humility

Humility is the Solution

It is African-American History Month. And this is the first year that we observe this month under a president that wants to “Make America Great Again.”  Under the administration of his predecessor, the first African-American to hold the office, we were still the greatest nation in the world.  Apparently, the political left and right cannot, or for the sake of promoting their agendas, refuse to come to an agreement of what makes for greatness.  I am choosing to ignore their arguments because in African and Orthodox Christian history, there are consistent elements and examples of what greatness is and that we have agreed upon in all places at all times.  I will lift up one element and example for your consideration; the humility of Macarius the Great of fourth century Egypt.

180px-st_macarius_the_great_with_cherub

One day, Macarius was gathering reeds to make baskets when Satan began to beat him with a scythe. His blows had no effect on the man and he stopped and left him alone.  As the devil was leaving, he told the saint, “I do everything you do.  You stay up all night praying, I don’t sleep.  You fast, I don’t eat.  You have one advantage over me that I cannot overcome; your humility” (1).  For those of you unfamiliar with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a book that African-American Christians would do well to read and study), I give you these words from the Apostle Paul; “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … He made himself of no reputation … He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death … Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name” (Philippians 2:5-10).

Russuan Paper Mache Cross

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

In both sides of the political argument, humility is tragically absent. I use this adjective because without this critical element that Jesus and Macarius lived by, greatness will not happen; except that we may achieve great failure and embarrassment.  Let’s take the right; everyone wants a strong economy with good jobs, and protection from enemies.  The desire to achieve these goals is no excuse for belligerence.  The left’s concerns for diversity, fairness, and social progress are also admirable and necessary.  Vulgarity only hurts the cause one struggles for.  And it may be that the media is drowning out the more conciliatory voices on both sides for the sake of ratings and profits (I don’t doubt this at all).   But, with few (if any) voices on either side are pointing out to humility as the means of achieving greatness, calling on God to bless America or saying that God is on our side are empty words that will generate atheism faster than anything Charles Darwin could have dreamed of.

It will not be any political leader or party that will humble the heart of America. It will take the masses to embrace the mentality of our Savior and the African saint (and I welcome a similar spirit from those of other faiths and no faith).  For African-Americans, perhaps a deeper look at the humility of our forefathers would help.  Not every slave was Harriet Tubman or Nat Turner.  The very existence of devout Christian slaves whose spirituality went deeper than that of their masters was an indictment against the false Christianity of the American South and their friends in the North.  For a modern example, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by laying on the ropes and taking hard punches to tire out his opponent.  And at the right time, he fought back.  For the Orthodox Church, while we do pray for our Cesar’s, we don’t comply with their spirit.  Many of our greatest saints rejected the popular wave of Christianity after the edict of Milan and fled to the deserts of Africa, Asia, and (later) the wilderness of Europe and Siberia.  Those who didn’t flee aided and spoke up for the downtrodden, rejected the excesses of their society, and pointed to the examples in the Egyptian and Northern Thebaid on how best to follow Christ.   Indeed, St. Herman and other missionaries to Alaska stood up for the rights of the natives against Russian colonial exploiters and oppressors.  To this day, Natives there choose and respect Orthodoxy over Protestantism and Catholicism because of their example.

st_anthony_great_2

St. Anthony was shown all of the traps the Devil had spread all over the world.  He groaned and asked what could get through them all.  Then, a voice came to him and said, “Humility” (2).  It is not so much that conservatives have to become liberals or vice-versa.  But, we have to approach one another and the issues of our country with this all-powerful virtue.  Solutions will not be easy.  But, with humility and God’s grace, we can solve our problems.  Without it, we can only expect to continue with this destructive vicious circle we are in and for it to get worse.

  1. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs. 129, 130
  2. Desert Fathers, pg. 2
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Great Lent Week Two: Pursuing the Monastic Mindframe

One of the things that drew me to Orthodox Christianity is monasticism.  These people were,and still remain, unique examples of what it is to follow Jesus.  They attend church services, at least, two or three times a day.  They pray as they work.  Their meal time is spent with the words of scriptures and stories of saints.  Except for liturgical vestments, everyone is dressed in the same, simple garments.  Monks and nuns renounce not only sinful pursuits.  They also have rejected respectable careers, loving marriages, decent hobbies, and other things we consider good in the worldly kingdom so that they can focus solely on the kingdom of heaven.

