Preparing for the Next Chapter

When I left the Baptist church to become an Orthodox Christian, I knew that I would not immediately be ordained into the clergy.  I had much to learn about the Church and parish life.  I needed time to adjust from being the key figure in an (almost) all African-American congregation to being in a “white” church.  Besides, not having to come up with sermons and teach the adult Sunday School class every week was very relaxing.  I have been serving as a lay chanter/reader during Matins and at the altar during Divine Liturgy.  While I haven’t really done as much as I should have with the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I have spoken about African saints at St. Andrews (OCA) and St. Nicholas (Ukrainian) this year.   It looks like my time of just absorbing and chilling is coming to an end.

Hanging with my good brothers John Norman and Orlando Greenhill at the 2013 St. Moses Conference.

Firstly, I have an ambitious vision for the VA Brotherhood.  I want to visit 8 to 12 different parishes in 2016 to encourage evangelism and have quarterly events in different parts of the state.  I also want to use a couple of contacts with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship to share the ancient faith on college campuses.  Starting a prayer group in my home in West Point is not completely out of the question.

Some of my brothers and sisters at St. Basil have been asking me if I want to become a deacon or priest.  While the thought has been in the back of my mind, I have preferred to keep it there for now.  I have been blessed with a financial gift to further my education.  Last week, I received an acceptance letter from the Antiochian House of Studies.  Earning a Masters of Applied Orthodox Theology will not guarantee me ordination into anything.  But, at least, I will have the tools needed to be effective wherever the Church needs me.

I have accepted the opportunity to teach the teen seminar at our Church for Sunday School.  Being a convert and former Baptist pastor, I hope to give these kids a perspective about Orthodoxy that they may not get from someone who was brought up in the Church.  Besides leading them to knowledge and spiritual maturity, I want to encourage them not to take the faith for granted.  Orthodoxy has a precious depth of 2,000 years of history, prayer, saints, spirituality, and wisdom that no other expression of Christianity can give.  If I can help instill a love for learning and living the ancient faith, that will be a blessing.

When I was still at Trinity Baptist Church, someone who was concerned about my talking about Orthodoxy from the pulpit asked, “Where is all of this leading?”  I didn’t know then.  I still don’t know now.  But, St. Cyprian of Carthage (whom we “new calendars” honor today) let God lead him in hiding during persecution to keep the Church encouraged and to his martyrdom as he encouraged his executor to behead him.  Before him, were Perpetua and Felicity who were martyred in that great city.  And before them were Neokorus (a Carthaginian who served in the Roman army in Judea) and his grandson Callistratus, the later was martyred as he was discovered praying ceaselessly to Jesus and refused to worship any pagan god.  And among those who taught Neokorus (who was a witness to the death and resurrection of our Lord) may have been the Apostle Thomas who told the disciples as Jesus was to lead them back across the Jordan to see the dead Lazarus, “Let us go with him and die” (John 11:16).  I guess I am going to die to something so that I can live to something greater.

St. Sonny of Rollins: A Model for Ministry

I don’t know if Mr. Rollins would say that he qualifies for, or (like John Coltrane) ever desired to become a saint. Sonny Rollins is one of the premiere jazz artist in the world who is known for the distinctively powerful sound coming from his saxophone. As I watched the “Jazz” documentary series by Ken Burns, I found a compelling pattern of wisdom that mimics that of the Desert Fathers of ancient Christianity and that many a modern-day preacher would do well to practice.

Early in his career, Sonny emulated some of the great jazz artist of his time such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and the highly influential Charlie Parker. He made the tragic mistake of many young aspirants of seeking greater creativity through a heroin needle. But, unlike so many others who succumbed to the drug, Rollins overcame his addiction. He left the New York City music scene with all of its trappings and temptations and became a lowly day laborer. During this period of cleansing, he developed a desire to be the best artist he possibly could by being disciplined to his craft. When he came back to the clubs and recording studios, Sonny became one of the most formidable musicians on any instrument. One of the most acclaimed jazz albums, “Saxophone Colossus,” came after he made his return.

Sonny carefully chose who to associate with not only to stay clean, but to challenge his skills as well. John Coltrane, who also overcame a heroin addiction, was one such colleague. Legend has it that ‘Trane would call Sonny and play a riff or two from is sax into the phone and hang up. Sonny would call back and play something he had either been working on or from the top of his head and hang up. In Proverbs, it is written that as iron sharpens iron does a man sharpen another man. It is little wonder that no chronicle of great jazz musicians can be complete without these two men.

Sonny was true to his craft as a performer. He prefered to play in front of an audience rather than to make records in a studio. When performing, he refused to play uninspired. Jazz critics noted that Rollins would play the same lines over and over again as he felt it was the right thing to play rather than give the people what they wanted to hear when he didn’t feel like it. “Fake it ’till you make it,” was not a philosophy for this musician.

Sonny in thought

Sonny’s devotion and honesty in his craft was so extreme that he would abruptly stop performing for years. Legend has it that he would spend his time on the Brooklyn Bridge and other lonely places playing his sax. Perhaps this was to find inspiration and new ideas. Or, maybe he simply grew weary of concerts and recording contracts. But, when Rollins returned to the music scene, he did so with more brilliant and unique sounds.

