Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Metropolitan Reflects on Prayer, part 5 and conclusion

How to Pray? (continued from part 4)

A sixth rule is to keep the balance between group prayer and personal prayer. Man is not primarily an individual. It is as a member of the Body of Christ that he has any standing before God. Therefore it is important for us to come into the presence of God regularly as a community - as a family, as a youth group, as a local congregation. And a community is composed of all kinds of people, not all of them exactly like you. They have different tastes, different ways of praying, different habits of prayer. I have to join them even sometimes when I think that their way of worship is not what it should be. Without participating in community worship and making the necessary adjustments for joining them, we cannot get rid of our selfishness and pride, and grow to be a real human being.

But community worship is not enough by itself. We need various levels of community with varying degrees of intensity of relationship. The youth group and the family are more intimate communities than the congregation. New forms can be used in these smaller groups which will be difficult or unfamiliar for the congregation as a whole. The prayers in this book are mainly meant for family and group worship, but can also be used for personal prayer in the privacy of your own room at home or in the hostel.

A seventh rule is that prayer should be nourished by reading of the Scriptures and meditation. One can discipline one self to read a chapter of Scripture every day.

Read aloud or silently. Meditate on the meaning of the passage. Devotional books may be helpful, but may also obscure the meaning of the Scripture. Do not worry about whether the reading of Scriptures gives you a feeling of devotion or not. Feelings are deceptive. What you need to find out is the answer to the following questions: "What was God saying to the people of that time through this passage? What does God say to me now?"

Systematic reading of the Scriptures and memorizing some passages which touch you deeply will be found very helpful as life advances. You will be grateful to God in your middle age that you started reading and memorizing when your mind was still impressionable.


All these rules are to help you to be become a praying Christian. Only your own sustained and disciplined practice will make you perfect. But remember one thing, prayer can never be isolated from common worship of the Eucharist and from the continuous, active compassionate love for your fellow men.Let us all pray: "Lord, Teach us to pray. Amen."

METROPOLITAN PAULOS MAR GREGORIOS, Appendix: "What is Prayer? Why Pray? How Pray? (written for Orthodox young people in India)" pages 76-83 "The Joy of Freedom" 1967 (republished 1986 by CLS, Madras, India)

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Hales' Journey, Part 19 - Debbie's Perspective (4)

After we had settled into our new home, Clint emailed me a link to a blog he had found. He assured me that he was not trying to push Orthodoxy on me, but he thought I might enjoy the daily devotionals. The link was to “Glory to God for all Things” by Fr. Stephen Freeman. I, of course, wanted nothing to do with it, but for some reason I resisted the urge to hit the delete key.

For several weeks it just sat in my inbox, staring me in the face. I knew that Clint had started reading books about Orthodoxy, and visiting Orthodox sites on the internet, again. I could have continued to ignore what he was doing, hoping it would magically go away, but one day I had finally decided enough was enough. My husband was living a lie, and I was determined to set him straight, once and for all.

The first thing I needed was ammunition—I needed to know all I could about this Orthodox Church, so that I could show him how it was wrong. So the search began. One night after Clint had gone to bed, I opened that email and went to Fr. Stephen’s blog. I honestly cannot remember the very first entry I read, but I do remember thinking that he had not said anything too strange or weird, nor did he say anything I would disagree with. For about a week, that was all I did. I would go and read Fr. Stephen’s blog, not realizing how it was slowly changing me even then.

Then one night, I decided that I needed to look at the history of the church from the beginning. If I was going to prove to Clint, once and for all, that Orthodoxy was not the church the Apostles started, then I had to find out which one they did. What was funny is that no matter what I typed into Google—History of the Church, Church History, The Early Church, etc.—the same thing kept coming up at the top. Orthodoxy. I was completely stunned. I scoured the internet for hours – reading, digging, watching videos. I needed to know the truth, and I needed to know it right then!

By the time the early morning came, I knew what that truth was, and it was Orthodoxy. It was like this light finally came on, and I could see clearly for the first time. Clint had been right all this time, but I had just been too pig-headed and stubborn to listen. That is when I completely broke down and cried for a long time. I cried for my stubbornness, but I also cried for what this was going to do to our lives. Would our kids be okay? What were my parents going to think? What were we going to do with the house we just bought? How were we going to support ourselves?

For a while it was a little overwhelming, but the more I opened up to God, the more comforted I felt. I had trusted him my entire life, why should I stop now? I knew the road ahead was probably going to be bumpy, but I had to do what was right, no matter the cost. Now, how was I going to tell Clint?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Star of Hope Visit

Last Saturday, a group of folks from St. Joseph's and I went and volunteered at the Star of Hope mission. This is the fifth total time that a group from our parish has volunteered at the mission (to read my reflection on an earlier visit, click here). Every time we go, we end up being more blessed than the folks that we are trying to help. Here are a few photos of our time there.

The sandwiches were stacked by the serving line with care...

Mike, Mike and Danielle are ready and eager to serve...

Ghada and Mairi put the finishing touch on each plate...a bag of chips!

Sylvia and Kim had watermelon duty. Who needs a knife when you can split them with your bare hands?

Mary Ann and Margaret are happy to have dish duty!

Just before our group was to leave, one of the workers at the mission told us, "You are the ONLY group that actually helps us clean up after lunch is over! Every other volunteer group just comes, serves lunch, and leaves! We really appreciate you cleaning up!" We told them it was our pleasure...part of the job, the way we see it.

We really have enjoyed being a part of this outreach to Houston's homeless population. I think beginning this fall we will go more often.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Hales' Journey, part 18 - Debbie's Perspective (2)

We went to Estonia with a couple (Urmas and Kadri from Clint’s story) that we had become good friends with while at Preaching School. I do not think any of us were prepared for how difficult it was going to be to live in a foreign country, away from our families, or for how difficult it was going to be to share the gospel with the Estonian people. Because of the extreme difficulties we were having with reaching the Estonians, along with the “culture shock” that seemed to drag on and on, we were all really stressed out.

After two and a half years, and only a handful of people (mostly teenagers) to show for all our hard work, we were all beginning to feel a bit desperate. I really did not become concerned when Clint and Urmas decided to start visiting other churches on Sunday morning. (We had our church services in the afternoons, so there was no conflict there). They really thought that they were going to learn something useful that would help them better reach out to the Estonian people, so while Kadri and I stayed home with the kids, they started visiting other churches.

I really was not worried at that point. The guys are known for starting something new, doing it for a while, and then moving on to the next “new” thing. I honestly thought this would be one of their “phases” and that once they both got it out of their systems, it would blow over. But, it did not blow over. In fact it got worse.

One week they attended an Orthodox church—a church I had never even heard of—and came home and told us all about it. I thought it was a bit strange, but even then I just kind of blew it off, thinking that once they visited somewhere else, they would forget all about it. But they never went anywhere else. They ended up going back to the Orthodox Church every Sunday, and that is when Kadri and I knew something was terribly wrong.

