African American Church

Lesson From Lent: King’s Kitchen Table

Imagine being a young black pastor in the segregated south and you have been called upon to lead a movement against injustice. The demonstration is having some success and the supporters of the evil structure have constantly threatened and denounced what you are doing.  One night, a particular threatening phone call shakes you.  Fear quickly invades your heart and mind as you consider the real possibility of death and the death of your young family.  It is at that point where your fine seminary education cannot help you.  Your saintly parents are too far away to come to your aid and comfort.  At that point, you come to a place where you must know God for yourself not through scholarship nor friends.  The only way to know Him at this point is by a deep, honest, and sincere outpouring of one’s self through prayer.  Then, and only by this knowledge of God, are you able to carry on with your life’s mission.  In a speech given in Chicago about a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this confession to his audience.

MLK_portrait_fi

In the current political and social climate, it is not unusual for us to speak, write, and demonstrate against the injustices we see around us. This is a good thing.  But, imitating Dr. King in seeking justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor does come with a price that is often overlooked by an American mind frame that wants to forget that he was a Christian minister.  Indeed, this is a price we all must pay if we pursue the will of God from any religious viewpoint.  In particular for we who claim to believe Him who taught us that self-denial and taking up the cross are the prerequisites to follow Him, we especially must make the effort  to tear our homes apart looking for the lost coin that will cover the cost.  We must come to deeply, honestly, and sincerely know God through prayer.

Too often we don’t try to make such an effort. Sure we may go to church practicing some pious ancient ritual, getting caught up in a spontaneous praises, or some variation of these extremes.  We read the Bible and other religious books and magazines to help us on our Christian journey.  On the surface, we know how to show people what religion we practice and how to apply our faith to just about every social concern.  My concern is that too many of us never try to go deeper than the surface show before men and confront the depths of how much we need God until, like Dr. King, circumstances drive us to a place where we can no longer run and hide.  More troubling is that we don’t even try to reach that point because we fail to recognize our real enemy, Satan and his legions, and how he makes war inside of us.  With our unwillingness to grow closer to God in this critical way, the devil is comfortable with us going through our motions.

in thought

Contemplating this new step in my journey

This Great Lenten Fast, I have added King’s Kitchen Table to my rule of prayer. I typically do this right after dinner keeping in mind a sermon from St. John Chrysostom of how donkeys and oxen eat and go to their work while we eat so much we become useless and unable to bend our knees for prayer.  After washing the dishes, which is a form of service, I offer the first prayer of the Trisagion, to the Holy Spirit, before sitting down to the table.  Afterward, I sit and offer one ode of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  I follow this up with a Psalm, the Gospel reading, and a prayer from The Veil from the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of the Hours.  The final offering is A Prayer for the Children of Africa in America written by the black abolitionist, Maria W. Stewart.  I end my time at the kitchen table by writing in my spiritual journal, examining my thoughts in light of the penitential prayers that I had offered.

Those who wish to pray at the kitchen table need not be as elaborate as this. The following elements are more important.  Timing; again, I keep this practice right after dinner.  So that during dinner, I am mindful that I have to pray after eating.  This mindfulness helps me to reduce my temptation for gluttony, a common sin that I have too regularly overlooked.  Thus, I see that if this bad habit can be overcome, by seeking oneness with God my other evils can be overcome as well.  Sacrifice; any nightly prayer activity means cutting away time from entertainment and rest.  Those who are very attached to watching TV can start by going to the table during commercials while that favorite show is on. In time, intentionally increase the time spent at the table vs. that in front of the screen.  Work; dishwashing is not the hardest labor in the world.  But, praying while working is common among monastics.  If not the dishes, folding clean laundry or some other chore can be done.  Uplifting music is a good addition to this routine.  Repentance; prayer is not simply offering God list of request.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus commanded people to repent for the sake of the kingdom.  Adorations, intercessions, praises; these things have their place.  But, repentance and self-examination brings us to struggle against the real enemy in ourselves.  Unless we struggle internally, anything we attempt, even what we succeed against, externally will be meaningless in our goal of salvation.

 

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.

African-American Orthodoxy and the Native American Model

One of the reasons why some African Americans are not becoming Orthodox is that we feel that it is someone else’s faith and culture and not our own.  I have read some discussions on other sites as to where some of us wish to mix other doctrines into the Church to make it more relevant and appealing to black people.  Rather than post what I was typing last night, I will share with you an idea that came into my head this morning.

What do Native Alaskans know that we African-Americans need to learn about being Orthodox Christian and culturally yourself?

The native Alaskans became Orthodox during the time when Russia claimed the land as their territory.  Russian fur trappers shared their faith (in good and bad relationships) with the Natives to a point where the missionary priest found Orthodox Christian communities already existing with lay leadership.  Rather than force them to adopt the Russian language and culture, men like Sts. Herman and Innocent translated the scriptures and holy books into the Native languages and blessed the best of Native culture.  American Protestants and Catholics forbade the Natives to use their language and tried to impose their denominations and English on the people.  The Alaskans saw that if they wanted to be Christian and still be who they were as a people, the Orthodox Church was the best choice.  It is still said by some, “To be Native is to be Orthodox.”

