Desert Fathers

Humility is the Solution

It is African-American History Month. And this is the first year that we observe this month under a president that wants to “Make America Great Again.”  Under the administration of his predecessor, the first African-American to hold the office, we were still the greatest nation in the world.  Apparently, the political left and right cannot, or for the sake of promoting their agendas, refuse to come to an agreement of what makes for greatness.  I am choosing to ignore their arguments because in African and Orthodox Christian history, there are consistent elements and examples of what greatness is and that we have agreed upon in all places at all times.  I will lift up one element and example for your consideration; the humility of Macarius the Great of fourth century Egypt.

180px-st_macarius_the_great_with_cherub

One day, Macarius was gathering reeds to make baskets when Satan began to beat him with a scythe. His blows had no effect on the man and he stopped and left him alone.  As the devil was leaving, he told the saint, “I do everything you do.  You stay up all night praying, I don’t sleep.  You fast, I don’t eat.  You have one advantage over me that I cannot overcome; your humility” (1).  For those of you unfamiliar with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a book that African-American Christians would do well to read and study), I give you these words from the Apostle Paul; “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … He made himself of no reputation … He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death … Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-10).

Russuan Paper Mache Cross

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

In both sides of the political argument, humility is tragically absent. I use this adjective because without this critical element that Jesus and Macarius lived by, greatness will not happen; except that we may achieve great failure and embarrassment.  Let’s take the right; everyone wants a strong economy with good jobs, and protection from enemies.  The desire to achieve these goals is no excuse for belligerence.  The left’s concerns for diversity, fairness, and social progress are also admirable and necessary.  Vulgarity only hurts the cause one struggles for.  And it may be that the media is drowning out the more conciliatory voices on both sides for the sake of ratings and profits (I don’t doubt this at all).   But, with few (if any) voices on either side are pointing out to humility as the means of achieving greatness, calling on God to bless America or saying that God is on our side are empty words that will generate atheism faster than anything Charles Darwin could have dreamed of.

It will not be any political leader or party that will humble the heart of America. It will take the masses to embrace the mentality of our Savior and the African saint (and I welcome a similar spirit from those of other faiths and no faith).  For African-Americans, perhaps a deeper look at the humility of our forefathers would help.  Not every slave was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner.  The very existence of devout Christian slaves whose spirituality went deeper than that of their masters was an indictment against the false Christianity of the American South and their friends in the North.  For a modern example, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by laying on the ropes and taking hard punches to tire out his opponent.  And at the right time, he fought back.  For the Orthodox Church, while we do pray for our Cesar’s, we don’t comply with their spirit.  Many of our greatest saints rejected the popular wave of Christianity after the edict of Milan and fled to the deserts of Africa, Asia, and (later) the wilderness of Europe and Siberia.  Those who didn’t flee aided and spoke up for the downtrodden, rejected the excesses of their society, and pointed to the examples in the Egyptian and Northern Thebaid on how best to follow Christ.   Indeed, St. Herman and other missionaries to Alaska stood up for the rights of the natives against Russian colonial exploiters and oppressors.  To this day, Natives there choose and respect Orthodoxy over Protestantism and Catholicism because of their example.

st_anthony_great_2

St. Anthony was shown all of the traps the Devil had spread all over the world.  He groaned and asked what could get through them all.  Then, a voice came to him and said, “Humility” (2).  It is not so much that conservatives have to become liberals or vice-versa.  But, we have to approach one another and the issues of our country with this all-powerful virtue.  Solutions will not be easy.  But, with humility and God’s grace, we can solve our problems.  Without it, we can only expect to continue with this destructive vicious circle we are in and for it to get worse.

  1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs. 129, 130
  2. Desert Fathers, pg. 2
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A Deeper Freedom

 

Both sides on America’s political divide love to talk about freedom.  There are constitutional concerns such as the right to bear arms or to marry a partner of the same-sex.  There is the fear of being killed Islamic terrorist or racist policemen.  We sing in our national anthem that we are, “The land of the free,” and in a hymn of our Civil War, “let us die to make men free.”  In my morning spiritual readings, I have found that there is a greater freedom that we ought to be striving for and that is being woefully ignored in today’s political climate.