When Clint and Urmas finally sat us down (at our favorite Chinese food restaurant) and told us that they wanted to convert to Orthodoxy, we were both completely thrown for a loop. How could they do this to us? I honestly thought my husband had lost his mind. This was not just a phase anymore, and I did not know what I was going to do. He was turning his back on his faith to join some idol-worshipping church? His very soul was at stake. I was scared, and I did not know what I was going to do.

I remember how Kadri and I would get together while they were at the Orthodox Church and discuss what we should do. At one point I remember calling my mother, in hysterics, and telling her all about the situation. I did not know what to do. If Clint was serious, should I divorce him? Thankfully, my mother calmed me down, and I knew that “for better or for worse” was the best option.

Clint wanted me to visit the Orthodox Church with him, but I put my foot down. Now, you have to understand that in the Church of Christ, we are taught that WE were the only true church and everyone else is lost, so even visiting another church is scandalous. I had let his previous “visitings” slide, because, after all, he was only going to learn how to better reach the Estonian people, not change religions. I, however, was not going to be swayed. There was no way I was stepping one foot into an Orthodox church.

When Clint and Urmas informed our sponsoring congregations about their change of heart, they naturally decided to drag us all off the mission field, as soon as possible. Even though I knew it was coming, it didn’t make it hurt any less. I had been betrayed by my husband, and I felt like I was being punished for something I did not even do. What were the Estonians going to think? How would they survive, without our help? What were we going to do once we got home? I felt completely helpless.

The next year was a complete mess. Clint was working all the time, for little pay. I was home alone all day with three kids to take care of, and we were not attending church regularly. Neither of us was happy, and you could tell. I started going back to church and eventually convinced Clint that he needed to come back with me. After a few months, he seemed to be back to his old self, so I figured that perhaps it was time for him to go back to preaching. He agreed half-heartedly, and eventually got a job at a small church in Virginia.

When we arrived in Virginia, I was so happy and relieved. I thought I had finally gotten my husband back, and I was so glad to have all that Orthodox nonsense behind us. We liked the congregation we worked for and bought a house. I was ready to put down some roots and enjoy the rest of my life. Who knew that God was going to use that transition time to light a spark in my soul.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior

I wanted to write a brief post about a church that is near and dear to my heart, even though I’ve never been inside of it. I’m referring to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Banja Luka, Bosnia. Jennifer and I lived in Banja Luka from January to March of 1999, and then again from August of 2000, to April of 2001, when we returned to the U. S. to become cathechumens in the Orthodox Church. When we left, the Cathedral was just beginning to be built. At that time, it was little more than a foundation and a pile of bricks. But in recent years the Cathedral has been completed, and it was just consecrated on May 28 (Ascension Day) this year.

The story of the Cathedral is one of triumph followed by tragedy, followed again by triumph. Here is the story, which consists primarily of my somewhat loose translation of the article about it from the Serbian Wikipedia site. The quote from Bishop JEFREM comes from the website of the Bosnian Serb newspaper Nezavisne Novine (The Independent Newspaper). Enjoy!

The original Banja Luka Cathedral, called the Church of the Holy Trinity, was built between the two World Wars in downtown Banja Luka. The building of the Cathedral lasted from 1925 to 1929, and it was officially consecrated on Ascension Day, 1939. During the incendiary bombing conducted by the Germans on April 12, 1941, the Cathedral was damaged, with the altar area being the most heavily hit. In May of that year, the Ustase [Fr. James’ note: These were Croatian Nazis, who also controlled most of Bosnia. They were responsible for the deaths of around 500,000 Serbs. They were so brutal and cruel that even the Nazis had to scold them for their cruelty!] declared the Cathedral to be the “Shame of the Town,” and they ordered the Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies of the town to tear it down brick by brick.

For more than half a century after the Second World War, many new buildings were built in Banja Luka. The city authorities, however, would not allow the reconstruction of the destroyed Cathedral. Not long after the war, a monument to fallen soldiers was erected on the very spot where the Cathedral had been. At the beginning of the 1990’s, the Diocese of Banja Luka obtained permission to rebuild the Cathedral, and the war memorial was moved to a nearby location. The rebuilding of the Cathedral began in 1993 with the blessing of the grounds. This blessing was done by the Serbian Patriarch PAVLE, along with many hierarchs and clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Cathedral was rebuilt under the name The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, because between 1963 and 1969, another cathedral had been built under the name Church of the Holy Trinity. This church served as a sort of monument to the destroyed Cathedral, which the Orthodox faithful of Banja Luka thought they would never receive permission to rebuild. [Fr. James’ note: And this the Church where I fell in love with the Divine Liturgy. Needless to say, it is also very special to me!]

The Cathedral is constructed of red and yellow bricks that were imported from the Middle East…The walls have three major components: stone, reinforced concrete, and brick. The kupolas are covered with golden slaked lime, imported from Siberia. The construction of the Cathedral was completed on 26 September, 2004, when the first Divine Liturgy was served. The Liturgy was served by eight hierarchs, along with priests and deacons of the Banja Luka diocese, in the presence of thousands of faithful.

The current Cathedral is architecturally identical to the pre-War one, and it is the tallest house of worship in Banja Luka, with a bell tower taller than 47 meters and kupolas that are 22.5 meters tall. It holds (comfortably) between 800 and 1000 worshippers.

May 28, 2009 (Holy Ascension): The Cathedral is Consecrated

Bishop JEFREM of Banja Luka consecrated the Cathedral on Ascension Day, 2009. “The Cathedral is our spiritual ladder that lifts us up to heaven. It connects us with not only with God but also with those who came before us, who wanted to experience this moment of glory and joy, as well as with our descendants, who will remember us at this place and will overflow with pride toward the greatness of the sacrifices made to bring about this work,” stated Bishop JEFREM during the consecration ceremony. Several thousand faithful were present at the consecration service. [Wish I could have been there!]

The iconostasis of the Cathedral

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Exciting News: My Book is Finally Coming Out!

If you have been one of the St. James' Kids community for very long, you know that over a year and a half ago, I starting transforming the 30-part series of blog posts that I wrote about my pilgrimage to Orthodoxy (you can find the first post in the series here) into a full-length book. About six months later, the manuscript was complete, and not long after that, Regina Orthodox Press (the publisher of the works of Fr. Joseph Huneycutt and Clark Carlton, among other excellent writers) agreed to publish it. They told me it would be published around September of 2008.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Regina decided to delay the publication of the book until January 2009. Then, because the weak economy took its toll on Regina's operations, they had to delay the publication yet again. This time, they told me that the book would come out late in the summer or early in the fall.

Of course, I was disappointed to hear of both delays, but the second one really hit me hard. I began to wonder (foolishly, I admit) if my book would ever see the light of day. I pretty much put it out of my mind together. As some of you may have noticed, I didn't even post an update about the second delay (whereas I did when I heard about the first one).

