forgiveness

St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Contemplating Confession

No,  I didn’t rob a bank, pick up a hooker, or stab anyone.  No, it is none of your business exactly what I am guilty of.  But, I am a sinner and I did sin.  The medication for this sickness is confession and repentance.  In Orthodox Christianity, there is a process of coming forward to the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child beside the priest in the presence of the church.

It is a bit intimidating of a process.  Granted, with the chanting going on and speaking in a low voice with the priest, no one can hear your business.  Only when the priest declares absolution does anyone hear anything during the sacrament and even then nothing is disclosed about what was done.  Plus, the early fathers never demanded that everyone confess every sin in the church beside the priest before attending Divine Liturgy.  There may (and probably should) be a spiritually reliable person in one’s life to confess to.  Father does not need to hear every time you took an ink pen from work, drove over the speed limit, or fantasized over the new office intern.  We don’t believe anyone should beat up themselves over every sin.  Confession and repentance is an on-going process that we should be experiencing in our daily spiritual disciplines.  A daily and frequent seeking of God’s mercy and salvation from evil should and must be pursued and is enough to absolve us from sin if done in sincerity.

But, there are some things we do because of severity, frequency, and the potential danger that going before God during Vespers, Matins, or completely in private with the priest is advisable for the sake of our souls.  Such a confession can be the first act of recovery from an addiction or prevention of a bad situation from becoming worse.  In some cases, it may be a preparation for one to confess to legal authorities and prepare for civil consequences.  While such things as 12 step programs, anger management, and the like may be useful and effective in correcting outward behavior, sin is the illness of the soul and only the blessing of forgiveness from God can correct it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)

There was a time when I would have deemed such a practice as unnecessary.  But, when I think about it, Protestants sometimes have similar practices of confession.  At altar calls people can ask the preacher to pray for forgiveness.  Certainly, a pastor keeps an open door and heart to anyone to confess privately.  Many churches advocate prayer partners and spiritual mentors where one can go to when they can’t reach the pastor, or feel more comfortable spilling their guts with than with the pastor.  And all Christians are encouraged to repent of sins in private as part of their daily prayers.  So, why should anyone go before an icon, beside a priest, in a prayer service, and confess sins?  Let me briefly name three:

  1. The ordained priesthood has the ability to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit and succession by the resurrected Christ and his Apostles (John 20:22,23).
  2. Confession is essential for repentance and cleansing from sin (Mark 1:4,5).
  3. We are a community of people who seek to live anew, not just individuals seeking personal salvation (Matthew 3:5).

I am called to be the salt of the earth.  If I lose my savor to my sins, I am useless.  I am called to be the light of the world.  If I hide under the basket of my failures, I cannot fulfill my purpose to share the True Light (Matthew 5:13-16).    I pray and believe that confession will heal my wounded soul, give me the ability to heal those whom I have harmed, strengthen my Christian journey, and unite me even closer with my fellow believers and humanity as a whole.

Iconoclasm: The Deeper Root of a Violent Society

 Racism is a rejection of the image of God in humanity. And when practiced by Christians is nothing short of heresy and doctrines of demons.

I agree with Edward. If you believe in God, then you believe in the scriptures that God is infallible. If you believe in God, that he is infallible and His scriptures are the truth, then you must believe that God mad man in his own image. In layman’s term, God doesn’t make junk and mad no man inferior to another. Now let’s say you do not believe in God and you are one of those Darwinist. Then you have to believe that all men evolved from the amoeba and evolved into man, which means, all men are the same. So either way, how can a racist support his or her argument that one race is superior to the other? To be a Christian and a racists means you believe God is fallible. To be a Darwinist and be a racist, well, then I guess you really are not a Darwinist.

Comments from two of my friends on Facebook in response to my post:

The problem is deeper than racism. We have a deep disrespect for humanity due to lack of humility.

St. John of Damascus

I have recently reached the conclusion that iconoclasm (the destruction and rejection of icons) has played a major role in the violent and hedonistic society we live in.  In Orthodox Christianity (the faith that gave us the original canon of holy scriptures), venerating icons is a part of public and private worship.  The paintings are never worshiped as God or gods unto themselves, as was the golden calf  and golden bulls of the Old Testament.  Nor are they the graven images prohibited by Mosaic Law.  But like the cherubim on the mercy seat and temple curtains that God commanded to be made in the place of worship (Exodus 25:17-22, 26:31-35), icons are symbols of the presence of the Lord in the church and home.  Because He is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ is depicted as a revered image alone and in various Gospel stories like the Resurrection of Lazarus and the Transfiguration.  Likewise, images of Mary are revered as she gave birth to God the Son.  Her example of humility and devotion makes her first among the myriad of men and women who have led exemplary Christian lives, the saints.

