I tend to shy away from such cliché expressions as, “God called me to come to St. Vladimir’s.” And yet, I am at a loss to explain it any other way. I can remember waking up the first morning after my family made the move to SVOTS, looking out of our apartment window, and asking myself, “What have I done?” And yet, here I am with my wife Katie and my two sons. I am an utterly average seminary student in most respects. However, few of my fellow students have left a life of playing music in rock bands in order to pursue a calling to ministry in the Orthodox Church. This is my experience.
I was raised in a solidly Evangelical Protestant Christian home. My father was a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, and I was raised within the folds of church life. I developed a sour taste for church ministry early on, as I watched the difficulties that my father experienced as a pastor. I promised myself from an early age that I would never, under any circumstances, follow in my father’s footsteps and become a pastor.
I graduated from Toccoa Falls College, an evangelical Bible college in Toccoa, Georgia, with a degree in Broadcast Communications. While attending TFC, I met two people who would be instrumental in changing my life: my future wife, Katie, and my friend Chris Foley. Katie and I would marry in 1991. Chris and I, along with my brother Lee Bozeman and our friend Glenn Black would form a rock band called “Luxury.” This band would become the central focus for our lives for several years. We signed a record deal with Tooth & Nail Records in 1995, and began doing what all aspiring bands did at that time: write songs and “tour,” playing shows across the country. We began to envision a future as a legitimate rock band, earning a living by doing what we loved: playing loud, edgy rock music.
Our plans were put on hiatus in July of 1995. We were returning home from playing at a festival in Illinois, when our driver lost control of our tour van. The van flipped and rolled across the median of I-57, coming to rest on its passenger side in the northbound lane. Three passengers (the driver of the van, another friend who was traveling with us, and our drummer Glenn) each suffered a broken neck, and Lee was crushed by the van as it rolled across the median. Miraculously, despite the serious and even life threatening nature of the injuries, no one was killed. Months of recuperation followed, during which we all had the chance to consider the merits of “life on the road.”
A little over a year later, Luxury began to try to pick up where we had left off. But it soon became apparent that our individual foci were shifting. Lee and Chris had both become much more involved in something called the “Evangelical Orthodox Church” and kept talking about something called “liturgy.” What was an “Orthodox” church? As a lukewarm Evangelical, I could understand the words “Evangelical” and “Church,” but “Orthodox” and “liturgy” were words alien to my vocabulary. I was scandalized by their use of icons, their veneration of the saints, and their insistence on a “sacramental worldview.” It would be several years before I finally had the “ears to hear” and could perceive the reality of Christ in his Church that Orthodoxy presents to all who are seeking.
Which is not to say that I was seeking. At best, I was a lukewarm Christian. I attended an excellent Evangelical church and had a wonderful pastor who cared for me. My focus was my music, and the Church factored very little in the overall picture. After our band’s accident, I watched as Lee and Chris shifted their focus. They gave even more attention to their spiritual life and the Church, and they actively participated in their own church’s journey toward unity with the canonical Orthodox Church. I perceived that they had something that I lacked, even while I couldn’t accept the “weird” stuff that Orthodox folks seemed to do. Why did they cross themselves? Were they superstitious or something? What is with all this kissing and chanting and candles…? My list of questions went on and on. Inside, though, I could sense that they had a freedom and a sense of connection with Christ that I couldn’t even begin to touch.
The change came in 1999, when this group from the local Evangelical Orthodox Church, who themselves were moving toward eventual acceptance into the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), held a series of “seekers classes.” These classes were intended to explain Orthodoxy to those of us that had friends and relatives who had followed the Orthodox path. I was finally ready, after several years of struggle, to receive what was being offered: the true Church. These meetings set my heart on fire for the Church in a way that I had never before experienced. And yet, it would be five more years before my family would finally convert.
I spent those years taking on a lay-pastoral role in my Evangelical church, despite my lifelong misgivings about such a ministry. I can only summarize this time by saying that God was transforming me, growing a desire in me to serve in my church. Simultaneously my desire to understand my own faith grew as I talked with my Orthodox friends, and as we “compared notes” and talked theology. I saw, more and more, that the Evangelical Protestant expression of Christianity, with all of its good intentions and excellent qualities, simply could not offer what I most wanted for myself and my family: the Church. The more that we gathered together in Bible studies and examined our beliefs as Evangelicals, the more I could see this glaring disconnect from the Church, from her rich teachings, from her history. We were blind: we loved Christ truly, and called Him “Savior,” but still we remained blind. Simply put, we were not “Orthodox,” and there was nothing that I could do to change this fact about our church.
