A Standard for Shouting

I was one of Dr. Harold Braxton’s “boys.” Dr. Braxton was the Religious Affairs Director and Dean of the School of Humanities at Virginia State University. After preaching in the Foster Hall Chapel, he served his Pastoral duties at Union Grove Baptist Church. I was blessed to serve under him with the Baptist Student Union and as a Seminary Intern when I was enrolled at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University. Quite a few of young people, especially aspiring ministers benefitted from “Doc’s” steady wisdom and refusal to fall for the latest trends in preaching.

Charismatics were known for seeking out new members among the freshmen on campus. Their ministries were very exciting and upbeat. The lonely and impressionable students often fell to the style and expressiveness of what they had to offer. For a while, I was among those who fell for their doctrines and worship. But, after seeing some faults with this non-denominational movement and remembering the firm foundation given to me by my Baptist parents and community in King William, Dr. Braxton’s “boring” chapel sermons and steady Christian walk on campus made a lot of sense to me.

Virginia State University

I remember a word of wisdom he gave in one sermon that all but killed my flirtation with charismania. “Don’t shout any higher than you live.” To several students, these were words of the devil designed to “quench the Spirit.” “Doc” was a very spiritual man and was known to give a good “whoop” every now and then from the pulpit. But, the words from this veteran campus minister and pastor was a standard for us to avoid making exuberant praise and worship the standard of who we were as Christians. As young adults, we were faced with a plethora of temptations. Shouting, speaking in tongues, and the like may be exciting to participate in. But, true spiritual life meant having the Holy Spirit guide us through these struggles. As we are likely to fall to them, we must not carry some sort of false face of Holiness. Instead, we had to be humble about who we are in the Lord as we are far from who we ought to be. And being in our late teens and early twenties, not many of us could boast about how God brought us out from what we used to be since we weren’t really old enough to be anything to be brought out of.

I think we would all do well to heed the wise words of Dr. Harold Braxton today. Pointing firstly to myself, it is way too easy for me to point a finger at modern churches and stick out my chest as a member of the Orthodox Church. It is easy to be complacent belonging to the 2,000 year old continuous connection to Christ and His Apostles. But, what good is it for me to boast of the greatness of Holy Tradition if I fail to devote myself to prayer and love for others? An icon on the wall is good. But, without using it as a window toward heaven and seeking the presence of God, it is nothing more than an interesting piece of religious art. Sure, I burn incense. But, clouds of smoke mean little more than a fragrance for my home if I do not have compassion on my fellow man. Like anyone else, Satan continues to attack me from all directions. How dare I act or speak as a sinless man. No, my shouting ought not be loud at all. May God bless me not to think of myself more than I should.

CONFLICT OF CONVERGENCE: ORTHODOXY AND PENTECOSTALISM DO NOT MIX

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him.  But if Ba’al, then follow him.”                                                   3 Kingdoms (1 Kings) 18:21

For some time, I refused to comment on the convergence movement of Pentecostals that are accepting elements of Orthodox Christianity.  After being among Baptist who refused even to investigate the African saints during Black History Month, I thought it was refreshing that non-denominational Charismatic and established Pentecostal denominational clergy were interested in the ancient faith.  There are a couple of Orthodox priest who are in communication with some of these ministers.  Perhaps this will lead to a mass conversion of African-Americans coming into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in the same way that some 2,000 Evangelicals came into the Antiochian jurisdiction back in 1987.  I do hope and pray that this will happen.

“If the Lord is God …” Elijah

But, I sense that there is something different at work in this convergence movement.  Rather than individual ministers and congregations moving to become fully Orthodox, too many of them are trying to be Orthodox and Pentecostal at the same time.  Such a blending of these two Christian traditions is as possible as blending wax with water.

Orthodoxy was born directly from the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His apostles.  The coming of the Holy Spirit into the world on the Day of Pentecost sent the message of the Gospel in the ears of all men who spoke the various languages of the world.  From AD 33 to today, Orthodoxy has maintained a historic succession of bishops and priest from those who knew Jesus as He walked the earth.  The shared message of Christianity was no different from Amharic speaking Ethiopians to the Slavs of Eastern Europe.  Despite a fifth century schism, Islamic invasions, Soviet oppressions and being overshadowed by Western Christendom; the Orthodox Church is one faith.

American born Pentecostalism is completely different.  The Topeka “Outpouring” of 1905 was only among white American Protestants with no concern for any other race or nationality.  One African-American, William Seymore, learned about Pentecostalism by sitting at the window of a segregated Bible college.  After hearing enough of this “doctrine” to preach it, he went to Los Angeles where under his revival services, people received the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and the “gift” of “speaking in tongues” at a church on Azuza Street in 1906.  Those of the Topeka event rejected their Azuza brothers and sisters as being too emotional.  And in America’s climate of individualism and religious freedom, many Pentecostals (white as well as black) formed new denominations and non-denominations claiming to come from this same spiritual event.

Orthodoxy comes from the pure and true source of God as Pentecost brought people together.  Pentecostalism came from the false doctrine of segregation and self-importance.  Our Lord taught us that one cannot harvest grapes from thistles or figs from thorn bushes.  Because the vast majority of African Americans had little or no access to the ancient faith, some of us saw Pentecostalism as a viable path to God.  Indeed, along with the black Baptist, Methodist, and other mainline churches; this movement was used by God to give salvation to a people whom American society deemed not worthy of a savior.

