icons

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Six) Confluence of Hope

I started to post something yesterday concerning the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I typed up some things about how I believe iconography is a beautiful part of prayer and worship that should not be rejected based on a very shallow (my father, an iconoclastic Baptist deacon, calls it  Islamic) perspective of the Ten Commandments.  For the time being, I am going to hold the bulk of my thoughts on iconography for another time.  But, I did make a post last year on the topic that is interesting enough.

 

A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

The Kursk-Root Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

 

Between yesterday and today, as I observe both Eastern and Western Christian tradition, the confluence of hope is quite powerful.  We celebrated Palm Sunday at my church yesterday.  My friends at St. Basil and other churches celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel foretold to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God.  So (on top of going the view the remains of my recently deceased cousin and having a month delayed African-American History program), I am awash in the triumphant entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, the restoration of the Holy Images and the good news that the Christ is to be born all in the midst of the Lenten fast of both traditions. 

When we commit to following the Lord, things will get difficult.  From the first disciples that left their boats and nets, to St. Anthony that left his inheritance, to Rev. Steven Smith who left a well-paying career to attend Virginia Union University’s School of Theology (I remember him from way back in the early 1980’s); sacrifice is not easy.  There are times when we wouldn’t mind going back to our “Egypts” where we had more than manna and water (my wife has a can of vienna sausages that is starting to look good to me).  Praise be to God that we have a solid old covenant to step on and a greater new covenant to stand on and grow into.  The Israelites were given punishment for their gripes and grumblings against the God that had brought them out of slavery and bondage.  So, to all of us who have taken up the journey, let us be aware of the warnings of old.  The greater testament is this:  

… ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’   —   (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus enters triumphantly in our souls.  We celebrate with palm branches.  Jesus is the Word Incarnate.  We celebrate with images.  Jesus is born in the pure and faithful.  We celebrate with a feast in the midst of a fast.  May the confluence of hope refresh and restore us on the journey. 

 

Nativity Fast: My Baptist Foundations

The Lord has given us this day for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Fasting is not a part of the Baptist faith.  Although some of us are willing to give up a couple of foods for Lent, getting us to observe the Nativity Fast of the Orthodox Church is like expecting the Chicago Cubs to win the FIFA World Cup of Football.  Thanksgiving is here and we will be attending Christmas parties, feast, and dinners until New Year’s Day.  There are way too many food temptations around to swear off deserts or red meat, to say the least about going vegan.  Yet in my upbringing, I find a foundation to observe the fast.

Deacon and Deaconess John R. Gresham, Sr. (© John Gresham)

Deacon John R. Gresham, Sr., who loves Christmas more than any other holiday, deeply believes in selflessness.  Daddy does not buy anything for himself from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas.  If his rain coat were to tear on December 12th, he’d patch it up the best he could.  Or if his axe handle was broken on November 30th, he would borrow his neighbor’s if need be.  Other than gas for his vehicle, and perhaps a small sandwich, it was selfish to give to one’s self.  God gave his Son to us.  So, this season, we must focus on giving to others.

Deaconess Mickey Gresham is committed to sharing the special meal.  Each year, mom will buy inexpensive, little gifts and have them on our breakfast plates on Christmas morning.  Presents under a tree from Santa are nice.  But, the first meal of the day is symbolized with a present.  Among the breakfast items, she serves chitterlings (chittlins).  They are a reminder of the humble origins of African-Americans and, some of us, still consider them a seasonal delicacy (I think they are delicious).

During this fast, I will make the effort to following the example of my parents.  Chances are they will not convert to Orthodoxy (daddy was curious, yet unimpressed with my living room icon corner).  But, they have prepared me to follow the practices of Orthodox spirituality.  If and when I do convert, these practices of my Baptist parents will be a part of me.

Of Struggles and Saints

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Dr. Leo C. Wagner (© John Gresham)

I bid a fond “farewell” to a wise pastor, skilled preacher, excellent instructor, and good friend.  Rev. Dr. Leo C. Wagner died yesterday morning.  Here was a man who could have remained in Chicago, perhaps finding a congregation that would have paid him handsomely.  But, the Lord led him to the small town of West Point, VA to pastor Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.  Rather than seek to make his own ministry shine individually, Dr. Wagner engaged himself to work with and lead the Pamunkey Baptist Association as Moderator for a term.  He knew how to joke with people and to give Godly advice at the right moment.  His compassion was felt by public school students in town as well as seminarians at Virginia Union University.  We lost a giant in the Baptist church and a friend to all who knew him.  Lord have mercy and bless his widow.