So, here is my idea.  Let’s learn from the Native Alaskan Orthodox Christians how they manage to be true to their culture and members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  After all, they faced racial prejudice and were looked down on just like us.  They didn’t want to see their language and culture disappear.  Orthodoxy honors who they are.  But how?  Are there places in the Divine Liturgy that they used a Native musical tone rather than Byzantine or Slavonic?  Do the Native preachers speak with a certain vocal pattern that reaches the people in ways sermons from others cannot?   This blending of faith and culture is not the result of a bridge of modern doctrines made by non-Orthodox clergy.  Orthodoxy in Alaska is over 200 years old.  They must be doing something right up there.

No doubt, people of the race of Jackie Robinson and James Farmer of the 1950’s and 60’s ought not be afraid to go to any church in 2015.  No doubt, too many Orthodox parishes are still infected with a cold ethnocentrism, even towards potential catechumens that look like themselves.  But, if there is going to be a bridge to help more blacks become Orthodox, the Native Americans of the north may have some proven ways on how to be Orthodox Christian and yourself at the same time.  I think that it was Malcolm X who said something like this:

If you have a problem, look at your neighbor who had the same problem and see how he solved it.  Once when you learn how he solved his problem, you are well on your way to solving yours.

CONFLICT OF CONVERGENCE: ORTHODOXY AND PENTECOSTALISM DO NOT MIX

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him.  But if Ba’al, then follow him.”                                                   3 Kingdoms (1 Kings) 18:21

For some time, I refused to comment on the convergence movement of Pentecostals that are accepting elements of Orthodox Christianity.  After being among Baptist who refused even to investigate the African saints during Black History Month, I thought it was refreshing that non-denominational Charismatic and established Pentecostal denominational clergy were interested in the ancient faith.  There are a couple of Orthodox priest who are in communication with some of these ministers.  Perhaps this will lead to a mass conversion of African-Americans coming into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in the same way that some 2,000 Evangelicals came into the Antiochian jurisdiction back in 1987.  I do hope and pray that this will happen.

“If the Lord is God …” Elijah

But, I sense that there is something different at work in this convergence movement.  Rather than individual ministers and congregations moving to become fully Orthodox, too many of them are trying to be Orthodox and Pentecostal at the same time.  Such a blending of these two Christian traditions is as possible as blending wax with water.

Orthodoxy was born directly from the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His apostles.  The coming of the Holy Spirit into the world on the Day of Pentecost sent the message of the Gospel in the ears of all men who spoke the various languages of the world.  From AD 33 to today, Orthodoxy has maintained a historic succession of bishops and priest from those who knew Jesus as He walked the earth.  The shared message of Christianity was no different from Amharic speaking Ethiopians to the Slavs of Eastern Europe.  Despite a fifth century schism, Islamic invasions, Soviet oppressions and being overshadowed by Western Christendom; the Orthodox Church is one faith.

American born Pentecostalism is completely different.  The Topeka “Outpouring” of 1905 was only among white American Protestants with no concern for any other race or nationality.  One African-American, William Seymore, learned about Pentecostalism by sitting at the window of a segregated Bible college.  After hearing enough of this “doctrine” to preach it, he went to Los Angeles where under his revival services, people received the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and the “gift” of “speaking in tongues” at a church on Azuza Street in 1906.  Those of the Topeka event rejected their Azuza brothers and sisters as being too emotional.  And in America’s climate of individualism and religious freedom, many Pentecostals (white as well as black) formed new denominations and non-denominations claiming to come from this same spiritual event.

Orthodoxy comes from the pure and true source of God as Pentecost brought people together.  Pentecostalism came from the false doctrine of segregation and self-importance.  Our Lord taught us that one cannot harvest grapes from thistles or figs from thorn bushes.  Because the vast majority of African Americans had little or no access to the ancient faith, some of us saw Pentecostalism as a viable path to God.  Indeed, along with the black Baptist, Methodist, and other mainline churches; this movement was used by God to give salvation to a people whom American society deemed not worthy of a savior.

But, when we discover the faith, history, doctrine, practice, and spirituality of the ancient apostles; what then is the point of holding on to the things handed down to us from a segregated man that he heard from a segregationist and was dispersed by men who sought their own areas of influence and produced sons who sought their own little fiefdoms from them?  None.  Like the one who grew up and put away the childish things, the one who is aware of Orthodoxy should put away Pentecostal doctrine.

Some would argue that by holding on to Pentecostalism, they are holding on to black culture and style of worship.  This argument is false.  Up until recently, most African-American Christians were Baptist and Methodist Episcopal (AME and the like) and rejected speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal doctrines.  Most black churches were known for “call and response” in worship.  “Shouting” was not unheard of even among black Episcopalians.  But, much of the emotion of our faith came from being in an enslaved or oppressive Jim Crow society.  Many ministers who came from the seminaries such as Howard or Virginia Union were frowned upon as they taught their congregations to tone down these things and focus more on the substance of our faith rather than our style (I had a mentor that taught that you shouldn’t shout higher than you live).  As legal segregation began to lose its grip on us and the “Black is Beautiful” concept grew, we began to define liturgies and less animated worship as being “white,” cold, dead, and spiritually empty.  In the black church, there was no real worship unless the songs were upbeat, the preacher “whooped,” and folks “got the spirit.”  Under these conditions, Pentecostal denominations like the Church of God In Christ grew exponentially.  Non-denominational churches who taught the same doctrines sprang up frequently.  In order to keep up with the popularity of Pentecostalism, mainline black churches strive to mimic the style of worship to the point where they have formed congregations and conventions that can barely be distinguished from them (the Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship is a prime example as they practice the “gift of tongues”).