But, when we discover the faith, history, doctrine, practice, and spirituality of the ancient apostles; what then is the point of holding on to the things handed down to us from a segregated man that he heard from a segregationist and was dispersed by men who sought their own areas of influence and produced sons who sought their own little fiefdoms from them?  None.  Like the one who grew up and put away the childish things, the one who is aware of Orthodoxy should put away Pentecostal doctrine.

Some would argue that by holding on to Pentecostalism, they are holding on to black culture and style of worship.  This argument is false.  Up until recently, most African-American Christians were Baptist and Methodist Episcopal (AME and the like) and rejected speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal doctrines.  Most black churches were known for “call and response” in worship.  “Shouting” was not unheard of even among black Episcopalians.  But, much of the emotion of our faith came from being in an enslaved or oppressive Jim Crow society.  Many ministers who came from the seminaries such as Howard or Virginia Union were frowned upon as they taught their congregations to tone down these things and focus more on the substance of our faith rather than our style (I had a mentor that taught that you shouldn’t shout higher than you live).  As legal segregation began to lose its grip on us and the “Black is Beautiful” concept grew, we began to define liturgies and less animated worship as being “white,” cold, dead, and spiritually empty.  In the black church, there was no real worship unless the songs were upbeat, the preacher “whooped,” and folks “got the spirit.”  Under these conditions, Pentecostal denominations like the Church of God In Christ grew exponentially.  Non-denominational churches who taught the same doctrines sprang up frequently.  In order to keep up with the popularity of Pentecostalism, mainline black churches strive to mimic the style of worship to the point where they have formed congregations and conventions that can barely be distinguished from them (the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship is a prime example as they practice the “gift of tongues”).

African-American Christian culture has produced a collection of spiritual music that is the equivalent of anything produced in Byzantium or Holy Russia.  There are Orthodox priest who recognize this and include such songs in special services and, in some cases, the Divine Liturgy.  There is a distinctive style in African-American preaching.  Anyone who has ever heard Fr. Maximus Cabey deliver a sermon knows that there is room for our voices in the world of Orthodoxy.  In the Orthodox churches in Africa, drums are frequently used and shouts of praise that are a part of their tribal cultures.  The Ethiopian Churches in America are no different than the ones in that land that was evangelized by St. Matthew himself (and why not embrace the faith that came directly from a Gospel writer rather than something gathered from what was heard from a segregated classroom).  Thus, black clergy and laity who fear losing their cultural identity if they convert need not worry.  Orthodoxy does not call us to forget who we are.  It does call us to renounce false doctrines.  Pentecostalism is false, Orthodoxy is truth.  Truth cannot be yoked with falsehood.

It is better for a Pentecostal to reject Orthodoxy all together rather than try to blend the two doctrines.  From the Roman persecutions, Ottoman oppressions and genocides, to the Bolsheviks and the murderers of Hailie Selassie, to the modern age of terrorism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians are dying for holding on to the full truth of the faith.  How can it be godly for anyone to cherry pick a few favorite text from the early fathers and combine them with frequently used catch words and phrases?  Antiochian Metropolitan Paul and Syriac Archbishop John are still being held captive in Syria by “freedom fighters.”  How can anyone wear the vestments of their churches when you are not even a member of them, much less have gone through the training and received their apostolic succession?  If one would not wear a Marine Corps uniform to Paris Island and not be a Marine, or give a fraternity call or sign and not be a brother, where then is it honest to dress and speak as an Orthodox clergyman and you are not?   This behavior of the convergents is very disrespectful to our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ.  At least the COGIC who wears his traditional vestments or a suit is not pretending to be what he is not.

A group of Anglican “monastics” visited the St. Herman’s Monastery in California back in the 1970’s.  Seeing how they decided to pick and choose what they wanted from Orthodoxy, Fr. Seraphim Rose urged them as they left not to take anything from the Church and try to merge it with what they were doing.  “One must fully come to Orthodoxy, or leave it alone.”  Keep in mind that Fr. Seraphim was a man of great intelligence and could have succeeded in nearly any field or pursuit of his liking.  But, he gave up everything to live in prayer and repentance as a monk.  Would it kill any of you convergents to give up your titles and fully embrace the ancient Church that you are so interested in?  With education and training, some of you may be called to the priesthood and have predominately African American Eastern or Oriental congregations.  You may be the ones who help blend the best of African American culture with Orthodoxy the same way that Sts. Herman and Innocent of Alaska blessed the best of those native cultures as the people became Orthodox.  As it stands now, I fear that your attempt to be two things that are incompatible at the same time is no different than being neither cold nor hot in the mouth of the eternal one.  I pray that you will choose to be one or the other while there is still time to do so.

One Year Later

On Christmas Day, Wednesday December 25th, 2013; I will preach my last sermon at Trinity Baptist Church. I will also resign my Certificate of Ordination in the Baptist Denomination. As of January 1, 2014; I will be a member of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Poquoson. I will also work with the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black in its efforts to introduce Orthodoxy to African-Americans and all who seek this ancient Christian faith.

From the sermon, Stepping Out of the Boat  (http://trinitybcofwestpoint.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/todays-sermon-stepping-out-of-the-boat/)

It was the sermon that I knew I had to preach sooner or later.  Actually, I converted to Orthodox Christianity earlier than I thought I would.  My original plan was to continue to serve as the Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for another year or two to make sure my finances were in order, had another job, and was going to receive some sort of title (although I knew the priesthood was out of the question for the first 5 years of being Orthodox).  But, I remembered the advice of a preacher who got put out of his church, “A good pastor does not stay at a church longer than he should.”

