Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Church of God

*This post is one in a series chronicling my ecumenical visits to various area protestant churches.

[Beware: long post.  It probably would have been nice to throw some pictures in to keep your attention, but because of the circumstances, taking pictures was impossible (or highly imprudent).  If you make it through, congratulations:  you're a trooper.]

Okay, it is no accident that there are a bunch of pictures from Egypt in my recent post on my motivation for this protestant church run.  (Be sure to check it out before reading this much longer post.)  It's actually because while I was at the evening service of one of the local Church of God congregations, I felt very much out of place.  The thought occurred to me that I was more at home at a Coptic liturgy (which is mainly in Arabic, but with some Coptic and a touch of Greek) than I was at this church.

Please do not misunderstand!  I don't mean to say that I did not like the service, nor that I didn't see any value in how they did things, nor even that I did not participate in praying and worshipping with my protestant brothers and sisters.  On the contrary, I found it edifying and in some ways powerful.  As I have predicted, there are certain things that I don't like and that I can't accept, but like I said in the last post, I'm not going to simply note the differences.  I'm already keenly aware of many of those.

What I mean to say is that other than the language itself, the experience was almost entirely foreign to me.  I contrast that with my experience of the Coptic Catholic Church, which is itself very different from Roman Catholicism, but not in any way that separates them from that Body of which I am also a part.

Here's how things proceeded.  About 15 minutes before the service, I exit my truck in the parking lot dressed in my nicest set of clerics, suit coat and everything, even though it's black and I'm in Alabama in July!  I walk into the foyer, immediately standing out, and providing the perfect target for the pastor.  That was the intended effect because I didn't want to be on my own any longer than necessary.  He was very welcoming, and introduced me to one of his assistant pastors, who was to be my guide, more or less.  I talked with him for a little bit about who we were, and he showed me around.  Then there wasn't much left to be said, so I just asked if I could just go in the church and pick a spot.  The choir was done practicing, so he said sure, and I went on my merry way.  As a good Catholic, I nabbed a sweet spot in the back row.

It was at this point I realized I was not in Kansas anymore.

I sat down and within seconds, something was not right.  I looked around to see what it might be.  Aha!  Everyone in this place is standing around talking to each other!  Now, granted, I new that this would be part of the picture, but I had momentarily forgotten, and the experience was therefore striking.  I am used to going into church and being quiet.  People might be praying, and I usually want to pray, but beyond that, I'm supposed to (and want to) show respect to the Blessed Sacrament.  But that's not how they do things in the Church of God (and I'm sure in many other denominations).  There were about 50 or 60 people broken up into twos and threes just catching up on the week, or whatever they were talking about.

I began just noting the phenomenon as I sat and mentally/spiritually prepared myself for what would be happening in a few minutes, but I was not to remain an outside observer for long.  Within 3 minutes, about ten people had come up and introduced themselves.  It actually shocked me the first time, because it's not a hushed hello like you might experience in a Catholic church sometimes.  No, it's a full blown conversation at conversational volume, and even with outbursts of laughter.  To tell the truth, I really liked this.  After I got over my incredulity, I felt genuinely welcome, despite being obviously very different from these people (marked clearly by my Roman collar).  Don't worry though!  I'm not about to write," now why can't we do that in the Catholic church?"  It's obvious to me that it wouldn't work, and that it shouldn't work.  Silence is beautiful, and the sense of the sacred that we have should not be gotten rid of.  Nevertheless, what those people do, and how they immediately welcome the stranger--it's just fantastic.  To feel immediately at home because this person before me is smiling, and genuinely interested in me, and is very happy that I chose to be with him that evening, this is a good.  And it's something that Catholics don't have.  We have other ways of welcoming visitors (though most places could do a much better job of it!), but we will never have this.  To be frank, that makes me a little sad or disappointed because I really liked it.

