African American Church

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.

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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.

 

Chronicle of Conversion: First Steps in Cold Weather Day 8

I was ready to go to church today.  Some of the dust had settled from the bomb that was dropped last weekend.  But, with the threat of icy roads for much of King William County, the deacons and members decided to cancel services.  I didn’t want to go out to St. Basil in dicey weather.  So, I stayed home and made salmon cakes for brunch as I proceeded to begin one of my goals in the Orthodox Church, the organization of the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  The blog site is up.  I ran the skeleton past some of my fellows in the state and posted the link on the Black Orthodox Christians Facebook page and my home page.  Soon, I’d like to send this to every Orthodox congregation (Eastern and Oriental) just to see how many of us are out there and how many people are interested in having a more multi-cultural Church.

It looks like my Chrismation will be on the first Sunday in January.  I’m looking at having two sponsors.  One is a member of St. Basil and the other is a friend I met in KC.  It will be interesting to learn Byzantine chant.  But, there is a soul and spirituality from the black Protestant music tradition that is more than worthy of being celebrated and preserved.  The feast day of St. Moses is the 28th of August.  I am thinking the state chapter of the BSMB could plan to meet at a church to celebrate with some of the classic Negro Spirituals.  This could be our first state wide project.  We will see.

We sang this at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference one year.  I wish we had this in the Baptist Hymnal.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 6): Wisdom for the Road

7:00 am to 12:00 pm/ 13 October/ Kansas City MO

So by using the worst form of interstate transportation, I came half way across the country to attend a Divine Liturgy at a Serbian Orthodox Church that had elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy (umbrellas over the Eucharist is cool).  St. Mary’s has three readers to give the scriptures in Amharic, English, and Serbian (or was it Slavonic).  This was a very beautiful worship experience.  If only I didn’t have to catch the 1 pm bus.  I would have loved to linger after service (and apologize for coming up for the blessings for the catechist when, officially, I am  not one) and have those last conversations and good-byes.  This inter-cultural, inter-racial fellowship was a glimpse of what heaven will look like.  If I could have, I would have decided to stay in KC and be a part of the family at St. Mary’s.

Yet, my calling is here in my beloved eastern VA and (for now) as a Baptist pastor.  But, what am I to do will all that I have experienced?  For over a year, I have grown in the knowledge and spirituality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Perhaps if I were not a pastor, I could go ahead and convert.  But even if I could afford to leave Trinity Baptist Church, would it be fair for me to up and leave one of the most appreciative and loving congregations a man could ask for?

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Having dinner the night before with Fr. Jerome Sanderson and Subdeacon Paul Abernathy shared an obvious piece of advice.  That morning Turbo Qualls reminded me of the challenge I have already taken.

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From the father and deacon:  Take your time and make good steps.  It is too easy to wish to either run away to St. Basil or try to force what little I know down the throats of my congregation (I tried by praying the opening prayer of the Trisagion prayers during the invocation.  Some of my members felt uncomfortable with springing it on them without warning.).  I can’t take the easy way out.  Bringing Orthodoxy to African-Americans and anyone else in this area who is willing to listen will be and is a challenge.  Actually, there are people I communicate with who are interested in how I came to be involved with Orthodoxy and how I balance being a Baptist pastor and yet one who practices elements of and has a deep appreciation for this ancient faith (praying the Hours, keeping the fasting rules, venerating icons).  I have set something of an idea that I would convert to Orthodoxy sometime in 2015.  Who knows, I may or may not convert then.  It may be that I remain Baptist, yet with a strong slant towards Eastern Christian thought.  Or, as some Orthodox have suggested, I will reach a point where I just can’t stand being away from the church so much and take the plunge.  In either case, I need to be very prayerful and careful of each decision I make about my journey and how I invite others to walk with me.

But this is a journey that I must share.  Turbo told me that a good pastor is someone who shares what he knows with his people.  I have not been shy about telling people about my journey.  I think that pursuing Orthodoxy has been one of the best things that has happened in my Christian journey.  I am learning about how the Bible came into being and how it was originally interpreted by the church who first established the faith.  I am learning about the church that was founded by Africans, Asians, and Europeans.  As best as conditions allow, I am practicing the faith the way it has been done for almost 2,000 years.  This is a pearl of great price!  How can I not want to share it?