I also thought it wise to follow the advice of a pastor I looked up to since childhood, “John, if you remain Baptist, you will only become bored and frustrated.”  I had to choose between being broke or crazy.  I already had one person suffering from mental illness in my home.  We didn’t need two.  So, I renounced the Baptist denomination and became an Orthodox Christian.  People were angry, disturbed, and saddened at my decision.  Creditors have sent me some mail no one wants to receive.  No, the transition has not been easy.  I have had to stand alone as no other minister I knew of, of any race made, such a leap.

In Thought

In Thought

And yet, I know firmly that I made the right decision.  While I still struggle to make ends meet, God has provided the means to keep the bills paid and something in the fridge.  I am still friends with my former congregants.  My church family at St. Basil has welcomed me with open arms.  And not only they, but other Orthodox Christians and Churches have counted me as a brother in the faith.  With all of the challenges I have had this past year, I can say that I have grown in ways that I could not have had I remained where I was.

If it is God’s will, my growth in the Orthodox Church will continue as I seek to be more deeply rooted in the ancient faith.  Central to this is my personal asceticism.  I have found my rule of prayer to be the truest means to know the ways of God.  I have found a pattern of words from the church and early fathers as well as my own expressions that bring me closer to the Holy Trinity.  I see a new light to the scriptures when I read them.  The works of the desert fathers have been very influential to me and I look forward to reading other writings, including those of Seraphim Rose and the Philokalia.  Even fasting has become more of a part of who I am (although I do start to hallucinate about Philly steak and cheese burritos half way through Great Lent).

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

I enjoy being one of the Matins Chanters.  Reading the six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, & 142) and chanting the Evlogateria (Benedictions) re-enforces the meaning of the Gospel.  The 50th Psalm is the call for the very first and essential thing Jesus proclaimed, repentance.  Divine Liturgy is the most heavenly form of worship I have ever experienced as the body and blood of our Lord is the focus of our worship.  We all partake from the same cup, venerate the Theotokos (God-bearer, Virgin Mary), and enjoy one another’s company during and after worship at coffee hour (the food is so good).

I look forward to the challenge of evangelization.  Fr. Adam Sexton of St. Andrews OCA has given me an invitation to speak.  I believe others will follow.  I must be mindful to practice humility at all times.  It is way too easy to think too much of myself.  It is also too easy to speak and write as if all Protestants are corrupt and doomed (I fear that I have made that mistake already and repent to anyone whom I have needlessly offended).  But, as a member of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I am excited about the prospects for sharing my faith.

I thank all of you who have read my blog articles and kept me in prayer.  May the fullness of God bless you as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and enter into the year 2015.

Antioch & America

… And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)

Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  (Acts 13:1)

“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

American Christianity (Black, White, whatever) has consistently proven itself to be a failure when it comes to living the Biblical racial standard.  There are exceptions in several neighborhoods across the country.  But on a whole, a major reason why we constantly have crisis moments between (and sometimes within) ethnic groups is because we do not aim to be the kind of church and the kind of Christians that were in Antioch.

Of the clergy mentioned in the 13th chapter of Acts, Lucius is clearly an African from what is now eastern Libya.  Ancient portraits of people from that part of the world at that time were considered to have some shade or another of brown with very curly hair and broad noses.  In other words, if Lucius were walking among us today, he would be considered a black man. Another of these five leaders is Simeon who is called Niger.  One does not have to be a Latin scholar to know that Niger means “black.”  The other three men in this list of early church leaders were of ancient Jewish descent.  Chances are their skin tones would have been somewhere in between what we today would call a “black” or “white” man.  Antioch was a center of trade in the Roman Empire.  People from all over the known world would have lived there from pale skinned Britons to the darkest of Nubians.  From the text, we can see that race simply did not matter.  Later in the 13th chapter, we find these men (under the power of the Holy Spirit) sending Saul and Barnabas to bring the Gospel to others in the world.  So, this model of a universal church of a multi-racial people is the standard.  From them, other communities of Christians under the same Holy Spirit would form.  The Apostles of Christ did likewise and visited other lands to establish the church.  Granted, a congregation in Scotland (Andrew) would be ethnically different than one in India (Thomas).  But, the people were to be guided by the same doctrine as they worshiped the same Father, Son, and Spirit.

Unfortunately, America didn’t read the text and study Christian history very well.  The Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia PA had their black members sit in the balconies and rear seats.  Richard Allen and others rejected this indignity and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Rather than admit defeat and seek reconciliation with their freed brothers and sisters, Baptist and other denominations split along racial lines.  Whites who believed in modern outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the form of speaking in tongues failed to recognize the same gift among their black brethren and those who did did so in secret.  Dr. King was right to bemoan the state of segregation among Christians in this nation.  But, unlike with schools and workplaces, blacks and whites have become so accustomed to our religious apartheid system; neither side feels motivated to put together a movement to end it.  Individuals who dare cross the line are considered “sell-outs” who have “forgotten where they came from.”

