inspiration

A Week at the ‘House’: Antiochian House of Studies Residency Program

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The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects.  Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith.  One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.  For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.

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Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh).  My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience.  There would be little time for “R&R.”  Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship.  The food will be plentiful and delicious.  But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.

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For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim).    Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider.  For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist.  Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism).  Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with.  It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression.  Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub.  I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6.  Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well.  We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students.  It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.

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The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together.  But, we all did more than just get along.  We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God.  The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling.  Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.  Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations.  Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical.  No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26).  From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3).  The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.

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Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders.  If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week.  I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year.  I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017.  But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.

Where “Favor” Falls Short

Favor is a popular term in modern Christianity.  We hear it in songs and sermons.  We share it in inspirational social media post.  I used to be that weird country preacher that refused to jump on board every bandwagon of “relevant” ministry.  Now that I am Orthodox, I would rather ride a Greyhound bus from New York to LA than the wave of any popular catchwords or phrases.  In my Wednesday morning reading, I couldn’t help but to see how the pursuit of “favor” from God falls woefully short of seeking His mercy.

Out of sheer curiosity, I broke out my Strong’s Bible Concordance and found that the term “favor” appears a whopping six times in the New Testament.  Luke used the term in his version of the Gospel to describe how John the Baptist and Jesus grew up.  He used it four times to describe the relationship between the early Christians and those around them in Acts.    Not once does Jesus, Paul, nor any other epistle write describe favor as something worthy of being obtained or necessary to live as a Christian.  It is something good to have as it does give peace in mind and a sense of security.  But, “favor” is not the mark of the Christian according to the One whom we follow:

If any man would come after Me, let him humble himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.

“But what about the Old Testament?  Surely God wants us to have favor in the Old Testament.”  Here the term is used about 56 times.   In several places, the favor comes from an earthly king and not God.  Also, the wise Solomon suggest that favor can be misused as well.  Furthermore, I find this rationale most disturbing as the revelation of our salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, is not found in the Old Testament.  To try to use a term in the Old Testament as superior to the way it is used in the Gospels is an abuse of the scriptures and a denial of the significance of Incarnate God.  If this is your line of thought, for your own spiritual health, you should consider changing it.

In comparison, “mercy” is the greater goal both in the usage of the term and significance in Christian life.  This word appears 58 times in the New Testament (about 200 times in the OT).  For those who consider the “favor” to be a blessing, please consider the Beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Having a house that people say you can’t afford, a job that you don’t have the education for, or some other form of “ain’t fair favor” does not cross the lips of  Jesus as being a blessing.  Having compassion to those who are broken, confused, disturbed, lost, rebellious, … ; this is the one who is blessed.  We all fall into one of these conditions from time to time.  Sometimes we fall into multiple conditions at the same time.  Jesus teaches here what He repeats as the “Golden Rule” of this great sermon:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

When challenged about eating with tax collectors and other sinners in the house of Matthew, Jesus offers this rebuke from the prophet Hosea:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To follow Jesus is to desire everything He desires.  If He never mentions “favor” but clearly defines “mercy” as what He wants from us, why should we listen to preachers and singers and read books and social media post about a barely mentioned term instead of this requirement that appears in the New Testament some 9 times more often?  To mention “favor” in worship and fail to call upon Christ for “mercy,” or to call upon the former more often than the later is spiritual malpractice.  Such doctrine and teaching is producing Christians who are in the faith for what Jesus can give them in this world rather than how we are to prepare ourselves for the next.  If and when such believers fail to get the “favor” they seek, they wander from ministry to ministry seeking it.  They tend to blame themselves for not being a part of the right man or woman of God as the reason for not receiving their breakthrough.  They will patiently wait for what they want and in not getting it, they will put some sort of spin on why they don’t have it (“It isn’t my season yet).  Or, they eventually give up on Christianity all together.  The differences between such a false concept of our faith and an Islamic terrorist is that the Muslim does his job more quickly and only kills the body.  The empty pursuit of favor is killing souls and creating walking dead Christians.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get your concordance and look up “favor” and “mercy.”  See which one is used most often and why.  Favor from God  is not a bad thing to have.  But, don’t sell your walk with Jesus short.  As I heard from a priest last weekend, “You cannot be a Christian without mercy.”

