Nativity Fast

Nativity Fast: Vicious Cycle of Unclean Spirits

So, things are so bad that people are getting killed in churches and pastors are committing sex crimes against children.  And let’s not even begin to look at all the scandals among entertainers and politicians.  People think that horror movies are scary.  Heck, the stuff on my Facebook feed makes Freddie Kruger look like Tinkerbelle.

After listening to a podcast with Antiochian Bishop John, I kinda wonder if these horrific acts of sex and violence are due to the fact that people are spiritually empty and fail to fill themselves with holiness.  Consider porn; here it is someone watches that stuff as if the woman is really pleasing him.  The fact is that the viewer is just getting high off of the lady that she doesn’t know and is being used.  The viewer’s soul is still empty as there is no real love being shared.  If this continues, he (or she) will either spiritually starve to death.  Or, Satan may make an example of the viewer and lead him (her) to some form of immorality or crime.  Not all viewers become rapist and molesters.  But, as long as there are some examples of the worst behavior, too many are satisfied with their “not that bad” habits.

Anthony vs demons

The same can be said for gun violence.  It is true that most gun owners are law abiding citizens.  And I am all for people taking self-defense training, if they so choose.  But, one thing that is driving many people to gun ownership is a fear.  When the gun becomes the source of security, the owner is not satisfied with something basic for a well trained self defender.  He (she) needs something more powerful because the bad guys have better guns.  Along with this fear is that someone is out to do them wrong or has done them wrong and they need to pre-emptively attack the enemy, or avenge their self-esteem.  Perhaps some increase of gun control laws, or better enforcement of the checks and balances that are already in place can help prevent more of these crimes.  Then again, a knife in the hands of the fearful and vengeful can still kill someone.  Even if no killing is involved, the fearful and vengeful soul decays and rots into something ungodly as it dies.

Jesus taught that when an unclean spirit leaves a man, it eventually returns to where it came from.  Finding the place empty and neat, it brings back seven other spirits worse than its self.  In the end, the man is worse off than before (Matthew 12:43-45).  Could this be what happened to the three pastors in Ohio who sold girls as sex slaves?  Could this be the case with the man in Texas who killed people who were in worship?  Of course, the criminal justice investigators, law enforcement, even psychiatrist all have their answers.  But, I believe that there are demons who are willing to leave people alone for a while in expectation that the people they lived in will not fill their souls with anything that will lead them to salvation.  And when proven right, they further lead their host to spiritual decay, or destroy them all at once.

This is why it is so important for us to spend time devoted to prayer, reading the Bible and holy writings from the fathers, worship, and compassionate service to others.  When we intentionally take time out of our day to do these things, we fill ourselves up with the Holy Spirit.  We cannot digest something as challenging as St. John Callimachus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent in one setting.  Even the entire Gospel of John is a bit much to take in all at once.  But, Father Seraphim Rose, as well as other monks throughout the ages, recommend that we make time to take a little bit of spiritual nourishment each day.  Each of us can find a corner in a room and cut out a little entertainment time for prayer.  We can surround ourselves with uplifting music, images, and words to counter all of the negativity we have been assaulted with throughout the day.  And there is someone that we can do something good for, often right under our noses.

Marina of Antioch

The vicious cycle of unclean spirits is real.  We can only overcome them with souls full of holiness.  Even if we fall, we have enough of the Lord’s presence that we can repent, get back up, and grow stronger.

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Nativity Fast: Invitation to Spiritual Warfare

I have a friend on Facebook whom I don’t see eye to eye with on politics.   I keep him on my friends list because he is a person of good character, anti-racist, and an Orthodox Christian.  A National Public Raido listener once complained of that station’s liberal perspective on the news.  But, he remained a supporter of NPR because, “you can’t learn anything in a vaccum.”  For us to maintian a few friendships despite political and other differences can be beneficial.

On Veteran’s Day, he posted a picture of himself during his active duty Marine Corps days. Dude was in his BDUs with his sleeves properly shortened exposing a rather impressive pair of biceps holding his M-16.  I remarked that he would be one of the last person I’d get into a bar room fight with.  His reply was a sucker punch that floored me, “that was ‘play time’ compared to the spiritual battle we each face.”

marines

Here is a man who successfully completed a very difficult basic training and had been in situations where he had to be constantly vigilant and maintain deep resolve to complete his missions. But, he counts the spiritual war that we all face to be even harder than military active service.  Perhaps if he was a clergyman, or monk, who had responsibility for the souls of others and to accurately teach the holy tradition handed down to us from Christ and His Apostles; his statement wouldn’t have been as surprising.  This brother is a layman who understands that the battles we face in the spiritual realm are against a more far more dangerous enemy.  Warfare with him and his minions is of the utmost importance.  The consequences of how we face the fight are eternal.

We are at the eve of the Advent season. Orthodox Christians fast as we prepare to celebrate the great gift given to us from the Father, His Only-Begotten Son.  I think that it is good for all Christians to embrace the fact that we should approach this season with seriousness in our struggle against Satan.  This is especially a good time for us to enter into spiritual warfare as there are so many allegations of sexual misconduct in all areas of our society.