There is a fear on both sides of the racial divide when it comes to trying to have unity in Christianity.  Neither side wants to give up the authority of their clergy and denominational governors.  Nor does either side want their music and style of worship replaced with the other, even though they often mimic each other to the point where they are indistinguishable.  And politicians on the left and right have infiltrated these bodies of Christ so deeply that race and political party are all but hand in hand.  In short, the American churches are more concerned about protecting and promoting their little kingdoms on earth than trying to live to the Biblical standard of the Kingdom of Heaven.  There are several non-denominational churches and organizations that have managed to find common ground in spiritual growth and worship and have diverse congregations.  However, most American churches are more interested in maintaining walls rather than building bridges to overcome them.

Had American churches took the example of Antioch and Dr. King’s observation to heart back in 1963 when he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, we would be living in a completely different America.  Not perfect.  But, the climate that we see from the recent cases of Travon Martin and Mike Brown would be either different or non-existent as their shootings may not have happened.  The church, as a whole, has failed to give America the racial climate that is in the Bible and that the Apostles taught us to have.  Black and white Christians put past pain, cultural styles, and political leanings over the Savior who has but ONE body.  Until there is serious effort to unite American Christianity, there will be more “Ferguson Missouris.”

I would love to brag that the Orthodox Church is doing a great job at healing the racial divide.  But, up until the mass conversion of 2,000 Evangelicals into the Antiochian jurisdiction, the Orthodox Church has been way too content to stay within (in the words of the late Metropolitan Philip) “our own little ethnic ghettos.”  I don’t advocate that we knock on people’s doors and pester them to convert.  But, we must make a stronger effort to let America know that we exist and that our doors are open to all people just as they were in the first century AD.

Keep the Nativity Fast for the Nativity Feast

Dear Christian Friends,

About this time of year we post messages of all sorts showing our disapproval of the continuing secularization of the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.

KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS

JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON

I agree that there is way too much focus on the decorating, materialism, and non-religious attitudes that are condemning this time of year to being the “Winter Holiday.”  But, I think that striving to keep Christ and remember Jesus without some sort of inward spiritual process isn’t doing anyone any good.  In fact, the more we proclaim such slogans aloud without the inward spiritual process, we are probably turning more people off to the Christian faith than we are leading people to salvation, which is our purpose as believers in Jesus Christ.  If all nominal and secular Christians and non-believers hear from us are slogans and they don’t see us striving to better ourselves in preparation for this great holy day, we are (as St. Paul described) clanging brass and tinkling cymbals.  People are justified and right to ignore annoying noises.

An Ethiopian icon of the Nativity of Our Lord

For a couple of thousand years, the original expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church has observed the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (later “Christ Mass” by the Roman Catholics) with a 40 day fast in preparation for the feast.  We do not consume meats, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages.  According to what jurisdiction we are under (Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, etc), we begin the fast on different days and with different rules concerning fish with backbones (some permit fish on certain days with shellfish throughout the fast). Except for the elderly, young children, pregnant or nursing women, and those under medical supervision; all Orthodox believers are expected to maintain this dietary rule.  Along with the fasting, we have special prayers that we add to our individual disciplines and a special prayer service at the church during the week to help us focus on the meaning of this great and holy feast day.  As the Nativity of our Lord is of great importance, we continue to eat as we wish for 12 days and observe Theophany, the Baptism of our Lord.  Thus, we have 40 days of preparation and over a week of celebration of Jesus Christ coming into the world and the revelation of the Holy Trinity that is the focus of our Christian faith.

I am sure that some of you scoff at the idea of such fasting and the use of ancient written prayers as a “tradition of men” and that no such fast is defined in the Bible.  Yet, there is no scripture that tells us that Jesus was born on December 25th (or January 6th for our “old calendar jurisdictions like Ethiopia and Russia).  So, if we trust the “tradition” of early Christians to give us the date to observe the holy day, why not trust the tradition of prayer and fasting as well?

When one buys a pizza, who scrapes off the cheese, sauce, and toppings just to eat the crust?  Nobody, we eat and enjoy the whole thing.  The same can be said for this season we are entering and the Christian faith.  Protestant reformers and modern Christianity has scraped off the spiritual nutrition of prayer and fasting in preparation for the holy feast and left us with the empty crust of one single Christmas Day.  While many of us Orthodox Christians are guilty of the consumerism and materialism of the age, at least we have the fullness of the tradition of our seasonal fast and prayers to return to.  We have the whole pizza of the Nativity Fast and Feast.  The empty crust of Protestantism has invited Satan to pile on his toppings of covetousness, greed, lack of concern, selfishness, and other elements of our consumerist and materialistic society.  No matter how much good Parmesan, red pepper, and Italian seasonings we sprinkle on in the form of charity; the bad toppings on the empty crust has caused society to ignore the day of giving thanks to God for what we have so that we can go out and spend more money.  No amount of empty slogans will change the toxicity of the once scraped off pizza crust of American Protestant Christmas.  Thankfully, we Christians can start with ourselves and get a whole pizza.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Talk to an Orthodox priest or knowledgeable layperson about what this season means to us.  Look up information about the prayers and fast online or in the library.  Make the time to attend our weekday and Sunday worship whenever possible.  Take small steps by increasing time in personal prayer and use some of our prayers in conjunction with your own.  Also, as it is physically possible, cut back on meat and dairy consumption if but for no other reason but to reward yourself later.  Use this season not to shout mere slogans.  Do something constructive for your spiritual journey as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: Monasticism for the Rest of Us

