Saturday, May 23, 2020

My Childhood Introduction to the Bible (2 of 5)

...continued from part one

A few years passed, and now I was at a point where I knew many Bible stories at a very basic level, especially from the Old Testament, and they moved me, but I didn't know how to theologically tie it all together. After all, I was in elementary school with no one to really teach me, but I was discovering these things on my own. I was also growing up, had just left all my friends when I moved to a new town and entered a new school, and I was often alone. Then something happened that forever changed my life and tied everything together for me. It had to do with that one part of the Bible I needed to hear that I never understood before.

When I was ten years old, my temperament was somewhat nihilistic and angry. My mind was often occupied with death and the meaning of life. Though I was born and raised a Greek Orthodox Christian, theologically what made most sense to me was that life was but a dream within a dream, that I was living outside of reality, and my real self was some cosmic entity who imagined my present reality; it was all nothing but a figment of my imagination. Trouble often found me, and if my parents punished me for it, then all I could feel was hatred for them. They were even ready to send me to military school, since to them my future was bleak. If left unchecked for long, no doubt I would have grown up to be a model rebellious teenager.

At the time I was forced to attend Greek school twice a week after regular school. The previous year I had a horrible Greek school teacher, who was very verbally abusive to me. This eventually got her fired after it was exposed, but my experience with Greek school was not that great before this, and it just made a bad situation worse. Now I was in the fifth grade, and my teacher was a young seminarian named Yianni (he never gave us his last name) from Greece who was studying at Holy Cross School of Theology. He was actually very kind, patient and had a particular fondness for me. This was because every week for one of the two days he never taught us the Greek language, but instead talked about our Greek Orthodox faith and heritage. To me this was refreshing, and I always listened attentively, while everyone else was practically snoring. This I think is why he liked me so much.

On one of these particular days, the topic he decided to talk about was forgiveness. In a heartfelt and dramatic fashion, he talked about the power of forgiveness in his own life. One story I remember is that when he first moved to America from Greece, he lived in North Dakota, in a neighborhood surrounded by black people. He told us that as long as he lived there, he hated black people with a passion because of what he experienced in that neighborhood, and he wholeheartedly considered himself a racist because of it. His honesty in telling a bunch of ten year olds this not only shocked me, but his vulnerability impressed me. I never heard anyone be so honest, yet feel so remorseful at the same time. He then said that what changed his attitude was when he decided to enter seminary and become a priest, and this prompted him to want to imitate the forgiveness of Christ.

Up until this time, I didn't understand the significance of the Cross of Christ. With the little Sunday School knowledge I had, the Cross was something Jesus died on, and because Jesus was a good person, we respected the Cross on which he died. I never considered the fact that Jesus was God or that he rose from the dead. But as Yianni was telling us about his racist past, he began to talk about Jesus on the Cross, with his hands spread out in the form of one who was crucified. And for the first time I heard how Jesus forgave those who crucified him, holding no resentment or hatred against them. As he spoke to us about this, there were almost tears in his eyes as he recalled how that image of Jesus forgiving on the Cross filled him with forgiveness and love for all black people. Then, to add to the power of his message, he told us how Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death, and that he is still alive today.

The whole thing just blew my mind. Suddenly an immense calm and peace came over me, and I knew that from now on my life would never be the same. I felt like I just received the ultimate revelation, and I stood in awe before it. All the anger and agitation fled, and I was struck by the power of forgiveness.

When he finished, we took a short break. Returning to the room, he told us to put all our chairs in a circle, and to go around naming at least one person we hated. One by one each of us students named someone they hated. The most hated type of person were all rapists and murderers. Yianni then interrupted and asked what the point is in hating all murderers and rapists. Kids responded that it was because they hurt other people. Meanwhile, I was silent and listened to the exchange. Then Yianni responded with examples of how Jesus loved all sinners, even those who hurt himself and other people, and explained how it does no good to hold any hatred towards others in our hearts. The kids would not have it. To them, moral justice was more important than forgiveness. Yianni was disappointed, because he felt his message didn't get across. But it made sense to me. I could no longer with a clean conscience hate anyone. I wanted to be like Jesus at that moment. Finally my turn came, and Yianni asked me who I hated. My response was simply, "No one." I was the only one who responded this way. The power of forgiveness was radiating through me for everyone.

The next day, for some reason, I got in trouble and my mom sent me to my room as a punishment. I went to my room slightly upset, but not anywhere near as upset as I was in the past. Then, out of habit, I whispered, "I hate her." Immediately after I said this, it was as if a lightning bolt struck my heart. Guilt overcame me. I was remorseful for what I had just said, and I was once again filled with calm and peace thinking about Jesus on the Cross. From that moment I made a promise to God that I would never direct hatred against anyone. And since that day, hatred and rage left me and never came back.