conversion

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 First Month: Hit the Ground Running in a Spiritual Bond

It seems that from Day One of becoming a chrismated Orthodox Christian, I have been busy.  First of all, the services have kept me going.  I was chrismated on the day of our Theophany services.  The second Sunday was the blessing of the waters.  Last Sunday was the visit from Bishop Thomas.  My new brothers and sisters have suggested that I consider teaching an adult Sunday school class and taking up chanting (that is a thought).  A couple have even asked me about the priesthood being somewhere in my future (I ain’t even thinking about that yet).   In between all of this, I have put together a solid website/blog for the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  In my personal journey, I wake up at 4 am to read and take notes from the Early Church Fathers on top  of my pre-prayers and Matins as well as being more observant of the Hours.

Fr. James Purdie giving a children's sermon.

Fr. James Purdie giving a children’s sermon.

Actually, the adjustment has not been rough at all.  I do miss my brothers and sisters at Trinity Baptist Church.  My elders loved me like a son.  I was a big brother even to those who were a few years older than myself.  People in the community still find it odd that my car is no longer in the church yard on Sunday mornings.  Except for the Ethiopian families, I am the only black person in a predominately white church of a Middle Eastern rooted church.

The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy

The Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy

But, I think it is because we are such a motley crew of people that I fit in at St. Basil.  I think one of the unique things about coming to such a church is that we all are bringing different stories to the table.  And the thing that brings us all together is the common union of faith in Jesus Christ.  Maybe I am weird (no … wait).  But, I think there is something incredibly spiritually unifying in taking the Eucharist from the same cup.  We aren’t all squeemish about that spoon being in someone else’s mouth before ours and vice-versa.  Because we are not just taking any old bread and wine.  We are taking the Body and Blood of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  The bread was made by someone in the church and proper sealed as holy and we all partake of it.  We kiss the same cross, icon, and hand of the priest.  So, we have a spiritual bond with each other.  With that spiritual bond established, social bonds follow suit.  Maybe closer with some than others.  But, that is how friendships go in any part of human society.  The point is not the things that separate us, but the One that brought and brings us together that matters.

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

Chronicles to Conversion: The Big Weekend Is Here

This evening, I will make my first confession before God alongside my priest.  Early tomorrow morning, I will receive Holy Chrismation before Matins and will partake of the Eucharist which will mark my entry into the 2,000 year old body of Christ.  I am going into Orthodox Christianity with a deep sense of gratitude for the Baptist faith that I nurtured me for the past 46 years.  My grandmother Dinah was known for her devotion to God and wisdom in teaching Sunday School.  The passion for Biblical truth was passed down from Daddy Joe & Momma Di to their son John.  My mother is also the product of a very devout household which has produced generations of pastors and deacons.  The African-American Baptist community in King William County, the Pamunkey Baptist Association has given me many opportunities to develop socially and spiritually.  I grew up surrounded by saints who kept the faith through the awful oppression of Jim Crow to see the heights of our people rising in every profession once denied to us, even the Presidency of this nation.  Without the black church, I would have never known salvation.  Jesus would have never been real to me.  Baptist Liberty, Mt. Olive, Third Union, Trinity;  these in particular and others in general have well prepared me for the journey I am undertaking now.

Some are asking, “Why take this journey at all?”  Just as my past as an African-American is important to my faith, so is the ancient history of Christianity.  While the Bible is central and essential to our faith, I see no reason to ignore the prayers, spirituality, writings, and wisdom that led the early church fathers to compile the books together.  I see no reason to ignore the multi-cultural foundation of early church history and the role that Africans played in it.  After seeing the ancient faith still being practiced among the various Orthodox jurisdictions and learning and practicing the faith as best as I could “in the closet,” I felt it was only right to step out of the safety and security of what I have always known to be a part of the church that was always there.

I believe that African-Americans should learn about and consider converting to the church of Simeon called Niger, Simon of Cyrene and his sons Alexander and Rufus, and the Ethiopian Eunuch that was the first non-Jew to be baptized.  People in Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, and Serbia know of the “desert fathers” and venerate icons of Jesus and the saints that look like me. Sure, I suppose I could have continued to speak about these things from a Baptist pulpit.  That would be like telling someone about kayak fishing yet never having done it.  Sure, I could talk about paddling strokes, adapting equipment, and locating fish in shallow water from the comfort and safety of a pier.  But, until I get into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140, make my own rod holders, and drift the coves at Horn Harbor to pull up large croaker and red drum; I really can’t tell anyone what it is like to fish from a kayak.  Well, I can talk about kayak fishing not only in theory, but from experience as well.  The experienced are the most credible witnesses.