In the writings attributed to St. Anthony the Great:  Regard as free not those whose status makes the outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.  For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked or dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions.  Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things.  (Philokalia vol. 1, On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life #18).  Rather than dwell on the words of America’s founding fathers, it would serve us Christians well to measure our level of freedom based on the teaching of this desert father.

st_anthony_great_2

True freedom is in our character and conduct.  Character is how we think, speak, and act when people aren’t around to see us.  Anyone can work at having a good reputation; putting on a front of good moral behavior in public while willingly keeping a wicked private life.  But, we serve a God who knows our innermost parts.  He knows when we sell ourselves to indulging in self-indulgence, greed, hate, arrogance, and other sinful ways in our thoughts.  He knows the difference between a man who seeks to be transformed by the renewing of his mind toward His will (Romans 12:2) and those who are like whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside, but are full of decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).  Even if one is able to fool some of the people some of the time and perhaps all of the people all of the time, no one can fool God.

True freedom consist of purity and detachment from transitory things.  Our Lord taught that we are not corrupted by the things outside of us, but by the things inside of us (Matthew 15:10-20) and that we should clean the filth inside of us so that our outsides would also be clean (Matt. 23:25).  But, we surround ourselves with various advertisements and entertainments which stimulate our passions of anger, greed, and sensuality.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a good job, home, and a secure life for self and family.  But, when this “American Dream” takes precedence over seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), these earthly goals are corrupted by our non-transformed inward passions.  With his spiritual priorities and pursuits in order, a man in the worst poverty with the lowest paying job lives in a greater sense of peace than the elite and wealthy who may have a good reputation with a sinful character.

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul (Matt. 16:26)?  This is the lesson that those who so vehemently argue from the left and right forget in the pursuit of freedom in this country in this political climate.  Having a sociopolitical point of view can be of value as both conservatism and liberalism are as necessary for a nation as a left and right-wing are needed for a bird to fly.  But, if we are not first and more so concerned with the pursuit of freedom of our souls, there can never be peace in mind for us as individuals nor as a nation.  Neither of the major political parties, third parties, well-financed lobbyist, nor street demonstrators can give us freedom of the soul.  This is a gift given by God by those who diligently and humbly seek Him.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Songs That Moved Me: Four Cornered Room

“Go to your cell.  Your cell will teach you everything.” — St. Moses the (Black) Ethiopian

Of course, St. Moses and the other great monastics of Orthodoxy could not have had an album from War on their turn tables back in the day.  In fact, they couldn’t have had turn tables.  But, if they did, I imagine any monk or nun would have heard this song and felt it fitting in to their spiritual journey.  I forgot that I had a copy of “The World Is A Ghetto” cassette.  The whole thing is a masterpiece of 1970’s funk.  But, that fourth track, “Four Cornered Room,” strikes me as one of the best songs to prepare for daily prayers.  I would dare say it is better than most contemporary Gospel music.

First of all, War was a band that never called to make a living from the Gospel.  These were just some dudes from L.A. making songs about “Low Rider” cars, old westerns (“Cisco Kid”), and other stuff to bob your head to.  Chances are, most of us aren’t reading our Bibles and singing hymns 24/7.  We work regular jobs either as highly educated and trained professionals, something unskilled and minimum wage, or something somewhere in between.  And even for full-time pastors and church staff, chances are that your daily duties keep you from any sort of introspective time in reflective self-examination.  So, “Four Cornered Room” is not a directive from a pulpit nor a praise break by an on stage performer.  It is a hint of what needs to be done by someone as regular as you and I.  While ministers and musicians called by God do a service to mankind, there are moments when our souls are better fed by those who offer real words as they walk beside us than from occupants of honorable seats.

It was Jesus Himself that taught us the value of the “Four Cornered Room.”  While War wasn’t giving an intentional Biblical lesson, they almost parallel the Gospel:

Thinking, talking; we’ve worked out our problems – Look like we should have better days in front – Just because we took our time to think and talk – For a much better understanding  (War, “Four Cornered Room”)

and

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6)

Also, consider how many of our slave ancestors took the time to be one on one with God and themselves.  How else could we have heard such spiritual lyrics as:

Nobody knows the trouble I see – Nobody knows but Jesus – Nobody knows the trouble I see – Glory Hallelujah.

There is hope that comes from the Four  Cornered Room that no matter what our struggles and challenges are, if we would just get to that one place where we can be to ourselves, Someone will meet us and help us come to a better time and place.

 

African Monastic Wisdom: Rejecting Glory

There is a temptation among us all to gloat when we are proven right.  We especially tend to gloat when we had to endure a lot of criticism and insults until the truth came out on our side.  For some, we just want our opponents to admit their faults.  Others of us want to make a meal out of our “haters.”

