African Saints

Humility is the Solution

It is African-American History Month. And this is the first year that we observe this month under a president that wants to “Make America Great Again.”  Under the administration of his predecessor, the first African-American to hold the office, we were still the greatest nation in the world.  Apparently, the political left and right cannot, or for the sake of promoting their agendas, refuse to come to an agreement of what makes for greatness.  I am choosing to ignore their arguments because in African and Orthodox Christian history, there are consistent elements and examples of what greatness is and that we have agreed upon in all places at all times.  I will lift up one element and example for your consideration; the humility of Macarius the Great of fourth century Egypt.

180px-st_macarius_the_great_with_cherub

One day, Macarius was gathering reeds to make baskets when Satan began to beat him with a scythe. His blows had no effect on the man and he stopped and left him alone.  As the devil was leaving, he told the saint, “I do everything you do.  You stay up all night praying, I don’t sleep.  You fast, I don’t eat.  You have one advantage over me that I cannot overcome; your humility” (1).  For those of you unfamiliar with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a book that African-American Christians would do well to read and study), I give you these words from the Apostle Paul; “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … He made himself of no reputation … He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death … Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-10).

Russuan Paper Mache Cross

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

In both sides of the political argument, humility is tragically absent. I use this adjective because without this critical element that Jesus and Macarius lived by, greatness will not happen; except that we may achieve great failure and embarrassment.  Let’s take the right; everyone wants a strong economy with good jobs, and protection from enemies.  The desire to achieve these goals is no excuse for belligerence.  The left’s concerns for diversity, fairness, and social progress are also admirable and necessary.  Vulgarity only hurts the cause one struggles for.  And it may be that the media is drowning out the more conciliatory voices on both sides for the sake of ratings and profits (I don’t doubt this at all).   But, with few (if any) voices on either side are pointing out to humility as the means of achieving greatness, calling on God to bless America or saying that God is on our side are empty words that will generate atheism faster than anything Charles Darwin could have dreamed of.

It will not be any political leader or party that will humble the heart of America. It will take the masses to embrace the mentality of our Savior and the African saint (and I welcome a similar spirit from those of other faiths and no faith).  For African-Americans, perhaps a deeper look at the humility of our forefathers would help.  Not every slave was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner.  The very existence of devout Christian slaves whose spirituality went deeper than that of their masters was an indictment against the false Christianity of the American South and their friends in the North.  For a modern example, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by laying on the ropes and taking hard punches to tire out his opponent.  And at the right time, he fought back.  For the Orthodox Church, while we do pray for our Cesar’s, we don’t comply with their spirit.  Many of our greatest saints rejected the popular wave of Christianity after the edict of Milan and fled to the deserts of Africa, Asia, and (later) the wilderness of Europe and Siberia.  Those who didn’t flee aided and spoke up for the downtrodden, rejected the excesses of their society, and pointed to the examples in the Egyptian and Northern Thebaid on how best to follow Christ.   Indeed, St. Herman and other missionaries to Alaska stood up for the rights of the natives against Russian colonial exploiters and oppressors.  To this day, Natives there choose and respect Orthodoxy over Protestantism and Catholicism because of their example.

st_anthony_great_2

St. Anthony was shown all of the traps the Devil had spread all over the world.  He groaned and asked what could get through them all.  Then, a voice came to him and said, “Humility” (2).  It is not so much that conservatives have to become liberals or vice-versa.  But, we have to approach one another and the issues of our country with this all-powerful virtue.  Solutions will not be easy.  But, with humility and God’s grace, we can solve our problems.  Without it, we can only expect to continue with this destructive vicious circle we are in and for it to get worse.

  1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs. 129, 130
  2. Desert Fathers, pg. 2
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The Trap of Little Sins

I have a little print-paper icon of St. Moses of Ethiopia that I use as a bookmark.  It is currently in use as I read My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt as part of my bedroom prayer rule.  On the icon are these words from the African monastic,

Even in little sins, let us force ourselves and not become lazy for truly we have forgiveness of sins

From the Russian priest, I found these words on page 58,

Most men not only bear Satan’s burden willingly in their hearts, but they become so accustomed to it that they often do not feel it, and even imperceptibly increase it

moses and kronstadt

It is not hard for us to wake up and repent of our “big” sins.  We are quick to be offended, saddened, or feel some other emotion when an obvious act of immorality has been committed.  If our vision along our spiritual journey goes no further than what can readily be seen, then Satan has blinded us.  As long as we aren’t observant that we don’t fall for the “minor” temptations and make excuses for us committing them, the evil one is allowing us to rot from the inside.  He is often waiting for the rot to set in so deeply that when faced with a major temptation, we will fall quite easily and not realize how we could do such a thing.