Today is Monday.  Gosh, how we bemoan the beginning of the work and school week.  As if we are facing some sort of torture.  I confess that I sometimes look at my bills and how they crush my meager paychecks and wish I had the salary I was once earning.  I look at my wife’s illnesses and wish I could enjoy the times when she was mentally and physically healthy.  Yeah, I write stuff that is very spiritual.  But, I am a man with the same wishes and desires as anyone else.  I struggle with the same temptations and anguish over my failures and sins.

But, each morning, I consider the saint that is commemorated  for the day.  Today, the martyrs Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love are remembered for their faithfulness to death.  A mother was forced to watch her teen and pre-teen girls be subject to extremely cruel tortures and beheadings and then bury them.  Then she died at their grave 3 days later of a broken heart as she didn’t leave their side.  With the loss of Dr. Wagner, I am even more mindful that others have struggled and run the race of life before me and endured far greater hardship.  Who am I to whine about my difficulties?  What right do I have to hold on to bad habits?  No, this great cloud of witnesses surround me as an example to keep fighting, running and struggling.

And above all, there is Christ.  He went from a heavenly home to a womb and manger.  His own people rejected him.  Crowds misunderstood him and wanted only magic tricks and miracles.  Where there were once cries of honor, he heard shouts for his crucifixion.  There is no crown without a crucifixion nor sainthood without struggle.

HAIL JESUS!

 

Icons and the Black Church: The Time Has Come

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnared us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Today, I used one of my vacation Sundays to worship at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond VA.  Like Father Moses Berry before me, I was stunned to see the huge icons of St. Moses the Ethiopian and the Saint of the church both looking like the African men that they are.  I also couldn’t help but notice that the icons of Christ and Mary on the iconostasis were also a bit brown in colour as well as some of the others on the walls.  Except for three smaller icons that were bowed to and kissed, I didn’t see anything that looked like worship of a “graven image.”  The pictures were more like going to your uncle’s house with photos of the family “old heads” on the wall over the sofa.  The focus of the worship was on Jesus with the sermon coming from the Gospel reading, the music taken straight from the Psalms (a couple of chants were entire Psalms), constant prayers for God’s mercy, and the Eucharist as the climax of the worship.

My Living Room Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

With so few Orthodox churches in our communities and our focus on the Civil Rights struggles, I can understand why older generations of black ministers didn’t learn and teach about the many African saints who are honored by the ancient faith.  With greater access to information through the internet, and immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, it is far easier to learn about the church.  The Brotherhood of St. Moses The Black has been promoting Orthodoxy to the African-American community for over two decades.  So, there is information out there about saints, patriarchs, monks, nuns, and martyrs from the “Motherland.”  As Protestants, we need not venerate such icons.  But, as a people who wants to celebrate its rich past, it only makes sense that we learn about the Orthodox saints from Africa.  And as they worked and worshiped with Europeans and Middle Eastern people, we can also give respect to some of the other great heroes of our united Christian past such as St. John Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian and American saints such as Herman of Alaska and Peter the Aleut.  Christianity is universal and iconography shows this.

Yes, I know what the Second Commandment is.  It is also repeated in Exodus 20:23 as well.  Icons are not gods.  Nowhere in Orthodox doctrine and worship will you find anyone calling them gods.  Icons of the saints are pictorial reminders of those who lived godly lives and for us to follow their example.  Believers cross themselves (which is a physical expression of the Gospel), bow to, and kiss the icons as a matter of reverent respect and not worship.  Had the saints been alive, they would be greeted with handshakes, hugs, and kisses like we do with all other living people who we respect and love.  The Israelites and Jeroboam made golden bulls and said, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  Solomon made idols of the gods of his foreign wives and they led his heart away from the Lord.  I have yet to meet any Orthodox cleric or layperson to hold up an icon and say, “This is God.”  They are icons that are worshiped with and not worshiped themselves.

A few of the Saints: ( l – r from lthe bottom) Sophia, Fulvainus-Matthew, Anthony, Elesbaan, Moses the Ethiopian, Cyprian, Djan-Darada, Maurice, Athanasius, and Mary of Egypt. (thanks to Bro. John Norman, the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Detroit Chapter, and St Innocent Orthodox Church in Redford MI)

Let’s not use tradition nor narrow-minded biblical interpretations (the Bible was compiled by the Orthodox Church) deny us from the encouraging stories from the men and women of God from our African past.  Let us recognize them as members of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us  as we focus on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1, 2).

