discipleship

Lessons From Lent: The Temptations

There really isn’t any point in fasting, praying, nor almsgiving during Great Lent and Holy Week if you are not trying to grow spiritually from the experience.  During this time of renewal, I ran across one of the spurious letters of St. Ignatius to the Philippians that made me take a second look at the tempting of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4).  Satan attempts to persuade Jesus into three frames of mind that would lead him into sin.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

First, is ignorance of the word of God.  In the previous chapter, our Lord was baptized, had the Holy Spirit descend on Him, and had been announced by the Heavenly Father as the Son.  Jesus needed no other proof as to who He was.  Thus, Satan’s challenge (if you are the Son of God) fell on deaf ears as our Lord chose not to be ignorant, but to pay attention to the word of God rather than obey the legitimate cravings of his flesh.

The second dangerous frame of mind is a vainglorious relationship with God.  Here, Satan was careful to use scriptures to give Jesus a sense of assurance of safety if He would cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.  But, rather than fall for the seemingly legitimate bait of scripture, our Lord stood on the more humble command not to put God to the test.

The final mentality that Satan used to tempt Christ was direct rebellion against God for the sake of the world.  No doubt, the splendors of the ancient world’s kingdoms were great.  Yet, Jesus knew there was a much greater and everlasting kingdom that was not built by human conquest and construction.  Our Lord felt that this place was so great that He commanded the devil to leave him for even offering up such a choice.

Christ overcoming Satan

Considering my own struggles and temptations, I can see where every sin is linked to one of these three frames of mind.  For the sake of satisfying legitimate cravings we ignore the truth God indisputably revealed to us.  We say and act as we wish because we have adjusted the scriptures to fit our bidding rather than to submit to what the scriptures say believing we have God’s approval.  For the sake of what we can gain in the world, we gladly serve the devil himself in direct defiance that God has something greater for us if we are faithful and patient.

Pascha (Easter) is a few days away.  I anticipate enjoying every form of meat and dairy product that my palate chooses and wallet can afford.  But, I pray that I will spend times meditating on these lessons from my first Lenten Fast as an Orthodox Christian.  Rely on the word of God and forsake the flesh.  Walk with God in humility and not vainglory.  Serve God only and reject this world as it calls us to serve Satan.

A Blessed Holy Week and Pascha to all.

 

The Ever Virgin Mary: My Bull’s- Eye Theory

“Failure is not the problem.  The problem is low aim.” — Dr. Benjamin Mays

Yes, I believe that Mary was a virgin through-out her life.  This belief was central in early church doctrine, continued (though somewhat skewed) in Roman Catholicism, and was unchallenged by the first wave of church reformers.  It wasn’t until the more radical reformed churches came into being that the perpetual virginity of Mary was questioned and rejected.  Many make this error based on the scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters with His mother waiting to speak to Him even though in that culture one’s cousins were also counted as siblings.  Others are misled by the text where Joseph did not know (as in carnal knowledge) Mary until she bore her son and named him Jesus.  This is a translation problem for in the same Gospel, Jesus declares He will be with us until the end of the age.  By that logic, after the end of the age, Jesus will no longer be with us.  Also, if Jesus did have blood siblings as we define them by our western standard, why is it that he left the care of His mother to a disciple rather than one of the children she supposedly gave birth to?

O Virgin Pure

Perhaps the most disturbing and failed excuse for rejecting Mary as ever virgin is that “she was still human.”  Yes, I believe and the Church teaches that Mary was fully human.  But, is it wise to believe that the natural state of humanity is to wallow in desires of the flesh, or to pursue purity and unity with God? If we aim for the best standard of physical pleasure, sex in heterosexual marriage, we aim for what God has ordained under the Old Covenant, which is good.  As humans, we have a chronic tendency to fall short of our goals.  Pursuing pleasure often distracts us from our goals.  In fact, we tend to excuse personal fulfillment of pleasure as a greater good (“all is fair in love and war”).  Combine aiming for the lesser goal with our tendency to fall short of our goals and the distraction of pleasure and you have a recipe for a society doomed for sexual failure.  It is like a darts thrower who never aims for the bull’s eye.  If there is no central point that he seeks, he will barely reach the inner circle where there is great value.  Instead, his darts will land on various parts of the board (at best) and may even stray far away from the board and hit by-standers causing injury.