African-American Christian culture has produced a collection of spiritual music that is the equivalent of anything produced in Byzantium or Holy Russia.  There are Orthodox priest who recognize this and include such songs in special services and, in some cases, the Divine Liturgy.  There is a distinctive style in African-American preaching.  Anyone who has ever heard Fr. Maximus Cabey deliver a sermon knows that there is room for our voices in the world of Orthodoxy.  In the Orthodox churches in Africa, drums are frequently used and shouts of praise that are a part of their tribal cultures.  The Ethiopian Churches in America are no different than the ones in that land that was evangelized by St. Matthew himself (and why not embrace the faith that came directly from a Gospel writer rather than something gathered from what was heard from a segregated classroom).  Thus, black clergy and laity who fear losing their cultural identity if they convert need not worry.  Orthodoxy does not call us to forget who we are.  It does call us to renounce false doctrines.  Pentecostalism is false, Orthodoxy is truth.  Truth cannot be yoked with falsehood.

It is better for a Pentecostal to reject Orthodoxy all together rather than try to blend the two doctrines.  From the Roman persecutions, Ottoman oppressions and genocides, to the Bolsheviks and the murderers of Hailie Selassie, to the modern age of terrorism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians are dying for holding on to the full truth of the faith.  How can it be godly for anyone to cherry pick a few favorite text from the early fathers and combine them with frequently used catch words and phrases?  Antiochian Metropolitan Paul and Syriac Archbishop John are still being held captive in Syria by “freedom fighters.”  How can anyone wear the vestments of their churches when you are not even a member of them, much less have gone through the training and received their apostolic succession?  If one would not wear a Marine Corps uniform to Paris Island and not be a Marine, or give a fraternity call or sign and not be a brother, where then is it honest to dress and speak as an Orthodox clergyman and you are not?   This behavior of the convergents is very disrespectful to our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ.  At least the COGIC who wears his traditional vestments or a suit is not pretending to be what he is not.

A group of Anglican “monastics” visited the St. Herman’s Monastery in California back in the 1970’s.  Seeing how they decided to pick and choose what they wanted from Orthodoxy, Fr. Seraphim Rose urged them as they left not to take anything from the Church and try to merge it with what they were doing.  “One must fully come to Orthodoxy, or leave it alone.”  Keep in mind that Fr. Seraphim was a man of great intelligence and could have succeeded in nearly any field or pursuit of his liking.  But, he gave up everything to live in prayer and repentance as a monk.  Would it kill any of you convergents to give up your titles and fully embrace the ancient Church that you are so interested in?  With education and training, some of you may be called to the priesthood and have predominately African American Eastern or Oriental congregations.  You may be the ones who help blend the best of African American culture with Orthodoxy the same way that Sts. Herman and Innocent of Alaska blessed the best of those native cultures as the people became Orthodox.  As it stands now, I fear that your attempt to be two things that are incompatible at the same time is no different than being neither cold nor hot in the mouth of the eternal one.  I pray that you will choose to be one or the other while there is still time to do so.

One Year Later

On Christmas Day, Wednesday December 25th, 2013; I will preach my last sermon at Trinity Baptist Church. I will also resign my Certificate of Ordination in the Baptist Denomination. As of January 1, 2014; I will be a member of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Poquoson. I will also work with the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black in its efforts to introduce Orthodoxy to African-Americans and all who seek this ancient Christian faith.

From the sermon, Stepping Out of the Boat  (http://trinitybcofwestpoint.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/todays-sermon-stepping-out-of-the-boat/)

It was the sermon that I knew I had to preach sooner or later.  Actually, I converted to Orthodox Christianity earlier than I thought I would.  My original plan was to continue to serve as the Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for another year or two to make sure my finances were in order, had another job, and was going to receive some sort of title (although I knew the priesthood was out of the question for the first 5 years of being Orthodox).  But, I remembered the advice of a preacher who got put out of his church, “A good pastor does not stay at a church longer than he should.”

I also thought it wise to follow the advice of a pastor I looked up to since childhood, “John, if you remain Baptist, you will only become bored and frustrated.”  I had to choose between being broke or crazy.  I already had one person suffering from mental illness in my home.  We didn’t need two.  So, I renounced the Baptist denomination and became an Orthodox Christian.  People were angry, disturbed, and saddened at my decision.  Creditors have sent me some mail no one wants to receive.  No, the transition has not been easy.  I have had to stand alone as no other minister I knew of, of any race made, such a leap.

