A Deeper Freedom

 

Both sides on America’s political divide love to talk about freedom.  There are constitutional concerns such as the right to bear arms or to marry a partner of the same-sex.  There is the fear of being killed Islamic terrorist or racist policemen.  We sing in our national anthem that we are, “The land of the free,” and in a hymn of our Civil War, “let us die to make men free.”  In my morning spiritual readings, I have found that there is a greater freedom that we ought to be striving for and that is being woefully ignored in today’s political climate.

In the writings attributed to St. Anthony the Great:  Regard as free not those whose status makes the outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.  For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked or dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions.  Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things.  (Philokalia vol. 1, On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life #18).  Rather than dwell on the words of America’s founding fathers, it would serve us Christians well to measure our level of freedom based on the teaching of this desert father.

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True freedom is in our character and conduct.  Character is how we think, speak, and act when people aren’t around to see us.  Anyone can work at having a good reputation; putting on a front of good moral behavior in public while willingly keeping a wicked private life.  But, we serve a God who knows our innermost parts.  He knows when we sell ourselves to indulging in self-indulgence, greed, hate, arrogance, and other sinful ways in our thoughts.  He knows the difference between a man who seeks to be transformed by the renewing of his mind toward His will (Romans 12:2) and those who are like whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside, but are full of decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).  Even if one is able to fool some of the people some of the time and perhaps all of the people all of the time, no one can fool God.

True freedom consist of purity and detachment from transitory things.  Our Lord taught that we are not corrupted by the things outside of us, but by the things inside of us (Matthew 15:10-20) and that we should clean the filth inside of us so that our outsides would also be clean (Matt. 23:25).  But, we surround ourselves with various advertisements and entertainments which stimulate our passions of anger, greed, and sensuality.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a good job, home, and a secure life for self and family.  But, when this “American Dream” takes precedence over seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), these earthly goals are corrupted by our non-transformed inward passions.  With his spiritual priorities and pursuits in order, a man in the worst poverty with the lowest paying job lives in a greater sense of peace than the elite and wealthy who may have a good reputation with a sinful character.

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul (Matt. 16:26)?  This is the lesson that those who so vehemently argue from the left and right forget in the pursuit of freedom in this country in this political climate.  Having a sociopolitical point of view can be of value as both conservatism and liberalism are as necessary for a nation as a left and right-wing are needed for a bird to fly.  But, if we are not first and more so concerned with the pursuit of freedom of our souls, there can never be peace in mind for us as individuals nor as a nation.  Neither of the major political parties, third parties, well-financed lobbyist, nor street demonstrators can give us freedom of the soul.  This is a gift given by God by those who diligently and humbly seek Him.

My Wife Came Home

Desert Fathers Dispatch

When I decided to leave the Baptist church and convert to Orthodoxy, my wife was understandably concerned. First, there was the loss of income we would suffer as I would be leaving my pastoral salary.  I would have to be Orthodox for at least five years to be considered for ordination to the priesthood and even that isn’t guaranteed to anyone.  She was more concerned about me forcing her to join a church that we were not accustomed to.  We barely knew any white people who were Orthodox and there were none in our small southern town.  The worship was completely different.  To have to adjust to new styles of church decor (the Baptist are very iconoclastic), preaching, singing, status (we would no longer be pastor and first lady); Brenda found the change quite overwhelming.  I assured her that she could remain Baptist if she wished and could call anyone…

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Beyond Bathrooms

So, this whole transgender bathroom issue is the big issue in sexuality and society these days. Please forgive me for not giving too much thought to this.  Usually when I go to a public toilet, I could care less what the other guy is doing.  I am there to do my business, wash my hands, and leave.  If a transgender male feels uncomfortable standing at a urinal, I doubt if anyone is going to harass him for sitting in a stall.  I don’t even know of any lesbian who would want to stand at a urinal.  As far as pervert rapist fronting to be Trans to go in women’s restrooms to attack women and girls, there are children of either sex being raped in public restrooms even without this new transgender bathroom thing.

