DEVELOPING A PRAYER RULE: BECOMING THEOLOGIANS

“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.  And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”  Evagrios the Solitary

We pray not to instruct or inform God, but to be intimate with Him.”

St. John Chrysostom

“In the Orthodox Tradition, one can be a theologian and mentally retarded.”

Fr. Andrew Damick,from Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (1st Edition)

Not everyone can become an academic or scholarly theologian.  I do not say this to insult anyone’s intellect.  Much is said for desire and effort in achieving goals.  However, the demands of a seminary curriculum, reading volumes from ancient and modern scholars, writing almost endless papers defending conclusions based on history, scripture, and other topics; it is a special calling to be that sort of theologian. 

Theology literally means, “The study of God.”  If we are made in His image and likeness, does knowing Him require admission in a divinity school costing tens of thousands of dollars so that we can become members of the ordained clergy?  For those who feel called to some form of vocational ministry, yes.

Alix B. James Chapel at VA Union University (© John Gresham)

 However, God has always made Himself known to rather simple people with limited resources and little time for academic regimens.  Moses was a murderer with a speech impediment.  Gideon was a frightened farm boy.  The shepherds near Bethlehem were not the great scholars of Judea.  The Apostle Paul, who was a scholar, did not preach with fine words.  He only preached Christ and Him crucified (I Corinthians 2:1, 2).  Therefore, the way for every person to know God is not some complex and expensive degree program.  It is something as simple as a maintained prayer rule.

I heard a story of an illiterate Greek man who went into a church every morning greeting Jesus and asking Him for strength for the day’s work.  Every evening he went back to the church on his way home to greet the Lord again and thank Him for the day.  He did this in good times and bad times until he couldn’t work anymore and was placed in a nursing home.  A nurse was concerned for his seemingly lack of visitors.  However, he explained to a priest that Christ came to him every morning and evening encouraging him to be patient.  In time, the man told the priest, “Christ came to me and said He would take me to heaven in three days.”  On the third day as the priest was visiting, the man sat up and said, “Christ is here!”  That was his last breath.

Monk in prayer

I think every Christian culture has stories of ordinary people who, because of their regular prayers, had extraordinary peace in mind.  It is easy to dismiss slaves on a plantation or blacks in the Jim Crow South as being terrorized into submission.  However, many of those “old praying” mothers and fathers did not have a shred of fear in them.  God had given them a calm in the midst of their storms that even confounded their oppressors.  Such spirituality was the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement that sought reconciliation rather than revenge. 

Knowing God only takes a heart and mind willing to seek Him regularly.  This sort of theologian may never write a book or earn a degree.  That is not important.  The greater blessing is when his or her name is written in the Book of Life.  This is the calling and goal of all Christians. 

Developing a Prayer Rule: Measurement for a Pure Heart

“Without purity of heart, we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and should it ever happen for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once,  guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule.”  Saint Moses the Black

Saint Moses was a very dark skinned man who stood out from the lighter complexioned Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans around Alexandria.  Thus, he was called the Ethiopian more because of his “burnt face” apperance rather than actually being from the specific African kingdom.  After being enslaved (as people of any “race” in the Roman Empire was), Moses became a heralded monk known for great forgiveness and humility.  He turned away a wealthy man who wanted to give him great wishes.  But, he welcomed and conversed an aspiring Christian from Gaul (modern day France) named John Cassian. 

Saint Moses the Black

It is easy to consider that having a pure heart is the pursuit of monks and nuns as we read this account in the Philokalia Vol. 1 (On the Holy Fathers of Sketis an on Discrimination).  However, Jesus Christ gave us this promise in the Sermon on the Mount:  “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8).  We all have the responsibility to rid our inner selves of anger, lust, pride and other sins that keep us from experiencing God’s presence in our lives.  Visiting a monk in the desert is a tall order.  Becoming a monastic is not something that most of us are called to. 

Developing and maintaining a prayer rule is a practical means anyone can use to cleanse the heart.  We can ask the Lord to examine our hearts in our times of silence.  We can repent even (and especially) of our “minor” sins and learn watchfulness to avoid temptations. Reading scripture and writings of early Christians  can encourage us to develop such virtues as endurance, hospitality, love, and patience.  Purifying the heart is not only a process of taking away spiritually toxic thought and behavior.  We must also inject ourselves with things healthy for the soul. 

Needless to say, prayer has to be more than presenting the Lord with petitions out of love.  Prayer is also be a time for us to challenge ourselves to grow in God’s grace and leaving sin behind. 

