Martin Luther King Jr

Our Need for Radical Humility

I had the privilege to speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Service at Mount Nebo Baptist Church on Sunday, January 20th at 7 pm.  The event was sponsored by the West Point Ministers Association.  For some reason or another, I was unable to print out this manuscript.  I don’t consider myself to be the best at extemporaneous public speaking.  But, I got my points across even if I didn’t get every sentence.

Deacon John and Todd

Our Need for a Radical Humility

… And being found in appearance as a man, He (Jesus) humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  Therefore, God also highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.  Philippians 2:8, 9

America will never be great, nor will any resistance work until we learn how to die.  Dr. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, said in a conference a few years ago that the church today needs to learn how to die.  That the black church spends way too much time striving to be prosperous and successful in the kingdom of earth rather than dying for the kingdom of heaven.  Fr. Turbo Qualls, an African-American Orthodox priest, made the same point in a St. Moses Conference lecture.  It is easy to get caught up in the trappings of religion and ritual.  But, if we are to achieve oneness with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we need to possess a humility that will allow and cause us to die.  And the scripture teaches us that Jesus did this and was greatly rewarded by the One he humbled Himself to obey.

I believe that our nation’s ongoing problems of class, race, sex, and other issues is that we don’t know how to be humble enough to die.  Not everyone will be shot on a Memphis hotel balcony, run over by a racist in Charlottesville, or be butchered by an Islamic terrorist in Libya.  But, I think we Christians of all branches have a strong bad habit of skipping to the good part of the Gospel message.  In whatever form or style of worship, we all love to get to the part where At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.  We used to play kick-ball in elementary school and we had a playground rule.  If you wanted your turn to kick, you had to spend some time in the outfield.  I loved my mother’s deserts.  But, I had to eat my meat and vegetables before I could have some blackberry cobbler.  Today, we want God to bless our nation, give us breakthroughs and favor.  We cannot have any of that unless, like Jesus, we humble ourselves to be obedient to God to death.

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Black or white, conservative or liberal, eastern or western Christian; we don’t want to die in any shape, form, or fashion.  We have to have the last word in an argument face to face and on Facebook.  Our point of view has to come out on top in every discussion.  Keeping up with the Joneses is not enough, we have to beat them at their own game and make up things that they can’t do.  Anyone who doesn’t fully agree with us is not a friend, not simply an enemy, but not even human.  And we pray that in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we will defeat them.  We want to live and win this kingdom of earth and will abuse the name of God to do it.  Apparently, we have forgotten history and faith.  Jesus rebuked Peter’s feeble swordsmanship and rather than calling on legions of armed angels, the Lord continued to the Cross.  When the Jewish zealots resorted to armed struggle to re-establish the kingdom of David, the Romans wiped Judea off the map.  And after 300 years of violently striving to destroy the faith, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity.  C.S. Lewis said it in a nutshell, “If you aim for heaven, you’ll get the earth thrown in as well.  If you aim for the earth, you’ll get neither.”

Look at what we are doing in this nation that has “In God We Trust” on our currency.  We spend more on military protection than twice that of our closest rival and putting ourselves in a deficit in the process.  Our life expectancy rate has declined over the past three years caused by our increasing number of drug overdoses and suicides.  While the rate of abortions have been in decline, adults under 50 are dying of ODs more often than automobile accidents.  Fear and despair are killing us faster than any illegal immigrant or racist cop.  But rather than become repentant and self-evaluating, we chase after catchy slogans, popular marches, and the latest real and fake news of the politicians we don’t like.  We are refusing to die and yet we are dying anyway.  Our Christian ancestors of all races in the first three centuries went to their deaths with joy honored to leave this earthly kingdom for the heavenly one.  Our “Christian” nation today is dying with needles of careless living, pride, and self-righteousness in our arms.   We are quick to condemn those who commit surface sins.  We have to understand our deeper faults of our nation as the Prophet Isaiah 16:49 revealed about Sodom; “pride, gluttony, and calm complacency.”