My primary email address is the one to which there is a link on this blog. But I also have a second, older one, that I rarely use. I check once every other month or so. Last night I sat down on the computer to check that email, and I found that there were about 150 unopened messages. I knew that most of them were spam, and I almost just deleted them all in one fell swoop. But I thought better of it--surely there might be one or two REAL emails in the bunch, messages that required my attention.

Sure enough, I did find one important message in the bunch. It was a message from my publisher dated May 25 (not sure why he used my old address or even where he found it--all our previous correspondence has been done using my main address--but no matter). In the message, he said that my book would be out in about a month. Well, "about a month" from May 25 is about now. Excited, I emailed him using my main address, to see if I had read the message right. Could my book really be about to come out, "already?"

He responded very quickly and confirmed that the book is already at the printer and will be ready for sale in 2-3 weeks. Needless to say, I am elated. Now, I know what you're thinking: "How can I get hold of this classic work of Orthodox literature?" (ha, ha!) If you would like to purchase a copy (the price will be about $17), you may do so in one of two ways:

1. Buy it directly from me from this website (best method!). I will soon be setting up a link to Pay Pal on this blog so that you can purchase the book securely using a credit or debit card. If you would like, I'll even sign it (not that I'm anyone famous or even worth having a signature of, but I'll still do it if you would like, along with a brief personal message).

2. You can also buy it straight from Regina's website (link above). It's not currently listed there, but it should be soon. The book will not be offered through Amazon or other major online retailers for another six months or so.

Stay tuned for more details. I'll let you know as soon as I have the books in my possession for you to purchase. Later, I'll post some really nice things that some really kind people had to say about the book (from the front and back cover).

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Hales' Journey, part 17 - Debbie's Perspective (1)

During the time that Clint was writing his story about his and Debbie's journey to Orthodoxy, several folks expressed a desire (either publicly or privately) to hear Debbie's side of the story. Debbie has graciously agreed to write a few posts giving us "the other side of the story!" Enjoy!

When Fr. James asked me to write my thoughts about our conversion to Orthodoxy, I was not sure what I would say. Clint had already shared how the events unfolded for us, so what could I add? But then I realized that, for the most part, my thoughts and feelings were not shown. The events may have unfolded in the same manner, but my feelings were much different than Clint’s. So now I get the chance to tell my side of things. Here we go.

I was born into a Christian family. From my earliest memories, we were always at church. My father, who is Polish, was raised Roman Catholic, but as he grew into adulthood he did not agree with some of the teachings of the church, so he eventually, with the help of my mother, converted to Protestantism – namely, the Church of Christ.

He took his new faith very seriously. He studied his Bible most nights before going to bed, and we attended church every time the doors to the building were opened. My parents were also very active in the church – teaching Bible classes, doing outreach, preparing communion, etc. Because of this I was often at church helping them when no one else was there. Seeing how they actively lived out their faith instilled in me a deep love for God, and I knew from a very early age that I wanted to spend my life serving God and loving him.

As I grew, this commitment never waned—I took it very seriously. I attended church regularly, studied my Bible, helped out where I could, and I prayed. By about the 5th grade, I prayed every night that I would one day marry a man who wanted to be a minister or a missionary. I wanted someone who loved God as much as I did, and nothing less would be good enough.

During my teen years this became a lot harder, but I stuck to my commitment. When boys at school would ask me out, I was even more determined that I was not going to date someone that I could not potentially marry. I knew that my mother had fallen in love with my dad during High School, so I wasn’t going to risk falling for someone who didn’t believe the same things I did. Needless to say, I didn’t date much.

Throughout High School and college, I faithfully attended services, hung out with the Youth Group, and tried to find ways to serve - but this was a sticking point for me. I was born with an amazing aptitude for art and music. I could sing in church with everyone else, but art was not something I could use, not really. I was not good at (and did not enjoy) the things all the other girls liked to do – like taking care of the babies, and teaching Bible Classes. To me, it seemed like God had given me a gift that I couldn’t use in the church, and this made me very angry.

God had also chosen to make me extremely shy and introverted, which many people see as being stuck up, snobby, or cold. When friends would get angry at me for not being a certain way, or not doing things a certain way, I would get angry with God. I distinctly remember one night in particular where I found myself pleading with God to change me—make me more like everyone else. I also asked that he give me a gift that I could use to serve him better. He did neither. Eventually I just stuffed my feelings of inadequacy down, and blindly trusted that God had a plan for me.

When I fell in love with Clint, and he told me that he wanted to be a minister, I knew that he was the one for me. He was the answer to my prayers. I had finally found someone who shared my love for God, and for the first time in a long time, I was excited about the future. When we eventually ended up as missionaries in Estonia, I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew God had put us there for a reason. Of course, I never would have guessed what the reason really was.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Metropolitan Reflects on Prayer, part 4

How To Pray?
(continued from part 3)

A fifth rule is to use our whole body and even material things in the service of prayer. Prayer is an act of the whole man, body, soul and spirit. The body can participate in prayer through posture, speech, and acts:

a. Posture - In our Eastern tradition, the posture for prayer is standing, facing east, with arms uplifted or folded in adoration and worship.

b. Focus - It is good to have a focal point outside - a cross with two candles on each side, icons or pictures of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mother and of the Saints, or even a more elaborate prayer-altar fixed in some part of the house, where the whole family assembles for prayer.

Crucifixes, i.e. crosses with the presentation of the crucified body of Christ on it, belong to the Western tradition and are not to be encouraged in our tradition. In choosing pictures, it is best to use Eastern icons. [Fr. James's note: The metropolitan here is referring to three-dimensional crosses. Two-dimensional wall crosses that show the crucified Christ are definitely part of the Orthodox tradition.] Pictures with the sacred heart of Christ or of the Virgin Mother are to be avoided, because these belong to a particular period in Latin piety and are not helpful for a balanced spirituality.

c. Lips and Mouth - The body must pray, not merely the mind. Let your lips and mouth sing the praises of God, even if your mind does not always follow. The act of the lips and mouth is also your act of prayer, even without the concentration. Singing is better than saying your prayers, for in the very music certain human attitudes and aspirations are expressed.

d. Wandering of the mind - Do not get anxious about the wandering of your mind. When you become aware that your mind is wandering bring it back by consciously offering your wandering mind also to God. It is part of our confession about ourselves. "This is what I am Lord, distracted and unable to concentrate. I offer myself to Thee as I am. Take my wandering and distracted mind, and heal it by Thy grace." God will forgive you and transform you gradually.

e. Gestures - Use the gestures of prostration, bowing the head, making the sign of the cross and giving the kiss of peace. Words are not the only means of expression we have. Folding the hands and bowing is a sign of adoration, and of waiting for a blessing. Lifting up your hands with palms open, can mean petition, penitence, and intercession. Prostration is the sign of complete surrender and submission, placing yourselves in the hands of God with full trust.

