faith

Come And See: The Eucharist Beyond Pre-packaging

Every now and then, I am blessed with an opportunity to assist my priest and ordained chanter with the Eucharist.  To critics of traditional forms of Christianity, especially those who decry against ritualism, I would only wish you could be in my shoes and experienced it for yourself.  Words can do no real justice to this the most important sacrament of Orthodox worship.

In the chalice was the bread, the body of Christ, floating in the wine, His blood.  A member of our congregation took the time to bake the loaf.  Before Matins (aka Orthros, the Morning Prayers), Fr. James carefully offered the chants and prayers that were handed down through the church for nearly 2,000 years as he cut and broke pieces of the loaf.  After adding the bread to the cup of wine, the Eucharist was blessed with the aroma and smoke of incense symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Preparing the Holy Gifts

At the high point of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. James comes though the royal doors with the chalice.  One of the sub-deacons and I hold the cloth under it as one by one, the saints come forward to partake of the body and blood of our Lord.  “Thy servant (thy hand maiden) comes to recieve thy precious body and blood” Fr. repeats for each member as we hold the cloth under their chins.  Some are elderly, others mere babes who had just been baptized.  All of us who are able had fasted through the morning that this meal was the first thing we tasted all day.  We all taste from the same cup knowing that we were one with our Lord and each other.  One by one, we all come to partake.

There are some things that one cannot get from the modern manifestation of a pre-packaged communion.  “Ain’t you afraid of getting someone else’s germs?”  I am more fearful of not taking in the life giving flesh and blood that Jesus offers to us.  Without it, we have no life.  Indeed, if we do believe this to be His body and blood, why should we fear “catching something” from someone else?  The same cup brings people together with one another and with the continued history of the church.  Germs and viruses only separate.  Members who know they are sick are wise enough not to partake.  Besides, the wine has alcohol in it, alcohol kills germs.

Does grape juice naturally have a one year shelf life?

There is no resurrection in a piece of unleavened bread.  Jesus and the disciples celebrated the Passover on the day before the great Jewish feast.  Thus, they would have used leavened bread as the unleavened variety would not have been available.  Leavened bread has risen as Christ Himself would and did rise from the grave.  There is no need to eat the lifeless leaven of the Pharisees and Herod.  Our Lord has conquered death by his death.

Nor is their any life in sealed grape juice.  Our Lord’s first miracle recorded by John was changing water into wine.  Does the use of the non-alcoholic make one better than those who use the substance recorded in the scriptures?  If so, are we better than the best winemaker recorded in the Gospels?  Is the minuscule amount of wine turn a person into a substance abuser?  The amount of the Eucharist given to a toddler is no more, and probably less, dangerous than the medications prescribed by physicians.

A baptized infant receiving the precious body and blood of our Lord

When done in sincerity, any form of Communion, Eucharist, of the Lord’s Supper, can be a truly reverent experience.  But there are things that cannot be contained in aluminium foil and cellophane.  Resurrection, life and unity with one another are what we offer from the sacred cup in an Orthodox Eucharist.  When taken in a sincere and repentant manner, we conclude worship with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  Although only the Orthodox may partake of the body and blood, we do share the remaining holy bread after the service.  Come and see for yourself.

Where “Favor” Falls Short

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

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

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

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

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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

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

 

The Arabic Letter “Nun”

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

nun-arabic-letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the T-shirt

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

African Monastic Wisdom: Avoiding False Prophets

This is a re-tread article published back in May.  I didn’t plan on posting anything today.  But, the picture below blew my mind.

I couldn’t have made this up if I tried 😦

Rather than write a whole new article, this post makes the point clearly.  For those of you who flock to such ministries (at least, those of you who have not already labeled me a “hater” and moved on), please read the article, think, and pray.  

