Month: June 2015

Charleston: America’s Lack Of Repentance

Had it been something that happened during Reconstruction or the Jim Crow era, I could chalk it up as a piece of our sad racist history.  However, in 2015, a white man entered a black church and killed a pastor and 8 others during a mid-week service.  This could have happened anywhere in the nation, including my home town of West Point and even my multi cultural parish in Hampton!

                             All but two of the nine who were martyred.

To be fair, every predominantly white Protestant denomination has publicly repented for the sins of white supremacy including slavery and segregation.  The Southern Baptist Convention has even had an African-American president.  And we must also acknowledge that Barak Obama could not have become the President of this nation had it not been for a significant number of whites voting for him.  The average white Christian is not a murderer.  Indeed, many an African-American can relate to a white who has treated them better than a “brother” or “sister.”

But, here is the problem; white racism and black backlash are too deeply rooted in this nation to be easily erased with a few decades of saying, “I’m sorry” no matter how sincere the words and actions are.  From colonial Virginia to the Civil Rights Movement, there were laws in place that made blacks second class citizens.  With a few exceptions, every white denomination has supported such laws from slave codes to Plessy vs. Ferguson.  Even among those who did’t support such laws, it was generally believed that the African was less human than the European.  So, with 240 years of slavery (1619-1865) and about 69 years of segregation (1896-1965); we have had over 309 years of legalized bigotry.  White in the North as well as the South were bitter and resentful toward the freedmen during the Reconstruction period and were not comitted to black equality.  So, add another 31 years of undermining any efforts of progress our ancestors tried to make after the Civil war; That is 340 years of legal and illiegal activities designed to keep black people down in this country.  Are we to imagine that the demon of white supremacy would disappear in a mere 50 years?  Apparently not!

Not only are we sick with that demon, many blacks have developed a justified yet toxic sense of mistrust of anything white and a willingness to ignore the crimes we comitt against ourselves yet raise our voices when whites attack us.  There was no national outcry from the NAACP or any other Civil Rights organization when four students at the historically black Morgan State University were stabbed by a “brother” a few weeks before the death of Freddie Gray while in custody of the Baltimore Police.   Rev. Al Sharpton did not come to Baltimore when a 16 year old girl was raped and murdered by two “brothers.”  Local ministers may hold a march or prayer vigil.  But, rarely is there a nationwide call to struggle against the outrages we commit against ourselves as we do when the perpetrators are blonde haired and blue eyed, and (even more so) policemen.  When black preachers speak out against the wrongs committed within the community, they are routienly ignored and sometimes called, “sell-outs.”  But, let him “speak truth to power,” and he is honored as one who fights for the people.

Whites see this and use it as an excuse to hold on to their bigoted attitudes.  Sure, the great majority of them will never pick up a gun and kill blacks in an AME church.  But, white Christians will share especially degrading comments and images of the President and other blacks on social media and private conversations.  We blacks can tell the difference between purely political opinon and blatant disrespect.  Thus, it is not unusual for African-Americans to  stop trying to be good Christians and join the Hebrew Israelites or a Black Muslim religion that teaches an equally racist doctrine that whites are demonic beings.

As I said in my previous post (https://desertfathersdispatch.wordpress.com/2015/06/16/some-sunday-morning/), the only solution to America’s racial division is humble repentance from both blacks and whites.  Only when we put aside our fears and stereotypical notions of each other can the perfect love of Jesus Christ infuse our hearts and minds with grace.  But as long as we let conservatism vs. liberalism and black vs. white keep us among “our people,” we should not be surprised whtn things like this happen.

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Come And See: The Eucharist Beyond Pre-packaging

Every now and then, I am blessed with an opportunity to assist my priest and ordained chanter with the Eucharist.  To critics of traditional forms of Christianity, especially those who decry against ritualism, I would only wish you could be in my shoes and experienced it for yourself.  Words can do no real justice to this the most important sacrament of Orthodox worship.

