faith

After A Year’s Journey: My Inquiry into the Orthodox Church

About this time last year, I decided to learn about Orthodox Christianity by immersing myself in the prayers and practices of the church as much as I could without making a full conversion.  It began with learning about the African saints that I wasn’t exposed to in my African-American upbringing.  I spent a lot of time on the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black‘s website and John Norman’s Ancient Christian Witness blog.  Playing on Second Life, I was led to Ancient Faith Radio and indulged in a steady diet of liturgical music and very informative and inspiring podcast.  Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” series was extremely eye-opening with his comparisons of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches and doctrines.  I wanted a practical guide in the prayers and fasting cycle of the church.  Thus, I joined St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline of the Antiochian Archdiocese and obtained a Greek Ecclesiastical Calendar which list all of the feast, fast, and saints that are recognized on each day of the year.  As my church does not have worship services on 5th Sundays, I visited and worshiped at Orthodox Churches including The Church of the Transfiguration in Charlottesville, Sts. Constantine & Helen in Newport News (Greek), St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond (Orthodox Church in America), and St. Basil the Great in Poquoson (Antiochian).

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

St. Basil has become my home away from home because all of the services are in English and it is the closest to my home in West Point and workplace in Williamsburg.  I have attended a few of the Vespers and Lenten services there as well as my first Pascha (Easter).  I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Bishop Thomas Joseph there in January.  Bro. Norman recommended that I meet the priest, Fr. James Purdie, and the church was on the list of Antiochian parishes suggested in the St. Philip’s Discipline.  Poquoson, to put it mildly, has a reputation of not being accepting to African-Americans.  St. Cyprian, by its name and iconography, would seem to be a better fit for me.  But, St. Basil is multi-ethnic (mostly converts, Eastern European descendants, and a few Ethiopians) and I feel the love of Christ among the congregation (as I have felt this love with the other churches I have worshiped in also).   Besides, I didn’t see so much as one Confederate flag in anyone’s yard driving to and from the church.  Even if I did, that alone is no indication of one being a Klansman.

After a year’s journey into Orthodoxy, I have come to understand and deeply appreciate some things about this ancient faith.  First of all, that Orthodox Christianity is a lifestyle and not just another denomination.  There are prayers that have been embraced by the church for hundreds  and two thousand years that have been handed down through the generations.  Somewhere in a little Serbian town, a blue-eyed blond teenager offers the words of St. Macarius of Egypt, a brown-skinned hermit that lived in the desert in the 4th century.  An Ethiopian can walk into a Russian Church during Great Lent and know when the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian is offered without being able to speak the language as he knows the bowing, crossing, and prostrations that are in the order of worship.  Of course Orthodoxy encourages people to pray to God from the heart with extemporaneous expressions.  But, when one prays a prayer of the church fathers,  there are others around the world offering the same words.  This is a “touching and agreeing” that goes beyond praying for the whole world.  This is prayer with the body of Christ in the world and a link between present and past generations of Christians.  It is encouraging to know that the same Trisagion prayer I  just offered was said by a monk  on Mt. Athos in 1313 and a Syrian shop keeper 13 minutes ago.

A discipline of prayer, the Hours, has become my favorite tool for maintaining my spiritual life.  I don’t have time to go through the 119th Psalm or 100 Jesus Prayers.  But, I keep the prayer of Hours at my desk at work for 9am, noon, and 3pm and at my bedside if I wake up in the middle of the night.  Years ago, I heard a Baptist deacon suggest that we keep “short sin accounts.”  When we sin, we must not let too much time accumulate before we repent.  Keeping the Hours, even with brief prayers, is extremely helpful in spiritual warfare.  Knowing that monks, nuns, and other Orthodox believers are doing the same thing makes the prayers more powerful.  The whole body of the church is lifting up the name of Jesus at the same times.

Fasting is another portion of the Orthodox lifestyle that has become a part of me.  Refraining from meats, dairy, fish with backbones on Wednesdays, Fridays, and according to certain periods of the year is a healthier approach to life than eating whatever, whenever, and how much one chooses.  Wednesday is the commemoration of the betrayal of Christ and Friday the crucifixion.  This is a great weekly practice to keep the suffering of our Lord in our minds during the week.  There is nothing wrong with these foods and they are to be eaten during fast-free periods as well.  But, as an Orthodox Christian, you practice the wisdom of setting aside some pleasures and delights of this world to focus on the world beyond.  No, the bishops and priest do not send policemen to force believers to fast.  But, understanding the purpose of the practice makes fasting more of an invitation than a threat.

