The Desert Fathers: A Beacon for Evangelism

Desert Fathers Dispatch

In his autobiography, Malcolm X stated that the Desert Fathers were the founders of Christian Church structure (1).  He also briefly mentioned St. Augustine as a defender of Church doctrine against heresy (2).  While Malcolm said these things specifically in is critique of white racism in Christianity, he does make an incidental point that should not be overlooked.  It ought to be a topic to help the Orthodox Church evangelize to African-Americans and develop a more multi-cultural identity in this nation.  Many of the most heralded saints of early Christianity were Africans.

At the time I read this, I took Malcolm’s words for granted.  I was planning to become a pastor in a black Baptist Church and figured that I shared the same skin color with these ancient Christians was all the connection I needed with them.  I identified St. Augustine with the Roman Catholic Church and didn’t think that…

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Lesson From Lent: King’s Kitchen Table

Imagine being a young black pastor in the segregated south and you have been called upon to lead a movement against injustice. The demonstration is having some success and the supporters of the evil structure have constantly threatened and denounced what you are doing.  One night, a particular threatening phone call shakes you.  Fear quickly invades your heart and mind as you consider the real possibility of death and the death of your young family.  It is at that point where your fine seminary education cannot help you.  Your saintly parents are too far away to come to your aid and comfort.  At that point, you come to a place where you must know God for yourself not through scholarship nor friends.  The only way to know Him at this point is by a deep, honest, and sincere outpouring of one’s self through prayer.  Then, and only by this knowledge of God, are you able to carry on with your life’s mission.  In a speech given in Chicago about a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this confession to his audience.

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In the current political and social climate, it is not unusual for us to speak, write, and demonstrate against the injustices we see around us. This is a good thing.  But, imitating Dr. King in seeking justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor does come with a price that is often overlooked by an American mind frame that wants to forget that he was a Christian minister.  Indeed, this is a price we all must pay if we pursue the will of God from any religious viewpoint.  In particular for we who claim to believe Him who taught us that self-denial and taking up the cross are the prerequisites to follow Him, we especially must make the effort  to tear our homes apart looking for the lost coin that will cover the cost.  We must come to deeply, honestly, and sincerely know God through prayer.

Too often we don’t try to make such an effort. Sure we may go to church practicing some pious ancient ritual, getting caught up in a spontaneous praises, or some variation of these extremes.  We read the Bible and other religious books and magazines to help us on our Christian journey.  On the surface, we know how to show people what religion we practice and how to apply our faith to just about every social concern.  My concern is that too many of us never try to go deeper than the surface show before men and confront the depths of how much we need God until, like Dr. King, circumstances drive us to a place where we can no longer run and hide.  More troubling is that we don’t even try to reach that point because we fail to recognize our real enemy, Satan and his legions, and how he makes war inside of us.  With our unwillingness to grow closer to God in this critical way, the devil is comfortable with us going through our motions.

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Contemplating this new step in my journey

This Great Lenten Fast, I have added King’s Kitchen Table to my rule of prayer. I typically do this right after dinner keeping in mind a sermon from St. John Chrysostom of how donkeys and oxen eat and go to their work while we eat so much we become useless and unable to bend our knees for prayer.  After washing the dishes, which is a form of service, I offer the first prayer of the Trisagion, to the Holy Spirit, before sitting down to the table.  Afterward, I sit and offer one ode of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  I follow this up with a Psalm, the Gospel reading, and a prayer from The Veil from the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of the Hours.  The final offering is A Prayer for the Children of Africa in America written by the black abolitionist, Maria W. Stewart.  I end my time at the kitchen table by writing in my spiritual journal, examining my thoughts in light of the penitential prayers that I had offered.

Those who wish to pray at the kitchen table need not be as elaborate as this. The following elements are more important.  Timing; again, I keep this practice right after dinner.  So that during dinner, I am mindful that I have to pray after eating.  This mindfulness helps me to reduce my temptation for gluttony, a common sin that I have too regularly overlooked.  Thus, I see that if this bad habit can be overcome, by seeking oneness with God my other evils can be overcome as well.  Sacrifice; any nightly prayer activity means cutting away time from entertainment and rest.  Those who are very attached to watching TV can start by going to the table during commercials while that favorite show is on. In time, intentionally increase the time spent at the table vs. that in front of the screen.  Work; dishwashing is not the hardest labor in the world.  But, praying while working is common among monastics.  If not the dishes, folding clean laundry or some other chore can be done.  Uplifting music is a good addition to this routine.  Repentance; prayer is not simply offering God list of request.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus commanded people to repent for the sake of the kingdom.  Adorations, intercessions, praises; these things have their place.  But, repentance and self-examination brings us to struggle against the real enemy in ourselves.  Unless we struggle internally, anything we attempt, even what we succeed against, externally will be meaningless in our goal of salvation.

