A Baptist Preacher Goes to Church: Part 1

by Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio, TX

Not for Lightweights

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 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 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.

Part Two can be read by clicking HERE.





Comments

  1. Oh Gordon, I know what you mean about the Litrugy not being for lightweights … I was a guest at an Orthodox service once … I spent three hours in the sanctuary in my stockinged feet in winter on a tiled floor of a poorly heated church! Ah yes, I remember it well … still, I didn’t lose any toes at least!

  2. Great post, I have appreciated many priests preparing the church for converts, and encouraging the church to preach the gospel, to live the liturgy. God is adding to the church.

    I felt similar to the way this Baptist did , but he made some profound statements about the consumer church. I pray his family will follow,if he converts because if they do not, it will be one of the hardest burdens to bare.

  3. I geel your pain my friend. I was raised protestant and was a protestant minister like yourself. I’m still new to Orthodoxy and I’m still whipping myself into “worship shape”. I like that. My God open your eyes and your heart on your search. It has blessed me beyond spoken words.

  4. Gordon,
    What a lovely and engaging story you wrote. I’m looking forward to learning more about your journey.

  5. Forrest Long says:

    This whole account resonates so well with me and my experience. As a former Baptist pastor, my first experience in an Orthodox service was at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. The whole service was in old church Slavonic- couldn’t understand a word of it or know where it was going, but there was such an awesome sense of God’s presence there like I had never experienced before. It made me hunger for more and continue on that journey.

  6. I enjoyed this very much. The more you learn and concentrate on the Orthodoxy Liturgy, the less you realize that you are standing. I must tell you that our Orthodox Church does contain pews, as well as most of them in my area. There is a protocol for sitting and standing that visitors learn very quickly. Elderly often remain seated for most of the service. We want you to come back. Please allow your wife and children a seat on the floor if they need it. The Orthodox Church is so much more than achy knees. The only thing I have noticed about people sitting in pews is that they get too comfortable. Crossing legs should never occur. When people feel at ease, they seem to lose concentration and notice noise around them instead looking straight ahead in prayer. Although our church does have pews, there are faithful who continue to remain standing the entire time. Comfortable shoes are a must. I can’t wait for Part II.

  7. Caroline Vuyadinov says:

    I was touched by your blog. I am a convert of 24 years, but my parents always brought us to vespers as kids although my father was an Episcopal priest. I remember standing in services in funny languages and trying to figure out who was on the wall over the royal doors. Your words made me cry as they were filled with beautiful honesty. Thank you. I would love to read part II.

  8. It is worship for lightweights. That is why we fast and stand and make prostrations.

  9. These multi-part stories drive me crazy because I want to know how it’s going to end! I enjoyed this one very much and look forward to the next part. 🙂

  10. Brother in Christ, This was a wonderful account which reminded me of our own beginnings in Orthodoxy (I was a Lutheran pastor). I shared it with parishioners, who thanked me for reminding them of their own roots and of the gravity, beauty and sanctity of worship in the Orthodox Church. Of course I am eager to see Part II. May God bless you and your family in your pilgrimage.

  11. Joel Thomas says:

    I was raised “independent fundamentalist Baptist,” even attending that flavor of college for two years. I converted to Orthodoxy 10 years ago. I really enjoyed your post and look forward to the next one. I’m sure others have or will mention this, but various Orthodox Christian parishes do have variations, and many Orthodox churches in America do have (and use) pews. You’ll even find an occasional “Western Rite” parish — viewed as just as “canonical” as and in communion with the OCA parish you attended. Some masses are longer than others, of course, and some use more English than others.

    At any rate, thank you for visiting an Orthodox parish, and I know you’ll find more blessings on your upcoming return.

  12. Manuela Cruga says:

    Please look for a Romanian Orthodox Church.The majority have the Liturgy in both languages, some of them only in English and some only in Romanian. In the majority of the Romanian churches the worshipers stand but also sit for short periiods of time. How can one concentrate in prayers if one is in pain? I am familiar with the liturgical music and I can honestly say that the Romanians have the most beautiful music. If you ever take a vacation in Michigan I suggest you visit the “Holy Dormition Monastery” in Rives Junction, a few miles of Jackson. You will have a hard time to leave that place. May the Good Lord bless your way and I will pray for you to be spiritualy intranced by my faith. I am 77 years old and I still discover new wonders in the history of Orthodoxy.

