Christian Living

Cyprian vs. Complacency

“… Only observe a discipline uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion.”   Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Bishop Cyprian led an African church in a time of great crisis.  First, there was a period of brutal persecutions from the Roman government.  He was criticized for going into hiding rather than stepping forward to become a martyr as many in his parish did.  Then, he had to argue with false teachers who wanted to close the doors of repentance to backsliders who wanted to come back to the faith.  A plague arose in the land and killed believers and pagans alike.  This shook the faith of many Christians who thought they and their families would be spared from such suffering.  After a period of relative calm, another persecution arose in which Cyprian would face the executioner’s axe.  In the midst of these difficulties, the saint encouraged a friend to practice a sober minded and pure path as a Christian.

It is easy for us to dismiss the need for such a walk of faith in this day and age.  Many of us succumb to the idea of “Getting our praise on” Sunday mornings, or as we listen to our favorite Gospel songs on the radio.  We sweep our sins under a rug since, “The Lord knows our hearts,” and didn’t mean to sin.  If a brother or sister of the faith (or even minister) dare give us a mild rebuke of our faults, they are not to “judge” us because “all have sinned.”  As long as we go to church, tithe, and love others; a disciplined spiritual life doesn’t seem to be necessary.

I believe that the Christian life called for by St. Cyprian is even more critical to us today than it was in first century Carthage.  To proclaim Christ before Constantine was an invitation to exile, torture, or death.  The courageous either hid and found ways to encourage people to remain faithful to Christ, or they boldly faced swords and wild beast.  A life of purity and sobriety gave our ancestors of the faith the strength and wisdom to do both.

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage

Today, Satan persecutes us with a more vicious torturer than any Roman official could send on us.  Complacency lulls our spirits to believe that we are walking in the narrow path of salvation when we are actually on a broad boulevard of destruction.  When we relegate worship to exuberant praise, can we hear the quiet voice that God uses to speak to us as he did Elijah?  How can we parts of the body of Christ heal from our sin sickness if we are unwilling to confess where the body is gathered?  Are we so holy that we cannot accept a word of correction from those who have made the journey before us and are walking with us?  “Oh, those are the traditions of men.  We don’t need to do all of that. God is not through with me yet.”  Instead of finding answers in prayer, the Bible, and ancient Christian writings to correct our backslidings, it is easier to make excuses for improper actions, words, and (especially) thoughts.  And since we do not face life threatening persecutions, being complacent in our Christian walk has captured far too many of us and misleading us to be no better than those who do not practice the faith at all.  Indeed, we are worse because we, supposedly, know better.

Not everyone is called to monasticism.  But, we are all called to spend time with ourselves and God in prayer as Jesus did.  All of us are called to observe times of God’s presence in our lives as the apostles did in the book of Acts.  The writings of early church fathers and mothers are available and are not hard for us to comprehend.  And the call to repentance given by our Lord back then is essential to our self-denial, taking up of our crosses, and following Him today.  Let us not be lulled by complacency in these times of ease.  But, let us struggle all the more against our sinister enemy who wants nothing more than for us to let our guards down.

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A Standard for Shouting

I was one of Dr. Harold Braxton’s “boys.” Dr. Braxton was the Religious Affairs Director and Dean of the School of Humanities at Virginia State University. After preaching in the Foster Hall Chapel, he served his Pastoral duties at Union Grove Baptist Church. I was blessed to serve under him with the Baptist Student Union and as a Seminary Intern when I was enrolled at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University. Quite a few of young people, especially aspiring ministers benefitted from “Doc’s” steady wisdom and refusal to fall for the latest trends in preaching.

Charismatics were known for seeking out new members among the freshmen on campus. Their ministries were very exciting and upbeat. The lonely and impressionable students often fell to the style and expressiveness of what they had to offer. For a while, I was among those who fell for their doctrines and worship. But, after seeing some faults with this non-denominational movement and remembering the firm foundation given to me by my Baptist parents and community in King William, Dr. Braxton’s “boring” chapel sermons and steady Christian walk on campus made a lot of sense to me.

