Desert Fathers

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.

What Are You Reading?

 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables.

2 Timothy 4:3, 4

Not a Christian Best Seller (© John Gresham)

There is one good thing about losing electric power for a day.  You can always read a book that you never found time for.  I purchased a copy of The Life of St. Anthony the Great by St. Athanasius the Great weeks ago and put in with my other icons in the living room.  I took it with me to Charlottesville thinking that it was going to be 100 degrees Saturday and I could, at least, thumb through a few more pages.  Thanks to Friday night’s storm, my eyes were opened.  St. Anthony was a Holy Spirit driven sage whose teachings of monasticism is still influential on Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  The author, St. Athanasius was also a giant of the faith as he is credited for compiling the 27 books of the New Testament and forming the Nicene Creed.  These and other men and women bore some of the worst persecution under the Romans and led the way in establishing the Christian faith under the reign of Constantine.  Writings by Irenaeus, Basil, John Chrysostom, and others are still in existence and can be purchased online or some very good indie bookstores.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christian books sold today are not deeply rooted in early church teachings.  Most of them are more “positive thinking,” ego-building fluff than the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  Look at the covers of their paperbacks and hard back covers.  There is the author with the perfect hair, smile, and make-up.  There is the author with a pose and facial expression that, supposedly, shows wisdom and confidence.  The scriptures they use, frequently, are curious mish-mashes of verses taken out of their biblical context to support their marketable points of view.  Except for a few Catholic writers, there are few (if any) quotes from the saints who were of the same, or a few generations after Jesus and the apostles.  The sole purpose of such books is to make a maximum profit by selling a cheap and shoddy version of the Gospel.

I am not saying there are no modern Christian writers worth reading.  Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible is my favorite text-book from seminary.  I would put Howard Thurman’s spiritual writings beside those of any Orthodox ascetic.  I had the pleasure of visiting a pastoral care class taught by Wayne Oates at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary many years ago.  While some of my favorite non-Orthodox books are very scholarly and technical, most can be well understood by the average layperson.  Because the authors aren’t (and never were) TV personalities, don’t expect to find their books at Wal-Mart or Costco.  If you are fortunate enough to live near, or visit a college town, go to the independent and used bookstores (you will save money).  Online sources are great too.  Major-chain booksellers may special order stuff on request.

As you choose Christian (or other religious books in general), please be discerning.  Submit yourself to a disciplined life of prayer and reading the scriptures before you purchase anything by anybody.  Keep a prayer journal where you honestly deal with your thoughts and feelings about your walk with God.  Books recommended by your pastor and trusted friends in the faith can be a very good source.  But, be rooted and honest in the pursuit of spirit and truth so that you don’t waste money, time, intelligence, and your soul on religious sounding fluff and bad doctrine.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Tuesday): Cyprian and Nicodemus

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, …

John 3:1, 2

The Path (© John Gresham)

Before I began to seriously consider Orthodoxy, I was drawn to St. Cyprian of Carthage.  First of all, I thought the name sounded cool and I was proud of the fact that he was an African.  I have an icon of him (I printed from an online image) beside the computer in my study at home as a reminder to avoid pornography websites.  I began to watch websites that talked about how horribly the women are treated in the industry and have no desire to indulge in it again.  I never prayed to the icon (as Orthodox and Catholics are falsely accused of).  Nor did I even think to venerate him, unless naming my Second Life avatar after him and living as an Orthodox monk was a way of paying him deep respect and admiration.  The icon was there when the Holy Spirit freed me from that sinful desire.  Thus, I consider Cyprian as one in the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1, 2) that interceded for me.

As I have become increasingly diligent about the ancient faith, I am seeing myself in the light of another in that cloud whose walk with Jesus is a forerunner of mine.  Nicodemus was a well-trained religious authority.  He had status and clout among the Jewish hierarchy and as long as he towed the party line, all would be well with him.  But, he met this man who had kicked over the money tables, did a number of signs, gave a strange answer of his authority, and didn’t set up a clique to rival the Jews right then and there.  Instead of dismissing the rabble-rouser, this Pharisee and Priest saw that he must have been sent by God, asked questions, and listened.  He would later be rebuked by his colleagues for suggesting that the Galilean be fairly investigated before being completely denounced.  At the burial of the Crucified One, he brought one hundred pounds of aloes and myrrh.  In some Christian and Jewish traditions, Nicodemus was martyred for accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

I am a Baptist among Baptist.  My certification of studies comes from one of the most respected African-American seminaries.  I have pastored for 15 years and serve as a Moderator of a local association.  I now serve on a state-wide commission for evangelism.  If I play by the rules and work my contacts in high places (and finish my M.Div.), my star could rise in the Baptist faith.

