex, and where you are from, then you go to a dressing room where you enter a small cubicle, take all your clothes off, and put on a dark robe. You then come back into the chapel, and sit through a brief sermon.
As we awaited developments several ministers, including one named Scott, who would officiate in the pool, chatted with us individually. I shared with him my moving here from CA and my concerns over my unemployment, where I’d be in the coming months, and about my medical condition, and he asked if he could pray over me, in support and encouragement. It was a comforting prayer, and I thanked him for his kindness.
While I don’t remember the details of the sermon it was relevant to your faith, and the event at hand and, in this case, had a little extra of interest about it, both as a lesson in faith, and one in courage, at least in my view. The minister was an ex-Muslim who converted to Christianity and whose immediate family eventually did the same, to hear him tell it. That is a very risky, life threatening, life altering thing to do, especially if you live in the Middle East. The man shared his message with a great sense of humor, and the flair of a natural performer, using colorful props, and one of our fellow robe wearers for good measure.
Finally it was time to go get baptized.
You walk into a room with a white pool with steps leading down into maybe 3 or 4 feet of water.
Above you there is room for people to stand and even an area where people can watch, cheer, and take pictures from the peanut gallery. You approach the white-robed minister, and he takes your hands speaks a message of faith and encouragement, tells you to hold your nose, and shut your mouth, takes hold of you, and lays you backwards, completely, though briefly, under the water, before raising you up, soaked, yet reborn, feeling calm, yet strangely moved, as I was, or feeling exhilarated, and emotional, as others were.
I was given a towel to go dry off and, after I was again dressed, my camera, used to take several pictures of me, was given to me, and I went to retrieve a Lakewood Church Certificate of Baptism, with my name on it, a passage from Romans 8:4, and signed by Joel Osteen, that states the following:
“This certifies that Kiril Kundurazieff Upon confession of Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, has been baptized and is hereby awarded this CERTIFICATE OF BAPTISM”.
I got a laugh from everyone when I told them I had been baptized as a baby in the Greek Orthodox faith, and that no doubt Mom was re-assuring my Dad, upstairs, that what occurred to me this night in no way negated what they had done 52 years ago...it was just extra insurance. I don't think God was completely satisfied with this whole body immersion thing, though, because as I walked to the bus stop the sprinklers on either side of the sidewalk, for a block, came on and I got doused a 2nd time to, um, make sure. Three days later I had to go out in the middle of a thunderstorm as well.
All humor aside, I feel at peace, and comfortable with what I did, and trust in God to bring me through my current trials into a better future life.
Eventually I stopped attending services, though I still read Joel's books and highly recommend the bookstore; I had always found the noise level of the music a bit much to take, even when sitting in the rafters, as far up as I could (Why have a choir when you couldn't even hear their voices over the instruments and the singing of the other performers and congregation) and decided it was best to look for somewhere else to go to church.
In the Fall I settled on Second Baptist Church of Houston and its central location; the reason was that the Baptist faith, the preaching styles of Ed & Ben Young and the services themselves (hallelujah! I could hear the choir and love the orchestra!) appealed to me.
Watching the podcasts of the senior pastor (Ed) remind me of the TV sermons of Jerry Falwell and the way my uncle Bill, also a 2nd Baptist minister, preached; serious, yet filled with humor.
Because of my work schedules I've so far only attended once, when I joined the church, so am thankful for the podcasts.