healing

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.

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On To Pentecost (Bright Wednesday): Little Milestones on the Way

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD

DESTROYING DEATH BY DEATH

AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMB

BESTOWING LIFE!

 The Great and Holy Pascha has come and gone.  But, the journey with Christ does not end!  The “Birthday of the Christian Church,” Pentecost is less than 50 days away.  After the final, fast-free day of the week (Remembrance Saturday), it is back to the normal Wednesday and Friday fast commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord and Savior.  Thus, even without the great milestone of remembering the day the Holy Spirit came into the world to spread the Gospel to the world, I would still have a way of life (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) that I should still continue in.  Plus, the next few Sundays contain hymns reminding us of everyone from St. Thomas, the Myrrh Bearing Women,  Paralytic, Samaritan Woman, and the Blind Man.  Our Lord’s Ascension is on Thursday, June 13th. 

One thing about major milestones is that there are some significant milestones to be reached and revered before getting to that big one.  A person with plenty of time on his hands going from Washington DC to Virginia Beach would do well to take in the history of Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Williamsburg.  What tour guide doesn’t recommend a stop or two en route to one’s main destination?  These are great learning opportunities and chances to check one’s bearings and supplies. 

Pentecost

So as the spiritual journey now points to Pentecost, I am going to stop at these other points to check myself and the things that are around me.  One thing I will definitely check up on is my eating habits.  I ate way too much meat and cheese on Sunday and paid the painful price with a gout attack.  It just so happens (God has a way of giving us help when we need it most) that podcaster  and dietitian Rita Madden posted her last edition for a while entitled Eastern Orthodox Healthy Eating and Living Toolbox.  Her very first, and most profound, point is that we have to like having a new wellness lifestyle.  She supports this point with a quote from St. John Chrysostom, “Every work that does not have love as it’s beginning and root is nothing.”  So, in order for healthy eating to work for me, I must enjoy it and seek communion with God as I do it. 

Today, I started at dinner.  I fixed a vegetarian chilli with garlic bread (okay, I love butter and cheese) and took about one minute between bites.  My goal is to get better at eating slowly and not being quite as much of a carnivore, even on non-fast days.  When I get a little better with those, I will work on reducing my portion size to “eat just enough to stave off hunger” (St. John Chrysostom).  By Pentecost, I want to feast a lot better than I did on Pascha.  I was far too much a glutton.  I wish not to make that mistake again.  If I take care to take one milestone at a time, I will get to where the Lord is leading me.

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.

Thoughts on Today’s Gospel Reading: Luke 5:12-16

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed

Luke 5:16

I am gearing my sermons and lessons to the command Jesus gave to the first disciples, “Follow Me.”  It was very easy for me to use the Gospel readings for the past two Sundays to preach from that theme.  For today’s Bible Study, we neither see a Master Teacher giving lessons from a borrowed boat nor telling a confessing sinful fisherman that he will catch men from now on.  In fact, we don’t see Jesus wanting attention at all.

Our Lord is in a certain city, perhaps on his way to a synagogue to teach a lesson, when a man full of leprosy comes to him seeking a cleansing.  Jesus is full of compassion and willingly heals the man.  But after it happens, Christ tells the man not to anyone but to the priest and make the prescribed Mosaic sacrifice.  The miraculous act of our Lord’s compassion was directed to be met with sobriety and order.  Human nature, either by the healed man’s disobedience or the observation of others who told of what happened, makes such a directive almost impossible.  In the words of the African-American music tradition:

I couldn’t keep it to myself what the Lord has done for me

Of course, Jesus does not retaliate against him and bring the leprosy back on him.  But, now Christ is unable to move about as freely as he would like.  Masses of people are now coming to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.  More than likely, the Lord healed those who came to him.  With the added stress of expectations and hopes of so many others weighing on him, Jesus needs to do something to handle the situation.

In the text of the Orthodox Study Bible, the word often is italicized to highlight the point of how important prayer is.  Except for medical professionals, we aren’t expected to heal people.  But, we all deal with more stress than we would like.  And at any moment, someone can spill our secrets, misuse our kindness, and demand more of us.  Stress can keep us from being effective.  It has been proven that it can kill us.  Frequent prayer is the means Jesus used to continue in wisdom and compassion.