Unholy images, such as graphic violence and pornography, are among Satan’s greatest weapons to distract us from God.  In Orthodox Christianity, icons (holy images) are used to keep our focus on worship in the church and in our home icon corners.  The icons are not artistically accurate and are painted (or written) in a way to highlight Christian doctrine.  They are not to be worshiped as God.  But, as the gold-hammered cherubim on the Mercy Seat and cherubim woven into the fabric of the temple in the Book of Exodus, icons represent the presence of Christ, Mary, and the saints and are to be honored as such.  Having icons to pray with has been a blessing to me.  Incense, which symbolizes the prayers of the people being lifted up to heaven is another great tool in public and personal worship.  Sight, sound, touch, hearing, and taste are all a part of the Orthodox daily life.

The stories of the numerous saints and martyrs are very inspiring.  Who knew the woman at the well and the centurion at the crucifixion had names and helped to spread the Gospel?  And how odd is it that during Black History Month, we African-Americans will have pictures of Malcolm X in our churches and not one icon of the Egyptian Bishop who compiled the list of books that would be accepted as the New Testament?  Instead of buying the newest book from some “flavor of the month” bishop about “going to the next level,” Orthodoxy offers a rich foundation of ancient wisdom from the Desert Fathers to the new martyrs of the Soviet persecutions.   

I admit, my first visits to a Divine Liturgy were confusing.  Greek words, no soul-stirring Gospel music, the sermon lasting about 10-minutes, I can’t have communion, all the standing (St. Cyprian has no pews and a few chairs), bowing, crossing (prostrations during Lent), incense, Mary the Theo-what, and kiss the preacher’s hand?  It is no wonder that most dyed-in-the-wool Protestants and nominal Christians would quickly reject Orthodoxy as pagan idolatry and detestable to any real “Bible-believeing” Christian.

But, the 4th century  bishops of the Orthodox Church selected the books of the Bible.  If I can trust their judgement in the Holy Scriptures, who am I to doubt a worship that is just as old?  After participating in the services a few more times, I understood what was going on and why things were done.  I can go into a Greek church and keep up.  I love going to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  It is worship that is in line with the scriptures, 2,000 years of tradition, and symbolically connects earth to heaven.

This and next year, I do not anticipate leaving the Baptist Church and Converting to Orthodoxy.  On a practical level, I can’t afford to leave the pulpit and my wife is not that enthusiastic about a church that has no women clergy.  Spiritually, there are elements of the black church that still have tremendous value to me.  The preaching of Gardner Taylor, Howard Thurman‘s wisdom, the strength of the Negro Spirituals to Thomas Dorsey and the Staple Singers; I don’t think it is good for me to turn my back on such a legacy.

Yet, many of those who claim to inherit this legacy are doing just that.  I see too many ministers and ministries chasing after the newest and “most relevant” styles of trying to attract “paying customers” rather than standing firmly on the shoulders of the giants of our churches.  Rather than a refuge for our sin-sick souls, there is a tendency for too many of our churches to praise our way to some “next level” without knowing and walking on the firm  foundation the older generations set before us.  This is a bad trend.

So, I will use my time wisely to read and study more about the ancient faith.  I will continue the practices of prayer, fasting, and attend the Divine Liturgies and other services when I can.  I will also gain strength from the faith of my father’s and grandfather’s generations.  My time to convert will come.  May I do so in grace, wisdom, mercy, and love.

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 Eight): Reliance on God

Forgive me for not writing every day.  There are times when it is best to keep quiet.  Drinking a couple of glasses of “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” tends to help me stay out of trouble.  I am an African-American Baptist Pastor and serious inquirer of Orthodox Christianity.  I am in enough trouble as it is :)!

We Protestants do make attempts at fasting during Lent such as giving up one or two food items during the week.  For us, it is a form of self-discipline in honor of the fact that Jesus gave his life on the cross for our salvation.  Thus, we should give up something as well to show our loyalty and devotion to him.  It isn’t uncommon for older denominations to hold special Lenten services as well.  For my denomination, giving up something for 40 weekdays before Easter is a new practice that is not shared by everyone.  Some of us piously state that we are fasting from fasting.  Such an attitude shows ignorance of the scriptures, Christian history, and an unwillingness to walk with God in humility.  Those who fast only from caviar, lobster, too much salt, or too many sweets are merely mocking true faith as they can’t afford these things economic and healthwise.  But, for those of us who do put aside meats (and other items) as part of increasing attention on Christ in prayer and almsgiving to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection, sincere steps are greatly rewarded.  Those who by medical restrictions can do only a limited fast can still increase their prayers and works of love to others.