In the chalice was the bread, the body of Christ, floating in the wine, His blood.  A member of our congregation took the time to bake the loaf.  Before Matins (aka Orthros, the Morning Prayers), Fr. James carefully offered the chants and prayers that were handed down through the church for nearly 2,000 years as he cut and broke pieces of the loaf.  After adding the bread to the cup of wine, the Eucharist was blessed with the aroma and smoke of incense symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Preparing the Holy Gifts

At the high point of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. James comes though the royal doors with the chalice.  One of the sub-deacons and I hold the cloth under it as one by one, the saints come forward to partake of the body and blood of our Lord.  “Thy servant (thy hand maiden) comes to recieve thy precious body and blood” Fr. repeats for each member as we hold the cloth under their chins.  Some are elderly, others mere babes who had just been baptized.  All of us who are able had fasted through the morning that this meal was the first thing we tasted all day.  We all taste from the same cup knowing that we were one with our Lord and each other.  One by one, we all come to partake.

There are some things that one cannot get from the modern manifestation of a pre-packaged communion.  “Ain’t you afraid of getting someone else’s germs?”  I am more fearful of not taking in the life giving flesh and blood that Jesus offers to us.  Without it, we have no life.  Indeed, if we do believe this to be His body and blood, why should we fear “catching something” from someone else?  The same cup brings people together with one another and with the continued history of the church.  Germs and viruses only separate.  Members who know they are sick are wise enough not to partake.  Besides, the wine has alcohol in it, alcohol kills germs.

Does grape juice naturally have a one year shelf life?

There is no resurrection in a piece of unleavened bread.  Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover on the day before the great Jewish feast.  Thus, they would have used leavened bread as the unleavened variety would not have been available.  Leavened bread has risen as Christ Himself would and did rise from the grave.  There is no need to eat the lifeless leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.  Our Lord has conquered death by his death.

Nor is their any life in sealed grape juice.  Our Lord’s first miracle recorded by John was changing water into wine.  Does the use of the non-alcoholic make one better than those who use the substance recorded in the scriptures?  If so, are we better than the best winemaker recorded in the Gospels?  Is the minuscule amount of wine turn a person into a substance abuser?  The amount of the Eucharist given to a toddler is no more, and probably less, dangerous than the medications prescribed by physicians.

A baptized infant receiving the precious body and blood of our Lord

When done in sincerity, any form of Communion, Eucharist, of the Lord’s Supper, can be a truly reverent experience.  But there are things that cannot be contained in aluminium foil and cellophane.  Resurrection, life and unity with one another are what we offer from the sacred cup in an Orthodox Eucharist.  When taken in a sincere and repentant manner, we conclude worship with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  Although only the Orthodox may partake of the body and blood, we do share the remaining holy bread after the service.  Come and see for yourself.

Less “Bishops,” More Monastics

When I was a boy, all we had was reverends.  The AME had one or two bishops.  But, everyone else was just a reverend.  Now, everyone wants to be a bishop, everyone wants to be an apostle, everyone wants to be a prophet of the fourth quadrant of the first hemisphere … ”             

   Dr. Jeremiah Wright

After Christianity became a legalized religion, some believers noticed a problem in the church.  There was an increase of people who converted to the faith for the wrong reasons.  Some did so to curry favor with government officials and businessmen.  Others thought this would be some sort of magic religion that would guarantee good luck and success.  Still others simply wanted to be a part of the crowd.  Whatever the reasons, the new converts had a tendency to ignore the words of the Lord; If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 

A core of believers knew that although the persecutions from the Roman government had ended, the true enemy, Satan, still had to be fought against.  These men and women knew that they could not be victorious in their struggle by having the shallow faith of their society.  So, they left their worldly pursuits and lived in prayer and contemplation.  Some pursued the life of purity and repentance so severely that they lived naked and alone in the deserts of Africa and the Middle East.  Some lived in caves along the Nile River Valley and, later, shacks in the Siberian forest.  Others dwelled in monasteries in obedience to God and the abbot or abbess for spiritual instruction.  For the monks and nuns, nothing was more important than having their sins forgiven, their souls saved for the world to come and to pray for others.