Moving on:  the service was kind of like a firework.  It started off very fast, kept moving, exploded in an incredible light filled display...and then just disappeared.  We started with a couple songs--obviously no procession or anything.  The only clear mark of the beginning was the music director saying something along the lines of "y'all want to pray tonight?" and us responding, "yes," and him saying "Y'ALL WANT TO PRAY TONIGHT?" and us responding thunderously, "YES!"  I forget the exact words, because just then the music started and it was awesome.  Nothing short of gospel concert quality, I kid you not.  You can tell where they spend their money.  The music was great, but the lyrics were a little bit shallow.  I came away thinking sometimes that "being redeemed" was to be equated with "being free from stress."  Don't generalize from that though.  There were good moments, but the lyrics had no real theology behind them.

Still, it was not long before the entire church was swaying, clapping, singing, shouting, etc.  I sang as best I could, and clapped my hands.  I was a bit out of my comfort zone, but I did not want anyone to look back and see a stoic Catholic "who obviously only came to observe and quite clearly thinks he's better than us."  This would of course not be true, but if I'm to be serious with my goal of getting into the practices of these denominations, I've got to actually do that!  So, there I was for the first time ever purposefully having fun at church on Sunday (or at least trying my best to).  Not that I don't enjoy Catholic liturgy, but I don't think I could say that I've had fun at Mass, at least, not if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.  I can think of many times, especially growing up, when I would mischievously try my best to have fun at church, but I usually got a spanking for it.

Then there were some announcements (very quick, let's get back to this rocket racing upward!), then more songs, and then the choir left the stage (is that what I'm to call it?) and the pastor got up to the pulpit.  I would like to say this was the longest sermon I've ever heard (around 45 minutes), but sadly, I think I've sat through some homilies that have been that long, but have had no where near the vitality that this one had.  We have got to preach better.  I don't think we need to break out into shouting like this guy tended to do, but we need some life in our homilies.

We focused entirely on the book of Job.  It was in general a pretty solid look at the story and the characters, and he related it well.  At times I winced at this or that little thing, but I really did glean a lot from the sermon.  I'm still, two days later, thinking about parts of it, and incorporating them into my personal prayer.  He ended on a note of trust, that God will only ever send trials our way in measures that we're capable of handling (with his help of course), and so in a way, God trusts us.  In the face of whatever suffering or doubt or trial, we have to trust him in return.

So at the end of the sermon, he invited anyone who was going through anything tough to come forward.  I considered going down, but in case I might be asked to do something or say something I could not in good conscience do or say, I stayed put.  It's too bad, because it ended up it would have been fine.  Still, I didn't want to cause a scene.

Basically, he kept preaching for a little bit with everyone there in front of him (half the pews emptied out).  Then it was time for everyone to just start praising God, in whatever way.  So we had a number of people break out into tongues, other people were shaking, all that stuff.  I have experienced this sort of thing in Catholic Charismatic groups, but there's something different about the way protestants do it.  I haven't reflected enough on this.  Anyway, that proceeded for a while, got more and more intense.  People were genuinely moved (and I have to admit, I was too), because the pastor knew them all and would talk to them about what was happening in their lives and everyone was just encouraged to persevere and to trust the Lord.  Then, he sort of brought it to an end, but invited everyone who wanted to make a public testament.  (Uh oh.  Glad I stayed in the pews.)  He just had everyone say into the microphone individually, "I trust the Lord."  Oh, okay.  I think that would have been alright, but I'm glad I stayed in the pews just to be on the safe side.  I don't want to cause scandal by appearing to profess the faith of a non-Catholic church, especially since actually doing so would impede me from being ordained.

After that, huge explosion of tongues and trust, the service began to fizzle out.  We sang one of the songs from before the sermon, but without the choir going back up, and I think even without all the instruments that had been playing.  Then after the song, the pastor very quickly encouraged all of us who did not make the public testimony to make a testimony to someone before we left.  So, I told a few people, privately that indeed, "I trust the Lord."  I even said it to the pastor as I thanked him for the hospitality and told him that the service was, "beautiful."  (I mean, it was.  It was just very different.)  Then, I left.  That was it.  Comments?

not related:
Not a hi-res photo, but I think you can tell which is me.

