religion

The Marcus Garvey Factor & African American Orthodoxy

Marcus Garvey was not an Orthodox or any other Christian that I know of.  Yet, this forefather of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism provides a couple of doorways for African-Americans to leave the confines of Protestantism and dive into the deep waters of Orthodoxy.

Truth

Garvey was a direct influence on the African Orthodox Church.  Bishop George Alexander McGuire, a former Anglican pastor from the West Indies and ally of Garvey, sought the creation of a Christian church headed by black clergy with roots going back to the origins of the faith.  A Kenyan and two Ugandan clergymen became members of the AOC in their homelands and began seeking a connection with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.  Their churches became a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 1940’s.  In particular, the Church in Kenya faced bitter opposition from the British colonial government in the 1950’s.  The Archbishop of Cyprus dared preach against colonialism in Nairobi and won the respect of African independence leaders.  Today, the church continues to grow steadily from its grass-roots of black people who wanted an authentic form of Christianity that was not handed down to them by their colonial masters.

Emperor Haile Selassie venerating the cross during Orthodox worship

Garvey is better known as the man who proclaimed that there would be a black king crowned in Africa.  This statement is the birth of Rastafarianism, named after the pre-coronation name of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie Ras Tafari.  The popularity of Rastafari grew with the rise of Reggae music and its biggest star, Bob Marley.  A year before his death, Marley converted to Christianity and became a member of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.  It was only natural that a man who sang about African freedom and redemption would be a part of a form of Christianity that came to Africa by the ministry of the Apostles Mark and Matthew.

Brother Bob Marley

For African-Americans fearful of being labeled a “sell-out” or “forgetful of where you came from” in their pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, the Garvey Factor with the witness of 2,000 years worth of the African martyrs, saints, and theologians crushes such shallow criticisms.  Charges like that do not deepen the faith of black Christians.  They only scare us from knowing more about who we are.  And when a person is too scared to know himself, anyone else is empowered to define him.  These charges keep us on familiar plantations and keep us fed on mere scraps.  While this was (only by the grace of God) nourishment enough when we had access to nothing else, we can now go to our own fertile fields and choice foods in the Orthodox world.

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Do not let the critics keep you shallow and scrap fed on a plantation.  For those who have seriously looked (and peeking your head in the door and going the other direction because you didn’t want to be the “only one” is not seriously looking) at Orthodoxy and decided to remain AME, Baptist, COGIC, and etc; fine.  You made an informed choice.  If you feel your choice was right, you shouldn’t mind others investigating the ancient faith and choosing for themselves.  And if the fear of being the only black person or lack of a black clergy makes you so uncomfortable about Eastern Orthodoxy (Antiochians, Greeks, Russians, OCA, …), look into the AOC, Copts, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.  Garvey and McGuire awakened black Christians to the fact that we did not have to settle for the faith that was handed down to us by former colonial and slave masters.

The Ancient Faith & Afro American Christianity Conference 2012

I have attached a couple of resources that highlight Garvey’s influence on modern African Eastern Orthodoxy:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/history/fr._raphael_morgan

http://www.orthodoxytz.com/OrthodoxMission.asp

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/orthodoxy_in_africa

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Chronicle of Conversion: Day Three How “White” is the Orthodox Church?

I am the son and grandson of African-American Baptist Deacons and Deaconesses.  I hold the office of Pastor which is a position of power and influence in the black community.  And I am about to leave my status and “lane” to go to a “white” church in one of the most white places in Virginia?  This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

However, let’s ask the question:  How “white” is the Orthodox Church?  Granted, I doubt if one will hear the singing of the Mississippi Mass Choir or the preaching of Gardner Taylor in the church I am heading to.  But, a close investigation will show that the Orthodox Church is a very non-white “White” Church.

Firstly, for a church to be truly “white,” it must be some form of Anglo-Saxon Protestant preferably with some sort of contemporary worship style.  The Orthodox Church is predominately Slavic and worships with a liturgy that is older than the Bible its self.  Mix in the Greeks, Lebanese, and Syrians (yes, there are still Christians from and in that part of the world) and Orthodoxy is a bit to exotic to be  a truly “white” church.