So, what does this have to do with modern preaching and pastoral ministry? I think a lot. First of all, that ministers of today (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) need to take the time to humble themselves to eliminate addictions. Many of us are junkies on food, TV, lust, greed, pride, and even a few on drugs and alcohol. For us to approach altars and pulpits without doing the work to, at least, control our passions is spiritual malpractice. Playing off issues with excuses (“God is not through with me yet”) without making real effort to cleanse the soul doesn’t fool anyone for long. People see through the facades and either deem the ministry as a den of hypocrisy, or make excuses for their sinful ways as well as they praise the Lord. St. Moses the Black struggled against his passions for well over 10 years as did St. Mary of Egypt. There are some bad and evil habits that are hard to break. But, ministers of the gospel are called to strive to break them. Putting our personal business in the street is not a good idea. Neither is merely plastering over our faults with catch phrases. We must work with God to repair where we are broken, even if it means leaving our altars and pulpits for a while.

St. Moses the Black

We should be careful of the company we keep. I heard one preacher refer to a young lady who said, “I count my fingers and I count my friends. If I have more friends and fingers, I count my friends again.” St. Arsenius was one of the most strict ascetics who refused to be disturbed from his solitude, in particular by the opposite sex. monastics in general kept a distance from being popular and preferred a circle of the Abbott (or Abbess) and a couple of co-laborers. We likewise should have people around us that we can learn from and with and keep our inner circle of friends limited to a handful that can help us grow spiritually. Celebrity chasing should also be avoided that we don’t fall into the trap of seeking fame and fortune. Arsenius prayed that God would cause him to forget the visit of a noblewoman. Moses deceived a wealthy official that wanted to lavish him with gifts. Our goal as ministers is not to obtain the trappings of material success. While an ox should not be muzzled as it is treading out the grain, that is no excuse for us to be pigs. Our goal is to proclaim the gospel by what we preach, teach, and (most importantly) how we live.

We must be true to our congregations. In my years of preaching ministry, I have heard preachers “fake it ’till they make it” by using catch phrases (“when prayers go up, blessings come down”), popular songs, and “whooping” for the sake of getting a response from worshipers. In every seminary or minister’s conference, we are encouraged to develop our own voices. The fact is that well all fall into the trap of mimicking someone else because that is what people like to hear (I was more into Gardner C. Taylor). Some preachers have a style that people come to hear Sunday after Sunday and they preach the thing the same way even though they know God wants them to say something else differently. Fr. Seraphim Rose (who was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Russian monastics) was notorious for speaking little and speaking what came from God and 2,000 years of Christian wisdom and truth. I heard from a wise preacher that we are to preach to an audience of One. When we fail to address that One, we run the risk of forgetting who is One. We must preach only what we are called to and as much or as little as necessary.

Fr. Seraphim Rose

I heard Dr. William Curtis of the Hampton Minister’s Conference say that sometimes we need to leave ministry for a while and come back refreshed. Perhaps one of the reasons why good preachers go bad is that they didn’t have the courage to leave the pulpit. Because they want to keep pleasing their congregations and maintain their positions, they find themselves confused and frustrated. Such a man (or woman) of God is likely to fall into false doctrines, self medicate with substances, seek sexual pleasures outside of marriage, or even commit suicide. To leave the preaching ministry, especially if one earns a pastoral salary, is a major risk. But, if one is to preach, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” one may be called to put up or shut up. The one who is wise enough to shut him (or her) self up will be blessed. St. Macarius had an opportunity to enjoy great adoration from a nearby village that was about to repent to him after falsely accusing him of fathering a child. Rather than stay and accept their repentance and praises, he went deeper into the desert. St. Thais as well left her monastery after a highly regarded monk declared her to be the holiest among her sisters. Nothing more was written about Thais. The writings of Macarius are highly regarded throughout the Orthodox world and not unknown to Catholics and traditional Anglicans. Both are honored as examples of those who put their pursuit of God above the praises of man. No position nor amount of popularity must be allowed to take precedence over this pursuit.

In the documentary, Sonny Rollins is quoted, “We must always strive to be the best.” The pattern of this “saxophone Colossus” toward greatness is in line with the scriptures and saints. May we of the priesthood of believers, in particular those of the ordained clergy, do likewise.

Chief Among Sinners?

“…that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief …”     From Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 1:15

“O God, cleanse me, a sinner, for I have never done anything good in thy sight.”  From the First Prayer of Saint Macarius the Great

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The Jesus Prayer based on Luke 18:9-14

“I believe, O Lord, that thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief”   From the Orthodox Divine Liturgy prayer before the Holy Eucharist

 

It is hard enough to admit one’s wrong doing.  It is harder still to declare one’s self to have committed the worst of crimes, and nearly impossible to still see one’s self continuing to be the worst of offenders.  This is the main problem in America of every race, sex, political opinion, region, etc … ; no one admits to being chief among sinners.

It is easy to look at the story of the Apostle Paul and see what a terrible man he was before his conversion.  He, as Saul of Tarsus, watched the martyrdom of Deacon Stephen with approval and became notorious for persecuting Christians with the blessings of the Jewish chief priest.  After his conversion, Saul rejected the faith of his past and was ordained in Syria to spread the Gospel in Asia Minor, Cyprus, Greece, and Rome.  Despite his universal wisdom in living the Christian life and obviously being a changed man, Paul still addressed himself to his disciple, Timothy, as chief among sinners.  Although the went from being a cruel persecutor of the faith to an apostle of the truth, despite their being no records of any immoral acts or even cross words, this holy and righteous man still considered himself the chief among sinners.

