Month: April 2013

Journey into Great Lent (Day 29): The Journey Worth Taking

It’s almost over.  Then again, it isn’t.  Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week.  Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter).  Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?).  Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough).  I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline.  No more self-denial!  YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!

Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Icon of Palm Sunday

No, wait … .  I am sorry.  But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast.  These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength.  I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast.  The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure.  It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline. 

Then again, the journey is not over.  And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism.  There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord.  Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent.  Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion.  In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God?  Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent?  Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety?  Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world.  Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should. 

Without prayer, fasting is just dieting.  This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations.  Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained.  We are to be awed to be in God’s presence.  As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion).  As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours).  In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God.  The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year.  The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well.  Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year.  We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). 

To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday.  I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting.     But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon.  And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills.  But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods.  Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer.   I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking.  I won’t turn back.

 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day 24): Overcoming Despondency

Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not

But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant

Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages.  Amen

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The Path I Trod  (© John Gresham/DCR)

The Path I Trod (© John Gresham/DCR)

This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect.  I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat.  Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far.  But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use.  While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).

I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency.  My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident.  Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house.  My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage.  But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away.  So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do.  Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk.  But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife.  Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas. 

So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins.  Prayer and constructive labor.  Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency.  The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring  monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor.    I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*.  When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden.  He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time.  In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything.  The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.

I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut.  Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles.  I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want.  And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again.  Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:

Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.   (Matthew 6:31-33)

After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought).  As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent.  Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues.  “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another.  And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised.  But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey. 

*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think).  Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).  I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died. 

 

Bay Trails Outfiters: Memory Eternal

Journey into Great Lent (Day 21): A Debt of Gratitude
I am sorry for not writing something more profoundly religious. But, I have been ignoring my original blog for way too long. I am sure one of the great church fathers or mothers suggest that saying, “Thank You,” is a good thing to do.

Baystride Images Journal

There wasn’t a kayak yard like it anywhere.  Yeah, you could pick up one from big box chain store from some high school kid that thinks a blade is something to shave with.   And I know of one dealer with a great reputation and mind boggling selection.  But, the shop isn’t located where customers aren’t free to try before they buy.  This yard was located on a small cove of an expansive salt marsh giving rookie paddlers a calm place to learn new skills and veteran kayakers access to the Chesapeake Bay.  The owners also lead guided tours in a few choice locations in their water encircled county.  A simple red barn with a zillion fiddler crabs scurrying around roto-molded plastic and Kevlar composite hulls ready and waiting for adventures.  This was Bay Trails Outfitters.

 

 

There was nowhere else I was going to buy my first kayak.  The owner, Shawn Towne…

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Journey Into Great Lent (Day Sixteen): Reasons To Continue

I can think of a few good reasons to quit the fast of Great Lent and leave Orthodox Christianity alone.  For one thing, I like to eat meat and dairy.  Whenever we Baptist get together for a meal between morning and evening services, you had better believe fried chicken in some form or fashion will be on the menu ( Why did the chicken cross the road?  Two preachers had a pan of biscuits.).  In the African-American Baptist Church, there is a movement to have a good time in worship with a focus on the emotions stirred up by the singing and preaching in our worship.  In fact, we are willing to take on secular music styles to draw people into worship.  No matter how much we are taught otherwise, we preachers frequently judge ourselves and others based on congregational response (AMEN) and will construct sermons with phrases and buzz words that will encourage such responses.  Right  now, I believe my church is at the edge of what could be a revival in our worship.  Our usher’s ministry has been blessed with the return of well-trained leadership.  The youth choir has new sponsors and directors who have volunteered their services.  We have two young adult men (in which there is a shortage of in many rural black churches) and their wives that have become more active in the work of the church.  These elements are combined with reliable, seasoned adults who consistently work to get things done.  So, why do I wish to continue to introduce elements of an archaic, bookish, ritualistic, and “dead” (they don’t get in the spirit like we do) church that most white people aren’t trying to learn about?  Why am I still striving to follow the disciplines and study the doctrines and writings of Orthodoxy when only one other preacher that I know of from any race also shows an interest?  Here are a few reasons.