Actually, there is a far bigger issue of sexuality in America that no one wants to talk about because we are all, in some way or another, guilty of it. Jesus put it down like this:  “Whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28).  Lust is the exploitation of another person for one’s own gratification with or without the consent of the person being lusted after.  It is a mental form of sexual abuse.  When the abuse goes from the mental to the physical, we call it sexual assault or rape.  If the objectified person does consent to the act, she becomes nothing but a plaything for the abuser as he is seeking his own pleasure only regardless of her experience.  Even in marriage, if the husband and wife aren’t approaching each other for the sake of expressing their love and loyalty for each other but solely for their own gratification in spite of the experience of the partner, that is not lovemaking.

We are a nation of mental rapist with a society which encourages us to objectify the opposite sex for our own gratification. This is quite obvious in pornography where young women are persuaded (if not forced) to surrender their bodies to very degrading sex acts.  It is said that male performers also feel cheapened by the things they get paid to do and both frequently abuse drugs in an attempt to ease their consciences.  In some reports, the porn industry generates more money in this nation than all of the major sports leagues combined.

But, Satan needs not to drag us all into the world of hardcore pornography to turn us into mental rapist. Our society is so saturated with sexual images that we barely blink an eye at them.  There was a time when the Sports Illustrated “swimsuit” issue was nothing more than a couple of pages of a young woman somewhere in-between an article about Mean Joe Green and baseball’s spring training.  Now it is its own separate issue with the model photographed so suggestively that it magazine has to be covered on the news stand.  Nearly every sit-com has sexual jokes and situations.  Victoria’s Secrets has well-advertised television specials.  And women are encouraged to dress and feel “sexy.”  Men are also objectified as bare chested and muscular visions for the female appetite.

While we are outraged by men who rape and women who seduce young boys to have sex with them, we think little or nothing about the way we objectify one another. Yet this mental sexual abuse is a core reason of why so many of us fail to establish and maintain platonic friendships with the opposite sex and keep marriages from falling into divorce.  We are not considering that man or woman as a being made in the image of God.  We are only thinking about how we want them to please our desires.  While we Christians are good at declaring the surface level standard of the male-female marriage, we make way too many excuses too often for our lusting of one another.  Not only are we silent against a business like “Hooters,” we accept their money for our churches and will patronize them because, “they have really good hot wings.”  It is no wonder then that the homosexuals feel that they can establish and maintain relationships just as good (or poorly) as we do.  It is no wonder that impressionable teens and pre-teens are confused about how they want to be known sexually.  Fighting against transgender restrooms, worthy as the fight may be is a mere surface solution to a surface problem.  Unless we Christians get serious about repenting of our own mental raping of one another, the transgender and other challenges to the heterosexual standard will not disappear.  Indeed, more destructive ones will arise.

So, yeah, Pres. Obama and the LGBT have gone too far with this bathroom thing. Yeah, there are conservative Christians who have pulled some silly stunts to protest against it.  This issue is a symptom of our society’s sickness of mental rape.  And rape is the use of another person’s body for the sake of our own gratification regardless of the will of the other.  There is no quick fix for this deeper sickness.  We all will have to be repentant and transform our desires from selfish lust to selfless compassion.  Instead of hiding behind the cross, let’s try carrying it for the sake of healing what is really wrong with us.

A Lesson From Great Lent

Satan approached Abba Macarius and began to beat him.  Seeing his attacks were of no avail, he left the saint.  Before leaving, the adversary said, “I do everything you do and more.  You fast; I don’t eat.  You keep all night vigils; I don’t sleep.  There is one thing in you that I cannot overcome.  That is humility.”    From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  Therefor God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name, …   Philippians 2:5-11

The only way to truly be an Orthodox Christian is to practice the faith in humility.  When we fail to be humble, we make ourselves vulnerable to being defeated by temptations and living in ways that are the very opposite of what we proclaim to believe.  When we are careful to practice humility, God’s grace empowers us to overcome the enemy of our souls.  We make our souls even more pure so that we can see God active in us and others.  And even if we fall into temptation, that empowerment calls us to repent quickly and not dwell in our wickedness.

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Macarius the Great

This Lenten Fast has been a reminder of the necessity of humility in being an Orthodox Christian.  Sure, we can talk about how we have maintained the traditions of Christ and His Apostles, determined the original Christian doctrine and the books of the Bible, and the whole nine yards.  I had been comparing Baptist and Orthodox doctrine and practice for over a year before my conversion and am still fully convinced that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church.  But, if we become arrogant or complacent about our faith, we do nothing more than just go through the motions.  When the motions become empty rituals, Satan is able to maintain his foothold in our hearts and minds.  He can even introduce new and more destructive sins into our being.