Oh, it is a little thing for a man to “check out” a shapely woman every now and then and consider it harmless.  Yet, our Lord taught us better;

But, I say to you, if a man looks upon a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:28)

In many cases of child molestation and rape it is not unusual for law enforcement to find the perpetrator had a pornography habit.  Affairs and fornication begin with the eyes and the mind long before the sexual organs are involved.  And rather than confront a son’s (or daughter’s, I suppose) lengthy times in the restroom or alone online, even Christian parents resign themselves to the phrase, “boys will be boys.”  The perpetual laziness in not being watchful against and embracing lust is the cause of men and women failing at relationships as we don’t know how to relate to one another as beings who pursue purity of heart.  Even as we pursue our “soul mates,” lust stains our souls so that we wouldn’t know the “right one” unless an archangel actually pointed him (or her) out.  And even if we do find a good spouse, those little sins left unchecked and well fed are able to rot the best of marriages.

Murder can begin with unchecked anger, theft with envy, hate with pride; every “big” sin begins with a “little” sin, or a series of “little” sins.  Care must be taken that we search them out within ourselves in times of contemplation and prayer.  We who seek God cannot afford to accept the worldly excuses for them.  They must not be tolerated in ourselves.  But, we must repent of them no matter how minor they may seem.

 

 

 

Preparing for the Next Chapter

When I left the Baptist church to become an Orthodox Christian, I knew that I would not immediately be ordained into the clergy.  I had much to learn about the Church and parish life.  I needed time to adjust from being the key figure in an (almost) all African-American congregation to being in a “white” church.  Besides, not having to come up with sermons and teach the adult Sunday School class every week was very relaxing.  I have been serving as a lay chanter/reader during Matins and at the altar during Divine Liturgy.  While I haven’t really done as much as I should have with the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I have spoken about African saints at St. Andrews (OCA) and St. Nicholas (Ukrainian) this year.   It looks like my time of just absorbing and chilling is coming to an end.

Hanging with my good brothers John Norman and Orlando Greenhill at the 2013 St. Moses Conference.

Firstly, I have an ambitious vision for the VA Brotherhood.  I want to visit 8 to 12 different parishes in 2016 to encourage evangelism and have quarterly events in different parts of the state.  I also want to use a couple of contacts with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship to share the ancient faith on college campuses.  Starting a prayer group in my home in West Point is not completely out of the question.

Some of my brothers and sisters at St. Basil have been asking me if I want to become a deacon or priest.  While the thought has been in the back of my mind, I have preferred to keep it there for now.  I have been blessed with a financial gift to further my education.  Last week, I received an acceptance letter from the Antiochian House of Studies.  Earning a Masters of Applied Orthodox Theology will not guarantee me ordination into anything.  But, at least, I will have the tools needed to be effective wherever the Church needs me.

I have accepted the opportunity to teach the teen seminar at our Church for Sunday School.  Being a convert and former Baptist pastor, I hope to give these kids a perspective about Orthodoxy that they may not get from someone who was brought up in the Church.  Besides leading them to knowledge and spiritual maturity, I want to encourage them not to take the faith for granted.  Orthodoxy has a precious depth of 2,000 years of history, prayer, saints, spirituality, and wisdom that no other expression of Christianity can give.  If I can help instill a love for learning and living the ancient faith, that will be a blessing.