To follow Jesus, we should follow his rule of prayer in the text.  Go somewhere to be to yourself as much as you can and pray.  Union with God enables us to handle the normal expectations of life and the added stress of the unexpected.  Being in crowds may feed the ego.  But, it starves the soul.  Find your wilderness, closet, mountain top, or somewhere else where you can be alone.  Pray often.  The morning mumble and mutterings while eating a doughnut is not enough to sustain faith.  One should take advantage of break times and lunch during the work or school day.  Even if long, audible prayers are not possible, concentrated and concise prayers are just as effective.  Either must be done in sincerity.  If we seek solitude and prayer often, we will also be able to live in wisdom and compassion.

 

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?

Foolish Fighting & Wrong Weapons

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Ephesians 6:11-13

Toward Dawn (© John Gresham)

I remember when Matthew Shepherd, a gay man, was brutally beaten and left to die.  I thought that sooner or later some armed homosexual or sympathizer would take up arms against a Christian church, or other organization of the faith for our silence on (and in some cases acceptance of) gay bashing.  Well, it has happened.  Thank God that the security guards at the Family Research Council did their job effectively to prevent a tragic loss of life.  No, I should say, “another tragic loss of life.”  The murder of Sikh worshipers by an ultra-conservative gunman happened two weeks ago.

I cannot help but to wonder if either of these men had a well-developed life of prayer before they decided to pick up arms.  I am willing to bet that they didn’t.  Attempting to shoot unarmed Christians and shooting unarmed Sikh mistaking them for Muslims (who most likely would have been unarmed) is no a sign of someone who makes the serious effort to be more like God.  No, this is the end result of those who believe in their ideology more than the crucified and risen Savior.  A true prayer life requires one to be repentant to an reliant on God throughout the day.  These characteristics call on us to be humble and consider our own faults before becoming angry in our disagreements with others.  With a focus on seeking Godliness, we see that our real enemies are not people who can only harm the flesh.  Our true adversaries are our passions of lust, greed, gluttony, envy, arrogance, and the like.  Even if we were to succeed in overcoming our earthly opponents, without victory over the spiritual enemies we have achieved nothing for our souls.

The problem is not gun ownership nor having a political point of view.  Fingernail files can be used as weapons.  Left and Right are the two sides of the same cheap coin of human rule and both are needed for the coin to have value.  The problem of American society is that we are not truly prayerful.  When we pray, it us usually for God to do something for us or support our point of view.  Instead of being repentant, we point the finger at the sins of others to comfort us as not being as bad as they are.  Instead of reliance on God, we commit ourselves to human reliance to boast of what we have earned or beg for what we deserve.  Humility cannot be born of such characteristics.  These are the planting beds for the very ills which we should seek to overcome.  Combine this sort of prayer with divisive politics and we have an atmosphere for fearful and mistrusting attitudes.  These attitudes are then manipulated by marketing puppet masters and talking heads.  Those who focus left or right rather than inward and above become further rooted in toxicity.  At best, the toxicity is quieted by some sense of basic civility.  At worst, there is a breaking news story at 6 pm.

I urge you to fight the real enemy!  Heterosexual lust is far more damaging to marriage and male-female relationships than homosexual marriage will ever be.  Arrogance kills more Americans than Muslims, Sikh, Jews, and all other non-Christians combined.  We probably are more likely to be killed by someone who says they are Christian than anyone else.  Greed is the real enemy of the hard-working tax payer.  Gluttony traps even the poor in poverty.  To fight these enemies, we must be on the battlefields of our own hearts, minds, and souls.  Our weapons are prayer, scripture, and action.  Our strategy is to walk humbly with the Lord our God.  We must stop trying to exonerate and excuse ourselves and seek the Holy Spirit with an honest and complete assessment of ourselves so that we can be healed.  Then we will properly be able to assist others in the healing process.

I expected some sort of retaliation.  Most likely, it will be met with more retaliation.

Today’s Sermon: Let Jesus In Your House

I want to thank Sub-Deacon Paul Abernathy for bringing up this text in one of his talks at the Ancient Christianity Afro-American Conference.  If this guy were a Baptist, he would be a pastor somewhere.  Well educated, articulate, young; yeah, this brother would be a star among preaching circuits and revival services.  But, a sub-deacon?  Perhaps we should learn from such humility.

LET JESUS IN YOUR HOUSE

Matthew 8:14-15

(antithesis) Why should we let Jesus into our house when the Centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 didn’t?

(thesis) As following disciples, rather than passer-by strangers, we should seek the Lord’s presence in our innermost selves.