 

“They are guessers rather than prophets.  Therefore, if sometimes they foretell such things truly, even so no one need wonder at them.  For physicians also who have experience of diseases, when they meet the same disease in others can often tell beforehand, judging from experience.  And again, seamen and farmers, looking at the state of the weather, from their experience prophesy that there will be a storm or fine weather.  No one would say because of this that they prophesy by supernatural inspiration; but by experience and practice.”  St. Anthony the Great, The Life of St. Anthony the Great  pgs 47, 48

Here is another example of why Protestant Christians, and African-Americans in particular, would do well to know and learn from the ancient saints of Orthodox Christianity.  There is a plethora of modern day false prophets that prey on the emotions of believers for profit and vanity.  The wisdom of the ancient fathers guide us away from such predators.

For about a decade, there has been a movement in too many churches called the “Five Fold Ministry.”  It is interpreted that in the body of Christ (the church of which there are 400,000 different denominations and non-denominations) that there are to be five offices of administrative and spiritual leadership:  apostles, evangelist, pastors, prophets, and teachers.  Of these, the role of the prophet in the modern church is proving to be the most bizarre and ridiculous.

False Prophet David Taylor

Angel Feathers? Really?

Among them are well meaning men and women who want to offer words of encouragement to people who are struggling with life’s challenges.   By using passages of scripture out of context (“God is going to make you the head and not the tail, the lender and not the borrower”) accompanied with familiar religious “buzz words” and phrases (“breakthrough, release, shift” ), the “prophet” guesses that things will get better for the person going a crisis of health, finances, relationships, and the like.  Well, everyone wants to hear that God is going to act in their behalf.  And there are some who “prophecy” believing that misusing scripture and getting people’s hopes up to make them feel better is a good thing to do.  If the guess turns out to be right, then the “prophet” builds a reputation for credibility.  If the guess is wrong, it can be explained away (“I saw with the eyes of man yet God saw something further”), patience can be called for (“it isn’t your season yet”), or the hearer can be faulted (“There may be something wrong with your faith”).  If the prophet seems sincere and can gain the trust of the gullible, he (or she) can be wrong numerous times without being held accountable.

While there are some honestly mistaken prophets who are not after personal gain, there are also con artists who deliberately lie to people for the sake of fortune and fame.  Some have small yet loyal followings.  Others can be seen on television.  In either case, these guessers do not care for the souls of a broken humanity except to exploit and manipulate people for their gain.  They have become skilled at the art of scripture manipulation and know how to make the guesses to keep them in business.  They also have the support of their loyal base of followers to speak up for them when they are incorrect, or to put a doubter in their ranks in line.  While the honestly mistaken prophet is a victim of ignorance, the deliberate false prophet is an especially evil person who victimizes the gullible.

The ancient fathers and scripture has little tolerance for either sort of “prophet.”  The Old Testament prophets who spoke of Israel’s and Judah’s coming captivity were always at odds with those who spoke of peace and safety.  A glaring example of this is Micaiah’s prophecy that Ahab would fall and Israel would be defeated at Ramoth-gilead despite the 400 “prophets” that declared victory for the king (I Kings 22 Masoritic, III Kings 22 Septuagint).  Jesus himself is more impressed with people who do the will of His Father than those who prophecy in His name (Matthew 7:21-23).  Jesus did not command his disciples to prophecy, but to preach the Gospel.  If any of them were to give a prophetic word (Peter to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11) they did not let prophecy become their defining role as they were the apostles.  Our Lord and the apostles warned us to be wise and not to follow false prophets.  St. Anthony calls such guesses, “The Devils Prophecies” and gives us these words of truth:

St. Anthony the Great

Therefore we must not make much of these things, nor live our life of hardship and toil for the sake of knowing the future, but in order to please God by living well.  And we must pray, not in order to know the future, nor is that the reward we must ask for our hard life; but that our Lord may be our fellow-worker in conquering the devil. (The Life of St. Anthony the Great pg. 48)

Perhaps the best way to deal with modern day prophets is to avoid them.  The honestly mistaken are like loose wires.  Deliberate deceivers are playing with matches beside leaky gas lines.  Both are destructive to true faith.

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.