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

So, what is the plan?  Right now, I see myself as a bridge builder between the traditional Black Baptist and Orthodox Churches.  My task is to interpret between both of these very different worlds.  There are some strong similarities, especially with the older manifestations of our church during slavery and Jim Crow.  Yet, there are stark differences in theology and thought.  Surely, there are people far more qualified for this task.  Yet, it has been given to me.  May the Lord lead me to lead others in love, truth, and wisdom.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 5): Wisdom From New Friends

1:00 pm – 9:30 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

During lunch, we had round table discussion about race and the church. Sure enough, there are some Orthodox congregations who are not receptive to black converts. One of the things that has crippled the spread of the Orthodox church was the various ethnic groups kept their faith closed and did not evangelize to others of any race. Except for St. Herman and the other Russian missionaries to Alaska in the 18th century, the church made no major effort to win converts. In 1987, the Antiochians threw the doors of Orthodoxy open to all who sought the faith. But because of traditional ethnic bonds and good old American racism, there are still some Orthodox churches that keep their doors closed to African-Americas who may want to convert.

Thank God this has not been my experience. There is not one Orthodox church that I have visited that I was not welcomed. The church I attend (when I can) is in a city with a reputation for being bigoted. But, the members are from all over Hampton Roads and various ethnic backgrounds. To me, the racial divide works both ways. I think black people need to open their minds and hearts and see that the Holy Spirit is more than just clapping and shouting in church. We need to learn that Africans originally practiced liturgical worship. Even today when Ethiopians immigrate here, they don’t go to our AME, Baptist, COGIC, or any other African-American congregation. They go to any Orthodox church they can find. And if there is enough of them in a general area to have a congregation, they form a parish.

Perhaps one of the most compelling people I have met and heard is Rodney Knott. Bro. (Dortheos) Knott directs ReEngage Services, a mentoring program to encourage men to be responsible fathers and contributors to society. He has a sense of compassion and toughness that seems to be very effective. I was blessed to be in the small group discussion with him and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel. I’d love to have those two brothers come to King William and evangelize for a week. I think they could convert almost half of the men in the county to the Orthodox Church.

Again my health was not up to par, which reeked havoc on my attention span. What I did hear of Mother Katherine Weston’s talk on “Loneliness” was very interesting. I had no idea there was no such word until the 1800’s and the industrial revolution. One thing I did write down that is worth thinking about in this time of social media meanness and isolation that she said, “Real conversation can be messy.” No doubt, there can be no true community nor church unless we are willing to have compassionate dialog.

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Actually, I was impressed with the nuns who attended the conference. These women have rejected the world’s standards of beauty of clothing, make-up, and all to live in humble simplicity. There was one younger sister, I guess mid-20’s, who could probably attract a nice young man. Yet, she has shunned human marriage for a divine, spiritual matrimony to God and the church. There is nothing like being in the presence of women monastics. They are full of wisdom and compassion.

I had been looking forward to hearing and meeting Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy.  Had he been Protestant, Paul could have started his own non-denominational church and made himself a bishop.  He could be a mega-church minister with a little time and effort.  Instead, this brother is in the Hill District of Pittsburgh “Building Community in Profound Brokenness.”  I liked what he said about not cutting ourselves away from redemptive suffering.  When we run from it, the result is fear and self hate.  When we accept it, we become one with the suffering people we serve.  I ate with him and Fr. Jerome.  I will share notes on that conversation in my final article.

Dr. Carla Thomas is a wonderful combination of brilliance and compassion.  While I am not qualified to open and run a free clinic as she did in a small town in Alabama, she does present a model for building an Orthodox community anywhere.  Meet a practical need of the people and make the prayers a part of what is done.  From her clinic, an Orthodox Church was organized.  Indeed, something similar is happening to Paul in Pittsburgh.  The goal is to bridge the faith with the needs of people.

Fr. Moses Berry uses history as a bridge.  His museum in the heart of Ozark country and traveling lectures about slavery and black communities during Jim Crow helps to break down the barriers between the races.  We tend to put up stereotypes and avoid facts.  Not Fr. Moses.  He has slave neck irons to show the pain of the brutal system and quilts that depict the fact that we are a people who (by the grace of God) constantly create something out of nothing.  I like his example.  We should talk with one another about the past in love and not accusation.