Macarius the Great

Of course, Jesus never called everyone to this sort of lifestyle.  But, as I journey in the faith, I see tremendous value in striving to emulate those who have.  Consider how many of us are addicted to pursuing entertainment by TV.  While some programs may be educational and it is good to keep abreast of things newsworthy (not everything in the news is worthy of attention), too much of what is on television is based on sensuality and ego-driven self-help.  Refraining from television during fasting periods and replacing that time with prayer, spiritual reading, or helping people in need does our souls a far greater good than following empty comedies and meaningless dramas.  The monastic lays aside personal gain and follows the instruction of a seasoned and wise elder.  Our society is deeply committed to individualism and self confidence.  While everyone should gain some skills in their various occupations, no one ever succeeds in life by themselves.  We all need to be taught, trained, and guided.  The ability to be an effective father or mother in the faith is given by God through much patience, effort, and a humble spirit.

An Ethiopian Orthodox monk

St. Macarius is well renowned for his spiritual wisdom.  Yet, one of his prayers begins with these words,

Oh Lord, forgive me a sinner, for I have never done anything right …”

This man has fasted and prayed as much as any of the holy men of ancient Christianity.  But, he uses a language that puts himself at the same level as the tax-collector in our Lord’s parable.  Macarius also is said to have not considered himself a true monk and that there were others who have pursued the holy life with greater fervor than himself.  The mind of a monastic is always to consider one’s self as not yet attaining righteousness while doing everything to seek it.  This humble mind frame keeps us from thinking too much of ourselves and from complacency in the pursuit of God.  Let us not forget that God gives grace to the humble.

African Monastic Wisdom: Rejecting Glory

There is a temptation among us all to gloat when we are proven right.  We especially tend to gloat when we had to endure a lot of criticism and insults until the truth came out on our side.  For some, we just want our opponents to admit their faults.  Others of us want to make a meal out of our “haters.”

St. Macarius of Egypt

To combat this tendency, God provides us with the example of St. Macarius of Egypt.  This well-respected African saint is one that almost all Orthodox Christians are familiar with as his words are in our prayer books.  Despite being sought after and honored by all races of Christian believers in life, he led an extremely austere life as a celibate monk with a simple diet and basic clothing.  From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this story (my paraphrase of it).

Macarius had taken the life of a hermit monk making hand crafts to support himself.  A local man saw him as a spiritual guide and took the monk’s work to the local village market to sell for him.

A young lady in the village became pregnant.  When asked who was the man she slept with, she lied and claimed it was the monk Macarius.  The people of the village seized him and led him into town to be humiliated, beaten, and spat upon.  The monk’s assistant also was tormented as he stood by the innocent man.  Rather than try to plead his case, Macarius worked harder to make more crafts telling himself that he has to support his new wife and child.

When it came time for the woman to deliver, she went through great pain as she couldn’t give birth.  When asked what was the matter, she confessed that she falsely accused the monk and that the father was another man.  The monk’s assistant quickly went to the outskirts of town to tell Macarius that the woman admitted her lie and that the whole village was coming to repent and honor him for their years of disbelief and abuse.  Rather than stay and receive them, Macarius fled his cave and went even further away to a desert where no one knew of what had happened.

I confess, I think I’d stick around for a few tearful apologies from the most irritating of the bunch.  But, this story is so opposite of myself and most of us.  Even though we may not want to put folk through the same cruelty they put us through, the object of our existence is not earthly glory from man under any circumstances.  St. Anthony died far away from his followers so that his relics would not be found to be venerated by anyone.  St. Moses the Black once disguised himself before a wealthy official as not to be discovered.  Even  our Lord when He had done mighty works in one village, did He not move on to another place to spread the Gospel (Mark 1:35-39).

How many of us strive to make a school honor roll not because we love learning the various subjects presented to us and challenging our minds, but for financial awards and praises from others?  How many of us bust our butts on our jobs not because we find our careers fulfilling our interest and passions, but because we want that pay raise, promotion, and recognition as the best in the profession?  While not every man or woman will be called to live in a cave or monastic cell, the monks and nuns remind us that there is a world beyond this one with greater glories than what this world can offer.  While recognition may come our way in our academics, employment, or community service; we must accept such things with the greatest of humility and make sure our true aim is for the kingdom of heaven.

When we make the glories of the kingdom of earth our true aim, we fall into the temptation Satan tried to offer our Lord.  The more we want earthly glory, the more we will serve the devil to get it.  Which is why Jesus rejected the overt plan of the devil.  Which is why Macarius fled the slippery slope of many praises that would have misled him.  Let us not be fooled into seeking earthly glory.