I propose that a radical humility, a humility and obedience to death will help us as individual Christians and perhaps save our nation.  This mind that was also in Christ overcomes the evil one.  Among the early African Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great was walking back to his cave when Satan tried to cut him with a scythe and failed repeatedly.  Tired, the adversary said to the saint, “Everything you do, I do even more.  You fast, I never eat.  You wake up and pray at midnight, I never sleep.  The reason I can’t overcome you is your humility.”  Think of how many times churches were bombed, marchers were beaten, and counter protesters opposed the Movement.  One reason why the enemies failed was that the forces of good were made up of share croppers, house keepers, ordinary adults and young folk who knew how to be humble enough to obey to the death.  One cannot be humble and a slave owner at the same time, that’s why Paul sent the runaway slave back to Philemon to learn that it’s better to have brotherhood than bondage.  One cannot be a racial supremacist and obedient to the God who made us all in His image and likeness at the same time.  That is why white supremacy is failing and black supremacy will never succeed.

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This radical humility builds community that breaks barriers.  A legion of African soldiers was sent by the Roman Emperor to slaughter the survivors of a Germanic tribe that was defeated in a battle.  The commander, Maurice, and his troops refused because they saw the Europeans wearing the same cross of Christ they believed in.  They saw each other as brothers.  The emperor slaughtered Maurice and his entire legion instead for disobeying him and being obedient to God.  To this day, there are towns and churches named for St. Maurice and the Theban Legion in France, Germany, and Switzerland with the commander’s statue, though with late European armor, very much dark skinned.  A more recent and less gruesome social death was felt by Clarence Jordan of Georgia.  Jordan was highly educated and skilled in agriculture and New Testament Greek.  His Kionia Farm was a place where blacks and whites learned modern farming practices, gained a greater knowledge of early Christianity, and lived together as brother and sisters.  Needless to say, he was one of the most ostracized white men in the South.  The society Jordan was born in considered him dead.

But let us not forget that the Gospel is good news for our salvation to kingdom of heaven, not a religion to rule the kingdom of earth.  So, we must seek a radical humility to better obey the will of God.  That obedience will mean leaving some things of earth for the sake of gaining the kind of life that leads to eternal life.  Arsenius was a wealthy and powerful Roman senator who wasn’t satisfied with his place of comfort.  Seeking a closer walk with Jesus, he fled to the Egyptian desert and was found getting advice from an older Christian peasant.  Someone recognized and asked him, “You are a well-educated man.  Why are you talking with this peasant?”  The saint replied, “As educated as I am, I don’t know this man’s alphabet.”   Moses the Black, a dark Nubian brother, didn’t make excuses for his sins saying, “I was born this way.”  But, he continued a life of disciplined and earnest prayer and repentance for almost 15 years and became one of the most honored saints in our Church.  Mary of Egypt struggled even longer until she got to the point where a monk-priest who thought he was living holy found her to be even holier.  Every 5th Sunday of Lent, we of all ethnicities and nationalities honor her as an example of repentance and redemption.  These and other saints from all the corners of the earth died to their sins so that they could be alive in Christ.

Thou receivest saints of all ages and from all races,

Without caste, without distinction, the last and the first,

Pure of sin, fruitful in goodness,

Noble souls, kindred to thy Christ-

These Thou callest saints.

— Hymn of Praise for Saint Sylvester

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Lesson From Lent: King’s Kitchen Table

Imagine being a young black pastor in the segregated south and you have been called upon to lead a movement against injustice. The demonstration is having some success and the supporters of the evil structure have constantly threatened and denounced what you are doing.  One night, a particular threatening phone call shakes you.  Fear quickly invades your heart and mind as you consider the real possibility of death and the death of your young family.  It is at that point where your fine seminary education cannot help you.  Your saintly parents are too far away to come to your aid and comfort.  At that point, you come to a place where you must know God for yourself not through scholarship nor friends.  The only way to know Him at this point is by a deep, honest, and sincere outpouring of one’s self through prayer.  Then, and only by this knowledge of God, are you able to carry on with your life’s mission.  In a speech given in Chicago about a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this confession to his audience.