But, let a society pursue the purity of an ever virgin Mary.  There is an unusual purity to aim for; to be human and offer one’s sexuality as a sacrifice as a celibate.  It was through the Virgin that the Savior was born and He was also celibate as he was fully human as well.  Mary becomes the bull’s-eye the dart thrower aims for.  With a central target, the thrower will still not make his goal all of the time.  But, he can hit the safe and valuable inner circle of holy matrimony.  A darts-man who hits this circle with regularity is as admired as the one who hits the bull’s-eye.  Novices at darts that constantly strive for the bull’s-eye will improve from hitting the wall, to hitting the outer areas of the board, to hitting either the highest targets of monasticism or matrimony. And this may be the root of why our modern society is engulfed in sexual immorality; rejecting the ever virginity of the fully human Mother of God has taken away the spiritual bull’s-eye that we should strive for in our sexuality.  We don’t see that supreme holiness can be born in us and in one another.  If we cannot see this possibility, then it is difficult to see ourselves and one another as much beyond potential sex partners.  We dehumanize each other in the worst ways.  Men are seen as lovable but brutal.  Women, especially in modern pornography, are treated in ways that if they really were dogs, the PETA would break every law in the world to protect them.  Even outside of porn, our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are too frequently thought of,  referred to, and treated as less than the icon made by  God that they are as we men are.

This is not to say that those of us who hold Mary to be Ever Virgin are perfect in obtaining sexual purity.  We are probably as bad as, and in some cases worse than anyone else.  But, holding her as one who abstained from sex even after giving birth gives us an example to aim for.  And if one constantly aims for the bulls-eye, the result will be to the better.

Revolution Calling

I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth.  But, now I see the pay-offs everywhere I look.  Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?

Revolution Calling  Queensryche

So, let’s see.  The world and every agenda of it has given me a new lie to swallow.  I remember the Twana Brawley fiasco and how that propelled Al Sharpton to the national spotlight.  The football player turned war hero Pat Tillman who was shot not by the enemy in a fire fight, but by a fellow soldier.  How one girl from West Virginia refused to go along with the exaggerations of her heroism and another’s death was ruled a suicide when even Stevie Wonder could see by the evidence she was raped and murdered.  And now, I find out that the Matthew Shepherd case that had Americans thinking about homophobia and its victims was spun in a way to make him the poster child for gay hate crimes though other factors, namely drug abuse, were involved in his death.  There are plenty of other true stories that any cause could highlight for the sake of their agendas.  But, the media’s and society’s thirst for exaggeration and falsehood has obscured truth so much that many people have become calloused to one another.  A change in politics does little or no good as both those on the left and the right have proven to be liars with no sense of remorse.  Conservatism, liberalism, and even moderation are all failing and have failed our nation and humanity.

Monastic Contemplation

Anthony did well to go into an African desert to devote his life to prayer.  Seraphim of Sarov did likewise in the forest of Russia.  It was the the Son of God and the evangelist John that taught us to renounce the world ant its ways.  Perhaps if I were single and had no debts to repay, St Catherine’s, Valaam, or even Holy Cross would be good places for me to live the rest of my years.  But, total monasticism is not my calling.

Again, I started this blog as an extension of my second life character, an Orthodox monk.  In real life, I have done the unthinkable in leaving a stable Baptist pastorate to convert to the Church.  I think I should consider and commit myself even more to the faith and spend even more time in reading and studying the scriptures, desert and early church fathers, and other elements in Orthodox doctrine and practice to deepen my faith.  This world offers little truth and no hope.  There is a greater kingdom than this one.  Achieving the greater kingdom must be my ultimate goal.  I still have a job to do, a wife to love and take care of, and hobbies.  But, the kingdom of God and His righteousness is the highest goal and of greatest importance to me.