Cyprian Bluemood.  My Seond Life avitar.

Cyprian Bluemood. My Second Life avatar.

One of the key purposes of keeping the Great Lenten Fast (and every other fast in the Orthodox cycle) is to remind us of our reliance on God.  It is easy to forget about His divine providence when we are bombarded with super-sized fast food offerings, all you can eat buffets, and cooking shows (aka “food porn”).  Food, especially when well prepared, is a good thing and necessary for our survival.  Our problem is that we indulge in the stuff, frequently the most unhealthy forms of it.  We use it as a status symbol as we boast about what restaurant we went to, what we ordered, and what we cooked on the grill (OUCH!!!!!  That was my right foot).  We tend to eat for reasons of comfort or to hide from issues that are better solved by prayer and wise counsel.  So, eating is both a basic need and a gateway that brings out our arrogance, selfishness, and self-reliance.  It is no wonder why the fall of man was brought about in this ungodly fashion:

So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and the tree beautiful to contemplate, she took its fruit and ate.  She also gave it to her husband with her and he ate.  (Genesis 3:6)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ succeeded where Adam & Eve failed.  He was reliant on the Father to see him through his period of total self-denial (at least Adam & Eve could have indulged in everything else).  As He replied to the greatest of serpents:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:4)

With the reliance on God rather than his ability to satisfy his belly, Jesus was able to walk in humility (“Do not tempt the Lord your God.”), complete obedience (“You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”), properly use the scriptures to His faith (“It is written …” ), and rebuke the tempter (“Away with you, Satan!”).  Fasting is a vital key in imitating Christ. 

This is why the early church fathers gave directions on keeping the fast.  Firstly that it is not a legalistic requirement for salvation, but a wise practice in spiritual growth.  The very young and old, ill, and pregnant and nursing women need not fast.  If in a strange land and someone shows hospitality, eat what is given to you.  Eat grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables (since shellfish were considered trash at the time, they are permitted) for the sake of basic health.  But, do not indulge with even these simple foods.  Avoid all meats, dairy products, fish with a backbone, olive oil, and wine.  On a feast day in the midst of a fast, the latter three are permitted.  With the dietary directions, increase the time spent in prayer.  With money that would have been spent on expensive food, give to those in need.  Jesus destroyed the power of death by his death.  By His resurrection, we have hope to be children of the heavenly Father.  As He prepared for His earthly ministry, let us likewise show our reliance on God by keeping the fast.

To my fellow Protestant believers, our Easter celebration is right around the corner.  We have a right to be joyous and eat well.  There is no need for us to all the sudden try to keep Great Lent this year.  But, read and learn about Orthodoxy and what the church says about fasting throughout the year.  Meet and make friends with a priest or devout believer (bishops are cool too) and let them explain how keeping the fast helps them in their walk with the Lord and is a part of their overall journey.

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 (First Saturday): A Foundation for a Lenten Lifestyle

Needless to say, this is not the Lent I am used to.  I am accustomed to picking one or two things to “give up” between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Ascetic fasting is a far greater spiritual as well as dietary challenge.  Careful observance of prayers and reading or listening to Orthodox teaching does reveal things that are commonly overlooked.  Such as how much we spend on meat and dairy products as compared to simple vegan fare.  More importantly that we don’t give up our struggle against sin since sin is foreign to the way God made us.  He made Adam and Eve to be in communion with him and lovingly gave them free will to choose obedience or death.  By free will we choose death through sin rather than life in the way God created us.  Too often, we surrender to the idea that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  I think (and perhaps this is just my experience) we repent, and get back up thinking that we will sin again because that is the way we were made.  We use the Psalm as our reference:

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, and in sins my mother bore me.   —   Psalm 51:7

David’s sincere and deeply humble repentance is an admirable pattern for us to follow.  But, his words of anguish do not trump our creation:

The God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.   —   Genesis 1:26

Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good. —   Genesis 1:31

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

If we are to follow the advice of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and live a Lenten Lifestyle, I think we must begin with how we see our life and struggle against sin.  God makes good things, he made us, and we are essentially good.  Our task is to keep choosing to live in that goodness, that communion with God in a world so imbued with evil that we feel we have no choice but to live with some level or another of hopelessness that holiness is possible.  Jesus, the God Incarnate, came to us to prove that we can make the choice.  It takes  (among other things) humility, sacrifice, love, and a relentless focus on seeking the kingdom of God.  And we can choose these things rather than the immediate gratifications and pleasures of this world.  We can be seekers of spiritual growth rather than chasers of sensual comforts.  This is one reason why Great Lent is what it is in the Orthodox Church.  For 40 days (also weekends, Holy Week, and the three weeks before Lent), we can focus our attention on communion with God rather than consuming for our bodies.  After Pascha (Orthodox Easter) feasting, there are the weekly fast and other fast to observe and keep us mindful of what was experienced and learned during Great Lent.  Except for the pregnant and nursing, ill, very young, and very old; all are expected to keep a strict fast and attend weekly prayers on top of their current disciplines as much as possible.  May the Lord keep this church and the church keep the faith of Christ the Incarnate.

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.

Jouney Into Great Lent (Day Three): Lesson Too Soon Forgotten

Trying not to be judgemental and upset about the terrible things that happen in this world is nearly impossible, at least for me.  The Stubenville rape case and the pornographic society that gave birth to it makes me angry.  I know too many rape survivors.  I have read the horrible stats of how often it happens.  And the abusive nature of today’s porn only makes things worse.  I ranted a little bit on my Facebook page and was about to go ballistic on this blog.  But, a friend put me in check.  Then, I opened Philippians 2:14-16 and was further convicted:

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, sot that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

I am reminded of my wife’s Grandfather, Rev. Carter Wicks, constantly telling people, “don’t worry and don’t hurry.”  My grandparents, Joe and Dinah  Gresham, likewise had a steady and quiet faith about them.  I know things would make them angry and upset from time to time.  But, they never let it seem to get the best of them.  They were too busy aiming their lives to a better world than this one. 

Yesterday and this morning, I prayed the words of St Ephraim the Syrian.  Apparently, I forgot what I prayed.  How sorry I am for my forgetfulness.  It is only the third day.  I will build my memory in my heart and soul as well as mind. 

http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/holyfathers/st._anthony_the_great_humility_as_the_gateway_to_theology

Journey into Great Lent (Day Two): The Prayer of Self Examination

Oh Lord, Master of my life, keep me from the spirit of indifference, and discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter

(prostration)

Instead, grant to me, your servant, the Spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love

(prostration)

Oh Lord and King, Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister, for you are blessed now and forever, Amen.

(prostration)

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

 

St. Ephraim the Syrian

There is alot to judge in this world. Two teenage boys were convicted of rape.  A man was banned from a library system for masturbating in public.  These are just two of the troublesome crimes that I heard about today.  It is easy to throw stones at people who commit such crimes of selfishness and lack of control. 

And yet, St. Ephraim’s words call out to us in such situations.  No doubt, he must have read or heard the words of Jesus:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  (Matthew 7:1, 2)

I have never gotten a teenager drunk and had sex with her.  Nor have I committed a lewd act in a public place.  But, the log in my eye is my log.  I have no responsibility over what is in my brother’s or sister’s eye no matter how shameful it is.  My log is separating me from seeing the fullness of God.  Without this vision, how can I guide others to free themselves when I am still in chains?  The legal system did what it was supposed to do in both cases.  But, my Spiritual development must also be in effect for my salvation.  I must have hope that these boys will learn from their tragic error and become agents of healing for violated women.  I must hope that the other man will see the greater good in pleasing God and others rather than himself. 

I must also see myself as no better than they are.  Who is to say that under the same conditions that I wouldn’t have done likewise?  Who is to say I wouldn’t do worse?  Like them, I struggle with lust, selfishness, and shamelessness.  Certainly, the potential is there for me to do likewise.  Thus, rather than gloat over what they are about to suffer, St. Ephraim’s words bring me to a place of being aware of my own potential for evil. 

The elements of human wickedness are indifference, discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter.  With these, any man can be brought down.  Yet, there are God-given elements that elevate our souls and keep us from committing evil acts; wholeness, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.  The key to rejecting the former and dwelling in the later is awareness of the sins we have done and forgiving others as we wish to be forgiven. 

I have been made aware of my failures.  I am sorry for my sins.  May this Lenten prayer be made manifest in me.