Not much is known about Macarius before he became a monk, except that he was a camel driver.  Early in his monastic struggle, he was falsely accused by a woman of impregnating her.  Rather than try to plead his innocence, he worked even harder to weave baskets to make money to support his “wife and child.”  The entire village was going to his cave to apologize as the woman admitted that she lied.  Rather than stay and relish his deserved “I told you so” moment, Macarius fled deeper into the Egyptian desert.  We see the depth of this man’s humility and lifestyle of repentance as we offer his words in our prayer books,  “I have never done anything good in thy sight.”  Despite being one of the holy desert fathers, Macarius seemed to try to compete with Paul in admitting to being chief among sinners.

Here is the beauty of what Jesus taught in His story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector; the one who is truly humble and repentant before God is the one who received justification from God.  Oh, the Pharisee was a good man who obeyed all of the rules and did no wrong.  At least, he didn’t admit to any wrong, as with those who were about to stone a woman who was caught in the act of adultery.  When Jesus commanded them to look at themselves before throwing condemning stones at her, they all went away realizing they all had sinned.  Perhaps if this Pharisee had heard the same command from God, he would have knelt deeper, beat his chest harder, shed more tears, and cried out in deeper anguish than the tax collector that he thought he was better than.  Here in this parable, neither person of the Holy Trinity speaks vocal conviction to the Pharisee nor the tax collector.

This is how too many Americans are before God.  We don’t hear him convict us.  Perhaps a preacher might step on our toes every once in a while.  But, like the Pharisee, we are deaf to let the sound of God’s presence cry out to us to repent and walk in His ways.  Instead, we speak to God of what we accomplish and how we are better than the obviously sinful.  “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, (racist crackers, ghetto slugs, faggots, bull-daggers, perverts, abortionists, hypocritical Christians, atheist, liberals, conservatives, Tea Party members, Obama supporters, Muslims, or anyone else we don’t like), or even as this tax collector.  I am a tithing member of my church that only listens to Christian music, reads only Christian books, and watches only Christian TV.”  What we fail to realize is that by our self-righteous attitudes, we are making ourselves into Pharisees, enemies of the very Christ who we claim to proclaim.

We need to have the attitude of the tax collector in this parable.  Like the Pharisee, he does not hear a vocal conviction from God.  But, unlike the Pharisee, this man feels the presence of God and is convicted by it.  He is well distant from the righteous people and does not even lift his eyes toward heaven.  The tax collector does not offer one word of the good he has done nor of how much he is better than anyone else.   His words are the core of humility and repentance, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In fairness, it may be that the Pharisee was as good as he said he was and didn’t do anything wrong.  Likewise, the tax collector may have charged no more than assigned by the Roman and Judean officials declared and collected no more than to keep a simple lifestyle for himself and family.  Let’s just say that neither man did anything outlandishly bad.  But, difference is in their attitudes.  One man exalts himself while the other humbles himself.  Even though we see no direct punishment for the Pharisee’s arrogance, if we believe that our Lord does not lie, we know that his attitude will get him in trouble sooner or later.  Likewise, there is no quick gratification for the tax collector for his humility.  Since we belive the words of Jesus are true, we know he will be blessed at some point or another.

We can raise our voices in anger against the wave of anti-traditional Christianity all we wish.  But as temporary citizens of America and ultimate citizens of the kingdom of God, we have to confront our own demons and live opposite of our own faults.  Paul and the apostles, Macarius and the early fathers and mothers understood the need to point the finger at themselves first and foremost.  This is why the early church fathers taught us to consider ourselves as they did, chief among sinners.  Unless we “good Christians” do and act likewise, any complaining and protest we offer in this temporal nation will fall on deaf ears.  If we prove to be hypocritical, we won’t even make it into the kingdom to come.

Charleston: America’s Lack Of Repentance

Had it been something that happened during Reconstruction or the Jim Crow era, I could chalk it up as a piece of our sad racist history.  However, in 2015, a white man entered a black church and killed a pastor and 8 others during a mid-week service.  This could have happened anywhere in the nation, including my home town of West Point and even my multi cultural parish in Hampton!

                             All but two of the nine who were martyred.

To be fair, every predominantly white Protestant denomination has publicly repented for the sins of white supremacy including slavery and segregation.  The Southern Baptist Convention has even had an African-American president.  And we must also acknowledge that Barak Obama could not have become the President of this nation had it not been for a significant number of whites voting for him.  The average white Christian is not a murderer.  Indeed, many an African-American can relate to a white who has treated them better than a “brother” or “sister.”

But, here is the problem; white racism and black backlash are too deeply rooted in this nation to be easily erased with a few decades of saying, “I’m sorry” no matter how sincere the words and actions are.  From colonial Virginia to the Civil Rights Movement, there were laws in place that made blacks second class citizens.  With a few exceptions, every white denomination has supported such laws from slave codes to Plessy vs. Ferguson.  Even among those who did’t support such laws, it was generally believed that the African was less human than the European.  So, with 240 years of slavery (1619-1865) and about 69 years of segregation (1896-1965); we have had over 309 years of legalized bigotry.  White in the North as well as the South were bitter and resentful toward the freedmen during the Reconstruction period and were not comitted to black equality.  So, add another 31 years of undermining any efforts of progress our ancestors tried to make after the Civil war; That is 340 years of legal and illiegal activities designed to keep black people down in this country.  Are we to imagine that the demon of white supremacy would disappear in a mere 50 years?  Apparently not!