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In the current political and social climate, it is not unusual for us to speak, write, and demonstrate against the injustices we see around us. This is a good thing.  But, imitating Dr. King in seeking justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor does come with a price that is often overlooked by an American mind frame that wants to forget that he was a Christian minister.  Indeed, this is a price we all must pay if we pursue the will of God from any religious viewpoint.  In particular for we who claim to believe Him who taught us that self-denial and taking up the cross are the prerequisites to follow Him, we especially must make the effort  to tear our homes apart looking for the lost coin that will cover the cost.  We must come to deeply, honestly, and sincerely know God through prayer.

Too often we don’t try to make such an effort. Sure we may go to church practicing some pious ancient ritual, getting caught up in a spontaneous praises, or some variation of these extremes.  We read the Bible and other religious books and magazines to help us on our Christian journey.  On the surface, we know how to show people what religion we practice and how to apply our faith to just about every social concern.  My concern is that too many of us never try to go deeper than the surface show before men and confront the depths of how much we need God until, like Dr. King, circumstances drive us to a place where we can no longer run and hide.  More troubling is that we don’t even try to reach that point because we fail to recognize our real enemy, Satan and his legions, and how he makes war inside of us.  With our unwillingness to grow closer to God in this critical way, the devil is comfortable with us going through our motions.

in thought

Contemplating this new step in my journey

This Great Lenten Fast, I have added King’s Kitchen Table to my rule of prayer. I typically do this right after dinner keeping in mind a sermon from St. John Chrysostom of how donkeys and oxen eat and go to their work while we eat so much we become useless and unable to bend our knees for prayer.  After washing the dishes, which is a form of service, I offer the first prayer of the Trisagion, to the Holy Spirit, before sitting down to the table.  Afterward, I sit and offer one ode of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  I follow this up with a Psalm, the Gospel reading, and a prayer from The Veil from the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of the Hours.  The final offering is A Prayer for the Children of Africa in America written by the black abolitionist, Maria W. Stewart.  I end my time at the kitchen table by writing in my spiritual journal, examining my thoughts in light of the penitential prayers that I had offered.

Those who wish to pray at the kitchen table need not be as elaborate as this. The following elements are more important.  Timing; again, I keep this practice right after dinner.  So that during dinner, I am mindful that I have to pray after eating.  This mindfulness helps me to reduce my temptation for gluttony, a common sin that I have too regularly overlooked.  Thus, I see that if this bad habit can be overcome, by seeking oneness with God my other evils can be overcome as well.  Sacrifice; any nightly prayer activity means cutting away time from entertainment and rest.  Those who are very attached to watching TV can start by going to the table during commercials while that favorite show is on. In time, intentionally increase the time spent at the table vs. that in front of the screen.  Work; dishwashing is not the hardest labor in the world.  But, praying while working is common among monastics.  If not the dishes, folding clean laundry or some other chore can be done.  Uplifting music is a good addition to this routine.  Repentance; prayer is not simply offering God list of request.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus commanded people to repent for the sake of the kingdom.  Adorations, intercessions, praises; these things have their place.  But, repentance and self-examination brings us to struggle against the real enemy in ourselves.  Unless we struggle internally, anything we attempt, even what we succeed against, externally will be meaningless in our goal of salvation.

 

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.

 

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 27 Establishing My Cell

I am using the days of the Feast of the Nativity to reclaim and restore some things in my life that I have let slide for way too long.  My gross little tank half filled with tannin stained water is a 35 gallon tank with schools of golden barbs and neon tetras.  I have my medical and other bills together and will set things up to slowly pay them off.  Tomorrow is going to be in the upper 50’s.  So I will get to my car cleaned up.  But today was a combination of the kitchen, some laundry, and my all important cell.

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The Modern Monastic with my patron saints John the Baptist and Cyprian of Carthage and a photo with my wife.

Monks live cells as a place of prayer and solitude.  As my wife’s condition went south, I moved to the spare bedroom.  She had used it to store some of her notebooks and other things.  I used it as well as a bit of a dumping ground.  And I have never been a neat freak in the slightest.  With me clearing out my office at the church and my wife and her aide slowly tackling getting the home office/junk room straight, I figured making my bedroom into a proper monastic cell would be a better option.