I am no night owl.  So again, I got a ride back with Mrs. Mathews and the boys.  I hope someone recorded the “Circle Wrap Up” and will post it on You Tube or Ancient Faith Radio.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 3): An Urban Beacon

9:00 am to 9:00 pm/ 11 October/ Kansas City, MO

I arrived early at St. Mary’s and needed to crash for a couple of hours.  The lady at Reconciliation Ministries was nice enough to let me in.  Then, I was greeted by a nun ( I feel a bit foolish that I don’t remember her name).  I was also greeted by a very remarkable Fr. Paisius Altschul.  He and his late wife founded Reconciliation Ministries as a non-denominational mission/ministry.  They became Orthodox and established a Serbian parish in inner city Kansas City.  I was very impressed that they started a church in such an unlikely area not with a plan to make a mega-church.  Their only motivation was to serve homeless people and to share the ancient faith.  Climbing stairs to the third and fourth floors for the sanctuary and fellowship hall was a bit different.  But, I couldn’t help but to think that this is the way a church ought to start. 

This beacon was not only the building.  The church was in the heart and hospitality of the people as well.  Fr. and Matushka Justin Matthews (and their 3 sons) opened their home to me and another house guest, Turbo Qualls.  Rather than the well groomed suburbs, the Matthews family lived blocks away from the church and the people in need.  The boys, though raised with some amount of privilege, got to see first hand what poverty was like and how people struggle to do better in life.  Turbo is an African-American convert to Orthodoxy who’s story has been told on Ancient Faith Radio and the Orthodox Christian Network.  He was the 4 pm speaker on “Iconography: Expressions of Culture and Faith.”  A statement that he made separates iconography from general pictures.  “Jesus is not a story book character.”  Thus, the icon is not something that we can conveniently throw away.  The icon is an expression of our faith and a window for us to see into the world beyond.  Combined with viewing the movie “We Are All Supermen” (a documentary of how St. Mary’s, Reconciliation Services, and Reengage [a ministry focused on transforming males into men] have combined to improve lives in the Troost neighborhood of KC), the conference was making a powerful impression on me within the first hours.

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It was an honor to meet the founder of the Brotherhood, Fr. Moses Berry.  Also, Subdeacon Paul Abernathy and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel Johnson.  I have heard these brothers on You Tube and Vimeo.  I am humbled that these men of God even took the time to read my little blog.  Had I been well rested, I could have spoken with these men later into the night than I did.  But, the bus ride (and the abuse I did to my body with way too many sugar-sweetened beverages) took a toll on me and I left with Matuska Matthews and the boys around during the “Music:  Expressions of Culture and Faith” session (which was very entertaining).  Meeting people that I knew from Facebook (John Norman, Orlando Greenhill, and others) and those I didn’t know from Adam was terrific.  I even met Sarah Motley from Salem VA.  She has been coming to the conference for years.  Oh yeah, there will be a Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black!

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Two things also moved me that could be taken for granted.  Vespers; prayer was one of the main things that drew me to Orthodoxy.  The differences between my Antiochian parish and the Serbian order were slight.  We were all praying the same thing no matter what part of the country, race, ethnic background (there were some Ethiopians and Eastern European descendants as well as a Chinese family) or jurisdiction.  I felt like I was among family.  What is cooler is that we are all praying the same thing at the same times (the Hours) when we get home.  The dinner was also quite unifying as we  enjoyed delicious Ethiopian food.  Injera, a couple of different types of lentils, steamed vegetables, salad, and good conversation with good people.  The music program topped off a great evening.  If only I had flown or took the train.  If only I hadn’t abused my body.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (part 1): The Ancient Faith Afro-American Conference

9 October/7:30 am/West Point, VA

Contemplating this new step in my journey

Contemplating this new step in my journey

 

Well, it is here … sort of.  I am taking the midnight bus from Richmond.  So, I am giving something of a prelude as to what in the world I am stepping into and why am I going in a direction so radically different than the western Christianity I was born in raised into.

I have to thank God for the way I was raised and the church that brought me up.  I still remember my grandmother telling bedtime stories to my brother and I.  My parents were devout in raising Jason and I in the love of Jesus Christ.  We went to church diligently.  Even when we were away from our beloved Baptist Liberty Baptist Church in King William, we went somewhere.  Had it not been for the Baptist Church, I would have never known and grown in God’s grace and mercy.  My life would have been a bus accident without it.  So, I praise God for all who have played a role in my Christian journey.

