Antiochian Orthodox Church

A Week at the ‘House’: Antiochian House of Studies Residency Program

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The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects.  Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith.  One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.  For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.

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Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh).  My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience.  There would be little time for “R&R.”  Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship.  The food will be plentiful and delicious.  But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.

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For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim).    Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider.  For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist.  Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism).  Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with.  It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression.  Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub.  I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6.  Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well.  We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students.  It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.

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The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together.  But, we all did more than just get along.  We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God.  The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling.  Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.  Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations.  Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical.  No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26).  From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3).  The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.

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Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders.  If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week.  I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year.  I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017.  But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.

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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.

The Transition Continues: New Structures & Old Time Reverence

My church looks more like an Erector Set with icons.  Our  choir director, Chuck Simerick doubles as the lead contractor leading the Saturday building sessions and weeknight work.  It is amazing to see how we have gutted the place and put up these metal studs.  After a while, there will be some drywall up as well.  We have all been busy giving our hands in labor.  This certainly is not an overnight process.  In fact, we won’t be finished for a few months still.  But, nothing worthwhile takes place in an instant.  Try to microwave a 4 lb. Boston Butt and smoke another for an hour per pound at 250 degrees and see which one is edible. IMGP0502 IMGP0503 IMGP0505 In speaking of new structures, the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black will hold its First Symposium on Saturday, September 4th at 4 pm!  I am excited that my church will be hosting the event in spite of our work.  In fact, I think it is symbolic that this movement to introduce the ancient faith to African-Americans, which is a work in progress, is having its first event in a work in progress.  I am also excited that Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy of FOCUS Pittsburgh and the St. Moses Mission will be the guest speaker.  This brother is articulate, inspiring, and filled with the grace of God!  Don’t take my word for it.  Check out the speech given a couple of years back.  Better still, meet with us at Hampton for the symposium! st moses symposium flyer Meeting Bishop Thomas last year, he said he’d be interested in an informal meeting with my (then) congregation and others in my area.  I am still very interested in forming this structure; a bridge of dialogue between the African-American Baptist and the Orthodox Church.  A Pentecostal Apostle and and Orthodox Archpriest in New York have done that with two East-West Meet & Greet sessions.  Perhaps in October, I can bring this idea up again.  We will see if God is willing. Yet, as their is a need for some new structures, I am glad to experience something that is (and should be) without change.  I remember on first Sunday mornings how my grandfather prepared the communion.  Deacon Joseph (“Daddy Joe”) didn’t say much when he did it.  It seemed that he had his mind fixed on the task at hand.  He cut the crust off of a few slices of bread and cut them in what seemed to be perfectly measured little squares.  Daddy Joe had a glass bottle with some sort of bulb and tube thing on it where when he squeezed the bulb, the perfect amount of grape juice came out into each cup.  Though a symbol of the body and blood to the Baptist, he prepared the Lord’s Supper with reverence. IMGP0512 IMGP0515 With no iconostasis blocking my view, I got a chance to watch Fr. James prepare the Eucharist.  It was as if the spirit of my grandfather was right there as Fr. carefully prayed the prescribed prayers in preparing the body and blood of our Lord.  The bread came from the oven of one of our members and was broken with the name of each one of us in mind and a few for any visiting Orthodox guest.  The wine and water mixed appropriately as prayers were constantly offered as part of the process.   Bishops and priest have been preparing the Lord’s Supper in the same spirit of reverence since the days of the Apostles. IMGP0521 IMGP0524 There is no Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper without reverence from the one who prepares and the one who receives.  It is better not to take it at all than to take the literal (or even symbolic) body and blood of Christ with an attitude of spiritual complacency.  These are holy gifts which should not be taken lightly.  That we are able to serve (ordained clergy) and receive them is of the great grace of God.  When we cheapen them by having the wrong frame of mind; we cheapen grace, ourselves, salvation, and God.  May this not be so with us.  Please, be in prayer before, during, and after partaking of this meal.  As we say in our Divine Liturgy, “The Holy Things Are For The Holy.”

The Transition Continues

Work and worship continues at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  What we had hoped to be a two month or so renovation seems to be more of a slower 9 month process.  We have taken down most all of the walls we don’t need and are starting to put up the ones we want.  We even have the metal studs and window and door frames up for the “crying room” (a good thing to have in a church where the couples are and have been fruitful and multiplied).  Putting up the drywall shouldn’t be the worst of issues.  But, we have to get a contractor in to handle some other things that we aren’t skilled for.  Our renovation guru has some great ideas for the church.  But, things will take a little longer than planned.

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Despite the chaos, I still love worship. Our church family is as close as ever as we have adjusted to our closer quarters.  With our chanter departing from us in November, there is an opportunity for someone to be ready to serve at Matins (while I am doing some of the reading, I need to find someone to teach me the tones).  We are getting out Sunday School up again next month, and our church will host the First Annual Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Symposium.  Today, we had a baptism and, of course, nothing stops us from our coffee hour fellowship.