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 (Second Saturday): Did Jesus Have A Liturgy?

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you:  do this in remembrance of Me.

Luke 22:19

 

Daylight Despite Clouds (© John Gresham)

Okay, so far in my self-study and practice of Orthodox Christianity, I can see the logic and benefits.  Take the prayer life; using the prayers written in the Orthodox Study Bible and other sources has reignited a sense of my need to pursue God with discipline and diligence.  I was trying to do that on my own with some measure or another of success.  But, following these prayers that have been handed down from the church fathers has been an extra push for me.  Trying to observe the Hours (I am not too sharp at midnight, but I am trying) reminds me of my need for the Holy Spirit through out my day.  Fasting is the best medicine for the body and it does the budget a world of good too moving from a meat to plant-based diet.  I even see the wisdom of iconography.  I refuse to rush into converting as there is no Orthodox Church within a 30 mile radius of my home and I have much to do as a Baptist pastor to seek lost souls, strengthen the saints, and serve my community.

I also confess that divine liturgy intimidates me.  Seriously, all of that chanting, incense, and prayers is far more than we have in our order of service.  And I don’t speak anything other than American English.  Even the Jordanville Prayer Book has words in it that I didn’t learn in seminary.  Shouldn’t worship be simple and easy enough to understand so that a messenger can read it (Habakkuk 2:2)?  Did Jesus have a liturgy?

He probably did.  Think about it, the Last Supper took place not on any old day of the year.  It was on the Day of Unleavened Bread.  Certain scriptures had to be read and prayers prayed by Jews in order to properly celebrate what God did for his people.  More than likely, Jesus followed the prescribed order of worship that was handed down to him since the days of Moses.  But, then Our Lord did something else.  He redefined that meal with his own body and blood.  That we are to come together with the bread and wine in remembrance of him.  The Apostle Paul handed the tradition down to the Corinthian believers and other church fathers did the same as well.  Liturgy can be described as the public spiritual connection to the God of Israel, connected to God the Son and our Savior Jesus Christ, and all who believe in him.

Liturgy is not a spectator sport.  Reading books and watching You Tube videos are not enough.  I will have to attend before I can make any decisions of if I think this is right for me.  I will have a few opportunities to get away from my church and attend the Sunday morning worship in a couple of Orthodox churches between now and mid-September.  I will also attend Homecoming Services among my fellow Baptist.  May God reveal the truth to me.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Thursday): A Pattern of Preaching

 A 10 minute sermon? This is proof that the center of Orthodox worship is not on the preached word. There is simply no way I can get away with a 10 minute sermon. I had better not preach much more than 20 minutes. But, we Baptist are expected to give an introduction, antithesis, thesis, relevant question, 3 points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with what the Vladyka said. I just find this form of preaching strange. I will keep watching and learning.

As a Baptist who has decided to journey toward Orthodox Christianity, I expected that I would say something to draw criticism from one side or the other.  I thought one of my colleagues would be the first to question my icons or wonder if I started “praying to Mary instead of Jesus.”  Nope, instead I have been “taken to the woodshed” by archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Canadian Orthodox Monastery of All Saints of North America.

In my comments on his sermon, I meant no criticism of his content.  I am certainly not ready to debate the man on theology.  I didn’t say that the length of his message was too short in the context of Orthodox Worship.  I said, perhaps in too many words, that a ten-minute sermon is not the norm for the Baptist Church.  He disagreed with my observation that “the center of Orthodox Worship is not on the preached word” (the Eucharist is the center, even he said that), and gave a stern repost to my comment, “I found this form of preaching strange.”

  • Not true. The entire Liurgy preaches the Gospel. As with the Ancient Church, the centre of Orthodox Worship is the Eucharest. Only for the Gnostics was this not the case. I have seen & been Sectarian neo-Gnostic (Protestant) self-worship services. The consist in screaming, howling preachers who have to crack jokes, howl like dogs at the moon, torch singers, rock bands, feel-good-about-yourself empty, meaningless songs and self-congratulatory outbursts. All is emotion, self-centred and vain.

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

  • Do you really consider rock bands, the cheapening of the name of Christ Jesus, torch singers, tap dancers, joke-cracking preachers, howling, thereatening, leaping and dancing across the state slapping the bible up and down, prowling the stage cursing people and a purly Gnostic message could be considered “preaching the word” or “worshipping?” Would Christ stop at your concession stand in the lobby for soda and pop-corn before going into a multi-million dollar business centre called a “church?”