So when I tell African-Americans and others about Orthodoxy, I won’t be doing this as someone who has read some books and heard a few podcast and visited a few websites.  I am a part of the ancient faith.  I am a credible witness.

 

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 20 Icons of Flesh and Blood

I have an icon wall of saints that I look up to.  Of course, these are not all of the great men and women of the faith that inspire me.  But, these are the friends that grace the east wall in our living room (top to bottom, left to right):

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  • Basil the Great of Cappedocia (patron of my church)
  • Mary the Theotokos
  • Christ Panocrantor
  • Cyprian of Carthage (my personal co-patron)
  • Athanasius of Alexandria (hero of canon and doctrine)
  • Isaac the Syrian (wise desert father)
  • Felicity and Perpetua (example of true sisterhood)
  • Peter the Aleut (chose death over conversion)
  • Anthony of the Desert (father of monastics)
  • Moses of Ethiopia (honored for repentance and forgiveness)
  • Philip the Apostle (patron of my prayer discipline)
  • Catherine of Alexandria (scholar and martyr)
  • Seraphim Rose (perhaps America’s most famous monk)
  • Panteleimon (healer and martyr)
  • Raphael of Brooklyn (organizer of the faithful Antiochians)
  • Herman of Alaska (evangelist to the natives)

I have a few other important images on our desk below the icon wall (left to right):

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  • Gregory the Theologian (from my first visit to St. Basil)
  • H.L. Mays (my former shop teacher and mentor)
  • Louise Kersey (a dear cousin known for her kindness)
  • St. Mary of Egypt Parish Icon (from my pilgrimage)
  • Kursk-Root (from a ROCOR deacon and hiking partner)
  • Carter Wicks (my wife’s grandfather and ministry mentor)
  • Three crosses (Byzantine, Coptic, and Ethiopian)
  • Anthony the Great (on the book written by Athanasius)

These pictures and crosses cannot talk, move, nor do anything else.  The faces stare back at me as I gaze upon them.  I think about the lives they have led and the examples of faith they gave.  Except for Christ, none of them were sinless.  But, the images remind me to take the best of their character and add to my life.  I fall short in my deeds, words, and thoughts.  But, I am growing and have grown from how foolish I was in the past.  In the words of the church that raised me:  “I’m not all that I ought to be.  But, thank God I am not what I used to be.”  “Please, be patient with me.  God is not through with me yet.  When God gets through with me, I shall come forth as pure gold.”

Media images move.  Politicians take stances.  They dance on music videos.  Actors and Actresses play their roles.  Luis Suarez does the amazing (sorry, I am a fan).  In a world where nothing stays still, there is something  of great value in both ancient icons and images of those who have shaped our better natures.  By one act or word, yesterday’s hero can turn into today’s villain and vice versa (see Luis Suarez).  And when we dwell solely on the left or right side of the corrupt coin of earthly existence, anyone who is of the opposite side can be seen as a bitter, sub-human enemy no matter the goodness of their intentions or nature while those whom we side with are saints no matter how deplorable their actions, words, and thoughts.

While modern media of moving pictures can entertain and (on occasion) educate and inform, I believe we need to make room in our lives for the still images.  The still images that cause us to remember where we came from, what love is, and that the world of good people goes beyond our limited borders of place and time.  As we are all made in the image of God, we should give that same consideration to the living images we see every day.  Let us not let modern media drive us away from the cloud of witnesses that surround us nor from human brotherhood that we are a part of. Love and honor whomever you hold dear in icons or photos.  Love and honor the person who gave you the finger who cut you off in traffic and gave you the middle finger because you have an Obama or Tea Party bumper sticker.    

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 18 Discovering the Sabbath

For the first 300+ years, Christianity had no Bible nor legal status.  Epistles and Gospels were floating around from church to church.  There was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which is far older than our Old Testament and more accurately matches the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls).  To instruct the early Christians, the men who were ordained by the apostles who would ordain others after them relied on the tradition handed down by those who walked with Jesus during his ministry on earth.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch with his “friends”

One of the most admired of these men was Ignatius.  According to Orthodox tradition, he was the child that Jesus sat in the midst of the disciples when they asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Ignatius became a disciple under John the Gospel writer and served as the bishop of Antioch after Peter and Paul before his martyrdom to the lions in Rome.  En route to his death, this bishop wrote a series of letters concerning church unity and practice.

