prayer discipline

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.

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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.

 

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.

Songs That Moved Me: Four Cornered Room

“Go to your cell.  Your cell will teach you everything.” — St. Moses the (Black) Ethiopian

Of course, St. Moses and the other great monastics of Orthodoxy could not have had an album from War on their turn tables back in the day.  In fact, they couldn’t have had turn tables.  But, if they did, I imagine any monk or nun would have heard this song and felt it fitting in to their spiritual journey.  I forgot that I had a copy of “The World Is A Ghetto” cassette.  The whole thing is a masterpiece of 1970’s funk.  But, that fourth track, “Four Cornered Room,” strikes me as one of the best songs to prepare for daily prayers.  I would dare say it is better than most contemporary Gospel music.

First of all, War was a band that never called to make a living from the Gospel.  These were just some dudes from L.A. making songs about “Low Rider” cars, old westerns (“Cisco Kid”), and other stuff to bob your head to.  Chances are, most of us aren’t reading our Bibles and singing hymns 24/7.  We work regular jobs either as highly educated and trained professionals, something unskilled and minimum wage, or something somewhere in between.  And even for full-time pastors and church staff, chances are that your daily duties keep you from any sort of introspective time in reflective self-examination.  So, “Four Cornered Room” is not a directive from a pulpit nor a praise break by an on stage performer.  It is a hint of what needs to be done by someone as regular as you and I.  While ministers and musicians called by God do a service to mankind, there are moments when our souls are better fed by those who offer real words as they walk beside us than from occupants of honorable seats.

It was Jesus Himself that taught us the value of the “Four Cornered Room.”  While War wasn’t giving an intentional Biblical lesson, they almost parallel the Gospel:

Thinking, talking; we’ve worked out our problems – Look like we should have better days in front – Just because we took our time to think and talk – For a much better understanding  (War, “Four Cornered Room”)

and

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6)

Also, consider how many of our slave ancestors took the time to be one on one with God and themselves.  How else could we have heard such spiritual lyrics as:

Nobody knows the trouble I see – Nobody knows but Jesus – Nobody knows the trouble I see – Glory Hallelujah.

There is hope that comes from the Four  Cornered Room that no matter what our struggles and challenges are, if we would just get to that one place where we can be to ourselves, Someone will meet us and help us come to a better time and place.

 

Weekly Reflections: Go Home For Your Anointed Birthing and Supernatural Shift to the Next Level

5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.  (Matthew 6:5-6)

No, this is not an excuse for anyone to attend “Mt. Pillow Temple of Rest Worship Center” (I borrowed this from my friend and frat brother Dr. Christopher Wyckoff) or “Bedside Baptist Church” Sunday morning.  Except for illness, inclement weather, lack of transportation, work schedule, or some other legitimate reason; I believe every Christian should attend worship somewhere on the Lord’s Day!   If you had issues with a church that didn’t do right by you, pick another church.  If you are away from home, chances are there is some church of your denomination or faith within driving distance.  If you belong to a faith that frowns upon going to a different church and you know your’re going to be out of town and it is absolutely not feasible to go anywhere else but where your host is going to, talk with your minister ahead of time.  But, a nonchalant attitude towards gathering with the saints together before God is inexcusable!  For the church’s first 300 years, Christians risked being thrown to the lions and having their heads chopped off for meeting in catacombs.  Christian slaves in America had to risk being discovered and beaten going to their “hush arbors.”  Ethiopian and Eastern European Christians faced prison and torture when discovered worshiping in secret when communist ruled those countries as in China as we speak .  And today, our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria, and other nations are coming together in churches that were bombed and gutted by fire by Muslims who have a skewed interpretation of their faith.  And you are going to sit your mentally and physically healthy behind at home because “I don’t feel like going to church;  I can read my Bible and pray at home;  the church is full of hypocrites?”  Staying away from church when you are capable of attending and calling yourself “Christian” makes you just as much of a hypocrite as the hypocrites who are in church.

At the home prayer corner

But, is going to church and religious conferences supposed to be the highlight of our faith?  Though being a devout Jew and attending regular synagogue worship, Jesus declares that the greatest and most instrumental place one is to pray and spend time with God is in his own home and room.  Worship in this place removes the element of hypocrisy as you are alone with no one to put on airs in front of.  There is no one in the pulpit in front of you nor the pews among you to impress with or pressure you into acting holy.  It is when we are one-on-one with God that we are able to wrestle with and overcome our sins.  Notice that Jesus overcame Satan and committed Himself to the crucifixion not among the multitude that he taught on a mountain top nor in a synagogue.  No, He was alone in the wilderness.  Now, if you have a personal wilderness to go to, go ahead and do that.  But, we all have a room in our homes we can go to.  So, Go home.