(relevant question)  What are the advantages of such a presence in our lives?

(points)

  • Christ blesses the goodness that we already have (Peter’s mother in law in his home v. 14)
  • Christ sees and ministers to our relatively insignificant ailments (she had a fever and he touched her hand v.14, 15)
  • Touched by Christ, we are empowered to serve others whomever they are (she served them v.15)

(conclusion)  Don’t settle for a great passing faith.  Build your life in the presence of Jesus Christ.

A Need To Return

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:13, 14

Sunrise through Darkness (© John Gresham)

Before they ever heard of the Jesus Prayer or could read anything in English, the slaves in America cried out, moaned, and sang the most profound of all Negro Spirituals:

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Have mercy Lord, have mercy Lord on me

It was the song of the whipping post, sexual assault, auction block, and tobacco field.  They didn’t know why they were going through such a horror.  The way the slave masters taught about God was wrong. The slaves had sense enough to know that somewhere there was a God of mercy.   If they sought Him with their whole lives in the midst of their anguish, He would answer them.  This Negro Spiritual continued through the days of Jim Crow.  With growing aspirations in the face of burning crosses and segregating signs, the prayer was still prominent on our lips as it came from the depths of our experience.  The youngest child memorized it quicker than the alphabet.  Seasoned saints remembered it if they forgot everything else.

Those dreadful days of our fathers and great grandmothers will not rise again, Praise the Lord!  And yet as we have moved from slave cabin to share cropper shack to nice house to the White House, we have lost a part of the prayer.  No, all of the words are still there.  But the depth and meaning of the prayer, I fear, has been lost in the complacency of progress and the antics of our modern worship.

Are these words even mentioned in our churches anymore?  And if so, how much weight do we put on them?  Are these words spoken in our prayer closets?  Wait, do we even go into our prayer closets and expose ourselves to the merciful God as we were once exposed to unmerciful racist?  And if this simple song/prayer way good enough for the ancestors who endured the absolute worst conditions, isn’t it good enough for we who live in a far better world?

Listening to a lecture from Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy, he challenged a conference of mostly Afro-American Orthodox believers to live their faith with the same tenacity of the early church fathers such as Saints Anthony, Athanasius, and Moses.  For we who are not Orthodox Christians, we can certainly look at the prayer lives of those who were in bondage and second class citizenship and imitate them.  Pray from the depths of spirit and sufferings, not simply for the stuff of this world.  Pray in deep humility, and not as if we deserve anything.  In the words of our Lord, “This man went down to his house justified … he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Let us return to the prayer life of those who were before us.

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

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

John 3:1, 2

The Path (© John Gresham)

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

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

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

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

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Monday): Better Diet and Prayer Life

New Day (© John Gresham)

No, I have not been perfect in this fast.  I didn’t read every ingredient of every product I consumed to make sure there was no oil or dairy in it.  Potato chips are a special weakness of mine as well.  I will make sure I am more strict with myself on the Wednesday and Friday fast until the Dormition in August.

Other than that, taking up this fast has been very good for me.  As far as food is concerned, my palate has been opened up to a whole new world of possibilities.  I would have never dreamed of being satisfied with grilled vegetables and tofu.  But, the barbecue master Steven Raichlen is absolutely correct; “Anything that taste good baked, boiled, steamed, or fried will taste better grilled.”  While fish is to be avoided, shellfish are permitted.  A fast that allows for crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters can’t be that hard.  And a vegetable based diet came out a bit cheaper than my normal meat based fare.  I don’t know if I have lost any weight.  But, my body feels very good.

Spiritually, the fast has been equally good if not better.  It used to be that I would try to maintain morning and evening prayers on my own.  The prayers I use in the Orthodox Study Bible, the Jordanville Prayer Book, and the St Phillip’s Prayer Discipline website are like helping hands in my journey of faith.  One central theme I have noticed in Orthodox prayer is the seeking of mercy.  I don’t hear that as often in many of our Protestant prayers.  Thanksgiving, praises, supplications; all good things and prayed in all of Christendom.  But, without mercy from God, what good are the other things we pray for and about?  The constant seeking of divine mercy is what keeps us humble and reliant on God’s grace rather than our own power, intellect, and wealth.

So, I have learned to feed my body better stuff.  I have also learned to nourish my prayer life with what is truly needed.  Fr. Steven Freeman has a great article about the Apostles Fast and a very interesting blog as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.