A year ago, LIFE Worship Arts determined that it was important for our teammates to know each other’s Christian testimonies. For several months now, a member of LIFE Worship has chosen to share their story each Sunday morning with their teammates. Prior to sharing their story, team members are asked to write out their story.
In an effort to strengthen our community of relationships on and off the ministry platform at LIFE, we look forward to featuring some of these salvific stories here on this blog. Our story this week comes from one of our musicians, Andre Yanni. Andre is a talented percussionist. He is married to Patricia and they have three sons. Here is Andre’s story:
Against the backdrop of a massive international battlefield and driven by their strength of hope for a better opportunity to establish a family, my parents left their home in Lebanon and fled to the USA via an escape route through Syria. Leaving behind them a battle of Israel vs. Syria vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Christian in a country the size of our smallest state (Rhode Island), my parents were determined to find a place to pursue their aspirations of family and contentment.
To provide for our family, my father worked multiple jobs in succession. He also found the time to help my mother who was working as a cook at a large Middle Eastern restaurant. The virtues of hard work and dedication were honest behaviors and core values in our expressly religious household. My parents taught us to pray when we were angry, sad or needed help with worldly things. Without a miss, we would always thank God for life’s essentials. When we finished a meal, we would say “hamdillah (Thank God)”. When referring to future possibilities, we would say, “God willing.” These persistent expressions helped confirm and communicate a rich history of dutiful devotion to faith and humility. However, such practices never took hold of my heart. I learned the ritual and nothing more.
Never having read the Bible or had it explained to me as God’s Gospel, I came to know religion as nothing more than the persistent practice of religious traditions. Possessing no personal relationship with the God of Scripture, it was the hymn and prayer book of our church that formed the foundation for the practice of religious belief. Attending Sunday School and Mass at a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester Massachusetts, I would half-heartedly attempt to participate in the formality of preparing for and receiving communion. Surrounded by the somber repetition of rituals, prayers and hymns, I was often a menace and a class clown.
I remember my neighborhood friends attending a Melkite Catholic Church just down the road from my family. Their church had a youth group that was very active and fun. After experiencing the dynamics of this group, my brother and I visited and hung out there… a lot. During our visits, I began to observe a lot of similarities between the services of their and my family’s churches. As an altar boy at my church, I was quite familiar with all the hymns, creeds, and prayers of my church. Comparing them to the ones at my friend’s church, I noticed that they were all very much the same. The only discernible differences were found in a few of their traditions.
As I aged and matured, I became increasingly interested in the reasons for all the religious differences and divisions that manifested themselves in the lives my family and friends. These often cited reasons for separating and segregating ourselves disturbed me deeply. For instance, at my Grandmother’s funeral, no communion elements were available for attendees who were non-Greek orthodox. Also, there was division due to the differences between their Pope and our Bishop. We observed separate Easters. And my wife, Patricia, had to be converted in order to receive communion. The tension of dealing with it all and the inability to resolve it, led me to a place of spiritual apathy. I stopped caring about it all because I came to believe that no-one really cared about why they believed what they believed. They simply accepted and lived it without question.
Needing something practical to invest my efforts and energies into, I started working at the age of 14. I was determined to be self-sufficient and to help my parents out. Embracing the ethics and values of my family, I poured myself into the job at hand. Working a wide variety of jobs; such as, restaurant staff, Verizon Wireless, Sub/shop, Nightclub, Marriott, Motorcycle/Jet ski sales, etc., I was driven to consistently improve myself in order to accomplish increasingly greater goals and success.
In pursuit of bettering myself as a sales and businessman, I vociferously read self-help books. One particular book got me to thinking about my religious faith (or lack thereof) and, for the first time in my life, I began to take a look at the Bible in more detail. The first Bible I attempted to understand was the King James version. The translation was difficult to decipher and, as my life was starting to become increasingly driven and impacted by my success in sales, I eventually shelved the Bible and continued to pour myself into my professional pursuits.
A key element of sales and a salesman’s life is alcohol. The more success that I experienced as a salesman, the more that alcohol seemed to play a role in my life. It was taking me over and beginning to intrude into fundamental areas of my life. I was consistently grumpy, was less affectionate and less present in the details and relationships that built my life. While I was pursuing and building a career, Patricia was raising our three boys. With me traveling or attending business dinners every week, the stress on our marriage and family was increasingly harmful and detrimental. In an effort to improve matters at home, we found a beautiful house in the suburbs that was closer to work. Unfortunately, our new home featured a full bar and Kegerator. Like an altar of sorts, it was built into the main living area of the house. Matters became increasingly worse and Patricia and I found vices to fill the void that existed between us.
In the midst of the strife and stress, and being 30 minutes outside of Worcester, Patricia began looking for a community church closer to our home. She found one that she liked; Christ Community Church. It was a non-denominational church and, being unfamiliar with such a label, I wondered: Is it a real church? Do they follow the Bible? What version? What interpretation? I was intrigued and troubled by the church’s detachment from the rituals and practices of my religion. Why didn’t this church identify with either Catholic or Greek Orthodox traditions? My old curiosities resurrected themselves and I dug in to find out. I dug in to my pursuit of truth so deeply that I came to the point where I went the other way – is God even real? Studying zeitgeist movies, reading of people denying the Holy Ghost, and researching mythical and make-believe characters that were very much like the person of Jesus prior to Jesus’ appearance in history and the canon of Scripture, all led me to a crisis of belief. Inevitably, I pushed through my crisis of belief and found myself at a life-changing crossroads. By trying to disprove the God of Holy Scripture, my insatiable appetite for truth led me to an undeniable faith that He did exist. Finally, the Gospel started to make sense to me! It was as if I was reading and breathing it in at the same time. I was LIVING it.
The facts that Jesus died for our sins, that God sees us through Christ, that Christ rose from the grave defeating death, that He paid the debt for our sins…it was all so overwhelmingly beautiful.
One night on a business trip, I was out with my team. Engaged in the usual activities of Karaoke, drinking etc., I made my famous “Irish exit” (I did this a lot to stay out of trouble….) and, on the Uber ride back, I suddenly recalled that I was the one paying for the party that I had just left. And I had left my credit card at the bar. “Well,” I thought to myself, “it’ll work out okay. I have a grace period that will allow me to retrieve it and turn it in before I have to pay it.” …a grace period…. Hmmm. God’s grace period came to mind. His grace period for me… here on this earth…to meet Christ and understand that He paid my debts. Once my “Grace Period” is up, it’s up. Once my time on Earth concludes, it’s accounting time.
Back in my room, my mind and heart were filled with thoughts including how Jesus fought for me, for us, for the world. He didn’t come to the fight with a sword. No, He fought His battles with prayer. I said to myself, “I have the most powerful weapon against sin and evil. It’s my prayers! My worship!” All the repetition of my past, all the rituals, the prayers, the songs that had all been so devoid of meaning and devotion for me came to my mind. But now…now, I understood God’s grace! And I was undone. I knew that I needed Jesus. I had a conversation with Jesus right there in my room that night. I repented of my sins and I committed to obey His teachings and to fight the sin and vices in my life. Because of His work, my life has worth. My family has worth. My community has worth. HE has great worth. That night, I vowed to focus on living and giving my life to Him.