In Thought

In Thought

And yet, I know firmly that I made the right decision.  While I still struggle to make ends meet, God has provided the means to keep the bills paid and something in the fridge.  I am still friends with my former congregants.  My church family at St. Basil has welcomed me with open arms.  And not only they, but other Orthodox Christians and Churches have counted me as a brother in the faith.  With all of the challenges I have had this past year, I can say that I have grown in ways that I could not have had I remained where I was.

If it is God’s will, my growth in the Orthodox Church will continue as I seek to be more deeply rooted in the ancient faith.  Central to this is my personal asceticism.  I have found my rule of prayer to be the truest means to know the ways of God.  I have found a pattern of words from the church and early fathers as well as my own expressions that bring me closer to the Holy Trinity.  I see a new light to the scriptures when I read them.  The works of the desert fathers have been very influential to me and I look forward to reading other writings, including those of Seraphim Rose and the Philokalia.  Even fasting has become more of a part of who I am (although I do start to hallucinate about Philly steak and cheese burritos half way through Great Lent).

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

I enjoy being one of the Matins Chanters.  Reading the six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, & 142) and chanting the Evlogateria (Benedictions) re-enforces the meaning of the Gospel.  The 50th Psalm is the call for the very first and essential thing Jesus proclaimed, repentance.  Divine Liturgy is the most heavenly form of worship I have ever experienced as the body and blood of our Lord is the focus of our worship.  We all partake from the same cup, venerate the Theotokos (God-bearer, Virgin Mary), and enjoy one another’s company during and after worship at coffee hour (the food is so good).

I look forward to the challenge of evangelization.  Fr. Adam Sexton of St. Andrews OCA has given me an invitation to speak.  I believe others will follow.  I must be mindful to practice humility at all times.  It is way too easy to think too much of myself.  It is also too easy to speak and write as if all Protestants are corrupt and doomed (I fear that I have made that mistake already and repent to anyone whom I have needlessly offended).  But, as a member of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I am excited about the prospects for sharing my faith.

I thank all of you who have read my blog articles and kept me in prayer.  May the fullness of God bless you as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and enter into the year 2015.

Ferguson, MO vs. Malcolm X:  Are We Chasing Our Tails?

So, it happened again.  An unarmed black teenaged male was killed by a white cop.  The response was our usual predictable outcry, “No Justice, No Peace.”  Unlike the previous incident in Sanford FL (in which the white community watch volunteer provoked a black teen to fight before killing him and was acquitted of the crime), the recent events were marred by violent confrontations between a handful of demonstrators and police.  Some businesses were looted and private property destroyed.  Did the policeman act in self defense, or did the victim have his hands up and demand that he not be shot?  That is for a judge and jury to tell, of which I am neither.  But, pondering the works of one of our most venerated African-American heroes and the universal faith of Orthodox Christianity, I can’t help but wonder if we should respond to violent and non-violent racism in a different way.

A great read

In 1964, Malcolm X did the unexpected.  He took the pilgrimage to Mecca and completely forsook the reactionary racist doctrine of America’s Nation of Islam.  He saw the universal brotherhood of Orthodox Islam and concluded that if the United States had a similar religious perspective that the problem of racism could be solved.  After speaking with an American ambassador to an African nation, he also concluded that it was our nation’s atmosphere nourishes the racist psychology of white people (see “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, chapter 19, pgs 370 & 371).

While I reject Islam as the solution, I do agree with his conclusion of the problem of racism in our nation.  We have been fighting for our rights in this nation since we were brought to Jamestown as indentured servants in 1619.  While we are no longer under the yokes of slavery or Jim Crow, the mentality of white supremacy has not been completely defeated.  In some cases, Satan has morphed this evil to be more subtle to hide behind the mask of economics, lifestyle, politics, and religion.  In other cases, he has caused people to simply ignore the importance of improving race relations.

But, here is the problem.  While Satan has used new methods to maintain the same atmosphere, we fail to fight the atmosphere.  At best, we have non-violent marches, petition drives, and rallies to draw attention to one incident or another.  We elect public officials hoping they will make great changes on our behalf.  Sadly, a handful of us will respond to racism with violence.  Sadder still, too many of us play into current apolitical and unreligious “hood rat” and “thug” images that only serves to maintain racism as many blacks are as annoyed by them as whites (listen to Chris Rock’s “Black People vs. Niggers” on the Bring the Pain release).  Carrying signs and shouting “Fired Up!  Ain’t Taking No More” only works on obvious flare-ups.  It does not address the underlying spiritual sickness of white supremacy.  In fact, as long as we fail to attack the spiritual sickness we make ourselves just as, if not more sick than white racist.  The more we see that our non-violent efforts produce limited success or fail time and time again, the more likely we will use violence against our oppressors and ourselves.

A Nativity Icon from the Coptic Orthodox Church

Strangely enough, Malcolm X gives a hint to what I believe to be the solution to America’s racist atmosphere.  In chapter 19 of his Autobiography, he mentions the Desert Fathers as the founders of Christianity (pg 368) and names St. Augustine as a savior of Catholicism (pgs 369 & 370).  The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (the Orthodox Church) was the beacon of the human brotherhood that Malcolm had in mind after his Hajj pilgrimage.  Not only Augustine, but Athanasius the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, and other African saints preserved true doctrine from heretics and were and are honored by Orthodox Christians of all races all over the world.  While ethnocentrism is a problem among several congregations, Orthodoxy has never considered one race greater than the other.

