Month: February 2014

Contemplating Confession

No,  I didn’t rob a bank, pick up a hooker, or stab anyone.  No, it is none of your business exactly what I am guilty of.  But, I am a sinner and I did sin.  The medication for this sickness is confession and repentance.  In Orthodox Christianity, there is a process of coming forward to the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child beside the priest in the presence of the church.

It is a bit intimidating of a process.  Granted, with the chanting going on and speaking in a low voice with the priest, no one can hear your business.  Only when the priest declares absolution does anyone hear anything during the sacrament and even then nothing is disclosed about what was done.  Plus, the early fathers never demanded that everyone confess every sin in the church beside the priest before attending Divine Liturgy.  There may (and probably should) be a spiritually reliable person in one’s life to confess to.  Father does not need to hear every time you took an ink pen from work, drove over the speed limit, or fantasized over the new office intern.  We don’t believe anyone should beat up themselves over every sin.  Confession and repentance is an on-going process that we should be experiencing in our daily spiritual disciplines.  A daily and frequent seeking of God’s mercy and salvation from evil should and must be pursued and is enough to absolve us from sin if done in sincerity.

But, there are some things we do because of severity, frequency, and the potential danger that going before God during Vespers, Matins, or completely in private with the priest is advisable for the sake of our souls.  Such a confession can be the first act of recovery from an addiction or prevention of a bad situation from becoming worse.  In some cases, it may be a preparation for one to confess to legal authorities and prepare for civil consequences.  While such things as 12 step programs, anger management, and the like may be useful and effective in correcting outward behavior, sin is the illness of the soul and only the blessing of forgiveness from God can correct it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)

There was a time when I would have deemed such a practice as unnecessary.  But, when I think about it, Protestants sometimes have similar practices of confession.  At altar calls people can ask the preacher to pray for forgiveness.  Certainly, a pastor keeps an open door and heart to anyone to confess privately.  Many churches advocate prayer partners and spiritual mentors where one can go to when they can’t reach the pastor, or feel more comfortable spilling their guts with than with the pastor.  And all Christians are encouraged to repent of sins in private as part of their daily prayers.  So, why should anyone go before an icon, beside a priest, in a prayer service, and confess sins?  Let me briefly name three:

  1. The ordained priesthood has the ability to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit and succession by the resurrected Christ and his Apostles (John 20:22,23).
  2. Confession is essential for repentance and cleansing from sin (Mark 1:4,5).
  3. We are a community of people who seek to live anew, not just individuals seeking personal salvation (Matthew 3:5).

I am called to be the salt of the earth.  If I lose my savor to my sins, I am useless.  I am called to be the light of the world.  If I hide under the basket of my failures, I cannot fulfill my purpose to share the True Light (Matthew 5:13-16).    I pray and believe that confession will heal my wounded soul, give me the ability to heal those whom I have harmed, strengthen my Christian journey, and unite me even closer with my fellow believers and humanity as a whole.

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Revolution Calling

I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth.  But, now I see the pay-offs everywhere I look.  Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?

Revolution Calling  Queensryche

So, let’s see.  The world and every agenda of it has given me a new lie to swallow.  I remember the Twana Brawley fiasco and how that propelled Al Sharpton to the national spotlight.  The football player turned war hero Pat Tillman who was shot not by the enemy in a fire fight, but by a fellow soldier.  How one girl from West Virginia refused to go along with the exaggerations of her heroism and another’s death was ruled a suicide when even Stevie Wonder could see by the evidence she was raped and murdered.  And now, I find out that the Matthew Shepherd case that had Americans thinking about homophobia and its victims was spun in a way to make him the poster child for gay hate crimes though other factors, namely drug abuse, were involved in his death.  There are plenty of other true stories that any cause could highlight for the sake of their agendas.  But, the media’s and society’s thirst for exaggeration and falsehood has obscured truth so much that many people have become calloused to one another.  A change in politics does little or no good as both those on the left and the right have proven to be liars with no sense of remorse.  Conservatism, liberalism, and even moderation are all failing and have failed our nation and humanity.

Monastic Contemplation

Anthony did well to go into an African desert to devote his life to prayer.  Seraphim of Sarov did likewise in the forest of Russia.  It was the the Son of God and the evangelist John that taught us to renounce the world ant its ways.  Perhaps if I were single and had no debts to repay, St Catherine’s, Valaam, or even Holy Cross would be good places for me to live the rest of my years.  But, total monasticism is not my calling.