 

Piece 5

For everyone who does not have the “white picket fence” sort of marriage. Thanks, Liz.

My Life in Pieces

“Why is she marrying him if he is going to die?”

Those words were muttered on our wedding day. When I learned of that, I must be honest, I was thoroughly offended. How could someone be so superficial and cold? I was upset that was something people were actually thinking about on a day that was supposed to be a celebration of our love and oneness. I let it get to me and began thinking I needed to validate our love to everyone. I felt I had to prove that what we had is real. It was real and has always been real. Chris and I never questioned it, so it surprised me that others did.
I have since had a change of heart regarding my upset over that comment. I realize now that maybe the individual had some insight to the pain I would inevitably feel and the stigma…

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Reconciliation On Social Justice: The Consequences of Low Aim

I will post again from St Basil very soon

Desert Fathers Dispatch

If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me. When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. —– Matthew 19:21, 22

Although you say you have never murdered, or committed adultery, or stolen, or borne false witness against another, you make all of this diligence of no account by not adding what follows, which is the only way you will be able to enter the kingdom of God. —– Basil the Great, To the Rich, section 1

The problem is not failure. The problem is low aim. —– Dr. Benjamin Mays

Educator Benjamin Mays understood the source of many social ills was a desire to just get by in life rather than to seek to be the best in academics and whatever else we…

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Reconciliation On Wealth and Poverty: Repentance Fit for a King

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Do you wish to see what makes a bed truly beautiful? … I am showing you the bed of David. Not one adorned all over with silver and gold, but with tears and confessions.   St. John Chrysostom, First Sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man

As we are at the beginning of Great Lent, it is fair to bring up this point of Chrysostom’s chastisement of luxurious living. Here, the “golden mouthed” preacher makes reference to the Prophet Amos’s denunciation of those who “sleep on beds of ivory and live delicately on couches” (1).  In the parable, it is not hard to imagine the rich man doing this.  Dining sumptuously every day and dressed in purple, of course he would also have furnishings more of status and wealth than of function.  Poor Lazarus couldn’t even get a crumb from a table made of expensive materials.  While dogs licked his sores…

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Reconciliation to God: My Lenten Reading Assignments

Desert Fathers Dispatch

In our modern political argument of conservatism vs. liberalism, I couldn’t help but notice that almost no one on either side was making use of two of the most powerful patristic works in Christian literature. On Wealth and Poverty by John Chrysostom and On Social Justice by Basil the Great have stood the test of time when it comes to developing a heart and mind to respond to the less fortunate in our society. This is my self-assigned reading for Lent this year, as well as my assigned reading for the Antiochian House of Studies. I confess that, in some ways, a temptation to proof-text these works to a left-leaning interpretation. Politically, I am a moderate (blue-dog) Democrat. I also acknowledge a need for a Republican source of ideas to aid the poor and marginalized. Being a park ranger, I get to see our nation’s symbolic bird, the bald eagle…

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Humility is the Solution

It is African-American History Month. And this is the first year that we observe this month under a president that wants to “Make America Great Again.”  Under the administration of his predecessor, the first African-American to hold the office, we were still the greatest nation in the world.  Apparently, the political left and right cannot, or for the sake of promoting their agendas, refuse to come to an agreement of what makes for greatness.  I am choosing to ignore their arguments because in African and Orthodox Christian history, there are consistent elements and examples of what greatness is and that we have agreed upon in all places at all times.  I will lift up one element and example for your consideration; the humility of Macarius the Great of fourth century Egypt.

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One day, Macarius was gathering reeds to make baskets when Satan began to beat him with a scythe. His blows had no effect on the man and he stopped and left him alone.  As the devil was leaving, he told the saint, “I do everything you do.  You stay up all night praying, I don’t sleep.  You fast, I don’t eat.  You have one advantage over me that I cannot overcome; your humility” (1).  For those of you unfamiliar with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a book that African-American Christians would do well to read and study), I give you these words from the Apostle Paul; “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … He made himself of no reputation … He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death … Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-10).