Update:  I said something above without meaning to say it.  "I came away thinking sometimes that "being redeemed" was to be equated with 'being free from stress.'"  That sounds like a put down, and in a certain sense it is, but at the same time, I wasn't all that clear.  I know a fair number of people who struggle seriously with scrupulosity, and for them, they very much need to hear that Jesus frees you from worry!  And, since I don't have the text of the lyrics, I'm not going to base a judgment of a song from my mere impression, which, let's be honest, had at least some elements of looking down my nose.  No matter how much I tried, I have to admit that I was rather proud of my religion, and that pride affected my experience.  Regardless of my reaction to the music, there's no denying that it spoke to the people there.  Okay, disclaimer added.

The Motivation for Exploration

*This post is one in a series chronicling my ecumenical visits to various area protestant churches.

As promised, I will post on my latest ecumenical experience.

But, before getting into the specifics of the congregation that I visited, here's a further note on my motivations in doing this at all.  I visit these churches as I would visit another country.  The goal in visiting other countries: I have no intent to make them my home, but there is great value in seeing how things are done there, and even more value in getting to know the people there.  I enjoy seeing cool stuff,

I've seen some very cool stuff.
but meeting people is much more edifying than just sightseeing.  It fulfills one's humanity far more to get to know a person and share yourself with him or her, than to look at buildings and natural wonders.  The human person is the image of God--what is the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls compared to that?

The Pyramids sure were big,
but weren't nearly as cool the Egyptians.
(Meet Saied, an Egyptian seminarian
who's coming to study in Rome next year.
I'm glad he'll make it while I'm still there!)
But furthermore, I've discovered a result in myself when I've gone to other countries.  I have not only come to appreciate and even love aspects of the culture, not to mention the actual persons who live there, but I have perhaps more importantly been spurred on to a greater love for my home and for my own people.

Just so, in visiting protestant churches I hope (i.e. the goal) to put a human face on them in my own mind, to come to know not just protestant-ism, but protestants.  I fully expect to [and have already found that I] like certain aspects of their worship, and their own nuances of understanding.  There will also be things that I don't like, and that I cannot accept.  I know that going into it, and largely know what those things will be in advance.  The surprise--no, the adventure--lies in meeting the people, in seeing God and the world through their eyes, in worshipping God with them, and in trying out the different things they do.  (All of that of course without dabbling in practices or prayers that go against my own faith--for example, I won't be getting baptized for a second time or receive communion or in any way deny the Truth that I strive to live every day.)

The Adventure!  Gift that keeps on giving.
And then, the further miracle occurs, analogous to the result.  I can't help but look back to my own Faith, and by that I mean look back to not only Catholicism, but Catholics.  I get up the next morning and open my breviary to pray the prayer of the Church, and I am so relieved to have it.  I go to Mass and realize so much more profoundly the Gift that it is.  And finally, I look around those who share my Faith, with whom I am in Communion.  To live and strive with others is exactly how God planned the Church to work.  Through being with those outside of full communion, I come to see what a Gift it is to be incorporated into a Body.  We as Catholics believe in God, worship God, and even love God as a community, as the Body with Christ as our Head.  He Himself is our teacher in loving God, for He, the Son, loves the Father intensely.  And the Spirit sanctifies us, enabling us to be adopted children of God, and groans and sighs on our behalf.  The members of this mystical Body are truly united, and we're not just talking about the 1 billion+ "living" Catholics, but all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.  As a Catholic, I worship God with the person in the pew next to me, but beyond that with a holy soul in Purgatory, and even with Mary the Mother of God.  I am so blessed to be a part of that.

A photograph:
...unrelated but for the fact that it is from my time in Egypt.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


*This post is one in a series chronicling my ecumenical visits to various area protestant churches.

Living in Wetumpka for over a month now, I've come to a realization (besides just liking fireworks).

The realization is this:  I've never been to a protestant worship service, ever.

