Month: July 2014

The Arabic Letter “Nun”

When the ISIS were about to complete their genocide of the Christians of Mosul in the past few days, they put this mark on the walls of the homes of the Christians — to mark them out for plunder and death. This is the letter “Nun” (ن), the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet (the equivalent of letter N in our Roman alphabet), the first letter of the word Nasara (نصارى : Nazarenes).

nun-arabic-letter

Perhaps I shouldn’t be suggesting this as I have only recently converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, I have not let my lack of years in the faith (or lack of being a part of the Church) be a barrier to sharing my opinion.  But, with the recent events in Iraq, Palestine, and the Ukraine added to other persecutions and evidence of ignorance of our faith; I think “nun” should be adopted as a symbol of the Orthodox Christianity.

“Nun” has been spray-painted on the walls of homes that are to be looted and destroyed by the ISIS terrorist in Mosul and other Iraqi cities and towns.  This blatant use of a symbol to target people for genocide is no different than when the Nazis painted the Star of David on Jewish homes and shops in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s.  The Muslim world has always been oppressive to Christians.  However, there have always been some instances where the two faiths did co-exist in toleration of each other.  Under modern Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussien, Christians could enjoy some levels of freedom and even rise in government office.  But, the combination of American foreign policies and the rise of militant  Wahhabi Muslims has been detrimental to the survival of Christianity in the lands where our faith has existed for 2,000 years.

“Nun” indicates a home or shop owned by Nasara (نصارى : Nazarenes).  Well, was not our Lord from Nazareth?  Do we not wish to be known as His followers?  Jesus did warn the disciples that if the world hated Him, they would hate them as well.  Of the 12 (Mattias, of course, taking the place of Judas Iscariot), all but one was martyred and John the Evangelist died in exile.  Orthodox Christians are no strangers to horrible persecutions from the Jews and Romans in the early years, to successive waves of Islamic domination, to the more modern communist.  We have such a great cloud of witnesses, martyrs who’s names are well known to everyone from the Ethiopian highlands to the Siberian forest to those who will be killed by the time I finish this article.  Tertullian of Carthage taught that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  ISIS has put a new label on the seed of various Christians.  May we be worthy to wear it as well.

The blood of martyrs is being spilled in Palestine as well with the new war between Hamas and Zionist Israel.  The number of Christians in Palestine has steadily declined since 1948 and does so more rapidly as innocent civilians of the three great monotheistic religions are caught up in the crossfire of terrorism and war.  Of course no one supports Hamas launching rockets into Israel and killing civilians.  But, aren’t the lives of  Palestinian civilians, including Christians who have been in the land since 33 AD, just as valuable and worth protecting?  Shouldn’t the people of Gaza and the West Bank have control over their own natural resources and destiny?  Both Hamas and the Israelis are war criminals and our Christian brothers and sisters are paying a high price in blood and abandoning the places where our faith was born.  At least ISIS is kind enough to use spray paint to indicate who we are.

“Nun” should be a call for unity among eastern Christians.  Metropolitan Paul (Antiochian/Greek) and Mar Gregorios Yohanna (Syriac) are still missing in Syria.  Miriam Ibrahim (Ethiopian) was just released from Sudan after her horrible ordeal for standing up for her faith.   I am sure someone far more knowledgeable and scholarly can define the reasons why we are still separate from each other.  I wasn’t there at Chalcedon in 451 AD.  But here in 2014, I see more reasons for us to set aside some ancient barriers for a closer relationship, if not full unity.  ISIS could care less if someone is Antiochian or Syriac.  Zionist don’t care about what makes a Copt different from a Chaldean.  They kill us because we are Christians living in the Middle East.  We who live in the United States and other places should take the time to get to know one another.  On my way to my Antiochian Parish, there are two Greek Churches in Williamsburg and Newport News,  and two Coptic congregations and, I think, a recently formed OCA church in Hampton.  I confess that I don’t know the Copts and OCAs and I will make a point to correct that.