Making the sign of the cross is a way of reminding ourselves that we have been saved by the Cross of Christ, in fact crucified with Christ. Keep your three fingers together (thumb, index and middle fingers) to touch the forehead (symbolizing the Trinity, the source of all life and all good) and make a descending motion to the lower side of your chest to signify the descent of the Son of God from heaven to earth for our salvation, then take your fingers from your left arm to your right arm signifying both the horizontal arm of the cross, and the fact that we who were on the left as children of darkness, have now been brought to the right side of God as children of light. [Fr. James' note: This is an interesting difference between the praxis of the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox; of course, in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, we make the sign of the cross from right to left].

Giving the kiss of peace is the symbol of mutual forgiveness and love, and it is a time for us to overcome all feelings of bitterness or anger against members of the family or others outside.

All these signs are part of a language which goes much deeper than words and transforms our sub-conscious minds which words can seldom reach.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Weeping Icon of St. George in Palestine

AP Photo, copyright 2009

Israeli Christians: Oil-streaked icon 'miracle'

Christians have been flocking to this dusty Israeli town to see what locals are calling a miracle: streaks of what looks like oil mysteriously dripping down an icon of St. George at a Greek Orthodox church named for the legendary third century dragon slayer.

Associated Press Writer

RAMLA, Israel —
Christians have been flocking to this dusty Israeli town to see what locals are calling a miracle: streaks of what looks like oil mysteriously dripping down an icon of St. George at a Greek Orthodox church named for the legendary third century dragon slayer.

Worshippers said Tuesday that the more than two dozen streaks might represent God's tears or the Christian rite of baptism. The church priest, Father Nifon, first saw the streaks while preparing for Sunday morning services, they said.

"He kissed all the icons, and when he reached that one, he took down the picture and he cleaned it," said Aida Abu el-Edam, an English teacher and longtime church member. "After 20 or 25 minutes, he looked again and he saw the oil again and said, 'This is a miracle.'"

El-Edam, 47, said she was convinced the streaks were a miracle in part because of a strange smell emanating from the icon. She said it reminded her of her visit as a teenager to the site of a miracle in Ermysh, Lebanon. There, she said, the odor came from a recently deceased woman whose Christian faith was legendary.

"It's a special, holy smell," she said. "It's not ordinary, like olive oil. It's something strange that comes from God."

The Greek Orthodox patriarch inspected the painting Sunday, el-Edam said, and the church has sent a sample of the oil to a laboratory.

Father Nifon said the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had asked him not to speak publicly or to answer questions about the streaks, so that believers could draw their own conclusions.

About 50 Christians crowded around the icon Tuesday, some from near Ramla and others from other parts of Israel. They were joined by curious Jews and Muslims, some snapping cell phone pictures. Ramla, a mixed Jewish-Arab town of 65,000, is in central Israel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The icon hangs near the front of the church, hidden from most pews by a small gold chandelier. A nun dressed in black was rubbing the bottom of the icon with cotton balls, which she handed to the faithful who sometimes smelled them before clutching them to their chests.

"People these days, they've forgot God and this is a sign to tell them, 'I'm still here,' said Edith Fanous, 31, who works for a local trucking company and said she has been attending St. George's since she was a little girl.

Fanous said she was singing in the church choir when the oil streaks appeared Sunday. She guessed as many as 1,000 visitors had been to the church since then. She dismissed the idea that the streaks could just be paint running on a hot day.

"This icon is 114 years old," she said. "It passed through so much weather, hot and cold. And now that we have air conditioning in the church it's started to melt? I don't think so."

Kosty Tannous, 33, an Israeli customs worker, said he thought the streaks may have appeared now because God sees trouble in Israeli society.

"There's war and discrimination," he said. "I see a lot of discrimination against Arabs here in Israel, and maybe this is a good lesson for everybody to love each other and live with each other with equal rights."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Hales' Journey, conclusion: A New Beginning

Newly Illumined Clint and Debbie and kids, right before their Baptism and Chrismation (with Fr. Matthew, Dn. Mel, and myself behind them) - what a day of rejoicing it was!

We have basically reached the end of the story, at least as it pertains to our family’s conversion to Orthodoxy. When we left off last time, we had just moved to a new town to the west of Houston. I had just taken a job teaching for a rural community college.

Not long after we arrived at our new home, we entered the Lenten season. It was also the time the college started having many teachers’ meetings that were catered. I enjoyed digging through the various offerings to try and find something that I could eat. I got excited at one meeting because one of the other instructors turned and said, “Oh, I am so glad they remembered it is Lent!” I couldn’t wait. I finally would have something besides bread sticks and fruit! Alas, my co-worker is Roman Catholic. The Lenten offering was fish.

But that was about the only bump in the road. It had been a tumultuous road that we had traveled, at times. But the last several months were anti-climactic, as far as turmoil and angst are concerned. We worked hard to fast properly and prepare ourselves for Pascha.

Finally, the day arrived. We all got up early on a Saturday morning and drove to Houston to St. Joseph’s. Fr. Matthew gave us a few final reminders on what to do (mainly directed at the kids to make sure they plugged their noses and things like that). Fr. James and Fr. Matthew took turns doing the various tasks: anointing us with oil, leading us in the questions and responses and things like that. Finally, six years after I first entered an Orthodox Church (and made a fool of myself), my family and I were baptized and chrismated into Holy Orthodoxy.

On a side note, I will let you know that Urmas and Kadri and their children were also received into Holy Orthodoxy on the same day. Unfortunately, we weren’t together when it happened, but we take joy in knowing we did it all on the same day. Our entire protestant missionary team, children and all, are now all Orthodox. God certainly does move in mysterious ways.

Since we have reached the end of the story, I thought I would close with a quick description of how our families reacted to the news. I refer to my family and Debbie’s family (I will let Urmas and Kadri tell their own story some day).

My family was pretty easy. Since both of my parents are deceased, I didn’t have to worry about them. My only sibling is three years younger than me. I don’t usually have to worry about lectures from him. I told him about your plans and he reacted in typical fashion, letting me know that he knew little about Orthodoxy, but that we were brothers and he loved me. Honestly, he probably thinks I am nuts (he has spent most of the last decade as a Youth Minister in the Church of Christ). But we are still brothers and speak several times per week.

The rest of my family is distant enough that it isn’t a big deal, really. I have a couple of aunts who were scandalized. But I am hardly the first person in our extended family to leave the Church of Christ. So it has been fairly smooth in my family.

I am also pleased to say that, overall, it has been smooth with Debbie’s family, as well. Her parents were very supportive. Her dad asked for some “study material” so that he could learn about the church we were joining. We sent him a couple of books that I found helpful in our journey (Bishop Ware’s The Orthodox Church and Matthew Gallatin’s Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells). Her mom just took it in stride. In fact, her mom was able to come to our baptisms/chrismations (her dad was not able to come). Her extended family still talks to us, so I think things are OK on that end, too.

So after a rough start, we have had a very smooth ending.

It has been about two months since we were finally received into Orthodoxy. It has been two blessed months. Sometimes it is hard to believe. I spent so long desiring this that it is difficult to believe that I finally have it. It is amazing to see the transformation in Debbie. (I know I have changed a lot, as well, but it is difficult to see change in yourself sometimes). She went from being so anti-Orthodox to being so pro-Orthodox that I am moved. I think she would live in the church building if she was able to do so.