But, I saw this faith that gave the world the first confession of Jesus and compiled the Bible.  This faith that never considered skin color to be a badge of racial supremacy nor inferiority from the time they were first called Christians.  This faith that gives guidelines in pursuing a spiritual life and becomes a way of life.  I am observing Orthodoxy the same way Nicodemus observed Jesus.  The more I see, listen, and understand; the more I accept it.  Because of my position, I cannot follow the faith right now.  There will come a time of conversion.  I pray that when that day comes, that I will have the courage to do it, even if it means martyrdom.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Thursday): A Pattern of Preaching

 A 10 minute sermon? This is proof that the center of Orthodox worship is not on the preached word. There is simply no way I can get away with a 10 minute sermon. I had better not preach much more than 20 minutes. But, we Baptist are expected to give an introduction, antithesis, thesis, relevant question, 3 points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with what the Vladyka said. I just find this form of preaching strange. I will keep watching and learning.

As a Baptist who has decided to journey toward Orthodox Christianity, I expected that I would say something to draw criticism from one side or the other.  I thought one of my colleagues would be the first to question my icons or wonder if I started “praying to Mary instead of Jesus.”  Nope, instead I have been “taken to the woodshed” by archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Canadian Orthodox Monastery of All Saints of North America.

In my comments on his sermon, I meant no criticism of his content.  I am certainly not ready to debate the man on theology.  I didn’t say that the length of his message was too short in the context of Orthodox Worship.  I said, perhaps in too many words, that a ten-minute sermon is not the norm for the Baptist Church.  He disagreed with my observation that “the center of Orthodox Worship is not on the preached word” (the Eucharist is the center, even he said that), and gave a stern repost to my comment, “I found this form of preaching strange.”

  • Not true. The entire Liurgy preaches the Gospel. As with the Ancient Church, the centre of Orthodox Worship is the Eucharest. Only for the Gnostics was this not the case. I have seen & been Sectarian neo-Gnostic (Protestant) self-worship services. The consist in screaming, howling preachers who have to crack jokes, howl like dogs at the moon, torch singers, rock bands, feel-good-about-yourself empty, meaningless songs and self-congratulatory outbursts. All is emotion, self-centred and vain.

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

  • Do you really consider rock bands, the cheapening of the name of Christ Jesus, torch singers, tap dancers, joke-cracking preachers, howling, thereatening, leaping and dancing across the state slapping the bible up and down, prowling the stage cursing people and a purly Gnostic message could be considered “preaching the word” or “worshipping?” Would Christ stop at your concession stand in the lobby for soda and pop-corn before going into a multi-million dollar business centre called a “church?”

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

 I am more than aware of the abuses of worship in the modern Christian worship and seek to avoid them like the plague.  And I confess to being a little humorous and very loud in the pulpit.  I am not ready to debate the Archbishop on theology as he is far more knowledgable and wise than myself.  But, I will defend the pattern of sermon construction that has been handed down to me from years of Baptist preaching.

I have been taught to give an introduction as a way to lead people into the message.  The antithesis brings the congregation into the particular problem that is common in our daily lives.  The thesis is the answer to the problem based on the scripture that is read.  A relevant question inquires that the preacher can properly apply the scripture to the problem (like in algebra where one has to show the whole equation and not just write down the correct answer).  The preacher then gives his points (usually three) with scriptures in the same context as the given text.  All is summarized in the conclusion that proclaims the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Can Archbishop Puhalo or someone else tell me what is wrong with this form of preaching?  Sure, I have heard many ministers use text out of context, stray away from the thesis, focus more on a celebratory conclusion rather than other elements of the message, and other abuses.  I admit guilt to not writing and preaching the best constructed sermons.  But when followed correctly, listeners (who pay attention) leave worship with a clear understanding of the text and how to apply the Gospel to daily living.  Other than the theological differences between the Baptist and Orthodox, this form of preaching is a good thing.