Developing A Prayer Rule: Pray As You Can

“If you cannot pray ceaselessly, pray frequently”  St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

There is no substitute for following a rule of prayer.  The Nativity Fast has come to an end and we (new calendar) Orthodox Christians begin 12 days of feasting the birth of Christ.  It will be a struggle for me not to gorge on meats and dairy products after refraining from them for 40 days.  Gluttony is one of my worst habits.  However, I was blessed to learn how to strengthen my weakness in Compline (evening) prayers.  I also picked up a quirky habit to pray at the 9th Hour (about 3 pm).  The fast has been good to me.

The Apostle Paul taught us to pray without ceasing in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.  The constant prayer of the Church was behind Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5).  There are stories of saints who were so focused on their union with God that nothing distracted them.  Not only monks and nuns, some deeply religious person in our families may have achieved states of holy ecstasy that seem biblical.

But, how many of us can spend hours in worship every day?  Moreover, even when we have time beyond our Sunday morning routine, what about the other days of the week?  Even those who do not attend church on a regular basis call on the Lord in a time of crisis.  Praying ceaselessly is a tall order for monastics, much more those of us who live in society.    

Archpriest and educator Fr. Thomas Hopko advised people to “pray as you can, not as you think you should.”  Chances are, we are able to carve out a few minutes to give to God to start the day.  Saying a prayer before bed is not a stretch for most of us.  These two places are perfect starting points.  Sometimes we are in a rush in the morning, or we crash in the bed as soon as we get home.  Maybe a quick lunchtime scripture is doable.  Exact time and words are not the most critical thing about keeping a rule.  What is critical is that we pray what and when we can on a regular basis.

From the one or two starting places, we can add times of prayer.  Praying the Hours is an admirable goal.  If, let us say, one is in traffic at 3 pm (Ninth Hour) it can be done either earlier or later.  There may be six passages of scripture with the Third Hour (9 am).  If it is not possible to read them all, read what fits in our time constraints.  There is no “one size fits all” prayer rule.  Find an experienced spiritual father or mother to help develop a rule with you.

Be consistent and seek to grow in prayer.

Of Desert Fathers & Maroons

Desert Fathers Dispatch

“Let us imitate our Fathers: The lived in this place with much austerity and peace.” Abba John the Eunuch, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers
“But some on’em would rather be shot than took, sir.” from A Desolate Place for a Defiant People

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The runaway slave was among the bravest of our African ancestors. Some had no sooner arrived in America that they fled to the nearest swamp not having any familiarity with the landscape. Others used whatever skills they acquired to help them escape. Yes, many were recaptured. But, others were successful making their way up to northern states and Canada. Others remained in southern swamps and built solid communities for generations. These were the grand maroons. And there were petit maroons who fled and hid until their “masters” agreed to better terms for their return.
In these days of political and racial division, there are African-Americans that…

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COVID-19 and Answering a Calling

Funny how just when you think you have things all mapped out, God changes stuff.  I have been blessed to work as the Education Support Specialist at York River State Park for over a decade now.  Because it is not a full time position, I can be a bit flexible with my hours and days.  My plan was to work at the park every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and all but one Saturday of the month.

To boost my income, I was blessed to work a little over a year for the Proclaiming Grace Outreach Thrift Spot.  Assisting with sorting through donated goods is not a glamour job.  But, the commute was a few minutes from home.  The overall mission of the organization was very good, I worked with some very nice people, and that $110+ a week was kinda nice.  My plan was to stay there on Tuesdays & Thursdays until God led me to something else.

And then there was the East End Beach Keeper’s Fellowship.  With the help of my Teen SOYO, we were able to get a name for ourselves with beach clean up along the urban shorelines of Newport News’s Anderson and King-Lincoln Park last fall.  Okay, I had to make money.  But, I figured and scheduled to have one Saturday a month to continue shoreline work and provide a watershed education experience for kids who didn’t get a chance to go to a state park.  I had contacts and was going to make necessary plans.

The COVID-19 shutdown in Virginia has taken my plans and used them like a handkerchief.  The EEBKF was put on hold as getting the church youth and young adults together couldn’t happen as everyone had to keep six feet apart and church services were reduced to only five people.  Getting together with NN Parks & Recreation wouldn’t happen anytime soon.  My job of educational programs at York River came to an end as well.  I have been reduced to working only three workdays a week and of those days, one would be spent working with maintenance and another collecting parking fees from park guests.  With no one making donations of clothing and other non food items to the Thrift Spot, my job there was put to an end.