This time of year, we are surrounded by the adversary’s most diabolical agents all at once. Among them (and they are numerous) consumerism convinces us to make extravagant purchases, even if we can’t afford them, and that we are being selfish and petty when we don’t.  Envy assaults us as we see desirable materials goods and we crave to have them, or something “better,” without being grateful for what we do have.  Gluttony drags us into eating and drinking large quantities of, often, unhealthy things under the cover of “celebrating the season.” Ingratitude frequently partners with other demons to increase their strength.  Even carnal lust finds some room as self-indulgence makes the air of this time of year quite toxic.  As if a cherry and sprinkles on top of this sundae of evil, our hypocrisy lets us make a little contribution to the same poor people whom we either ignore or blame for their condition the rest of the year without truly seeing them as the image of God and fellow human beings.

Valaam-Now-61

We cannot allow ourselves not to enter into spiritual warfare during this season, or any other time of the year. No matter what form of Christianity you practice, all of us must make time for reflection and self-examination.  We cannot afford to be nonchalant about this struggle as the life and death of our souls are at stake.  No, we must not walk around with a scowl on our faces dressed in sackcloth and ashes.  But, let us consider the great gift God offers us; salvation through His Son who was made man.  We are called to give ourselves to be one with Him.  We must, likewise, lay aside every weight that holds us back from this goal and cast aside every sin that traps us into complacency and compliance with the evil one.  Our struggle is to be one with God.  This is not an easy struggle.

But, we do not fight alone. The presence of the Holy Spirit is with all who call on the name of the Lord.  We have spiritual fathers and mothers to aid us as we confess our sins.  Prayer is essential and maintaining a rule of prayer strengthens us against demonic attacks.  We have the scriptures and holy writings outside of the Bible worthy of reflection and meditation.  There are saints who have walked in our shoes who have left a witness for us on earth and pray for us in heaven.

I urge myself first and all others to take this season seriously. Whatever sins you know are a problem for you, fight boldly and bravely against them.  Even those sins that aren’t difficult to overcome, be watchful as they can become stumbling blocks and traps if ignored.  Talk with your earthly spiritual guide about how best to approach the celebration of Our Lord’s birth so that your soul can gain the greatest benefit and growth.  If you fall in the process, repent and continue on the spiritual battlefield.

Keep the Nativity Fast for the Nativity Feast

Dear Christian Friends,

About this time of year we post messages of all sorts showing our disapproval of the continuing secularization of the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.

KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS

JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON

I agree that there is way too much focus on the decorating, materialism, and non-religious attitudes that are condemning this time of year to being the “Winter Holiday.”  But, I think that striving to keep Christ and remember Jesus without some sort of inward spiritual process isn’t doing anyone any good.  In fact, the more we proclaim such slogans aloud without the inward spiritual process, we are probably turning more people off to the Christian faith than we are leading people to salvation, which is our purpose as believers in Jesus Christ.  If all nominal and secular Christians and non-believers hear from us are slogans and they don’t see us striving to better ourselves in preparation for this great holy day, we are (as St. Paul described) clanging brass and tinkling cymbals.  People are justified and right to ignore annoying noises.

An Ethiopian icon of the Nativity of Our Lord

For a couple of thousand years, the original expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church has observed the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (later “Christ Mass” by the Roman Catholics) with a 40 day fast in preparation for the feast.  We do not consume meats, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages.  According to what jurisdiction we are under (Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, etc), we begin the fast on different days and with different rules concerning fish with backbones (some permit fish on certain days with shellfish throughout the fast). Except for the elderly, young children, pregnant or nursing women, and those under medical supervision; all Orthodox believers are expected to maintain this dietary rule.  Along with the fasting, we have special prayers that we add to our individual disciplines and a special prayer service at the church during the week to help us focus on the meaning of this great and holy feast day.  As the Nativity of our Lord is of great importance, we continue to eat as we wish for 12 days and observe Theophany, the Baptism of our Lord.  Thus, we have 40 days of preparation and over a week of celebration of Jesus Christ coming into the world and the revelation of the Holy Trinity that is the focus of our Christian faith.

I am sure that some of you scoff at the idea of such fasting and the use of ancient written prayers as a “tradition of men” and that no such fast is defined in the Bible.  Yet, there is no scripture that tells us that Jesus was born on December 25th (or January 6th for our “old calendar jurisdictions like Ethiopia and Russia).  So, if we trust the “tradition” of early Christians to give us the date to observe the holy day, why not trust the tradition of prayer and fasting as well?

