Black Church

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

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

A great read

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

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

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

A Nativity Icon from the Coptic Orthodox Church

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

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

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

Fr. Raphael Morgan was ahead of his time

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

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

It is time for us all to come home.

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

 

 

 

 

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Athanasius:  Relevance in the Black Church Today

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marcus Garvey Factor & African American Orthodoxy

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

Truth

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

Emperor Haile Selassie venerating the cross during Orthodox worship

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

Brother Bob Marley

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

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

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

The Ancient Faith & Afro American Christianity Conference 2012

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

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

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

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

African Monastic Wisdom: Avoiding False Prophets

This is a re-tread article published back in May.  I didn’t plan on posting anything today.  But, the picture below blew my mind.

I couldn’t have made this up if I tried 😦

Rather than write a whole new article, this post makes the point clearly.  For those of you who flock to such ministries (at least, those of you who have not already labeled me a “hater” and moved on), please read the article, think, and pray.  

 

“They are guessers rather than prophets.  Therefore, if sometimes they foretell such things truly, even so no one need wonder at them.  For physicians also who have experience of diseases, when they meet the same disease in others can often tell beforehand, judging from experience.  And again, seamen and farmers, looking at the state of the weather, from their experience prophesy that there will be a storm or fine weather.  No one would say because of this that they prophesy by supernatural inspiration; but by experience and practice.”  St. Anthony the Great, The Life of St. Anthony the Great  pgs 47, 48

Here is another example of why Protestant Christians, and African-Americans in particular, would do well to know and learn from the ancient saints of Orthodox Christianity.  There is a plethora of modern day false prophets that prey on the emotions of believers for profit and vanity.  The wisdom of the ancient fathers guide us away from such predators.

For about a decade, there has been a movement in too many churches called the “Five Fold Ministry.”  It is interpreted that in the body of Christ (the church of which there are 400,000 different denominations and non-denominations) that there are to be five offices of administrative and spiritual leadership:  apostles, evangelist, pastors, prophets, and teachers.  Of these, the role of the prophet in the modern church is proving to be the most bizarre and ridiculous.

False Prophet David Taylor

Angel Feathers? Really?

Among them are well meaning men and women who want to offer words of encouragement to people who are struggling with life’s challenges.   By using passages of scripture out of context (“God is going to make you the head and not the tail, the lender and not the borrower”) accompanied with familiar religious “buzz words” and phrases (“breakthrough, release, shift” ), the “prophet” guesses that things will get better for the person going a crisis of health, finances, relationships, and the like.  Well, everyone wants to hear that God is going to act in their behalf.  And there are some who “prophecy” believing that misusing scripture and getting people’s hopes up to make them feel better is a good thing to do.  If the guess turns out to be right, then the “prophet” builds a reputation for credibility.  If the guess is wrong, it can be explained away (“I saw with the eyes of man yet God saw something further”), patience can be called for (“it isn’t your season yet”), or the hearer can be faulted (“There may be something wrong with your faith”).  If the prophet seems sincere and can gain the trust of the gullible, he (or she) can be wrong numerous times without being held accountable.

While there are some honestly mistaken prophets who are not after personal gain, there are also con artists who deliberately lie to people for the sake of fortune and fame.  Some have small yet loyal followings.  Others can be seen on television.  In either case, these guessers do not care for the souls of a broken humanity except to exploit and manipulate people for their gain.  They have become skilled at the art of scripture manipulation and know how to make the guesses to keep them in business.  They also have the support of their loyal base of followers to speak up for them when they are incorrect, or to put a doubter in their ranks in line.  While the honestly mistaken prophet is a victim of ignorance, the deliberate false prophet is an especially evil person who victimizes the gullible.