But, I feel there is something deeper that we are missing out on in the black Baptist (or any ethnic Protestant tradition).  Not to sound like a broken record.  But, it amazes me how little we know of our contribution to the early Christian faith.  It’s like … an African carried the cross for Jesus at his crucifixion, there was a Negro with Paul in Antioch, Philip baptized an Ethiopian,  and then came Richard Allen and the establishment of the AME Church.  From the time of the apostles to Colonial America, it is as if there was no black presence in Christianity and no need to learn about them.

Talking with Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Church, we were too busy with our struggle against segregation to learn that there was still a church in Antioch.  It wasn’t until 1987 that some 2,000 American Evangelicals came into the Diocese.  With the work of Father Moses Berry and the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, African-Americans are discovering what Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and the like have known all along.  Africans were among the great men and women that established the Orthodox faith.  The Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Churches still exist.  That missing gap between Simeon called Niger and Absalom Jones is there for us to learn about. Now that we live in an age where we can have a black man in the White House and another as the head of the opposition party, the door is open for us to learn about, tap into, and even convert to this ancient and active version of Christianity called the Orthodox Church.

I guess I like taking risk, or whatever.  But, black people (and small town whites as well) aren’t going to hear the message of Orthodoxy unless someone of their own kind is willing to take the plunge and tell others of what a marvelous gift it is.  So, here I am.  I hadn’t even packed yet.  I missed those really good Greyhound discounts.  Yet, I know my wife will be well taken care of.  No, I don’t expect, nor can I afford, to convert to Orthodoxy when I get back home.   I don’t expect to do so next year.  But, the path is before me.

I gotta get ready for work.

 

Praise & Worship? Baptist & Orthodoxy? Answering Some Questions

First, I owe a great-big apology to Van Ness Colbert for being late with my response to this one.  I meant to give you a well thought out answer on Sunday when you first posed the question.  But, this has not been a good week for well thinking for me.  Nevertheless, here is my two-cent answer to your question:

Is there a difference between praise and worship?
To me, the answer is a bit obvious.  Worship is the totality of the time that we intentionally spend with God.  From the days of the tent tabernacle to St. John Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy, people are called together with the intent purpose of taking part in the songs, readings, sacrifices, rituals, and gathered fellowship to show their dedication to the divine.  Praise is but one facet of worship.  It can occupy a separate portion of the worship experience, or be done in conjunction with something else (usually during hymns or when the preacher is “closing out” the sermon).  
I am more than a little disturbed when people blur the lines of praise and worship, as if they are one in the same.  Even in the Church of God In Christ (COGIC) tradition, there were well defined places in the worship where the congregation was encouraged to express themselves vocally and to be in reverent silence.  I am afraid that we tend to want to verbally respond so much that even the reading of scripture has become a place for “praise breaks.”  Paul taught the Corinthians in his first letter to them that God is not the author of confusion but of peace (14:26-38).  But, we tend to excuse these infractions as “being caught up in the Spirit.”    Often, people are so programmed into  an expected response that they will go overboard in praise.  With some, it is because they have had a genuine experience with God doing something miraculous or bringing them through a great trial.  With others, it is because they think this is the way they are supposed to respond.  I have no problem with giving praises to God.  I think we should “Let all things be done decently and in order”  (I Cor. 14:38) in worship.  
 
 

Seraphim Rose

 

Cyprian of Carthage

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
My dear sister, Elizabeth Gatling, threw this question out last night:
I have a question. I have a good friend who is a Baptist preacher and very open to discussing the church. However, he recently sent me the following pm:

“So I guess the flaw in the Orthodox Church is its prejudice against other churches…considering the post with the quote from Cyprian. The more I look into it the more uncomfortable I get when it comes to how Orthodoxy views me. It’s almost offensive.”

How do I respond?