The Bishop of Rome and the kings of western Europe grew in power and wealth above their eastern Christian kin and declared themselves as the superiors of the faith.  The magisterial and radical reformations produced even more superiority complexes causing years of inquisitions, persecutions, and wars from Spain to Poland.  America was founded people who were guided by these perceptions of Christianity and Biblical interpretations.  They felt no need to study and adhere to the doctrines the apostles handed down to the African, European, and Middle Eastern saints and scholars.  And when these colonists came across illiterate brown skinned people, the whites considered themselves to be superior as they had the weapons and wealth.  This is the atmosphere we have in the United States.

As long as African-Americans consider western forms of Christianity to be a beacon of hope, we are only going to chase our tails in the fight against racism with even non-violent protest.  Western Christendom with its power and wealth created the atmosphere of white supremacy which teaches us that our African Christian heritage (and those of eastern European and Middle Eastern Christians) is unimportant.  Oh, we can talk about the African Methodist Church as the first black denomination.  But, it was founded by blacks who were fed up with being segregated by whites in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  We can talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great Black Baptist preacher.  But, when did any black Baptist convention establish its doctrine from the black saints rather than the white slave masters?  COGIC and other black Pentecostals do not offer a solution to America’s racial problem as well.  The Azuza Street “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” happened after a similar all-white event happened in Topeka Kansas.  If either of these were a true outpouring of the Holy Spirit, why did they not bring English speaking American black and white Christians together in one church the same way that Pentecost in Acts 2 bring together believers from all over the known world when the Apostles spoke in many different languages? Non-denominationalist are equally as delusional as they use an Old Testament that was compiled by Medieval Jews who sought to discredit Christ rather than the Septuagint (Greek language) Old Testament that the Apostles used and was compiled  in Egypt 250 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.  The oldest Hebrew scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls match the Septuagint (the Orthodox Old Testament is based on this version), and differ from the western Christian version in the same ways the Septuagint does.

Fr. Raphael Morgan was ahead of his time

Rather than chasing our tails protesting in the circles of a western Christian atmosphere, I propose African-Americans walk (if not run) toward Orthodox Christianity.  Those who feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed in a predominately white eastern jurisdiction, such as the Greeks, Russians, or the Middle Eastern Antiochians should find Coptic or Ethiopian congregations as these churches are undeniably African.  We shouldn’t do this with any illusions that everyone who practices the ancient faith is perfect.  But, we should understand that this church was not founded on the streets of Ferguson or on a rock in the Plymouth Colony.  This is the church that came to Africa by Mark and Matthew at the same time and with the same spirit Andrew and Paul brought it to Europe, as Thomas took it to India, and James held things down in Jerusalem.  This is the church that put the both testaments of the Bible together with the New Testament being canonized in 4th century Carthage.  This is the church where anti colonial freedom movements in Cyprus and Kenya found common ground against the imperial western Christian Britain.  This is the church of Africa’s last Emperor of the line of King Solomon and Jamaica’s most heralded musical son.   This is the church that began on the day of Pentecost with God fearing men from all nations who came to Jerusalem to worship.

Western Christendom cannot bring about racial harmony.  Roman Catholicism has known about the African saints for quite some time.  Yet, they have not shared this knowledge with us.  Mainline and Evangelical Protestantism has given us the bizarre “Great Apostasy” theory that the true church disappeared after the death of John the Evangelist (or the rule of Emperor Constantine) and they “discovered” it as they cut their ties with papal authority.  Thus, such denominations ignore the importance of even European saints, much more the holy men and women of other lands.  Non-denominational churches are no different than the denominational ones they broke away from.

It is time for us all to come home.

The Orthodox Church has never been perfect when it comes to racism in America (oh, that I wish it was).  But, the Church is rooted in the universal brotherhood of all who believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and live by the doctrines and traditions handed down by Jesus and the Apostles.  The Church acknowledges saints from all cultures and races and allows its members to learn more about how they walked with the Lord.  There is no point in running around in circles when God has provided us with a path to truth.

 

 

 

 

Athanasius:  Relevance in the Black Church Today

 

I believe it is time for African-American Christians in particular and all Christians in general to acknowledge Athanasius of Alexandria (aka Athanasius the Great) and his contribution to our faith.  I am sure there are some who would dare say that those old writers do not matter as much as they are not relevant to what is going on in the church today.  Nothing can be further from the truth.

African-Americans say the same cliché every year around Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If this statement is true, then there can be no future for a Christian people who ignore the black man who gave the church its first creed, boldly stood against the greatest heresy of his time (which was also started by a black man), and made a list of 27 books that would be canonized as the most important collection of scriptures to Christians.