I grew up in a devout Catholic household.  We always went to Mass on Sunday.  I went to Catholic schools--before going to seminary I had been educated entirely on Old Shell Rd in Mobile, at St. Mary's and McGill.  I was born into and grew up entirely within as near pure a Catholic milieu as possible in southern Alabama.  Once I was in seminary, forget it--I was to be stuck in a Catholic microcosm for the next nine years.

The closest I ever got to protestants was in the Boy Scouts.  My troop was sponsored by a Methodist church and we met at a Presbyterian church.  But even then, since there were so many Catholics in the troop, we had a priest come with us on most weekend campouts and celebrate Mass on Sunday morning.

What Bible Belt, right?

Anyway, here I am in Elmore County, surrounded by the grandest variety of protestant churches imaginable, and among them there is only one Catholic parish.  This is a very different place for me to be.  And it got me thinking, as most things do:  I have never been inside of one of these places.

So, I asked Fr. Kelly, my pastor for the summer, if it would be okay for me to go to evening Sunday worship services at different denominations for the rest of my time here.  I was intending to go incognito, but he told me no, "go in your clerics."

I tried last week to visit a Presbyterian church, but I was mistaken about there schedule.  They didn't have a Sunday evening service.  (I obviously couldn't go in the morning, since that's when Mass is here at Our Lady of Guadalupe.)  But the pastor there invited me to a special ecumenical dinner he was hosting on the occasion of his church's Mission Sunday.  I decided to go, even though it wasn't a worship service.

I'm glad I did.  There were a number of different denominations represented, though the largest group were Presbyterian.  They were the hosts, after all.  It was an informal get together, and we all shared our experience of "mission," both at home and abroad.  I talked about my time in Egypt, as well as some of my apostolic placements at the various seminaries I've attended.  Then we had dinner and "fellowship," which is a peculiarly protestant word, but a fundamentally human idea.

And that's really what the whole evening was about, and the whole reason I want to get around to these other churches.  It's not because I'm just curious about how they worship and what their preaching is like, though I am.  It's more about being connected to other people who are in the service of the Lord Jesus.  Protestants have many misconceptions about Catholics, but the reverse is also true I think.  It's only in real interpersonal relationships that ecumenism can have any hope.  I don't intend to convert all these Christians that I'm going out to meet (though I won't get in the way if it starts to happen!).  I just want to get to know them as people, and for them to realize that the Catholic faith is not hazardous to their salvation, nor, for that matter, to my own!  For that to happen, they have to meet actual Catholics who are strong in their own faith, and can answer any questions they might have clearly and without hesitation.

I must admit, I got the feeling it was an extraordinary thing for them to have a Catholic seminarian around, but that might just be my own subjective opinion.  In truth, our conversation focused mainly on mission, the topic of the evening.  Nevertheless, for at least a few minutes, curiosity seemed to get the better of some of them, and we started talking about me and Catholic seminary/practices/etc.  I was glad to answer any and all of their questions.  I was also glad to just get to know a group of nine or ten other human beings who, like me, try to follow Jesus.  I was very happy to be there, and it was God's providence in action.

This Sunday, I'm back on task, searching out actual protestant worship services.  I still have not attended one!  I'm going to an Church of God congregation.  I've already spoken with the pastor, and so I'll be there, sitting in the back, dressed in my best (my only) black suit and rabat.  I'm sure I'll post something about it, so stay tuned...

An unrelated photograph:
Up to my neck in gravel

Friday, July 23, 2010


Fireworks were my impetus for starting this blog (that, and Benedict told priests to start blogging), but I suppose I should do a more fitting introductory post:

I think about stuff a lot, and I find that whenever I open my mouth and tell people what's going on upstairs, it often becomes clear that my way of thinking is ... unique.  Not foreign, mind you, nor even contrary, just different.

And so, I (not so humbly) submit to the world My Thoughts.

Just sit back and enjoy the show.

A String of Photos:

Ah, a lovely day at Hampton Court
Just enjoying myself

Is anyone looking?  Nope?  Good...
I'm going for it.