St. Moses the Ethiopian told a brother monk, “Go to thy cell and thy cell will teach thee everything.”  In the state it was in, the only thing my cell could teach me is that I am a mental and spiritual bus accident waiting to happen.  Seeing that I have been in three of them and there was damage in each, I figured I’d do something about it.  Finishing the job, I found 3 bags of clothes that are heading for a donation bin.  I haven’t decided what to do about my shortwave radio and scanner.  And if my shotgun was in the house, I would have shot the old DirecTV box for fun.

But, a couple of items in my cell have prominence.  I have an Oxford Study Bible with the Apocrypha that I have owned for about 20+ years.  I also have the New Jerusalem Bible my father gave me when I graduated from VSU in 1989.  Both of those Bibles have been with me in quiet contemplation and major wrestling matches.  The photo of my wife and I taken when we got back together in 2000 (we did separate for two years for the sake of mutual mental health).  Despite our inner demons and outer differences, we love and are very loyal to each other.  A copy of the Life Magazine photo of Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King Jr during the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.  Perhaps a foretaste of Orthodox Christianity and African-Americans coming together for dialogue and working together for the betterment of humanity.

Along with my prayers before my Matins in the living room, I am reading the Ante Nicene Fathers and taking notes.  I need to remind myself to push myself to pray Compline.  And also to spend time enjoying leisurely reading while listening to some good jazz every now and then.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Sixteen): Reasons To Continue

I can think of a few good reasons to quit the fast of Great Lent and leave Orthodox Christianity alone.  For one thing, I like to eat meat and dairy.  Whenever we Baptist get together for a meal between morning and evening services, you had better believe fried chicken in some form or fashion will be on the menu ( Why did the chicken cross the road?  Two preachers had a pan of biscuits.).  In the African-American Baptist Church, there is a movement to have a good time in worship with a focus on the emotions stirred up by the singing and preaching in our worship.  In fact, we are willing to take on secular music styles to draw people into worship.  No matter how much we are taught otherwise, we preachers frequently judge ourselves and others based on congregational response (AMEN) and will construct sermons with phrases and buzz words that will encourage such responses.  Right  now, I believe my church is at the edge of what could be a revival in our worship.  Our usher’s ministry has been blessed with the return of well-trained leadership.  The youth choir has new sponsors and directors who have volunteered their services.  We have two young adult men (in which there is a shortage of in many rural black churches) and their wives that have become more active in the work of the church.  These elements are combined with reliable, seasoned adults who consistently work to get things done.  So, why do I wish to continue to introduce elements of an archaic, bookish, ritualistic, and “dead” (they don’t get in the spirit like we do) church that most white people aren’t trying to learn about?  Why am I still striving to follow the disciplines and study the doctrines and writings of Orthodoxy when only one other preacher that I know of from any race also shows an interest?  Here are a few reasons.