St. Athanasius the Great.  (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

St. Athanasius the Great. (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

Many people look at the history of Christianity as if all of the early saints looked like some Western European renaissance painting.  This is completely incorrect!  The Ecumenical Councils were attended by deacons, priest, and bishops from all corners of the known world.  Some were Celts and Saxons with pale skin and light eyes.  Others were Nubians and even Asiatic Indians with skin as dark as coal.  Most were some shade of brown between these extremes of racial scale.  Among the attendees of the First Council in Nicaea was a deacon from Alexandria who was greatly influenced by the monk Anthony of the desert.  Athanasius declared the scriptures taught that Jesus was co-equal and co-substantial with God the Father.  This was in opposition to the popular belief at the time that, according to a chant at the time, “there was a time when He was not.”  The Egyptian priest Arius declared that Jesus was the first and greatest of the created beings.  Although Athanasius won the initial argument at the Council, Arius had many friends in high places.  His chants and songs were popular.  Athanasius was driven into exile and was derided by his opponents as “a little black dwarf.”

Despite the number of influential opponents, Athanasius held firm to what the scriptures taught.  He won support from several other bishops and had the backing of the monastic community that was known for their devotion to prayer and leaving worldliness for the relentless pursuit of holiness.  At the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, Arianism was once and for all denounced.  The Creed that Athanasius proposed the first time included a deliberate belief in the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father as well as his original statement of faith describing Jesus as the, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made

The very presence and contribution of Athanasius to the first two great councils is very relevant for us today.  The fact that it was a black man (at that time, he was a young deacon) who led the fight for true Christian doctrine counters the long-standing myth that “Christianity is the white-man’s religion.”  In all honesty, we may not know exactly what he looked like.  But, that Arius (again, himself an African) and his supporters used color to describe him shows that there must have been a significant amount of melanin in his skin.  Also, that Athanasius had supporters from all over the known world, in particular the bishop (aka Pope) of Rome, shows that Christianity was a cosmopolitan faith that drew people to the truth no matter what ethnicity or race they were from.  This is also seen in Acts chapter 2 where devout men from all over the world were in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecostal sermon and in Acts 13 where the church in Antioch with its African and Middle Eastern priesthood sent two Jews to bring the Gospel to Europe.

Despite the presence of racism that still exist, today’s America is far more of a mixture of people than it was some 50 years ago.  My generation and those after me attend whatever universities we can afford and qualify for, pursue whatever careers we are interested in, and marry whomever we love.  Our nation’s most visible black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is married to a white woman.  Our President Barak Obama is not only the result of a racial mixture, his father was an African and not an African-American.  Add to the traditional black and white dynamic the Native Americans (the true owners of the land), Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, and others; and you have an extremely powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan nation.  If such a diverse people could come together in Nicaea and Constantinople for the sake of true doctrine back then, surely we can do so now.  If our Christian forefathers and mothers 2,000 years ago could go beyond their various ethnicities for the sake of the Gospel, then who are we not to work toward this goal today.  A society of different people striving together in unity is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

The doctrine that Athanasius defended is very relevant today as well.  Consider the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the African-American community with their corrupted belief that the “Word was a God (John 1:1 in the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).”  It is no accident that this modern form of Arianism has reared its ugly head.  Because the old saying is true, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Had we read “On the Incarnation” where Athanasius gives a detailed argument of why it was necessary for the Word of God to take on humanity for our salvation, we would have far fewer blacks in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and fewer still believing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an equal to any other Christian belief.  Furthermore, with the amendment made to the Athanasian Creed in the Second Ecumenical Council, there would be no modern “modalism” or Oneness Pentecostals that teach that God is one person that manifest Himself in three different modes.  We would not be led to any idea that we should focus on one person of the Trinity at the expense of the other two, which leads to all sorts of false doctrines.  When we know our role in the history of Christianity and accept the roles of other people and their contributions to the true pursuit of God, we are better prepared to stand on what is right.  Standing for what is right and for what one believes in is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Holy Bible.  The early Christians had the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Old Testament (which is older than the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Protestant Bibles).  There were various Gospels and letters circulating throughout the known world.  Some were heretical and false in doctrine.  Some were correct and well-respected in some communities, yet unheard of in others.  Local bishops did have some authority to direct clergy in their jurisdictions as to what books were useful to read during worship, which were edifying for study, and which were to be avoided.  Athanasius, the Patriarch of the prominent city of Alexandria, made a list of 27 books that he felt all bishops, priest, and deacons should study and read to their congregations in 367 AD.   He shared his list with other clergy as well as those in Africa.  This list of books proved to be so popular that in 398 AD in the African city of Carthage, a synod of clergy met and declared these 27 books to be the New Testament Cannon.

If Athanasius is irrelevant to the modern African-American church or any church of our times, why then do we still use the list of books he felt were important for Christians to read?  If this list of books proved to be tried and true for some 2,000 years, could it be that the person who made the list is worth knowing about?  What else did he write?  Who were his influences?  Who were some of the other African, Asian, and European brothers and sisters who believed, taught, and stood as he did?  Athanasius and his contemporaries provided the very foundation of body of scripture that we hold to be holy.  If his work is relevant, surely he is relevant as well.  And in a community where some still denounce Christianity as the slave master’s religion, Athanasius is a great rebuttal to this myth as it was this “little black dwarf” that gave the world this universally accepted collection of the written record of Christianity.