Throughout this time I was becoming more and more Orthodox in my mindset. I expressed my frustration to Chris Foley. His answer was simple and obvious and appropriate: “Convert.” It wasn’t until the summer of 2004 that my family and I felt the undeniable compulsion to leave our Evangelical church family of the last ten years and become a part of St. Timothy Orthodox Church in Toccoa.
St. Timothy’s was the offspring of the formerly Evangelical Orthodox group that had been in existence in Toccoa since the mid-1990s. I attended my first Orthodox Great Vespers service there on August 28, 2004. I immediately felt as if I had found my home. I knew that this was where God was leading us. Leaving our Evangelical church family was extremely difficult. They were good friends and were our spiritual family, but we had seen something in Orthodoxy that we could no longer avoid. By February of 2005, my wife, two sons, and I were all communing Orthodox Christians.
Music continued to play a major role in my life. I continued to play music with Chris Foley, until he decided that God had called him to life of service in the Church. To that end he made the decision to leave Toccoa and move to St. Vladimir’s and pursue ordination. In 2006, I (a relatively new convert) was privileged to witness his ordination to the holy priesthood, here, at St. Vladimir's. The seminary made a great impression on me at that time, and I remember thinking off-handedly, “I may end up here one day.” That thought vanished nearly as quickly as it had appeared.
And yet I believe that God uses those moments in our lives as a door, perhaps only cracked open a very little bit, in order to open us wide to his desire for us. That brief thought lingered in the back of my consciousness, until one evening in the summer of 2008.
I was at a Compline service at St. Timothy’s, and at that time was experiencing a fairly confusing phase in my life. I was having a difficult time harmonizing my church life with my persistent desire to make music. The demands of playing shows and the way that they seemed to interfere with the service schedule of the Church began to trouble me. More so, I was realizing that I was changing and that my desire for the Church was growing, competing with my desire to “do music.” That night, during Compline, I apparently cracked open “the door” again, allowing God to work something greater within me. I had a sense that I was being called to move on to something else.
My brother had been making plans to attend St. Vladimir's, and he encouraged me to come and preview the seminary with him as a potential student. It wasn’t until this moment in Compline that I realized that maybe this was something that I could do, and could offer to God so that He might bless it. I agreed to make the trip to New York with Lee. We visited St. Vladimir's later that year, and my decision was made. I made a plan: I would send in my application, and if I were accepted, my family would leave our home of twenty years and move to New York. By August 11, 2009, we were unpacking our moving truck on the SVOTS campus.
One year after making that “fateful move,” I still wake up occasionally asking myself in reference to my decision to come to St. Vladimir's, “What have I done? And how did I get here?” It hasn’t been an easy transition. In my vanity, I miss being able to say, “I play guitar in a rock band.” I miss the relative simplicity of my old day job building furniture, and the relative comfort of a small Orthodox mission full of naïve converts (including myself). Harmonizing academics and one’s spiritual life seems to present big challenges at the most inopportune times. But God is good, and He blesses those things that can be blessed.
Much has been said about the icon of Christ that hangs in the Three Hierarchs Chapel here at SVOTS. Referenced on this icon is John 15:16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” I take much comfort in this daily reminder of God’s desire at work in the lives of all seminarians. Our “job” is to provide something worthy to be offered to God, ideally the “broken and contrite heart” of Psalm 50, so that He might bless that and return it to us transformed into that which it was always intended to be: a heart burning with the desire for God alone. He chooses us. If there is to be any fruit from his choosing, it will be the fruit of God working to transform us.
This is the role that St. Vladimir’s plays in our lives as seminarians. To use a woodworking analogy, SVOTS functions like a carving tool whose purpose is to pare away those things that obscure the image that is hidden within the rough block of wood. It is God who uses this tool to work on us, sometimes in painful and difficult ways, but always in synergy with willing hearts, and with a mind toward our own perfection in Christ.