St. Pachomius of Egypt

Think about it for a moment.  These men and women committed themselves to dressing very simply, eating basic food, and shunning any sort of fanfare and notoriety.  They made baskets and other handicrafts and had them sold in markets to sustain themselves.  Even today, monastics strive to be self-sufficient, live simply, and keep their distance from worldly influences.  They live in constant prayer for themselves and the world in every daily activity.  Depending on the rule of the monastery, monks and nuns can attend some sort of worship service more than three times a day lasting for hours.  Those who aren’t called to live as actual monastics choose to live simply without pursuing so many of the things of this world.  They read the works of the ancient fathers and apply their wisdom to modern life. With proper guidance, they become very prayerful, victorious over their own demons, and help others overcome theirs as well.  They seek a deeper faith and not fanfare.

How many more of these guys do we really need?

I think modern Christianity needs more monastics and fewer modern hierarchs.  While even the well-established Pentecostal denominations have high standards for their bishops, such titles are far too often obtained too cheaply.  Almost anyone with a charismatic personality, knowledge of a few scriptures, and the ability to attract and maintain a following can give himself (or herself) any title they wish.  Apostle, chief apostle, archbishop, master prophet; the possibilities are endless.  Added to this plethora of titles are the numbers of ways one can “earn” degrees of further education.  It used to be there were only a few schools of divinity and theology attached to accredited academic colleges.  Now, there are “for profit” colleges offering D. Min degrees and online diploma mills that can give any sort of credential imaginable for as little as $50.

Anyone claiming some clerical office by such shady means in the Coptic Orthodox Church or the Church of God in Christ would face a stern rebuke from the proper authorities.  However, with tens of thousands of non-denominational churches with no ecclesiastical authority, any attempt of call such clergy into question has no consequences.  No one can judge, or silence them. Their followers and like-minded colleagues will readily come to their defense denouncing their critics as, “bitter, haters, the enemy,” and other names.  “You can’t judge me, God anointed me, not you” and other phrases are also used against anyone who dares question them about their legitimacy.   But, the current plethora of “hierarchs” is creating a growing number of critics who join non-Christian groups, or drop out of religion all together preferring to just be “spiritual” and good people.   As cheaply as the hierarchal titles are obtained, so the faith of the people becomes cheapened as well.

Monasticism is not an inexpensive process.  It is like selling all of one’s merchandise for one pearl or a field.  But because the pearl of forgiveness is of great price and the field of salvation has a great treasure in it, it is well worth any and every sacrifice.  Even for those of us who cannot actually move into monasteries, practicing asceticism to the degree we are able is a struggle.  They lose friendships as we tend to like to spend time alone.  Many water-cooler conversations will be alien or repulsive to us.  Pursuits that were once the highlight of their lives are put aside for prayer and repentance.  But, monastics pursue greater things than notoriety and popularity, which are fickle and unstable.  Their souls are anchored in the unbroken line of those who renounced the world for the next world from John the Baptist and Jesus Christ to Anthony and Macarius to Brianchaninov and Theophan to Paisious and Seraphim Rose.  They may never pack a stadium full of people who want to hear good preaching.  But, their prayers are a blessing to us all.  And some of them pass down wisdom and spiritual insights that are useful for every generation in every land.

A keeper of the ancient faith

To those who feel a calling on their lives to serve the Lord, please channel your enthusiasm to the disciplined and humble path of monasticism.  Jesus Himself said that the lifestyle is not for everyone.  But, we can all seek to live as close to being a monk or nun as possible.  The writings from ancient to modern monastics are available to us; order and read them.  We have monasteries here in the US; take a pilgrimage and meet one or two.  Under wise spiritual guidance, we can take on a greater pursuit of repentance and renunciation of the world.  We have enough bishops of questionable character and credentials.  We need more Christians who will deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.  We need more monks and nuns.