And let me leave today risking more wrath.  Orthodox Christians who want to call us Protestants fake, frauds, Gnostics, and other things (one You Tube commentator calls us “transvestites”); you need to go out and evangelize.  In my 45 years on this earth, I have had plenty of Jehovah’s Witnesses approach me, Mormons visit my home, Black Muslims sell me newspapers and bean pies.  I have yet to have an Orthodox Christian approach me.  I have had to take the time and look things up online for myself.   If any religion or denomination has the truth, it is the church that was founded in A.D. 33.  But, the only time most of us hear about this church is when a Greek festival is going on.  Plenty of people who were brought up in Protestant churches are leaving or aren’t that dedicated to the faith.  There is a rich harvest for you to pick from.  Black Americans will especially appreciate the fact that Africans were among the founders of Orthodoxy.  If God is not pleased with our heterodox beliefs, shame on us.  But, if we are remaining heterodox because we have never heard the Gospel coming from you Orthodox, you share in our shame.

I thank God that I was raised and serve as a Baptist.  I am equally grateful that I have found the rich history, heritage, and spirituality of Orthodoxy (and have applied for membership in St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline).

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Monday): Asking, Seeking, and Knocking

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

A Broad View (© John Gresham)

I am recovering from the Feast of All Saints of North America (overindulgence in a stuffed crust, super supreme pizza).  About to go to a staff meeting at the park ( I am supplying a salad and portabella mushrooms for myself as I am not going to eat any chicken).  And I have more than a few loose ends to tie up this week for the church.  Thus far, I can say that I am happy with my journey on this Apostles Fast.

I am finding so much history in Orthodoxy.  I knew that Christianity had existed in Ethiopia since high school.  But, thanks to modern technology, I have learned even more of this church as well as the Copts of Egypt.  You Tube has become a valuable instrument in my learning of the ancient faith.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and David Withun have very informative videos on the network.  I also listen to the lectures on the Ancient Faith Radio podcast.  I intend to visit either the Greek Orthodox Church or OCA Mission when I go to Charlottesville soon and will be able to visit the Antiochian Church on the fifth Sunday of July.  As soon as the Greek Church opens in Williamsburg, I will attend some midweek services.

Perhaps some would criticize my appreciation for Orthodoxy and wonder why I am asking, seeking, and knocking on their door when I have been a life-long Baptist and pastor a church.  History is one reason.  We African-American Baptist have a rich legacy of preaching, music, and theology that I do appreciate and thank God for.  But, the Baptist faith is only over 200 years old.  Yes, we can talk about the legacy of Robert Walker, Nat Turner, John Jasper, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the message they had for our community and nation.  But, we should also learn and celebrate the legacy and message of the African fathers who contributed to the very foundations of Christianity.  St Anthony the Great is recognized as the father of monasticism by both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  His contemporary, St. Athanasius, described Anthony as being of the Egyptian race.  In speaking of his fellow African, Athanasius put together the New Testament!  Seriously, how can we even call ourselves African-American Christians and not give recognition to the Africans that helped form the faith?  How can we not also celebrate those martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maurice and the Theban Legion?  Is the oppression and murder they suffered less important than that of King or the four girls that were killed in a Birmingham church bombing?  If we are going to tell the history of our Christian heritage, we ought to tell the whole story.

The Africans who contributed to early Christianity were not former slaves that had to overcome Jim Crow laws to be accepted by whites.  They were held as equals in faith going back to that first named Christian community in Antioch (Acts 13:1).  Race was a non-issue in the early Orthodox world.  Ethiopians have some icons of a pale skinned Jesus out of respect for the Russian Orthodox whom they have enjoyed a long kinship with.  There are churches and monasteries in Europe with icons of the Theotokos and Christ darker than I am.  Most images of Christ and others in the Bible are depicted as Middle Eastern, neither black nor white.  The history of the faith is multicultural and universal (Colossians 3:11).

I have to cut off here.