Seeing a Familiar Protestant Painting Reminds Me That I Did not Completely “Reject” My Religious Upbringing


"Christ at Heart's Door" by Warner Sallman.
“Christ at Heart’s Door” by Warner Sallman.

<disclaimer> This post will be a little more emotional and personal than what I usually post. Also, since this is a reflection, I will not be providing extensive citations. It’s kind of a tribute. Perhaps I will convert this in to a proper essay, after I’ve had time to let it sink in.</disclaimer>

Some people assume that because I converted to the Orthodox Church, that I rejected all of my past religious upbringing. It is certainly true that I rejected some things from my Protestant upbringing. Let me list a few of those ideas for illustration, before proceeding on with this essay, which is not about what I rejected, but what I benefited from and appreciate:

1) The idea that you say a sinner’s prayer and get saved, have a sure knowledge that it “worked,” and that nothing you do from that point on can jeopardize your eternal salvation. My Lutheran upbringing did temper this with an exception for apostasy.

2) The idea that goes hand-in-hand with #1, namely, that it is impossible for someone to become truly righteous, but rather God adds the credits of Jesus’s life to you after you “accept him as your savior.” Sanctification is encouraged, but is a separate category. You’ll never really get clean though. States Luther: “I said before that our righteousness is dung in the sight of God. Now if God chooses to adorn dung, he can do so” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, page 184). No. God’s grace, which is truly part of Him (His uncreated energies) penetrate the soul and restore man to the condition He had before the fall. Man can be changed, truly, to the core. Man can become godlike. Holiness is possible for man, in this life.

3) The idea that there is a class of people that can’t be prayed for: namely, those who have already died.

4) The idea that God created some people knowing full well they would have no chance for salvation (i.e. all Native Americans created before 1492).

I could go on and on, but the purpose of this note is actually not to catalog why I rejected Protestantism, and ultimately became an Orthodox Christian. Instead, this post is a corrective to any impression or assumption one might have about me and my conversion, which might arise from the known doctrinal viewpoints of the Orthodox Church vis-a-vis non-Orthodox Churches (denominations).

Quite on the contrary, despite the theological errors that I was exposed to growing up, it was not those things which affected me more than the basic love of Christ found in my family did. The picture I have attached, “Christ at Heart’s Door” by Warner Sallman, illustrates perfectly what my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, some of my older cousins, got right. What their example showed me.

This beautiful picture (in a kind of odd 3-d rendition so reminiscent of the 1980s) was on the bedside table of the guest room in my grandmother’s home growing up. When I would spend the night there, or go over there, this image was next to me. Christ is knocking on the door. But look: there’s no handle. You have to let him in. I never noticed that; someone pointed it out to me. Beautiful, huh? He’s right there, and he wants to come in. He loves us. But he isn’t going to force us. Sallman was inspired by this quote from Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

Yes, there are simplistic understandings of what that means. Yes, there is an overemphasis on making Jesus one’s “personal” savior. But there is a simple truth that is lived by many people who didn’t always understand all the doctrinal implications: Jesus is here. He’s ready. He’s waiting. He loves you. When you accept him and believe in him, that means you should do things differently.

My family was a Christian family. We went to Church, we put God first. It was the 1980’s, and gradually many of my family members experienced temptations and sinful influences. There were divorces and the like. Some of it didn’t seem to add up with what we had been eagerly agreeing with in the Church. Sometimes they didn’t do things differently (and I myself didn’t do things right, so many times!) But there was a reality there, a belief that God is in control and that ultimately things will be ok. That through faith, things will change.

I changed, and it was Christ that saved me from myself so many times. I got a good grounding in faith and the Bible in my Protestant days. The Roman Catholic Church, where I sojourned some years, taught me about personal repentance, confession, charity, and increased my love of neighbor. Ultimately, it all came together for me in Orthodoxy, where life changed completely. Where baptism in the Orthodox Church, by three full immersions, changed me forever. Sinful passions I could never conquer were destroyed. Everything is calmer–the ups and downs are there, but there is a regulator of sorts; it doesn’t sway too much one way or the other.

Would I have become Orthodox, which I believe is the original and True visible Church of Jesus Christ, if I had not been taught to love Jesus Christ by my family? Taken to Church by them regularly? Slept next to this beautiful picture of Jesus, and thought about him wanting to save me? Maybe, maybe not. But I got a good head start. I will never reject that, and I will thank my parents, grandparents, and other relatives who gave me this gift. My acceptance of Orthodoxy was not a complete rejection of my past. It did involve a rejection of some extremes, but those were extremes which didn’t really impact the day-to-day good examples shown me (for example, Grandma railing against Catholics for “worshiping Mary,” calling the Pope an Antichrist, and wearing orange on St Patrick’s Day did not affect my faith much, because I saw her lifetime of loving service to my grandfather and her service to the local Church, and this spoke more than the rough edges).

Jesus stood knocking, and I accepted him. Maybe I went in a direction that some don’t understand. Maybe they don’t agree with it. I hope they will consider it, and yes, I hope everyone I know will become an Orthodox Christian. But I leave that in the hands of God. Seeing the image of Christ knocking, however, reminds me of the firm grounding I received, the love I was shown, the wholesomeness, the joy. It prepared me for where I am now. I will never disparage the simple faith that was present.

Thank you Jesus, for letting me be born where I was. Thank you family, for raising me to know Jesus.


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