First of all, I think this preacher needs to look at the background of St. Cyprian‘s writings.  The Roman bishop  Novatian took the position that Christians that stopped being Christian during the Roman persecutions could not be permitted back in the church except by re-baptism.  Cyprian thought this was too harsh a standard and allowed the truly repentant “backsliders” back into the church.  He wasn’t criticizing any of the heretical movements of the time, but the Novatianist who put up a ridiculous obstacle for lapsed Christians to come back into the fold.  
Cyprian was writing in the third century under third century circumstances to third century issues.  Would he be harsh against us Protestants who have little or no exposure to Orthodox Christianity?  Of course not!  We aren’t heretics.  We didn’t reject and rebel against the apostle’s doctrine as taught by the fathers and the ecumenical councils.  We Baptist rebelled against the more acceptable Protestants who broke away from the Roman Catholics.  In Bible colleges and seminaries, we don’t really study Orthodoxy because we are being prepared to serve in our own denomination.  So, to think that the Orthodox Church has some sort of prejudice against us is not the case (there are individual bigots in every church including us Baptist).   
Rather than feel uncomfortable about the Orthodoxy because of statements by an ancient saint that weren’t directly applied to our time, the words of a modern saint (not yet canonized) are far more helpful.  Fr. Seraphim Rose’s reply to an African-American catechumen speaks to all who are uncomfortable when studying Orthodoxy:  
We should view the non-Orthodox as people to whom Orthodoxy has not yet been revealed, as people who are potentially Orthodox (if only we ourselves would give them a better example!). There is no reason why we cannot call them Christians and be on good terms with them, recognize that we have at least our faith in Christ in common, and live in peace especially with our own families. 
I will try not to be slack in answering questions again.  

After A Year’s Journey: My Inquiry into the Orthodox Church

About this time last year, I decided to learn about Orthodox Christianity by immersing myself in the prayers and practices of the church as much as I could without making a full conversion.  It began with learning about the African saints that I wasn’t exposed to in my African-American upbringing.  I spent a lot of time on the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black‘s website and John Norman’s Ancient Christian Witness blog.  Playing on Second Life, I was led to Ancient Faith Radio and indulged in a steady diet of liturgical music and very informative and inspiring podcast.  Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” series was extremely eye-opening with his comparisons of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches and doctrines.  I wanted a practical guide in the prayers and fasting cycle of the church.  Thus, I joined St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline of the Antiochian Archdiocese and obtained a Greek Ecclesiastical Calendar which list all of the feast, fast, and saints that are recognized on each day of the year.  As my church does not have worship services on 5th Sundays, I visited and worshiped at Orthodox Churches including The Church of the Transfiguration in Charlottesville, Sts. Constantine & Helen in Newport News (Greek), St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond (Orthodox Church in America), and St. Basil the Great in Poquoson (Antiochian).

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

St. Basil has become my home away from home because all of the services are in English and it is the closest to my home in West Point and workplace in Williamsburg.  I have attended a few of the Vespers and Lenten services there as well as my first Pascha (Easter).  I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Bishop Thomas Joseph there in January.  Bro. Norman recommended that I meet the priest, Fr. James Purdie, and the church was on the list of Antiochian parishes suggested in the St. Philip’s Discipline.  Poquoson, to put it mildly, has a reputation of not being accepting to African-Americans.  St. Cyprian, by its name and iconography, would seem to be a better fit for me.  But, St. Basil is multi-ethnic (mostly converts, Eastern European descendants, and a few Ethiopians) and I feel the love of Christ among the congregation (as I have felt this love with the other churches I have worshiped in also).   Besides, I didn’t see so much as one Confederate flag in anyone’s yard driving to and from the church.  Even if I did, that alone is no indication of one being a Klansman.

After a year’s journey into Orthodoxy, I have come to understand and deeply appreciate some things about this ancient faith.  First of all, that Orthodox Christianity is a lifestyle and not just another denomination.  There are prayers that have been embraced by the church for hundreds  and two thousand years that have been handed down through the generations.  Somewhere in a little Serbian town, a blue-eyed blond teenager offers the words of St. Macarius of Egypt, a brown-skinned hermit that lived in the desert in the 4th century.  An Ethiopian can walk into a Russian Church during Great Lent and know when the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian is offered without being able to speak the language as he knows the bowing, crossing, and prostrations that are in the order of worship.  Of course Orthodoxy encourages people to pray to God from the heart with extemporaneous expressions.  But, when one prays a prayer of the church fathers,  there are others around the world offering the same words.  This is a “touching and agreeing” that goes beyond praying for the whole world.  This is prayer with the body of Christ in the world and a link between present and past generations of Christians.  It is encouraging to know that the same Trisagion prayer I  just offered was said by a monk  on Mt. Athos in 1313 and a Syrian shop keeper 13 minutes ago.

