Great Lent Week Four:  A Life Of Repentance

Our church observed the Liturgy of St. Andrew of Crete and the story of St. Mary of Egypt.  We began service about 6:30 pm.  By the time we were finished, it was a quarter to nine.  I had been in lengthy services at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference.  But, there I was seated and there were breaks between lecturers and preachers.  Standing, making tons of metany (bows touching the floor) through a lengthy series of odes, and prostrations with the prayer of St. Ephrem of Syria and at the icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent is something I would not have dreamed of doing years ago.  I went home last night thinking that it is a shame that all Christians do not do the same and gather the humble meaning of this service.  In fact, Orthodoxy offers something that modern Christianity often ignores at its own risk.

Prostrating before the Cross

The cannon of St. Andrew and the story of St. Mary reinforces our need to lead a life of repentance.  In a couple of weeks, we are going to celebrate Great and Holy Pascha (Easter) with enthusiastic shouts of praise in different languages and have plenty of food and drink at the end of service.  In my Antiochian Patriarchate, we will not resume the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.  We will observe several feast and fast in our yearly cycle and even during our fast, we are to reject gloominess and carry on as normal as to hide our struggle.  No, we Orthodox Christians are not a morbid bunch of ancient religious fanatics that constantly burden ourselves with the knowledge that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (I have one dear brother who is an incurable practical joker).

St. Mary of Egypt

Yet, our worship services, especially those leading toward (the Lenten Triodion) and during Great Lent, are designed to lead us to repentance and live a life of repentance.  We are to acknowledge that we have separated ourselves from God, the only and true source of life.  This is what Adam and Eve did in the Garden, not so much that they broke a command defying God’s authority.  But, they chose to seek an immortal existence based on the fulfillment of their desires rather than live according to the only life giving Word that is truly immortal.  By separating from that source of life, death came to rule over us.  Corruption, striving to act and hide away from God, infects our being.

Praise be to God that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus Christ died as a man.  But, death and the grave could not contain the Immortal One as He was (is and always will be) incorruptible.  He taught us that if we are to follow Him we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses.  Jesus came teaching not only love and morality, which are good things that we strive to practice.  Jesus taught us to repent for the eternal kingdom is at hand.  We are to turn and strive to keep our lives turned away from our corruptible desires that lead to death as He has come from heaven, taken on flesh, and conquered death by His death.  We are to be one with our Lord as His body, the Church.

St. Andrew of Crete

This is why we offer the prayer, “Lord have mercy,” from the beginning to end of the weekly Divine Liturgy.  During the week, we follow our personal rules of prayer that include the words of ancient saints of the Church.  Our rules may be as simple as morning and evening to keeping the Hours during the whole day.  This is why confession is not merely something done in the privacy of our own homes.  We come before God with our father or mother confessor in a corner of the Church as others pray for us as well.  All that we practice is a part of living in repentance.  During Great Lent, we add prayers, services, almsgiving as well as fasting and marital sexual abstinence to focus more on the call from Christ to repent.

Is a life of repentance necessary?  Can’t we simply resolve to love more?  Perhaps.  But, love without repentance blurs the standards of holy living to a point where good and evil are conditional and defined by individuals and not by God.  Can’t we simply resolve to be more moral?  Probably.  But, morality without repentance becomes arrogant and self-righteous which erodes compassion and mercy.  Can’t we just praise the Lord?  Yes.  But, praise without repentance is far too easy of a trap for people to fall into. Repentance keeps us humble as we see our own faults before we see those of others. This allows love to grow deeper in the individual towards God and others.  The humble soul knows there is a standard to live by and constantly seeks to live by it.  By humility, a believer can praise wholeheartedly yet not do so any higher than he lives.

So, let us be cautious to live in repentance.  God blesses those of a broken heart and contrite spirit.

NO SAINTS = NO SANITY

So, it has been revealed that the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” scenario was false and the city of Ferguson MO was discovered to have a problem with racial bias after a series of peaceful protest and violent riots based on that falsehood.  Meanwhile, a black student in Charlottesville VA with a clean record and good reputation gets his face slammed in the pavement by white law enforcement officers for supposedly using a fake ID at a bar.  And while these stories of racial clashes are broadcast all over the news, four black students on a historically black college campus were stabbed by black people in Baltimore MD.

Since 2013, I have been saying that there is a need for African-Americans and Americans in general to know the saints of Africa and turn to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, since I have no popularity or status, it is easy to ignore the words of a poor country preacher.  I really don’t care to have a national spotlight.  If someone else more noteworthy wishes to say the same thing I am saying and captivate the world’s attention, glory be to God.  Because the continued ignorance of the brown and black (red, yellow, and white as well) skinned holy men and women and the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church they belonged to is not working.