When I was still at Trinity Baptist Church, someone who was concerned about my talking about Orthodoxy from the pulpit asked, “Where is all of this leading?”  I didn’t know then.  I still don’t know now.  But, St. Cyprian of Carthage (whom we “new calendars” honor today) let God lead him in hiding during persecution to keep the Church encouraged and to his martyrdom as he encouraged his executor to behead him.  Before him, were Perpetua and Felicity who were martyred in that great city.  And before them were Neokorus (a Carthaginian who served in the Roman army in Judea) and his grandson Callistratus, the later was martyred as he was discovered praying ceaselessly to Jesus and refused to worship any pagan god.  And among those who taught Neokorus (who was a witness to the death and resurrection of our Lord) may have been the Apostle Thomas who told the disciples as Jesus was to lead them back across the Jordan to see the dead Lazarus, “Let us go with him and die” (John 11:16).  I guess I am going to die to something so that I can live to something greater.

St. Sonny of Rollins: A Model for Ministry

I don’t know if Mr. Rollins would say that he qualifies for, or (like John Coltrane) ever desired to become a saint. Sonny Rollins is one of the premiere jazz artist in the world who is known for the distinctively powerful sound coming from his saxophone. As I watched the “Jazz” documentary series by Ken Burns, I found a compelling pattern of wisdom that mimics that of the Desert Fathers of ancient Christianity and that many a modern-day preacher would do well to practice.

Early in his career, Sonny emulated some of the great jazz artist of his time such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and the highly influential Charlie Parker. He made the tragic mistake of many young aspirants of seeking greater creativity through a heroin needle. But, unlike so many others who succumbed to the drug, Rollins overcame his addiction. He left the New York City music scene with all of its trappings and temptations and became a lowly day laborer. During this period of cleansing, he developed a desire to be the best artist he possibly could by being disciplined to his craft. When he came back to the clubs and recording studios, Sonny became one of the most formidable musicians on any instrument. One of the most acclaimed jazz albums, “Saxophone Colossus,” came after he made his return.

Sonny carefully chose who to associate with not only to stay clean, but to challenge his skills as well. John Coltrane, who also overcame a heroin addiction, was one such colleague. Legend has it that ‘Trane would call Sonny and play a riff or two from is sax into the phone and hang up. Sonny would call back and play something he had either been working on or from the top of his head and hang up. In Proverbs, it is written that as iron sharpens iron does a man sharpen another man. It is little wonder that no chronicle of great jazz musicians can be complete without these two men.

Sonny was true to his craft as a performer. He prefered to play in front of an audience rather than to make records in a studio. When performing, he refused to play uninspired. Jazz critics noted that Rollins would play the same lines over and over again as he felt it was the right thing to play rather than give the people what they wanted to hear when he didn’t feel like it. “Fake it ’till you make it,” was not a philosophy for this musician.

Sonny in thought

Sonny’s devotion and honesty in his craft was so extreme that he would abruptly stop performing for years. Legend has it that he would spend his time on the Brooklyn Bridge and other lonely places playing his sax. Perhaps this was to find inspiration and new ideas. Or, maybe he simply grew weary of concerts and recording contracts. But, when Rollins returned to the music scene, he did so with more brilliant and unique sounds.

So, what does this have to do with modern preaching and pastoral ministry? I think a lot. First of all, that ministers of today (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) need to take the time to humble themselves to eliminate addictions. Many of us are junkies on food, TV, lust, greed, pride, and even a few on drugs and alcohol. For us to approach altars and pulpits without doing the work to, at least, control our passions is spiritual malpractice. Playing off issues with excuses (“God is not through with me yet”) without making real effort to cleanse the soul doesn’t fool anyone for long. People see through the facades and either deem the ministry as a den of hypocrisy, or make excuses for their sinful ways as well as they praise the Lord. St. Moses the Black struggled against his passions for well over 10 years as did St. Mary of Egypt. There are some bad and evil habits that are hard to break. But, ministers of the gospel are called to strive to break them. Putting our personal business in the street is not a good idea. Neither is merely plastering over our faults with catch phrases. We must work with God to repair where we are broken, even if it means leaving our altars and pulpits for a while.

St. Moses the Black

We should be careful of the company we keep. I heard one preacher refer to a young lady who said, “I count my fingers and I count my friends. If I have more friends and fingers, I count my friends again.” St. Arsenius was one of the most strict ascetics who refused to be disturbed from his solitude, in particular by the opposite sex. monastics in general kept a distance from being popular and preferred a circle of the Abbott (or Abbess) and a couple of co-laborers. We likewise should have people around us that we can learn from and with and keep our inner circle of friends limited to a handful that can help us grow spiritually. Celebrity chasing should also be avoided that we don’t fall into the trap of seeking fame and fortune. Arsenius prayed that God would cause him to forget the visit of a noblewoman. Moses deceived a wealthy official that wanted to lavish him with gifts. Our goal as ministers is not to obtain the trappings of material success. While an ox should not be muzzled as it is treading out the grain, that is no excuse for us to be pigs. Our goal is to proclaim the gospel by what we preach, teach, and (most importantly) how we live.