The Holy Cross

  1. HISTORY- If it is important to learn and be aware of American and African-American History, why shouldn’t we also embrace the roots of the Christian faith?  Had there been no Athanasius, Catherine, nor Cyprian; there may not have been a Richard Allen, Charles Mason, or MLK.  Also saints like Basil, Ephraim, and Gregory (Palamas and the Theologian) served in a world where the color of one’s skin truly meant little in the sight of fellow Christians.  Having knowledge of Orthodoxy can help us see the fullness of our humanity and the possibility of racial reconciliation. 
  2. SPIRITUALITY- Having a good time on Sunday morning is no substitute for a sustained life of prayer and fasting through the week.  We need to have access to the time-tested prayers to help direct our communication with the Lord.  Words from the saints enhance what we read in the scriptures.  Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is a great way to keep us mindful of our Savior’s betrayal and crucifixion, to help us be mindful of what we do, say, and think. 
  3. CULTURAL AWARENESS – Many Americans are illiterate when it comes to geography and different cultures.  The Orthodox Christian faith can open doors of learning for us.  Arabs, Copts, Ethiopians, Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and others are all a part of this church.  Likewise we can introduce them to our culture beyond the stereotypes of BET and Tyler Perry. 
  4. REVERENCE – I love the smell of incense, gazing at the iconostasis, and listening to Byzantine chant.  I can’t see us having these things at Trinity the third weekend after next.  But, to experience a divine liturgy is a beautiful thing.  While icon veneration is an obvious challenge to most of us (bow down and kiss a picture of MARY?!).  When the theology is explained and understood, it makes perfect BIBLICAL sense (they put the Bible together, so they should know what they are doing).  Oh, and the priest prepares the communion with bread baked from a believer.  It does not come pre-packaged in plastic and foil.  Even if we don’t adopt divine liturgy, we can always learn about reverence for God in worship. 
  5. COMMUNITY DIVERSITY – Too many smaller elements of black culture are being overshadowed by are very narrow and stereotypical definition of who we are (when was the last time you heard zydeco music on your local r&b radio station?).  There are too many instances were we say that someone isn’t “black enough” or is “trying to be white.”  We enrich and add to the African-American community when we are bold enough to expand our boundaries of our possibilities that older generations sacrificed their lives for us to have.  Just ask the world’s number one golfer or that family that lives in the White House.

So, will Trinity Baptist Church become Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church (maybe OCA)?!  Don’t bet on it.  Will I leave the Baptist denomination and seek to become a priest?  I’m not even worthy to day- dream about such a move.  It is way too early for such questions.  I haven’t even completed my first Paschal cycle.  The only thing I can do is continue on this journey and give my church family a glimpse of what I am going through and learning about.  In time, God will make my direction more clear to me.  Right now, I am to be faithful disciple.

St. Anthony, King, Obama: The Time Is Now

The confluence of the days is no coincidence.  Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday will be celebrated on January 21st.  This is also the same date of the Second Inauguration of President Barak Obama.  Every American, in particular African-Americans, understand the importance and prophetic like significance of these events.  King was the voice for a better America and helped lead the country out of the satanic state of segregation.  Obama is a symbol of what anyone can achieve if they strive to do their best.  There is no way I could nor would want to dispel these two great men.  But, I do believe it is important for we as Protestant Christians, and especially African-American Christians to also regard Saint Anthony of Egypt.  Today is his feast day.

St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony the Great inherited great wealth from his parents and could have lived a life of great splendor.  Yet hearing the Gospel message, he left his worldly possessions behind and took up a life of prayer in the desert.  His devotion to prayer was a great influence on Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria who gave the church its first creed and was the first to compile the list of books that became our New Testament.  Another Egyptian, Macarius, to write prayers that are still prayed by Orthodox believers around the world.  Anthony’s defence of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God during the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea helped the early church reject the heresy of Arianism.  Yet, rather than bask in the glories of his achievements, Anthony kept returning to his cave.  His followers followed his instructions and buried him in a secret grave so that he would not become the object of veneration.

The importance of Anthony is no less than that of MLK and Mr. Obama.  As we celebrate these to great men, now is the time for us to open our hearts and minds to learn about and celebrate our African-Christian heroes (and the saints of other lands as well).  Had there been no Anthony, the correct doctrines supported by Athanasius, Basil, Nicholas (yes, THAT St. Nicholas), and others may not have been as convincing to Emperor Constantine and the Council.  The rich prayer tradition of Orthodox and Catholic monks and nuns would not have developed in such meaningful ways.  Indeed, where would King have received his Holy Bible from?  What sort of Bible would Mr. Obama take the oath of office on? The “Desert Fathers” of Africa should and must be a part of who we African-American Christians honor during Black History Month as without them, we (and the world) might not be here and not have a true idea of who Jesus Christ is.

Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the era of Dr. King, we were too busy with fighting for our Civil Rights to learn much about our Christian history.  Now, it is possible that an African-American President who struggled during his first term could win a second.  Nothing is stopping us from reading the books of the early church fathers and talking to Eastern and Oriental Orthodox clergy.  Instead of choking our people on a diet of a modern Christian market, we can introduce them to the solid doctrines, prayers, and practices of our African ancestors.  Even if we choose not to convert to Orthodoxy (and I think some of us should), we should know our history.  We have no excuses not to learn.

