CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD, TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH, AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMBS BESTOWING LIFE! I couldn’t wait to sing and hear these words this past Sunday! Pascha (Easter) is the greatest celebration on the Christian calendar. Sure, the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) is important as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. But, the mission of the Incarnate Word destroyed our greatest enemies; death and corruption (sin) with His death on the cross and third day resurrection. No other time of worship means more to Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians alike. But, I suspect that some Orthodox Christians suffer from the same problem that I have seen (and sometimes suffered from) when I was Baptist. Evangelical author and speaker, Dr. Tony Campolo noted the problem of Revival Services. “During Revival, Baptist sing 20 verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am,” come forward to the altar to be saved just as they are, and go back to living just as they were.” It is not uncommon for people to feel the spiritual urge to live more Christ-like when there is good preaching and singing during a three to five day series of revival services. But, when revival is over, it is too easy to be distracted from the goal of living better and even worse to set aside the desire to live better when the guest preachers and choirs have returned to their churches. I suspect that this happens among too many Orthodox believers as well. After 40 days of fasting during Great Lent and Holy Week, attending Akathist and Pre-Sanctified Liturgy services, making many prostrations during the Liturgy of St. Andrew of Crete and the prayer of St. Epherm the Syrian; we want to celebrate and relax during Bright Week. For those of us in the Antiochian tradition, we don’t begin the Wednesday and Friday fast again until after the Feast of the Ascension. So, there is that temptation let our hair down until we let our heads down as well. We can be lured to putting aside the period of spiritual renewal until next year. Eating bacon and cheese on everything at every meal can cause us to forget our personal prayer rules, the lessons from the spiritual books we read, and even make church more of an option of tradition rather than the place where we stand in the presence of God with our fellow believers. When this happens, the cry, “We have found the true faith,” rings hollow. What is the point of becoming an Orthodox Christian if you aren’t going to take the faith seriously and grow in it? A Baptist, Pentecostal, or other Christian who has never heard the Nicene Creed or read a “Jordanville” prayer book acts in seriousness and sincerity shows more spiritual maturity than the Orthodox that takes the faith for granted. Our Lord warned us that judgment day will be more tolerable for those who had never heard the Gospel than for those who heard the words of salvation and failed to act on them. Father Seraphim Rose describes the failure of not striving to live to one’s spiritual renewal as “spilling one’s grace.” For anyone who has celebrated Easter, Pascha, Revival, or whatever; Fr. Seraphim’s words are worth heeding. Don’t spill your grace. If there was a prayer that you have used that had brought you closer to God’s presence, a suggestion from a spiritual book that helped you to overcome a bad habit, maybe a song or word from a sermon that reminds you to make time for personal worship or confession; don’t sit around and wait for the next such service to use these God-given tools on your spiritual journey. Sure, you don’t have to make 100 prostrations until the next Cannon of St. Andrew. But, adding a few of these acts of humility in your time in your prayer closet isn’t a bad idea. Yes, have that bacon and chili cheese burger until the celebration of our Lord’s Ascension (if that is your tradition). But, why not skip the red meat on the Wednesdays and Fridays out of respect for the brothers and sisters in the other jurisdictions that return earlier to the weekly fast? The early Church Fathers didn’t expect everyone to live as a monastic all year long. Even monks and nuns are guided not to be extreme in their ascetic disciplines. But, we must be diligent to work out our salvation. Applying a little of what we have gained during our prescribed seasons of spiritual renewal will cause us to become more spiritually mature. Speak with your pastor as you look to see what can be added to your walk with the Lord and how to add it. Don’t spill your grace. Grow in it.
Let’s get this clear. I believe as the Church fathers and the scriptures teach that homosexuality is a sin. It is no more vile than any other sin, including fornication which no one bats an eye at these days. Marriage is the sacramental union ordained by God between one man and one woman as described in the Adam and Eve story. This sacred union imitates that of Jesus Christ with his bride, the Church. Technically, it is to be performed in the Church. Both the man and woman are to be devout Christians and active in the Church. The members of the congregation and the families are to provide whatever food, decorations, and whatever else is needed for the reception. Thus, a wedding, when taken as a holy sacrament is not a business opportunity for florist, caterers, and photographers. It is far deeper than a mere social event for family and friends. And while it may be good for the state to record who lives together as a married couple, it is more than a legal contract. A Christian wedding ceremony and reception is a celebration within the body of Christ. With this in mind, I think the gay marriage movement may not be the worst thing in the world for Christianity. In fact, it may be a blessing in disguise.
