Baptist Church

Lesson From Lent: King’s Kitchen Table

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

MLK_portrait_fi

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

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

in thought

Contemplating this new step in my journey

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

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

 

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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.

Athanasius:  Relevance in the Black Church Today

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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?

IMGP8149 IMGP8150_edited-1

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.

IMGP8151_edited-1 IMGP8153_edited-1 IMGP8158_edited-1 IMGP8159_edited-1 IMGP8160 IMGP8162_edited-1 IMGP8165_edited-1

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 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.  

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.

Journey into Great Lent (Day 29): The Journey Worth Taking

It’s almost over.  Then again, it isn’t.  Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week.  Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter).  Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?).  Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough).  I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline.  No more self-denial!  YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!

Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Icon of Palm Sunday

No, wait … .  I am sorry.  But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast.  These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength.  I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast.  The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure.  It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline. 

Then again, the journey is not over.  And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism.  There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord.  Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent.  Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion.  In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God?  Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent?  Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety?  Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world.  Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should. 

Without prayer, fasting is just dieting.  This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations.  Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained.  We are to be awed to be in God’s presence.  As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion).  As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours).  In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God.  The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year.  The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well.  Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year.  We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). 

To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday.  I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting.     But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon.  And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills.  But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods.  Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer.   I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking.  I won’t turn back.

 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day 24): Overcoming Despondency

Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not

But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant

Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages.  Amen

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The Path I Trod  (© John Gresham/DCR)

The Path I Trod (© John Gresham/DCR)

This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect.  I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat.  Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far.  But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use.  While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).

I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency.  My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident.  Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house.  My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage.  But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away.  So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do.  Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk.  But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife.  Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas. 

So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins.  Prayer and constructive labor.  Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency.  The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring  monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor.    I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*.  When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden.  He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time.  In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything.  The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.

I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut.  Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles.  I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want.  And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again.  Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:

Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.   (Matthew 6:31-33)

After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought).  As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent.  Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues.  “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another.  And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised.  But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey. 

*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think).  Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).  I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died.