Starting Over

So, let’s see.  I earned 30 credits toward a Master of Divinity at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University, completed the Evans-Smith Leadership Institute of STVUU and the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, served as a Communion Server for the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, President of the Pamunkey Baptist Association Sunday School and Literary Union, PBA Treasurer, First Vice-Moderator, and Moderator as well as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  And now, I am a church member with no office nor title.  Attending a funeral at Trinity over the weekend, one of the deacons politely addressed me, “Hi John.  How are you doing?”  I have always told myself and others that a title is not important to me.  But, I have to confess that I found it strange that this man had addressed me by my first name for the first time in about 20 years.  I did not have a seat in a pulpit that I was welcomed in by my predecessor.  This was a weird feeling.

Had I remained where I was, I suppose I could have risen higher.  I was a friend to some movers and shakers in the denomination.  Finishing my degree and putting my name out there would have gone a long way.  Or, perhaps I could have gone non-denominational and sought the position of evangelist, prophet, or conference teacher as a part of some modern “Five-Fold Ministry” movement.  Making the right connections would put me on a fast track to greater notoriety.  Even then, I could still keep my credentials as a Protestant clergyman.  

There is no fast track to rising in the ranks of Orthodoxy.  Attending seminary is not to be considered or recommended to the bishop until after at least five years in the church in good standing.  Even after earning an M.Div, there is no guarantee of becoming a priest immediately as the bishop (through prayer and the needs of the church) decides where to assign graduates and when, or if to ordain a seminary graduate into the priesthood.  Skipping from one jurisdiction to the other in the hopes of being ordained is not permitted except by the bishops involved in such a change.  As for leaving the church and starting a new Orthodox parish, whatever one would call such a church, it would not be recognized as Orthodox.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy.  He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy. He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

I am reminded about the value of humility.  Jesus taught us not to be the one at the wedding feast trying to get the important seat because someone more important than you might show up.  Instead, take the lowest seat in the house and there is a chance that someone will bring you up higher (Luke 14:7-11).  Exchanging my comfort and privilege in the high seat of the Baptist Pastorate to be just another Orthodox Christian in the congregation does not take away from who I am.  If anything, starting over can be a breath of fresh air in my spiritual journey.  I can re-learn what ministry and my calling is all about.  I am free to explore where God may have me to serve rather what others expect of me.

Thus far, I am a bit of a reporter and blogger as I strive to organize the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  Fr. James has asked me to be a part of the evangelism team.  And I have been asked to consider teaching a Sunday School lesson.  I doubt if my name will be mentioned alongside the well-know voices on AFR or OCN.  But, there is a place for me here in the Orthodox Church.  All I have to do is prepare for whatever God has for me to do and do well with where I am assigned.  In the mean time, this “lowest seat” is a good thing.  I am worshiping with good brothers and sisters in the faith.

 

Weekly Reflections: The Value of Psalm 51

I no longer have the responsibility of preparing and preaching sermons.  But, I still have a habit of studying scriptures and writing out my thoughts to share with anyone who cares to listen.  I have challenged myself to read the Ante-Nicene Fathers.  For the first 300 years of the church, such writings were relied upon to instruct believers on true doctrine as the writers were of the same and one or two generations after the apostles.  Even though these books were not included in the final list of New Testament books, they do provide the foundation from which our Holy Bible was founded on.  Thus, the books of the early church fathers are very much worth reading to see how to live as a Christian.  Besides, anyone can look up and read these books for free.

Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome and a disciple of Peter

Starting from the top, the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians defines Christian life by being sober minded and serious about the faith.  Moderation, habitual hospitality, and being well grounded in knowledge are characteristics for all believers; not just the clergy.  Division due to emulation and envy must be rejected.  While bishops, priest, and deacons are to be held in respect, all are to be humble.  Without humility, we make ourselves more vulnerable to sin.  Clement gives examples of humility, the greatest of which is Jesus Christ Himself.  He also holds up the prophets, Job, and Moses as worthy examples with biblical text references from Genesis, Exodus, Job, and Isaiah among others*.

David is also held up in chapter 18 (the chapters are no more than a few paragraphs, so don’t be intimidated to read this book).  Keep in mind that this was the man that was after God’s own heart.  He was God’s anointed and through his line came Joseph who was the surrogate father of our Lord.  Yet, when caught in his sin, David pours himself out in one of the most heart felt cry of remorse and repentance.  The 51st (50th in the Septuagint Old Testament translation) was a common prayer among the early church, thanks in part to Clement’s epistle.  David the human ancestor of the Savior offered it.  As we are a part of the family of the Lord and seek to follow Him, certainly these words are good enough for us when we acknowledge our sinful state whether we killed a man to cover up our adultery or lusted for someone or something.