“Nun” should be a way to let our western Christian brothers and sisters know that we exist.  Too often, Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism is ignored as people buy the latest books from Joel Osteen or TD Jakes.  It is as if most Americans think Christianity completely disappeared from the Middle East after John wrote the Book of Revelation.  We have to help correct this mindset that ignores the faith that has a continued line of existence since the days of the apostles and gave the world the Christian canon (the Bible).  I don’t think a mere Arabic letter would cause 3,000 people in one city to become Orthodox believers.  But, we need to start some conversations and share our faith and point of view with others.

Note the T-shirt

In Mosul and other parts of Iraq, “Nun” is inspiring solidarity between Christians and their Muslim neighbors.  May we find ways to bring love and unity between us before we are forced to by bombs and gun barrels.

The Need To Read Something Deeper

During the first 300 years of Christianity, to be a member of the clergy or known as an unapologetic Christian was a sentence to torture and death.  Early believers read and followed any papyrus or scroll written by and about  these men and women  they could find.  After the persecutions ended under Constantine, Christians who were ready to renounce the world before wild beast did so in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and the Siberian forest.  Those who did not become monks and nuns sought their advice and were greatly influenced by their wisdom.  Despite disputes between them, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians (and early Roman Catholics) held the ancient monastic writings and early church fathers in the highest regard second only to the Bible.

Unfortunately, something changed during the magisterial and radical reformations as well as the revivalist movements in Western Christianity.  There arose this idea that earthly wealth and influence was a sign that God’s favor was upon one’s life.  While the early Baptist, Methodist, Church Of God In Christ and other denominations may have intended that their churches would be among the flourishing examples of this doctrine, this concept has landed in the hands of many freelance “non-denominational” clergy who use it and the name of Jesus to reap millions of dollars from people who are unknowing about Christian history.

What I find most frightening about this earthly wealth as evidence of God’s favor doctrine is that intelligent and well-meaning people have and are falling for this trap hook, line, and sinker.  They fall for it because the TV and radio stations blast the latest sermons and Gospel hits without any meditative and  self-sacrificial lessons from the more contemporary likes of Howard Thurman or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, much less from Ignatius of Antioch or Theophan the Recluse.  Books by well publicized inspirational authors dominate bookshelves at Barnes & Nobel and Wal-Mart where profits come before investigating the roots of Christian spirituality.   No one is telling modern Christians that there is a firmly grounded, tried and true alternative to “flavor of the month” Christian preachers and writers.

What makes this trend of adhering to those who promote such a doctrine is that it ultimately fails.  There are people who have been blaming themselves for not receiving their “breakthroughs” and “shifts” saying that they weren’t faithful enough or their “season” has not come yet.  Like rain and sunshine, God allows any person who works hard and smart to get rich or go broke.  Those who fail to receive the financial promises they have been seeking for years will give up on Christianity and become bitter.  Those who do become well off in the midst of such false doctrine will become arrogant and blind to what it is to become Christ like when called to “… Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”

Anthony and the Desert Fathers did what the rich young man failed to do.  And because these men and women renounced the world to devote themselves to a true and pure pursuit of God, they were and are greatly honored by Christians of many generations.  Church Fathers such as Basil and John Chrysostom did not enrich themselves in their leadership positions.  They built schools and hospitals and dressed just as modestly as a monk or reader.  The lessons of the Philokalia did not come from men who hustled for “seed offerings” to repair their private jets.  These were monks who ate little more than beans, bread, and vegetables.  None of them expected to become wealthy.  They were too busy obeying the requirements for following Christ, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me.”

Perhaps the latest book by the latest Christian preacher or inspirational speaker may have a good quote or two.  Snack foods do have a few bits of nutrition.  But, a healthy body is the time-tested result of good meals and exercise.  Our journey with Christ should also include the time-tested spiritual writings of the Bible and the writings of those who were of the atmosphere that the New Testament books were written and compiled.  How does one find such books in the midst of  a Trinity Broadcast Network dominated Christian environment?  It isn’t easy.  But, it is possible.

