Here I continue the second and final part of relaying Francella Brown’s conversion story, from a life lived away from God, to one that was closer to Him and developed further in her joining the Coptic Orthodox Church. For part one, please click here.
Here is part two of her story:
For the audio upon which the following post is based, you can listen here:
*Forgive the sound quality of the recording as it was recorded during a long car ride.
I’ve also created a Podcast channel which will allow you to subscribe to this and any other future audio feeds from my blog in the future:
Before embarking on the remainder of Franny’s story though, she would like to provide this preface:
Just as a follow-up to Part 1, and a bridge to Part 2, I’d like to emphasize that my former church (the Pentecostal Church) loved me and took me in at the beginning of my walk. Without a doubt, it was where God lead me first. It was there that my personal relationship with the Lord, as well as my love for Scripture, was fostered and nurtured. And in the end, the offense was mine. They took me in and made me family, and I certainly did not behave like family when I left and didn’t mention where I had gone or when I’d be back. I asked for their forgiveness because it was I who hurt them and it was just unfortunate that the wound was too deep for us to carry on as a family. I pray no one uses my experience as an excuse to bash another denomination. I am not a fan of that behavior at all. My testimony is just my personal experience and has no bearing on anyone else’s experience or any other church. So, without further ado, let’s get on to Part 2 of God’s testimony. May all the glory go to Him. May He increase and I decrease.
Franny the catechumen
Franny embarked on her journey to learn about the Coptic Orthodox Church, as a catechumen. She attended a 2-hour weekly meeting held after the Divine Liturgy that was geared specifically for people such as herself, although it was open to all who were interested in learning there. It offered a manner of “easing in” through Scripture, rather than (or in addition to) the Liturgy which is often difficult for newcomers to Orthodoxy.
That meeting helped open Franny’s eyes to how the Liturgy is a reflection of Scripture.
I would see that the Liturgy is the gospel, because whatever we would pray, I would be like, “That is from the Bible….”
* * *
Things would keep jumping out at me all the time, because I am coming from a Protestant background—Bible-believing [only]—Sola Scriptura. I was coming from the mentality that, if it is not from the Bible then it can’t be Christian, because that is what I was taught. [Therefore] being in the Liturgy it helped that we are literally praying the Scriptures.
Franny also attended catechumen classes that lasted about 6 or 7weeks, giving the basics of Orthodoxy: theology, hymnology, etc. “I loved what I heard.”
About a year after making her decision to attend solely the Coptic Orthodox Church, in October 2010, Franny was baptized.
Leading up to baptism: love
Franny’s desire for baptism began with first feeling loved by the congregation, and a sense of true communion and fellowship, and then later seeking to be formally immersed (pun intended) as a member of the Church, culminating in the pinnacle means of communion—partaking with everyone else in the one body and blood of Christ:
Being in the congregation, I was accepted as if I was baptized. I was brought into the flock. I was in ministry. I was loved as if I was born in the Church. Because of that, my desire was to be baptized because all that was missing was that one final thing, which is communion. I would come to church and could not go into that line to take communion. And at the time, it was not about the theological truth about communion (that this is God’s body and this is God’s blood, and apart from Him you have no life), but it was that I was in communion and fellowship with all these people in every other way except for the Eucharist.
I was loved in every aspect and in every way except for this one thing which was the only thing I could make a decision on by myself. I was sitting there and thinking, “Why am I not in this line with them? With my family?” It’s almost as if this is your family that loves you, that you love absolutely, [but] never sit down with at dinner, in the most intimate setting. Why?
So I went up to Abouna Pishoy and said: “I want to be all in, because no one has kept anything back from me here. Everyone has loved me completely—loved me first! So I want to be all in, to fully experience this love.”
Most difficult Orthodox belief/practice to get accustomed to?