And I must do this with a sense of love and laughter.  Whenever I express my challenges and difficulties, my priest always reminds me to laugh at myself (and I give me plenty of material to do that).  I can’t be so hardcore about working out my salvation in fear and trembling to forget that (1) Jesus took care of much of the process by conquering death by His death and (2) everyone I see is an icon of God.  Thus, in my revolt against the world and it’s ways, I am called to express compassion, joy, and hope as well as to be humble, sober minded, and serious about the things of God.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  — Matthew 5:16

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 3): An Urban Beacon

9:00 am to 9:00 pm/ 11 October/ Kansas City, MO

I arrived early at St. Mary’s and needed to crash for a couple of hours.  The lady at Reconciliation Ministries was nice enough to let me in.  Then, I was greeted by a nun ( I feel a bit foolish that I don’t remember her name).  I was also greeted by a very remarkable Fr. Paisius Altschul.  He and his late wife founded Reconciliation Ministries as a non-denominational mission/ministry.  They became Orthodox and established a Serbian parish in inner city Kansas City.  I was very impressed that they started a church in such an unlikely area not with a plan to make a mega-church.  Their only motivation was to serve homeless people and to share the ancient faith.  Climbing stairs to the third and fourth floors for the sanctuary and fellowship hall was a bit different.  But, I couldn’t help but to think that this is the way a church ought to start. 

This beacon was not only the building.  The church was in the heart and hospitality of the people as well.  Fr. and Matushka Justin Matthews (and their 3 sons) opened their home to me and another house guest, Turbo Qualls.  Rather than the well groomed suburbs, the Matthews family lived blocks away from the church and the people in need.  The boys, though raised with some amount of privilege, got to see first hand what poverty was like and how people struggle to do better in life.  Turbo is an African-American convert to Orthodoxy who’s story has been told on Ancient Faith Radio and the Orthodox Christian Network.  He was the 4 pm speaker on “Iconography: Expressions of Culture and Faith.”  A statement that he made separates iconography from general pictures.  “Jesus is not a story book character.”  Thus, the icon is not something that we can conveniently throw away.  The icon is an expression of our faith and a window for us to see into the world beyond.  Combined with viewing the movie “We Are All Supermen” (a documentary of how St. Mary’s, Reconciliation Services, and Reengage [a ministry focused on transforming males into men] have combined to improve lives in the Troost neighborhood of KC), the conference was making a powerful impression on me within the first hours.

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It was an honor to meet the founder of the Brotherhood, Fr. Moses Berry.  Also, Subdeacon Paul Abernathy and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel Johnson.  I have heard these brothers on You Tube and Vimeo.  I am humbled that these men of God even took the time to read my little blog.  Had I been well rested, I could have spoken with these men later into the night than I did.  But, the bus ride (and the abuse I did to my body with way too many sugar-sweetened beverages) took a toll on me and I left with Matuska Matthews and the boys around during the “Music:  Expressions of Culture and Faith” session (which was very entertaining).  Meeting people that I knew from Facebook (John Norman, Orlando Greenhill, and others) and those I didn’t know from Adam was terrific.  I even met Sarah Motley from Salem VA.  She has been coming to the conference for years.  Oh yeah, there will be a Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black!

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Two things also moved me that could be taken for granted.  Vespers; prayer was one of the main things that drew me to Orthodoxy.  The differences between my Antiochian parish and the Serbian order were slight.  We were all praying the same thing no matter what part of the country, race, ethnic background (there were some Ethiopians and Eastern European descendants as well as a Chinese family) or jurisdiction.  I felt like I was among family.  What is cooler is that we are all praying the same thing at the same times (the Hours) when we get home.  The dinner was also quite unifying as we  enjoyed delicious Ethiopian food.  Injera, a couple of different types of lentils, steamed vegetables, salad, and good conversation with good people.  The music program topped off a great evening.  If only I had flown or took the train.  If only I hadn’t abused my body.

On To Pentecost: The Worst Of Sinners

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Luke 18:13

Humility is the most difficult characteristic for the Christian to maintain.  It is too easy for us to look at our salvation (either through the sacraments of Orthodoxy or as a born again Baptist) as a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card.  It is too easy to find abortion doctors, kidnapping rapist, troubled celebrities, and corrupt politicians that we compare ourselves favorably against.  With this ease of judgement (a power that belongs to God alone), complete humility is impossible for those of us outside of monastic communities.  Even monks and nuns must struggle for this goal as well.

The Pharisee and the Publican

The Pharisee and the Publican

While we may adhere to lowly words of our prayer discipline, our thoughts and words in general conversation are too much like the Pharisee.  “Thank God I am not like James Gosnell, Ariel Castro, OJ Simpson, Tea Party members, Barack Obama and his supporters, … .  I love my wife, my children, my country, my people, … .  Does not God know our words and thoughts outside of our hours of prayer?  Asking for mercy in a few appointed times without the heart, mind, and lips that seek it at all other is hypocritical.  At least the Pharisee’s hypocrisy was obvious.  We hide ours in Jesus Prayers and Gospel radio.