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The thing that strikes me the most about the worship as we are renovating the building is that we can see the changes around us as we seek changes inside of us.  In our confessions, Eucharist, prayers, songs, and greetings of love; I can’t help but to enjoy the new things that are going on around us as well as the way we newly converted believers have jelled with those who have been in the faith much longer.  Sure, the building doesn’t look like a church.  But, the church within the building is gorgeous from our month old babies to the elders.  As we are now in the Dormition Fast, each of us are striving even more in our walk of salvation to grow in holiness.

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When all of the construction and renovation is done, St. Basil will be one of the most beautiful churches anyone could visit.  But, that will be then (God willing).  We are blessed to enjoy the beauty of what is happening now.  May God bless us in our fasting, sharing, worship, and all of our efforts to serve Him.

 

The Arabic Letter “Nun”

When the ISIS were about to complete their genocide of the Christians of Mosul in the past few days, they put this mark on the walls of the homes of the Christians — to mark them out for plunder and death. This is the letter “Nun” (ن), the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet (the equivalent of letter N in our Roman alphabet), the first letter of the word Nasara (نصارى : Nazarenes).

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Perhaps I shouldn’t be suggesting this as I have only recently converted to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, I have not let my lack of years in the faith (or lack of being a part of the Church) be a barrier to sharing my opinion.  But, with the recent events in Iraq, Palestine, and the Ukraine added to other persecutions and evidence of ignorance of our faith; I think “nun” should be adopted as a symbol of the Orthodox Christianity.

“Nun” has been spray-painted on the walls of homes that are to be looted and destroyed by the ISIS terrorist in Mosul and other Iraqi cities and towns.  This blatant use of a symbol to target people for genocide is no different than when the Nazis painted the Star of David on Jewish homes and shops in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s.  The Muslim world has always been oppressive to Christians.  However, there have always been some instances where the two faiths did co-exist in toleration of each other.  Under modern Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussien, Christians could enjoy some levels of freedom and even rise in government office.  But, the combination of American foreign policies and the rise of militant  Wahhabi Muslims has been detrimental to the survival of Christianity in the lands where our faith has existed for 2,000 years.

“Nun” indicates a home or shop owned by Nasara (نصارى : Nazarenes).  Well, was not our Lord from Nazareth?  Do we not wish to be known as His followers?  Jesus did warn the disciples that if the world hated Him, they would hate them as well.  Of the 12 (Mattias, of course, taking the place of Judas Iscariot), all but one was martyred and John the Evangelist died in exile.  Orthodox Christians are no strangers to horrible persecutions from the Jews and Romans in the early years, to successive waves of Islamic domination, to the more modern communist.  We have such a great cloud of witnesses, martyrs who’s names are well known to everyone from the Ethiopian highlands to the Siberian forest to those who will be killed by the time I finish this article.  Tertullian of Carthage taught that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  ISIS has put a new label on the seed of various Christians.  May we be worthy to wear it as well.

The blood of martyrs is being spilled in Palestine as well with the new war between Hamas and Zionist Israel.  The number of Christians in Palestine has steadily declined since 1948 and does so more rapidly as innocent civilians of the three great monotheistic religions are caught up in the crossfire of terrorism and war.  Of course no one supports Hamas launching rockets into Israel and killing civilians.  But, aren’t the lives of  Palestinian civilians, including Christians who have been in the land since 33 AD, just as valuable and worth protecting?  Shouldn’t the people of Gaza and the West Bank have control over their own natural resources and destiny?  Both Hamas and the Israelis are war criminals and our Christian brothers and sisters are paying a high price in blood and abandoning the places where our faith was born.  At least ISIS is kind enough to use spray paint to indicate who we are.

“Nun” should be a call for unity among eastern Christians.  Metropolitan Paul (Antiochian/Greek) and Mar Gregorios Yohanna (Syriac) are still missing in Syria.  Miriam Ibrahim (Ethiopian) was just released from Sudan after her horrible ordeal for standing up for her faith.   I am sure someone far more knowledgeable and scholarly can define the reasons why we are still separate from each other.  I wasn’t there at Chalcedon in 451 AD.  But here in 2014, I see more reasons for us to set aside some ancient barriers for a closer relationship, if not full unity.  ISIS could care less if someone is Antiochian or Syriac.  Zionist don’t care about what makes a Copt different from a Chaldean.  They kill us because we are Christians living in the Middle East.  We who live in the United States and other places should take the time to get to know one another.  On my way to my Antiochian Parish, there are two Greek Churches in Williamsburg and Newport News,  and two Coptic congregations and, I think, a recently formed OCA church in Hampton.  I confess that I don’t know the Copts and OCAs and I will make a point to correct that.

“Nun” should be a way to let our western Christian brothers and sisters know that we exist.  Too often, Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism is ignored as people buy the latest books from Joel Osteen or TD Jakes.  It is as if most Americans think Christianity completely disappeared from the Middle East after John wrote the Book of Revelation.  We have to help correct this mindset that ignores the faith that has a continued line of existence since the days of the apostles and gave the world the Christian canon (the Bible).  I don’t think a mere Arabic letter would cause 3,000 people in one city to become Orthodox believers.  But, we need to start some conversations and share our faith and point of view with others.

