At times, it seems as though I’ve spent my whole life thinking about God. And although God may be unchanging, my thoughts about God have changed significantly over the years.
This essay provides a review of my religious and spiritual background. It is not presented to persuade anyone to agree with my spiritual beliefs, found in the quadrune mind model. I write it from a sense of fairness. If I’m going to argue on behalf of my very personal values of spirituality, then it seems only fair to tell you something about who I am and what influenced me along the way. I hope you find something in my story to be of interest to you.
In 1947, my father died when I was four months old. His sister, my godmother, contributed a strong, unfailing, guiding hand that deeply influenced my life. However, there was no equivalent male for me to attach myself to. Looking back, it’s poignantly clear that I looked everywhere on earth for that father figure, and perhaps in Heaven, too.
There is no Christian church with a more direct, intimate relationship with the life of Jesus of Nazareth than the one I was born into: the Antiochian Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. Its roots lie in the same ground that Jesus walked on, and are deeper than the written Gospels. The church provided me a way to know God, although the God I now know is unrecognizable in the Church doctrines I learned as a child.
The church, my cultural heritage, and my family background are three strands of the same ball of yarn. Lebanese Christian families, like mine, consider the Phoenicians to be our ancestors. Jesus walked and preached among Phoenician cities, such as Tyre and Sidon. It was a Syrophoenician woman of that region who expanded Jesus’s consciousness to include non-Jews in his ministry. She begged him to heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon. Jesus stated, not ironically, that the bread of Israel’s children was not to be cast to the dogs. The woman accepted the seriously derogatory label of “dogs” to describe her people, but argued that even the dogs are allowed to eat crumbs that fall from the children’s table. Jesus was persuaded by the woman’s faith to heal her daughter.
Antioch appears several times in the book of Acts. Barnabus and Paul preached the gospel to the church in Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Peter is considered by Eastern Orthodoxy as the founder of the church in Antioch.
As unlikely as it may be, it is not impossible that my direct ancestors were among the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity in the world. My DNA is exclusively from the Levant, which is the geographical region in the Middle East that includes historical areas in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Syria. From the DNA that has made its way to me, everyone in my ancestral line, other than sub-Sahara Africans from whom we are all descended, have been in the Levant forever.
Both sides of my family have long histories of religious activity. My mother’s family reportedly had seven consecutive generations of Orthodox Christian priests. Consequently, the family lost their own familial name and was just called the “priest” family, or “Khouri” family (“Khouri” meaning priest in Arabic). A maternal cousin was head of an international communion of Christian ministries and churches. He preached and later lived for a time in India, a country he loved. Early in his spiritual calling he performed charismatic faith healings. As an adolescent I responded to his invitation to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior at one of his revivals. I also went with him to visit an uncle in his home. Our uncle had suffered a stroke several years earlier. On the affected side of his body, his leg had atrophied. While he sat in a chair, my cousin kneeled on the floor holding our uncle’s leg in his hands. My cousin prayed that our uncle’s leg would be healed and restored to its proper strength and length. As he prayed my cousin believed that the leg was beginning to heal. Sadly, I didn’t, even though I watched very closely.
My father’s family helped establish the Orthodox Church I grew up in. In 1918 the Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory Haddad, in response to a petition by the Lebanese community in Oklahoma City, sent Reverend Father Shukrallah Shadid of Judaidet, Marjayoun, Lebanon to become the first permanent priest, replacing traveling Orthodox priests who had tended the nascent church. A history of the church was written by Jabour S. Shadid. Jabour and his brothers, H. S. (Hafeeth), and L. S. (Lamy), along with other members of the Shadid family, have been deeply involved in all areas of church life and remain so to this day.
My late cousin, journalist Anthony Shadid, mentioned my father in his memoir, House of Stone. He described an event involving my father, Hana, as a young man in Marjayoun. A Muslim family owned a restaurant in the midst of a large, bustling marketplace. Nearby was a mosque. On Good Fridays the family would play Christian prayers from their restaurant speakers. At the mosque my father would return the favor. Anthony described what the diners witnessed:
“Every year, diners in the atrium would see Hana, a Greek Orthodox Christian, climb the minaret with dignity, turn to Mecca, and begin to recite the Muslim call to prayer, touching each word with care. Many years later, in Oklahoma, relatives would smile at the mention of this scene…. [because of] the statement that he and the town were making together. For more than a hundred years Hana’s call would be remembered…. In other times, less peaceful, they would marvel at the Muslim’s acceptance of a Christian man addressing their God as their intermediary.”1
I am so proud of my father. And grateful that Anthony wrote about it in his book, a story I had not heard.