Not only are we sick with that demon, many blacks have developed a justified yet toxic sense of mistrust of anything white and a willingness to ignore the crimes we comitt against ourselves yet raise our voices when whites attack us.  There was no national outcry from the NAACP or any other Civil Rights organization when four students at the historically black Morgan State University were stabbed by a “brother” a few weeks before the death of Freddie Gray while in custody of the Baltimore Police.   Rev. Al Sharpton did not come to Baltimore when a 16 year old girl was raped and murdered by two “brothers.”  Local ministers may hold a march or prayer vigil.  But, rarely is there a nationwide call to struggle against the outrages we commit against ourselves as we do when the perpetrators are blonde haired and blue eyed, and (even more so) policemen.  When black preachers speak out against the wrongs committed within the community, they are routienly ignored and sometimes called, “sell-outs.”  But, let him “speak truth to power,” and he is honored as one who fights for the people.

Whites see this and use it as an excuse to hold on to their bigoted attitudes.  Sure, the great majority of them will never pick up a gun and kill blacks in an AME church.  But, white Christians will share especially degrading comments and images of the President and other blacks on social media and private conversations.  We blacks can tell the difference between purely political opinon and blatant disrespect.  Thus, it is not unusual for African-Americans to  stop trying to be good Christians and join the Hebrew Israelites or a Black Muslim religion that teaches an equally racist doctrine that whites are demonic beings.

As I said in my previous post (https://desertfathersdispatch.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/some-sunday-morning/), the only solution to America’s racial division is humble repentance from both blacks and whites.  Only when we put aside our fears and stereotypical notions of each other can the perfect love of Jesus Christ infuse our hearts and minds with grace.  But as long as we let conservatism vs. liberalism and black vs. white keep us among “our people,” we should not be surprised whtn things like this happen.

Come And See: The Eucharist Beyond Pre-packaging

Every now and then, I am blessed with an opportunity to assist my priest and ordained chanter with the Eucharist.  To critics of traditional forms of Christianity, especially those who decry against ritualism, I would only wish you could be in my shoes and experienced it for yourself.  Words can do no real justice to this the most important sacrament of Orthodox worship.

In the chalice was the bread, the body of Christ, floating in the wine, His blood.  A member of our congregation took the time to bake the loaf.  Before Matins (aka Orthros, the Morning Prayers), Fr. James carefully offered the chants and prayers that were handed down through the church for nearly 2,000 years as he cut and broke pieces of the loaf.  After adding the bread to the cup of wine, the Eucharist was blessed with the aroma and smoke of incense symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Preparing the Holy Gifts

At the high point of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. James comes though the royal doors with the chalice.  One of the sub-deacons and I hold the cloth under it as one by one, the saints come forward to partake of the body and blood of our Lord.  “Thy servant (thy hand maiden) comes to recieve thy precious body and blood” Fr. repeats for each member as we hold the cloth under their chins.  Some are elderly, others mere babes who had just been baptized.  All of us who are able had fasted through the morning that this meal was the first thing we tasted all day.  We all taste from the same cup knowing that we were one with our Lord and each other.  One by one, we all come to partake.

There are some things that one cannot get from the modern manifestation of a pre-packaged communion.  “Ain’t you afraid of getting someone else’s germs?”  I am more fearful of not taking in the life giving flesh and blood that Jesus offers to us.  Without it, we have no life.  Indeed, if we do believe this to be His body and blood, why should we fear “catching something” from someone else?  The same cup brings people together with one another and with the continued history of the church.  Germs and viruses only separate.  Members who know they are sick are wise enough not to partake.  Besides, the wine has alcohol in it, alcohol kills germs.

Does grape juice naturally have a one year shelf life?

There is no resurrection in a piece of unleavened bread.  Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover on the day before the great Jewish feast.  Thus, they would have used leavened bread as the unleavened variety would not have been available.  Leavened bread has risen as Christ Himself would and did rise from the grave.  There is no need to eat the lifeless leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.  Our Lord has conquered death by his death.

Nor is their any life in sealed grape juice.  Our Lord’s first miracle recorded by John was changing water into wine.  Does the use of the non-alcoholic make one better than those who use the substance recorded in the scriptures?  If so, are we better than the best winemaker recorded in the Gospels?  Is the minuscule amount of wine turn a person into a substance abuser?  The amount of the Eucharist given to a toddler is no more, and probably less, dangerous than the medications prescribed by physicians.

A baptized infant receiving the precious body and blood of our Lord

When done in sincerity, any form of Communion, Eucharist, of the Lord’s Supper, can be a truly reverent experience.  But there are things that cannot be contained in aluminium foil and cellophane.  Resurrection, life and unity with one another are what we offer from the sacred cup in an Orthodox Eucharist.  When taken in a sincere and repentant manner, we conclude worship with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  Although only the Orthodox may partake of the body and blood, we do share the remaining holy bread after the service.  Come and see for yourself.