 

I personally recommend Fr. Athanasius Iskander’s “Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers” (it’s FREE) is a great introduction to some of the most enlightening men of the monastic world.  One need not be a church history buff to apply these ancient lessons to modern life.  The Fr’s name sake wrote a short volume “The Life of Saint Anthony,” the man who was the father of all monks and nuns.  “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” is a reader friendly introduction to the 38 volume set of the Early Church Fathers (which can be read by anyone online for FREE).  Orthodox Churches tend to maintain libraries as most public ones have little concerning church history and this ancient faith.  Roman Catholic sources are useful as they do point several sources older than 1054 AD (the date of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

To grow spiritually, we must not rely on recent authors alone as our source of Christian literature and teaching.  Take the time to discover ancient Christian writings and talk to a priest who is well versed in the early and monastic writings.

St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Transition: A New Metropolitan, Building, and Six Months In Orthodoxy

Not only have I made a major change from being Baptist to Orthodox.  Other major changes are under way now.  The change that affects all of us Antiochians is that of our new Metropolitan Joseph.  Metropolitan Philip (Memory Eternal) has left a tremendous legacy of church unification and expansion.  It is my prayer, and that of others, that our new Sayedna will let God lead him and use the gifts he has been granted with to lead our diocese for years to come.

His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph

In speaking of transitions, St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church  is now located at 1520 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666.  The building was a child care center located beside a Mormon Church and across the street from a United Methodist Church.  While I did get used to going to church in Poquoson, I think our new location will be better for evangelism and outreach as we are not far from the Mercury Blvd corridor.  Not to mention that I have two gift cards from Bass Pro Shops and there is a store less than 2 miles away!

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

Gutting and renovations will take time

Gutting and renovations will take time

We have a lot of work to do

We have a lot of work to do

Last Sunday, we held Divine Liturgy and a building sanctification in rather close quarters.  Over the coming days, weeks, and months; we will be taking out walls and putting in new ones.  A lot of mess will have to be gathered up and thrown away.  We are not hiring contractors (we don’t have that kind of money).  But, we are blessed to have people who are willing to work and have some brothers who actually know what they are doing.  As long as no one tries to put a paint brush in my hands, we will have a fine house of worship.  Compared to the churches around us, we will not look much like a religious building.  Perhaps we can put up one of those Russian style onion domes on top or something.

Fr. James with the holy water

Fr. James with the holy water

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Six months into Orthodoxy, I feel at home here.  On the surface, it would seem strange that a black ex-Baptist country preacher would feel welcomed in a white church.  But, as I explained in previous articles, the Orthodox Church is a white church that is not.  It is rooted in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  The worship is the same as it was in the 4th century and traces its teachings back to the Apostles.  At Antioch, two African church leaders were among those who ordained Paul to spread the Gospel to the Greeks and Romans.  I am a part of the Church that was for all people from the very beginning.  While racism is still a reality in America, it is time for us to end 11 o’clock Sunday morning as our most segregated hour.   Orthodoxy has its issues with ethnocentrism.  But, it is still the church where saints of all races and all times are embraced and welcomed.

Choir and chanters

Choir and chanters

Taking the Eucharist

Taking the Eucharist

The most unifying thing about us and makes us all a part of each other is the Eucharist.  We don’t have Communion one Sunday a month with individual cups filled with some liquid that is supposed to be grape juice sealed with some sort of wafer.  Communion is not an afterthought taken lightly at the end of a service.  We believe as Jesus, the apostles, and the scriptures taught that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ and that we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood each Lord’s Day.  We believe that the Eucharist must be taken to give life to our souls and that it is the high point of our worship.  We are to be one with Christ and one with each other.  Thus, we use one cup as we have one Savior.