Anyway, I really appreciate the comments and support that so many of you have shown to me over the past few months, as Fr. James has allowed me to tell our story. You will probably never know how much your love, prayers and comments have meant to me. I am a blessed man to be in a family with people like y’all (sorry, I have avoided the Texanisms as much as possible, but I had to let that one get by).

I do think Fr. James is going to let me write some more blog posts on occasion, whenever I have something that I think is interesting [Fr. James' note: Yes! I think we'd all like to see some more writings from Clint-right, folks?]. So I hope to continue seeing you all here on this site and hopefully, before too long, I can see you in person. I know that will be easy for a few of you, since I see you every weekend. But I also know that there are some of you from various parts of the world that I have never met in person and I hope to do so. We can sit around and swap stories.

Until then, I pray God’s blessing upon you as you continue to walk down the path that He has placed you on. Pray for me, as well, for of all the things I have learned, the most important is that I am a struggling sinner who needs all the prayers I can get.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Metropolitan Reflects on Prayer, part 3

3. How To Pray? (part one)

Prayer has to be learned. It is like swimming. When you are first thrown into the water, you may sink. You then may think that the law of gravity is final and cannot be changed. But there are other laws, like those of buoyancy and motion. The mere knowledge of these laws cannot teach you to swim. One jumps in and slowly, by repeated practice, acquires the skills of remaining afloat and of moving on the surface of or under the water. And some people are more skillful swimmers than others, because they have learned the rules and acquired the skills by constant practice.

The first rule in prayer as in swimming, is not to give up just because you do not succeed in the first three or four attempts. Prayer is a spiritual skill to be acquired by constant practice.

The second rule, again as in swimming, is to 'let go,' to let the water support you, to be unanxious and relaxed. In prayer also we have to let ourselves go, relax, trust in God to support you and teach you how to pray.

The third rule is to keep up the practice, even if you do not feel like it, or enjoy it. In the life of prayer, our inherent love of sensual pleasures and our selfish love of laziness and comfort, will interfere to make us reluctant to keep up the practice, finding various excuses for not praying.

There is no use saying 'I don't feel like praying' or 'I do not get anything from it.' It will take years before you get the habit of prayer and really begin to enjoy it. One must strengthen the will to have control over laziness of the body and desires of the flesh if one is to make progress in the art and skill of prayer. There is nothing like regular practice which can teach you to pray.

A fourth rule, closely connected with the third, is: develop the discipline of prayer through fasting and self-control. Man does not become free and good like God until he learns to control his own inner drives and passions.

Restraint of hunger and thirst, of anger and jealously, of sexual passion, of the desire for glory and flattery, of the desire for bodily excitement and for sensual stimulation, and of all inner turbulences which make us do things against our own free will, is a necessary preparation for prayer. As good athletes competing for the Olympic Games go through very rigorous self-discipline in order to keep their body, muscles and nerves in good condition, so should the man of prayer keep his body, mind and spirit in good condition and under conscious control.

by METROPOLITAN PAULOS MAR GREGORIOS (Indian Orthodox Church), Appendix: "What is Prayer? Why Pray? How Pray? (written for Orthodox young people in India)" pages 76-83, found in The Joy of Freedom 1967 (republished 1986 by CLS, Madras, India)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

You Say It's Your Birthday...

Beth, proud to now be age 8...all smiles on her birthday!

This past Tuesday, June 9, was our third daughter Beth's 8th birthday. In the Early household, we don't do big expensive parties. Never have. This tradition (or lack thereof) originally grew out of the fact that we lived near the poverty line. Later, since things have become better financially, we've had a boatload of kids. And we've always seen big parties as a unnecessary waste of money (Jennifer and I are both...shall we say...thrifty!). So, we always just do a small, family celebration, sometimes with a few friends thrown in. And our kids are okay with that. When kids don't grow up expecting big parties, then they don't get disappointed when they don't get them.

Here are some pictures of the festivities.

Beth and her best friend from school Lauren. Of course Christine had to get in on the act too!

Beth with her favorite present...a boxed set of the Harry Potter books! Beth just finished second grade, but she reads almost on a sixth grade level.

After the presents, we had "Make it yourself cupcakes!"

Courtney likes her cupcake with extra sprinkles!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Hales' Journey, part 15: Setting down...twice!

Tommy tries his hand at making cookies while Becky, a cousin, and Debbie's mom look on. Today, cookies; tomorrow, prosphora!

I had quit my preaching job and accepting a teaching job at a public high school in the Houston area. The only problem was that I had to be in Houston for training, starting in June, but my paychecks weren’t going to start arriving until August. So we had to account for two months of no income.

Well, that isn’t strictly true. I was teaching an online class that summer, so we had a little bit of money coming in – but it wasn’t much. We had saved for several months before we moved, in anticipation of the situation. We certainly couldn’t afford to move to Houston and start paying rent or a mortgage while I was receiving minimal income. At the same time, we still owned our home in Virginia, as it had not sold before we left.

To save money, we moved in with Debbie’s sister and her family in San Antonio. Each week, when I had training (three days per week, if I remember correctly) I would drive to Houston for training and Fr. James was good enough to put me up at night. I did that through the last part of June and most all of July.

In late June we received an offer on our house in Virginia. It took until mid-August to actually close, but it finally did. So we had that weight off of our shoulders. But the high cost of fuel, some unexpected expenses, plus normal living ate away our savings. By the time August arrived, we were pretty much flat broke.

About a week before school started (and I got my first paycheck), we found a house in Houston to rent. We borrowed some money from Debbie’s mom and rented it. We moved in two days before I had to report for work at my high school. Those first few weeks were tight, but we scrimped and made it.

On the church front, on most Saturdays, I attended Vespers at St. Joseph’s with Fr. James and then left from there to return to San Antonio. On Sunday morning, our whole family would get up and attend St. Ephraim’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, where Fr. John Mefrige serves as pastor. Again, we found a warm and welcoming Church family. In fact, a couple of the members had been at the Antiochian mission that we had attended a few years before (when Debbie was still anti-Orthodox) and they remembered us. We were welcomed with open arms. It was our first regular attendance at the Divine Liturgy as a family. It was wonderful.

But we knew that it was still not our final destination. We would be attending St. Joseph’s once we were in Houston. And once we did get moved in late August, we began attending St. Joseph’s. We began to attend Fr. Matthew’s Catechumen class. Debbie took notes like a mad woman. Each week we would talk on the drive home about the things that we had learned.

This went on for the rest of the year, until Christmas time. By then, we were entrenched at St. Joseph’s and had made several friends. Things were going very well regarding our conversion to Orthodoxy.

The job front was a different story. I entered the job with a little trepidation, I admit. I wasn’t excited about teaching in high school. The job was not as bad as I had feared and I enjoyed the people that I worked with. But I really was not enjoying my teaching experience. It was very different from what I had experienced teaching for the community colleges.