 

The Need To Read Something Deeper

During the first 300 years of Christianity, to be a member of the clergy or known as an unapologetic Christian was a sentence to torture and death.  Early believers read and followed any papyrus or scroll written by and about  these men and women  they could find.  After the persecutions ended under Constantine, Christians who were ready to renounce the world before wild beast did so in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and the Siberian forest.  Those who did not become monks and nuns sought their advice and were greatly influenced by their wisdom.  Despite disputes between them, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians (and early Roman Catholics) held the ancient monastic writings and early church fathers in the highest regard second only to the Bible.

Unfortunately, something changed during the magisterial and radical reformations as well as the revivalist movements in Western Christianity.  There arose this idea that earthly wealth and influence was a sign that God’s favor was upon one’s life.  While the early Baptist, Methodist, Church Of God In Christ and other denominations may have intended that their churches would be among the flourishing examples of this doctrine, this concept has landed in the hands of many freelance “non-denominational” clergy who use it and the name of Jesus to reap millions of dollars from people who are unknowing about Christian history.

What I find most frightening about this earthly wealth as evidence of God’s favor doctrine is that intelligent and well-meaning people have and are falling for this trap hook, line, and sinker.  They fall for it because the TV and radio stations blast the latest sermons and Gospel hits without any meditative and  self-sacrificial lessons from the more contemporary likes of Howard Thurman or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, much less from Ignatius of Antioch or Theophan the Recluse.  Books by well publicized inspirational authors dominate bookshelves at Barnes & Nobel and Wal-Mart where profits come before investigating the roots of Christian spirituality.   No one is telling modern Christians that there is a firmly grounded, tried and true alternative to “flavor of the month” Christian preachers and writers.

What makes this trend of adhering to those who promote such a doctrine is that it ultimately fails.  There are people who have been blaming themselves for not receiving their “breakthroughs” and “shifts” saying that they weren’t faithful enough or their “season” has not come yet.  Like rain and sunshine, God allows any person who works hard and smart to get rich or go broke.  Those who fail to receive the financial promises they have been seeking for years will give up on Christianity and become bitter.  Those who do become well off in the midst of such false doctrine will become arrogant and blind to what it is to become Christ like when called to “… Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”

Anthony and the Desert Fathers did what the rich young man failed to do.  And because these men and women renounced the world to devote themselves to a true and pure pursuit of God, they were and are greatly honored by Christians of many generations.  Church Fathers such as Basil and John Chrysostom did not enrich themselves in their leadership positions.  They built schools and hospitals and dressed just as modestly as a monk or reader.  The lessons of the Philokalia did not come from men who hustled for “seed offerings” to repair their private jets.  These were monks who ate little more than beans, bread, and vegetables.  None of them expected to become wealthy.  They were too busy obeying the requirements for following Christ, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me.”

Perhaps the latest book by the latest Christian preacher or inspirational speaker may have a good quote or two.  Snack foods do have a few bits of nutrition.  But, a healthy body is the time-tested result of good meals and exercise.  Our journey with Christ should also include the time-tested spiritual writings of the Bible and the writings of those who were of the atmosphere that the New Testament books were written and compiled.  How does one find such books in the midst of  a Trinity Broadcast Network dominated Christian environment?  It isn’t easy.  But, it is possible.

 

I personally recommend Fr. Athanasius Iskander’s “Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers” (it’s FREE) is a great introduction to some of the most enlightening men of the monastic world.  One need not be a church history buff to apply these ancient lessons to modern life.  The Fr’s name sake wrote a short volume “The Life of Saint Anthony,” the man who was the father of all monks and nuns.  “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” is a reader friendly introduction to the 38 volume set of the Early Church Fathers (which can be read by anyone online for FREE).  Orthodox Churches tend to maintain libraries as most public ones have little concerning church history and this ancient faith.  Roman Catholic sources are useful as they do point several sources older than 1054 AD (the date of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

To grow spiritually, we must not rely on recent authors alone as our source of Christian literature and teaching.  Take the time to discover ancient Christian writings and talk to a priest who is well versed in the early and monastic writings.