St. Macarius of Egypt

To combat this tendency, God provides us with the example of St. Macarius of Egypt.  This well-respected African saint is one that almost all Orthodox Christians are familiar with as his words are in our prayer books.  Despite being sought after and honored by all races of Christian believers in life, he led an extremely austere life as a celibate monk with a simple diet and basic clothing.  From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this story (my paraphrase of it).

Macarius had taken the life of a hermit monk making hand crafts to support himself.  A local man saw him as a spiritual guide and took the monk’s work to the local village market to sell for him.

A young lady in the village became pregnant.  When asked who was the man she slept with, she lied and claimed it was the monk Macarius.  The people of the village seized him and led him into town to be humiliated, beaten, and spat upon.  The monk’s assistant also was tormented as he stood by the innocent man.  Rather than try to plead his case, Macarius worked harder to make more crafts telling himself that he has to support his new wife and child.

When it came time for the woman to deliver, she went through great pain as she couldn’t give birth.  When asked what was the matter, she confessed that she falsely accused the monk and that the father was another man.  The monk’s assistant quickly went to the outskirts of town to tell Macarius that the woman admitted her lie and that the whole village was coming to repent and honor him for their years of disbelief and abuse.  Rather than stay and receive them, Macarius fled his cave and went even further away to a desert where no one knew of what had happened.

I confess, I think I’d stick around for a few tearful apologies from the most irritating of the bunch.  But, this story is so opposite of myself and most of us.  Even though we may not want to put folk through the same cruelty they put us through, the object of our existence is not earthly glory from man under any circumstances.  St. Anthony died far away from his followers so that his relics would not be found to be venerated by anyone.  St. Moses the Black once disguised himself before a wealthy official as not to be discovered.  Even  our Lord when He had done mighty works in one village, did He not move on to another place to spread the Gospel (Mark 1:35-39).

How many of us strive to make a school honor roll not because we love learning the various subjects presented to us and challenging our minds, but for financial awards and praises from others?  How many of us bust our butts on our jobs not because we find our careers fulfilling our interest and passions, but because we want that pay raise, promotion, and recognition as the best in the profession?  While not every man or woman will be called to live in a cave or monastic cell, the monks and nuns remind us that there is a world beyond this one with greater glories than what this world can offer.  While recognition may come our way in our academics, employment, or community service; we must accept such things with the greatest of humility and make sure our true aim is for the kingdom of heaven.

When we make the glories of the kingdom of earth our true aim, we fall into the temptation Satan tried to offer our Lord.  The more we want earthly glory, the more we will serve the devil to get it.  Which is why Jesus rejected the overt plan of the devil.  Which is why Macarius fled the slippery slope of many praises that would have misled him.  Let us not be fooled into seeking earthly glory.

African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (part 4): Morning and Hope

7:30 am to 12:00 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

I rode over to the church with Fr. Justin and Turbo.  One day, I’d like to take a road trip with these brothers.  They seem full of great stories, wisdom, and just cool dudes to hang out with.  The day began with the Rite of Sing of Psalms with Toparia, Epistle,  and Gospel.  Let’s just call it Matins prayer on steroids.  In my normal discipline, it is just me, my icons, prayer books, a candle, and some (Dollar General) incense.  This morning worship had more Psalms (duh) and prayers, some I was familiar with.  Others were a bit new to me.  Again, one of the most beautiful things about the worship is that we were all together.  Another thing that was great was the meditative nature of such worship.  There is no entertainment value in a group of nuns singing and chanting and the congregants following along.  It is a call for reflection and repentance in the presence of God. I cannot tell you how many times “Lord, have mercy” was rapidly prayed.  Plus, there was a sermon from Fr. Maximus Cabey.  He is the pastor of an OCA church in Green Bay, WI.