Less “Bishops,” More Monastics

When I was a boy, all we had was reverends.  The AME had one or two bishops.  But, everyone else was just a reverend.  Now, everyone wants to be a bishop, everyone wants to be an apostle, everyone wants to be a prophet of the fourth quadrant of the first hemisphere … ”             

   Dr. Jeremiah Wright

After Christianity became a legalized religion, some believers noticed a problem in the church.  There was an increase of people who converted to the faith for the wrong reasons.  Some did so to curry favor with government officials and businessmen.  Others thought this would be some sort of magic religion that would guarantee good luck and success.  Still others simply wanted to be a part of the crowd.  Whatever the reasons, the new converts had a tendency to ignore the words of the Lord; If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 

A core of believers knew that although the persecutions from the Roman government had ended, the true enemy, Satan, still had to be fought against.  These men and women knew that they could not be victorious in their struggle by having the shallow faith of their society.  So, they left their worldly pursuits and lived in prayer and contemplation.  Some pursued the life of purity and repentance so severely that they lived naked and alone in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East.  Some lived in caves along the Nile River Valley and, later, shacks in the Siberian forest.  Others dwelled in monasteries in obedience to God and the abbot or abbess for spiritual instruction.  For the monks and nuns, nothing was more important than having their sins forgiven, their souls saved for the world to come and to pray for others.

St. Pachomius of Egypt

Think about it for a moment.  These men and women committed themselves to dressing very simply, eating basic food, and shunning any sort of fanfare and notoriety.  They made baskets and other handicrafts and had them sold in markets to sustain themselves.  Even today, monastics strive to be self-sufficient, live simply, and keep their distance from worldly influences.  They live in constant prayer for themselves and the world in every daily activity.  Depending on the rule of the monastery, monks and nuns can attend some sort of worship service more than three times a day lasting for hours.  Those who aren’t called to live as actual monastics choose to live simply without pursuing so many of the things of this world.  They read the works of the ancient fathers and apply their wisdom to modern life. With proper guidance, they become very prayerful, victorious over their own demons, and help others overcome theirs as well.  They seek a deeper faith and not fanfare.

How many more of these guys do we really need?

I think modern Christianity needs more monastics and fewer modern hierarchs.  While even the well-established Pentecostal denominations have high standards for their bishops, such titles are far too often obtained too cheaply.  Almost anyone with a charismatic personality, knowledge of a few scriptures, and the ability to attract and maintain a following can give himself (or herself) any title they wish.  Apostle, chief apostle, archbishop, master prophet; the possibilities are endless.  Added to this plethora of titles are the numbers of ways one can “earn” degrees of further education.  It used to be there were only a few schools of divinity and theology attached to accredited academic colleges.  Now, there are “for profit” colleges offering D. Min degrees and online diploma mills that can give any sort of credential imaginable for as little as $50.

Anyone claiming some clerical office by such shady means in the Coptic Orthodox Church or the Church of God in Christ would face a stern rebuke from the proper authorities.  However, with tens of thousands of non-denominational churches with no ecclesiastical authority, any attempt of call such clergy into question has no consequences.  No one can judge, or silence them. Their followers and like-minded colleagues will readily come to their defense denouncing their critics as, “bitter, haters, the enemy,” and other names.  “You can’t judge me, God anointed me, not you” and other phrases are also used against anyone who dares question them about their legitimacy.   But, the current plethora of “hierarchs” is creating a growing number of critics who join non-Christian groups, or drop out of religion all together preferring to just be “spiritual” and good people.   As cheaply as the hierarchal titles are obtained, so the faith of the people becomes cheapened as well.

Monasticism is not an inexpensive process.  It is like selling all of one’s merchandise for one pearl or a field.  But because the pearl of forgiveness is of great price and the field of salvation has a great treasure in it, it is well worth any and every sacrifice.  Even for those of us who cannot actually move into monasteries, practicing asceticism to the degree we are able is a struggle.  They lose friendships as we tend to like to spend time alone.  Many water-cooler conversations will be alien or repulsive to us.  Pursuits that were once the highlight of their lives are put aside for prayer and repentance.  But, monastics pursue greater things than notoriety and popularity, which are fickle and unstable.  Their souls are anchored in the unbroken line of those who renounced the world for the next world from John the Baptist and Jesus Christ to Anthony and Macarius to Brianchaninov and Theophan to Paisious and Seraphim Rose.  They may never pack a stadium full of people who want to hear good preaching.  But, their prayers are a blessing to us all.  And some of them pass down wisdom and spiritual insights that are useful for every generation in every land.

A keeper of the ancient faith

To those who feel a calling on their lives to serve the Lord, please channel your enthusiasm to the disciplined and humble path of monasticism.  Jesus Himself said that the lifestyle is not for everyone.  But, we can all seek to live as close to being a monk or nun as possible.  The writings from ancient to modern monastics are available to us; order and read them.  We have monasteries here in the US; take a pilgrimage and meet one or two.  Under wise spiritual guidance, we can take on a greater pursuit of repentance and renunciation of the world.  We have enough bishops of questionable character and credentials.  We need more Christians who will deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.  We need more monks and nuns.