In his Epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius gives a lesson on how Christians are to approach the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day (note:  they are NOT the same):

Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for “he that does not work, let him not eat.”688 For say the [holy] oracles, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread.” 689But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them.690 And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week].

The idea that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” was not taught by the first Christians nor is it taught by the first and oldest continuous expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church.  Saturday is still the Sabbath Day.  It is a day of great reverence for the law of God.  But, it is not a day of rest as taught by Judaism.  Those who wish to work should do so.  If chores have to be done, let them be done.  We are to do as we wish as long as we are mindful that the Lord is the creator and sustainer of all things.

Sunday is the day Christians are to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  Ignatius gives no ban on labor or travel.  But his words, “as a festival,” indicate that we friends of Christ are to be joyful and in celebration with one another.  As ancient believers were under persecution until 325 AD, I doubt if any of them asked to have Sunday off from the job.  Nevertheless, the Lord’s Day was the day to be with fellow believers and celebrate the gift of salvation.

 

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.”

Chronicles of Conversion: Day 9 Motivation

A brother on the Black Orthodox Christians Facebook Page, Colin, must have been digging through the crates when he found this lost gem of hip-hop.

In all honesty, I remember this beat from Schooly D’s “P.S.K” (the father of all “gangsta” rap).  In fact, I have heard some of these lines from the mouths of other MCs.  There is great value in the original.

Yeah, listening to this right after my Matins prayers has me pumped.  Not that I am a sudden expert on Orthodoxy.  But, I know enough to know that people would do well to come and see what is Orthodox Christianity and choose a spiritual direction based on prayer, and information.  I am sure some will choose not to convert to the faith.  But, I see my role is to bring the information to the people and point them to where they can learn more.  Since folk are more likely listen to someone who is walking what they are talking, I guess it inevitable that I’d convert.

Piecing together the Desert Fathers Dispatch, I have brother Robert, who is providing me with some good advice about expanding the reach of the blog.  I am still forming an e-mail list of every Orthodox Church of every jurisdiction in the state.  Some parishes don’t have websites.  So, snail mail must be used.  I suppose I will create brochures about African saints as well.  I hope to meet with other believers and get more suggestions and help.  Perhaps February would be good to get people together.  Maybe late March.  We will see.  In the meantime, I am motivated to live the life.  That is the best example of the faith and knowledge.

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.

Chronicle of Conversion: Day Six In Prayer

I could have written something between work and the Paraklesis yesterday evening.  I needed a good laugh and found this website of fashions from the 1970′ and posted one of those horrid leisure suits on my Facebook page.  What was once impressive and sophisticated in clothing is now the object of ridicule and scorn.  (Okay, that was a loaded sentence that I am nor even prepared to continue to expound on)

Advent Paraklesis/Parakesis prayers are probably one of the least most popular services in Orthodoxy.  Worshipers are to stand through the whole service.  It is held on Friday (start of the weekend, favorite TV shows, kid’s high school sports) night.  There is no meal or repasts after the service.  Going to a Christmas party seems far more fun, especially if there is food that fits the Nativity Fast.  After all, we have prayer books, the priest is neither serving the Eucharist nor giving a sermon.

In this time of Christmas being degenerated into the Winter Festival, I find that being in the presence of God at these prayers a welcome refreshment.  The sight of the icons and smell of incense transforms me from tacky outdoor decorations to the place of holiness.  The chants and prayers explicitly focus on the birth of our Lord and Savior without reindeer, snowmen, and the false perpetration of one of the favorite saints of the Church.  At this prayer service, the connection to Orthodox doctrine is strengthened  ( this is also a good time to recommit to the Nativity Fast that is so easily broken).

For the non-Orthodox, I invite you to come and see for yourself. Because there are relatively few worshipers, you may even have time to talk to the priest and learn about the ancient faith.  But, if you refuse, do take a portion of your week away from the Santa dominated decor and focus on your prayer life.  To the Orthodoxy, go to your icon corner and worship if you cannot make it to your church.  But, make every effort to maintain this wonderful tradition of prayer.