Go home into your room and shut the door.  The living room is where special guest are entertained.  The family room is where loved ones enjoy TV and games.  You have a cup of coffee with a neighbor in the kitchen.  Any one can see and hear you in these places.  Not everyone is allowed in your room.  And when you shut the door behind you, you have created a place where you can show and say any and everything you want to before God.  There are somethings you might not want to say and show in front of company, neighbors, or even family.  There are things about all of us that we ought to be discrete about.   It is not wise to tell everybody your business.  Nor is it wise to deceive yourself that you don’t have any issues to bring before God.  It doesn’t take a Ph.D to have that kind of wisdom.  Discretion is common sense.  And even in those traditions where confessions are made before a priest or minister, what good is it to practice the public sacrament without seeking God in private for His direct holy solution?  And even if you can speak in tongues and interpret everyone else’s, what good is it if you don’t talk to God and hear from Him for yourself by yourself?  And sure, you can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned.  As Christians, we are supposed to do these things.  But, what good is it to meet the physical needs of others and ignore your spiritual needs?  You should keep doing the one without ignoring the other.  So, go home.

God rewards those who come to Him in prayer at home.  Of course Christians should come to Sunday morning worship.  It is good for believers to attend various conferences, convocations, and the like.  We ought to meet brothers and sisters from other places, exchange ideas, and hear from and be inspired by other speakers.  But, trying to sell these events as the greatest thing we can ever attend is over-reaching.  Chances are that if one church group has a conference that will “take you to the next level,” some other group will have a convocation that will “birth you to a new breakthrough.”  While churches, denominations, and fellowships of all stripes bombard the faithful with slick advertisements of “life changing” gatherings; Jesus directs us to the most significant place to meet God and promises that if we do so as He directs, we will receive far more than tote bags and wrist bands that we can show to the folks back home.  Go home to your room and closed the door.  The Father in heaven may give a few glimpses of Himself in the convention centers.  But, the Father IS in the secret place.  He who comes to Him in secret will be openly rewarded.  Attend a conference if you can.  Attend Sunday worship as you should.  But, in the words of Public Enemy, don’t believe the hype about how “The Anointed Voices of the Rem-ah Mass Choir, The Shabbach Praise Team, and Fire Baptized Agape Preached Word from First Presiding Prelate His Holiness Apostle Bishop Pookie Pook will give you an Overflowing Shondo Birthed Blessing that will Take You To The Next Level!”  Go to church.  Go to a conference.  Do good to those who are less fortunate.  Go home to your room and pray as instructed.

Weekly Reflections: The Value of Psalm 51

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

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

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

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

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

The grace of the Holy Trinity be with you.

I welcome comments and questions

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

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.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 2): A Bad Blessed Bus Trip

( I actually typed this up on the way to Kansas City.  There is quite a bit of moaning an whining.  You may wish to skip down to the “REFLECTION” at the end of this post )

8:40 pm/9 October/Richmond VA

I think the Roman Catholics are right about Purgatory.  I have found it.   The Richmond Greyhound Bus Terminal waiting for a midnight bus to DC and Baltimore.  There cannot be too many more jacked up situations than where I am now.  I didn’t want to impose on anyone too much.  So, I asked my sister-in-law to get me here around seven.  We had a nasty little Nor’Easter  hit us and she doesn’t drive in the rain too well at night.  So, I will be waiting for a while as dude with the big floor scrubber does his thing and there is darn near nobody around.

Gina did hook me up with some sort of pumpkin spice bread.  I paid way too much for a “Powerade.”  These metal seats must have been part of the Spanish Inquisition.  Uncle Bob used to denounce Greyhound as a low class airline.  Chances are the Huxtibles would not be caught dead around here.  But, I paid half of what a plane would cost and dealt with no freaky airport security x-ray machines showing my butt naked body to some guard.

But, I can’t complain. The fact that I can afford to go to the conference is a blessing.  Plus, I got my wife a set of teeth.  The refund check was a gift that I was not looking for.  I probably could and should have spent the money on a couple of other things around the house.  But, next year’s conference will probably be in Oakland or somewhere else too far to travel.

The wi-fi sucks!  I can’t get on Facebook.  Yeah, this is Purgatory.  I will have to make the  best of it.