No Saints=No Sanity: Seeing Womanhood

Father Seraphim Rose once said, “Pornography is the devil’s iconography.”  These days, the world of porn has become so exploitive of women that the founder of Hustler Magazine has said the industry has gone to far.  The women are subjected to acts of force, gross acts, and violence that are way too graphic and distasteful to describe.  To make matters worse, kids are vewing such things online with no safeguards on computers.  Grown men can visit these sites in public libraries.  In one anti-porn video, a porn user professed that such movies show men what women want.  While it can be argued that the girls who do porn do so in their own free will, I doubt that a naked 19 or 20 year old young lady has much decision making power in a room with two or more men, especially if any of them are old enough to be her father.

Aside from such extreme forms of porn, there is a type of imagry I call, “chicken porn” (porn for men who are too afraid to look at the real thing).  Images of women in sexually suggestive clothing and poses that are found in mainstream magazines.  Anyone who has seen the recent cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue can understand what I am talking about.  A young lady wearing a bikini swimsuit at a beach or pool is not unusual nor necessarily offensive.  But, to have her pose pulling down her bikini is uncalled for.  Women don’t do this in normal visits to beaches and pools.  This was done only to encourage men and boys to want to see more of her body.  For the porn industry, such images seve as business cards for the more “reputable” companies and the more rancid ones as well.

The Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, is praised for her ever virginity.  In traditional Byzantine iconography, she is clothed in a blue garment and head covering to show her humanity.  Covering these clothes is a red garment over her head and body to show that she has put on divinity.  With few exceptions (such as the Annunciation and Dormition), Mary is holding the Christ Child in one arm with her other hand motioning to Him.  Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and the first wave of Protestants hold this image in high regard as the highest saintly model of womanhood.

Mary of Egypt was far from being a virgin.  But, ancient Christianity holds her in very high regards as a prototype for repentance.  In most icons, she is all skin and bones wearing only the black outer garment given to her by the monk Zosimas.  After repenting of her sexual depravity, Mary lived in the desert east of the Jordan River alone placing repentance more important than food, shelter, or clothing.  While no one today is called to that extreme, we see in her that turning one’s life around from wickedness to righteousness is not a one time act.  We are to be consistent and humble; willing to forsake even basic comforts for the heavenly kingdom.

Radical Reformed Protestantism and modern Evangelicalism tells society that holy icons are mere idols and it is not fit for Christians to revere the people represented in these images.  As America and Western Europe is dominated by this mindframe, it is no coincidence that porn dominates these nations.  By taking away the holy images of womanhood, it is inevidable that Satan has all but won the icon war by flooding our word with hard and soft core images of female exploitation.  According to the Desert Fathers, lust is the hardest of the sins for people to avoid.  Holy images of female saints are tools to help us overcome wicked thoughts.  What we set our eyes toward becomes etched in our minds.  If you take away a carpenter’s tools, it is very difficut for him to build a proper house.  Iconoclasim has been a total failure in helping create a society where a woman’s purity, either as a virgin or wife, is honored and respected.

People who struggle with distorted sexuality would do well to look into the Orthodox Church not because we are perfect (oh, that we were).  But, because we encourage men and women to use the examples of holy men and women as well as the Bible to overcome their sins.  In our great cloud of witnesses are saints who struggled with their urges and passions just like we do today.  Their stories tell us that there is victory through Jesus Christ.  The victory may not be quick nor easy.  But, if we endure even to the end, we will win because our Lord won the battle against death and corruption with His death and resurrection.  This isn’t something that we only read in the scriptures, speak in prayers, an sing in songs.  This is what we behold in our eyes as well.

Failure of the Falcon Horus

Critics of the history of Jesus say that the parallels between the ideology of Horus and that of the story of Jesus indicates that they are the same story, just different time periods. However, this idea fails to take into account that the belief in Horus is one that spans thousands of years and many different versions. Each era of belief in Horus would have believed in different versions of the god, none of which match up with the accounts of Jesus. ——— from Ancient Egypt Online

I can understand why any African American would be disillusioned with Western Christianity.  We were brought here as slaves on the good ship “Jesus” and were taught Bible passages to keep us under control.  Despite becoming Baptist, Methodist, and the like; many of our white “brothers and sisters” either passively supported the idea of racial supremacy, or were active in its propagation in groups such as the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.  Even today, racist white American Christians have trouble admitting their wrongs and mask their feelings under a veneer of politics and social observations.  Although there are mixed congregations and most mainline denominations (including the Southern Baptist Convention which recently had a black president) have publicly repented of their bigoted past, too many of us have been hurt too deeply to trust that Christianity is the true faith.  We have been beaten over the head with too many Nordic images of Jesus, “explanations” of why our brown and black skins doomed us for enslavement, and justifications of how God intended to keep the races separate while our women were being raped.  The fact that most African Americans remain Christians is a miracle of God.  It is a wonder that more of us have not given up on the Jesus of Western Christendom.

However, I believe throwing the baby out with the bath water is not a good idea.  This is what several of us are doing by rejecting Christianity all together.  For example, a friend considers the Egyptian god Horus to be a true deity and Jesus a lie as it seems that the Virgin Birth, miracles, and death and resurrection narrative is a copy of the story of Horus.  To be certain, the similarities are unmistakable.  But like the Jewish religion, the story of Horus was a foretaste of Jesus as the Son of God.  By comparison, Horus falls short of being a god worthy of worship.

