Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Real Live Preacher Comes to St. Joseph's!

An impromptu blogger get-together. On my right (your left) is the "Real Live Preacher," Pastor Gordon Atkinson of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio. On my left is Joseph Birthisel, son of one of our parishioners, and author of one of my favorite blogs - Byzantine, Texas. In my hand is the obligatory cup of coffee, which I am trying to guzzle down quickly before Kneeling Vespers starts.

Many of you have been following with interest the recent visits of Baptist pastor Gordon Atkinson, author of the blog "Real Live Preacher," who on May 24 and 31 visited St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church in San Antonio (see my earlier posts for his writeups of these visits). To make a great understatement, Gordon really enjoyed the services.

After this past Sunday's Divine Liturgy, a St. Joseph's parishioner named Mike came up to me as I was just exiting the altar area. Full of excitement, he said, "Fr. James! There's a Baptist pastor here that you need to talk to!" I always enjoy talking to any visitor, but I particularly enjoy talking to Baptists or former Baptists that join us on Sundays. Mike and I walked to the back of the church, where the pastor was last spotted. Unfortunately, he was gone.

We proceeded outside the church temple and went almost into the parking lot. As we were walking, Mike revealed that the pastor was from San Antonio. "Could it be the 'Real Live Preacher?'" I thought to myself. "Naaaah! Too great of a coinkydink!"

"There he is!" Mike said. The pastor and his wife by now were deep into the parking lot and heading for their car. I then noticed that I was still wearing my vestments. I had been so excited about meeting this visitor that I had forgotten to remove them. I considered running out in to the parking lot to greet him, but I thought this would look a little silly, especially given that I still had my vestments on. So, I decided to stand in a spot at the edge of the parking lot where the pastor would have to pass by (and slowly) in his car.

When he did drive up, I motioned for him to roll down his window, and he complied. "Are you the pastor from San Antonio who has been visiting Orthodox services?" "Yes!" he replied. I couldn't believe it! The "Real Live Preacher" had come to St. Joseph's. How cool was that? (Turns out he had announced his intention to visit us on his blog the night before, but I had already gone to bed when he posted that info, and I also didn't check the internet that morning).

We started talking, but soon noticed that there was a line of cars behind him trying to get out. He and I were holding up their progress. He said, "Tell you what--I'll go turn around and come back, park, and go into the hall so we can chat some more." He did, and he and his wife Jeanene and I, along with Byzantine, TX blogger Joseph Birthisel (also visiting us that day) had a brief, but wonderful conversation. It was truly a blessing and an honor to host these special visitors. Here now is Gordon's writeup of his visit with us:

Last Sunday Jeanene and I continued our sabbatical Sundays at Saint Joseph Orthodox Church in Houston. They are a part of the Antiochian tradition of the Orthodox Church. Someone in the church mentioned a connection with Antioch of Syria, which is the place where the term "Christian" first came to be used. I've been told that a great many Arab Christians are a part of this ancient tradition.

The people at Saint Joseph were very friendly. A man came up to us when we entered and politely explained a few things. We arrived for the pre-service prayers. I highly recommend you going early to an Orthodox Church, because much goes on before the Divine Liturgy. Jeanene and I sat at the back. A man next to me struck up a conversation before the service. He was also very friendly and helpful. Later, when the Antidoron was passed around (Blessed but not consecrated bread that is shared with visitors), he made sure that Jeanene and I got some. As always, I'm touched by people who can turn some of their energy toward hospitality and making outsiders feel welcome.

Usually that's my job. When the service is over, my first move is to find those visiting and say hello. These last weeks the tables have been turned. I know it is a unique burden and calling to keep watch for visitors. Perhaps that is why is means so much to me when I am made welcome in this way.

I noticed a couple of distinctive things at SJOC. There were chairs, though they mostly went unused. There were times in the service where it was clearly common to sit down - during the sermon for example. That was nice, though I will say that it is a sacrifice to the aesthetic of the interior to include chairs. I would guess that is a tension Saint Joseph Orthodox Church must live with. If you make beauty and the perfect execution of your symbolic worship your highest goal, you run the risk of setting the Sabbath above humanity, which Christ taught us not to do. On the other hand, if you allow your church to become so user-friendly and comfortable that anyone feels at home, you have lost the distinctive nature of the Church.