When asked what the most difficult Orthodox belief or practice she had to get accustomed to was, she immediately exclaimed: “Veneration of the Saints!” That is hardly surprising, since the Protestant tradition protests nearly anything that is heavily associated with the Catholic Church. And that’s exactly what she learned growing up:
I was taught you do not do that. I heard Catholics worship St. Mary … but that she is just a person, she’s nothing spectacular. And [I was] taught that they worship [saints]. (Though veneration and worship are two different things). So [I was] taught to be the complete opposite—as in, completely disregard them. So veneration of the saints and the highest veneration being that of St. Mary was the hardest thing. I found that in the (Coptic) church people would talk so much about the saints, I’d be like: “Does anyone talk about Jesus?” Being from a Protestant background, you don’t highlight anybody but Christ… You don’t talk about anyone more than Christ. And all I would hear is talk about saints, saints, saints, and I would be like, “Are you worshiping them? They’re just people, I don’t understand.”
… When people said they had relationships with the saints I didn’t believe it because I hadn’t experienced that. Eventually I came back across the Scripture where St. Paul talks about that “great cloud of witnesses,” and that clicked for me one day.
As Franny prepared for baptism, she realized that for some beliefs that were so contrary to her formal understanding, such as the veneration of saints, she would simply assent to the Church’s teachings albeit without full comprehension. Only later would Franny gain sufficient experience to recognize its value:
I accepted that this is what the Church does but I was not fully immersed in this practice. I became accepting of it and overcame it when I started having a relationship with the saints myself. It’s one thing for it to be head-knowledge, …[but] for me, it had to be an experience. I began to experience a relationship slowly with St. Mary, who is first, and then with St. Verena…. [These relationships] came after my baptism.
How did Franny handle the Midnight Praises and the extensive veneration of St. Mary found there?
One of the Church’s main functions is to teach, and much of this teaching happens through its worship services. This catechetical aspect of the Church is exactly what Franny needed to transition from merely acknowledging that the veneration of saints is the Church’s practice, to personally ascribing to the belief. Cradle orthodox may not appreciate how effective the Church has been in teaching them, not simply through sermons and books, but by the very words they repeatedly hear during worship. For Franny, this was crucial to her progress:
I asked a lot of questions. “Why, in Midnight Praises … do we speak so much about St. Mary and why does it say that she is the consolation of … etc; or [the] whatever of Moses, etc….” And slowly after a while, in Tasbeha (i.e., [Midnight] Praises) it really helped when they talk about the rod of Aaron and how that was a symbol of St. Mary’s virginity, and they talk about the Ark of the Covenant or the burning bush and how she had Christ in her and it did not consume her.
After baptism I began to appreciate [veneration of saints.] It took a while, but there had to be acceptance first even though I didn’t understand it and had not personally experienced it. I couldn’t deny that this was where God had led me, so I [prayed]: “Father, even though I don’t understand it yet, I can’t deny what You’ve shown me and how this is clearly where I’m supposed to be, so give me understanding.”
What would you say to someone who is struggling with the same issue regarding the veneration of the Saints? What would you tell someone else who comes from a Protestant background?
It has been said that those things which we believe because of knowledge are much easier to change than those beliefs which we are more so attached to emotionally. However, Franny did not let her upbringing, and her heartfelt association with Protestant teaching, distract her from her focus on coming closer to God.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. Yet she recognized God’s merciful, patient and gentle approach in transitioning her mindset from her former understanding to Orthodox teaching.
It has been a continuous learning of Orthodoxy, and replacing some of what I already know (if it’s incorrect or partial truth), with truth. So it’s not like, “Wipe everything you know and start all over again.” No. God is very merciful and sweet, and patient, as a counselor is with their patient. What someone knows, whether good or bad, is their support, their safety net, their belief system. You don’t take away someone’s belief system without gently and loving replacing it with something else. That is how my learning process has been.