The Egyptian god Horus

Horus was only one of several Egyptian deities.  Ra, Anubis, Mut, Thoth, and others were worshiped equally in this polytheistic religion.  In fact, each district along the Nile had its own god.  The primary god that was recognized by all was Ra, the creator of all things.  Depending on what version of Egyptology you read, Horus was not the son of this primary god.  About 2000 B.C., many Egyptians attributed his parents to be Osiris and Isis and they were either close cousins or even brother and sister.  After Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, Isis impregnated herself on the one part of her husband that was functional, his penis, before bringing him back to life with the help of the god Anubis.

Thus, there are a few serious problems with Horus.  As he was not the son of the creator god, he had no spiritual supremacy over any of the other deities.  He was just another god that could be taken seriously, or left alone.  Even if he were the son of Ra, that still didn’t give him supremacy to any other god such as Geb (the earth god) or Hathor (love and fertility).  In fact, Seth, the god of evil who killed Horus and his father Osiris, was made the god of storms by Ra.  Neither Horus nor Ra punishes the source of evil.  The influence of Horus was still limited as to the more important local gods such as Apis, the god of strength, who was adored in Memphis or Meretseger of Thebes who rewarded the good and punished the evil.   Not only was Horus the son of a minor god, he was a child of incest as no ancient culture permitted the marriage of close cousins and even more so brothers and sisters.

Why would indigenous Egyptian Christians accept the Virgin Birth narrative of Jesus and reject that of the older and native Horus?  Because Horus was not a divine being with any true power, worshiping him was optional as he was a lesser of a lesser god born under an unlawful and strange circumstance.  And evil was still tolerated among the Egyptian gods.   When the Apostle Mark brought the Gospel to the Egyptians, they recognized the Virgin Birth narrative.  But, they learned that Jesus was (and is) the Son of God.  The same God that saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery called for Jesus to be hidden among them and called Him from their land.  This would be the God for all people and not just another local deity.  By His death, Jesus conquered death and corruption of the soul (sin).  After His death and resurrection, Jesus had all power on heaven and earth.  And He will return to judge the living and the dead having ultimate victory over ultimate evil.

At no time does Horus take on human flesh while maintaining his divinity.  Being detached from the supreme creator god, he was unable to do this.  In fact, he is depicted as half man and half falcon.  The problem of fallen humanity is that by sin we have distanced ourselves from the God who made us in His image and likeness.  This distancing has corrupts the human soul that was made to be immortal and leads to complete death.  In order to correct the corruption and defeat death, God would have to take a fully human form and still retain his divinity, die as a man and because of his divinity, rise from the grave as a man.  A half man and half bird god could not do this despite being born of a virgin, performing miracles, or calling himself the light of the world.  And how could Horus call himself a supreme light when he was only the god of the rising sun?  Aten succeded Ra as the sun god.  Atum was the god of the setting sun and was the local god of Lower Egypt.  In contrast, Jesus became man and was like us in every way except he was pure from His conception of a virgin and the Holy Spirit.  He overcame the temptations.  He was crucified publicly so that there would be no question that He died.  But, because Jesus was also divine, death could not hold His human body.  By believing in the Gospel and following His precepts, we have the ability to overcome sins and live forever.  As attributed to Athanasius (who was described by his enemies as a black dwarf), “God became man so that man could become God.”

Athanasius the Great, Bishop of Alexandria

Egyptians saw the truth of Jesus and rejected their pantheon of gods despite the persecutions of the first 300 years of the faith.  Egypt was the home of the Desert Fathers who lived in caves and monasteries to devote their lives to prayer and the pursuit of God without the worldly influences after the faith became legalized and (eventually) the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The spirituality of these fathers were an influence of the African bishop Athanasius who was the hero of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and compiled 27 books that would be canonized as the New Testament at a Council in Carthage.  Today, the indigenous Coptic Christians of Egypt still hold true to the faith even under the threat of martyrdom.  Not only they, but Ethiopians, Syrians, Assyrians, Antiochians, and others would rather confess Jesus as the risen Son of God rather than any other god of any other nation.

Rather than seeking to find excuses to reject Christianity all together, I recommend that African-Americans (no, all Americans!) take the time to learn about ancient Christianity.  The Copts and Ethiopians (who were evangelized by the Apostle Matthew) have practiced this faith long before the slave ship captain John Hardy Hawkins chose his coat of arms.  Greek and Russian Orthodox believers pray the prayers of St. Macarius and kiss the icon of St. Mary of Egypt.  This is not to say that the Orthodox Christian world is perfect.  But, we have a greater spiritual journey to offer than Horus.  A good starting point would be On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius the Great. He also wrote a biography of St. Anthony who is considered to be the father of Christian monasticism.  The Sayings of the Desert Fathers offers a good look and what the early Egyptian and other influential monastics taught.  Two modern books that highlight early African Christianity that are useful are The Unbroken Circle and Wade in the River.

Cyprian vs. Complacency

“… Only observe a discipline uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion.”   Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Bishop Cyprian led an African church in a time of great crisis.  First, there was a period of brutal persecutions from the Roman government.  He was criticized for going into hiding rather than stepping forward to become a martyr as many in his parish did.  Then, he had to argue with false teachers who wanted to close the doors of repentance to backsliders who wanted to come back to the faith.  A plague arose in the land and killed believers and pagans alike.  This shook the faith of many Christians who thought they and their families would be spared from such suffering.  After a period of relative calm, another persecution arose in which Cyprian would face the executioner’s axe.  In the midst of these difficulties, the saint encouraged a friend to practice a sober minded and pure path as a Christian.