Virginia State University

I remember a word of wisdom he gave in one sermon that all but killed my flirtation with charismania. “Don’t shout any higher than you live.” To several students, these were words of the devil designed to “quench the Spirit.” “Doc” was a very spiritual man and was known to give a good “whoop” every now and then from the pulpit. But, the words from this veteran campus minister and pastor was a standard for us to avoid making exuberant praise and worship the standard of who we were as Christians. As young adults, we were faced with a plethora of temptations. Shouting, speaking in tongues, and the like may be exciting to participate in. But, true spiritual life meant having the Holy Spirit guide us through these struggles. As we are likely to fall to them, we must not carry some sort of false face of Holiness. Instead, we had to be humble about who we are in the Lord as we are far from who we ought to be. And being in our late teens and early twenties, not many of us could boast about how God brought us out from what we used to be since we weren’t really old enough to be anything to be brought out of.

I think we would all do well to heed the wise words of Dr. Harold Braxton today. Pointing firstly to myself, it is way too easy for me to point a finger at modern churches and stick out my chest as a member of the Orthodox Church. It is easy to be complacent belonging to the 2,000 year old continuous connection to Christ and His Apostles. But, what good is it for me to boast of the greatness of Holy Tradition if I fail to devote myself to prayer and love for others? An icon on the wall is good. But, without using it as a window toward heaven and seeking the presence of God, it is nothing more than an interesting piece of religious art. Sure, I burn incense. But, clouds of smoke mean little more than a fragrance for my home if I do not have compassion on my fellow man. Like anyone else, Satan continues to attack me from all directions. How dare I act or speak as a sinless man. No, my shouting ought not be loud at all. May God bless me not to think of myself more than I should.

One Year Later

On Christmas Day, Wednesday December 25th, 2013; I will preach my last sermon at Trinity Baptist Church. I will also resign my Certificate of Ordination in the Baptist Denomination. As of January 1, 2014; I will be a member of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Poquoson. I will also work with the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black in its efforts to introduce Orthodoxy to African-Americans and all who seek this ancient Christian faith.

From the sermon, Stepping Out of the Boat  (http://trinitybcofwestpoint.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/todays-sermon-stepping-out-of-the-boat/)

It was the sermon that I knew I had to preach sooner or later.  Actually, I converted to Orthodox Christianity earlier than I thought I would.  My original plan was to continue to serve as the Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for another year or two to make sure my finances were in order, had another job, and was going to receive some sort of title (although I knew the priesthood was out of the question for the first 5 years of being Orthodox).  But, I remembered the advice of a preacher who got put out of his church, “A good pastor does not stay at a church longer than he should.”

I also thought it wise to follow the advice of a pastor I looked up to since childhood, “John, if you remain Baptist, you will only become bored and frustrated.”  I had to choose between being broke or crazy.  I already had one person suffering from mental illness in my home.  We didn’t need two.  So, I renounced the Baptist denomination and became an Orthodox Christian.  People were angry, disturbed, and saddened at my decision.  Creditors have sent me some mail no one wants to receive.  No, the transition has not been easy.  I have had to stand alone as no other minister I knew of, of any race made, such a leap.

In Thought

In Thought

And yet, I know firmly that I made the right decision.  While I still struggle to make ends meet, God has provided the means to keep the bills paid and something in the fridge.  I am still friends with my former congregants.  My church family at St. Basil has welcomed me with open arms.  And not only they, but other Orthodox Christians and Churches have counted me as a brother in the faith.  With all of the challenges I have had this past year, I can say that I have grown in ways that I could not have had I remained where I was.

If it is God’s will, my growth in the Orthodox Church will continue as I seek to be more deeply rooted in the ancient faith.  Central to this is my personal asceticism.  I have found my rule of prayer to be the truest means to know the ways of God.  I have found a pattern of words from the church and early fathers as well as my own expressions that bring me closer to the Holy Trinity.  I see a new light to the scriptures when I read them.  The works of the desert fathers have been very influential to me and I look forward to reading other writings, including those of Seraphim Rose and the Philokalia.  Even fasting has become more of a part of who I am (although I do start to hallucinate about Philly steak and cheese burritos half way through Great Lent).

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

I enjoy being one of the Matins Chanters.  Reading the six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, & 142) and chanting the Evlogateria (Benedictions) re-enforces the meaning of the Gospel.  The 50th Psalm is the call for the very first and essential thing Jesus proclaimed, repentance.  Divine Liturgy is the most heavenly form of worship I have ever experienced as the body and blood of our Lord is the focus of our worship.  We all partake from the same cup, venerate the Theotokos (God-bearer, Virgin Mary), and enjoy one another’s company during and after worship at coffee hour (the food is so good).

