real live preacher: “You have a hard time standing for 2 hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape”

This is already making the rounds, but this is too good to not keep passing on. Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, TX, is on a thirteen week sabbatical and visiting various churches during that time. Here he recounts his recent visit to a Divine Liturgy at St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church (OCA) during said sabbatical. His story really speaks for itself, but I’d like to excerpt this bit:

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.

I’ve been privy to a lot of discussions at various levels about wanting to water down or remove or totally rethink this, that, or the other element of Orthodox Christian liturgical practice, in the name of removing stumbling blocks for people who don’t know what’s going on (among other reasons). We need rows of seating instead of the normative open floor because people won’t want to stand. We need to do something other than Byzantine chant because people won’t want to hear music that’s ethnic-sounding (whatever that means). We need to cut out these parts of the services because people are watching the clock and don’t want to be at church that long. And so on and so forth.

Here’s a guy, a Protestant, a Baptist minister at that, who has absolutely no reason to be sympathetic to the peculiarities of Orthodox Christian worship. (Granted, if you poke around Covenant’s website, you’ll see that they are not exactly your average Baptist church, and they are Texas Baptist, which seems to be an altogether different beast than Southern Baptist. Nonetheless.) He has every reason to react badly to every single part of the Divine Liturgy to which he is not accustomed — no chairs, chanting he doesn’t understand, service length, and so on — and yet he instinctively gets it. Not only does he get that everything around him is done that way for a particular reason, but he gets that his discomfort has more to do with him than it does with the practices that make him uncomfortable. He realizes he doesn’t want the worship to condescend to him and his frailties.

The counterargument, of course, is that of the four Atkinsons who went that Sunday (him, his wife, and two daughters), only one remained by the end. I think the response to that, however, is that Atkinson demonstrates the flaw in the visitor assuming that they aren’t going to encounter anything which will challenge them, as well as the flaw in a parish assuming that visitors (and parishioners!) can’t/won’t deal with the traditional practice when confronted with it, and if they don’t deal with it the first time, they’ll never be able to adjust.


4 Responses to “real live preacher: “You have a hard time standing for 2 hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape””

  1. 1 Dana Ames 4 June 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Hi Richard-
    I’ve been reading Gordon’s blog for several years. He gets a lot about a lot. I sure hope the commenters will back off a little and leave him some space- a little too much convert fervor -but he’s very gracious.

    I’m a convert too- in fact, I’ll be chrismated on Sunday. I just don’t want to be one of the obnoxious kind 🙂 Yes, I’m enthusiastic, but I try to rein in my fervor… I’m also 53 and have been around the block wrt church, and have spoken several liturgical “languages”. The thing I love most about O. worship is how much Meaning it conveys. I’m not sure it could do that if it were shorter, or if things were left out or edited. Anyhow, there hasn’t been a substantial addition since when, 1300 or so? The challenge is not about the externals. If one simply listens, one can hear much scripture and theology. If one pays attention, one can see how it all is interpreted and interwoven to express Reality. This is what needs to be conveyed when there are the types of discussions you describe, or when there is lamentation that the children are leaving. Of course, Meaning and Reality can be conveyed with the utmost clarity and some people will still walk away- but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, stop explaining. Well, that’s my two cents, anyhow.

    What a wonderful opportunity you have for study! May God be in all of it, and bless you with an increase far beyond what you receive from it. Hope you are able to write about it from Greece. A large regret is that I don’t have Greek, and a large fear is that I will never acquire it… One of my O. friends tells me, Koine isn’t that difficult- just take the NT into the bathroom with you and read it there- pretty soon you’ll get it… Ha! If only it were really that simple!


    • 2 Richard Barrett 5 June 2009 at 11:55 am

      Many years to you on your chrismation, Dana! And thank you for your kind wishes — I will indeed be writing about my time in Greece, as well as taking lots of pictures. As far as learning Greek goes — no time like the present! If you’ve got a decent handle on English grammar (including what various moods and cases signify), then Hansen and Quinn’s textbook is good for working through; for something a little more, er, communicative, you might check about the Athenaze series.

      Thank you for reading and commenting — please feel welcome to stick around.

  2. 3 Jonathan 5 June 2009 at 10:20 am

    Hi Richard,

    I read about this earlier this morning. Pretty cool. My brother and I actually went to St. Anthony’s in San Antonio a couple years ago for a good friend’s wedding. It’s a lovely space.

    God bless you as you travel to Greece, my friend! I’m excited for you!

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