The situation in Charlottesville is personal to me as my wife is from that city.  My in-laws live there, I got married there, it is a home to me.  Dr. William Black, and Orthodox missionary to Kenya and Chanter at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in nearby Greenwood, recently spoke at UVA about the history of African Christianity on that campus.  St. Nicholas hosted a series on the topic “The Surprising Story of African Christianity” (I had the blessing of being one of the speakers).  With such a topic, there should have been a strong flow of traffic on I-64 to the church.  The hall that Dr. Black was speaking in should have been standing room only.  And had those police officers been in either audience, they may have learned that the very New Testament that they have was put together by a black man, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.  They may have learned why blonde haired, blue eyed, Russians love St. Moses of Ethiopia as an example of humility and forgiveness.  Maybe they did have reason to suspect that the young man they brutalized was up to no good.  But, if these men had knowledge of the African saints (better still, been devout Orthodox Christians), they would have handled the situation far more peacefully.

The situation in Baltimore also grieves me as my wife and I have family there.  Morgan State University is an historically black college like our alma matter, Virginia State University.  It is bad enough that someone outside of our race commits violence against us.  But, we haven’t even made our own communities safe places for ourselves.  And for this to happen on a campus where our young adults are striving to have a better future is nothing short of horrible.  In a place of higher learning, there should be more images of St. Anthony who is regarded as the father of Christian monasticism and St. Cyprian who led the church in Carthage during some of the worst Roman persecution.  St. Perpetua’s diary is one of the oldest writings of a Christian martyr.  But, even among our best and brightest, our youth and young adults are infected with the images of the likes of 2 Chainz, Nikki Manaj, Rick Ross (who is not the real Rick Ross), and that ilk.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black at the 2014 Ancient Faith Afro American Conference in Lima, Ohio

And what is the response to these unfortunate incidents?  A rally chanting “No Justice = No Peace?”  I have heard it said that it is crazy to do the same thing and expect a different result.  Equality and justice are good things to strive for.  But, apparently there is something deeper plaguing our society than rouge cops in Ferguson and Charlottesville.  That same rouge spirit surfaces in other places at other times.  At Morgan State, the administration is asking students to promote the positive things that are going on at the school.  There is nothing wrong with putting one’s best face forward.  But, unless the oral issues are dealt with, putting on a great shade of lipstick will not hide the rotting teeth.

I believe the real issue is that the religious culture in America does not honor and celebrate the holy men and women that God has given to us as examples of how to live.  We ignore their images, their role in establishing Christian doctrine, and their words of prayer and wisdom.  Think about it, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not with worship services, special chants and prayers, and special meals that keep with the Lenten Fast.  Irish and non-Irish tend to honor this holy man by having parades, parties, and drinking Guinness Stout.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is on December 6th (18th for Old Calendar Jurisdictions), not on Christmas Day.  December 25th (January 6th) is reserved for the birth of Jesus Christ.  St. Peter the Aleutian is not made known to Native Americans outside of the Pacific Northwest although his martyrdom is the first known on this continent.  Unlike Protestant missions, the Orthodox faith was not forced on anyone and Natives took to the Church as they could keep their culture and language and be Christian at the same time.  During the 1960’s, African-American Christians were too busy with the Civil Rights Movement to learn about the Desert Fathers, Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity, and the black saints.  Painting Jesus with an “afro” or “dreadlocks” is not good enough!  Too many black church leaders ignore the depths of African contributions to early Christianity, do not try to share what they know with their congregations, or try to mix true Orthodoxy with Protestant doctrines.

The Orthodox Church is also greatly at fault here as we have done a poor job of evangelism.  The late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip criticized our willingness to stay in our own little ethnic ghettoes when the wave of Evangelicals came into the Church in 1987.  But, we haven’t had too many parishes in working class, mixed race communities, much less the lower income housing projects and trailer parks since then.  Archbishop Iakovos marched with Dr. King in 1965.  It doesn’t take a lot of courage for cradle Greeks or Serbs to share a prayer of St. Macarius with someone that has never heard of him.   The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Church has the light of God of 2,000 years and we in America have kept it under a bushel basket for way too long.  No wonder this nation is stumbling in the dark.