I like reading the works of the Desert and Early Church fathers.  Chrystostom’s  “Poverty and Wealth” seemed very relevant to today’s social-political issues.  I am a bit surprised that I started reading “Seraphim Rose:  His Life and Works.”  Sure, he is well renowned for his translation work and wisdom.  But, I guess I was a bit biased about reading him as he was ROCOR and his discussions of “toll houses” really aren’t major when it comes to Orthodox doctrine.  But, glancing through a bit of his biography, I confess that I admire the man.  Eugene Rose was a promising student and scholar in late the late 1950’s.  By 1960, it seemed he’d have a great career as an academic and dated a lovely lady.  Not only did he convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Rose completely walked away from the world to become a monk.  While the counter culture movement grew, Seraphim offered a counter to the counter culture and modern Protestantism.  I can’t help but to wonder if he foresaw the coming train wreck that was the sexual revolution.

I hope to get this for Christmas

I was also struck by what Abbess Ariadna said about Orthodoxy in a sermon she preached in memorial of St. John Maximovich, “… Accept entirely and wholeheartedly what the Church hands down to us … and not to choose for ones self what is important and what is dispensable.”  Here is the challenge for me as an African –American who wants to introduce more of my people to the Orthodox Church.  As a product of the black church, I know and love the value of the spirituality I was raised in.  I still remember Dianah Gresham and Lillian Washington leading the hymn, “Wade In The Water,” on Baptism Sunday and the prayers of one of the old deacons at St. John’s Baptist Church.  Nearly everyone came out to the one Sunday a month Communion Service if they didn’t come to church any other Sunday.  While Byzantine chant, liturgical prayer, and other cultural elements in Orthodox Churches are wonderful to participate in, I think there are things about the church experience I grew up in that are just as unique.

Then again, one of the reasons I left the black church is because it is not the same as the church that it used to be.  For decades, the Baptist conventions and seminaries have been encouraging churches and ministers to be non-traditional, innovative, and relevant.  In the midst of this push, the Baptist Articles of Faith were removed from the denomination’s hymnals.  Thus, no one has the doctrine readily available.  My father’s father reverently prepared the communion and my mother’s mother made the communion wine.  Now they are moving to these pre-sealed cups of some purple stuff that might be grape juice and a mini rice wafer thing or some other unleavened bread that Christ and His disciples did not use during the Last Supper.  And as far as music is concerned, the old Negro Spirituals have been relegated to Black History Month and the favorite contemporary Gospel hit that everyone is singing now will be replaced in five years or less.

Indeed, I saw the church striving to become more and more Pentecostal where true worship was becoming defined by how many people “got happy” and “shouted” during a song or (most importantly) the sermon.  When I discovered the presence of African saints and the spirituality they practiced in Eastern Christianity, I felt that we need to move away from worship based on what was current and popular to that which is older and more authentic.  What that sort of black church would look like, I wasn’t quite sure.  But, I was willing to continue to look toward Orthodoxy for Christian inspiration.  It was made clear to me that others in my former church family weren’t willing to go that direction.  Thus, I decided to go alone.  I hope soon to work more closely with Fr. Moses Berry, Dr. Albert Rabeteau, Mother Catherine Weston, and others who have been black and Orthodox longer than I have and with Fr. Alexi, Heiromonk Seraphim Damascne, and some of our bishops to better see what in African American Christianity can be seen as a part of Orthodox practice.  Just as Sts. Herman and Innocent found the best of Native American spirituality and brought it and many Alaskans to the faith in the 18th and 19th centuries, the same can and must be done  with us.  But, I am getting off of the subject.

Holy Cross is a self sustaining monastery where they monks raise much of their own food in their gardens.  They also have Nubian goats to produce milk that is used for making soaps and lotions, in which they have a very good soap maker.  They also make incense there as well.  I was impressed with the outdoor chapel.  Many Orthodox Christians east of the Mississippi come to Holy Cross for pilgrimages and holy days.  I have seen videos of people under large tents erected for such occasions.  Thankfully, their gift shop is online.  I do intend to shop there this season.  I am very inspired by the library.  I have turned what was once a spare junk room into something of a man-cave.  When I am done with it, it will be the only Orthodox library in the town of West Point.

IMGP1020

St. Anthony the Great, the Egyptian father of Christian monasticism (from the church)

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Theotokos (from the pilgrims’s section of the church)

Dining with monks is an experience not to be missed!  Firstly, if you brought your wife and daughter with you, they can’t eat at the same table in the same room with you.  They eat in a separate section for women (men catch it too at women’s monasteries).  If you are not accustomed to prayer before or after a meal (I used to pray after a meal when I over-ate), you will be quickly introduced to the practice.  Dinner-time conversation about last night’s game or the latest movie is null and void.  While everyone is eating, no one is talking except the monk who is reading the scriptures or stories about a saint.  And while he is reading, you had better be eating.  Because when he stops, the abbot and priest will make announcements of who needs prayer and what needs to be done around the monastery.  Then it’s the after meal prayer and time to go.  There is no lounging around the table and savoring the wonderful meal you are taking your time on.