Note the T-shirt

In Mosul and other parts of Iraq, “Nun” is inspiring solidarity between Christians and their Muslim neighbors.  May we find ways to bring love and unity between us before we are forced to by bombs and gun barrels.

Transition: A New Metropolitan, Building, and Six Months In Orthodoxy

Not only have I made a major change from being Baptist to Orthodox.  Other major changes are under way now.  The change that affects all of us Antiochians is that of our new Metropolitan Joseph.  Metropolitan Philip (Memory Eternal) has left a tremendous legacy of church unification and expansion.  It is my prayer, and that of others, that our new Sayedna will let God lead him and use the gifts he has been granted with to lead our diocese for years to come.

His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph

In speaking of transitions, St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church  is now located at 1520 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666.  The building was a child care center located beside a Mormon Church and across the street from a United Methodist Church.  While I did get used to going to church in Poquoson, I think our new location will be better for evangelism and outreach as we are not far from the Mercury Blvd corridor.  Not to mention that I have two gift cards from Bass Pro Shops and there is a store less than 2 miles away!

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

Gutting and renovations will take time

Gutting and renovations will take time

We have a lot of work to do

We have a lot of work to do

Last Sunday, we held Divine Liturgy and a building sanctification in rather close quarters.  Over the coming days, weeks, and months; we will be taking out walls and putting in new ones.  A lot of mess will have to be gathered up and thrown away.  We are not hiring contractors (we don’t have that kind of money).  But, we are blessed to have people who are willing to work and have some brothers who actually know what they are doing.  As long as no one tries to put a paint brush in my hands, we will have a fine house of worship.  Compared to the churches around us, we will not look much like a religious building.  Perhaps we can put up one of those Russian style onion domes on top or something.

Fr. James with the holy water

Fr. James with the holy water

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Six months into Orthodoxy, I feel at home here.  On the surface, it would seem strange that a black ex-Baptist country preacher would feel welcomed in a white church.  But, as I explained in previous articles, the Orthodox Church is a white church that is not.  It is rooted in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  The worship is the same as it was in the 4th century and traces its teachings back to the Apostles.  At Antioch, two African church leaders were among those who ordained Paul to spread the Gospel to the Greeks and Romans.  I am a part of the Church that was for all people from the very beginning.  While racism is still a reality in America, it is time for us to end 11 o’clock Sunday morning as our most segregated hour.   Orthodoxy has its issues with ethnocentrism.  But, it is still the church where saints of all races and all times are embraced and welcomed.

Choir and chanters

Choir and chanters

Taking the Eucharist

Taking the Eucharist

The most unifying thing about us and makes us all a part of each other is the Eucharist.  We don’t have Communion one Sunday a month with individual cups filled with some liquid that is supposed to be grape juice sealed with some sort of wafer.  Communion is not an afterthought taken lightly at the end of a service.  We believe as Jesus, the apostles, and the scriptures taught that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ and that we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood each Lord’s Day.  We believe that the Eucharist must be taken to give life to our souls and that it is the high point of our worship.  We are to be one with Christ and one with each other.  Thus, we use one cup as we have one Savior.

MEMORY ETERNAL! HIS EMINENCE METROPOLITAN PHILIP

I wasn’t privileged to meet him.  But, like all others who have converted to Orthodoxy, in particular the Antiochians, Metropolitan Philip Saliba has touched every one of us.  The story of how in 1987 he opened the doors of the church to some 2,000 American Evangelicals has to be the biggest mass conversion to the faith in modern times.  Indeed, it was a miniature mirror of Acts Chapter 2 with 3,000 being saved on the day of Pentecost.  Even before this great occurrence,  Sayedna Philip was laying a foundation for expanding the faith by forming various church organizations for women and youth and bringing different factions of the church together.  I am sure there are those who were born and raised in the Antiochian Church and only one or two generations removed from their immigrant forebears  who bemoan some of the changes such as the self-rule status of the North American Diocese and services conducted in English rather than Arabic.  Yet, this metropolitan has  effectively maintained the doctrine of 2,000 years of Holy Orthodoxy and help to present it in a way that invited curious inquirers to come even closer, even to “come home.”

MEMORY ETERNAL!

As a newly converted/catechized believer, it has been an honor for me to come into the Antiochian Church as we say “farewell” to such an influential leader and tireless worker.  His loss should serve as an encouragement for all of us to have the light of Jesus Christ shining brightly in our lives and not to be lacking in our efforts to spread the Gospel.  Not everyone will meet an Orthodox Metropolitan.  But, we of the faith can be an example of what a metropolitan is to everyone we know and meet inside and outside of the church.  And especially during Great Lent, let us give greater attention to our spiritual lives that we may witness salvation to others.  In our parishes, let us be attentive and cooperative as good stewards of our resources that we may provide outreach to our surrounding and far-flung communities.  I believe this is the example Sayedna Philip gave us.  In Christ, let us live by it.