Today’s devotional is a bit different. I wanted to write about a part of my story of becoming Orthodox, which can’t be told without talking about my best friend, Rod Loudermilk. So, indulge me a bit and I pray this is an encouragement to you.
Rod and I met many years ago when his family moved from West Virginia where he was a Pentecostal pastor, to my hometown of Marietta, GA. Rod and his family started attending the church I was raised in, Open Bible Tabernacle. OBT was an unusual Pentecostal church. It was founded by a man named Eugene Holder. Brother Holder would become a real father figure to me and, frankly, shape my life in ways I am still discovering. Brother Holder was from one of the fringe Pentecostal movements that flourished in the rural South. But Brother Holder moved beyond the narrow-minded world he was raised in and found himself ostracized by his fellow Pentecostals because he refused to say Billy Graham wasn’t a Christian. OBT became a haven for we Pentecostals that were discovering a wider Christian world, and Rod and I met in this special place and our friendship was instant.
What drew us together was our desire to be serious students of the Christian Faith and to embrace a real and growing intimate relationship with Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord. Rod was a vociferous reader. His library was full of serious scholarly books and he had read them all. So, as a young Pentecostal preacher myself just beginning my undergraduate work in theology, our conversations became truly life-giving to me. We would talk for hours about the faith and we both had begun to have real concerns about the overly emotions-based theology and practice of our Pentecostal world. It seemed to both of us that this emphasis on emotional experiences led only to a perpetual kindergarten of the Faith with all the childish mistakes and errors to go with it.
Eventually, I graduated from college and planted a church called “Church of the Firstborn” in downtown Woodstock, GA. Rod and his family joined me there and we worked to build a church that still taught the reality of an intimate relationship with God and serious scholarship that we hoped would make us mature believers. We were “a charismatic church with Evangelical distinctive.” I know, cringe! But that’s how we “marketed” our new church plant. And the church started growing! But Rod and I would meet every Thursday for a beer and discussion and we still had the nagging feeling something was missing.
What moved us was our regular meetings on Thursdays to talk about what we were reading. Rod and I both loved Church History and we had both read enough of Church History to be exposed to Orthodox theology, and both of us were captured by it. So, we started reading For The Life of the World, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and something clicked. I remember Rod calling me after we were about halfway through the book (It’s a short book you can read in a few hours) and telling me that he thought he could love the God he was reading about. You see, we had both been shaped theologically to think of the Father as angry and wrathful. And Jesus was Who we needed to hide behind to protect us from the “angry” God the Father. To learn there was another way to think about God really set us both free.
Rod fell in love with the deep theology of the Church by reading books like Being As Communion by Metropolitan John Zizioulas (of blessed memory) and The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky. He was a scholar at heart, so when we had finished over a year’s worth of catechetical instruction, we prepared to enter the Church along with about 20 other families from the church I had pastored in November of 2001. Rod chose St. Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople as his patron because of St. Photios’ scholarly life and devoted piety to the Orthodox Way. I was given the name “Barnabas” because my spiritual father insisted. But Rod chose St. Photios and it fit him like a glove.
St. Photios was Patriarch of Constantinople in 857 AD and his devout scholarship saw him champion the Orthodox Faith against several heretical movements like the Manicheans and the Iconoclasts. But he is best known for standing up against the arrogant Pope of Rome on that day called Nicholas I. Photios withstood the heretical teaching of the filioque that Rome was defending at the time, and he stood against the overreach of the Roman Pope when it came to how the Church understood how authority was supposed to be used in the brotherhood of the hierarchs. St. Photios resisted the novel teachings coming out of Rome at the time and we now remember him for his devotion to the timeless Orthodox Faith.
After we entered the Church, I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, FL to work with Fr. Chris Metropolis at Orthodox Christian Network and Rod stayed in Woodstock to help the then-new St. Elizabeth mission get going. But soon after this happened, Rod was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He fought a good fight against this horrible disease but after almost 2 years of struggle, he died on the 15th of November 2003. One of the last things he said to me was that he was so happy to be dying in the arms of the Church. After over 20+ years of friendship, I struggled to truly grieve my friend. To be honest, even my entering the priesthood was an attempt to fill his shoes in my life. Rod was always my biggest supporter and always a source of sober encouragement. He was a model husband, father, and friend, and every day since his passing I’ve felt an obligation to not let him down by being the best servant I could be.
So, Today, on this Feastday of St. Photios the Great, I, once again, get to renew my commitment to my best friend, Rod. Buddy, I’m still in the fight and I ask your prayers for me and my family. Thank you for being such a great example to me of how a real man serves and leads. May your memory be eternal. Thanks for showing me what a true Normal Orthodox life looks like!
P.S. Far-reaching beacon of the Church and God, inspired Guide of the Orthodox, you are now crowned with the flowers of song. You are the divine words of the Spirit’s harp, the strong adversary of heresy and to whom we cry, “Hail all-honorable Photios.”