In her podcast “Search the Scriptures,” Dr. Jeanie Constantinou began this season by tackling the issue of corrupt clergy (yes, we have them in Orthodoxy as well).  In the opening episode, she tells of one priest that was defrocked for having an adulterous affair.  The affair was going on for 20 years.  My statement of how Eastern Europeans were not involved in American slavery in my “To Be Black and Orthodox” blog article attracted comments from a couple of people of Roma (Gypsy) ancestry.  They told me of how Orthodox Christians in Romania held Roma slaves for hundreds of years.  Some sources even mention that there were Roma slaves in monasteries.  I didn’t enter Orthodoxy blindly and knew that there were many sinful people and nations in it are past and present.  These revelations did sadden and surprise me.  Historians, psychologist, and other minds in the faith more experienced than my own have greater insights to these and other issues.  However, I believe lack of humility in following the Orthodox faith is a contributing cause in individual and church failures.

In his original podcast, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” Fr. Andrew Damick stated, “When the hand that holds the cross also holds the sword, much is risked.”   While the cross is a symbol of death to this world that leads to eternal life through Christ, the sword is a tool of earthly and immediate power.  When humility dictates our faith, we take up the cross and deny ourselves the selfish pleasures of this world (whether consensual or exploitive).  This is how we truly follow Jesus, as He taught in Matthew 16:24-27 .  Without humility, we become enemies to Christ as were the Pharisees.  That sword we use to attack or defend against worldly foes for the sake of earthly advantage is the same one we unwittingly use to cut ourselves away from the very One we claim to follow and His other-worldly kingdom.  To practice the Orthodox faith in this way is hypocritical and makes us targets for critics and eternal captivity.  As written in Isaiah 52:5 and repeated in Romans 2:24, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  As the skull of a pagan priest told St. Macarius, “Those who know God but denied Him are down below us.”

It is good that we have and made the effort to read the scriptures for the season and some other spiritual writings for our growth.  Perhaps some of us have added to or made a change in our prayer rule that make us seem more complete.  These things are good and (by the Holy Spirt and good counsel) can be carried with us beyond Great Lent.  But, let’s not deceive ourselves.  Satan is not only concerned by what we practice.  He is also concerned with how we practice.  Ten prostrations with Jesus Prayers in humility is a powerful breastplate that his fiery darts cannot penetrate.  One hundred of these done for the sake of boasting to one’s self or others creates a mere empty room that a demon can return to and bring in seven more worse than himself.

As I reflect on my times of failure, I believe some were caused by my lack of humility.  My readings, prayers, and almsgiving have all increased.  I was blessed to write a few good essays for my classes as well as on my blogs. Except for receiving hospitality from non-Orthodox believers, I kept the fast well.  But, I have had my moments where I thought that I was “the man.”  God allowed me to fall on my face to remind me that I still have much to learn.  As I think about the path God may be leading me on, I can see where I will be destroyed if I am not careful to strive to grow in humility.  While I believe I have learned this lesson, chances are that I will, at some time or other, have to be reminded of this.  Satan will have plenty of opportunities to tempt me with arrogance, pride, and self esteem.  If I have any sense in my head, I will be watchful.  Pray for me, a sinner.

 

To Be Black and Orthodox: Part of my story

I have a friend who is considering becoming an Orthodox Christian.  She is African-American and is concerned that by joining the Orthodox Church that she would be turning her back on black culture.  While she likes everything about the ancient faith, she notices the lack of Negro spirituals and the preaching style of the church we grew up in.  Also, except for me, I am the only native black American in the parish.  While she is used to being the only black in some circles in her upbringing, that she would be a little more comfortable making the same plunge that I did if she saw more of us in the same pool.  How is it possible to maintain a strong black identity in this white church?