Again, I give you the familiar quote; “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If modern Christianity in general and African-American Christianity in particular does not know this and other great saints of early Christianity, what will be our future?  Shall we continue to give the likes of the Hebrew Israelites and Nation of Islam to denounce the black church as racially weak instead of standing on the shoulders of our ancient giants who stood alongside others of all races?  Shall we continue to read the latest books from the latest bishops who’s works fade away as other bishops who are more marketable occupy bookshelves with their latest releases while this bishop has more than proven his timeless contribution to the faith?  Shall we continue to reach for the latest conference and convocation to inspire us to receive “the next level of blessings” when we have not looked into our own basements and crawl spaces of Christianity to see what our foundation is and how it was built?  I consider that to continue to ignore the contributions of Athanasius, other African saints, and ancient saints of Christians of other races is not benefiting to us or anyone else.

No, I don’t expect every African-American to become an Orthodox Christian three weeks from next Tuesday.  But, there is a great treasure trove of doctrine, history, and spirituality that we are not tapping into when we ignore these deep roots of Christianity.  During our ordeals of slavery and segregation, perhaps it was due that we didn’t learn about such saints.  We were too caught up with the matters of the times.  Orthodox communities were very closed societies, even to the average white American.  But, blacks today have every sort of door open that we can learn more about our ancient pillars of Christianity.  We have every ability to incorporate their wisdom and words into our current AME, Baptist, COGIC, and non-denominational churches.  For those who wish to convert to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but feel uncomfortable among a mostly white congregation, there are Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox jurisdictions as well as Eastern European and Middle Eastern ones.  Do not let fear of the unfamiliar prevent you from learning about the African Christians that helped pave the way for us all.

The Marcus Garvey Factor & African American Orthodoxy

Marcus Garvey was not an Orthodox or any other Christian that I know of.  Yet, this forefather of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism provides a couple of doorways for African-Americans to leave the confines of Protestantism and dive into the deep waters of Orthodoxy.

Truth

Garvey was a direct influence on the African Orthodox Church.  Bishop George Alexander McGuire, a former Anglican pastor from the West Indies and ally of Garvey, sought the creation of a Christian church headed by black clergy with roots going back to the origins of the faith.  A Kenyan and two Ugandan clergymen became members of the AOC in their homelands and began seeking a connection with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.  Their churches became a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 1940’s.  In particular, the Church in Kenya faced bitter opposition from the British colonial government in the 1950’s.  The Archbishop of Cyprus dared preach against colonialism in Nairobi and won the respect of African independence leaders.  Today, the church continues to grow steadily from its grass-roots of black people who wanted an authentic form of Christianity that was not handed down to them by their colonial masters.

Emperor Haile Selassie venerating the cross during Orthodox worship

Garvey is better known as the man who proclaimed that there would be a black king crowned in Africa.  This statement is the birth of Rastafarianism, named after the pre-coronation name of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie Ras Tafari.  The popularity of Rastafari grew with the rise of Reggae music and its biggest star, Bob Marley.  A year before his death, Marley converted to Christianity and became a member of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.  It was only natural that a man who sang about African freedom and redemption would be a part of a form of Christianity that came to Africa by the ministry of the Apostles Mark and Matthew.

Brother Bob Marley

For African-Americans fearful of being labeled a “sell-out” or “forgetful of where you came from” in their pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, the Garvey Factor with the witness of 2,000 years worth of the African martyrs, saints, and theologians crushes such shallow criticisms.  Charges like that do not deepen the faith of black Christians.  They only scare us from knowing more about who we are.  And when a person is too scared to know himself, anyone else is empowered to define him.  These charges keep us on familiar plantations and keep us fed on mere scraps.  While this was (only by the grace of God) nourishment enough when we had access to nothing else, we can now go to our own fertile fields and choice foods in the Orthodox world.

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Do not let the critics keep you shallow and scrap fed on a plantation.  For those who have seriously looked (and peeking your head in the door and going the other direction because you didn’t want to be the “only one” is not seriously looking) at Orthodoxy and decided to remain AME, Baptist, COGIC, and etc; fine.  You made an informed choice.  If you feel your choice was right, you shouldn’t mind others investigating the ancient faith and choosing for themselves.  And if the fear of being the only black person or lack of a black clergy makes you so uncomfortable about Eastern Orthodoxy (Antiochians, Greeks, Russians, OCA, …), look into the AOC, Copts, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.  Garvey and McGuire awakened black Christians to the fact that we did not have to settle for the faith that was handed down to us by former colonial and slave masters.

The Ancient Faith & Afro American Christianity Conference 2012

I have attached a couple of resources that highlight Garvey’s influence on modern African Eastern Orthodoxy:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/history/fr._raphael_morgan

http://www.orthodoxytz.com/OrthodoxMission.asp

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/orthodoxy_in_africa

Shock Sermon Statements: The Worst Is Yet To Come

There is a disturbing trend in the Protestant world.  The use of obscene and near obscene words in order to provoke praises from the congregation.  For your viewing “pleasure,” I submit the following videos (please be seated and try to restrain yourself from throwing something at the monitor):

The Eddie Long (yes, that Eddie Long) clip is the oldest of the three.  The other two are recent and the one from Dr. Jamal Bryant I just saw today.