5:35 am/10 October/Baltimore, MD

I thought Richmond was bad.  At least Richmond hand a restaurant.  Richmond, not considered a pro sports city, has a much larger terminal than downtown Baltimore.  Both terminals have me more than a bit disappointed in how the customers have a choice between these horrible metal seats and the floor.  I am not saying Greyhound should provide us with Lazy-Boy recliners and sofas.  But, these seats offer no comfort.  If the company is going to offer us slightly overpriced food (Richmond) or only vending machine food (Baltimore), they should give us some measure of comfort.  And yet again, NO FACEBOOK!  THE WI-FI DOES NOT WORK!

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

2:44 pm/ 10 October/Zanesville OH

For every joy there is a frustration.  Between Frederick MD and Pittsburgh is some of the finest fall scenery I have ever seen.   And yes, Pittsburgh is the HOLY LAND with about 3 or 4 Orthodox Churches within sight of the interstate.  Actually, Wheeling WV and eastern Ohio are kind of nice too (not yet in Zanesville).  I am not sure how the area does in tourism.  But, I would definitely visit here.

I don’t think my laptop is allowing me access to Greyhound’s unsecured wi-fi.  This could be for my benefit.  So, I won’t cry about that.  But, once again, I am furious with the metal chairs in the Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.  Riding a bus is a more meaningful way of travel than flying.  You get to see the country at a slower pace than you do a train.  But, uncomfortable terminals and sub-par, overpriced food take away from what should be a nice experience.  Again, I liked what I saw of Pittsburgh outside of the Greyhound terminal.  It really seems to be a nice place to visit even if you don’t like sports.  But the terminal was just another place where Greyhound must improve.  Next year, if I go anywhere, I may check out Amtrak for an unadvertised early bargain.

REFLECTION

A couple of people at the conference (somewhat jokingly) called my journey on the bus ascetic.  When I think about the saints who lived in deserts, ate dry bread, and dealt with worse conditions than mine; yeah, I seem like a cry-baby wuss.  Jesus told us to deny ourselves and carry our cross.  Following Jesus does not always happen in times or situations of comfort.  People who only want to move with a savior that calls them to creature comforts of life are missing the point.  We are to pursue the Christian faith, we have to learn to endure hardship and accept sacrifice.  No, not everyone is going to be a St. Anthony the Great (he gave up a life of wealth to move out into the Egyptian desert to live a life of prayer).  But things like maintaining a discipline of prayer and fasting helps us remember what our Lord has gone through for our salvation.

So, I will put some “Ben-gay” on my back again and be grateful for the journey.  Not just going to the conference.  The journey of Christianity is to walk through this strange land we live in knowing that we are citizens of the greater and eternal kingdom.  May I live like such a citizen.

Journey into Great Lent (Day 29): The Journey Worth Taking

It’s almost over.  Then again, it isn’t.  Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week.  Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter).  Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?).  Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough).  I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline.  No more self-denial!  YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!

Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Icon of Palm Sunday

No, wait … .  I am sorry.  But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast.  These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength.  I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast.  The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure.  It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline. 

Then again, the journey is not over.  And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism.  There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord.  Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent.  Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion.  In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God?  Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent?  Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety?  Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world.  Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should. 

Without prayer, fasting is just dieting.  This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations.  Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained.  We are to be awed to be in God’s presence.  As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion).  As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours).  In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God.  The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year.  The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well.  Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year.  We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). 

To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday.  I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting.     But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon.  And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills.  But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods.  Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer.   I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking.  I won’t turn back.

 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Four): Distractions

No wonder Sts. Anthony, Isaac, and others went out into the desert.  There is always something to distract us from maintaining our prayers.  I haven’t really had any food temptations (yet).  But, there are always things to dissuade me from prayer.  Being an hour away from any Orthodox Church, I am not going to make it to too many Pre-Sanctified Gifts and Akathist services.  With daylight savings time, there is always something to do around the house and gorgeous sunsets to capture on my camera.  I am tempted to waste time on soccer rumors and the March Madness tournament.  And I tend to get too drowsy to pray Compline as I should.  It is only by the grace of God that some of my old demons have not come back to overtake me.  But, I am reminded of what happens when an evil spirit has been driven out of a man and he has nothing inside of himself:

Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45)

Thus, my aim is to limit, if not eliminate, the things that distract me from my prayer discipline.  I can still enjoy time in photography and watching a good game.  But, I must constantly and consistently fill myself with the Holy Spirit.  Without feasting on spiritual nourishment, I may as well eat a steak & cheese sandwich with fried onions and peppers.  If I dwell in distraction, sin will overtake me and make me a monster.  If I walk in discipline, I have hope that the Lord will save his unworthy servant. 

Colors at Vespers  © John Gresham

Colors at Vespers © John Gresham