The saints are from every variety and form of humanity.  Since Christianity was born in the Middle East, many of the men and women seem Arabic and Mediterranean in appearance.  As the faith spread into Africa, Asia, and Europe; images of the saints often took on the features of the local population.  Yet, icons were painted (or written) to a particular pattern and style so that anyone from anywhere in the world would know that this was a holy image.  In fact, it is not uncommon for icons of saints of different races to be present in various Orthodox Churches.  St. Moses the Ethiopian (aka: the Black) is venerated by Russians and Serbs.  Jesus and Mary can be seen as pale skinned in some Ethiopian congregations.  There are Oriental saints as well as the  Native  American St. Peter the Aleut that can be found in any branch of Orthodoxy.  The point of iconography is to honor and celebrate the godliness of these men and women.

The logic of worshiping with icons is simple.  If these icons of wood and paint are no longer here in the flesh, we are to transfer that love to the ultimate icons that we see everyday: other human beings.  Men and women are the ultimate  icons as we are not made by human hands, but by the hand of God.  Therefore, we are to see the presence of Jesus in all people.  Any woman can be the potential birth giver of great holiness.  Any person can be a great example of Christian living.  This is why in an Orthodox service we greet the bishops and priest with a holy kiss and likewise greet each other in significant services such as Forgiveness Vespers on the Sunday that starts Great Lent.  As we worship before the icons in church and at home (Orthodox Christians maintain an icon corner in their homes as an extension of the church), their sober faces look at us as we judge ourselves if we have loved others as Christ loved us.  Of course, there are Orthodox Christians that do struggle with race supremacy.  But, the struggle is about the same as those who deal with other demons such as adultery, alcoholism, and any other sin.  With the humble prayers of the church, confession, guidance from a spiritual father or mother, and (most necessary and above all) the grace of God; we struggle to and overcome these demons.

During the Magisterial and Radical Reformations, Protestantism launched a campaign to destroy icons and reject their place in worship.  While it could be argued that the Roman Catholic Church (which split from Orthodoxy in 1054) of the Middle Ages began to focus too much on individual artistic style and strayed away from the patterns of the early church fathers, Calvin and his spiritual offspring failed to try to discover the theology of holy images.  To them, the narrow interpretation of the Second Commandment (“Thou shall not make any graven images unto me …, Exodus 20:4-6) and removing all “Popish” elements from Christian worship was all that mattered.  Thus, rather than simply throw out the dirty bath water of Roman Catholic diversions from the faith (which was the goal of some like Huss and Luther), Protestantism threw the precious baby of iconography and its theology out with it.  Iconoclasm became welded in Western Europe and dominated America.

Iconoclasm has borne some very bitter fruit. Perhaps most destructive of these is our disrespect and dishonor of one another.  No longer do we see the “Word made Flesh” before us in church and at home.  By denying the sight of such an icon as being a part of personal and public devotion, we unwittingly deny that He became flesh.  We may worship and honor His divinity in sermons and songs.  But, without the visual honoring and loving of Jesus incarnate as a man, we deny the value of His humanity.  As He identifies Himself even with the least of people, we therefore discredit the value of one another.  By rejecting the image of the woman bearing the source of our salvation (even with women serving in the clergy), women are reduced to mere sex objects.  By rejecting image of the Holy Child that sits on her lap (and in rare Orthodox icons, nurses at her breast), children can be exploited and, if we wish, killed before birth.  By rejecting images of righteous living of those who do not look like us, we fear and hate other races.  By rejecting the righteous images of ourselves, we destroy ourselves.  Furthermore, as Protestants, we reject the tried and tested humble prayer disciplines of early Christianity (“they ain’t in the Bible”), the sacrament of confession (which is Biblical), and only time seek the guidance of a spiritual father or mother when we want something from God for selfish and unselfish reasons (and in this materialistic society, we too often seek the former) we have taken away the very tools needed for us to build a society where people truly love and honor one another.