Instead of rejecting outright those beliefs that were contrary to what she had been accustomed to, she opened her heart to God and sought that He overcome her faulty or incomplete understanding, in spite of herself. Here is her advice to anyone who comes from a Protestant background seeking to know God through Orthodoxy:
I would say, based on my personal experience, ask the Lord to open your eyes, because no one can do it but Him. Sometimes head knowledge isn’t enough because somebody can give you another incredible theological answer that contradicts the truth and it can sound true, and that is what I heard before I came to the Orthodox Church. For example, I was convinced that you don’t have to go to a priest to confess your sins, even though the Scriptures say “confess your sins to one another.” [After delving into] the history of the Church—because not everything is in the Scriptures—[you find] that confession, when the church was young, was public and that because the Church grew big, confession became between you and your spiritual father.
These things I didn’t understand at first, but … I kept praying to the Lord, “I believe something else, God, but I have to admit that I know nothing.” One has to first admit that they know nothing. If you hold onto, “What I know is right, what I know is right,” then even the Lord can’t do anything for you because you are not humbling yourself before Him. There is no room for God’s revelation and transformation in that kind of prayer/thinking. [Rather, it’s good to pray], “Lord, either confirm what I know, or change it to be the truth.”
Franny’s fondness of the Church Fathers
The Book of Proverbs teaches, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.” Franny wholeheartedly understood the need to turn to the Church for instruction, and soon gained not only an appreciation for the Church Fathers, but also a profound adoration of what they have to offer. For the most part, she was discovering them for the first time:
Since baptism, it has been constant learning, constant reading of the Church Fathers.
Upon her mentioning the Church Fathers she exclaimed the magnitude of her adoration for them and what they have to offer]—”Huge! Huge!”
I remember when I first read … “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius, and it was as if I never knew anything about Christianity [before that]… My Bible was different after I read “On the Incarnation.” [In] the edition that I had, there was a foreword by C.S. Lewis—big in Christianity, everyone loves C.S. Lewis [Protestants included]. And C.S. Lewis talks about how the Church Fathers are the foundation of our faith. He talked about how nowadays, so many people want to read a synopsis that someone else writes of the original. But Lewis protested why anyone would want to do that when the original has been tried and tested from the beginning and has stood the test of time. C.S. Lewis said this.
He also said, “My work has not been tried and tested. To this day you don’t know if it’s going to be [through] testing in the fires centuries later proven true…. If I had to tell you which ones to read, the new or the old (even though I’m a writer of the new), I would say pass up mine and read the old.” And that was his foreword. And [then] I read [On the Incarnation] and I was enlightened. And since then I was hooked on reading the Church Fathers. Personally, I’m satisfied. These writings are full of truth, and riches. (I also like modern writings that explain Orthodoxy as well).
What do you say to those within the Coptic Orthodox Church who seek fulfillment outside of the Orthodox Church, particularly from Protestant sources?
While Franny, as have many, left Protestantism to join Orthodoxy, there are many cradle Orthodox who move in the opposite direction, to the point of even forsaking the Orthodox Church entirely. Franny, in her typical gentle manner, gives her opinion regarding seeking fulfillment outside of the Orthodox Church:
I do not criticize, because I don’t know what a person’s walk is. I also don’t criticize because God is not limited to where He will meet someone where their heart decides to be open. [I must reemphasize how God very clearly lead me to the Pentecostal church first before the Orthodox Church. In His wisdom He did this because it was good for me. And what I gained from there, and left with, was a very solid foundation of a love for the Scriptures and a deep personal relationship with my Lord. And I will forever be indebted to my former church family for that]. Where God is leading you, let Him lead you.
What I do say is, what I’ve noticed, (because I have friends who are going through this), is [sometimes] it is rooted from something very personal. One thing I notice is that perhaps, if you are born in the Orthodox Church, [it may not be second nature to ask] a lot of questions and therefore [there might not be a lot of] understanding for why we do what we do. That can result in things feeling kind of dry, like there’s not a lot of spirit and life; it’s not energetic. [Maybe it’s] because [we] don’t have the proper understanding or knowledge.