So Debbie and I decided that I would start looking for that college job that I had really wanted to begin with. My expectation was that I would apply for jobs for the following school year (meaning that I would start the new job, hopefully, in September of 2009). I saw that several of the community colleges in the Houston area were hiring English teachers, so I applied to them. Most of them were beginning the hiring process for the 2009-10 school year.

Sometimes schools don’t list when the job will open and you have to guess. Since it was normal for schools to start the hiring process in the late fall for the following school year, I just assumed that was the case in the jobs I applied for. Of the three or four jobs I applied to, only one responded. They set up the interview via phone. It was during the Christmas break, so it didn’t interfere with my school responsibilities.

Once I arrived at the interview, I was told that the job would open in January. I was in a quandary. I had a contract with the high school. But I figured that I wouldn’t get offered the job anyway. They were interviewing several people and my experience really wasn’t that much. But, they offered me the job.

Debbie and I prayed about it and decided that I should accept it. So I did. I went in and spoke with my principal at the high school, once the job offer was official. She agreed to release me from my contract and wished me well. I think she knew that I really wanted to teach at the community college level.

So in January of this year, I started another new job at a community college that is about an hour west of Houston. We moved to a town that was about 15 or 20 minutes closer to St. Joseph’s than the college is. So our commute went from being 30 minutes or so across Houston to about an hour. But that wasn’t too far for us.

Casa de Hale (numero dos) in Bellville, TX

I was finally at a job that I enjoyed and we were able to attend an Orthodox Church each week. Our journey TO Orthodoxy was winding to a close. We were scheduled to be baptized and chrismated at Pascha. That was only a couple of months away…

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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Hales' Journey, part 14 - Catechumens!

Catechumen Clint and Debbie (and kids). All kidding aside, what a great moment in the life of the Hale family! Pictured also is Fr. Christopher Foley

At this point in our journey, I was ecstatic! My wife had unexpectedly made a complete change in her opinion of Orthodoxy and was now on board. As I said earlier, I was still preaching for a small church in southern Virginia. I had just completed my Masters Degree in English and was trying to find a position teaching for a community college.

That was easier said than done, as you can imagine. There are actually few full time jobs available out there in English and those that do open up are hotly contested. A guy with a new degree and zero college experience doesn’t stand much of a chance. But, as always, God was looking out for us.

I was hired as an adjunct instructor at a large community college in the Greensboro, NC area. I was to teach two classes during the Fall 2007 semester. It was about an hour drive from my house to the parking lot at the school. Both of my classes were on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I only had to make the drive those three days. Luckily, my job as a minister was not very time-intensive, so it wasn’t a big deal to get everything done for it, and still drive and teach.

As I gained experience, other doors starting opening. Another community college (which was a bit closer) hired me for a class in the Spring and the original school kept me on for two more classes. By the end of the Spring semester, I had even picked up a few online classes. I was getting my experience. Fr. James also helped me get hired as a teacher full-time in the school district where he worked in the Houston area. I would be teaching High School English, starting in August of 2008. There was also some training that would be required that summer, so we actually moved back to Texas in June 2008. I will talk more about the job stuff next time.
While I was getting this teaching experience, we were also getting some Orthodox experience. In the Greensboro, NC area, I was able to make contact with Fr. Christopher Foley of Holy Cross Mission (OCA). Debbie and I started taking our family to Vespers each Saturday evening. We developed a very close relationship with the people at that mission. In fact, we still email with several of them and keep up with each other.

Fr. Christopher was amazing. I suppose that every Orthodox clergyman that I have met along my crazy journey has been amazing, so I don’t know that I was surprised, but he really was a tremendous example. He knew from the start that we would be moving to Texas, yet he drove to our home on several occasions (at least an hour each way) to teach us more about Orthodoxy. He loaned me books. He and his family invited our family to go to lunch on several occasions. He would answer my off the wall questions and gave some really great advice on things.

During the six months or so that we attended Vespers and got to know Fr. Christopher and the wonderful Christians at Holy Cross, our faith really deepened. I actually took a vacation day one weekend when Archbishop Dmitri came to visit Holy Cross. Orthodoxy had come to permeate our whole existence. It wasn’t just me; it was Debbie and even our children. The two oldest kids started singing with the choir during Vespers.

Archbishop DMITRI presiding over the Divine Liturgy at Holy Cross

Our youngest son, who was about four years old at the time would walk through our house singing the “Prokeimenon in the 6th tone” that we heard each week at Vespers: “The Lord is King, He is robed in Majesty.” (His Sunday School teacher at the Church of Christ actually asked me for the words that he was singing all the time, because it was so pretty). Both of my sons would turn their Star Wars light sabers upside down and swing it like a censer, and go around “smoking the house.” They called the Orthodox Church, “the smoke church.” Everything we did was somehow connected to Orthodoxy.

Finally, our time grew short. I had submitted my resignation as a minister. We got everything boxed up and ready to go. It was almost time to move.

But before we left, we wanted to do something “official” with Holy Cross. So after the last time I was to preach in the Church of Christ, at the next Vespers service, Fr. Christopher received Debbie and me and our children as Catechumens. We went through the ceremony there at Holy Cross, surrounded by quite a few friends that we had made there over the past few months.

A few days later, we moved back to Texas. It was a wonderful day. For the first time in nearly four years, I no longer had to straddle a fence. I was 100% Orthodox-committed. We were catechumens and excited about being able to attend Liturgy on a regular basis. Our lives had definitely changed.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Graduation Day, Part One

There has been a lot going on around the Early household lately, including some major, transitional events. One such event occurred this past Saturday - my oldest daughter Audrey graduated from high school!

I know, I know--you're probably thinking something like, "Goodness! Fr. James and Kh. Jennifer look WAY too young to have a daughter who is almost in college!" We hear those sentiments all the time! What can we say? God blessed us with our first child when we were quite young, and He has also enabled us to stay looking (and USUALLY feeling) young, even into our forties.

Everyone was happy and excited on Audrey's graduation day, including:

Christine, age 4

Beth, who is actually turning 8 today (more on that later)

Courtney, age 10

And last, but of course not least, the graduate herself. Here she is getting ready.

A few months ago, our digital camera died. I finally got around to ordering a new one about a week ago. Fortunately, it arrived the day before the graduation. Here's my poor attempt to capture Audrey during the ceremony. I didn't know that the flash was manual, and as a result, the picture is very dark (plus I was pretty far from the stage, and the zoom in this camera has its limits). But if you look really hard, you can see Audrey. She's the one on the right in a black robe. In this photo, she is coming back from receiving her diploma.

And here is the happy graduate after the ceremony. Those silly hats you have to wear are good for nothing but to mess your hair up!

Finally, here's the whole family. Courtney got a little sidetracked!