As I have written in a previous article, the Orthodox Church is the white church that is not.  Much of its spirituality comes from the teachings of the Desert Fathers of the Nile Valley.  It is not uncommon for Eastern European monks and nuns to trace their ascetic practices back to St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Moses of Ethiopia.  St. Athanasius, who was described by his rivals as a black dwarf, is the acknowledged hero of the First Ecumenical Council which underlined the true doctrine of the pre-existence of Jesus Christ.  This saint would go on to be Bishop of Alexandria and all Africa and compile the books of the New Testament in 367 AD and the New Testament was officially canonized in a conference in Carthage 30 years later.  Almost no White Anglo-Saxon Protestant church in this country would admit to such things.  What saddens me is that very few, if any, African-American Protestant churches teach these things on a regular basis.

Also, the whites from Eastern Europe had nothing to do with the chattel slavery of our ancestors nor established the Jim Crow laws.  Greeks and Serbs were slaves to the Ottoman Turks up until the early 1800’s.  Russian monks defended the humanity and rights of Native Alaskans and helped push for the liberation of serfs (semi-slaves) in their own nation.  Arabs, Lebanese, and Syrians do not consider themselves to be white.  As for the Egyptians and Ethiopians, they certainly aren’t white.  Thus, for a black American to become an Orthodox Christian is to join a universal body of believers that are not defined by Thomas Jefferson’s assumed white supremacy and Finis Dake’s Biblical misinterpretations of black “inferiority.”

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Me with St. Cyprian of Carthage (© John Gresham)

Being an Orthodox Christian, I see myself as transcending America’s ignorant defining wall of race and embracing the ancient sense of being both black and Christian.  In my icon corner, I have Cyprian of Carthage, Moses the Ethiopian, John the Dwarf and other heralded saints of Africa.  As well, I have a dark skinned Theotokos and Christ that was written in the Slavic tradition and the Kursk-Root Icon of the Theotokos which is one of the holiest images of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The pale skinned Christ Pantocrator at the top of my corner is the 6th century icon from Africa’s Sinai Peninsula.  But, there is an Ethiopian icon of the Nativity beside it.  I reject the American tradition of iconoclasm as it lends itself to white supremacy.  I fully embrace the Orthodox tradition of iconography as ours is the faith of all peoples from the very beginning. Of course, my Baptist upbringing is against “graven images” on biblical grounds.  But, Orthodoxy Christianity also uses the bible to support the use of these “windows into heaven.”  And the very first Orthodox Church I attended, St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond, I saw full sized icons of black saints and saw “white” people going up to, bowing before, and kissing them.  Who’s interpretation should I trust; that of the ones who defended legal segregation and still maintains it by custom? Or, the multi-racial church leaders who came together in the eighth century who defined the proper place and use of holy images in the life of the Christian who knew no reason for skin color prejudice?

Being Orthodox, I am opposing the American Protestantism which ignores the history and wisdom of the African saints.  Why should I not pray the words of St. Macarius the Great when Serbian school children have them in their prayer books?  Why should I not seek guidance in the wisdom of St. Pachomius when Russian monks in West Virginia embrace the very lifestyle he taught?  Oh don’t get me wrong; I honor my mother and father, rely on the strength of Harriet Tubman and David Walker, enjoy traditional black spiritual music, and have nothing against the Black Lives Matter fight against police brutality.  But, any faith that teaches me that the African Saints don’t matter is a faith that does not teach black people the fullness of who they are in the eyes of God.  The Orthodox maintain this Christian fullness with that of other holy men and women from Europe and the Near East.  Fathers Seraphim Rose and Alexander Schmemann (two pillars of the Orthodox Church in the United States) frequently referred back to desert fathers in the formation of Christian worship and spiritual discipline as well as the monks of Mt. Athos or Valaam Monastery.  Even in those hallowed places of contemplation, the African saints are highly revered.  I see no reason why I shouldn’t follow suit.