I found myself to be a deeply religious young man participating in many of our church activities. I was an altar boy, attended Sunday school, and was among the first teens who preached sermons during the Church’s Youth Sundays. As a young adult I taught Sunday school, presented at regional retreats, sang in the choir, occasionally chanted for the church services, sponsored youth groups, and was elected to the Board of Trustees when I was 21, the youngest eligible age for Board membership. However, I resigned before my term was up. Many people in the church expected that I would go into the priesthood. I was aware of how my destiny looked. I was also aware that during my 20s I said, “No” to God.
I had loved my church. I loved the symbolism of the Divine Liturgy, which transformed a limited physical reality into an ineffably sacred time and space. The symbolism is the reality. This was never truer for me than during a particular Holy Week service. As part of the service, altar boys and priests process with a large wooden crucifix. The chanting of the priests, the fragrant smoke of incense wafting through the church, the slow mournful march as the processional cross was carried past the people, transported me to the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago. I was there! Jesus was suffering a grotesque death for me. I wept. There was never another time in my life that I felt more like a real Christian than that night. I felt the love Jesus had for the world. I would have died for Jesus if I could have taken his place.
Unfortunately, my feelings of ecstasy created by that service were dislodged by less inspiring experiences with my church. There were several despiritualizing observations that led me, over time, to leave the church. The liturgical service repeated the same pattern of hymns and gospel readings each calendar year. It was painfully obvious to me that many of the people had fallen into a ritualized rut. The liturgical service was often given only lip service.
That what the church taught was not what the congregation lived became unavoidably clear on one memorable occasion. When I was still fairly young, a somewhat unkempt man came to our church. He appeared poor. He sat quietly in a pew with a bowed head. He seemed only to want a warm, safe place to rest. But it wasn’t all that safe. The good ladies of the church looked at him suspiciously, whispering comments to each other that appeared to be rather inhospitable. The ushers of the church made no effort to welcome the man or inquire into his circumstances. The man soon got up and left. I wanted to intercept him while he was leaving, but I didn’t.
There were a few other similarly disappointing experiences I had with the people I still loved, but who were no longer my spiritual mentors. The breaking point was the Eastern Orthodox doctrinal attitude toward women. The Board of Trustees, composed only of men, was requested to serve a meal for a church event. They refused because they would have had to serve women.
I have had a generally nondenominationally-based attitude toward God, which I believe helped provide me a path back to God. There were almost no Eastern Orthodox churches in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas where most of the family immigrated early in the 20th Century. Because of this unavailability of our traditional religion, many members of our family joined diverse Christian denominations, including Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Southern Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps the possibility of more-or-less acceptable alternatives to Orthodoxy was planted in my mind at a young age.
When I was about ten years old, I remember talking to a boyhood friend about a subject I had perfect knowledge of: God. I excitably told him about how God created this beautiful world, especially those great clouds in the sky. I was always partial to God’s clouds. It seemed as though we had talked for about 10 minutes. When I went back inside my house, it surprised me that we had talked for closer to 45 minutes. I was feeling exhilarated from the talk and could not understand how anyone could possibly doubt the existence of God. It hadn’t occurred to me to tell the boy about Orthodoxy.
As a young adult I was being counseled by a recovering alcoholic, charismatic Christian, licensed psychologist. What happened to me during a session involving a meditation exercise is what many in the Christian church might identify as a charism, a spiritual gift received from the Holy Spirit. But for me the event was too large to fit inside of a religiously defined concept. My eyes were closed as I described to my counselor the image I had in my mind. I could see myself standing by a two-lane blacktop road with a white stripe down the middle. Standing beside me were my mother, wife, and sister. We seemed to be anticipating something important, but we didn’t know what it was. We waited silently. Oddly, we and the road were all that there was. All else in the scene was a black void. No ground to stand on or sky to look up to. I told the counselor that there seemed to be something pulling my attention off to the right, just beyond what I could see. He suggested that I take a look in that direction. I noticed that the road rose up the side of a very smooth hill, although I couldn’t see anything under the road. At the crest of the hill, there appeared a soft golden halo of light as though the sun were about to rise above the horizon. I watched as a perfectly round glowing ball silently floated up over the hill toward me. As it approached, I lost all awareness of my family in the image as well as my counselor and his office. The golden sphere reached me and I dissolved into the light. I no longer existed as an individual person. The soft glow was whole and undivided, yet there was also a sense of a soothing presence. I had ceased to be my self, yet I was never less alone than in that moment of selflessness.