Among Orthodox Christians, this psalm is still given as part of daily and weekly prayer disciplines.  All Christians would do well to make this prayer and the humble mind frame of David, the other saints, and, above all, Jesus Christ a part of our new lives.  Talk to your pastor or priest.

The grace of the Holy Trinity be with you.

I welcome comments and questions

(*If you have access to an English translation of the Septuagint, please read it in conjunction with the OT found in most English Bibles.  There are sections where the translations are very different)

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 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

Fasting? Compare for Yourself!

Perhaps you saw the book at a store.  Maybe you saw the broadcast on some religious TV station.  Media Minister Jentezen Franklin wants you to join his “FAST/2013” Movement.  The book is being sold everywhere.  One can contribute $58 to his ministry and receive a “FAST/2013 kit”  consisting of a magazine, the book, DVD, and bracelets.  Visit his website and one can order these products as well. 

I pray you haven’t spent money on this “movement” and if you have, that you have kept your receipt.  Fasting is a very good spiritual practice that Christians should participate.  But, this practice is not simply a piece of wisdom for a modern preacher to turn into a product to be marketed.  Fasting is a long-standing part of the Christian life that was ordained by Jesus Christ with a tradition handed down by the early church fathers

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Michael Hyatt, the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing and an Orthodox Deacon) has a very good lesson about fasting on Ancient Faith Radio’s “At The Intersection of East and West” podcast.  Anyone with internet access can listen to this two-part series (each about a half hour-long).  Some of the other podcasters have some thoughts about fasting as well. 

I urge you to take a look at what Mr. Franklin and  Deacon Hyatt have to offer.  Compare them based on the foundation of what tradition they are teaching from and which series of lessons leads you to a “humble walk with your God” (Micah 6:8).  Ask yourself where do they get their doctrines and rules about fasting from. 

Please take the time to compare for yourself,

 

The Nativity Fast: St. Isaac The Syrian’s Perscription

This life has been given to you for repentance.  Do not waste it in vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

The fast that I kinda dreaded is here.  And, oddly enough, I don’t dread this.  In fact, I am embracing this year’s Nativity Fast.  No meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, and limited fish until December 25th.  Why would I, still a Baptist pastor who loves all of the seasonal feasting this time of year, submit to endure such an act of self-denial?  To identify and end all of the vain pursuits of my actions, words, and thoughts.

It would be too easy for me to fast this time of year and get on some sort of self-righteous kick about how Orthodoxy is superior to the absolute foolishness of western Christendom’s Christ-Mass.  But, self-righteousness is as vain of a pursuit as substance abuse or addiction.  This is an opportunity to seek greater humility not only by saying “no” to the foods that I enjoy (my mother-in-law makes a delicious turkey hash).  I will also use this time to reflect on spiritual growth without boasting to myself (or anyone else) that I am growing. 

This is a departure from what we see in many corners of Christianity.  We do quite a bit of declaring about how “Blessed and Highly Favored” we are.  Watching TBN’s “Praise-a-Thon,” blessings, favor, and promises are being sold to people for seed offerings of over a thousand dollars.  We want “stuff” from God, will pay top dollar for it, and will tell all the world that we got it and who gave it to us. 

Isaac the Syrian gives us a better direction in the Christian life.  Each day we have the chance to repent and bear the fruit of repentance as Jesus and John the Baptist called us to do.  This is not to say that God never satisfies our material needs.  But, the blessings, favor, and promises are not the main reasons for our existence.  We are corrupt creatures of the flesh.  We are called to turn from corruption and live as incorruptible children of God.  Repentance is the direction we take to receive a gift far more meaningful than the stuff of earth.  We become more like our Father. 

And if this is the true aim of our earthly existence, we should be on guard of the things we do, say, and put our minds on.  Even if a man does not rape, isn’t lust for a woman he knows he can’t have a foolish line of thinking?  Or a woman not slandering her neighbor, what good does it do for her to wish something harmful to her rival?  Not only the obviously wicked, sometimes we have to rise above secular pursuits that keep us from fully seeking and embracing the Lord’s mercy and love.  Favorite sports teams should not lead us into an obsession.  Fine wines ought not cause us to become forgetful. 

Fasting is a choice.  The humble pursuit of God is not.  Let us use these days wisely.