A discipline of prayer, the Hours, has become my favorite tool for maintaining my spiritual life.  I don’t have time to go through the 119th Psalm or 100 Jesus Prayers.  But, I keep the prayer of Hours at my desk at work for 9am, noon, and 3pm and at my bedside if I wake up in the middle of the night.  Years ago, I heard a Baptist deacon suggest that we keep “short sin accounts.”  When we sin, we must not let too much time accumulate before we repent.  Keeping the Hours, even with brief prayers, is extremely helpful in spiritual warfare.  Knowing that monks, nuns, and other Orthodox believers are doing the same thing makes the prayers more powerful.  The whole body of the church is lifting up the name of Jesus at the same times.

Fasting is another portion of the Orthodox lifestyle that has become a part of me.  Refraining from meats, dairy, fish with backbones on Wednesdays, Fridays, and according to certain periods of the year is a healthier approach to life than eating whatever, whenever, and how much one chooses.  Wednesday is the commemoration of the betrayal of Christ and Friday the crucifixion.  This is a great weekly practice to keep the suffering of our Lord in our minds during the week.  There is nothing wrong with these foods and they are to be eaten during fast-free periods as well.  But, as an Orthodox Christian, you practice the wisdom of setting aside some pleasures and delights of this world to focus on the world beyond.  No, the bishops and priest do not send policemen to force believers to fast.  But, understanding the purpose of the practice makes fasting more of an invitation than a threat.

Unholy images, such as graphic violence and pornography, are among Satan’s greatest weapons to distract us from God.  In Orthodox Christianity, icons (holy images) are used to keep our focus on worship in the church and in our home icon corners.  The icons are not artistically accurate and are painted (or written) in a way to highlight Christian doctrine.  They are not to be worshiped as God.  But, as the gold-hammered cherubim on the Mercy Seat and cherubim woven into the fabric of the temple in the Book of Exodus, icons represent the presence of Christ, Mary, and the saints and are to be honored as such.  Having icons to pray with has been a blessing to me.  Incense, which symbolizes the prayers of the people being lifted up to heaven is another great tool in public and personal worship.  Sight, sound, touch, hearing, and taste are all a part of the Orthodox daily life.

The stories of the numerous saints and martyrs are very inspiring.  Who knew the woman at the well and the centurion at the crucifixion had names and helped to spread the Gospel?  And how odd is it that during Black History Month, we African-Americans will have pictures of Malcolm X in our churches and not one icon of the Egyptian Bishop who compiled the list of books that would be accepted as the New Testament?  Instead of buying the newest book from some “flavor of the month” bishop about “going to the next level,” Orthodoxy offers a rich foundation of ancient wisdom from the Desert Fathers to the new martyrs of the Soviet persecutions.   

I admit, my first visits to a Divine Liturgy were confusing.  Greek words, no soul-stirring Gospel music, the sermon lasting about 10-minutes, I can’t have communion, all the standing (St. Cyprian has no pews and a few chairs), bowing, crossing (prostrations during Lent), incense, Mary the Theo-what, and kiss the preacher’s hand?  It is no wonder that most dyed-in-the-wool Protestants and nominal Christians would quickly reject Orthodoxy as pagan idolatry and detestable to any real “Bible-believeing” Christian.

But, the 4th century  bishops of the Orthodox Church selected the books of the Bible.  If I can trust their judgement in the Holy Scriptures, who am I to doubt a worship that is just as old?  After participating in the services a few more times, I understood what was going on and why things were done.  I can go into a Greek church and keep up.  I love going to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  It is worship that is in line with the scriptures, 2,000 years of tradition, and symbolically connects earth to heaven.

This and next year, I do not anticipate leaving the Baptist Church and Converting to Orthodoxy.  On a practical level, I can’t afford to leave the pulpit and my wife is not that enthusiastic about a church that has no women clergy.  Spiritually, there are elements of the black church that still have tremendous value to me.  The preaching of Gardner Taylor, Howard Thurman‘s wisdom, the strength of the Negro Spirituals to Thomas Dorsey and the Staple Singers; I don’t think it is good for me to turn my back on such a legacy.

Yet, many of those who claim to inherit this legacy are doing just that.  I see too many ministers and ministries chasing after the newest and “most relevant” styles of trying to attract “paying customers” rather than standing firmly on the shoulders of the giants of our churches.  Rather than a refuge for our sin-sick souls, there is a tendency for too many of our churches to praise our way to some “next level” without knowing and walking on the firm  foundation the older generations set before us.  This is a bad trend.