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

 I am more than aware of the abuses of worship in the modern Christian worship and seek to avoid them like the plague.  And I confess to being a little humorous and very loud in the pulpit.  I am not ready to debate the Archbishop on theology as he is far more knowledgable and wise than myself.  But, I will defend the pattern of sermon construction that has been handed down to me from years of Baptist preaching.

I have been taught to give an introduction as a way to lead people into the message.  The antithesis brings the congregation into the particular problem that is common in our daily lives.  The thesis is the answer to the problem based on the scripture that is read.  A relevant question inquires that the preacher can properly apply the scripture to the problem (like in algebra where one has to show the whole equation and not just write down the correct answer).  The preacher then gives his points (usually three) with scriptures in the same context as the given text.  All is summarized in the conclusion that proclaims the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Can Archbishop Puhalo or someone else tell me what is wrong with this form of preaching?  Sure, I have heard many ministers use text out of context, stray away from the thesis, focus more on a celebratory conclusion rather than other elements of the message, and other abuses.  I admit guilt to not writing and preaching the best constructed sermons.  But when followed correctly, listeners (who pay attention) leave worship with a clear understanding of the text and how to apply the Gospel to daily living.  Other than the theological differences between the Baptist and Orthodox, this form of preaching is a good thing.

And let me leave today risking more wrath.  Orthodox Christians who want to call us Protestants fake, frauds, Gnostics, and other things (one You Tube commentator calls us “transvestites”); you need to go out and evangelize.  In my 45 years on this earth, I have had plenty of Jehovah’s Witnesses approach me, Mormons visit my home, Black Muslims sell me newspapers and bean pies.  I have yet to have an Orthodox Christian approach me.  I have had to take the time and look things up online for myself.   If any religion or denomination has the truth, it is the church that was founded in A.D. 33.  But, the only time most of us hear about this church is when a Greek festival is going on.  Plenty of people who were brought up in Protestant churches are leaving or aren’t that dedicated to the faith.  There is a rich harvest for you to pick from.  Black Americans will especially appreciate the fact that Africans were among the founders of Orthodoxy.  If God is not pleased with our heterodox beliefs, shame on us.  But, if we are remaining heterodox because we have never heard the Gospel coming from you Orthodox, you share in our shame.

I thank God that I was raised and serve as a Baptist.  I am equally grateful that I have found the rich history, heritage, and spirituality of Orthodoxy (and have applied for membership in St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline).

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Wednesday): The Mind

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

How many clichés and quotes are there that teach that a man will wind up where his mind is?  My late grandfather-in-law and mentor, Rev. Carter Wicks, used to say that “A Man Is His Mind.”  If his and other similar words are true, I think it pays for us to do more than periodical reality checks.  We need daily monitoring and adjusting.  Because there are so many strong temptations to keep us thinking about the things of the world rather than the things of God.  This is not to say that we should all become strict monastics and leave everything we have to live in a cave the rest of our lives for the sake of prayer and contemplation.  But, unless prayer throughout the day becomes a part of our lives, we risk our faith eroding into spiritual uselessness.

I am not simply talking about the obvious sins that hold us down such as lust, anger, hate, greed, and the like.  Anything that separates us from the love of God and love for our fellow-man is carnal.  Take politics (and throw it in a cesspool where it belongs), conservatism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin of our need for earthly government.  We will all take a different stance from one another for various reasons.  But, in order for a coin to have any value, it has to have both a head and tail.  Both sides must work in cooperation with each other.  Due to the presence of wealth and winner-take-all power hyped up by the likes of Fox and MSNBC, we have harsher polarizing arguments than constructive agreements.

What saddens me is that Christianity is buying into this earthly coin and the argument that we must staunchly defend one side or the other.  As people of this nation, of course we will have opinions of which direction this nation should take.  But, we who have been given the Gospel of God’s redeeming love should never give into vilifying those whose political opinions do not match our own.  If anything, we should be a mediating force between (no, above) the right and left and seek Godly solutions to our national, state, and local problems.  As Martin Luther King Jr noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” rather than being a thermostat that controls the temperature in a house, the church has become a thermometer that only measures and reflects the temperature.  And when we spend more time reflecting our chosen sides rather than seek after something of far greater value, we make ourselves useless (and sometimes harmful) to the Gospel.