What sort of “white” church would be named after black people?  You will never see “St. Moses of Ethiopia Southern Baptist Church.”  But, there is St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church (OCA) just outside of Richmond,  St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church in Kansas City,  and churches of all jurisdictions named after Sts Athanasius, Anthony, and some other saints from Africa.  Even when the icons of these saints are shown to have pale skin, there is no question of their continent of origin.  Many Orthodox believers admit that they were of some level or another of black origin and that the early church accepted members and leaders of all races (Acts 13:1).

Not only are there Orthodox Churches named after black people, believers venerate their images.  This includes bowing down to and kissing their icons.  In the popular “Jordanville Prayer Book” (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia) there are the prayers of St. Macarius.  These “white” people pray the prayers of a black man as they do prayers of any other saint.  Can you name a “black” Protestant church that does these things, much less a “white” one?

Am I saying there are no racist and prejudiced attitudes among Orthodox Christians?  Certainly not.  Every church, including the black church, has it’s share of bigotry.  I know of stories where hyper ethnic congregations have been very cold to black inquirers (before 1987, there were whites who were met with unfriendly stares when they entered these churches as well). But, the Orthodox Churches I have visited have been very welcoming to African-Americans as they have not forgotten their church’s African heritage.  So, I am going to join a predominately white church that is partially mine to begin with.  That is not selling out.  That is reclaiming a part of my heritage.

Yeah, I (and later, prayerfully, my wife) will be the only African-American member at St. Basil Antiochian in Poquoson.  But, I feel at home among this hodge-podge of  Arabs, Eastern European, Ethiopians, and white people.  Who knows, maybe I can influence a few more of “us” to (at least) take a serious look at the ancient faith.  In heaven, there will be a great gathering of people from every nation, language, and race.  It may be a good idea to learn to worship with each other now so that it won’t be a major adjustment later.

Great music can be made when we play together.

There Is An Alternative: Letter To A Frustrated Friend

I’m thinking about crossing over to the easy happy-side of “gospel” where there are no requirements only rewards.

Dear Cotton-Candy Christians: God is not an ATM. The Commandments are not suggestions. And Church is not a pep-rally.

What is the point of the gospel if we keep moving the boundaries to fit around our desires & actions?

Dear Terrance,

Please forgive me for addressing you on my blog.  But, look at the bright side.  I did change your name to protect the innocent 🙂 .

All jokes aside, reading your statements on Facebook yesterday reminds me of the questions I have asked myself for years about our Protestant church and the direction it is heading in.  You always considered me a “hard brother” in part because I used to cut against the grain of what was popular among ministers and ministries.  I was hardened by the fact that I didn’t like what I saw in many areas of our faith and practice and could not find any firm alternative.  It seems that you are coming around to my realm of frustrations of our modern Christianity.  But, I am not as frustrated as I used to be because I have found the answer.  Let me address each of your gripes listed.

Me with St. Cyprian of Carthage (© John Gresham)

Me with St. Cyprian of Carthage (© John Gresham)

“I’m thinking about crossing over to the easy happy-side of “gospel” where there are no requirements only rewards.”  Of course, we know that Christianity was an outlaw religion during the first 300 years of its existence.  Yet, there were believers like Anthony were so dedicated to the Gospel that he left his desert hermitage to visit his imprisoned brothers & sisters with the hopes that he too would be martyred.  Then a funny thing happened.  Some guy name Constantine became emperor and legalized Christianity.  Not only weren’t people scared to be Christians, they readily accepted the faith because it was the “in” thing to do.  Folk thought it would look good on their resumes and social networks to practice the faith that the emperor just legitimized.  Hardcore believers like Anthony went right back to the deserts and built wilderness monasteries to get away from the “rah-rah” believers.  Those who could not afford to make such a drastic move visited and learned disciplines of prayer, fasting, reading the scriptures, and made it a point to live to love and do good to others.  Of course I see the sarcasm of your statement.  Apparently, the model of Anthony who truly followed Christ fits your walk better than the Joel Ostiens of what passes for Christianity.