It is easy for us to dismiss the need for such a walk of faith in this day and age.  Many of us succumb to the idea of “Getting our praise on” Sunday mornings, or as we listen to our favorite Gospel songs on the radio.  We sweep our sins under a rug since, “The Lord knows our hearts,” and didn’t mean to sin.  If a brother or sister of the faith (or even minister) dare give us a mild rebuke of our faults, they are not to “judge” us because “all have sinned.”  As long as we go to church, tithe, and love others; a disciplined spiritual life doesn’t seem to be necessary.

I believe that the Christian life called for by St. Cyprian is even more critical to us today than it was in first century Carthage.  To proclaim Christ before Constantine was an invitation to exile, torture, or death.  The courageous either hid and found ways to encourage people to remain faithful to Christ, or they boldly faced swords and wild beast.  A life of purity and sobriety gave our ancestors of the faith the strength and wisdom to do both.

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage

Today, Satan persecutes us with a more vicious torturer than any Roman official could send on us.  Complacency lulls our spirits to believe that we are walking in the narrow path of salvation when we are actually on a broad boulevard of destruction.  When we relegate worship to exuberant praise, can we hear the quiet voice that God uses to speak to us as he did Elijah?  How can we parts of the body of Christ heal from our sin sickness if we are unwilling to confess where the body is gathered?  Are we so holy that we cannot accept a word of correction from those who have made the journey before us and are walking with us?  “Oh, those are the traditions of men.  We don’t need to do all of that. God is not through with me yet.”  Instead of finding answers in prayer, the Bible, and ancient Christian writings to correct our backslidings, it is easier to make excuses for improper actions, words, and (especially) thoughts.  And since we do not face life threatening persecutions, being complacent in our Christian walk has captured far too many of us and misleading us to be no better than those who do not practice the faith at all.  Indeed, we are worse because we, supposedly, know better.

Not everyone is called to monasticism.  But, we are all called to spend time with ourselves and God in prayer as Jesus did.  All of us are called to observe times of God’s presence in our lives as the apostles did in the book of Acts.  The writings of early church fathers and mothers are available and are not hard for us to comprehend.  And the call to repentance given by our Lord back then is essential to our self-denial, taking up of our crosses, and following Him today.  Let us not be lulled by complacency in these times of ease.  But, let us struggle all the more against our sinister enemy who wants nothing more than for us to let our guards down.

Baltimore and the Ancient Failure

I have always enjoyed visiting family in Baltimore.  I remember taking a solo road trip up there.  I visited the Frederick Douglass Maritime Museum, checked out a few local shops, ate a really good steak and cheese somewhere in the Fells Point area.  I had the opportunity to eulogize one of my relatives in the city.  I was warmly received the times I preached there.  Baltimore is really a nice town check out.

What about the rioting?  That is a case of the invisible ugliness becoming visible.  Now, the whole world has seen what happens when a power structure has kept people powerless for decades.  Now we see how some powerless people respond when they feel threatened and vulnerable.  Yes, I am saddened, angered, disappointed, and deeply wounded that yet another black man died in the hands of a few policemen and that some blacks took to rioting.  But, I am also aware that something like this could happen anywhere where there is invisible ugliness.  All it takes is one trigger and a seaside city that is the home of generations of strong, black families can be the home of a violent outbreak in the struggle between the haves and have-nots.  Who knows, tomorrow, we could hear something about Hampton, VA (where I am typing from).

Many will disagree with my point of view.  But, I don’t believe that race nor racism is the ultimate source of the invisible ugliness.  The root of the problem goes back to the very roots of human history.  In an attempt to be like God without direction from God, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  Immediately after their eyes were open, they couldn’t be vulnerable to each other and hid themselves from the God they wanted to be like without Him.  Cain killed his brother, Abel, rather than to listen to God’s instructions to overcome sin.  In both situations, people sought to obtain the heavenly and earthly power on their own terms and the results have been spectacular failures.

The Europeans who came to these shores only wanted more land and opportunity than they had in their homelands.  But, rather than to do so in compassion and humility, they made their gains by inflicting a selfish and narrow-minded judgement on the Native Americans and (by purchase and theft) obtain African slaves to generate the wealth for the new nation.   Many of their descendants feel that they are in their right to do whatever they wish to maintain dominance in a kingdom that they obtained by wrong instead of right.  The Africans, for many years, held a moral high ground as they found the Gospel truth hidden in the wrong-headed doctrines of their slave masters.  But, over too much time and too many broken promises,  too many of us descendants have succumbed to having a heart and mind as mindlessly cruel as any oppressor.  Rather than leave vengeance the Lord, too many of us want a justice that punishes rather than a justice that restores the flesh and blood that is not our real enemy.  Like Adam & Eve, the racist and the rioter are too impatient to enjoy the good things they have and wait for something better.  Like Cain, the racist and the rioter would rather kill his own kind than to admit that he is wrong and live a life of repentance.

To be fair, not every white policeman is hunting Negroes.  Not every African American is running around with a stolen TV set.  But, too many of us replay the ancient failure in our hearts and minds.  We all want more and greater things and positions rather than patience and spiritual correction.  We want the world to revolve around us rather than for us to follow God.  Until this changes, your city and mine have the potential to be a Baltimore.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Us, Sinners.