Monks themselves are terrific people to meet.  They are patient with newcomers and willing to share their stories of how they came to the faith.  I met a former Southern Baptist Hieromonk from Texas.  I also met Bishop George of the ROCOR Diocese.  Like many of the monks, he is a former Protestant.  Also, he lives at the monastery.  His house is larger than that of the others.  But, it is far from one of the multi-million dollar homes that modern day television evangelist own.  The fact that he is here at Holy Cross when he is not on the road tending to his parishes or engaged in some other duties somewhere shows that he is a very humble man.  I think it was Kippling who said that a man is one who can “dine with kings and never lose the common touch.”  No doubt, he and other bishops like my Sayedna Thomas do meet with bankers, philanthropist, and politicians of all stripes.  Yet, in Orthodoxy, the highest of bishops is a humble monk and priest at heart.

The Hospitality of Abraham icon (from the incense workshop)

The Hospitality of Abraham icon (from the incense workshop)

The bell tower

The bell tower

Bishop George with Frs. Andrew and James with Lilly

Bishop George with Frs. Andrew and James with Lilly

The Outdoor Chapel

The Outdoor Chapel

For my Protestant friends who declare themselves to be “prayer warriors,” I recommend you spend time with these black cassock wearing, long beard growing, icon venerating, incense burning, Jesus Prayer praying while they are working, standing in prayer vigils for hours at a time monks and nuns to learn how those of the ancient faith fight the good fight.  And even then, modern monks and nuns of today will tell you that the saints of old are far greater than they are.  I don’t doubt anyone’s sincerity when it comes to spending time with God for themselves or interceding on behalf of others.  But, to give up pursuing a gainful career and a Christian marriage and family life to devote one’s entire being to repentance and being in the constant presence of God is beyond what most of us are willing to do for the sake of the Gospel.  The monks and nuns keep the traditions of simple living, honest work, and celibacy.  This is the way of John the Baptist who prepared the way of the One who was greater than himself.  (I do recommend that before going to a nightly service at a monastery that you attend a couple of Divine Liturgies at a Church that has no pews, or if your church does have them, opt to stand until the priest motions you to be seated)

Members of St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church at Holy Cross John, Gary, Lilly, Fr. James, Rhonda, and Chris

Members of St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church at Holy Cross
John, Gary, Lilly, Fr. James, Rhonda, and Chris

So, now I have returned with a deeper appreciation of monasticism and its role in the body of Christ.  Would I ever become a monk?  If I were a widower, I’d certainly see if God has called me to such a lifestyle.  Until then, I guess it is right that I have entitled this blog, “The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Cyrene,” and that I have written about “Monasticism for the Rest of Us.”

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: The Need for a Monastic Model

The trip began with making confessions with Fr. James.  This is a preliminary step before visiting a monastery.  The crew was Chris & Rhonda, Gary, an Episcopalian priest Fr. Andrew, Fr. James and his daughter Lilly.  Fr. Andrew has been teaching and inviting Orthodox speakers into his congregation, much like I intended to do at Trinity had I stayed.  Chris and Rhonda have been very active at St. Basil since their conversion last December and Chris and Fr. Andrew are taking the St. Stephen’s course in Applied Orthodox Theology.  Gary was catechized with me and sings in the choir.  Fr. James has been to Holy Cross before and is friends with Hieromonk Hillarion.  Like the rest of us, it was Lilly’s first trip there.  I think we all came on the journey searching for something to help us in some facet of our faith.  For me, I wanted motivation to deepen my prayer life and see first hand how monasticism plays a role in the life of the Church.

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Waking up on Friday

We didn’t make it in time for the evening Vespers due to a couple of stops and not leaving Hampton until about 10.  So, we got to the guest house and Fr. James led us in the Akathist to the Sweet Lord Jesus from the Russian (Jordanville) prayer book.  The guest house has four fully loaded bookshelves.  Because Orthodox converts tend to be bookworms, we all found something too our likings.

Hermitage of the Holy Cross

Hermitage of the Holy Cross

Me, I picked up “On Wealth and Poverty” by John Chrysostom.  I have heard that the saint was no fan of luxurious lifestyles and opulence.  But, in the first of his seven sermons from the story of the rich man and Lazarus he honors the fact that Lazarus never complained about his lot in life nor did he curse the rich man for not coming to his aid.  Of course, there is no excuse for the “haves” of this world not to share their wealth with the “have-nots.”  But, for the poor to curse the wealthy is also wrong.  Martin Luther King Jr. was always cautious to teach protesters not to hate the people who sought to maintain segregation.  Unfortunately, due to our “winner take all” culture, I am afraid we are losing the message of Chrysostom and King.  It is too easy to vilify the rich and oppressive and not see them as human beings just as it is too easy for them to look at those who protest as being losers and moochers.  I doubt St. John sought the Roman government to bring economic equity to all.  And although King supported the idea of a living wage, I highly doubt that he encouraged people to throw away their work ethic.  In a monastery, everyone shares in labor, food, and prayer.  While the bishop or abbot may have a larger hermitage, all share in equal resources.

The next morning, we began the day with a 5 am Orthros (Morning Prayer).  Even though Hieromonk Hillarion permitted me to take photos, I felt it best not to.  For one thing, my camera could not drop to a 3200 or 6400 ISO.  Even if my camera had that ability, I thought it best to focus on the service and not getting shots.  It seemed as if the Christ Pantocrator icon in front of me was encouraging me to get my nightly prayer discipline together.  The presence of the monks was also impressive to me as these men had forsaken even godly lives in the world to detach themselves from the world.