Jennifer and I are immensely proud of Audrey. She graduated 27th in her class of about 650. (For all you math geeks out there, that's in the top five percent.) She also earned a total of $35,000 in scholarships to the University of Houston, where she will begin attending this fall. She will live on campus, but thankfully, she'll only be about 15 or so miles from us. Jennifer and I are still shaking our heads, wondering where the time went. We didn't age; how did she?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Interview with Michael and Jessica Fulton

Jacob Lee, director of the Icon New Media Network, does not receive any pay for his efforts with the network. He earns his living as a web designer with Exist Designs. In recent months, he has grown increasingly busy with his web design work, leaving him little time for his work with Icon. In particular, he has not been able to maintain the once-a-week pace that he set for his excellent Journeys to Orthodoxy podcast, which is featured both on the Icon website as well as on the Orthodox Christian Network.

Noticing this, and hating to see the reduced frequency of the podcast, a few months ago I called Jacob and offered to help him with Journeys by becoming an occasional guest host. He eagerly accepted my offer, and before long I started recording interviews with various converts to Orthodoxy who live here in Houston. My first such interview has just come out. The interview is with Michael and Jessica Fulton, a delightful young couple who attend my parish, St. Joseph's. They will be moving to the Boston area this August, where Michael will begin studies at Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. I encourage you to listen to the interview. You may find it here.

Another Baptist Preacher Falls in Love...part 2

St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church, exterior view

Here is the second reflection on the Divine Liturgy, written by the "Real Live Preacher," Baptist pastor Gordon Atkinson, after his second visit. If you haven't read the first one, scroll down to yesterday's post. You'll love it!

Sunday I went back to Saint Anthony the Great. Jeanene and the girls did other things, which was fine with me because I was wanting to keep my thoughts tuned to my experience and prayer. I love my children, but when they are with me there is always a piece of me that is keeping tabs on them.

I was so excited too. Really very happy to be there and hopeful that perhaps the Eternal Creator might have something for his imperfect child to learn that day. Saint Anthony the Great has a coffee and conversation hour after the service, so I planned to stay for that as well.

The first week I was very interested in the candles that the faithful lit and put in boxes of sand near several of the icons. These were little tapered candles that burned down, conveniently, about the time the service was over. I asked the greeter if I might light a candle. She was surprised and seemed very happy. “Yes, of course,” she said. She told me that the candles represented the light of Christ coming into the world. I feel that piece of faith is held in common with our church as well. We light candles for the same reason.

I took my candle down front and prayed that I would be open to hearing from the Spirit of God during worship. I placed my candle with the others lit by various pilgrims at worship. For the entire service I kept an eye on my candle as it burned softly until it was only a tiny stub.

This week I decided not to spend any of my energy trying to keep up with the service in the liturgy book. Instead I wanted to watch everything and hear as much as I could. [Fr. James' note: Good call!] I found that I was able to follow the chants much better with only one week’s experience under my belt. I fell in love with the sound of them. Various readers have different tones and particular styles. Everyone calls the pastor “Father” at Saint Anthony the Great. Father’s voice came singing out from behind the Iconostas during the service. His voice is very resonant, and he has his own particular way of ending a phrase. There is a step down in tone and then - just at the end - he lets the tone trail off even further. Dum dum dum dum dooooooo…eeee.

I am easily hypnotized by repetitive and interesting sounds. Once in college I was driven to a state of absolute peace by the sound of a woman cutting thick paper with a heavy set of scissors. SniiiiiiiiiUP. I closed my books and sat there with my head in my hands until she finished whatever she was doing. I felt like I’d had a full massage.

I think a lot of my peace on Sunday came from the simple fact that I didn’t have to understand everything. I was not the minister or anyone with a burden of comprehending the whole. I was one of God’s little ragamuffins, a kid who wandered in from the street. No one expected much of me, and I felt God would be pleased if I just stood quietly and enjoyed the sounds and the beauty while being mindful of God's presence.

This week I noticed people sitting down during the homily. A number of people dropped to the ground like the crowds around Jesus. I sat down with them, and let me tell you that after standing for an hour, a seat on the floor is more comforting and comfortable than the softest lounge chair in the world. Ahh, the floor. A chance to rest my back before the push to the end of the service. Blissful.

And then it was over. It seemed much too soon. I was a bit surprised that almost 2 hours had passed. I sat at the back and watched everyone file forward to greet Father, who hugged people and chatted. I got to wander around and look more closely at some of the icons too. Stunningly beautiful.

During coffee hour I had a delightful chat with an enthusiastic woman named Tina, who became an Orthodox Christian 15 years earlier. She knew a lot of church history. It was nice chatting with her. Some others came to say hello as well. In time it came out that I am a Baptist minister on sabbatical, which was surprising for them. But just for a moment. Everyone has a story about how they arrived at Saint Anthony the Great. That was my story. And it was okay.

And now the dilemma. What shall I do with my remaining 8 Sundays? I'll never see everything I would like to see. And two of those Sundays I'll be out of town. I'm considering just going to Saint Anthony the Great during this time. I like what this place does to me. I like the way I relax and become accepting of my place there. On the other hand, Jeanene may want to go somewhere else. Well, that's part of the fun of these days. I don't have to decide anything. We'll see what happens.

As I mentioned at the end of yesterday's post, Gordon and his wife attended the Divine Liturgy at St. Joseph's yesterday. If he writes any reflections on his visit to our parish (and I think he will), I'll post them tomorrow. I'm looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Another Baptist Preacher Falls in Love With the Divine Liturgy

The iconostasis at St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church (OCA), San Antonio

Gordon Atkinson is a Baptist pastor in San Antonio. Recently, his church graciously granted him a 13-week sabbatical. He decided to take advantage of the time off by visiting a different type of Christian church each week, in order to broaden his spiritual life. On the fourth week of his sabbatical, he decided to visit St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church (OCA), also in San Antonio. On his blog "Real Life Preacher," he wrote about his experience (it was his first time ever to visit an Orthodox service). His writeup has been widely and heavily circulated in the Orthodox blogosphere and even on Facebook. You may have read about it, but just in case, I thought I would post it. Gordon writes well, with much wit and wisdom. Enjoy this.

Last Sunday was the 4th of 13 in my sabbatical time. Each of them is precious to me. Each week I am choosing a place and a way to worship. I’m not a church tourist, hoping to see new things. I’m seeking spiritual experiences. I want to worship. Saturday night Jeanene [Fr. James' note: this is Gordon's wife] and I still hadn’t decided where to go. I experienced something common to our culture but new to me. The “Where do you want to go to church - I don’t know where do YOU want to go to church” conversation. I found the Saint Anthony the Great website. It's an Orthodox church that has beautiful Byzantine art in the sanctuary. We decided to go there.

Shelby and Lillian [their daughters] went with us. On the way we warned them that this was going to be different. “They might not have changed their worship service much in a thousand years or so,” I told the girls.

That was an understatement.

Saint Anthony the Great isn't just old school. It's "styli and wax tablets" old school. We arrived ten minutes early for worship and the room was already filled with people lighting candles and praying. There was one greeter. I said, “We don’t know what to do.” She handed me a liturgy book and waved us inside.

Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn't too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer.