The Apostle Paul called himself the chief among sinners.  Sure, he could boast that he was no longer a persecutor of the Church and that he was the great missionary of Christ to the Roman world.  But, Paul understood that God alone is the judge of all mankind and that it is better to think lower of one’s self as the humble are exalted and those who exalt themselves are brought down low.  A plethora of saints from the early fathers to Seraphim Rose taught the same thing, that one should think of himself no better than our enemies.  If we honestly look at our sins as the things that separate us from communion with God, we all have reason to hang our heads down and beat our breast begging for mercy. 

Let us be careful of our thoughts and words outside of prayer.  We may be the baby-killing, teen-raping, dirty politicians with inflated egos that we are better than.  God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Journey into Great Lent (Day 29): The Journey Worth Taking

It’s almost over.  Then again, it isn’t.  Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week.  Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter).  Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?).  Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough).  I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline.  No more self-denial!  YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!

Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Icon of Palm Sunday

No, wait … .  I am sorry.  But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast.  These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength.  I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast.  The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure.  It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline. 

Then again, the journey is not over.  And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism.  There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord.  Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent.  Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion.  In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God?  Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent?  Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety?  Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world.  Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should. 

Without prayer, fasting is just dieting.  This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations.  Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained.  We are to be awed to be in God’s presence.  As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion).  As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours).  In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God.  The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year.  The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well.  Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year.  We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). 

To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday.  I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting.     But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon.  And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills.  But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods.  Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer.   I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking.  I won’t turn back.

 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day 24): Overcoming Despondency

Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not

But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant

Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages.  Amen

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The Path I Trod  (© John Gresham/DCR)

The Path I Trod (© John Gresham/DCR)

This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect.  I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat.  Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far.  But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use.  While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).

I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency.  My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident.  Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house.  My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage.  But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away.  So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do.  Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk.  But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife.  Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas. 

So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins.  Prayer and constructive labor.  Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency.  The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring  monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor.    I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*.  When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden.  He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time.  In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything.  The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.

I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut.  Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles.  I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want.  And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again.  Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:

Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.   (Matthew 6:31-33)

After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought).  As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent.  Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues.  “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another.  And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised.  But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey. 

*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think).  Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).  I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died. 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Sixteen): Reasons To Continue

I can think of a few good reasons to quit the fast of Great Lent and leave Orthodox Christianity alone.  For one thing, I like to eat meat and dairy.  Whenever we Baptist get together for a meal between morning and evening services, you had better believe fried chicken in some form or fashion will be on the menu ( Why did the chicken cross the road?  Two preachers had a pan of biscuits.).  In the African-American Baptist Church, there is a movement to have a good time in worship with a focus on the emotions stirred up by the singing and preaching in our worship.  In fact, we are willing to take on secular music styles to draw people into worship.  No matter how much we are taught otherwise, we preachers frequently judge ourselves and others based on congregational response (AMEN) and will construct sermons with phrases and buzz words that will encourage such responses.  Right  now, I believe my church is at the edge of what could be a revival in our worship.  Our usher’s ministry has been blessed with the return of well-trained leadership.  The youth choir has new sponsors and directors who have volunteered their services.  We have two young adult men (in which there is a shortage of in many rural black churches) and their wives that have become more active in the work of the church.  These elements are combined with reliable, seasoned adults who consistently work to get things done.  So, why do I wish to continue to introduce elements of an archaic, bookish, ritualistic, and “dead” (they don’t get in the spirit like we do) church that most white people aren’t trying to learn about?  Why am I still striving to follow the disciplines and study the doctrines and writings of Orthodoxy when only one other preacher that I know of from any race also shows an interest?  Here are a few reasons.