So, I will use my time wisely to read and study more about the ancient faith.  I will continue the practices of prayer, fasting, and attend the Divine Liturgies and other services when I can.  I will also gain strength from the faith of my father’s and grandfather’s generations.  My time to convert will come.  May I do so in grace, wisdom, mercy, and love.

On To Pentecost: Accepting Mary the Theotokos

As a teenager, I once raised my voice in disrespect to my mother.  My Father was in the house.  My parents were (are, as they are still alive) old school when it came to corporal punishment.  In my childhood, I knew that when I did wrong, I would get a spanking.  An hour or two afterwards, all was forgiven.  I never thought that they hated me or were going to kill me, no matter how much I angered them.  That time, as I look back at it, I praise God that daddy only fussed at me.  If he would have laid one finger on me, he would have killed me.  That is the angriest I had ever seen my father until this very day.

So, I can’t help but to wonder how we anger God the Son when we Protestants vocalize similar disdain and disrespect toward the woman who brought Him into the world.  “MARY DOES NOT SAVE YOU!  ONLY JESUS SAVES YOU!  YOU NEED TO READ YOUR BIBLE!”  Of course, ultimate salvation comes from believing in Jesus Christ.  He and He alone came down from heaven, was crucified, and rose from the grave.  The Holy Trinity that we worship is the three persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Mary was a human being and cannot be included in the divine Godhead.  Anyone who proclaims anything different is a heretic that needs to be corrected.  Yet by her very character, role in our salvation, and the meaning of her presence; Mary should be honored and respected by all Christians.

 

The late Patriarch Paulos  of Ethiopia.  This man has studied the Bible in Geez, Amharic, Greek, Slavonic, and English.

The late Patriarch Paulos of Ethiopia. This man has studied the Bible in Geez, Amharic, Greek, Slavonic, and English.

 

First of all, that Mary was a virgin.  She was pure and untouched through any lawful or unlawful sexual contact.  We are taught by the Apostle Paul to think of things that are pure and praiseworthy.  In our over sexed society where even our ministers are engaging in illicit activities, it only makes sense that we would uphold someone who has kept herself from human intercourse.  In our society, women are frequently refered to in rather unflattering terms (need I give you examples?).  Here is one woman who cannot be regarded with such vulgar labels.  Which is more that God the Father confirmed her character by sending Gabriel to her with these words;

Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!  (Luke 1:28)

If God the Father favors and was with this pure woman, why then shouldn’t Mary be a part of our Christian living?  And what has been the result of not making her and her virgin character a part of our Protestant pursuit of holy living?  It is no wonder that Satan has had an easy time convincing us to disregard sexual purity.  When the blessing and favor of celibacy is ignored, we readily succumb to fornication as a way of life.  Without the iconic example of being clean, we frequently turn to the mild filth of sexually suggestive comedy and drama, horrific crimes of child molestation and rape, and everything in between the extremes.  This is not to say that venerating an icon of the Theotokos will instantly cure lust (oh, how I wish it would).  But, reflecting on the story of her purity and devotion to the One she gave birth to is a way to refocus our minds on the right way to look at our selves sexually. 

Old Time Religion

As I preached at Trinity Baptist Church yesterday, Mary was a virgin not only with her body.  She was virginal in her close associations as well.  She was betrothed to Joseph of the house of David and  spent three months with her cousin, Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias the priest.  Perhaps she had one or two shady acquaintances.  But, her loving ties were with people who knew how to walk with God.  Furthermore, Mary had to have a pure relationship with God.  When Isaiah was in God’s presence, he fell on his face and cried out “woe to me.”  Eve tried to hide herself from God because of her sin.  In the company of Gabriel (who had previously appeared only to a prophet and priest), Mary was troubled about the greeting and wondered what he meant.  Isn’t this what we want of our kids, spouses, and ourselves?  Don’t we want pure bodies, close friendships with God-fearing people, and a secure walk of faith?  And if so, what is wrong with giving honor (not worship) to the woman who embodies these blessings and gave birth to our Savior?

As a Baptist pastor, I cannot and will not just walk in the church with an icon of the Theotokos and tell everyone to venerate and make prostrations.  But, in my private prayer life, I see the beauty, theology, and value in giving her proper honor as taught in the Orthodox Church.