I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations. It was an ADD kids nightmare. Robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling and emerged from the other side of the room where no one was singing. The acoustics were wild. No matter who was speaking, the sound came out of everywhere. There was so much going on I couldn't keep up with all the things I couldn't pay attention to.

Lillian was the first to go down. After half an hour of standing, she was done.

Jeanene took her over to a pew on the side wall. She slumped against Jeanene’s shoulder and stared at me with this stunned, rather betrayed look on her face.

“How could you have brought us to this insane place?”

Shelby tried to tough it out. We were following along in the 40 page liturgy book that was only an abbreviation of the service were were experiencing. I got lost no less than 10 times. After 50 minutes Shelby leaned over and asked how much longer the service would be. I was trying to keep from locking my knees because my thighs had gotten numb. I showed her the book. We were on page 15. I flipped through the remaining 25 pages to show her how much more there was. Her mouth fell open.

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah. And I think there's supposed to be a sermon in here somewhere.”

“They haven’t done the SERMON yet? What was that guy doing who said all that stuff about…all that stuff?”

“I don’t know?” I said.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. I looked around and saw the door at the back of the sanctuary swinging shut.

And then there was one.

I made it through the entire 1 hour and 50 minutes of worship without sitting down, but my back was sore. Shelby came back toward the end. When it came time for communion I suggested that we not participate because I didn't know what kind of rules they have for that. We stayed politely at the back. A woman noticed and brought some of the bread to us, bowing respectfully as she offered it. Her gesture of kindness to newcomers who were clearly struggling to understand everything was touching to me.

Okay, so I started crying a little. So what? You would have too, I bet.

After it was over another woman came to speak with us. She said, “I noticed the girls were really struggling with having to stand.”

“Yeah,” I said. “This worship is not for lightweights.”

She laughed and said, "yes," not the least bit ashamed or apologetic.

So what did I think about my experience at Saint Anthony the Great Orthodox Church?

I LOVED IT. Loved it loved it loved it loved it loved it.

In a day when user-friendly is the byword of everything from churches to software, here was worship that asked something of me. No, DEMANDED something of me.

“You don’t know what Theotokos means? Get a book and read about it. You have a hard time standing for 2 hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. What made you think you could worship the Eternal One without pain?"

See, I get that. That makes sense to me. I had a hard time following the words of the chants and liturgy, but even my lack of understanding had something to teach me.

“There is so much for you to learn. There is more here than a person could master in a lifetime. THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE. Your understanding is not central here. These are ancient rites of the church. Stand with us, brother, and you will learn in time. Or go and find your way to an easier place if you must. God bless you on that journey. We understand, but this is the way we do church.”

I’m going back again on Sunday. I started to write, “I’m looking forward to it.” But that’s not right. I’m feeling right about it.

And feeling right is what I'm looking for.

Today, as it turns out, Gordon and his wife Jeanene were in Houston, and can you guess where they went to church? St. Joseph's! I had the privilege of speaking to them for quite some time after church. Tomorrow, I'll post Gordon's reflections on his second visit to St. Anthony's (yes, he went back for more!). I'm sure he will do a writeup on today's visit to St. Joseph's; if he does, I'll reproduce it here for you.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Hales' Journey, part 13: Breakthrough

Incognito Clint, hoping no one from the Church of Christ will see him visiting the Orthodox "Book Truck" (see below) - he should have also worn a hat and fake beard, possibly with some Groucho Marx glasses too just for good measure.

As I grew up in the Church of Christ, it had instilled in me a deep desire for truth. We were told that we must be willing to pay any cost to follow Christ. Granted, we usually used that argument when we were trying to convert someone to our group, but it was equally true for us as we considered mission work, or whatever. I think it is one of the really good things about the Church of Christ. They really believe that every man can prove a liar, but God is true. I believe that.

So when I found Orthodoxy, I realized that I had that treasure buried in the field and I was ready to and sell everything I possessed to buy it. Unfortunately, by then, I had a wife and kids to consider (unfortunate in that she did not agree, not in that I had a wife – but I hope you knew what I meant). So as we have seen, Debbie has kept me from selling most of my possessions and I certainly didn’t possess what I most wanted.

I mentioned last time that I sent Debbie a link to Fr. Stephen’s blog because I thought she would enjoy his posting. Honestly, Debbie is much more of the “devotional” style person, while I am more “study to learn.” Not that we don’t both enjoy the other, but we lean different ways. Often someone who communicates to me doesn’t to her and vice versa. I read this particular article (I don’t remember which one) and thought, “Debbie would enjoy reading that.” I wasn’t trying to “Orthodoxalize” her or anything.

But she thought I was. She didn’t say anything to me, but she had had enough! She was going to do some study on this “Orthodoxy” stuff and show me once and for all how much poppycock it was. In fact, unbeknownst to me at the time, she spent one entire night at the computer, without sleep, looking up various things. It had been a week or so since I had sent her the link and she asked me something about “Church History Timelines” or something like that. We found some online. I hadn’t put two and two together yet. Finally, Debbie came to me and told me that she must be going crazy, but that she thought I might be right about Orthodoxy.

My mouth hit the floor. The first thought that went through my mind was “we just bought this house.” I knew instantly that our lives had just taken a profound shift. I would not have to remain a Church of Christ preacher for year after year, hoping and praying that my wife would finally come around. I knew it was just a short matter of time.

However, Debbie was still a little more thoughtful and pragmatic about the situation than I would tend to be on my own. There was no way that I was just quitting my job without something else to fall back on. That posed a problem. Now I had slacked on my Masters Program in English because there hadn’t been a real need for the past year or so. But now there was. I ramped that degree plan into high gear and got started on my Masters. My goal was to get a job teaching in a community college. We weren’t even too particular where. Of course, Texas was preferred, but we enjoyed Virginia and North Carolina, so they were OK, too.

I finished the degree in May, 2007. It was about 3 months after Debbie had come around. I started applying like crazy everywhere. One thing I found was that all of those colleges had not been waiting with bated breath for me to graduate so they could compete for my services. In fact, I couldn’t get most of them to acknowledge that I even existed. But more on that later.

Once Debbie had come around, she was insatiable. She wanted to know more and learn more. That is the Church of Christ way. I tried to explain to her that she also needed to experience Orthodoxy, but coming from me, the message didn’t communicate very well.

The Orthodoxmobile, complete with onion dome on top. See how small it is?

She wanted to buy some books, but wanted to look at them first. So we found a Bulgarian Orthodox mission in Roanoke, VA that had a bookstore in a truck. I contacted the priest and we arranged a meeting. It turned out that they were building their new Church right there on their property, so we got a really neat tour, as well. This was a good experience for Debbie because she had finally met some Orthodox folks. She had touched them and spoken with them. She had seen icons and books. The only problem was that it was over 90 minutes to drive there and they didn’t do Saturday Vespers until 8 PM. We had three little kids and had to be up early on Sundays.

It was also at this time that Fr. James and I began to concoct a scheme that might be able to bring me back to Texas. He knew a job that I could apply for. So we were talking about that, as well.

Things had finally taken a turn for the better.