Let us make a stronger effort to share our faith with others.  The first and best way for us to do so is to live Orthodoxy.  Let us maintain the fasting, prayer rules, veneration of saints and their icons and love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  We need not pester people.  But, we can invite friends, neighbors, and relatives to our worship services.  We can host special programs that focus interesting portions of our beliefs.  Our Lord taught us that the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.  We make up a very small percentage of Christians in this nation.  But, we can’t let that discourage us.  After all, He did take two fish and five loaves of bread to feed thousands.  Let us take what little we have and see the miracles God can and will do through us in healing America’s racial divide.

The Home: The Abandoned Church

 

The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.  I Corinthians 16:19

Father Jerome Sanderson quoted this text and I just couldn’t help but to think about how silly a lot of us Christians are when we complain about how ungodly our society has become.  Aquila and Priscilla had a church in their house.  The very dwelling place of this couple was dedicated to the worship of God whether it was the community of believers, or just themselves.  As the head of the household, Paul and other early Christian writers felt that the man of the house should also be the priest of his house and the wife to be the God-fearing helper to this domestic priesthood.  The children were to be brought up in the fear of the Lord and guest were to be exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  When the persecutions of the Church ended, it was suggested by the early fathers that each home have, at least, a corner of their homes as a dedicated worship area.  It was to face eastward with a couple of icons, the Scriptures and other spiritual writings, and, perhaps, a lamp.  Some icon corners were very elaborate, others simple.  But, the purpose was the same; to bring the same spirit of worship seen in the church building on Sunday morning into the home for the rest of the week.  The husband was qualified to lead family prayers and the wife with him.  The children were to worship with tier parents.  In the case of no husband being around, the matriarch of the family would then  lead, as in the case of Timothy.  If the man was unmarried, he was still to conduct his own prayers with himself, or any believer that came to visit him.  Either way, the Christian home was a church in lock-step with the designated church where believers from all homes came together.

Fr. Jerome Sanderson

Fr. Jerome Sanderson

Over the years, too many Christians have not heard of this model.  Iconoclasm destroyed the use of holy images as such people ignorantly mistook them for idols.  Doctrines such as sola scriptura (scripture alone) and soul competency taught that individual believers could know what the Bible means for themselves without correction from anyone else, even the church.  Clergy were frequently put on a high pedestal due to their education.  Thus, laymen left the idea of being a priest to the scholars.  Chauvinism  gave men an arrogance above their wives that poisoned their ability to give themselves up for their wives as Christ did for the church.  Without such sacrificial love, they became poor priest when they did try to assume that role in their homes.  Combine these toxins with the various means of entertainment that have developed over time and the pursuits of the flesh that have been with us since the days of Adam and Eve; and we can see that the very church that Paul praised his friends for having is absent for too many people today.

From Darkness To Light (St. Moses the Black)

Sure, prayer in schools is a great idea.  But, if there is no church in the private homes, how can we hold the teachers and administrators responsible for making one in the public square?  God made husband and wife, male and female; not Assistant principal and Forth Grade Social Studies Teacher.  Yes, it would be nice if everyone came to church on Sunday.  But, if they don’t worship in the house they already live in, why would they come to a house that is only open on Sundays and Wednesdays?  And if they did come to the briefly opened church building without making their own homes houses of worship, is their worship that stable or genuine?  We can bemoan how America has strayed away from its Christian roots all day long.  But, without men and women taking their lay priestly roles seriously and making their homes a house of worship, we have no one to blame for this failure but ourselves.

This is how I got started

This is how I got started

I would challenge anyone to establish a prayer corner in their homes and make at least 15 minutes in the morning and night a time for prayer and scripture.  For my non-Orthodox friends, have a cross and Bible to start with.  Every Orthodox Christian should have a traditional style (Eastern or Oriental) icon of Christ, the Theotokos, and a favorite saint along with the scriptures and a prayer book.  I personally love the Trisagion Prayers.  But, use the opening prayers of your jurisdiction or what your priest recommends.  Read the scriptures of the day aloud.  Pray for those who are on your mind and offer your own words to God.  End with an appropriate closing prayer.  Push to add more time to your home worship.  But, don’t over-do it.  That would be a source of self-righteousness.  You will eventually become weary and quit, making you as bad as you were before, if not worse.  Again, talk to your priest or confessor about your rule of prayer.

No, this is not going to give you “supernatural breakthroughs of Gods ever increasing overflows for a shift to a next level anointing.”  But, with time and consistency, you may,

  • drop a few bad habits
  • understand scripture better
  • be more kind and patient

And some other good stuff that every Christian should strive for.  If St. Seraphim of Sarov is right, your light may rub off on someone else:

Obtain a spirit within yourself and a thousand souls will be saved.