The ancient fathers and scripture has little tolerance for either sort of “prophet.”  The Old Testament prophets who spoke of Israel’s and Judah’s coming captivity were always at odds with those who spoke of peace and safety.  A glaring example of this is Micaiah’s prophecy that Ahab would fall and Israel would be defeated at Ramoth-gilead despite the 400 “prophets” that declared victory for the king (I Kings 22 Masoritic, III Kings 22 Septuagint).  Jesus himself is more impressed with people who do the will of His Father than those who prophecy in His name (Matthew 7:21-23).  Jesus did not command his disciples to prophecy, but to preach the Gospel.  If any of them were to give a prophetic word (Peter to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11) they did not let prophecy become their defining role as they were the apostles.  Our Lord and the apostles warned us to be wise and not to follow false prophets.  St. Anthony calls such guesses, “The Devils Prophecies” and gives us these words of truth:

St. Anthony the Great

Therefore we must not make much of these things, nor live our life of hardship and toil for the sake of knowing the future, but in order to please God by living well.  And we must pray, not in order to know the future, nor is that the reward we must ask for our hard life; but that our Lord may be our fellow-worker in conquering the devil. (The Life of St. Anthony the Great pg. 48)

Perhaps the best way to deal with modern day prophets is to avoid them.  The honestly mistaken are like loose wires.  Deliberate deceivers are playing with matches beside leaky gas lines.  Both are destructive to true faith.

Chronicles to Conversion: 15 Days Dealing With “Why”

To my man, Rob.

To be honest with you, the question of “why” I would leave a 16 year pastorate to become Orthodox hasn’t come up too often.  Oh, my church family was shocked and some tearful when I made the announcement within my sermon on December 1st.  But, the ones who took the time to follow my post on the church and my personal blog saw this coming.  I posted an icon with each of my manuscripts.  What good Baptist preacher does that?  And my excursion to the St. Moses the Black Conference in October was pretty much a sign that it was a matter of time before I stepped down.  Even those who didn’t go online heard the wording of some of my prayers and thought there was something different. “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal Have Mercy On Us” doesn’t sound quite like “God Is Good All The Time and All The Time God Is Good.”  They knew I was different.  The surprise was that I would actually move to that different perspective.

Most people seem to accept that God has called me to do something different.  I am going to miss them, and they will miss me as well.  But, most ministers today don’t stay but maybe 5 or so years in their first pastoral assignment.  I was at Trinity for 16+.  In this day of pastoral scandals and suicides, I am walking away from the pulpit with nothing to be ashamed of and not in a coffin.  There are no hard feelings between myself nor anyone in the church.  Plus, there is a solid core of active members, some in their 20’s.  So, leaving when I am doing well and the church is doing well, is not a bad thing.

There have been some concerned voices that I was going about this unadvisedly.  But, that is the good thing about the St. Simon’s Order blog.  Anyone who has read my post over the past year and a half knows that my move to Orthodoxy was a work in progress and that I am not going into the ancient faith with some sense of looking for greener grass on the other side of the fence.  Heck, I will be picking up a part-time gig to make up for my lost pastoral salary.  Plus, when one of my trusted advisers is a pastor who has known me since my childhood and taught sociology and served as the dean of the chapel at a university, no one can say that I haven’t put any serious thought into making this change.

True, this doesn’t make sense.  Why would an African-American pastor who is well loved and respected walk away from his pulpit to join a predominately white church in a city that is over 93% white 50 miles away from home?  Because the church that I am joining is every bit as African as it is Arabic and European.  St. Basil Antiochian has people from different ethnic backgrounds.  I am reclaiming a part of my African heritage and helping to end the fact that “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” (Martin Luther King “Letter from Birmingham Jail).  As I explained in the sermon a couple of Sunday’s ago, Peter asked to step out of the boat.  Jesus told him to come.  This conversion is my stormy sea to step out on.  In the end, Jesus calmed the storm and led them all safely to the other side.  No, I am not getting a lot of “whys.”  I am getting a lot of “we will miss yous, God bless yous, and good lucks.”

Chronicle of Conversion: First Steps in Cold Weather Day 8

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplating this new step in my journey

Contemplating this new step in my journey

 

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

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

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

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

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

I gotta get ready for work.

 

Praise & Worship? Baptist & Orthodoxy? Answering Some Questions

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

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

Seraphim Rose

 

Cyprian of Carthage

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

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

How do I respond?

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

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

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

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On To Pentecost: Accepting Mary the Theotokos

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Old Time Religion

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

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