I am not sure if this is anything new.  Perhaps there have always been ministers who have tried to push the envelope of what could and could not be said from the pulpit. But, back then there were church elders, deacons, and denominational authorities who were not afraid to correct such foolishness.  Back then, there were preachers who were humble enough to admit their fault and not repeat it.  I am afraid those days are over as we have a Christian culture which rejects tradition (don’t nobody want to hear them old songs anymore).  Older members and those who hold to the idea that some things ought not be said from the sacred desk (Plexiglas) are written off as followers of man’s tradition and not the “Holy Spirit.”

Indeed, to criticize such antics is an invitation to be deemed as “quenching the Spirit.”  This is especially true if the preacher is popular and is well educated (Dr. Jamal Bryant), has a prominent title (Bishop Eddie Long), or  a female (you just hatin’ on Pastor Leondra Johnson because she is a “mighty woman of God”).  In the current Christian culture where the “Spirit” is measured by how many people are excited in worship, any rules of humility, decency, and respect can be thrown out of the window.  In the small, rural Baptist church I used to serve, I was approached by my elders for saying “darn” and “funky.”  While I did preach a series of sermons on sex, I first warned the congregation that I was going to do it a week ahead of time and I carefully wrote out the manuscripts to make sure my wording was respectful of the house of God.

But in churches where there are few elders and the ones that are there have no backbone to take a stand, a preacher can say whatever he wishes and say that it was the Holy Ghost that moved him to say it.  He will call it “Preaching the truth without any sugar-coating.”  By claiming the words came from the Holy Ghost, no one can hold him accountable.  In our church history, we respect “no sugar-coating” preachers.  Thus, the same words heard in dance clubs are heard in modern churches.  And as secular culture becomes more tolerant of profanity and nudity, I shudder to think of what we will see and hear in the too near future.

Shock brings in ratings.  Over-the-top words and statements attract listeners not so much because they agree with the speaker.  But, because they want to see and hear how far he will push the envelope.  This is true in comedy, music, political punditry, and other media.  Protestantism (and maybe Catholicism and Orthodoxy) is not immune.  With liturgical and well-structured denominations, this problem may not be quite as evident.  But in the many “non-denominations,” this is a major threat and present danger.  The preachers want notoriety to gain members.  Some will do this honestly by serving with sincerity.  Others will feel the pressure to get more people to follow them and will resort to low methods to do so.  These videos ae bad enough.  I believe the worst is yet to come.

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  (2 Timothy 4:3)

John the Baptist (Coptic). Pray for us.

Chronicles to Conversion: The Big Weekend Is Here

This evening, I will make my first confession before God alongside my priest.  Early tomorrow morning, I will receive Holy Chrismation before Matins and will partake of the Eucharist which will mark my entry into the 2,000 year old body of Christ.  I am going into Orthodox Christianity with a deep sense of gratitude for the Baptist faith that I nurtured me for the past 46 years.  My grandmother Dinah was known for her devotion to God and wisdom in teaching Sunday School.  The passion for Biblical truth was passed down from Daddy Joe & Momma Di to their son John.  My mother is also the product of a very devout household which has produced generations of pastors and deacons.  The African-American Baptist community in King William County, the Pamunkey Baptist Association has given me many opportunities to develop socially and spiritually.  I grew up surrounded by saints who kept the faith through the awful oppression of Jim Crow to see the heights of our people rising in every profession once denied to us, even the Presidency of this nation.  Without the black church, I would have never known salvation.  Jesus would have never been real to me.  Baptist Liberty, Mt. Olive, Third Union, Trinity;  these in particular and others in general have well prepared me for the journey I am undertaking now.

Some are asking, “Why take this journey at all?”  Just as my past as an African-American is important to my faith, so is the ancient history of Christianity.  While the Bible is central and essential to our faith, I see no reason to ignore the prayers, spirituality, writings, and wisdom that led the early church fathers to compile the books together.  I see no reason to ignore the multi-cultural foundation of early church history and the role that Africans played in it.  After seeing the ancient faith still being practiced among the various Orthodox jurisdictions and learning and practicing the faith as best as I could “in the closet,” I felt it was only right to step out of the safety and security of what I have always known to be a part of the church that was always there.

I believe that African-Americans should learn about and consider converting to the church of Simeon called Niger, Simon of Cyrene and his sons Alexander and Rufus, and the Ethiopian Eunuch that was the first non-Jew to be baptized.  People in Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, and Serbia know of the “desert fathers” and venerate icons of Jesus and the saints that look like me. Sure, I suppose I could have continued to speak about these things from a Baptist pulpit.  That would be like telling someone about kayak fishing yet never having done it.  Sure, I could talk about paddling strokes, adapting equipment, and locating fish in shallow water from the comfort and safety of a pier.  But, until I get into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140, make my own rod holders, and drift the coves at Horn Harbor to pull up large croaker and red drum; I really can’t tell anyone what it is like to fish from a kayak.  Well, I can talk about kayak fishing not only in theory, but from experience as well.  The experienced are the most credible witnesses.

So when I tell African-Americans and others about Orthodoxy, I won’t be doing this as someone who has read some books and heard a few podcast and visited a few websites.  I am a part of the ancient faith.  I am a credible witness.