Russuan Paper Mache Cross

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

In both sides of the political argument, humility is tragically absent. I use this adjective because without this critical element that Jesus and Macarius lived by, greatness will not happen; except that we may achieve great failure and embarrassment.  Let’s take the right; everyone wants a strong economy with good jobs, and protection from enemies.  The desire to achieve these goals is no excuse for belligerence.  The left’s concerns for diversity, fairness, and social progress are also admirable and necessary.  Vulgarity only hurts the cause one struggles for.  And it may be that the media is drowning out the more conciliatory voices on both sides for the sake of ratings and profits (I don’t doubt this at all).   But, with few (if any) voices on either side are pointing out to humility as the means of achieving greatness, calling on God to bless America or saying that God is on our side are empty words that will generate atheism faster than anything Charles Darwin could have dreamed of.

It will not be any political leader or party that will humble the heart of America. It will take the masses to embrace the mentality of our Savior and the African saint (and I welcome a similar spirit from those of other faiths and no faith).  For African-Americans, perhaps a deeper look at the humility of our forefathers would help.  Not every slave was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner.  The very existence of devout Christian slaves whose spirituality went deeper than that of their masters was an indictment against the false Christianity of the American South and their friends in the North.  For a modern example, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by laying on the ropes and taking hard punches to tire out his opponent.  And at the right time, he fought back.  For the Orthodox Church, while we do pray for our Cesar’s, we don’t comply with their spirit.  Many of our greatest saints rejected the popular wave of Christianity after the edict of Milan and fled to the deserts of Africa, Asia, and (later) the wilderness of Europe and Siberia.  Those who didn’t flee aided and spoke up for the downtrodden, rejected the excesses of their society, and pointed to the examples in the Egyptian and Northern Thebaid on how best to follow Christ.   Indeed, St. Herman and other missionaries to Alaska stood up for the rights of the natives against Russian colonial exploiters and oppressors.  To this day, Natives there choose and respect Orthodoxy over Protestantism and Catholicism because of their example.

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St. Anthony was shown all of the traps the Devil had spread all over the world.  He groaned and asked what could get through them all.  Then, a voice came to him and said, “Humility” (2).  It is not so much that conservatives have to become liberals or vice-versa.  But, we have to approach one another and the issues of our country with this all-powerful virtue.  Solutions will not be easy.  But, with humility and God’s grace, we can solve our problems.  Without it, we can only expect to continue with this destructive vicious circle we are in and for it to get worse.

  1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs. 129, 130
  2. Desert Fathers, pg. 2

A Home for White Nationalist?

An African-American Orthodox Christian shared this article with me; “How the Orthodox Christianity Became the Spiritual Home of White Nationalism” (http://religiondispatches.org/how-orthodox-christianity-became-the-spiritual-home-of-white-nationalism/?platform=hootsuite). Much of the writing focused on the example of Matthew Heimbach, who was excommunicated by the Antiochian Orthodox Church for his racist activities. The author does mention that this action “means that he is technically unable to receivesacraments in any canonical Orthodox church” and that he may or may not have sympathy from a Romanian priest. Other than a generalization of “alt-right” thugs displaying Orthodox symbols on the web, she does not name anyone else or any other American movement except Heimbach. Combined with an incident of a priest in Corinth blessing an office of the Greek Neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” and the Russian nationalist fervor among Christians and supporters of Vladimir Putin, it would seem that the Orthodox Church has opened its arms to white nationalist. No doubt, there is a problem of white nationalism in the Church. But, from my experiences and what I see as an African-American Orthodox Christian, I think that the “alt-right” has some major obstacles to overcome if they are to make the Church their spiritual home.

First of all is the fact that Orthodox Christianity owes much of its spiritual wisdom to non-European people. It is hard to find any monk or nun that does not refer to the “desert fathers” of Egypt. St. Anthony the Great was a native Egyptian (according to St. Athanasius) and is widely regarded as the father of monasticism. Many monasteries are organized in a structure formed by St. Pachomius who lived in Upper Egypt where the residents are certainly not of Nordic stock. St. John Cassian, who brought monasticism to many places in Western Europe was heavily influenced by such monks including St. Moses the Ethiopian (also known today as “the Strong, Robber, and Black). Prayers from St. Macarius are found in many prayer books, including the widely used “Jordanville” prayer book of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Going back to St. Athanasius, he is credited to be a lead spokesman at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and put together the list of 27 books that would be canonized as the New Testament. Even that canonization was done in the African city of Carthage. As nationalistic as Russian Orthodox Christians may seem, some of their most influential writers such as Sts. Ignatius Brianchaninov, John of Kronstadt, and Theophan the Recluse point back to these African saints. The works of American orthodox heroes Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Seraphim Rose also point back to this source of wisdom. Sure, a white nationalist may embrace the double –eagle and the idea of a holy dynasty. But, anyone who seriously studies where the great spiritual masters of the church came from will have to face the fact that they were not European.