Again, I started this blog as an extension of my second life character, an Orthodox monk.  In real life, I have done the unthinkable in leaving a stable Baptist pastorate to convert to the Church.  I think I should consider and commit myself even more to the faith and spend even more time in reading and studying the scriptures, desert and early church fathers, and other elements in Orthodox doctrine and practice to deepen my faith.  This world offers little truth and no hope.  There is a greater kingdom than this one.  Achieving the greater kingdom must be my ultimate goal.  I still have a job to do, a wife to love and take care of, and hobbies.  But, the kingdom of God and His righteousness is the highest goal and of greatest importance to me.

And I must do this with a sense of love and laughter.  Whenever I express my challenges and difficulties, my priest always reminds me to laugh at myself (and I give me plenty of material to do that).  I can’t be so hardcore about working out my salvation in fear and trembling to forget that (1) Jesus took care of much of the process by conquering death by His death and (2) everyone I see is an icon of God.  Thus, in my revolt against the world and it’s ways, I am called to express compassion, joy, and hope as well as to be humble, sober minded, and serious about the things of God.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  — Matthew 5:16

Industrialized Christian Music: Not Much Better

Before I even thought of looking at Orthodoxy, I had issues with Contemporary Christian and Gospel Music.  To be fair, in a world of Justin Biebers, Li’l Waynes, and other horrible examples in secular music, just about anything with religious lyrics sounds like a good option.  But, I think we ought to be very cautious about blindly surrendering to the industry that proclaims the faith for the sake of profit.

Does profanity make a comedian funny?  Not really.  Too many of them bombard the audience with such language for shock value.  But when one carefully listens to their material, it is very weak.  The same holds true for many Christian and Gospel artist.  Sure, they may say the name “Jesus” four hundred times and repeat favorite verses of scripture.  But, investigating the lyrics and backgrounds of the songs and the theology behind them has no sense of depth and sometimes can be very heretical.  For a time, there were songs based around the prayer of Jabez.  This one obscure prayer had nothing to do with self denial, bearing burdens, aiding the afflicted, or any other principle Jesus taught.  The prayer was only about a suffering man who wanted God to give him the blessings of the earth.  Too often, Christianity is being used as a supernatural good luck charm rather than a means of altering one’s sinful state to live as the spiritual person God made him to be.  This and other songs like it contribute to the delinquency of faith even if the prayer is in the Bible.  Satan himself tried to use scripture to tempt Jesus.  Our Lord rejected the abuse of scripture.  We should also beware of falling for such traps.

Well crafted furniture is made by people who truly care to make the very best product every time at a profit as much as possible and at a loss if they must.  That is artisan-ship.  Today, the making of furniture is dominated by industry which is solely profit driven and will use the cheapest means to make the most profit.  Thus, often tables and chairs are made of sawdust and glue rather than solid wood.  I fear that too often, the Contemporary Christian and Gospel music industry is much like the secular music industries of all genres.  Today’s music, secular and sacred, is often prefabricated to a sound that is commonly heard and is marketed solely for profit without a care nor concern for artistic creativity.  This is the reason why I rarely listen to secular radio.  If Christian radio is doing the same thing, “in the name of Jesus,” why should I embrace it?  That is like voting based on race or political party rather than the character of the individual and what that person stands for and has accomplished.  If I don’t do that with my politics and friendships, I refuse to do that with the music I listen to.  It is especially dangerous to do this with religion as it becomes corrupted with the standards of earthly gain rather than the pursuit of holy living.

There was a time when Mahalia Jackson and Bill Gathier used to sing simply for the glory of God and could care less how many people came out to hear them.  Now there is competition for Grammy Awards and other Christian and Gospel music trophies?  Artist won’t perform unless they receive very high fees up front?  I don’t have an issue with compensating a professional musician of any genre.  But, too many are in the industry more for the love of money and less for the love of God.  Jesus taught us that you can’t have it both ways.  As  well, the Christian and Gospel artist have a bad habit of bandwagon jumping on any musical trend that happens to be making a profit in the secular world and jumping off of it when the trend has run it’s course.  While there is nothing wrong with Christians embracing the best that a culture has to offer, to just pick up on any and everything to make a profit in Jesus name reduces God the creator to god the xerox machine.

Independent artist of all stripes should strive for creativity and artistic honesty.  To the kid with the guitar, Bible, and note pad who writes after his prayer time, to the choir that preserves songs of faith born out of sorrow with no thought of making it big but to express their faith to those who will listen, I will applaud.  But, the secular recording industry has done much to cheapen music as an art form.  For Christians to simply follow suit with crosses and scripture does not impress me.

