Between my first and second years at seminary, with the knowledge of the administration and the approval of the registrar at the Lutheran seminary I attended, I took a course at St. Vladimir’s Theological Orthodox Seminary as part of their annual Liturgical Institute. During a break while walking on campus, I happened to cross paths with Bishop Kallistos Ware as he was arriving. I knew he was coming, figured out quickly it was him, and followed the two or three people ahead of me in greeting him. No doubt, he noticed my awkwardness in the protocol of asking a blessing, and so engaged me in a brief conversation. I told him I was Lutheran, and was considering Orthodoxy. He told me not to become Orthodox if I was upset with what’s happening in the Lutheran Church because the Orthodox Church won’t fix those problems. He told me not to reject Lutheranism, but to thank God for the good it brought me. And then he said, “If you become Orthodox, do so because you want to be Orthodox.” That was essentially the same message I heard from the few professors I spoke with (Fr Thomas Hopko and Fr Paul Tarazi among them) and from the several priests, deacons, seminary students and laymen that I met. I also heard, both explicitly and implicitly, that the Orthodox Church was not nirvana. And I was told that I should not make such a decision until I had the blessing of my father confessor.
That summer I struggled mightily. I talked with my wife—who was not at all interested in Orthodoxy. I also spoke with several professors. And I spoke with my father confessor. They reminded me that nearly all the practices I desired were permitted and possible in the Lutheran church; they convinced me that Orthodoxy and Lutheranism were not that far apart; and they pointed out what Lutheranism sees as key doctrinal problems in Orthodoxy (synergism, a weak view of original sin, a wrong view on free will, invocations to Mary and the saints, and the pietistic/charismatic sounding hesychast movement). With all this, I agreed. And then I spoke with the Orthodox priest that I knew. He suggested I was not yet ready because I was not yet convinced, so I should stay put. And he told me he’d always be available if I wanted to talk. Little did I know that, for twenty years, he also prayed earnestly for me. Yet this is the key: he left the door open, but he never pressured me or tried to strong-arm me to enter. Above all else, he never allowed me to think or believe that the prayers I said, the sacraments I received, the faith I held was not of the Holy Spirit. And then, in his usual off-handed way, he identified the key issue—an issue that really didn’t sink in until three years ago. He said, “The key question is ‘Where is the Church?’”