I decided to go do something this evening.  I have a lot of work to do:  among other things, preparing for my Bible study on Sunday.  But, I spend so much time over here at the parish by myself, I felt the need to be around people, for a change.  I happened upon the perfect opportunity:  the City of Millbrook's Summerfest 2010!

All I knew about this event was that it had fireworks and that other people would be there, the vast majority of whom I would not know.  This was the description I found on the internet:

Entertainment for the family friendly event will be provided by a variety of area bands.  Everyone is encouraged to bring a picnic basket and blanket and enjoy the evening events, which will culminate with a stunning fireworks display.  This year's Summerfest Celebration will build on the Alabama Tourism Department's Year of the Small Towns and Downtowns theme will a special tribute planned for all local Millbrook businesses, which are the heart of our city. 6 p.m. until with fireworks beginning at 9 p.m.

Sounds like fun, right?  Absolutely! though, I think I might have enjoyed it a little more if I went with someone else, or met someone I knew.  Anyway, that's not a big deal, because the solitude amidst the crowd provided for some unique introspection, which I will divulge below.

I went to a vendor (since I was without the suggested picnic basket) and bought a Gatorade.  The guy looked at me, and I could tell he was about to ask, "what flavor?"  Before he got the words out, I told him, "any flavor," because I didn't really feel like choosing.  Since it was dark, I never really found out what I got, but it tasted a lot like grape.  Now, grape flavor in candy and soda (and sports drinks) is always nostalgic for me, instantly connecting me to childhood (the paramount example of this being grape flavor Big League Chew).  I don't know why, but I used to eat and drink a lot of grape stuff, but not anymore.  I didn't even like it very much as a kid, but now I'm elated whenever I see Grapico sold at Wal-marts or at a gas station.

So here I am, on a hot summer night (though not too hot since it was threatening to rain), with a cold grape flavored drink in hand, surrounded by a couple thousand people (maybe more?  I don't know how to count large groups of people), as we all anticipate the coming fireworks.  It is in this environment that I begin to reflect.  The result:

I love fireworks.

Okay, yeah, big deal--Everyone loves fireworks.  That's true, but I suddenly realized that fireworks communicate something to me.  I started to realize this on July 3rd as I watched fireworks at Point Clear with my nieces and nephews.  The explosions of light and sound are simply fantastic.  I even like to watch the smoke of old blasts get lit up by new ones as it drifts away.

Now, there is an obvious bias here that has to be stated.  I'm born on the Fourth of July, and I was repeatedly told as a child that the fireworks on Independence Day were for my birthday (the country too--don't worry, even as a kid, I got it was joke).  I realize that probably the only people who do not love fireworks are the very young children who get scared (a necessary part of growing up), but I've got a special place in my heart for them.  Is this deep realization I made about myself tonight just me latching on to my childhood?  Probably, but that doesn't bother me.

But it's not just the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air that I can't get enough of.  I get in to the whole experience:  searching for a parking space, listening to the radio (NOT a cd or an iPod), carrying lawn chairs, sweating a little bit in the dark heat of the evening, waiting for the show to start, watching kids running around, smelling bug spray, etc.  I got most of that (minus Independence Day) tonight.

All I can say is, America does fireworks right.  I have been privileged to live in another country for 3 years.  I therefore realize that other cultures utilize and enjoy fireworks.  The most intense display of fireworks I ever saw was in Assisi for the Feast of St. Rufino (patron of the city).  However, I find that there is something special about the particularly American experience of fireworks.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but it's definitely there.  I can't wait till next 4th of July (and not just because it's my birthday).

While I've got the opportunity, let me say that I am really enjoying living in Elmore County.  Even though I didn't know anyone at Summerfest, it was great to be there with everyone.  Living in Italy for three years has really made me love my home.  Alabama is a beautiful place, filled with beautiful people.  And most of them have no clue whatsoever what life is like in Europe or Africa, but that's by no means a privation.  These people are themselves.  I love that about them, and I love being one of them.

Unrelated Photo:

(Real duck, real moustache)

Update:  A friend of mine got creative when he saw this picture:

(Fake dynamite)