 

Visiting An Orthodox Church: What To Know Before You Go

Chances are, your first experience in visiting an Orthodox Church will not be like visiting just another Protestant denomination or non-denominational church.  This One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is pre-denominational and has traditions that go back to the Apostles themselves.  I recommend that you speak with a friend or priest before you make your first visit that will help guide you in exploring the faith.  But, there are a few quick things to know before you go for the first time:

Tom, Jon, Orlando, and Ian hanging out at the Conference.

Tom, Jon, Orlando, and Ian hanging out at the Conference.

  1. You need not carry your Bible = It was funny.  I was the only one with a Bible when I started attending Orthodox worship.  For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Bible.  After the Biblical canon was accepted in 398 AD, it isn’t like they were sold at the local book shops.  The epistle and Gospel is read each day and the Psalms are prayed before the Divine Liturgy.  So, the Bible is a part of the worship.
  2. Late and on time for Divine Liturgy = If you are on time for Liturgy, there is already worship going on.  Orthros or Matins is a series of prayers offered before the Liturgy.  The priest reads the Gospel, hears confessions, begins preparing the Eucharist.  Chanters, readers, and sub deacons offer prayers and psalms.  There is no break between the morning prayers and morning worship.
  3. Let us stand aright … and for most of the service = There were no pews in ancient Christianity. One was to stand in the presence of God, not kick back and relax for the singing and sermon.  Visitors and members are welcome to make use of the pews and seats that are provided.
  4. The priest is not sitting down on the pulpit = Nah, he isn’t in that cushioned chair (or 2 piece love seat combo in some non-denominational contemporary churches).  He is standing behind this wall of pictures, walking around with burning incense, holding up the Gospel Book and a cross.  The worship is the Divine Liturgy.  Liturgy means work of the people.  If the congregation has to stand up, so does the priest.
  5. The sermon is over already? = While a 20-30 minute three points and a “whoop” is a standard (especially for African-Americans) in Protestant churches, Orthodoxy is all together different.  Most homilies are 15 minutes or less.  Inspiration must be found in the words of the message and not in the style of the messenger.
  6. Looking at the pictures = Good.  That’s why the icons are there.  We worship with all of our senses including vision.  Looking at pictures of Jesus, Mary, and the other holy images can help keep your focus on God instead of the upcoming sporting event or last night’s TV show.
  7. Crossing theology = No, we don’t do it fore good luck.  We worship God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (thumb and first two fingers held together).  Jesus was fully human and divine (last two fingers together in the palm).  He came down from heaven (head) to earth (chest) we confess him as Lord as the thief on the right side of the cross (start from the right) and we follow him (move to the left).
  8. No communion for you = Some priest will give you a blessing when you come forward.   We do share the Blessed Bread after the service with all who attend the Divine Liturgy.  A member may give you a piece of the bread during the service.  But, even though you may be baptized, born again, Holy Ghost filled, sanctified, and everything else, unless you have been catechized into the doctrine and chrismated as well as baptized in the name of the Trinity, you may not partake of the Eucharist.
  9. About Christian radio music = You can hear that on your own time.  Divine Liturgy has the traditional hymns and chants that go back a century or two.  In some parishes, there are beloved songs from Christian cultural traditions (a Negro Spiritual is not out of the question) other than Arabic Byzantine, Ethiopian, or Slavic.  But, contemporary Christian music does not make it into any part of Orthodox worship.
  10. No pressure = The priest will not “open the doors of the church.” Members will invite you to come again.  But, no one is going to hound you to become a member.  All we ask is that you take the time to learn about church history and the Orthodox faith.

Comfort With A Cost

Maybe I’m just odd. But, the same God-Man that said, “Come unto Me and I will give you rest … My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” is the same God-Man that said, “Whoever would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” I am glad that Russell Wilson is a Christian. But, let us always seek the whole depth of faith and not just settle for inspiring sound bites.

The quote from NFL champion quarterback Russell Wilson is a good one.  There are a lot of people in our nation and the world who are searching for hope, peace in mind, and comfort.  For a man who has worked hard to earn a college degree, practiced well in his chosen field, and performed to the highest level in his sport to acknowledge Jesus Christ rather than boast about his abilities alone is a good thing.  It is my prayer and belief that Russell’s words will encourage someone to seek the solution to his or her problems in the Christian faith.  Indeed, our Lord taught in Matthew 11:29

Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

And, as He taught his disciples in the same Gospel 28:20

… And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age

Indeed, Jesus offers comfort and constant presence to all who trust in him.