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Yet, I can’t help but to feel excited about this time.  Now, I am forced to take on a ministry that I had been avoiding like a bad virus.  A couple of friends in the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black suggested that I start a podcast.  “John, you have the voice for it,” the said.  This was in 2016 and I had a ready excuse not to do it; “I haven’t finished the Antiochian House of Studies.”  Well, I earned my St. Stephen’s Certificate in Orthodox Theology in August of 2018.  “Now, John,” they asked.”  “Leave me alone,” I said.  “I’m not a member of the clergy.  Who wants to hear what I have to say?”  I was ordained Reverend Deacon by Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Archdiocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic.  “John, what are you waiting for now?”  “Dude, I still have to work two jobs.  I have to work six days a week.”  Well, thanks to COVID-19, time is no longer an excuse.

I threw something out on Facebook on April 12th just to test the waters.  The topic was being cautious and vigilance in the spiritual life.  I didn’t even bother putting it on YouTube, thinking that no one wanted to hear what I had to say.  The video had 179 views.  I had been trying to get a mere steady handfull of people to come to the West Point Library on a regluar basis to share the Orthodox faith with with no success.  But, 179 views with about 50 “likes;” I wanted to wait until after Holy Week before making another video.  April 25th is the feast day of St. Mark the Apostle and Evangelist.  This was the man who brought the Christian faith to Egypt and established the Church on the African continent that still exist today as the Greek Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Coptic Orthodox Church.  No other black preacher was going to tell anyone about St. Mark.  I had to do and did it on Facebook and YouTube.  Three hundred and fifty people saw the video.  There were 100 likes and it was shared 30 times!  I think I may have found my voice.

So, now my job is to make videos promoting the Orthodox Christian faith to African-Americans and anyone else who is willing to listen.  This is no easy job.  I must make sure that my words are historically accurate and spiritually in line with the 2,000 year old teachings of the Church.  My stuff can’t be some sort of “new revelation of a fresh birthing of the next level of God shifting His favor.”  Plus, my spiritual life must be on point as well.  Satan strikes even harder at those committed to do his will.  Unfortunately, I have my struggles with any demon any other man has.   Despite the challenges, I am ready to take on this task.

In 1987, I was turned down for an internship with an agribusiness firm.  One of my fraternity advisors, a Presbyterian pastor, walked with me a little ways to hear my troubles.  He asked me, “John, what did God call you to do?”  “He called me to preach,” I replied.  His words changed the course of my life.  “Perhaps you should pursue your calling first and let everything else fall in place.”  Come to think of it, someone else said something similar:  “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).  His advice was golden.  I never looked back then.  I doubt if I look back now.

The Wrong Violence Against the Wrong People

In my opinion, he is a monk who does violence to himself in everything

Abba Zacharias, Sayings of the Desert Fathers (1)

 

In the wake of the shootings in the church in Texas, I posed the question on my Facebook page; “What does it say about our society when we need good people with guns to protect ourselves from bad people with guns?”  I got some pretty interesting and compelling discussion from both sides of the gun control argument, statements about how our Christian ancestors were bold enough to be martyrs, the historical precedence of having armed guards in the temples in Constantinople.  Rather than to take a stand one way or the other, I chose to stay on the sidelines and think.

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The example of St. Moses quickly came to mind.  Vandals were about to attack his monastery and his followers wanted to take up arms and defend themselves.  The abbot forbade it knowing that he was a violent man before his conversion.  If it was God’s will for him to die by the sword as he once lived by it, so be it.  He and six of his unarmed men welcomed with love those who brought them to martyrdom (2).  Again, I came to this quick answer.  Which also could have drew a quick response as a church has women, children, and the elderly to consider rather than to be among devout monks willing to give such a sacrifice of faith.  The volunteer security guard certainly could not stand by and allow a slaughter of innocent life to happen in a church or anywhere else.  He did what had to be done with deadly efficiency.  Also, the killing of faithful people goes beyond the use of guns as with the incident of the Jews violently cut down by a man with a machete.  The deeper problem isn’t so much the weapon or the place it is used or the people it is used on.  The problem is the form of violence and who it is not used on.

The well-known Macarius the Great came to Zacharias asking him, “What is the work of the monk?”  In the answer given by the old man intrigues me, the monk is one who does violence to himself in everything.  I doubt that he meant such things as self-cutting, or other means of harming his body.  The monk engages in a spiritual violence against his own passions.  He commits himself to constant and ceaseless prayer, reading scripture and holy reading as possible, manual labor, fasting, and other means of watchfulness against his slightest sin.  And when he does fall to a temptation, that he is quick to confess and repent of it to continue a life of virtuous living.  This is the sort of violence the monk inflicts on himself to gain the kingdom of heaven.