  13. Dormition Monastery is indeed a glorious place, but one not simply go to a Romanian Church. There are plenty of good churches, like St. Anthony is San Antonio, which are as oasis of spiritual effort and beauty. And the beauty of music really is in the ear of the listener. Enjoy it all.

  14. Mary Louise says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I read this series in 2009 when then Pastor Gordon Atkinson posted it on his blog. I hope more people will get to read it now since you are sharing it here. He captures so well the experience of fresh eyes seeing the Divine Liturgy for the first time. Thanks to you posting this I’m glad to also see Gordon Atkinson has emerged from the desert and begun to blog again.

  15. Hello everyone. A Facebook link brought me here. Was surprised to find that this piece seems to still be alive out there on the Internet. I thought I would drop by and offer some thoughts a few years later. I no longer keep the blog that this was originally posted on, so there is no opportunity for me to follow up there. I hope you don’t mind. Also I realize this comment comes over a year after the posting. I don’t know if anyone will see it.

    In the months after I wrote that piece I received many contacts from Orthodox Christians. Almost every one of these encouraged me to consider becoming Orthodox. Having been an evangelical, I find evangelization to be a sign of love. I definitely understand that Orthodox Christians see their way of Christianity as being the only way. You’re very nice about it, but you must tell the truth. And you do, with love. I also understand that burden and appreciate the way you carry it, even though I am on the outside.

    I ended up leaving the ministry in 2010. I simply couldn’t go on being a pastor in my evangelical world. That says a lot about me and nothing about the evangelical world, for whom I carry nothing but gratitude for being the community who introduced me to Christ as a boy.

    For two years we travelled around. We worshipped in many places, including other visits to Orthodox churches. Greek, Russian, Armenian. Once at a Houston Orthodox church, the priest heard I was visiting and ran out to catch me in my car and told me he had read this piece. I was so deeply moved by that.

    I know this may not be understood, but after two years of soul searching and prayer and waiting, I ended up becoming an Episcopalian. I can only imagine that my new faith tradition seems terribly lax and liberal to you Orthodox brothers and sisters. (May I call you brothers and sisters? I feel that way toward you and hope it is okay to say it)

    I have moved toward a sacramental tradition with great joy. My new community fits me theologically. I also realize with humility that such an individual approach to theology also is not in keeping with Orthodox tradition. Trust me when I tell you that I see the goodness in setting aside ones own mind and ego and submitting to the ancient teachings of a tradition. But of course that has to be balanced with some acknowledgment of what is unique about an individual.

    At this time I’m moving ahead in my new tradition. My oldest daughter wants me to take her back to the church where I went when I wrote this piece. St. Anthony the Great Orthodox in San Antonio. (She wasn’t with us that day) I’m sure I’ll take her someday. I am trying to keep an open heart, mind, and spirit. God willing I have some years left to live. I’m 52. Surely if the Lord wishes me to move yet again an open heart and searching mind will mean that new light given me will be received in joy.

    Thank you again,

    Gordon Atkinson.

  16. I don’t normally allow such long posts, but there has been great interest in your post. I’m sorry you have chosen what so many of us parted from, but you, and your daughter, are always welcome. The Church isn’t going anywhere, and it will still be here when you get back.

  17. Gordon,
    God bless you! I came across your post today and am a parishioner at St Anthony’s. Please come join us again one day you get the opportunity!

  18. the seed has been planted. we are all on a journey towards God. You will find your way back someday I am sure. You FELT what you should have and now time will let you process that and bring you back when you are ready. That experience was exactly what happened to my family (not me, I knew it). the same responses, everything. but deep down it stays and you know it is right. But it is hard and so you have to wait for the day you commit to the “suffering” which will turn to joy when you attend. good luck and God Bless

Leave a Reply