I saw this quote on the birthday of one of my heroes in the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich was a German theologian who’s work is known by many modern philosophers and seminarians.  While teaching at Union Theological in New York, he was offered the chance to immigrate and remain there, or perhaps go to another school.  But, he made the brave decision to return to his homeland and conspire to end the Hitler regime.  Bonhoeffer was discovered,  imprisoned, tortured, and executed not long before the Allies would have been able to free him.

This is also Black History Month and only a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Upon graduating from Boston University, some strongly suggested that he take up the pastorate at an integrated church in San Francisco, or find a large congregation in a Northern city.  But, he made the brave decision to return to the south and struggle against the Jim Crow system.  And though we lionize his memory today, back then blacks as well as whites opposed him at every step until the day he was assassinated in Memphis working on behalf of striking garbage men and planning a Poor People’s (not just a black people’s) Campaign.

While Jesus Christ is the source of comfort for and is constantly present with the believer, these things come with a cost.  And what is the price we must pay?  Again, from our Lord in Matthew 16:24

If any man desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

As shown in the lives of Bonhoeffer, King, and so many other martyrs; Christian faith comes with a price tag.  The most expensive part of that price tag, of course, is repentance from sin.  But the other costly price we are to pay is to be willing to suffer and die for the faith.  No, not every Christian is called to take a bullet or die in a concentration camp.  But, we should and must be prepared to lose ourselves for the greater promise of Christ.  For some of us, it may be close friends and family.  Others may have to lose careers and income.  Still others may have to lose opportunities for advancement in status or fame.  We are all called to bear a cross, an instrument to die a torturous death on.  Your cross may be living in a dangerous inner city community though you have the ability to live elsewhere.  It may be to endure a painful illness and still serve others even as you need to be served.  Or maybe you have the task of spending your whole life aiding people who not only cannot repay you, but act as if they aren’t supposed to.  Each self denial is different as is each cross.  But, to follow Jesus and fully experience His comfort and presence in our lives, this cost must be paid.

As we share the Gospel with others, let us be mindful as much as possible to tell the whole story of what it is to be Christian and not just the more pleasant aspects.  I believe that Russell Wilson does speak more in depth about the faith and that this quote on the photo was just a neat little sound-bite designed to inspire someone to seek hope in Jesus Christ.  We should inspire.  But, we should also inform.

 

The First Month: Hit the Ground Running in a Spiritual Bond

It seems that from Day One of becoming a chrismated Orthodox Christian, I have been busy.  First of all, the services have kept me going.  I was chrismated on the day of our Theophany services.  The second Sunday was the blessing of the waters.  Last Sunday was the visit from Bishop Thomas.  My new brothers and sisters have suggested that I consider teaching an adult Sunday school class and taking up chanting (that is a thought).  A couple have even asked me about the priesthood being somewhere in my future (I ain’t even thinking about that yet).   In between all of this, I have put together a solid website/blog for the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  In my personal journey, I wake up at 4 am to read and take notes from the Early Church Fathers on top  of my pre-prayers and Matins as well as being more observant of the Hours.

Fr. James Purdie giving a children's sermon.

Fr. James Purdie giving a children’s sermon.

Actually, the adjustment has not been rough at all.  I do miss my brothers and sisters at Trinity Baptist Church.  My elders loved me like a son.  I was a big brother even to those who were a few years older than myself.  People in the community still find it odd that my car is no longer in the church yard on Sunday mornings.  Except for the Ethiopian families, I am the only black person in a predominately white church of a Middle Eastern rooted church.

The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy

The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy

But, I think it is because we are such a motley crew of people that I fit in at St. Basil.  I think one of the unique things about coming to such a church is that we all are bringing different stories to the table.  And the thing that brings us all together is the common union of faith in Jesus Christ.  Maybe I am weird (no … wait).  But, I think there is something incredibly spiritually unifying in taking the Eucharist from the same cup.  We aren’t all squeemish about that spoon being in someone else’s mouth before ours and vice-versa.  Because we are not just taking any old bread and wine.  We are taking the Body and Blood of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  The bread was made by someone in the church and proper sealed as holy and we all partake of it.  We kiss the same cross, icon, and hand of the priest.  So, we have a spiritual bond with each other.  With that spiritual bond established, social bonds follow suit.  Maybe closer with some than others.  But, that is how friendships go in any part of human society.  The point is not the things that separate us, but the One that brought and brings us together that matters.