Comfort With A Cost

Maybe I’m just odd. But, the same God-Man that said, “Come unto Me and I will give you rest … My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” is the same God-Man that said, “Whoever would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” I am glad that Russell Wilson is a Christian. But, let us always seek the whole depth of faith and not just settle for inspiring sound bites.

The quote from NFL champion quarterback Russell Wilson is a good one.  There are a lot of people in our nation and the world who are searching for hope, peace in mind, and comfort.  For a man who has worked hard to earn a college degree, practiced well in his chosen field, and performed to the highest level in his sport to acknowledge Jesus Christ rather than boast about his abilities alone is a good thing.  It is my prayer and belief that Russell’s words will encourage someone to seek the solution to his or her problems in the Christian faith.  Indeed, our Lord taught in Matthew 11:29

Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

And, as He taught his disciples in the same Gospel 28:20

… And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age

Indeed, Jesus offers comfort and constant presence to all who trust in him.

I saw this quote on the birthday of one of my heroes in the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Dietrich was a German theologian who’s work is known by many modern philosophers and seminarians.  While teaching at Union Theological in New York, he was offered the chance to immigrate and remain there, or perhaps go to another school.  But, he made the brave decision to return to his homeland and conspire to end the Hitler regime.  Bonhoeffer was discovered,  imprisoned, tortured, and executed not long before the Allies would have been able to free him.

This is also Black History Month and only a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Upon graduating from Boston University, some strongly suggested that he take up the pastorate at an integrated church in San Francisco, or find a large congregation in a Northern city.  But, he made the brave decision to return to the south and struggle against the Jim Crow system.  And though we lionize his memory today, back then blacks as well as whites opposed him at every step until the day he was assassinated in Memphis working on behalf of striking garbage men and planning a Poor People’s (not just a black people’s) Campaign.

While Jesus Christ is the source of comfort for and is constantly present with the believer, these things come with a cost.  And what is the price we must pay?  Again, from our Lord in Matthew 16:24

If any man desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

As shown in the lives of Bonhoeffer, King, and so many other martyrs; Christian faith comes with a price tag.  The most expensive part of that price tag, of course, is repentance from sin.  But the other costly price we are to pay is to be willing to suffer and die for the faith.  No, not every Christian is called to take a bullet or die in a concentration camp.  But, we should and must be prepared to lose ourselves for the greater promise of Christ.  For some of us, it may be close friends and family.  Others may have to lose careers and income.  Still others may have to lose opportunities for advancement in status or fame.  We are all called to bear a cross, an instrument to die a torturous death on.  Your cross may be living in a dangerous inner city community though you have the ability to live elsewhere.  It may be to endure a painful illness and still serve others even as you need to be served.  Or maybe you have the task of spending your whole life aiding people who not only cannot repay you, but act as if they aren’t supposed to.  Each self denial is different as is each cross.  But, to follow Jesus and fully experience His comfort and presence in our lives, this cost must be paid.

As we share the Gospel with others, let us be mindful as much as possible to tell the whole story of what it is to be Christian and not just the more pleasant aspects.  I believe that Russell Wilson does speak more in depth about the faith and that this quote on the photo was just a neat little sound-bite designed to inspire someone to seek hope in Jesus Christ.  We should inspire.  But, we should also inform.

 

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (part 4): Morning and Hope

7:30 am to 12:00 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

I rode over to the church with Fr. Justin and Turbo.  One day, I’d like to take a road trip with these brothers.  They seem full of great stories, wisdom, and just cool dudes to hang out with.  The day began with the Rite of Sing of Psalms with Toparia, Epistle,  and Gospel.  Let’s just call it Matins prayer on steroids.  In my normal discipline, it is just me, my icons, prayer books, a candle, and some (Dollar General) incense.  This morning worship had more Psalms (duh) and prayers, some I was familiar with.  Others were a bit new to me.  Again, one of the most beautiful things about the worship is that we were all together.  Another thing that was great was the meditative nature of such worship.  There is no entertainment value in a group of nuns singing and chanting and the congregants following along.  It is a call for reflection and repentance in the presence of God. I cannot tell you how many times “Lord, have mercy” was rapidly prayed.  Plus, there was a sermon from Fr. Maximus Cabey.  He is the pastor of an OCA church in Green Bay, WI.