Then, there is the mission of the Church, the spread of the Gospel and making disciples of all nations (as Jesus taught in Matthew 28). The apostles did not stay in Judea. They went through out the known world. Barnabas and Paul, the first missionaries, were ancient Middle Eastern Jews and were ordained in a Syrian city in part by two black clergymen (Acts 13:1). These brown skinned people brought the faith to the darkest of Africans and the palest Europeans. Had it not been for the Muslim invasions, Africa beyond Ethiopia would have been evangelized centuries ago. The Russians had spread the Church into China, Japan, and their Alaska territory not as a means of dominance and conquest. They did so because they believed and the Church teaches that the Gospel is for all people. If a white nationalist becomes Orthodox, he will have to justify his racial supremacy with the call of Christ and the history of the first believers.

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Finally, the modern Orthodox Church has been making much better efforts in evangelizing to minority groups than in decades past. Up until the mass conversion of evangelicals into the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1987, very few “whites” were converting to Orthodoxy. That event was a sign to America that the Orthodox Church was for anyone who would “come and see.”  The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, a fellowship committed to spreading the faith to African-Americans, was inspired by the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina CA over 20 years ago. The internet broadcaster, Ancient Faith Radio has featured lectures from the Ancient Faith Afro-American Conferences since the 1990’s. Several bishops and well known priest have by voice and action expressed their support of minorities coming into the Orthodox Church.

Am I saying that Orthodox Christianity has no white nationalist and people with “alt-right” tendencies within our walls? I wish I could. When I posted a part of my conversion story on my blog, I had one person declare that I could not be black and Orthodox at the same time. There are some parishes who try to send minority inquirers somewhere else. There are some African-Americans who love the history and spirituality of this ancient faith. But, they have been put off by Orthodox clergy and laity that refuse to extend a hand of friendship and an unwillingness to find common ground on political and social issues. I am sorry to confess that in some places across the country and around the world that the Orthodox Church is a haven for bigots.

But, I know that is not the whole story. There is a Greek parish that has taken the time to offer the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with its weekly Compline (nightly) prayers before Bible Study. An Orthodox Church of America bishop and priest are working to bring a predominately African-American congregation into that jurisdiction. A Serbian parish has served as a model for helping to bring social services to poor inner city neighborhoods to create a “village” atmosphere where there was racial division. One white person left a parish when an icon of St. Mary of Egypt was being venerated.  He wanted nothing to do with any saint that didn’t look like him.  I have seen and participated in too many instances of racial brotherhood in the Eastern Orthodox Church to let a few toxic people keep me from practicing the faith of my ancient African, Middle Eastern, and European fathers & mothers. With the multicultural history and spirituality of the Church and the jurisdictional leaders reaching out to minority communities, white nationalist cannot remain comfortable in Eastern Orthodoxy for long. Those who do are being superficial and should not be taken as model examples of who we are.

Reconciliation: Ambassadors of the Greater Kingdom

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Tomorrow is the end of the road (I hope) to the most contentious presidential campaign of my lifetime.  Many things have already been said about both of the major party candidates, the question of why third parties are not given an equal public platform, and how some groups will respond if the results do not go their way.  I have already determined that I’ll go to work, return home for a while, and go back to St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday, November 9th.  We are continuing with the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with our Compline Prayers followed by Bible Study.  While I am at it, I want to thank Fr. Milton and my good brothers & sisters at St. Demetrios for committing to this fellowship.

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In such a political hurricane as we are experiencing, we Christians of all stripes tend to forget where our true citizenship belongs. …

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Reconciliation: Consistency over Complacency

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Recently, the VABSMB and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church have started praying Compline and the Canon of Racial Reconciliation on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm.  A half hour of prayer is not the same as getting out in the streets to protest, or lobbying a legislature.  While no town is perfect, Williamsburg’s racial climate is milder than many other places in the state and nation.

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But, our town does have the oldest history of class and race divisions in the nation.  English colonist committed genocide against local native people about a decade before the first African indentured servants arrived in nearby Jamestown.  After two failed insurrections, the remaining Powhatan tribes were removed from the Virginia Peninsula in 1645.  Twenty to thirty years later, the colonial government made laws restricting the mobility of free blacks and establishing chattel slavery based on skin color.  Between the end of Reconstruction up until the…

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