Growing up as a black Baptist in the south, the idea of a black pastor in a liturgical church (except for the Episcopalians) seems odd to me. Yet, Fathers Maximus, Moses, and Jerome Sanderson serve in what I grew up believing in “white” churches.  “Dead white” churches at that because they were not Baptist, Pentecostal, or (at least) Methodist.  While I am not myopic to think that there is no racism in the Orthodox church, it seems that there may be less in the ancient faith than their is in Western Christianity.  The challenge is to make the faith known.IMGP8124 IMGP8128_edited-1 IMGP8135_edited-1

This is the great thing about the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black.  Yes, the goal is to bring Orthodoxy to African-Americans.  But, it is not exclusively black in membership nor target audience.  I was blessed to meet a white sister, Sarah Motley, from Roanoke who had been going to these conferences for six years.  I will work with her to form a Virginia chapter of the Brotherhood.  In a Sunday School lesson, Fr. James Purdie taught that Orthodoxy has it’s roots in Africa.  Yet, it is deeply embraced by Eastern Europeans.  Serbs pray the prayers of St. Macarius of Egypt.  Russians refer to the doctrines of St. Cyprian of Carthage.  Any Greek will tell you that St. Athanasius’s enemies referred to him as the “black dwarf.”  If the Orthodox church is good enough for these white people, I see no reason why African-Americans ought not learn about and convert to this ancient faith that Africans were very instrumental in establishing.  The Brotherhood is named for an Ethiopian (I think one of those really dark skinned Nilotic or Para-Nilotic people rather than a brown skinned Amharic) who is widely honored by the Orthodox world for his non-judgmental kindness and wisdom.

After breakfast, Fr. Jerome Sanderson reminded me so much of my late grandfather-in-law in is lecture about living with nature.  I really should be ashamed of myself for my poor gardening and I have an Ag. Education degree.  I have been good (at one time) about walking trails and along shorelines outside of work.  I need to do more of that.  I didn’t get Brother Michael’s last name.  His work at Emmaus  House in New York is very similar to Reconciliation Ministries in KC.  Fr. Paisius Altschul continued on the theme of “The Church In the Village.”  Overall, it seems that the goal of Orthodoxy is to be a part of the community that meets the needs of the people who live there.  In the case of the fore-mentioned ministries, especially the needs of the least of these.  My challenge will be to make this community/Orthodox model apply to rural and small town Virginia.  Some things are already in place.  I just have to get up and do something.

 

 

St. Anthony, King, Obama: The Time Is Now

The confluence of the days is no coincidence.  Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday will be celebrated on January 21st.  This is also the same date of the Second Inauguration of President Barak Obama.  Every American, in particular African-Americans, understand the importance and prophetic like significance of these events.  King was the voice for a better America and helped lead the country out of the satanic state of segregation.  Obama is a symbol of what anyone can achieve if they strive to do their best.  There is no way I could nor would want to dispel these two great men.  But, I do believe it is important for we as Protestant Christians, and especially African-American Christians to also regard Saint Anthony of Egypt.  Today is his feast day.

St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony the Great inherited great wealth from his parents and could have lived a life of great splendor.  Yet hearing the Gospel message, he left his worldly possessions behind and took up a life of prayer in the desert.  His devotion to prayer was a great influence on Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria who gave the church its first creed and was the first to compile the list of books that became our New Testament.  Another Egyptian, Macarius, to write prayers that are still prayed by Orthodox believers around the world.  Anthony’s defence of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God during the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea helped the early church reject the heresy of Arianism.  Yet, rather than bask in the glories of his achievements, Anthony kept returning to his cave.  His followers followed his instructions and buried him in a secret grave so that he would not become the object of veneration.

The importance of Anthony is no less than that of MLK and Mr. Obama.  As we celebrate these to great men, now is the time for us to open our hearts and minds to learn about and celebrate our African-Christian heroes (and the saints of other lands as well).  Had there been no Anthony, the correct doctrines supported by Athanasius, Basil, Nicholas (yes, THAT St. Nicholas), and others may not have been as convincing to Emperor Constantine and the Council.  The rich prayer tradition of Orthodox and Catholic monks and nuns would not have developed in such meaningful ways.  Indeed, where would King have received his Holy Bible from?  What sort of Bible would Mr. Obama take the oath of office on? The “Desert Fathers” of Africa should and must be a part of who we African-American Christians honor during Black History Month as without them, we (and the world) might not be here and not have a true idea of who Jesus Christ is.

Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the era of Dr. King, we were too busy with fighting for our Civil Rights to learn much about our Christian history.  Now, it is possible that an African-American President who struggled during his first term could win a second.  Nothing is stopping us from reading the books of the early church fathers and talking to Eastern and Oriental Orthodox clergy.  Instead of choking our people on a diet of a modern Christian market, we can introduce them to the solid doctrines, prayers, and practices of our African ancestors.  Even if we choose not to convert to Orthodoxy (and I think some of us should), we should know our history.  We have no excuses not to learn.