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l to r: Gary, Fr. James, Chris, and Hiermonk Hillarion

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Christ Pantocrator at the pilgrim’s section of the church

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Relics of St. John the Baptist, my patron

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The Theotokos icon above the collection of holy relics

I think this is one of the greatest errors of Protestantism, they have no monastic communities and life-long celibacy is not encouraged.  The presence of communities of men and women who leave the “normal” world and it’s pursuits behind to pursue a life of prayer serves as a role model for the rest of us.  Monks and nuns are the front line in the spiritual life of the Church as they are the examples for the rest of us to follow as closely as possible as we all follow Christ.  Not everyone is going to stand at 3 hour prayer vigils and pray the Jesus Prayer under our breath at every waking moment.  But, each of us can maintain regular times of prayer and take breaks for prayer during the day.  There is neither television nor popular music to distract one from a life of prayer.  Neither is there the pursuit of politics or sports to keep the monks seeing others and each other as the icons of God – made in His image.  This is not to say that they are perfect people, for no man is perfect.  But, a monastery is a place where perfection can be achieved.  To the degree that is possible, all should strive to have their homes a bit of a monastery.

Without looking to monastic communities as the role model of focus on prayer and repentance, Christianity pays less attention to God and more attention to divisive and narrow ideologies.  It is only natural for some people to lean a little more to conservatism and others to liberalism.  When people of divergent opinions come together constantly with Christ and the kingdom of God as the center, we rise above these two imposters and find a harmonious balance.  However, where there is no such center, we see each other as enemies and dehumanize those whom we disagree with.  There is no doubt in my mind that we need fewer politicians and politically driven media outlets.  We need more monasteries, monks, and nuns.

My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: Monday Prelude

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So, here it is once again.  You remember, the last time I went on a journey into Orthodoxy was my death knell to being a Baptist pastor.  At least I won’t have to worry about losing a job this time.  In fact, I may be gaining one instead.  Depending on how my interview goes, I may be working at the McDonald’s in Toano when I return.  Not a bad little part-time gig.  As far as church is concerned, I won’t have to worry about making my congregation upset with me.  My priest is driving us.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the news that I wasn’t selected for a job in my career field I interviewed for.  It took a couple of days.  It took a few days to get over that.  I was sorta thinking the job and the salary could be a spring board for me to afford to take the St. Stephen’s Course for a MA in Applied Orthodox Theology and evangelize in the Northern Neck.  I had dared to think to start a mission parish there.  A person must be Orthodox for at least 5 years before he is considered for the priesthood.  I was thinking I’d spend a year getting my secular career down pat and then begin my studies.  Then again, my walk with God has proven to me that His plans and mine can be a heck of a miss match.  Apparently, He has something else in mind.

Holy Cross Monastery (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia)

This trip is to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virginia.  We are going to be with men who have committed themselves to prayer and repentance.  Instead of me plotting and planning, I need to do more of what they are doing.  I have my own personal demons that I have not been the most diligent at fighting.  I follow my nightly prayer rule about as consistently as Liverpool have been winning matches this season.  And my uncertainties and insecurities plague my mind.  I don’t expect any of the monks to put a cloak around me to make me invincible.  But, if someone could help point me in the right direction, that would be great.  Oddly enough, I think God has already sent someone my way to do just that.

St. Moses the Black (aka, the Ethiopian, Robber, and Strong)

I have this icon of St. Moses the Black with him holding up a scroll.  These are the words:

Let us force ourselves a little and let us never be slothful.  O Brethren, that we may receive forgiveness of sins.

I am kind of like that cigarette smoker who has tried time and time again to quit, but has not.  And to have this 2,000 year old brother to tell me to fight my temptations is a bit annoying, especially since in my 40 plus years of being a Christian, I have only learned of this African saint a couple of years ago.  I know this man’s story of how he was a former slave and gang leader who was convicted by the Holy Spirit through the loving hospitality of the monks that he attempted to rob. Moses, probably of Nilotic-southern Sudanese stock, was humble almost to a fault.  He considered himself to be the lowliest of the monks and did a lot of menial task for those who couldn’t.  He struggled with his personal demons for years.  When he was called upon to help judge a sinful brother, he carried a leaking basket of sand over his back to show how he left his sins behind him and is in no position to judge his fellow man.  So, when I see the icon of this brother telling me to keep pushing myself to do better spiritually, it is kinda hard for me to disregard him or make excuses.

I think this is the advantage of a holy icon and the Bible rather than just the scripture alone.  I can read about the Apostle Paul and his encouragement to fight the good fight and not to be weary of well doing until my  eyes roll out of my head.  And certainly I can read what Jesus taught about righteous living, “go and sin no more,” and his death, burial, and resurrection.  The icon puts a face on the lesson.  The life of the saint is the story of another person’s carrying of his (or her) cross that can’t be ignored.  “Well, all I need is Jesus!  I don’t need them ‘saints.’”  Maybe you don’t.  But, I do.  If the scripture is true, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I want to know who else got sunburn and how did they manage to heal and find shade.  Jesus was fully human.  But, He was also fully divine.  I want to know what other humans denied themselves, took up their crosses, and followed Him so that they could put on divinity as well.  I know that paint and wood, ink and paper, is not a god to be worshiped.  But, these representations of Christ, the Theotokos (Jesus is God the Son, Mary gave birth to Jesus, this makes her the mother of God; deal with it.), and the saints are reminding windows that there is a higher human existence to strive for.  Thus, I find it necessary to worship with and venerate holy icons as they represent the cloud of witnesses that surround me.