I don't think there is a right or wrong answer to this, as long as the Church is asking the question and living in that tension.

I was also moved by something that happened at the beginning of the service. As the priest walked down the aisle toward the Iconostas, people reached out and touched the hem of his garment. I was told this is common only to the Antiochian Orthodox Church. This is the sort of thing that many Protestants would misunderstand and perhaps be suspicious of. We are historically wary of priests and elevating them too greatly. Remember that the Orthodox Church embraces mystery. So if you are visiting, it is best to be humble and always think the best of what you see. I likened this act to touching the mantle of the Torah as it is carried in Jewish worship to its honored place. The great mysteries of God and the collected prayers of the people are symbolically carried by the priest. Touching his robe is a way, I think, of connecting yourself humbly to such a large mystery. I found myself thinking of the woman who wanted only to touch the hem of the robe of Jesus.

I do not know why the people touch the priests robe. I offer only my impression of what I saw. That was the "mystical" experience I took from it anyway.

After the service I told someone that I was a Baptist minister from San Antonio on sabbatical. Believe it or not, some of the people in that church had been reading the stories of my worshipping at Orthodox churches. Someone told one of the priests that I was there -
Father James Early - and he came over and said hello. We had a very nice chat. As always, it is a little strange to run into people who read my blog. They look at me as though they know me, which of course they do - parts of me anyway. And yet I don't know them. I always feel a little sad about that. Others have tried so hard to know me but I can't possibly return the honor.

Thank you Father Early and the saints of Saint Joseph Orthodox Church. You made us feel at home.
[Fr. James' note: Our pleasure, pastor!]

So now what should I do? Sunday is coming. Where should I go?

At this point I have no idea. There are not enough Sundays left for me to visit every kind of church. So I'm not thinking in that way. I'll see if some church seems to draw me by Friday. Perhaps the Spirit of God will be kind enough to lead his imperfect servant to some place where there is a lesson to be learned.

I will say this. I miss my friends at Covenant Baptist Church. You know, they're really the only friends we have that we see regularly - week in and week out. And now I'm not seeing them at all. It's nice to miss them. It's a good reminder of how important they are to me.

Visiting other churches has been a reminder of how large the Church is. As an ecumenical person, I believe that all Christians are brothers and sisters in the faith. Rather than argue theological points or debate the details of our Christology, I prefer to enter into worship with them, find what distinctive things they have to offer, and drink them up like fine wine. I feel deeply satisfied to know that the Orthodox Church is out there, worshipping with such careful observance of symbol and beauty. As one very small human being, I can't carry much of the burden of representing Christ in our world. So it's nice to know that the Church is bigger and deeper and wider than any one Christian can know or understand.


Real Live Preacher said...

Father James,

Thank you for your kind hospitality. We enjoyed our time with you. More importantly, it was a meaningful time for us.

Fr. James Early said...

Gordon, you are very welcome! We were honored to have you and Jeanene with us. We hope you'll join us again the next time you are in Houston. May the Lord bless you and your family!

Philippa said...

Via your nomination on Eastern Orthodox New Media Awards, I linked to your blog. I am very happy I did because I recognize your 'face' and name from your comments left on other blogs!

How nice that you had the joyful blessing to meet Gordon and that he visited your parish! Me thinks he will be back!

Thank you for sharing photos of your beautiful daughters! Their joy and love of God clearly shines through their faces.

Fr. James Early said...

Thanks, Philippa! It's good to have you on board as one of the "kids!" Keep coming back!

Mimi said...

Father, bless,

what a wonderful experience! I love the mental photo of you rushing out to greet Gordon!

Many Years!

nonprofitprophet said...

This was very cool. I've followed Gordon off and on over the years, and his relationship with my good friend Rick Diamond at Journey IFC in Austin. I love this connectedness that we all share. ~npp