Janitor, Banjo, Sideburns, a Nun: Opa!

October 7, 2009 Length: 15:14

What's a Christian look like? It's all Greek to me! In this episode, Fr Joseph gets schooled by an imagined janitor, a native Houstonian, and a real nun.





So I’m standing in the food line on opening night at the Houston Greek Festival. We’d arrived early before the first meals were served and the line, though long, was yet to move. I’m standing in the line with my wife and kids behind me, and after we’d exhausted our family musings:

Father Joseph: “How was school?”

Child 1: “Good”

Child 2: “Good”

Child 3: “Good”   

I did what most people do when so occupied, nothing to do but stare around at the people nonchalantly. Sometimes, I must confess, when I’m at a large outdoor event like fairs, carnivals, rodeos and festivals I often wonder “Where do these people come from?” Theme from The Addams Family plays…

I mean, you gotta admit, there’s some strange looking dudes and dudettes that populate such affairs. Anyway, there I was standing in line at the Greek Festival, minding my own business. It’s inevitable in such situations that eventually some stranger will strike up a conversation, usually about nothing at all—the weather, the wait, the crowd.

And so it happened that day, in line for food at the Greek Festival, I was standing behind a guy with long white sideburns, John Deere cap, and his name on his work shirt. Banjo plays… And he turns to me and says: “You a priest or something?” Y’all, I’m of course dressed as a priest, and sinner that I am, my first impulse was to say: “Yep, you a farmer or something?” 

But before we get to the rest of that conversation, a bit of back-story. Years ago when my son was a first grader, back in rural North Carolina…. Banjo plays…

OK! Knock it off! In reference to the banjo playing…

My son, first grade, was selected from among his peers to read a paper that he’d written about what he wanted to be when he grew up. So there I was, walking into the elementary school, when I noticed a man up ahead of me wearing a Cangold cap. He was tall, lanky, black. He seemed to know all the teachers. Everyone said “Hi” to him. Forgive me, but all things considered, I figured him to be the janitor. Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen by Louis Armstrong plays…

I had to stop and ask directions to the library where my son and others would be reading some of their award winning writings. I thought of asking the janitor but he was too far ahead of me. Was I ever surprised to see that janitor sitting in the section reserved for parents and grandparents. He seemed to be a nice chap, but as the room filled up with young authors’ kin, all white, I wondered how he felt amid a sea of Caucasians. Eventually a white woman, I mean really white—red hair and flushed cheeks, arrived and sat down beside the black guy—very close beside him, and many other chairs were vacant. Aw! I get it! At least I did when their— blended-race daughter arrived. Ebony and Ivory by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder plays…

My gaze shifted back to the students. I spotted a young, Hispanic gal staring at the mixed-race family. I wondered what she thought of that. That sort of thing is no big deal these days I guess, especially among Hispanics, right? I remember back when I was in middle school, one of the white teachers started dating a black man. This would have been around 1973. That gossip grew long legs and provided fodder for kids, parents, staff, church, etc for quite awhile. Banjo plays… But the teacher was a class act, and she took it all in stride. Last I heard Love and Marriage by Frank Sinatra plays they were still married. One of the first weddings I officiated as an Orthodox priest was between a white woman and a black man. I didn’t try and talk them out of it, but I did encourage them toward the reality of such an arrangement in the South. Banjo plays…

Stop it! In reference to the banjo playing…

The white woman with the really red hair was his wife, and the Mexican gal could write and speak clearly. Well Duh! Which brings me to my son—he was chosen from among all his classmates to present his writing, My Construction Set. Each classroom of each grade, he was in the first grade at the time, was represented. He did great. I mean really great. His reading had never been clearer, diction near perfect, volume optimal. I was so proud when his certificate was presented to him the lady said: “Maybe some day when you grow up, Basil, you can be an engineer and build houses right here in Henderson County.” Ah… growing up…

Now, that’s hard to imagine. I thought about that—my growing up that is—sitting in that elementary school library, dressed like a priest and how I had a long, long way to go. Speaking of a long way to go, there I was five years later, standing in line at the Greek Festival in Houston, behind a man with bushy, white sideburns, farmer’s cap, and his name on his shirt. Banjo plays…

Again, I was dressed like a priest, and finally he turned to me and said: “You a priest or something?” “Yes sir. I serve over at St. George on Bissonet,” I said. Again he said: “You a priest or something?” “Yes.”