The Holy Cross

  1. HISTORY- If it is important to learn and be aware of American and African-American History, why shouldn’t we also embrace the roots of the Christian faith?  Had there been no Athanasius, Catherine, nor Cyprian; there may not have been a Richard Allen, Charles Mason, or MLK.  Also saints like Basil, Ephraim, and Gregory (Palamas and the Theologian) served in a world where the color of one’s skin truly meant little in the sight of fellow Christians.  Having knowledge of Orthodoxy can help us see the fullness of our humanity and the possibility of racial reconciliation. 
  2. SPIRITUALITY- Having a good time on Sunday morning is no substitute for a sustained life of prayer and fasting through the week.  We need to have access to the time-tested prayers to help direct our communication with the Lord.  Words from the saints enhance what we read in the scriptures.  Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is a great way to keep us mindful of our Savior’s betrayal and crucifixion, to help us be mindful of what we do, say, and think. 
  3. CULTURAL AWARENESS – Many Americans are illiterate when it comes to geography and different cultures.  The Orthodox Christian faith can open doors of learning for us.  Arabs, Copts, Ethiopians, Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and others are all a part of this church.  Likewise we can introduce them to our culture beyond the stereotypes of BET and Tyler Perry. 
  4. REVERENCE – I love the smell of incense, gazing at the iconostasis, and listening to Byzantine chant.  I can’t see us having these things at Trinity the third weekend after next.  But, to experience a divine liturgy is a beautiful thing.  While icon veneration is an obvious challenge to most of us (bow down and kiss a picture of MARY?!).  When the theology is explained and understood, it makes perfect BIBLICAL sense (they put the Bible together, so they should know what they are doing).  Oh, and the priest prepares the communion with bread baked from a believer.  It does not come pre-packaged in plastic and foil.  Even if we don’t adopt divine liturgy, we can always learn about reverence for God in worship. 
  5. COMMUNITY DIVERSITY – Too many smaller elements of black culture are being overshadowed by are very narrow and stereotypical definition of who we are (when was the last time you heard zydeco music on your local r&b radio station?).  There are too many instances were we say that someone isn’t “black enough” or is “trying to be white.”  We enrich and add to the African-American community when we are bold enough to expand our boundaries of our possibilities that older generations sacrificed their lives for us to have.  Just ask the world’s number one golfer or that family that lives in the White House.

So, will Trinity Baptist Church become Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church (maybe OCA)?!  Don’t bet on it.  Will I leave the Baptist denomination and seek to become a priest?  I’m not even worthy to day- dream about such a move.  It is way too early for such questions.  I haven’t even completed my first Paschal cycle.  The only thing I can do is continue on this journey and give my church family a glimpse of what I am going through and learning about.  In time, God will make my direction more clear to me.  Right now, I am to be faithful disciple.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Six) Confluence of Hope

I started to post something yesterday concerning the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I typed up some things about how I believe iconography is a beautiful part of prayer and worship that should not be rejected based on a very shallow (my father, an iconoclastic Baptist deacon, calls it  Islamic) perspective of the Ten Commandments.  For the time being, I am going to hold the bulk of my thoughts on iconography for another time.  But, I did make a post last year on the topic that is interesting enough.

 

A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

The Kursk-Root Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

 

Between yesterday and today, as I observe both Eastern and Western Christian tradition, the confluence of hope is quite powerful.  We celebrated Palm Sunday at my church yesterday.  My friends at St. Basil and other churches celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel foretold to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God.  So (on top of going the view the remains of my recently deceased cousin and having a month delayed African-American History program), I am awash in the triumphant entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, the restoration of the Holy Images and the good news that the Christ is to be born all in the midst of the Lenten fast of both traditions. 

When we commit to following the Lord, things will get difficult.  From the first disciples that left their boats and nets, to St. Anthony that left his inheritance, to Rev. Steven Smith who left a well-paying career to attend Virginia Union University’s School of Theology (I remember him from way back in the early 1980’s); sacrifice is not easy.  There are times when we wouldn’t mind going back to our “Egypts” where we had more than manna and water (my wife has a can of vienna sausages that is starting to look good to me).  Praise be to God that we have a solid old covenant to step on and a greater new covenant to stand on and grow into.  The Israelites were given punishment for their gripes and grumblings against the God that had brought them out of slavery and bondage.  So, to all of us who have taken up the journey, let us be aware of the warnings of old.  The greater testament is this:  

… ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’   —   (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus enters triumphantly in our souls.  We celebrate with palm branches.  Jesus is the Word Incarnate.  We celebrate with images.  Jesus is born in the pure and faithful.  We celebrate with a feast in the midst of a fast.  May the confluence of hope refresh and restore us on the journey. 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.