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.

Don’t Spill Your Grace

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.

The Hidden Blessing in the Gay Marriage Movement

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.

Bring back the crowns and what they mean.

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?

In the presence of God and these witnesses

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.

Great Lent Week Five: Don’t Be Too Happy

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.

Subdeacon Paul Abernathy

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;

Saint (Elder) Paisios of Mt. Athos

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.