The Holy Cross

  1. HISTORY- If it is important to learn and be aware of American and African-American History, why shouldn’t we also embrace the roots of the Christian faith?  Had there been no Athanasius, Catherine, nor Cyprian; there may not have been a Richard Allen, Charles Mason, or MLK.  Also saints like Basil, Ephraim, and Gregory (Palamas and the Theologian) served in a world where the color of one’s skin truly meant little in the sight of fellow Christians.  Having knowledge of Orthodoxy can help us see the fullness of our humanity and the possibility of racial reconciliation. 
  2. SPIRITUALITY- Having a good time on Sunday morning is no substitute for a sustained life of prayer and fasting through the week.  We need to have access to the time-tested prayers to help direct our communication with the Lord.  Words from the saints enhance what we read in the scriptures.  Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is a great way to keep us mindful of our Savior’s betrayal and crucifixion, to help us be mindful of what we do, say, and think. 
  3. CULTURAL AWARENESS – Many Americans are illiterate when it comes to geography and different cultures.  The Orthodox Christian faith can open doors of learning for us.  Arabs, Copts, Ethiopians, Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and others are all a part of this church.  Likewise we can introduce them to our culture beyond the stereotypes of BET and Tyler Perry. 
  4. REVERENCE – I love the smell of incense, gazing at the iconostasis, and listening to Byzantine chant.  I can’t see us having these things at Trinity the third weekend after next.  But, to experience a divine liturgy is a beautiful thing.  While icon veneration is an obvious challenge to most of us (bow down and kiss a picture of MARY?!).  When the theology is explained and understood, it makes perfect BIBLICAL sense (they put the Bible together, so they should know what they are doing).  Oh, and the priest prepares the communion with bread baked from a believer.  It does not come pre-packaged in plastic and foil.  Even if we don’t adopt divine liturgy, we can always learn about reverence for God in worship. 
  5. COMMUNITY DIVERSITY – Too many smaller elements of black culture are being overshadowed by are very narrow and stereotypical definition of who we are (when was the last time you heard zydeco music on your local r&b radio station?).  There are too many instances were we say that someone isn’t “black enough” or is “trying to be white.”  We enrich and add to the African-American community when we are bold enough to expand our boundaries of our possibilities that older generations sacrificed their lives for us to have.  Just ask the world’s number one golfer or that family that lives in the White House.

So, will Trinity Baptist Church become Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church (maybe OCA)?!  Don’t bet on it.  Will I leave the Baptist denomination and seek to become a priest?  I’m not even worthy to day- dream about such a move.  It is way too early for such questions.  I haven’t even completed my first Paschal cycle.  The only thing I can do is continue on this journey and give my church family a glimpse of what I am going through and learning about.  In time, God will make my direction more clear to me.  Right now, I am to be faithful disciple.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Eleven): Confession and Concerns

Okay, let me first begin with my confession.  With the knowledge of my spiritual father, I did break the fast to celebrate Easter with my family.  Since I am still a Baptist among a deeply Baptist family (my ancestors helped establish churches in King William and Mathews Counties), Father James didn’t have a problem with it as long as I didn’t overindulge.  I did okay for the main meal.  But, cheesecake is a downfall for me.  I hope next year the Gregorian and Julian calendars will be in sync for Easter/Pascha.  Even still, I have no excuse for eating desert with no discipline.  Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.

I am greatly concerned for Louisville player Kevin Ware.  I was watching the first half of the game with my Duke HATING relatives (I am the only Duke fan on either side of my family) and saw when his leg collapsed underneath of him as he was coming down from trying to block a shot.  Looking at the score, one would not know that the Cardinals was without a key player.  Congratulations to them on a very prideful win and may Mr. Ware make a full and swift recovery.

My greater concern is for the sake of a lost sense of spiritual devotion in the Baptist Church.  I remember when Deacon Joseph D. Gresham used to wake up early every first Sunday of the month and cut slices of white bread into little squares for communion.  He also had this bottle with a little bubble pump contraption that used to put the right amount of grape juice into the cups.  I didn’t know Deaconess Mariah Berkley.  But, I understand she used to make the communion wine (yes, it was real) for St. John’s Baptist.  Members could taste it when she used too much or too little sugar.  Years ago, the deacons and deconesses put care, detail, and love into preparing the Lord’s Supper.

While I can understand that with large congregations, the quest for convenience may be a necessity.  But, I can’t help but to wonder about those pre-filled and foil sealed communion cups with the plastic wrapped wafers on top.  What was once a task of loving responsibility has turned into a convenience industry.  What if our faith were to turn into such a communion?  Shall the cups of our faith be filled by cold machines, or by loving saints who are able to guide us along the way as we journey together in the Lord?  Can the bread of life be a tasteless and useless disc, or shall it be the full leavened bread that allows us to grow in His grace?  And if the care, detail, and love from the old days of preparing the Lord’s Supper are gone, how much more is the devotion of those who partake of and serve it?  “Oh John, you are just mad because Duke got their hind parts whipped and you are taking your frustrations out on the church that you are still a part of!  Get over it!”  Perhaps a plausible argument.  But, if given a choice between your mother’s made from scratch home cooked meals, or frozen dinners from the grocery store, which would you choose?  If given the choice of walking with the Lord with fellow devout seekers and a cloud of witnesses, or with the modern pre-fabrications that seek to make a profit, which would you choose?  If pre-packaged food is inferior to food cooked in love, how much more dangerous is pre-packaged faith?

St. Mary of Egypt taking her last Holy Communion

In whatever form of communion that is served in your church, please keep remembering the faith of the saints that have gone on before you who prepared, served, took the Lord’s Supper in reverence and love.   Elements may be pre-packaged from cold machinery.  But, true faith can never become plastic and foil.  Do not take these things in as pasteurized and preserved grape juice and a flavorless disc.  Do take in the bread from heaven and the wine that gives life to mankind. 

‘Take, eat, this is My body. …   This is My blood …’   (Mark 14:22, 24)