Great Lent Week Three: Deeper Than Inside

And when you fast …

Yes, this is the time when Lent gets on your last nerve.  I have seen that Little Cesasr’s Bacon Wrapped Deep Dish Pizza advertised one too many times.  Spring is here and everyone is ready to enjoy the warmer tempereatures and lack of ice and snow.  But, we have a few more weeks of soul searching, intensive repentance, deliberate spiritual reading; our struggle continues.

One of the better known songs by the post-punk indie band (hey, I listen to a lot of different genres) Rites of Spring is “Deeper Than Inside”  I doubt that they meant any spiritual interpretation to their name or lyrics.  But, I am considering a couple of things.  The whole punk rock movement (also early hip-hop) was a rebellion against the huge, corporate monster music industry.  It was a couple of kids who knew how to play a couple of chords and say what was on their minds.  To seriously take on Great Lent, no matter what branch of Christianity you follow, is an act of rebellion against our arrogant and comfort seeking society.  We strip down faith to the sacrificial and repentant following of Jesus Christ as he has called us to do.

Even more so, we stive to know God and confess our sins in a more meaninful way.  Added prayers from the ancient fathers guide our focus to our deeper issues.  It isn’t so much that someone took an ink pen from work, cussed out a stranger, or cheated on their spouse and looks for a legalistic band-aid to cover his/her wound.  We deal with deeper ailments that show themselves when we do not fight against them.  Anger, fear, lust, envy, laziness, greed; these are the passions that monks and nuns have gone into the deserts and forest to fight against.  They have been so gracious as to share with the Church the wisdom they have been blessed with to help us non-monastics with our spiritual journey.  If we settle for a mere, “say 20 Hail Marys,” or “well, God knows my heart,” we have only cut the flower of our weeds.  Perhaps we may have even cut a few leaves and the stem.  Great Lent reminds us to stive to kill the roots of our visible sins.  A dead root cannot  produce a flower.  A wounded root does not readily reproduce.  A root left undisturbed will flourish again.

May God grant us His mercy and strength to continue the struggle.

African-American Orthodoxy and the Native American Model

One of the reasons why some African Americans are not becoming Orthodox is that we feel that it is someone else’s faith and culture and not our own.  I have read some discussions on other sites as to where some of us wish to mix other doctrines into the Church to make it more relevant and appealing to black people.  Rather than post what I was typing last night, I will share with you an idea that came into my head this morning.

What do Native Alaskans know that we African-Americans need to learn about being Orthodox Christian and culturally yourself?

The native Alaskans became Orthodox during the time when Russia claimed the land as their territory.  Russian fur trappers shared their faith (in good and bad relationships) with the Natives to a point where the missionary priest found Orthodox Christian communities already existing with lay leadership.  Rather than force them to adopt the Russian language and culture, men like Sts. Herman and Innocent translated the scriptures and holy books into the Native languages and blessed the best of Native culture.  American Protestants and Catholics forbade the Natives to use their language and tried to impose their denominations and English on the people.  The Alaskans saw that if they wanted to be Christian and still be who they were as a people, the Orthodox Church was the best choice.  It is still said by some, “To be Native is to be Orthodox.”

So, here is my idea.  Let’s learn from the Native Alaskan Orthodox Christians how they manage to be true to their culture and members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  After all, they faced racial prejudice and were looked down on just like us.  They didn’t want to see their language and culture disappear.  Orthodoxy honors who they are.  But how?  Are there places in the Divine Liturgy that they used a Native musical tone rather than Byzantine or Slavonic?  Do the Native preachers speak with a certain vocal pattern that reaches the people in ways sermons from others cannot?   This blending of faith and culture is not the result of a bridge of modern doctrines made by non-Orthodox clergy.  Orthodoxy in Alaska is over 200 years old.  They must be doing something right up there.

No doubt, people of the race of Jackie Robinson and James Farmer of the 1950’s and 60’s ought not be afraid to go to any church in 2015.  No doubt, too many Orthodox parishes are still infected with a cold ethnocentrism, even towards potential catechumens that look like themselves.  But, if there is going to be a bridge to help more blacks become Orthodox, the Native Americans of the north may have some proven ways on how to be Orthodox Christian and yourself at the same time.  I think that it was Malcolm X who said something like this:

If you have a problem, look at your neighbor who had the same problem and see how he solved it.  Once when you learn how he solved his problem, you are well on your way to solving yours.