Do I miss the form and style of African-American preaching?  Sometimes I do.  But, style without substance and sincerity is wasted.  You take Dr. CAW Clarke, one of the greatest black preachers from back in the day.  That man could “whoop” a sermon from the invocation to the benediction.  But, his style was born out of the intense suffering of our people during the Jim Crow era that he lived in.  Clark didn’t just “whoop,” but gave a lot of spiritual truth to his listeners.  Too many preachers try to imitate his style not because of shared suffering, but out of the idea giving people what they like to hear.  The same is true with the delivery style of Gardner C. Taylor (my biggest preaching influence).  His slow and deliberate rise to a rousing crescendo of a shout was a reflection of the pain we suffer in this world rising to the hope and victory in the life of Christ.  He did this with a theological mind second to none.  While racism is still alive and well in this country, most black Christians have little or no idea what it is to have suffered like our parents and grandparents.  We have lost the sense of humble suffering and reliance on God that they had as we are often too quick to protest the very slightest insult against us.  Thank God the days of Jim Crow are (well, mostly) gone.  But, without the sense of humble suffering and reliance on God for deliverance from this world and personal sin, our best Clarke and Gardner styles are mere mockeries.

Sadder still is the fact that so many black preachers today aren’t even trying to emulate these classic ministers.  Way too often, modern preaching is dictated by whatever seems popular on “Christian” television.  The mannerisms and styles of whatever preacher is amassing a great number of followers and generating the largest income is the patter that is being pedaled as “anointed preaching.”  There is a great reliance on “Christianized” secular slogans to excite people to a point that some of the same things heard in a Friday or Saturday night dance club can be heard in a Sunday Morning sermon.  “Turn around three times and give a ‘high five’ to your neighbor.”  “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party ’cause a Holy Ghost party don’t stop.”  If the old mothers of the Baptist church I grew up in could rise from the grave and hear this sort of preaching, a lot of ministers would be getting whippings!

The same is true for black religious music.  Our slave ancestors didn’t have the luxury of pianos.  They clapped, stomped, and perhaps played a drum.  The songs they made came out of a faith born in struggle with both the outer demons that oppressed them and the inner demons of sin.  During segregation, that same sense of music made in a faith born out of struggle carried over on pianos and in some cases, other instruments (at least one branch of black Pentecostalism had horns).  Contemporary Gospel, like that in white American Christian circles, is nothing more than a Christian label thrown on the secular music forms.  What is heard on a Rhythm & Blues radio station is no different than the Gospel station.  Some of the “liturgical dance” performed even in the morning worship in some churches is the same as seen in dance clubs.  Instead of the church being a thermostat of Godly change in the souls of black Christians, it is too often a thermometer going along with whatever is going on for the sake of being “relevant” and keeping young folk in the church.  Sadly enough, one of the reasons why youth and young adults leave and aren’t very active in the church (black or white) is that secular music and dance is a lot more professionally done and done with more talent than the entertainment that is in church.

I recognize the best of my African-American Christian heritage.  Among my treasured icons of the saints are photos of people who contributed greatly to my spiritual development.  My cousin Oppielee, Deacon Louise Kersey, was known for her godly wisdom and love for others.  Alex and Zechariah Jones were uncles I never knew but were known as no-nonsense deacons at St. John’s Baptist Church.  Deacon H. L. Mays was my shop teacher and a well-loved example of Christian manhood.  My mentor in ministry and grandfather in law, Rev. Carter Wicks, took my narrow behind under his wing when it came to being a preacher and pastor.  I am ever mindful of the road they paved for and the legacy they left me as I pray before them and the other icons every morning and evening.  I kept the name I was given at birth when I was Chrismated into the Church out of respect for the two men whose legacy I will carry unto death.  My Uncle John R. Thompson was a United States Marine when blacks weren’t supposed to be good enough to be Marines.  After serving our nation in WWII, Johnny was known as a giving man who extended a hand of friendship to anyone who needed one.  My father, John Robert, Sr., quietly broke color barriers as his aptitude test scores for AT&T technical trainees were among the highest in his entry class.  Today, he is one of the most respected deacons in King William County for his wisdom and community service.  I wasn’t asked to change my upbringing to become an Orthodox Christian.  I didn’t.

But, my father also taught me not to follow what everyone else was doing for the sake of being like everyone else.  So, I stand on his shoulders and those of Uncle Johnny.  I am rooted in the faith of Dr. Clarke and Deacon Oppeliee.  But, I have taken my African-American identity to the table where Moses the Black speaks with John Chrysostom.  I stand with Ephrem the Syrian and Cyprian of Carthage.  I take from the chalice of Ireland’s Patrick and Egypt’s Mary.  Just as Malcolm X urged black Americans to look beyond the struggle of national Civil Rights and bring our struggles into the realm of worldwide human rights, I have brought my faith to the older and broader Church.  I pray my friend will see this and, in God’s time and way, come home to Orthodoxy.  I pray others will do likewise.