Songs That Moved Me: New Year’s Day

I will be with you again

“New Year’s Day” by U2

I still remember the moment I heard it.  I was in the hallway on my way to the kitchen back in my teens.  Turning on the radio, expecting to hear the Duran-Duran sort of pop stuff or the newly emerging (or should I say expanding) sound of hip-hop when something very different hit my ears as I was tuning into various stations.  Piano?  Who the heck plays that in a song?  And an off-tone, flat piano at that.  The riff was haunting.  Not quite like Black Sabbath’s “devil’s third.”  But it rang with a melancholy that sincerely begged me to listen.  So, I did.

The voice of the singer gave words of hope and bemoaning.  Things should change.  I want them to do so badly.  But, “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”  Lyrically, he took my hand through a rapturous possibility of the anticipated newness.  An ecstatic union girded with a pledge, “I will begin again.”  The obligatory “bridge” was established with that same haunting tone of the piano now laced with the muted wail of a guitar echoing in tear like unison.  Another guitar overlays yet intertwines with its predecessor with an apex that brought me back to the vocalist yearning for the possibility to come true.  Alas, conditions won’t allow for the desire to be met.  “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day.”

And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis

“Where Do We Go From Here?”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nothing Changes on New Year’s Day

Campaign 2012: Can’t We All Get Along?

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual.  Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis.

Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Where Do We Go From Here?”

And so while all Christians agree that helping the poor is a Christian
responsibility, it is not a self-evident truth that the best way to accomplish
that is more government welfare, or universal health coverage. I certainly would
not suggest that those Christians who disagree with my take on that are not
Christians because they don’t see it my way, but they should return the favor,
since the Church has no clear teachings on how government should handle public
charity.

Father John Whiteford “Hypocrisy of the ‘Christian Left'”

With it (the tongue) we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been mad in the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth we proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not be so.

James 2:9, 10 (emphasis mine)

Both Wings Extended (© John Gresham)

Politics bring out the worst in people, especially in election years.  Most of us like to think of ourselves as independents and moderates.  But, we are often swayed one way or the other by hardcore left and right-wing propaganda and their very vocal adherents.  Finding non-biased sources of polices and statistics is ever more difficult as well-financed media and online friends loudly and frequently spew out the “facts” that support their position.  And while it is tempting to talk about how there was so much civility in politics years ago, one only needs to open a history book and read where South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane over the issue of slavery.

What is most disturbing is that the meanest and nastiest attitudes among political supporters of both sides of the coin are Christians.  The Apostle James was so right when he noted the hypocrisy of our words.  This is not to say that every Christian ought to agree or disagree with either political party.  But we, of all people, ought to have sense enough to see the value of both of their platforms and seek to combine the best of both to improve ourselves, the nation, and the world.  Rather than respectfully give and take as humble people as God called us to be, we tear each other to pieces with our words and attitudes like pit bulls and fighting cocks.   Dog and cock fights are cruel illegal forms of entertainment ran by ring masters.  And when we children of God fail to keep our words and attitudes in check, we reduce ourselves to being animals controlled by the whims of this world.

The real question is not Obama or Romney, big or small government, or more or less taxes.  The real question is how to state your position.  Shall it be said with insults and rancor that only stir up angry opposition or with simple and humble words that may still stir up angry opposition?  The real question is how to respond to those who are against your position.  Shall we use bitter name calling  and hate that will only make a bad situation worse or with respect and meekness that may still offend those who want to make a bad situation worse?

America is like a burning house.  We who belive in Jesus Christ can either add fuel to the fire or try to slow the flames down.  In some cases, we may even extinguish them for a time.  Deliverance can only come from our Lord himself.  Support and vote for the candidates of your conscience.  But, do so in the spirit of mercy and humility Christ called us to live by.

Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one can see the Lord.

Hebrews 12:14

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.