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Does the Bible and other fathers support such a concept?  Consider the ascetic life of John the Baptizer and Forerunner of our Lord.  Jesus considers no man born of a woman holier than he and, “from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:11, 12)While there are other interpretations of this scripture, the editors of the Orthodox Study Bible include the opinion of John Chrysostom, the violent who take the kingdom by force are those who have such earnest desire for Christ that they let nothing stand between themselves and faith in Him (3).  Had the instigator in that Texas church been devoted to this sort of violence, if everyone who came to church were committed to such violence, armed and unarmed security would be unnecessary.

Unfortunately, our society has been infected with a different violence to be inflicted on others.  Our history and culture in America celebrates the good guy overcoming the bad guy with fist, guns, and any other weapon needed to get the job done.  If the bad guy has done some particular evil deed, we want overwhelming force used for the sake of vengeance and to set an example for other would be enemies not to do the same or they will face a similar result.  Fortunately, the volunteer armed security provider used only one bullet and did nothing more to the victim who had taken two lives himself.

I believe the greater responsibility is for us believers to be violent against ourselves as individuals.  We cannot all become monastics and even then not all monks and nuns need to live to the extremes of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  Even some modern holy men and women pushed the envelope beyond most of our means.  Blessed John Maximovich was known for sleeping only a few hours a day in a chair or on the floor at his icon corner (4).

There are steps we can take to inflict suffering on ourselves for the sake of our souls.  Eating smaller and fewer portions of food, drinking less alcohol, cutting out some time spent on engaging in social media and eliminating some time in front of the TV.  Instead of these things, we can spend more time reading the scriptures and other religious books, examine ourselves more closely and repenting of those “little” sins which often lead us to “big” sins.  We can shore up our own rules of prayer where we are weak and be more watchful of our thoughts as well as our words and deeds.  And if it means that we develop some sort of habit that the world calls, “quirky,” but brings us closer to God, if it seems that we are depriving ourselves according to the standards of society because we are focused on entering another kingdom, if others denounce us as extreme in our pursuit of holy living, so be it.  Of course, I recommend that we consult our priest, spiritual father or mother to stay on an even keel.

st moses 2

If we all must have armed security at our churches, may they be highly trained and act in all prudence and care as only to use the amount of prevention that is necessary.  My opinion is that we need no weapon in the house of worship other than the cross.  Both sides of the coin have valid arguments.  However, let us all stop making excuses for our sins and go beyond our comfortable behaviors for the sake of becoming one with God.

 

Notes:

  1. Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward (translation), pg. 67
  2. Prolouge of Ohrid, St. Nikolai of Ohrid and Zhicha, pg. 259
  3. Orthodox Study Bible, commentary notes, pg. 1287
  4. Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, Hieromonk Damascene,       pg. 209

2019 St. Moses Conference: The Broader Scope of the Ancient Faith

Desert Fathers Dispatch

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It never ceases to amaze me how the Ancient Faith & Afro-American Conference brings us all together.  So many of us have now been a part of these Brotherhood gatherings that we have made the event a family reunion and homecoming combined.  It is the only time when one can see an African-American priest of a Serbian parish serve a Divine Liturgy with a subdeacon who was born in India.  This is where a white Hieromonk from California sings the praises of a 1950’s black spiritual singer  and serves the Divine Liturgy with a priest from the Alexandrian Patriarchate.  Instead of the typical Greek or Russian festival, the Brotherhood of St. Moses is the motley crew of Orthodox Christianity in America.

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Yes, there is a highlight on the African-American Christian experience and how it relates to Orthodox Christianity. That is the point of our existence.  Yet, we are far from…

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East End Beach Keepers Fellowship:  Prayer and Practice before Preaching

A Beach Keeper's Journal

The next shoreline clean-up date for the Beach Fellowship will be Saturday, October 12th at Anderson Beach.  We will begin at 9:00 a.m. with the Third Hour Prayer.  From 9:30 to 11:45 is litter collection time.  We’ll end at 12 noon with Sixth Hour Prayer.  The prayers are Orthodox Christian and optional for anyone participating with us.

East End Beach Keepers Fellowship clean up oct flyer

You’d think that with 17 years of pastoral experience and over 20 years as a licensed and ordained Baptist minister (before my conversion), that I would be ready to set up a pulpit and preach the word.  I am in no hurry.  This Fellowship is not a sedgeway into some non-denominational church plant.  If a church is to develop from this, it will be Orthodox.  That will take God’s blessing (unless He builds the house, it will fall).  And if is His will, we must follow proper procedures and protocols.  And if one…

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Dormition Fast: What Am I Waiting For?