No one kills a weed simply by picking its flowers, leaves, and seed heads.  These things only come back and, sometimes, stronger than before.  It is only when we poison, dig up, or destroy the root that the weed does not rise again.  So, to fight against racism, ban abortion, or be involved in some other sort of social improvement on either side of the political coin while ignoring the roots of our violent society is an ultimate waste of time.  Sure, there may be some temporary victories, at times there are some lasting and significant victories that can (if properly channeled) lead to a better society.  But, too often, these efforts are seen as an end unto themselves and never seek to touch the deeper problem of humanity.  Thus, we are reduced to being leaf pickers instead of root killers.  Such efforts are easily exploited by charlatans on the left and right who profit from our emotions.

I propose that we kill the roots of violence in society by learning to and honoring one another as the image of God.  Set aside political, racial, and sexual ideologies and reconsider what it is to be Christian in the eyes of those who put the canon of scripture and established church doctrine in the first 1000 years of our faith.  Speak with Orthodox priest about the importance of icons, the theology behind them, and their relevance in our lives today.  With his advice and guidance, follow a prayer discipline that includes the veneration of icons and learn about some saints from other parts of the world.  For a good layman’s resource, I suggest Deacon Michael Hyatt’s (the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing and Orthodox Christian) podcast on the Seventh Ecumenical Council.  You Tube broadcaster and blogger David Withum has a very good series, “In Defense of the Holy Icons.”  If you want original source material, St. John of Damascus’s “Three Treatises on the Divine Images” is available.  Boycotts, campaign speeches, marches, and speeches will not mean a thing unless each of us is humbly addresses our own faults and failures.

Only when we have love to see each other with the eyes of the God who became a man can we have meaningful change in our society.  This is especially difficult as the charlatans urge us to choose either the left or the right side of corrupt human existence.   We belong to God.  Thus, we should and must offer ourselves to Him.

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 One): Forgiveness With Friends

I had a very good worship service this morning with my church family at Trinity this morning.  Plus, we had a rehearsal for our Easter program after service as well.  I ate half a  large veggie lovers cheese stuffed crust pizza and was tempted to call it a day.  I could have called it a day.  But, I knew that nothing would replace the blessing of attending my first Forgiveness Vespers service.  As a Baptist, the idea of such a prayer service was a bit daunting.  To ask everybody in church to forgive you of your sins and then forgive everyone who ask as well is pushing it.  I mean, we all have been in those services where we are told to turn around and to your left and right to say to your neighbor whatever the preacher tells us to repeat.  This was deeper.  Even the priest ask each person for forgiveness.  The gift is given and the symbolic holy kiss is exchanged. 

Yeah, now you want to talk about bringing people together, the nearness of simulating and giving three kisses to either side of one another’s face and exchanging the gift of forgiveness is deep.  I didn’t know how I was going to react.  All of this was strange to me.  Yet, the quiet warmth we shared with each other in this offering was very special.  We were all making a bold, first step into the challenge of Great Lent.  The struggle against our sinful selves and the striving to grow in God’s grace.  We were all going together as it was being done in other Orthodox churches around the world, as it was done for nearly  2,000 years. 

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

Traffic around the Jefferson Ave. interchange was no fun.  In fact, things were slow through Ft. Eustis.  Needless to Say, Satan was waiting for me.  No doubt, he will constantly await moments to distract and tempt me.  Needless to say, maintaining The Hours will be very important to me.  I may put an icon in the car as I already have a corner in the living room, bed room, and a couple of them at my desk at Trinity and York River. 

So, now it is into Clean Monday.  My wife is not joining me in the fast and has free range on the good stuff in the fridge and freezer.  But, I did find a very delicious vegetable soup mix not long ago.  That and a good, crusty bread will be dinner after Vespers.  Ah well, it is bed time.  I feel excited about tomorrow.

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

I knew that fasting was a part of my learning process in Orthodoxy when I first became an inquirer.  Going vegan twice a week didn’t frighten me one bit.  I did the Apostle’s and Dormition Fast with some difficulty in the first few days.  But, by the sixth day, it was a bit of a cakewalk.  As for the Nativity, it was kinda rough avoiding Christmas parties and the day after Thanksgiving turkey and ham sandwiches.  I have had my occasional slips and made a couple of loopholes for myself at times.  But, for a rookie, this Orthodox fasting thing really hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  My guide int this journey.  (C) John Gresham

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. My guide in this journey. (C) John Gresham

Great Lent, however, is more intimidating both in diet and spiritual expectation.  Clean Monday arrives about the same time the shad start running in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers.  I am not allowed to eat any fish with bones in it and there is no fish with more bones in it than shad.  Ah well, at least I can salt a few down for the winter.  But, my old man will be smoking his from day one.  Kicking red meat for 40 days this time of year will also be more difficult since it is the beginning of backyard barbecuing season.  Granted, oysters will still be in season and crabbers will start pulling pots again.  But, shellfish will not be cheap with this economy.    I had better learn to love tofu.

