So, here it is once again. You remember, the last time I went on a journey into Orthodoxy was my death knell to being a Baptist pastor. At least I won’t have to worry about losing a job this time. In fact, I may be gaining one instead. Depending on how my interview goes, I may be working at the McDonald’s in Toano when I return. Not a bad little part-time gig. As far as church is concerned, I won’t have to worry about making my congregation upset with me. My priest is driving us.
A couple of weeks ago, I got the news that I wasn’t selected for a job in my career field I interviewed for. It took a couple of days. It took a few days to get over that. I was sorta thinking the job and the salary could be a spring board for me to afford to take the St. Stephen’s Course for a MA in Applied Orthodox Theology and evangelize in the Northern Neck. I had dared to think to start a mission parish there. A person must be Orthodox for at least 5 years before he is considered for the priesthood. I was thinking I’d spend a year getting my secular career down pat and then begin my studies. Then again, my walk with God has proven to me that His plans and mine can be a heck of a miss match. Apparently, He has something else in mind.
This trip is to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virginia. We are going to be with men who have committed themselves to prayer and repentance. Instead of me plotting and planning, I need to do more of what they are doing. I have my own personal demons that I have not been the most diligent at fighting. I follow my nightly prayer rule about as consistently as Liverpool have been winning matches this season. And my uncertainties and insecurities plague my mind. I don’t expect any of the monks to put a cloak around me to make me invincible. But, if someone could help point me in the right direction, that would be great. Oddly enough, I think God has already sent someone my way to do just that.
I have this icon of St. Moses the Black with him holding up a scroll. These are the words:
Let us force ourselves a little and let us never be slothful. O Brethren, that we may receive forgiveness of sins.
I am kind of like that cigarette smoker who has tried time and time again to quit, but has not. And to have this 2,000 year old brother to tell me to fight my temptations is a bit annoying, especially since in my 40 plus years of being a Christian, I have only learned of this African saint a couple of years ago. I know this man’s story of how he was a former slave and gang leader who was convicted by the Holy Spirit through the loving hospitality of the monks that he attempted to rob. Moses, probably of Nilotic-southern Sudanese stock, was humble almost to a fault. He considered himself to be the lowliest of the monks and did a lot of menial task for those who couldn’t. He struggled with his personal demons for years. When he was called upon to help judge a sinful brother, he carried a leaking basket of sand over his back to show how he left his sins behind him and is in no position to judge his fellow man. So, when I see the icon of this brother telling me to keep pushing myself to do better spiritually, it is kinda hard for me to disregard him or make excuses.
I think this is the advantage of a holy icon and the Bible rather than just the scripture alone. I can read about the Apostle Paul and his encouragement to fight the good fight and not to be weary of well doing until my eyes roll out of my head. And certainly I can read what Jesus taught about righteous living, “go and sin no more,” and his death, burial, and resurrection. The icon puts a face on the lesson. The life of the saint is the story of another person’s carrying of his (or her) cross that can’t be ignored. “Well, all I need is Jesus! I don’t need them ‘saints.’” Maybe you don’t. But, I do. If the scripture is true, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I want to know who else got sunburn and how did they manage to heal and find shade. Jesus was fully human. But, He was also fully divine. I want to know what other humans denied themselves, took up their crosses, and followed Him so that they could put on divinity as well. I know that paint and wood, ink and paper, is not a god to be worshiped. But, these representations of Christ, the Theotokos (Jesus is God the Son, Mary gave birth to Jesus, this makes her the mother of God; deal with it.), and the saints are reminding windows that there is a higher human existence to strive for. Thus, I find it necessary to worship with and venerate holy icons as they represent the cloud of witnesses that surround me.
Along with the icons there is confession. It is much easier to belong to a church that does not encourage this sacrament. One can confess simply to himself and God with no priest around. One may not need human accountability and encouragement on the journey of faith. Again, I need this. I am a part of the body of Christ and while only the priest needs to hear my issues, other members of the body can see that I am striving to do better in my walk as I see others. And we confess not to put on a show of holiness, but it is an encouragement to come to this hospital for sin sick souls. “Well, Jesus is my doctor! He is all the doctor my soul needs! I don’t need no priest standing beside me and putting his robe on me and praying on me!” And what doctor doesn’t have a nurse on his staff? Confession is done before the Lord. The priest is an assistant and coach in this process and has the power to forgive sins just as Jesus gave that authority to his disciples (apostolic succession, as with the Theotokos, deal with it). All Christian churches expect believers to improve spiritually. Confession is a very effective tool for such growth as I admit my failures before God and receive encouragement and prayer from my priest.
I have to get some ducks in a row before I leave.