I was blessed to preach the Gospel last Sunday, July 28th and focused on the need to be in the presence of Christ. I got my traditional Baptist preacher three points across and called it a day.  Our clergy and laity thought it was a good homily and appreciate my public speaking ability.  All was successful, glory and praise be to God.

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Yet, a couple of items on Facebook woke me up to the fact that I still haven’t quite moved, or am not moving as I should from my paralysis. Yesterday, an article from the Orthodox website Pravmir described how St Timon and generations of Middle Eastern Christians (I am in the Antiochian Archdiocese) have taken that Gospel message to rise up and walk to love their neighbors despite the brutal persecutions they have gone and still go through.  Not an hour later, Fr. Barnabas Powell posted, “‘Your sins are forgiven’ – Jesus Christ.   So, what’s your excuse now?”

In a way, I haven’t quite been sitting on my spiritual butt. I have been reading a passage from The Art of Prayer once, and sometimes, twice a day and done a couple of other things to add to my prayer rule in the mornings.  I even chant in Byzantine tones during the first, third, sixth, and (when I’m not rushing to leave work) ninth hours.  My walk is not perfect.  But, by God’s grace, there has been some growth.

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I think a post from a friend and seminary classmate may have hit the nail on the head, “‘Whoever desires to eliminate future tribulations must bear the present tribulations with joy’ – St. Mark the Ascetic.”  I bear a good deal of bitterness and discouragement with my struggles.  Finances, health issues, my wife’s health, car and home repairs; like everyone else, I have a grocery list of trouble and woe.  When we let our problems overshadow our recognition of God’s presence, they distract us from spiritual growth and, often, lead us into sin.  I have forgotten this way too many times.

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So, I’m using this year’s Dormition Fast to better identify and struggle against crippling attitudes and inactions. Along with following the Church’s dietary restrictions, I’ll be tweaking some things in my prayer rule and, perhaps, pick up a book to help me along the way.  Actually doing something outside of my normal comfort zone is in the cards as well.  Where the Holy Spirit leads, I will follow.

The Loss of Gentleness

Isaiah prophesied that the Christ would not break crushed reeds or quench smoking flax (1). True to the forecast, Jesus was the personification of compassion.  Prostitutes, tax collectors, the mentally and physically ill, widows: they all found mercy in their encounters with the Lord.  He even prayed forgiveness for those who were killing Him (2).  Only the temple money changers felt the sting of His wrath (3).  Other than that, Jesus Christ was gentle in this world as there was a greater one that He would rule over.

Unfortunately, many of us have missed this characteristic of the Lord. Threats and violence are commonly used by individuals, groups, and nations to impose their will on others.  And where a physical attack does not happen, grudges and ill feelings are held against those whose ideas and ideals do not match our own.  Sadly, gentleness in the heart and mind can be scarce.

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This failure can be traced back to Cain and Abel (4). Cain was greatly discouraged when he saw that the Lord rejected his sacrifice of earthly fruits while accepting Abel’s gift of his first lambs and rich meats.  God pointed out the elder brother’s sin and told him to be patient for his time to rule over the younger.  It was bad enough that Cain’s sacrifice fell short of righteousness.  But, his bitterness, impatience, and lack of repentance put him on a path to kill his own flesh and blood.  Abel is murdered and Cain wanders far away from Eden’s peace.

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Perhaps these are reasons why we kill each other with attitudes and words and well as weapons. It is easy to get discouraged when things don’t go as we planned.  When this happens, we fail to take the opportunity to see where we went wrong and change our thoughts and behavior.  Rather than repent and wait for our situation to improve, we hold on to grudges and ill feelings.  This turns to a deep anger where we are willing to kill our own flesh and blood. People are killed.  Even when murder and warfare haven’t occurred, our animosity creates a threat to true peace where violence can happen.

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There is a way above the physical and mental cruelties of this world. St. Justin Popovich offers these words:  Oh my eyes, look through (man) him and above him to the One who is All-Good and All-Gentle. Goodness and gentleness, this is life for me, this is immortality, this is eternity.  Without goodness and gentleness, life is hell (5).  We Christians are called to show the world the better means of existence through love and mercy toward others and repentance for our own sins.  When in God’s presence, we must be humble,  commit to change our thoughts and actions, and wait on Him to make a way for us.  Thoughts, threats and violence only put us in a downward spiral of death and fear.  Our risen Savior wants us to rise with Him.