I absolutely loved your second statement.  “Dear Cotton-Candy Christians: God is not an ATM. The Commandments are not suggestions. And Church is not a pep-rally.”  You mean there should be something more to our faith than sugar and fluff?  As you know, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  St. Isaac the Syrian’s words cut across the grain of the “cotton-candy” of his time.  Our lives are given to us for repentance, the very first thing Jesus preached after his fasting and temptations and going into Galilee.  Repentance doesn’t attract people the same way revenue does.  Repentance used to be a part of the church life of the Christian.  The Catholics abused the practice.  We Protestants threw it out of the church completely.  Well, that left a vacuum that is now being filled with rich preachers telling people they can be rich if they make them rich first.  Commandments?  Why do that when one can coddle and comfort?  When people are coddled and comforted, they are more likely to give up the cash.  And what makes crowds feel like giving into empty promises like a good pep rally?  If it is “anointed” and “spirit-filled”  people can put their mortgage payments on the pulpit knowing that the pastor will bless their offering.  Only latter they will find themselves homeless as pastor flies away in his new jet.  The empty and meaningless pursuit of wealth is one of the vain things Christ tried to warn us against in the Gospels and through the saints.  There is another quote from Isaac that when applied to one’s walk protects us against sugar coating like a fluoride tooth paste:  The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ amid the congregation of men.  

And now for the most cutting question you raised. “What is the point of the gospel if we keep moving the boundaries to fit around our desires & actions?”  In 1054, the Bishop of Rome wasn’t satisfied with having only a position of honor among his brothers and the concept of three equal persons of the Trinity.  So, he shunned his fellows and made himself the head of the whole church and relegated the Holy Spirit as being subject to the Father and Son.  Later, a ticked-off German monk with some nearby printing presses felt it was fine for everyone to interpret the Bible with or without the Holy Tradition that put the books together in the first place (he made his point by replacing the apostle’s version of the Old Testament with the one made up by later Pharisees).  Then a Swiss lawyer came up with the idea that one is blessed or damned no matter what they say or do.  And today, we have 33,000 different churches based on whatever popular man or woman says, “MY BIBLE TELLS ME.”  In such circumstances, the gospel is little more than one’s source of entertainment and self-assurance.

Terrance, I am not asking you to do anything drastic.  But, I have found Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be the perfect and only real alternative to the circus that is modern Protestantism.  This is the faith, practice, tradition, and worship that was handed down from Jesus Christ to the apostles, to the church fathers.  The church has not changed from the seven ecumenical councils and is still alive today.  Why not take the time to explore Orthodoxy for yourself?  You like comparisons and putting one side vs. the other to make the best choice.  Father Andrew Damick put up one of the best side by side comparisons you’ll find anywhere.   http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/orthodoxyheterodoxy.  There are several Orthodox Churches within a 15 mile radius of your home.  Call the priest and visit when you can.  With your education, I don’t suspect you to convert quickly, if at all.  I suspect you will make rational arguments against the faith.  But, I have told you about my journey months ago and you have been strangely silent.

If Orthodox Christianity is not the alternative to the “tom-foolery” that you railed against last night, please write back and tell me what is wrong with the direction that I am walking.  Because some time after 2015, I could convert.  But if you cannot come up with an alternative to the persistent degeneration of the Protestant Christian faith into sugar and fluff, may God make a way for you and I both to embrace the ancient faith.

The Journey Continues: The Dormition Fast

One of my frat brothers posted a photo of himself being led out to “the block” on the first day of the pledge line on Facebook.  I am not sure who took the photo of me the same day.  But, I put this up on my page as well.