Growing up as a black Baptist in the south, the idea of a black pastor in a liturgical church (except for the Episcopalians) seems odd to me. Yet, Fathers Maximus, Moses, and Jerome Sanderson serve in what I grew up believing in “white” churches.  “Dead white” churches at that because they were not Baptist, Pentecostal, or (at least) Methodist.  While I am not myopic to think that there is no racism in the Orthodox church, it seems that there may be less in the ancient faith than their is in Western Christianity.  The challenge is to make the faith known.IMGP8124 IMGP8128_edited-1 IMGP8135_edited-1

This is the great thing about the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black.  Yes, the goal is to bring Orthodoxy to African-Americans.  But, it is not exclusively black in membership nor target audience.  I was blessed to meet a white sister, Sarah Motley, from Roanoke who had been going to these conferences for six years.  I will work with her to form a Virginia chapter of the Brotherhood.  In a Sunday School lesson, Fr. James Purdie taught that Orthodoxy has it’s roots in Africa.  Yet, it is deeply embraced by Eastern Europeans.  Serbs pray the prayers of St. Macarius of Egypt.  Russians refer to the doctrines of St. Cyprian of Carthage.  Any Greek will tell you that St. Athanasius’s enemies referred to him as the “black dwarf.”  If the Orthodox church is good enough for these white people, I see no reason why African-Americans ought not learn about and convert to this ancient faith that Africans were very instrumental in establishing.  The Brotherhood is named for an Ethiopian (I think one of those really dark skinned Nilotic or Para-Nilotic people rather than a brown skinned Amharic) who is widely honored by the Orthodox world for his non-judgmental kindness and wisdom.

After breakfast, Fr. Jerome Sanderson reminded me so much of my late grandfather-in-law in is lecture about living with nature.  I really should be ashamed of myself for my poor gardening and I have an Ag. Education degree.  I have been good (at one time) about walking trails and along shorelines outside of work.  I need to do more of that.  I didn’t get Brother Michael’s last name.  His work at Emmaus  House in New York is very similar to Reconciliation Ministries in KC.  Fr. Paisius Altschul continued on the theme of “The Church In the Village.”  Overall, it seems that the goal of Orthodoxy is to be a part of the community that meets the needs of the people who live there.  In the case of the fore-mentioned ministries, especially the needs of the least of these.  My challenge will be to make this community/Orthodox model apply to rural and small town Virginia.  Some things are already in place.  I just have to get up and do something.

 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Six) Confluence of Hope

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Journey Into Great Lent (First Saturday): A Foundation for a Lenten Lifestyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Sure The Holy Ghost Is Leading You? Christian Life Coaches

First, I want to thank those of you who have suffered through the first installment of this series.  No, there are just some things you can’t make up (nor would I want to).  Some of you have suggested that I make comments about greedy, self-serving ministers.  Perhaps I will take on an example or two of that misbehavior (which shouldn’t be too hard to find).  But, I really want to address a means of ministry that fell right on my Facebook page.

Growing up, coaches were for sports.  They were demanding, pushy, and sometimes vulgar.  Their task was to instruct and inspire athletes to win contest by any legal means.  Christian life was handled by … Christians.  They were (and still are) people who strive to be patient, humble, compassionate, and loving.  Like Jesus, they were (are) there to guide whosoever will follow. 

So, you can imagine that I find the idea of a “Christian Life Coach” as odd as anchovy ice cream.  Not that a good priest, pastor, deaconess, or … REAL FRIEND doesn’t coach us from time to time in the ways of our Lord and Savior.  But, the coaching that is done by these people is part of the whole of who they are and not the definition of what they do.  And maybe that is why one of the world’s best coaches, Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho, is just a coach.  The man knows the game of football (soccer) like few others.  But, he is an awfully arrogant man (“I am a European Champion.  I am a Special One).  Christians can be highly knowledgeable in any field or discipline the Lord allows us to enter.  But we cannot be boastful, impatient, cruel, or have other characteristics many secular coaches have been and are. 