Great Lent Week Two: Pursuing the Monastic Mindframe

One of the things that drew me to Orthodox Christianity is monasticism.  These people were,and still remain, unique examples of what it is to follow Jesus.  They attend church services, at least, two or three times a day.  They pray as they work.  Their meal time is spent with the words of scriptures and stories of saints.  Except for liturgical vestments, everyone is dressed in the same, simple garments.  Monks and nuns renounce not only sinful pursuits.  They also have rejected respectable careers, loving marriages, decent hobbies, and other things we consider good in the worldly kingdom so that they can focus solely on the kingdom of heaven.

Macarius the Great

Of course, Jesus never called everyone to this sort of lifestyle.  But, as I journey in the faith, I see tremendous value in striving to emulate those who have.  Consider how many of us are addicted to pursuing entertainment by TV.  While some programs may be educational and it is good to keep abreast of things newsworthy (not everything in the news is worthy of attention), too much of what is on television is based on sensuality and ego-driven self-help.  Refraining from television during fasting periods and replacing that time with prayer, spiritual reading, or helping people in need does our souls a far greater good than following empty comedies and meaningless dramas.  The monastic lays aside personal gain and follows the instruction of a seasoned and wise elder.  Our society is deeply committed to individualism and self confidence.  While everyone should gain some skills in their various occupations, no one ever succeeds in life by themselves.  We all need to be taught, trained, and guided.  The ability to be an effective father or mother in the faith is given by God through much patience, effort, and a humble spirit.

An Ethiopian Orthodox monk

St. Macarius is well renowned for his spiritual wisdom.  Yet, one of his prayers begins with these words,

Oh Lord, forgive me a sinner, for I have never done anything right …”

This man has fasted and prayed as much as any of the holy men of ancient Christianity.  But, he uses a language that puts himself at the same level as the tax-collector in our Lord’s parable.  Macarius also is said to have not considered himself a true monk and that there were others who have pursued the holy life with greater fervor than himself.  The mind of a monastic is always to consider one’s self as not yet attaining righteousness while doing everything to seek it.  This humble mind frame keeps us from thinking too much of ourselves and from complacency in the pursuit of God.  Let us not forget that God gives grace to the humble.

Great Lent Week One: The Need for Humility

Week one of Great Lent has been completed. Thus far, I haven’t had any hallucinations of Philly steak & cheese tacos with chili & cheese chitterlings on the side. Actually, I found some very good vegan spring rolls at a Dollar Tree. Liquid smoke with beans, corn, and grilled onions is not a bad meat substitute. Thanks to a raise, my hours, and re-financing my mortgage, I can splurge on a pint of oysters every now and then. The fast will pluck my nerves eventually. But, it is good for me and my body feels better.

I have decided to gorge on reading this season. I started reading Confessions by St. Augustine (if it was good enough for Fr. Seraphim Rose, it’s good enough for me) at the beginning of the Triodion. I also decided to re-read On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius and The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides. A fourth book this season is really making me consider how important humility is to the spiritual life; The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism by (St.) Bishop Ignatius Brianchninov.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov 1807-1867

Monks, like those of us outside of monasteries, can easily fall victim to arrogance and a desire to put our will above humble obedience. Oh, we may think these holy men are so full of the grace of God that they can’t fall for the traps we do. With his knowledge of the Orthodox fathers (African fathers are highly regarded), St. Ignatius teaches aspiring monks to keep a disciplined focus on their spiritual growth. For example, St. Moses the Black warned an elderly monk to remain with the brothers who were tending to his illness rather than go into a nearby town for treatment. He didn’t listen and wound up getting a woman pregnant. Another monk, Nikita was convinced that an angel instructed him to read the Old Testament and spiritual books rather than to pray. Despite his fame and renown, it was discovered by his brothers he was really under a Satanic spell and lost his ability to read anything. Only after many tears and much repentance did God’s spirit come back to rest on he who became St. Nikita of Novgorod. Without humility, the holiest among us are able to fall from grace.

If this is true for monks who kept themselves in the deserts of Egypt and Russian forest, how much more is it true for us who “declare and decree” that we are “blessed and highly favored” and “no weapon of the enemy formed against us shall prosper?” Not everyone wants to go on a vegan diet and read old books for 40 days. But, perhaps all Christians should use Lent as a time for some down time soul-searching. Focusing a little less on praise and a little more on repentance is not a bad idea, especially since Jesus made this an essential part of His preaching after His 40 days of fasting. Pushing one’s self to prayer in overcoming a long-standing bad habit and keeping a journal of spiritual growth can also be beneficial to our souls as we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. A nominal Christian, or one who is “spiritual, but not religious” would do well to observe humility as the scriptures and church history proves that the exalted are brought low.

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.