Beginning the Journey (@ John Gresham)

Back then, to pledge a Greek-letter organization was a journey.  The big brothers would place all sorts of challenges and obstacles before us as test to see if we had the mettle to strive for our goal.  The aim was to complete the 4 to 6 week pledge process, participate in the rituals, and become brothers of the fraternity.  I am very glad that I “crossed the burning sands” to become a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American college fraternity.  So, what does my pledging Alpha have to do with the journey that I am on now?  My desire to become an Orthodox Christian (which will not happen this or next year) does come complete with some burning sands of its own.  Among these is maintaining a fast that no good Baptist would even think about observing.

To us of the Calvinist line, the Virgin Mary’s significance is pretty much spent after she gives birth to Jesus.  We may mention that Christ told John to take her into his home as his mother at the crucifixion.  Other than that, we see where the 12 -year-old Son of God had to be about His Father’s business in Jerusalem rather than keep up with His earthly parents.  We also see where any elder woman who does His Father’s will is His mother.  So, for us to voluntarily surrender eating meat, dairy, fish with bones (save the feast of the Holy Transfiguration on Aug 6th), and marital sexual relations for two weeks in her honor is a very tall order.  To make a special effort to improve our prayer lives, scripture reading, and love for others in remembrance of this woman instead of her Son seems to shift the focus of our devotion to someone other than God.  Besides, black and white Baptist churches in my part of the world begin holding Homecoming and Revival Services where we feast on spirit-filled preaching, anointed singing, and plenty of good food.

What we ignore is that in John taking Mary as his mother is that the ageing faithful are to be cared for as directive of Christ.  Frederica Matthews-Green brings up an interesting point in her podcast on the Dormition Fast.  We don’t mind taking care of a helpless infant as much because the baby will grow and be able to take care of it’s self.  Taking care of an elderly person who becomes more and more helpless is a far greater challenge as they will eventually die.  Death is our common destiny.  The love of Christ extends as a baby to his youthful mother.  It also extends as a dying man to a mother who will also die.  Thus, this season is to remind us to have tender love for one another as we are all on a journey that leads us to the end of this life.  By following the Light that gives Life to all, our journey will lead to eternal life with Him.

Dormition of the Theotokos

In the frat, we learned the organizations history, “steps,” and traditions through repetition and enduring hardships.  Those critics on the outside ridiculed us saying that we shouldn’t have to go through all that just to wear “some letters.”  Sometimes the lessons of Christian living are best learned by enduring some sort of challenge or obstacle that reminds us to rely on God and his mercy rather than our own understanding and will.  There is no doubt in my mind that Mary was greatly loved by the first Christians.  Her loss was mourned, and then celebrated as the Mother of God (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God – John 1:1) was accepted into heaven.  Thus, the ancient church fathers and mothers began the practice of fasting and ending the fast with a great feast in her honor.  I see the purpose and wisdom in this observance and voluntarily embrace it.

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 Eleven): Confession and Concerns

Okay, let me first begin with my confession.  With the knowledge of my spiritual father, I did break the fast to celebrate Easter with my family.  Since I am still a Baptist among a deeply Baptist family (my ancestors helped establish churches in King William and Mathews Counties), Father James didn’t have a problem with it as long as I didn’t overindulge.  I did okay for the main meal.  But, cheesecake is a downfall for me.  I hope next year the Gregorian and Julian calendars will be in sync for Easter/Pascha.  Even still, I have no excuse for eating desert with no discipline.  Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.

I am greatly concerned for Louisville player Kevin Ware.  I was watching the first half of the game with my Duke HATING relatives (I am the only Duke fan on either side of my family) and saw when his leg collapsed underneath of him as he was coming down from trying to block a shot.  Looking at the score, one would not know that the Cardinals was without a key player.  Congratulations to them on a very prideful win and may Mr. Ware make a full and swift recovery.

My greater concern is for the sake of a lost sense of spiritual devotion in the Baptist Church.  I remember when Deacon Joseph D. Gresham used to wake up early every first Sunday of the month and cut slices of white bread into little squares for communion.  He also had this bottle with a little bubble pump contraption that used to put the right amount of grape juice into the cups.  I didn’t know Deaconess Mariah Berkley.  But, I understand she used to make the communion wine (yes, it was real) for St. John’s Baptist.  Members could taste it when she used too much or too little sugar.  Years ago, the deacons and deconesses put care, detail, and love into preparing the Lord’s Supper.