He glanced at my family behind me. I said: “Oh yeah! Well, Orthodox Priests can get married and have families.” “Hurray for the Orthodox,” he smiled. He related that though he’s a lifelong Histonian, this was his first Greek Festival, and he’d never been to an Orthodox Church. He then said: “You Greek?” “No,” I said. “I’m a convert” Silly of me. He obviously had no idea what I was talking about. I mean, what? I converted to Greek? “Well,” he said, “You look Greek, at least I think you do.” Greek music plays…

He looked behind me, and said: “Your whole family looks Greek to me.” Continuing to speak like a silly man, I said: “Nah, we’re from North Carolina.” Banjo plays… I realized even as I was speaking that this fellow was talking about culture and ethnicity and I was rattling on about something completely different.

My newfound friend in the food line at the Greek Festival then said: “Well, come to think of it, I don’t know that I know what a Greek looks like.” I didn’t quite know what to say to that. But for a fleeting moment, wishing to be helpful, I scanned the festival crowd which of course was full of festival-type people The Addams Family theme plays…

Hmm, let’s see. What’s a Greek look like? Later, in hindsight, I was really glad the man had not asked me: “What does a Christian look like?” That would have been a conversation breaker. I mean if you see a woman with veiled face and long, black garb like a burka, you can deduce that she’s a Muslim. An Indian dressed in traditional, colorful, flowing attire is assumed to be Hindu.

But what does a Christian look like? Oh sure, you’ve got some groups Christians that exhibit their particular brand of beliefs with say—the woman’s hair uncut and piled high in a teased and sprayed bun or all covered up like a milkmaid. But for the men, some Christian groups tend to lean towards the James Dean do or Elvis Presley do for the men. For some reason, some followers of Jesus are nuts about sideburns.

Then, there’s the Orthodox with their sandals and 300-knot prayer ropes, dangling from the belt loop of their jeans, the milkmaid missus and the men’s hairdo à la Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star Spangled Banner plays... But really, our Lord doesn’t say nearly as much as what we are supposed to look like as he does about how we are to act.

St. Luke the Evangelist records our Lord as saying: “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” Huh, well that’s no good. I mean, it’s alright, but hey does that mean I must obey that rule when I’m on the highway, making my way through traffic? How about when I’m engaged in some juicy gossip about a coworker? Or let me ask you this, what about antagonists, say antagonists in the Church? Are they covered by the Lord’s admonition?

Well, he says: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from who you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again. But love your enemies and do good and lend expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Can you imagine? I mean just imagine what the highways, the workplace, the marriage, the world would be like if we all behaved like that. We Are the World by USA for Africa plays… No, no, no! We’re not the world. Rather, like Elder Paisios the Athonite said: “If one studies a great deal, in order to acquire knowledge and to teach others without living the things he teaches, he does no more than fill his head with hot air. At most he will manage to ascend to the moon using machines. The goal of the Christian is to rise to God without machine.” So it seems according to our Lord, the Saints, our spiritual Fathers and Mothers, being a Christian is not so much about the way one looks but how one acts. 

The following tips are from Mother Pelagia of Lesna Convent, who prefaced them with the remark: “Orthodox families train their children from a very early age to acquire religious habits, some of which I was myself as a Protestant, brought up with.”

  1. Prayers are said morning and evening, either together as a family or individually.
  2. A blessing (grace, we called it) is said by the head of the family before a meal, and a prayer of thanks afterwards.
  3. On entering a room where there is an icon, cross yourself before it and say a brief prayer.
  4. When leaving one’s dwelling, make the Sign of the Cross over the door and pray for its protection.
  5. On seeing a priest, abbot or abbess, or even when phoning them or writing to them, always ask their blessing.
  6. Before going to bed, make the Sign of the Cross over it and pray for protection during sleep.
  7. When you hear of someone’s death, immediately say a prayer for their eternal memory.
  8. If discussing or planning the future say: “As God wills” or “God willing.”
  9. If you offend or hurt anyone, say as soon as possible, “Forgive me,” always trying to take the blame yourself.
  10. If something turns out well, say “Praise be to God” or “Thank God.”
  11. If something turns out badly, if there is pain, sickness or any kind of trouble, say “Praise be to God for all things” or “Glory to God for all things,” since God is all good and, though we might not understand the purpose of these things, undoubtedly they have been permitted by God.
  12. If you begin some task, say, “God help me,” or of someone else’s working: “May God help you,” (How sad that this expression is so perverted in the modern exclamation “God help you!”)
  13. Cross yourself and say a brief prayer before even the shortest journey by car, by plane, by train.
  14. When you receive a blessing after prayer, always remember to thank God; if it’s a small thing, you may add a prayer of thanksgiving to your daily prayers or make an offering. For matters of great import, ask a priest for a special remembrance. But NEVER neglect to give thanks.

Well, I don’t know about you, dear listener, but I’ve got a long way to go. It’s not easy but as St. Issac the Syrian said: “This passion does not mean that a man feels no passions, but that he does not accept any of them.”   

That, if you will, is what a Christian looks like.