What really scares me about Great Lent is the significance of it all.  The Forgiveness Vespers where everyone, including the priest, ask each other to be forgiven for what they have done wrong to the other?  First of all, about the worst thing I can think of that I did wrong to anyone at St. Basil is that I forgot their names.  And then they also asking my forgiveness?  Who am I that any of these kind people should want such a blessing from me when they have always welcomed me with open arms.  And Fr. James to ask me for forgiveness?  We aren’t even in the same denomination.  Who am I to participate in such a practice?  It is at this point that I probably could and should go back to my comfortable corner of Christianity.

I can’t help but to see the beauty and power in such a pre-fast preparation.  When we face each other and ask for forgiveness, we will be facing the ultimate icons.  The ones God made in his image and likeness.  Even for those who have not directly said, done, or thought harm to one another; all are admitting their human problem of sin and seek forgiveness from Christ and each other.  I am scared because I know of my own sinfulness.  I am intimidated also because I am unworthy to have someone who I just met ask me to forgive them.

Yet, I believe I need to go forward with preparing for and observing Great Lent.  I can’t help but to think that there is something very special at the end of this journey at Pascha.  Not bragging rights.  No, boasting is not the goal here.  One of the saints said that if you fast only to boast of your own righteousness, you may as well eat meat.  This journey will probably not mean that I will leave my role as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  There is a bit more work I need to do in my community and I have a mortgage to pay.  Besides, I have not yet been on this Orthodox journey for a full year.  Many converts don’t take the plunge until two or three years.  Fr. James has told me that the church will be here when I am ready. 

Yet and still, there is bound to be something special at the end of this journey of Great Lent.  Just like pledging my fraternity and doing my first overnight backpack trip  alone on the Appalachian Trail go through this process, I will only kick myself for not having the nerve to do it.  Any time a spiritual journey brings us to a point of absolute humility with Forgiveness Vespers, the end must be an incredible celebration of the soul. 

I imagine this will not be easy.  Easter Sunday, my father will have baby back ribs coming out of the smoker fully infused with apple wood or hickory.  Tofu will not be able to compare to that.  Knowing that I will have no excuse for not, at least, calling someone who is ill and homebound other than my wife will be a challenge as well.  I admit, my pastoral care could be better.  Although my prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds since joining the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, it isn’t as tight as it could be.  I will have to read and study when I want to waste time with mahjong and You Tube.  Nope, this isn’t like my good old, “do it yourself” fast when I could just give up caviar, champagne, filet minion, and lobster. 

But, I remember the way I felt when my Dean of Pledges declared, “You Are Now Brothers” and was presented with the letters “Alpha Phi Alpha.”   I remember the way I felt when I reached the intersection of the Old Hotel Trail and the AT at the Hog Camp Gap parking lot where I resolved to go through with a journey that I could have easily chickened out of (especially seeing the bear on the side of the road).  In both cases, it wasn’t just a feeling.  I had a unique change of perspective.  The change I am about to go through will be more profound.

Confession: Accountability, Humility and Trust in the Body of Christ

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:23

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I John 1:9

I spent my final day of vacation from Trinity Baptist by visiting another Orthodox Church.  Today, it was St. Basil the Great Antiochian in Poquoson.  Poquoson is one of few places in Virginia east of I-95 I had never been to.  I never had much of a reason to.  The little bit of town that I did see seemed to be a nice bedroom community.  I didn’t visit the communities of the legendary “Bull Islander” watermen.  The next time I do, I will make it a point to buy some good fresh seafood.  But, today was all about worship at the church of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline.  About 20 years ago, the Antiochians opened their doors to some 2,000 Evangelical Christians giving them Chrismation into the Orthodox faith.