If you’re going from one place to another, it’s because you are seeking, which is good. Just always keep your mind open to truth and always ask the Lord to lead you to truth. Always put away the notion that you know everything. And if you are leaving out of resentment or anger, then recognize that that is what is driving you away, and not necessarily the fact that this church is not fulfilling. I say ‘not necessarily’ cause everyone’s journey is different and in the end, all I know is my own journey.
But, always look for the root cause of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Sometimes people have been hurt where they were born and raised, so they go somewhere else to find healing. Whatever is happening on the surface, there’s something deeper below what is going on. And if somebody can help you get to that, then that’s where the healing is going to start.
But for me personally, I love my Orthodox Church because this is where the Lord has lead me; this is the Church that Christ left His disciples, and this is what the disciples brought to the ends of the earth, and this is what has been established from the beginning. And I was never able to say that before because I always took it personally that someone would say that about a church that wasn’t mine. I’d ask, “How do you know?” But I’ve read it! It’s history! It’s right there. It’s not like it’s a feeling, this is a fact.
Don’t run away from the riches of what God has established for you because someone else has spoiled it for you.
If you need to find healing, find healing, but consider perhaps not leaving the riches of what God has given you because someone else has tainted it and made it taste bitter for you in some way, shape, or form. Find healing with that relationship or with that bitterness, but what God has left for you, don’t deny yourself of [it]. It is His gift to you, His child. What God has given us from the beginning is everything that we need.
Christ did not come to separate people from religion, but to bring together all of His sheep
Today, we find many who want to disassociate the Church from Christ. People who feel this way often are reacting to some negative sentiments they have developed about the Church—the decisions and/or actions by people who make up the Church, from the highest ranks of its authority all the way down. Many will point to some disgruntlement they have over something that Christ’s sheep did, and then decide to leave the flock in an attempt to just join Christ while leaving the Church behind. Yet Christ said that he wants there to be “one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:15).
In her remarks about the desire of some to leave the Church, Franny perceptively points out how Christ handled the Jewish religion in spite of its deficient leaders and members:
It reminds me a lot of when Christ came, and the children of Israel strayed because of either the false teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees or because of captivity, war, idolatry, etc. Sometimes those who were leaders over God’s church committed mistakes, and because of that you had a lot of lost sheep. You had the Samaritans who were descendants of the Jews but strayed and worshiped idols. There were so many different routes that God’s people went, and the Lord came to gather the sheep, not to separate them; His intention was not for them to leave and start something different. He specifically said, “Do as the Pharisees say.” Why? “Because they hold the law of Moses. As for their hypocrisy, I will deal with. But they hold the truth. So do what it is that they say to do.” The Lord never said, “Leave.” There were a lot of problems with the house of Israel, with the Jewish religion, but He said I’ve come to gather you back.
Did Christians leave the house of Israel to start a new religion? No. They were pushed out because they were followers of “The Way.” The Jews who didn’t want to accept Christ pushed them out. But God’s message is never “leave.” He said: “This is what I established for you from the beginning, and I will come and deal with all of the problems and the reasons for why my sheep have been scattered, but my intention is to gather you back as one bride, not to scatter you.”
The Coptic Language: a stumbling block?
One of the most prevalent concerns among those seeking to make the Coptic Church more inviting to converts has to do with the languages used during the service, particularly the Coptic language.
Franny was asked whether the Coptic language was an impediment to her conversion:
It wasn’t because the parish that I started out in, St. Maurice and St. Verena, used only English, because it was the one common language of everyone, and because of that it wasn’t a stumbling block. We only used a few phrases in Coptic or Greek.
What role should the Coptic language have in the Coptic Church… should it be eradicated?
While Franny was accommodated with a nearly all-English liturgy in the Coptic parish she first joined, she does not regard Coptic as something that should be eradicated, recognizing its historical significance for the Copts. For her, there is a happy medium that rests on determining what is the wisest and most edifying way to accommodate the congregation:
I don’t think [Coptic] should be eradicated. I do believe we should use wisdom, because I always look at the model of the day of Pentecost, and it was very important, clearly to God, that every person pray in their own language in order for them to have understanding. Otherwise, what are you saying? What is the point of praying if there’s no understanding. I believe that we do need to use wisdom in terms of who is in our congregation so that each person can pray with understanding.