I look forward to the challenge of evangelization.  Fr. Adam Sexton of St. Andrews OCA has given me an invitation to speak.  I believe others will follow.  I must be mindful to practice humility at all times.  It is way too easy to think too much of myself.  It is also too easy to speak and write as if all Protestants are corrupt and doomed (I fear that I have made that mistake already and repent to anyone whom I have needlessly offended).  But, as a member of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I am excited about the prospects for sharing my faith.

I thank all of you who have read my blog articles and kept me in prayer.  May the fullness of God bless you as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and enter into the year 2015.

The Transition Continues

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

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

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

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

 

Where “Favor” Falls Short

Favor is a popular term in modern Christianity.  We hear it in songs and sermons.  We share it in inspirational social media post.  I used to be that weird country preacher that refused to jump on board every bandwagon of “relevant” ministry.  Now that I am Orthodox, I would rather ride a Greyhound bus from New York to LA than the wave of any popular catchwords or phrases.  In my Wednesday morning reading, I couldn’t help but to see how the pursuit of “favor” from God falls woefully short of seeking His mercy.

Out of sheer curiosity, I broke out my Strong’s Bible Concordance and found that the term “favor” appears a whopping six times in the New Testament.  Luke used the term in his version of the Gospel to describe how John the Baptist and Jesus grew up.  He used it four times to describe the relationship between the early Christians and those around them in Acts.    Not once does Jesus, Paul, nor any other epistle write describe favor as something worthy of being obtained or necessary to live as a Christian.  It is something good to have as it does give peace in mind and a sense of security.  But, “favor” is not the mark of the Christian according to the One whom we follow:

If any man would come after Me, let him humble himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.

“But what about the Old Testament?  Surely God wants us to have favor in the Old Testament.”  Here the term is used about 56 times.   In several places, the favor comes from an earthly king and not God.  Also, the wise Solomon suggest that favor can be misused as well.  Furthermore, I find this rationale most disturbing as the revelation of our salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, is not found in the Old Testament.  To try to use a term in the Old Testament as superior to the way it is used in the Gospels is an abuse of the scriptures and a denial of the significance of Incarnate God.  If this is your line of thought, for your own spiritual health, you should consider changing it.

In comparison, “mercy” is the greater goal both in the usage of the term and significance in Christian life.  This word appears 58 times in the New Testament (about 200 times in the OT).  For those who consider the “favor” to be a blessing, please consider the Beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Having a house that people say you can’t afford, a job that you don’t have the education for, or some other form of “ain’t fair favor” does not cross the lips of  Jesus as being a blessing.  Having compassion to those who are broken, confused, disturbed, lost, rebellious, … ; this is the one who is blessed.  We all fall into one of these conditions from time to time.  Sometimes we fall into multiple conditions at the same time.  Jesus teaches here what He repeats as the “Golden Rule” of this great sermon:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

When challenged about eating with tax collectors and other sinners in the house of Matthew, Jesus offers this rebuke from the prophet Hosea:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To follow Jesus is to desire everything He desires.  If He never mentions “favor” but clearly defines “mercy” as what He wants from us, why should we listen to preachers and singers and read books and social media post about a barely mentioned term instead of this requirement that appears in the New Testament some 9 times more often?  To mention “favor” in worship and fail to call upon Christ for “mercy,” or to call upon the former more often than the later is spiritual malpractice.  Such doctrine and teaching is producing Christians who are in the faith for what Jesus can give them in this world rather than how we are to prepare ourselves for the next.  If and when such believers fail to get the “favor” they seek, they wander from ministry to ministry seeking it.  They tend to blame themselves for not being a part of the right man or woman of God as the reason for not receiving their breakthrough.  They will patiently wait for what they want and in not getting it, they will put some sort of spin on why they don’t have it (“It isn’t my season yet).  Or, they eventually give up on Christianity all together.  The differences between such a false concept of our faith and an Islamic terrorist is that the Muslim does his job more quickly and only kills the body.  The empty pursuit of favor is killing souls and creating walking dead Christians.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get your concordance and look up “favor” and “mercy.”  See which one is used most often and why.  Favor from God  is not a bad thing to have.  But, don’t sell your walk with Jesus short.  As I heard from a priest last weekend, “You cannot be a Christian without mercy.”