Even before the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by the deep spirituality of the ancient faith.  During the 9:15 Matins service, the priest, Fr. James Purdie, gave the sacrament of Confession to any who would come forward.  Yes, Confession.  A few (churches aren’t packed at one hour prayer services where there is more standing than sitting) people, in turn,  came up to the icon of the Theotokos, whispered their confession to Fr. James.   He then whispered back and they seemed to be in a conversation inaudible to the rest of the congregation.  Then he placed a portion of his priestly vestment over the person’s head and proclaimed their sin.  The forgiven believer kisses the icon, makes the sign of the cross, and takes their place back in the congregation prepared to receive the Eucharist (Communion).

Now, I can hear my fellow Baptist turn their noses up in disdain.  “You ain’t gotta do all that to repent.  Jesus knows your heart.  All you got to do say is, “Lord, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me in Jesus Name.  Amen.”  And there was a time in our rural congregations that a young lady that was pregnant or had a child out-of-wedlock had to repent before the whole church before she could take communion again, change membership to another church, or get married.  Rarely did the guy she slept with have to go through such an ordeal and many other sins didn’t require such a process.  So, the way it was practiced, confession was unfair (especially since some ministers and deacons were known womanizers) and burdensome.  As more and more children were being born out-of-wedlock, the sacrament seemed to be a hindrance to church attendance.

Yet, there is something to be said for the accountability, humility, and trust that I saw today.  Not that every sin needs to be confessed to a priest in Orthodoxy.  But, he is the spiritual Father of the congregation and is responsible for giving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  So, if one is troubled by a serious or recurring wrong, he or she has the responsibility to let the priest know of this and repent with the priest offering an understanding ear, encouragement, and practical solution to the sin as well as a proclamation that the sin is forgiven.  To come and confess one’s sin is a sign of humility and spiritual maturity.  That one doesn’t play off his or her missing the mark as something to be nonchalantly brushed aside in private or in some little box in a corner.  Orthodox confession is done where people cannot hear what is being said, but they know that something is being said and forgiveness is proclaimed.  It takes courage and a sense of trust in one’s priest and church family that the confession will not be material for gossip and speculation.  If I had to leave before the Divine Liturgy, Matins and the Confessions were enough for me to praise God for.

“So Rev., are you trying to say we ought to have confession in the Baptist church?”  I am not sure how it can be introduced or reintroduced.  Nor do I dare say that all is perfect among the Orthodox with this sacrament.  But, let us consider what we have in our lack of a sacrament of Confession.  We are accountable to no one.  I don’t have to tell pastor nothing.  All he is supposed to do is visit grandma in the nursing home and get his shout on so I can pat my foot and feel good about myself.  We are not humble.  We would rather talk about how “blessed and highly favored,” we are than to express any sort of public humility.  And we continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of mistrust by not having the courage to trust.  And if pastors aren’t challenged with the responsibility to forgive sins, they can be tempted to be irresponsible with their own sins.  We can put on great performances of “whooping” sermons and “sanging” choirs and soloist.  But without accountability, humility, and trust in the body of Christ; we are missing something in our walk with the Lord that is far more valuable than cultural expressiveness.

I don’t know.  I will work on the Sunday School lesson and my sermon this week and be back serving at Trinity next Sunday.  Maybe I should keep silent and just chalk this up as a “grass looks greener on the other side of the fence” episode.  Or, perhaps the Lord will bless me (or someone else) with a way to explain Confession so that my fellow Baptist can understand it’s value even if they don’t agree to do it.  And if we want to do it, how do we bring such a sacrament to a church that doesn’t even see Communion as a sacrament?

Trisagion: Prayers To Aim With

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us

The Trisagion (thrice holy) Prayer

Let me confess.  As soon as I got my Orthodox Study Bible, I immediately started using the Morning and Evening Prayers without asking any questions.    Common sense should have told me to, at least, look up what the word Trisagion meant.  This probably isn’t a smart move.  It helps to do some reasearch behind the words one uses before using them.  A lot of people fall into false doctrine over repeating stuff they heard, seen, or read without doing any other background investigation.  Fortunately, I came to find the Trisagion to be in line with the scriptures and sound in doctrine as I made it a part of my prayer life.  But, I will strive not to leap before looking and advise others to refrain from jumping too soon as well.

One thing that lead me to pray the Trisagion (follow along with the link) is that part of it is the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5:9-13, Luke 112-4) that I grew up with.  If Jesus taught us to pray these words, then why not use them.  Granted, everything in scripture should not be taken too literally.  But, the words of the prayer allow us to put God in his proper perspective, calls us to seek his will, directs us in our petitions, calls us to repentance, ask for His protection, and (through the Biblical embellishment) concludes by giving Him the glory and praise.  The Trisagion ends with this bedrock of Biblical prayer.