This is however the Coptic Orthodox Church and it is part of the history and to keep that identity I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.
Franny points out what she regards as traversing wisdom—turning the Coptic language (or anything) into an idol, set above Christ:
[Keeping the Coptic language is alright] as long as we don’t hold onto it to the point that it becomes an idol. Anything in the Church … that is a stumbling block to others but we are not willing to remove it in order for someone to get closer to Christ, at that point of time we’ve done what they did in the New Testament when the Judaizers said: “You have to be circumcised in order to be Christian,” and then St. Paul [clarified that he] didn’t teach this at all. Then they had to gather together the council in order to determine, what is the goal here? The goal here is that people understand the love and the grace of Christ and they live a repentant life and they be transformed. Therefore there were certain things that were not required for salvation.
As for these things that are not required for salvation—if it is a stumbling block in any way, shape, or form to anyone with a weaker or lesser faith, then khalas get rid of it. I think we just need to use wisdom. All things are beautiful as long as it is edifying. All things are beautiful, as long as they are a means to an end. Jesus always has to be the end. Everything else must be the means. If something (or someone, other than God) is an end for you, rather than a means, then we have created an idol. And we count all things as loss and rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus.
Having visited the convent of St. Mary & St. Demiana in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern U.S.A., what is your experience having done so and what do you like about it?
Franny’s journey is a testament to the depth and riches of Orthodoxy. Before she joined the Orthodox Church, her heart was deeply devoted to Christ. It would have been hard to imagine how much deeper her devotion could go. But when she joined Orthodoxy, remarkably she found that she had only begun to embark on the spiritual riches of Christianity.
Franny recently visited the convent of St. Mary & St. Demiana in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern U.S.A. Some cradle Orthodox would prefer never visiting such a place because they hardly find it appealing. Franny, on the other hand, went out of her way, traveling from Canada, all the way down to Georgia. Here is what Franny found captivating about the convent:
In the exact same way that the Lord prepared me to come to the Orthodox Church by putting certain types of worship within me before I saw it happening, the same thing has been happening with me when it comes to visiting the convent. For me personally, I’m hungry for God. This is what God has given me, and not something of myself. Constant prayer is what satisfies me—“Seven times a day I will praise Your name.”
Another thing that God has put in me is that my heart breaks for the world that doesn’t know Christ. It’s heart-breaking. I see some of my family members as icons of the world who don’t know Christ. So when the monks and the nuns get up at four o’clock in the morning to pray for the world, they genuinely do. So, I can’t go out and preach the gospel to the world and I can’t make everyone accept Christ, but the only place that I feel I can make a difference is by praying for everyone, and praying for God to please have mercy and to give us all one more day to repent before He comes.
I like silence. Within the last couple of years before I’ve visited the convent for the first time, I find everything has become noise. I don’t listen to music at all. I don’t watch TV or television shows…. I only watch Orthodox saint movies. Everything else is just noise because I can’t hear Him, and I think I’ve always just loved silence. That’s why I would always go and travel by myself, because I can’t hear Him in the constant noise and bustle of the world. We don’t still ourselves to hear that still small voice. God’s voice is not always in the wind, it’s not always in the earthquake, it’s not always in a great fire; it’s in a still small voice. And this is what they practice in the convent. Idle hands make for the devil’s work, and this is true, and monastics are constantly working so that they don’t get overwhelmed by thoughts. They are constantly praying so as not to get overwhelmed by the passions inside that are constantly trying to drive us away from holiness, and also at the convent serving others and putting yourself last and being obedient, this is the spirit of being a Christian, and you practice that at the convent every single day.
Glory be to God forever. Amen.