The Trap of Little Sins

I have a little print-paper icon of St. Moses of Ethiopia that I use as a bookmark.  It is currently in use as I read My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt as part of my bedroom prayer rule.  On the icon are these words from the African monastic,

Even in little sins, let us force ourselves and not become lazy for truly we have forgiveness of sins

From the Russian priest, I found these words on page 58,

Most men not only bear Satan’s burden willingly in their hearts, but they become so accustomed to it that they often do not feel it, and even imperceptibly increase it

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It is not hard for us to wake up and repent of our “big” sins.  We are quick to be offended, saddened, or feel some other emotion when an obvious act of immorality has been committed.  If our vision along our spiritual journey goes no further than what can readily be seen, then Satan has blinded us.  As long as we aren’t observant that we don’t fall for the “minor” temptations and make excuses for us committing them, the evil one is allowing us to rot from the inside.  He is often waiting for the rot to set in so deeply that when faced with a major temptation, we will fall quite easily and not realize how we could do such a thing.

Oh, it is a little thing for a man to “check out” a shapely woman every now and then and consider it harmless.  Yet, our Lord taught us better;

But, I say to you, if a man looks upon a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:28)

In many cases of child molestation and rape it is not unusual for law enforcement to find the perpetrator had a pornography habit.  Affairs and fornication begin with the eyes and the mind long before the sexual organs are involved.  And rather than confront a son’s (or daughter’s, I suppose) lengthy times in the restroom or alone online, even Christian parents resign themselves to the phrase, “boys will be boys.”  The perpetual laziness in not being watchful against and embracing lust is the cause of men and women failing at relationships as we don’t know how to relate to one another as beings who pursue purity of heart.  Even as we pursue our “soul mates,” lust stains our souls so that we wouldn’t know the “right one” unless an archangel actually pointed him (or her) out.  And even if we do find a good spouse, those little sins left unchecked and well fed are able to rot the best of marriages.

Murder can begin with unchecked anger, theft with envy, hate with pride; every “big” sin begins with a “little” sin, or a series of “little” sins.  Care must be taken that we search them out within ourselves in times of contemplation and prayer.  We who seek God cannot afford to accept the worldly excuses for them.  They must not be tolerated in ourselves.  But, we must repent of them no matter how minor they may seem.

 

 

 

Open House of Prayer

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

On the first Sunday of December, 2013, I saddened and surprised many of you when I announced that I was leaving the Baptist pulpit and Protestant Christianity.  To make the shock even more unbelievable, I converted to Orthodox Christianity; a faith that very few whites were exposed to, far fewer we blacks.  The dust has long settled and most of you are at peace knowing that I am still a devout Christian.  Perhaps you have some questions about my beliefs and practices.  Perhaps you wanted to ask, but wasn’t sure how to catch up with me.  I am offering you a chance to converse, visit, and pray with me.

On Tuesdays, you are welcome to observe and pray with me as I observe my Vespers prayer rule at 6 pm.  It is a simple order of prayer based on the Gospels and Psalms.  After the prayer, you are welcome to ask whatever you wish and have a bowl of whatever I have in my crock pot (if it is chili, I promise not to make it too spicy).  At 7 pm I will offer prayers from the Canon for Racial Reconciliation and the Prayer for Africa’s Children in America by the black abolitionist Maria Stewart.  This is a great opportunity to talk about the issues that separate people in our society, what problems we have in our own town, and what can be done to improve our own back yard.

If you wish to take me up on this offer, please call text, or e-mail me.   I can also be contacted via Facebook.

Christ is in our midst.  He is and ever shall be.

John R. Gresham, Jr.

Lay Chanter, St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church, Hampton

President, VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of Saint Moses the Black

National Secretary, Brotherhood of Saint Moses the Black

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Preparing for the Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Sonny of Rollins: A Model for Ministry

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

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

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

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

Sonny in thought

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

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

St. Moses the Black

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

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

Fr. Seraphim Rose

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

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

Chief Among Sinners?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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