The first movement of the prayer is an invocation.  We are to approach God with a calmed spirit, acknowledging Him in His fullness and giving him glory.  With the right approach to God, we then call for his presence.  Please note that as well as giving him acknowledgement of his essence, we are inviting him into ourselves.  That’s right, we want God to dwell inside of us.  It is too easy for us to take for granted that we have the Holy Spirit inside of us and have Jesus in our hearts.  Let us be mindful that “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).  We are responsible for “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).   As none of us who are alive are in heaven, it makes sense for us to ask for our ultimate salvation.

Also note that repentance is a part of this invocation.  The call for repentance is underscored by repeating the basic Trisagion Prayer three times:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us

All three Synoptic Gospels teach that the first thing Jesus commanded us to do after his trial in the desert was to “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).  After giving glory to the fullness of God, we are led into humble repentance as the second movement of the Trisagion.To offer up our regular prayers without repentance is arrogant and inexcusable!  In an impromptu moment of great stress or suffering, such an omission is tolerable.  But, when we enter into our regular morning, noon, or evening prayers, repentance is essential.  We do not go to God as if we are sinless.  The Apostle Paul wisely repeats the words of the Psalmist, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10, Psalm 13:3 Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 14:3 Western translations).  Let us remember that if we repent, God is merciful to forgive us.  As a reminder that we must also forgive others if we seek forgiveness, the last movement of the Trisagion is the Lord’s Prayer.

Why do I find this prayer necessary?  The Trisagion is a perfect series of prayers to calm down my mind and spirit for prayer.  I wake up in the morning groggy, hungry, and wondering if Liverpool FC will win their next match.  In the afternoon, my work duties clog my mind.  I get home, I am thinking about dinner and what I have to do at the church.  And at night, sleep.  This is the prayer that helps me put all other things aside and all of my other prayers in focus.  The written prayers make more sense.  My personal prayers are more settled.  C’mon, I irritate people when I rush to them with babble and dribble.  God is forgiving and merciful.  But, just as I prefer to approach people in a calm and orderly fashion, why shouldn’t I do the same for the One we serve?

I encourage all of my Catholic and Protestant friends to pray the Trisagion.  This pattern of prayer has lasted longer than our denominations have been in existence.  I believe if you use it as part of your regular quiet time for a week, you will see how valuable it is and not pray without it.  And to my Orthodox friends, don’t take this precious jewel of a prayer for granted.  Cherish the beauty and power of the Trisagion and share it with others.

A Lenten Journal: A Pursuit of the Doctrine of Christ (Sixth Monday)

“And when you stand in prayer, forgive what you have against anybody, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your failures too.”    Mark 11:25

The second and third entrances in Jerusalem had no parades nor fanfare.  We instead see a somewhat cruel use of power (the cursing of the fig tree), defiant rabble-rousing (the expulsion of the traders from the temple), and a logical defeat of the opposition (the authority of Jesus questioned).  Coupled with the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus, some Christians act as if we are thus granted to act as he had during the Jerusalem ministry.  No doubt that we must speak of holy displeasure and speak truth to power.  But, Jesus gives us a caveat to our no doubt in his hear, but believing that what he says will happen, and believe you have it already and it will be yours. 

Rev. Sylvester Bullock (© John Gresham)

The fig tree was a sign that the Jews should have had fruit of the Spirit ready for the Messiah at his very presence.  Cursed to all who are beholden to such law and tradition.  The point was made further as the worship was corrupted by money-changers in the temple and a clerical leadership that failed to acknowledge the Spirit of God among them.  These are the mountains that we must pray, in faith, will be cast into the sea.  But, we must also pray in forgiveness.  If we make such prayers with this element of mercy, mercy will be shown to us who also stand in need of it.  For we all fail to bear the fruit of the Spirit as we should in the presence of Christ.  We are all corrupted by the things of this world.  We all become complacent in faith and are dull to the movement of God even when we are faced with him.  If we command the mountain to throw its self without these considerations, it can and will fall on us!

There is great and divine power in prayer.  The heart of forgiveness prevents us from using the power foolishly.

Yours in Christ

Brother Cyprian Bluemood

Order of Saint-Simon of Cyrene