So, to my brothers and sisters to the left and right, I make this suggestion.  For every minute you spend watching Fox News or MSNBC, spend a minute and a half in honest and sincere contemplative prayer.  For every moment listening to Beck or Maddow, spend a moment and a half in self-reflection in light of the Lord who created and loves both equally.  Most of us who are in our 40’s have, perhaps, another 30 to 40 years to call ourselves Americans.  Where we go after that depends on where we have put our minds.  If we have set our minds on earthly divisiveness and strife based on one side or the other of a political coin that will eventually be destroyed, that is where we can expect to spend eternity.  If we have set our minds on seeking spiritual purity and loving others, we will be in that place of eternal wholeness.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Monday): Asking, Seeking, and Knocking

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

A Broad View (© John Gresham)

I am recovering from the Feast of All Saints of North America (overindulgence in a stuffed crust, super supreme pizza).  About to go to a staff meeting at the park ( I am supplying a salad and portabella mushrooms for myself as I am not going to eat any chicken).  And I have more than a few loose ends to tie up this week for the church.  Thus far, I can say that I am happy with my journey on this Apostles Fast.

I am finding so much history in Orthodoxy.  I knew that Christianity had existed in Ethiopia since high school.  But, thanks to modern technology, I have learned even more of this church as well as the Copts of Egypt.  You Tube has become a valuable instrument in my learning of the ancient faith.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and David Withun have very informative videos on the network.  I also listen to the lectures on the Ancient Faith Radio podcast.  I intend to visit either the Greek Orthodox Church or OCA Mission when I go to Charlottesville soon and will be able to visit the Antiochian Church on the fifth Sunday of July.  As soon as the Greek Church opens in Williamsburg, I will attend some midweek services.

Perhaps some would criticize my appreciation for Orthodoxy and wonder why I am asking, seeking, and knocking on their door when I have been a life-long Baptist and pastor a church.  History is one reason.  We African-American Baptist have a rich legacy of preaching, music, and theology that I do appreciate and thank God for.  But, the Baptist faith is only over 200 years old.  Yes, we can talk about the legacy of Robert Walker, Nat Turner, John Jasper, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the message they had for our community and nation.  But, we should also learn and celebrate the legacy and message of the African fathers who contributed to the very foundations of Christianity.  St Anthony the Great is recognized as the father of monasticism by both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  His contemporary, St. Athanasius, described Anthony as being of the Egyptian race.  In speaking of his fellow African, Athanasius put together the New Testament!  Seriously, how can we even call ourselves African-American Christians and not give recognition to the Africans that helped form the faith?  How can we not also celebrate those martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maurice and the Theban Legion?  Is the oppression and murder they suffered less important than that of King or the four girls that were killed in a Birmingham church bombing?  If we are going to tell the history of our Christian heritage, we ought to tell the whole story.

The Africans who contributed to early Christianity were not former slaves that had to overcome Jim Crow laws to be accepted by whites.  They were held as equals in faith going back to that first named Christian community in Antioch (Acts 13:1).  Race was a non-issue in the early Orthodox world.  Ethiopians have some icons of a pale skinned Jesus out of respect for the Russian Orthodox whom they have enjoyed a long kinship with.  There are churches and monasteries in Europe with icons of the Theotokos and Christ darker than I am.  Most images of Christ and others in the Bible are depicted as Middle Eastern, neither black nor white.  The history of the faith is multicultural and universal (Colossians 3:11).

I have to cut off here.

Each One An Icon

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness, … .’   So God mad man. in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.

Genesis 1:26, 27

How foolish I am!  How can I venerate and give honor to the saints on the wall and not show like love to the person on the street?  How dare I honor the Holy Theotokos and harbor lust for the girl I did not marry? 

What is a holy icon but a window and portrait of God’s greater glory?  Was it not by the hand of the painter that we have these windows?  Perhaps by the skill of a wood-carver and other craftsmen that we possess such items as reminders of the love of our Lord?

And yet God made the perfect icon when he made men and women.  In his image and likeness we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  With his breath of life we are all living souls.  Here is the icon I should honor and kiss in holiness.  Here is the image I should hold as evidence of God’s compassion and mercy.

Yet this is the icon that I hold in contempt.  I suspect it a thief and liar.  I condemn it for its flaws and imperfections.  I abuse it as a toy only fit for my pleasure and whims.  This icon which was not made by a man’s hands.  This image of God and made by God.  This likeness of which I am.  I am their brother and I have shown them fear, hate, and lust. 

Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  I am the chief of all sinners! 

Forgive my calloused thoughts and harsh words toward my fellow-man.  May the power of the Holy Spirit cleanse my heart and mind of wicked desires.  Let me hold high the value of each man, woman, boy, and girl.  We are the icons that you made.  Let us honor and love one another as such.