 

The Arabic Letter “Nun”

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

nun-arabic-letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the T-shirt

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

The Need To Read Something Deeper

During the first 300 years of Christianity, to be a member of the clergy or known as an unapologetic Christian was a sentence to torture and death.  Early believers read and followed any papyrus or scroll written by and about  these men and women  they could find.  After the persecutions ended under Constantine, Christians who were ready to renounce the world before wild beast did so in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and the Siberian forest.  Those who did not become monks and nuns sought their advice and were greatly influenced by their wisdom.  Despite disputes between them, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians (and early Roman Catholics) held the ancient monastic writings and early church fathers in the highest regard second only to the Bible.

Unfortunately, something changed during the magisterial and radical reformations as well as the revivalist movements in Western Christianity.  There arose this idea that earthly wealth and influence was a sign that God’s favor was upon one’s life.  While the early Baptist, Methodist, Church Of God In Christ and other denominations may have intended that their churches would be among the flourishing examples of this doctrine, this concept has landed in the hands of many freelance “non-denominational” clergy who use it and the name of Jesus to reap millions of dollars from people who are unknowing about Christian history.

What I find most frightening about this earthly wealth as evidence of God’s favor doctrine is that intelligent and well-meaning people have and are falling for this trap hook, line, and sinker.  They fall for it because the TV and radio stations blast the latest sermons and Gospel hits without any meditative and  self-sacrificial lessons from the more contemporary likes of Howard Thurman or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, much less from Ignatius of Antioch or Theophan the Recluse.  Books by well publicized inspirational authors dominate bookshelves at Barnes & Nobel and Wal-Mart where profits come before investigating the roots of Christian spirituality.   No one is telling modern Christians that there is a firmly grounded, tried and true alternative to “flavor of the month” Christian preachers and writers.

What makes this trend of adhering to those who promote such a doctrine is that it ultimately fails.  There are people who have been blaming themselves for not receiving their “breakthroughs” and “shifts” saying that they weren’t faithful enough or their “season” has not come yet.  Like rain and sunshine, God allows any person who works hard and smart to get rich or go broke.  Those who fail to receive the financial promises they have been seeking for years will give up on Christianity and become bitter.  Those who do become well off in the midst of such false doctrine will become arrogant and blind to what it is to become Christ like when called to “… Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”

Anthony and the Desert Fathers did what the rich young man failed to do.  And because these men and women renounced the world to devote themselves to a true and pure pursuit of God, they were and are greatly honored by Christians of many generations.  Church Fathers such as Basil and John Chrysostom did not enrich themselves in their leadership positions.  They built schools and hospitals and dressed just as modestly as a monk or reader.  The lessons of the Philokalia did not come from men who hustled for “seed offerings” to repair their private jets.  These were monks who ate little more than beans, bread, and vegetables.  None of them expected to become wealthy.  They were too busy obeying the requirements for following Christ, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me.”

Perhaps the latest book by the latest Christian preacher or inspirational speaker may have a good quote or two.  Snack foods do have a few bits of nutrition.  But, a healthy body is the time-tested result of good meals and exercise.  Our journey with Christ should also include the time-tested spiritual writings of the Bible and the writings of those who were of the atmosphere that the New Testament books were written and compiled.  How does one find such books in the midst of  a Trinity Broadcast Network dominated Christian environment?  It isn’t easy.  But, it is possible.

 

I personally recommend Fr. Athanasius Iskander’s “Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers” (it’s FREE) is a great introduction to some of the most enlightening men of the monastic world.  One need not be a church history buff to apply these ancient lessons to modern life.  The Fr’s name sake wrote a short volume “The Life of Saint Anthony,” the man who was the father of all monks and nuns.  “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” is a reader friendly introduction to the 38 volume set of the Early Church Fathers (which can be read by anyone online for FREE).  Orthodox Churches tend to maintain libraries as most public ones have little concerning church history and this ancient faith.  Roman Catholic sources are useful as they do point several sources older than 1054 AD (the date of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

To grow spiritually, we must not rely on recent authors alone as our source of Christian literature and teaching.  Take the time to discover ancient Christian writings and talk to a priest who is well versed in the early and monastic writings.

St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

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