When one buys a pizza, who scrapes off the cheese, sauce, and toppings just to eat the crust?  Nobody, we eat and enjoy the whole thing.  The same can be said for this season we are entering and the Christian faith.  Protestant reformers and modern Christianity has scraped off the spiritual nutrition of prayer and fasting in preparation for the holy feast and left us with the empty crust of one single Christmas Day.  While many of us Orthodox Christians are guilty of the consumerism and materialism of the age, at least we have the fullness of the tradition of our seasonal fast and prayers to return to.  We have the whole pizza of the Nativity Fast and Feast.  The empty crust of Protestantism has invited Satan to pile on his toppings of covetousness, greed, lack of concern, selfishness, and other elements of our consumerist and materialistic society.  No matter how much good Parmesan, red pepper, and Italian seasonings we sprinkle on in the form of charity; the bad toppings on the empty crust has caused society to ignore the day of giving thanks to God for what we have so that we can go out and spend more money.  No amount of empty slogans will change the toxicity of the once scraped off pizza crust of American Protestant Christmas.  Thankfully, we Christians can start with ourselves and get a whole pizza.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Talk to an Orthodox priest or knowledgeable layperson about what this season means to us.  Look up information about the prayers and fast online or in the library.  Make the time to attend our weekday and Sunday worship whenever possible.  Take small steps by increasing time in personal prayer and use some of our prayers in conjunction with your own.  Also, as it is physically possible, cut back on meat and dairy consumption if but for no other reason but to reward yourself later.  Use this season not to shout mere slogans.  Do something constructive for your spiritual journey as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

Chronicle of Conversion: Day Six In Prayer

I could have written something between work and the Paraklesis yesterday evening.  I needed a good laugh and found this website of fashions from the 1970′ and posted one of those horrid leisure suits on my Facebook page.  What was once impressive and sophisticated in clothing is now the object of ridicule and scorn.  (Okay, that was a loaded sentence that I am nor even prepared to continue to expound on)

Advent Paraklesis/Parakesis prayers are probably one of the least most popular services in Orthodoxy.  Worshipers are to stand through the whole service.  It is held on Friday (start of the weekend, favorite TV shows, kid’s high school sports) night.  There is no meal or repasts after the service.  Going to a Christmas party seems far more fun, especially if there is food that fits the Nativity Fast.  After all, we have prayer books, the priest is neither serving the Eucharist nor giving a sermon.

In this time of Christmas being degenerated into the Winter Festival, I find that being in the presence of God at these prayers a welcome refreshment.  The sight of the icons and smell of incense transforms me from tacky outdoor decorations to the place of holiness.  The chants and prayers explicitly focus on the birth of our Lord and Savior without reindeer, snowmen, and the false perpetration of one of the favorite saints of the Church.  At this prayer service, the connection to Orthodox doctrine is strengthened  ( this is also a good time to recommit to the Nativity Fast that is so easily broken).

For the non-Orthodox, I invite you to come and see for yourself. Because there are relatively few worshipers, you may even have time to talk to the priest and learn about the ancient faith.  But, if you refuse, do take a portion of your week away from the Santa dominated decor and focus on your prayer life.  To the Orthodoxy, go to your icon corner and worship if you cannot make it to your church.  But, make every effort to maintain this wonderful tradition of prayer.

Chronicle of Conversion: Day Two Dizzy With a Direction

2 December

We had a wildlife management hunt at the park this morning.  So, I hit the woods about 4 am, assisted the hunters to the stands, and painted the men’s restroom at the Visitor’s Center.  The whole morning I replayed all that went on inside and outside of me yesterday.  This is kinda the “Morning After.”  And in my small town of West Point and rural King William County, I am sure the news is spreading quickly.  Thus far, I haven’t received any “nasty-grams” by e-mail, Facebook, or phone.  A co-worker at another park wanted to assist me at Trinity with some sort of plan for evangelism.  She does have some good ideas.  I referred her to our chairman of the deacon board.

My co-workers were interested and surprised that I made such a bold choice.  I am still in shock a bit that I made such a choice.  Who steps down from a 16 year pastorate with no other church in the waiting offering more money?  I never did anything that would cause a scandal nor shame my good name and reputation.  Plus, I have some very energetic young adults that are ready to work.  Leaving at a time when all is going well seems foolhardy.

I am foolhardy enough to believe that African-Americans should have exposure to the Orthodox Church.  This is the faith that our ancestors helped to establish.  Eastern Europeans know the names Athanaisus, Cyprian, Catherine, Moses of Ethiopia, and pray the prayers of Anthony and Macarius.  For us continue not to want to know who these brothers and sisters are while some white kid in Kiev kisses their icons is shameful.

I have a problem with the idea that unless people are shouting and waving their hands that they aren’t really worshiping “in the Spirit.”  Orthodoxy is a tried and proven alternative to this pervasive “holy peer pressure” that is happening too often among Baptist as well as its usual Pentecostal circles.

I got other issues too.  I will finish later.

Okay, it is later.  About 7 pm Eastern.  Keeping the Nativity Fast has proven to be extremely difficult.  Thanksgiving leftovers, staff hunt breakfast, and today my wife and her aide cooked a turkey; Great Lent is an easier fast to keep.  I will have to run from Christmas parties from now until the 25th.  

Oh, and a major piece of good news.  I may be getting Chrismated on Sunday, January 5th, 2014.  The Eve of Theophany will start a new chapter in my life.  I already have ideas for the new blog for the new Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  I am seeing a lot of possibilities on the other side of this time of confusion and sorrow.  

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.

 

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.