 

Memory Eternal: For Brandon

“Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”  (Luke 23:42)

Just when he started to make some good choices, death chose to take him from us.  Just when the potholes in his road were being filled so he could go somewhere, he went away.  Brandon not only turned his life around.  But, he was young and had plenty of time to achieve great things.  At least, that’s what we thought.  That’s what I thought as I admired his laughter and good nature as we all sat and joked around the table this past Thanksgiving.  None of us knew that the crime he tried to turn from would turn on him.

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

There was a thief on a cross who, unlike Brandon, had no hope of redemption on this earth.  He was condemned and nailed.  Left to hang on that tree until breathlessness or a merciful death blow would relieve him.  And yet, the thief did have one hope.  It was in a world to come.  It was through the Sinless One that was crucified with him.

Among the better decisions Brandon made, he looked upon Jesus as his source of hope.  He did’t know all there was about discipleship.  Nor did the thief.  But, they both had sense to believe in and call on the gateway to a better world.  Christ answered the one with faith,

Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.  (Luke 23:43)

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

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

May Brandon’s faith suffice for his deeds.  Lord, please let his confession be sufficient for salvation.  Let your mercy shine upon him both now and forever.  And may your spirit of comfort be on his family.

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 18 Discovering the Sabbath

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

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch with his “friends”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chronicle of Conversion: Day Six In Prayer

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

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

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

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

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 6): Wisdom for the Road

7:00 am to 12:00 pm/ 13 October/ Kansas City MO

So by using the worst form of interstate transportation, I came half way across the country to attend a Divine Liturgy at a Serbian Orthodox Church that had elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy (umbrellas over the Eucharist is cool).  St. Mary’s has three readers to give the scriptures in Amharic, English, and Serbian (or was it Slavonic).  This was a very beautiful worship experience.  If only I didn’t have to catch the 1 pm bus.  I would have loved to linger after service (and apologize for coming up for the blessings for the catechist when, officially, I am  not one) and have those last conversations and good-byes.  This inter-cultural, inter-racial fellowship was a glimpse of what heaven will look like.  If I could have, I would have decided to stay in KC and be a part of the family at St. Mary’s.

Yet, my calling is here in my beloved eastern VA and (for now) as a Baptist pastor.  But, what am I to do will all that I have experienced?  For over a year, I have grown in the knowledge and spirituality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Perhaps if I were not a pastor, I could go ahead and convert.  But even if I could afford to leave Trinity Baptist Church, would it be fair for me to up and leave one of the most appreciative and loving congregations a man could ask for?

IMGP8149 IMGP8150_edited-1

Having dinner the night before with Fr. Jerome Sanderson and Subdeacon Paul Abernathy shared an obvious piece of advice.  That morning Turbo Qualls reminded me of the challenge I have already taken.

IMGP8151_edited-1 IMGP8153_edited-1 IMGP8158_edited-1 IMGP8159_edited-1 IMGP8160 IMGP8162_edited-1 IMGP8165_edited-1

From the father and deacon:  Take your time and make good steps.  It is too easy to wish to either run away to St. Basil or try to force what little I know down the throats of my congregation (I tried by praying the opening prayer of the Trisagion prayers during the invocation.  Some of my members felt uncomfortable with springing it on them without warning.).  I can’t take the easy way out.  Bringing Orthodoxy to African-Americans and anyone else in this area who is willing to listen will be and is a challenge.  Actually, there are people I communicate with who are interested in how I came to be involved with Orthodoxy and how I balance being a Baptist pastor and yet one who practices elements of and has a deep appreciation for this ancient faith (praying the Hours, keeping the fasting rules, venerating icons).  I have set something of an idea that I would convert to Orthodoxy sometime in 2015.  Who knows, I may or may not convert then.  It may be that I remain Baptist, yet with a strong slant towards Eastern Christian thought.  Or, as some Orthodox have suggested, I will reach a point where I just can’t stand being away from the church so much and take the plunge.  In either case, I need to be very prayerful and careful of each decision I make about my journey and how I invite others to walk with me.