As a result of modernism and money, Christians (even too many Orthodox) have relaxed their views and standards of marriage. A sacrament that was once done in the church is now performed in mountain lodges, back yards, beaches, bowling alleys, or wherever the couple think the “mood” is right. This act of holiness once done by pastors and higher clerics is done by local magistrates and anyone with a “certificate” including Elvis impersonators. The event is planned by a professional coordinator working alongside professionals from the photographer to the limo service. In some cases, the couple doesn’t even have to belong to the church they get married in or know the pastor that will perform the service (let alone agree to have pre-marital counseling) as some churches and clergy rent themselves out to whomever wants to wed. Thus, heterosexual marriage and weddings have too often become mere productions and social gatherings celebrating love and a legal contract rather than the holy sacrament that Jesus and Paul held in honor. Homosexuals have every right to demand that they can demand to have such celebrations as we heterosexuals do. Rather than to try to pass laws against the inevitable, I believe we Christians should respond in a better way.
Pastors and congregations need to re-teach the sacramental nature of marriage and the communal nature of the Wedding celebration within the body of Christ. There is no point in a straight engaged couple shouting against a gay engaged or married couple when they are having sex before marriage and not repenting of it and confessing it before God. The homosexuals are not in your bed, you and your future spouse are and you shouldn’t be yet. Get the log out of your eye before worrying about the specks in someone else’s. Pastors and other clergy need to put the holiness of the sacrament before the dollar signs. If the prospective couple are not members of some other congregation, they should either become members of yours, or have their pastor marry them. You bear the responsibility for proclaiming salvation through the Gospel and taking care of people’s spiritual needs. Blindly performing a ceremony without directing the future bride and groom to some sort of spiritual accountability and preparation is dereliction of duty. Friends, family, and brothers and sisters in Christ; you love this couple and you trust their taste buds and stomachs to strangers? Really? And does God concerned that the images of your special day was done with 60 megapixels? Uncle Bob may have put part of his thumb over the lens of his smart phone. But, he is the uncle that showed you how to make that soft ball pitch and knew how to solve that Algebra equation that you struggled with. There are horror stories of Christian businesses being forced out of lucrative wedding gigs because some gay or lesbian couple is suing them for not providing services for their wedding. But, is holy matrimony to be a celebration of divine love, or a pursuit of lucre and profit?
No, I don’t support homosexual marriage at all. It is a shame that good Christian business people have to choose between their faith and their bottom lines. But, the blessing in disguise is that we Christians can take a hard look at ourselves and bring back our marriages and weddings to what they are supposed to be.
I don’t know. Perhaps I am a bit of a kill-joy or something. But, I think that constantly pursuing happiness in this world doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Depression and sorrow aren’t things people want an abundance of in their lives either. But, the pursuit of worldly happiness is something that I think we would do well to tone down a bit.
When people earn or receive wealth, status, and power, there is a tendency to forget God. There are stories of how musicians and singers began careers in the church with good intentions. But, fame (small and great) went to their heads and they fell into horrible errors. Many a preacher had become too big for his pants and fell into disgrace as well. Yet, many Christians will post “decrees and declarations” for God to shower us with money, success, and happiness not realizing that these things are also traps used by Satan to make us so comfortable and complacent that, in time, we wind up turning away from God instead of toward Him.
Subdeacon Paul Abernathy once shared in a speech that we should ask God to grant us that which is necessary for salvation. Sure, who doesn’t want more money? But, what if having it leads to making poor decisions in spending and saving? In the writings of several holy saints and the Bible we are taught that it is better to have little in peace with the presence of God than to be in abundance with strife and evil. And even if the wealth is made by one’s hard work and is blessed of God, we will not be able to take one cent of it with us to heaven and are counted no better than any other devout Christian who makes do with less. Everyone wants good health and recovery from illness and injury. Of course we serve the God who is able to heal whatever may be wrong with us and we should pray to Him. But, we must be wise to see that if He does heal us, that we do not become complacent in our faith to Him or base our faith solely on what He is able to do for us. After all, even the perfectly healthy has to die to this world. If our happiness is based only on our health in this world, how shall we enter any joy in the world to come? I am struck by the words of St. Paisios;
I wish you many years – but not for them to be too happy, because happiness in the world isn’t really so healthy. When a man is too happy in this world, he forgets God and forgets death.
Let us accept and welcome the wounds that life inflicts on us. For a while, they will hurt. There are lessons for our souls in this pain that cannot be obtained in worldly happiness. When we receive earthly blessings, let’s praise God and keep going on our way. Jesus often sent those who he healed home with the instruction not to say anything about what happened. There is a gift in being sober minded in our times of earthly blessings and happiness. Reach for this gift and we won’t loose site of God in times of victory or defeat.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.