We must be true to our congregations. In my years of preaching ministry, I have heard preachers “fake it ’till they make it” by using catch phrases (“when prayers go up, blessings come down”), popular songs, and “whooping” for the sake of getting a response from worshipers. In every seminary or minister’s conference, we are encouraged to develop our own voices. The fact is that well all fall into the trap of mimicking someone else because that is what people like to hear (I was more into Gardner C. Taylor). Some preachers have a style that people come to hear Sunday after Sunday and they preach the thing the same way even though they know God wants them to say something else differently. Fr. Seraphim Rose (who was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Russian monastics) was notorious for speaking little and speaking what came from God and 2,000 years of Christian wisdom and truth. I heard from a wise preacher that we are to preach to an audience of One. When we fail to address that One, we run the risk of forgetting who is One. We must preach only what we are called to and as much or as little as necessary.

Fr. Seraphim Rose

I heard Dr. William Curtis of the Hampton Minister’s Conference say that sometimes we need to leave ministry for a while and come back refreshed. Perhaps one of the reasons why good preachers go bad is that they didn’t have the courage to leave the pulpit. Because they want to keep pleasing their congregations and maintain their positions, they find themselves confused and frustrated. Such a man (or woman) of God is likely to fall into false doctrines, self medicate with substances, seek sexual pleasures outside of marriage, or even commit suicide. To leave the preaching ministry, especially if one earns a pastoral salary, is a major risk. But, if one is to preach, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” one may be called to put up or shut up. The one who is wise enough to shut him (or her) self up will be blessed. St. Macarius had an opportunity to enjoy great adoration from a nearby village that was about to repent to him after falsely accusing him of fathering a child. Rather than stay and accept their repentance and praises, he went deeper into the desert. St. Thais as well left her monastery after a highly regarded monk declared her to be the holiest among her sisters. Nothing more was written about Thais. The writings of Macarius are highly regarded throughout the Orthodox world and not unknown to Catholics and traditional Anglicans. Both are honored as examples of those who put their pursuit of God above the praises of man. No position nor amount of popularity must be allowed to take precedence over this pursuit.

In the documentary, Sonny Rollins is quoted, “We must always strive to be the best.” The pattern of this “saxophone Colossus” toward greatness is in line with the scriptures and saints. May we of the priesthood of believers, in particular those of the ordained clergy, do likewise.

NO SAINTS = NO SANITY

So, it has been revealed that the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” scenario was false and the city of Ferguson MO was discovered to have a problem with racial bias after a series of peaceful protest and violent riots based on that falsehood.  Meanwhile, a black student in Charlottesville VA with a clean record and good reputation gets his face slammed in the pavement by white law enforcement officers for supposedly using a fake ID at a bar.  And while these stories of racial clashes are broadcast all over the news, four black students on a historically black college campus were stabbed by black people in Baltimore MD.

Since 2013, I have been saying that there is a need for African-Americans and Americans in general to know the saints of Africa and turn to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, since I have no popularity or status, it is easy to ignore the words of a poor country preacher.  I really don’t care to have a national spotlight.  If someone else more noteworthy wishes to say the same thing I am saying and captivate the world’s attention, glory be to God.  Because the continued ignorance of the brown and black (red, yellow, and white as well) skinned holy men and women and the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church they belonged to is not working.

The situation in Charlottesville is personal to me as my wife is from that city.  My in-laws live there, I got married there, it is a home to me.  Dr. William Black, and Orthodox missionary to Kenya and Chanter at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in nearby Greenwood, recently spoke at UVA about the history of African Christianity on that campus.  St. Nicholas hosted a series on the topic “The Surprising Story of African Christianity” (I had the blessing of being one of the speakers).  With such a topic, there should have been a strong flow of traffic on I-64 to the church.  The hall that Dr. Black was speaking in should have been standing room only.  And had those police officers been in either audience, they may have learned that the very New Testament that they have was put together by a black man, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.  They may have learned why blonde haired, blue eyed, Russians love St. Moses of Ethiopia as an example of humility and forgiveness.  Maybe they did have reason to suspect that the young man they brutalized was up to no good.  But, if these men had knowledge of the African saints (better still, been devout Orthodox Christians), they would have handled the situation far more peacefully.