But this is a journey that I must share.  Turbo told me that a good pastor is someone who shares what he knows with his people.  I have not been shy about telling people about my journey.  I think that pursuing Orthodoxy has been one of the best things that has happened in my Christian journey.  I am learning about how the Bible came into being and how it was originally interpreted by the church who first established the faith.  I am learning about the church that was founded by Africans, Asians, and Europeans.  As best as conditions allow, I am practicing the faith the way it has been done for almost 2,000 years.  This is a pearl of great price!  How can I not want to share it?

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

So, what is the plan?  Right now, I see myself as a bridge builder between the traditional Black Baptist and Orthodox Churches.  My task is to interpret between both of these very different worlds.  There are some strong similarities, especially with the older manifestations of our church during slavery and Jim Crow.  Yet, there are stark differences in theology and thought.  Surely, there are people far more qualified for this task.  Yet, it has been given to me.  May the Lord lead me to lead others in love, truth, and wisdom.

The Journey Continues: The Dormition Fast

One of my frat brothers posted a photo of himself being led out to “the block” on the first day of the pledge line on Facebook.  I am not sure who took the photo of me the same day.  But, I put this up on my page as well.

Beginning the Journey (@ John Gresham)

Back then, to pledge a Greek-letter organization was a journey.  The big brothers would place all sorts of challenges and obstacles before us as test to see if we had the mettle to strive for our goal.  The aim was to complete the 4 to 6 week pledge process, participate in the rituals, and become brothers of the fraternity.  I am very glad that I “crossed the burning sands” to become a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American college fraternity.  So, what does my pledging Alpha have to do with the journey that I am on now?  My desire to become an Orthodox Christian (which will not happen this or next year) does come complete with some burning sands of its own.  Among these is maintaining a fast that no good Baptist would even think about observing.

To us of the Calvinist line, the Virgin Mary’s significance is pretty much spent after she gives birth to Jesus.  We may mention that Christ told John to take her into his home as his mother at the crucifixion.  Other than that, we see where the 12 -year-old Son of God had to be about His Father’s business in Jerusalem rather than keep up with His earthly parents.  We also see where any elder woman who does His Father’s will is His mother.  So, for us to voluntarily surrender eating meat, dairy, fish with bones (save the feast of the Holy Transfiguration on Aug 6th), and marital sexual relations for two weeks in her honor is a very tall order.  To make a special effort to improve our prayer lives, scripture reading, and love for others in remembrance of this woman instead of her Son seems to shift the focus of our devotion to someone other than God.  Besides, black and white Baptist churches in my part of the world begin holding Homecoming and Revival Services where we feast on spirit-filled preaching, anointed singing, and plenty of good food.

What we ignore is that in John taking Mary as his mother is that the ageing faithful are to be cared for as directive of Christ.  Frederica Matthews-Green brings up an interesting point in her podcast on the Dormition Fast.  We don’t mind taking care of a helpless infant as much because the baby will grow and be able to take care of it’s self.  Taking care of an elderly person who becomes more and more helpless is a far greater challenge as they will eventually die.  Death is our common destiny.  The love of Christ extends as a baby to his youthful mother.  It also extends as a dying man to a mother who will also die.  Thus, this season is to remind us to have tender love for one another as we are all on a journey that leads us to the end of this life.  By following the Light that gives Life to all, our journey will lead to eternal life with Him.

Dormition of the Theotokos

In the frat, we learned the organizations history, “steps,” and traditions through repetition and enduring hardships.  Those critics on the outside ridiculed us saying that we shouldn’t have to go through all that just to wear “some letters.”  Sometimes the lessons of Christian living are best learned by enduring some sort of challenge or obstacle that reminds us to rely on God and his mercy rather than our own understanding and will.  There is no doubt in my mind that Mary was greatly loved by the first Christians.  Her loss was mourned, and then celebrated as the Mother of God (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God – John 1:1) was accepted into heaven.  Thus, the ancient church fathers and mothers began the practice of fasting and ending the fast with a great feast in her honor.  I see the purpose and wisdom in this observance and voluntarily embrace it.