Along with the icons there is confession.  It is much easier to belong to a church that does not encourage this sacrament.  One can confess simply to himself and God with no priest around.  One may not need human accountability and encouragement on the journey of faith.  Again, I need this.  I am a part of the body of Christ and while only the priest needs to hear my issues, other members of the body can see that I am striving to do better in my walk as I see others.  And we confess not to put on a show of holiness, but it is an encouragement to come to this hospital for sin sick souls.  “Well, Jesus is my doctor!  He is all the doctor my soul needs!  I don’t need no priest standing beside me and putting his robe on me and praying on me!”  And what doctor doesn’t have a nurse on his staff?  Confession is done before the Lord.  The priest is an assistant and coach in this process and has the power to forgive sins just as Jesus gave that authority to his disciples (apostolic succession, as with the Theotokos, deal with it).   All Christian churches expect believers to improve spiritually.  Confession is a very effective tool for such growth as I admit my failures before God and receive encouragement and prayer from my priest.

I have to get some ducks in a row before I  leave.

African Monastic Wisdom: Avoiding False Prophets

Originally posted on The Modern Monastic Order Of Saint Simon of Cyrene:

This is a re-tread article published back in May.  I didn’t plan on posting anything today.  But, the picture below blew my mind.

I couldn’t have made this up if I tried :(

Rather than write a whole new article, this post makes the point clearly.  For those of you who flock to such ministries (at least, those of you who have not already labeled me a “hater” and moved on), please read the article, think, and pray.  

 

“They are guessers rather than prophets.  Therefore, if sometimes they foretell such things truly, even so no one need wonder at them.  For physicians also who have experience of diseases, when they meet the same disease in others can often tell beforehand, judging from experience.  And again, seamen and farmers, looking at the state of the weather, from their experience prophesy that there will be a storm or fine weather. …

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Gay Marriage & Christian Opposition: How About A Truce?

 

Though I don’t support gay marriage, I could really care less about it – for the most part.  I consider heterosexual adultery and fornication a greater threat to the blessed union of male and female than any man & man or woman & woman relationship.  I don’t have to go into anyone’s bedroom but my own.  I have my own sins to repent for and salvation to work out.  As long as a person is providing me a service or a co-worker is doing as they should, it is not my business who he or she is having sex with.  Modern America has turned this holy sacrament of the church into a contract that could be officiated by a midget Elvis impersonator at a drive-thru “wedding chapel” in Las Vegas.   American capitalism has turned what was a holy celebration into just another business opportunity.  Marriage in America need only be emotionally based commerce with a civil certificate.  So, it makes sense that homosexual couples should have the same right to marry as heterosexuals.

But, here is where I draw a line.  I do not believe people of faith should be forced to provide services for such marriages.  Many practicing Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians (as well as Jews, Muslims, and other people of other religions) believe whole heartedly that marriage should be between a man and a woman.  Suing people who refuse to photograph, cater, host, officiate, and provide other services to a practice that is clearly sinful according to their religion is wrong. 

A gay marriage is not the same as an interracial marriage.  The New Testament and the Early Church Fathers never forbade a Slavic Christian to wed an Ethiopian Christian.  Christians were to avoid being married to non-believers.  In cases where one spouse was a Christian and the other was not, the Apostle Paul permitted such couples to remain intact if the non-believer tolerated the faith of the spouse.  At no time did any jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church accept two men or two women to wed.  Although America’s racist past corrupted the Catholic and Protestant churches to forbid people marrying outside of their race, Christians today (mostly) accept mixed race couples.  Neither pope nor reformer ever considered the practice of homosexual marriage, much less that it would be equal to a heterosexual one. 

Being gay is not the same thing as being a minority.  If I were in a line with 99 gay black men and we were all wearing black suits and white ties, it would be nearly impossible to tell who the homosexual was.  But, dress me like and line me up with 99 white men and try to find the African-American and see how difficult that is.   So, by religion and sight, Christians are justified in refusing to participate in gay marriages.  Furthermore, Jesus Himself defines marriage to be between one man and one woman as he quotes the Creation narrative in Genesis.  The Apostle Paul declares that homosexuals, fornicators, adulterers, thieves, liars, and murders will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.  We believe being gay is a sin.  Gay marriage is therefore unthinkable for us.  Therefore, we have a right not to provide services to such marriage ceremonies. 

Rather than pick fights for punitive lawsuits, I believe the LGBT community should consider a truce with Christians on the practice of gay marriage.  For those who reject it, we may as well accept the fact that such marriages will be the law of the land.  We need not be bitter or hateful toward gays & lesbians as we refuse to offer them services for their ceremonies and receptions.  Give them a list of similar quality caterers, photographers, venues, and officiates that will be glad to serve them.  But, to the supporters of gay marriage, why not boycott those businesses and people who do not support these events?  During the Civil Rights Movement, when we African-Americans simply spent our money where we were treated fairly, a lot of racist businesses fell by the wayside.  By dragging Christians to court and winning outrageous lawsuits, you are only turning your opponents into martyrs as no one wants to be told by big business or (especially) big government what to do and how to live.  You are only contributing to the already polarized social political atmosphere as you are being vengeful.  That does not help your cause.

We Christians cannot win the fight against the rising tide of the acceptability of gay marriage.  Nor will gays ever convince us to change our belief in what we know is the truth.  Let us disagree without being disagreeable.