The situation in Baltimore also grieves me as my wife and I have family there.  Morgan State University is an historically black college like our alma matter, Virginia State University.  It is bad enough that someone outside of our race commits violence against us.  But, we haven’t even made our own communities safe places for ourselves.  And for this to happen on a campus where our young adults are striving to have a better future is nothing short of horrible.  In a place of higher learning, there should be more images of St. Anthony who is regarded as the father of Christian monasticism and St. Cyprian who led the church in Carthage during some of the worst Roman persecution.  St. Perpetua’s diary is one of the oldest writings of a Christian martyr.  But, even among our best and brightest, our youth and young adults are infected with the images of the likes of 2 Chainz, Nikki Manaj, Rick Ross (who is not the real Rick Ross), and that ilk.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black at the 2014 Ancient Faith Afro American Conference in Lima, Ohio

And what is the response to these unfortunate incidents?  A rally chanting “No Justice = No Peace?”  I have heard it said that it is crazy to do the same thing and expect a different result.  Equality and justice are good things to strive for.  But, apparently there is something deeper plaguing our society than rouge cops in Ferguson and Charlottesville.  That same rouge spirit surfaces in other places at other times.  At Morgan State, the administration is asking students to promote the positive things that are going on at the school.  There is nothing wrong with putting one’s best face forward.  But, unless the oral issues are dealt with, putting on a great shade of lipstick will not hide the rotting teeth.

I believe the real issue is that the religious culture in America does not honor and celebrate the holy men and women that God has given to us as examples of how to live.  We ignore their images, their role in establishing Christian doctrine, and their words of prayer and wisdom.  Think about it, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not with worship services, special chants and prayers, and special meals that keep with the Lenten Fast.  Irish and non-Irish tend to honor this holy man by having parades, parties, and drinking Guinness Stout.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is on December 6th (18th for Old Calendar Jurisdictions), not on Christmas Day.  December 25th (January 6th) is reserved for the birth of Jesus Christ.  St. Peter the Aleutian is not made known to Native Americans outside of the Pacific Northwest although his martyrdom is the first known on this continent.  Unlike Protestant missions, the Orthodox faith was not forced on anyone and Natives took to the Church as they could keep their culture and language and be Christian at the same time.  During the 1960’s, African-American Christians were too busy with the Civil Rights Movement to learn about the Desert Fathers, Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity, and the black saints.  Painting Jesus with an “afro” or “dreadlocks” is not good enough!  Too many black church leaders ignore the depths of African contributions to early Christianity, do not try to share what they know with their congregations, or try to mix true Orthodoxy with Protestant doctrines.

The Orthodox Church is also greatly at fault here as we have done a poor job of evangelism.  The late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip criticized our willingness to stay in our own little ethnic ghettoes when the wave of Evangelicals came into the Church in 1987.  But, we haven’t had too many parishes in working class, mixed race communities, much less the lower income housing projects and trailer parks since then.  Archbishop Iakovos marched with Dr. King in 1965.  It doesn’t take a lot of courage for cradle Greeks or Serbs to share a prayer of St. Macarius with someone that has never heard of him.   The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Church has the light of God of 2,000 years and we in America have kept it under a bushel basket for way too long.  No wonder this nation is stumbling in the dark.

Let us make a stronger effort to share our faith with others.  The first and best way for us to do so is to live Orthodoxy.  Let us maintain the fasting, prayer rules, veneration of saints and their icons and love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  We need not pester people.  But, we can invite friends, neighbors, and relatives to our worship services.  We can host special programs that focus interesting portions of our beliefs.  Our Lord taught us that the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.  We make up a very small percentage of Christians in this nation.  But, we can’t let that discourage us.  After all, He did take two fish and five loaves of bread to feed thousands.  Let us take what little we have and see the miracles God can and will do through us in healing America’s racial divide.