While I can understand that with large congregations, the quest for convenience may be a necessity.  But, I can’t help but to wonder about those pre-filled and foil sealed communion cups with the plastic wrapped wafers on top.  What was once a task of loving responsibility has turned into a convenience industry.  What if our faith were to turn into such a communion?  Shall the cups of our faith be filled by cold machines, or by loving saints who are able to guide us along the way as we journey together in the Lord?  Can the bread of life be a tasteless and useless disc, or shall it be the full leavened bread that allows us to grow in His grace?  And if the care, detail, and love from the old days of preparing the Lord’s Supper are gone, how much more is the devotion of those who partake of and serve it?  “Oh John, you are just mad because Duke got their hind parts whipped and you are taking your frustrations out on the church that you are still a part of!  Get over it!”  Perhaps a plausible argument.  But, if given a choice between your mother’s made from scratch home cooked meals, or frozen dinners from the grocery store, which would you choose?  If given the choice of walking with the Lord with fellow devout seekers and a cloud of witnesses, or with the modern pre-fabrications that seek to make a profit, which would you choose?  If pre-packaged food is inferior to food cooked in love, how much more dangerous is pre-packaged faith?

St. Mary of Egypt taking her last Holy Communion

In whatever form of communion that is served in your church, please keep remembering the faith of the saints that have gone on before you who prepared, served, took the Lord’s Supper in reverence and love.   Elements may be pre-packaged from cold machinery.  But, true faith can never become plastic and foil.  Do not take these things in as pasteurized and preserved grape juice and a flavorless disc.  Do take in the bread from heaven and the wine that gives life to mankind. 

‘Take, eat, this is My body. …   This is My blood …’   (Mark 14:22, 24)

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Eight): Reliance on God

Forgive me for not writing every day.  There are times when it is best to keep quiet.  Drinking a couple of glasses of “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” tends to help me stay out of trouble.  I am an African-American Baptist Pastor and serious inquirer of Orthodox Christianity.  I am in enough trouble as it is :)!

We Protestants do make attempts at fasting during Lent such as giving up one or two food items during the week.  For us, it is a form of self-discipline in honor of the fact that Jesus gave his life on the cross for our salvation.  Thus, we should give up something as well to show our loyalty and devotion to him.  It isn’t uncommon for older denominations to hold special Lenten services as well.  For my denomination, giving up something for 40 weekdays before Easter is a new practice that is not shared by everyone.  Some of us piously state that we are fasting from fasting.  Such an attitude shows ignorance of the scriptures, Christian history, and an unwillingness to walk with God in humility.  Those who fast only from caviar, lobster, too much salt, or too many sweets are merely mocking true faith as they can’t afford these things economic and healthwise.  But, for those of us who do put aside meats (and other items) as part of increasing attention on Christ in prayer and almsgiving to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection, sincere steps are greatly rewarded.  Those who by medical restrictions can do only a limited fast can still increase their prayers and works of love to others.

Cyprian Bluemood.  My Seond Life avitar.

Cyprian Bluemood. My Second Life avatar.

One of the key purposes of keeping the Great Lenten Fast (and every other fast in the Orthodox cycle) is to remind us of our reliance on God.  It is easy to forget about His divine providence when we are bombarded with super-sized fast food offerings, all you can eat buffets, and cooking shows (aka “food porn”).  Food, especially when well prepared, is a good thing and necessary for our survival.  Our problem is that we indulge in the stuff, frequently the most unhealthy forms of it.  We use it as a status symbol as we boast about what restaurant we went to, what we ordered, and what we cooked on the grill (OUCH!!!!!  That was my right foot).  We tend to eat for reasons of comfort or to hide from issues that are better solved by prayer and wise counsel.  So, eating is both a basic need and a gateway that brings out our arrogance, selfishness, and self-reliance.  It is no wonder why the fall of man was brought about in this ungodly fashion:

So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and the tree beautiful to contemplate, she took its fruit and ate.  She also gave it to her husband with her and he ate.  (Genesis 3:6)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ succeeded where Adam & Eve failed.  He was reliant on the Father to see him through his period of total self-denial (at least Adam & Eve could have indulged in everything else).  As He replied to the greatest of serpents:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:4)

With the reliance on God rather than his ability to satisfy his belly, Jesus was able to walk in humility (“Do not tempt the Lord your God.”), complete obedience (“You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”), properly use the scriptures to His faith (“It is written …” ), and rebuke the tempter (“Away with you, Satan!”).  Fasting is a vital key in imitating Christ. 

This is why the early church fathers gave directions on keeping the fast.  Firstly that it is not a legalistic requirement for salvation, but a wise practice in spiritual growth.  The very young and old, ill, and pregnant and nursing women need not fast.  If in a strange land and someone shows hospitality, eat what is given to you.  Eat grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables (since shellfish were considered trash at the time, they are permitted) for the sake of basic health.  But, do not indulge with even these simple foods.  Avoid all meats, dairy products, fish with a backbone, olive oil, and wine.  On a feast day in the midst of a fast, the latter three are permitted.  With the dietary directions, increase the time spent in prayer.  With money that would have been spent on expensive food, give to those in need.  Jesus destroyed the power of death by his death.  By His resurrection, we have hope to be children of the heavenly Father.  As He prepared for His earthly ministry, let us likewise show our reliance on God by keeping the fast.

To my fellow Protestant believers, our Easter celebration is right around the corner.  We have a right to be joyous and eat well.  There is no need for us to all the sudden try to keep Great Lent this year.  But, read and learn about Orthodoxy and what the church says about fasting throughout the year.  Meet and make friends with a priest or devout believer (bishops are cool too) and let them explain how keeping the fast helps them in their walk with the Lord and is a part of their overall journey.

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

 

Journey into Great Lent (Day Two): The Prayer of Self Examination

Oh Lord, Master of my life, keep me from the spirit of indifference, and discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter

(prostration)

Instead, grant to me, your servant, the Spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love

(prostration)

Oh Lord and King, Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister, for you are blessed now and forever, Amen.

(prostration)

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

 

St. Ephraim the Syrian

There is alot to judge in this world. Two teenage boys were convicted of rape.  A man was banned from a library system for masturbating in public.  These are just two of the troublesome crimes that I heard about today.  It is easy to throw stones at people who commit such crimes of selfishness and lack of control. 

And yet, St. Ephraim’s words call out to us in such situations.  No doubt, he must have read or heard the words of Jesus:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  (Matthew 7:1, 2)

I have never gotten a teenager drunk and had sex with her.  Nor have I committed a lewd act in a public place.  But, the log in my eye is my log.  I have no responsibility over what is in my brother’s or sister’s eye no matter how shameful it is.  My log is separating me from seeing the fullness of God.  Without this vision, how can I guide others to free themselves when I am still in chains?  The legal system did what it was supposed to do in both cases.  But, my Spiritual development must also be in effect for my salvation.  I must have hope that these boys will learn from their tragic error and become agents of healing for violated women.  I must hope that the other man will see the greater good in pleasing God and others rather than himself. 

I must also see myself as no better than they are.  Who is to say that under the same conditions that I wouldn’t have done likewise?  Who is to say I wouldn’t do worse?  Like them, I struggle with lust, selfishness, and shamelessness.  Certainly, the potential is there for me to do likewise.  Thus, rather than gloat over what they are about to suffer, St. Ephraim’s words bring me to a place of being aware of my own potential for evil. 

The elements of human wickedness are indifference, discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter.  With these, any man can be brought down.  Yet, there are God-given elements that elevate our souls and keep us from committing evil acts; wholeness, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.  The key to rejecting the former and dwelling in the later is awareness of the sins we have done and forgiving others as we wish to be forgiven. 

I have been made aware of my failures.  I am sorry for my sins.  May this Lenten prayer be made manifest in me.

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.