In the Orthodox world, believers sought (and still seek) out monastics and read the ancient fathers for guidance.  I was brought up in a small Baptist church where we all knew and looked out for each other’s best interest.  In any religious tradition, there are wise mothers and fathers, elders, and good friends available to walk this Christian journey with.  Has our modern, self-absorbed, me-and-my-Bible society grown so cold and isolated that the office of “Christian Life Coach” is a viable option for believers?  Are we to recruit and hire such coaches based on winning percentages and how well they recruit new talent?  It is bad enough that we are tempted to put priest, pastors, and musicians on pedestals.  What coach doesn’t want to be known for greatness?

I am not going to accuse everyone in this “Christian Life Coach” movement of being corrupt.  I know of a couple of well-meaning people who are involved in this.  In my opinion, we need more real friends than coaches.  We need more people who we can be honest and open with and will lovingly tell us when we are on the right path and where we are messing things up.  Besides, coaches look to make money from coaching.  Real friends are friends because they love you.

Then again, coaches don’t let players on the court, field, or pitch without the right uniform.  So if  Minister LaTacha Emanuel had a “Christian Life Coach,” she wouldn’t have exposed herself so awfully in the videos I wrote about last time.

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Santa, please grow up and become St. Nicholas!

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I Corinthians 13:11 (emphasis mine)

Not Santa Claus.  St. Nicholas

Not Santa Claus. St. Nicholas

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it is cool for toddlers and pre-school kids to learn about Santa Claus.  It is neat to have them write up their Christmas list and expect to see flying reindeer and all that.  The legend is useful to encourage good behavior (if not but temporary) and can be a stepping stone to teach children about virtues such as kindness, humility, charity, and hope.  Consider Santa, Rudolph, and others as training wheels on a bike.  Every child needs training wheels on a bike as they learn to ride.

Now, imagine how foolish a healthy teenager looks on a top class mountain bike with training wheels.  Or, how about an adult athlete high tech racing bicycle with such supports.  Except for those who have severe problems with balance or some other health issues, it is foolish older people to rely on training wheels.  And this is the problem with teens an adults who continue with a Santa Claus spirituality with no desire to grow up to one of St. Nicholas.

http://www.piousfabrications.com/2010/12/st-nicholas-of-myra.html

http://oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=103484

Who was St. Nicholas?  Read and listen to the links.  He was a Bishop (who could trace his ordination back to the Twelve Apostles) who served at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea.   Here are a few highlights of lessons we can all learn from this great saint:

  • protect the honor of women
  • aid the poor
  • humbly avoid recognition for good deeds
  • do not act violently, even against falsehood
  • Christ and the Theotokos restores those who are faithful

Now, perhaps three and four year olds are better off not hearing about how a kind bishop kept three daughters of a poor man from becoming prostitutes.  But, why shouldn’t our 13 and 14 year olds hear this story?  Why is there a problem to recognize that the first “Secret Santa” helped to form Christian doctrine?  Is it that embarrassing to admit that even kind people have occasional anger management issues?  And why is it ungodly to talk about his story of redemp… .  Oh yeah.  We Protestants can’t quite seem to accept that “mother of God” thing.

We get upset when our little kids act like spoiled brats as their minds are so stuck on Santa Claus.  But, they will grow out of it.  Or will they?  Not if they aren’t taught to have a St. Nicholas spiritual outlook.  By constantly recycling an immature fantasy image of this good man that really did exist, we are producing 15 to 95 year old spoiled brats who still want stuff from an elf who lives in the North Pole.  “Keep Christ in Christmas?”  How can we when we make a mockery of one of his devout early followers and refuse to grow up in faith?

Let your kid send a letter to the fat guy in the red suit.  Be sure to leave some cookies and eggnog on a little table near the tree.  But, we who are of age need to ditch the training wheels of childhood fantasy.  This season (feast day is Thursday, December 6th), it would be a good idea for those of us of age to measure our lives to that of the real man of God.