Saints

NO SAINTS = NO SANITY

So, it has been revealed that the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” scenario was false and the city of Ferguson MO was discovered to have a problem with racial bias after a series of peaceful protest and violent riots based on that falsehood.  Meanwhile, a black student in Charlottesville VA with a clean record and good reputation gets his face slammed in the pavement by white law enforcement officers for supposedly using a fake ID at a bar.  And while these stories of racial clashes are broadcast all over the news, four black students on a historically black college campus were stabbed by black people in Baltimore MD.

Since 2013, I have been saying that there is a need for African-Americans and Americans in general to know the saints of Africa and turn to Orthodox Christianity.  Then again, since I have no popularity or status, it is easy to ignore the words of a poor country preacher.  I really don’t care to have a national spotlight.  If someone else more noteworthy wishes to say the same thing I am saying and captivate the world’s attention, glory be to God.  Because the continued ignorance of the brown and black (red, yellow, and white as well) skinned holy men and women and the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church they belonged to is not working.

The situation in Charlottesville is personal to me as my wife is from that city.  My in-laws live there, I got married there, it is a home to me.  Dr. William Black, and Orthodox missionary to Kenya and Chanter at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church in nearby Greenwood, recently spoke at UVA about the history of African Christianity on that campus.  St. Nicholas hosted a series on the topic “The Surprising Story of African Christianity” (I had the blessing of being one of the speakers).  With such a topic, there should have been a strong flow of traffic on I-64 to the church.  The hall that Dr. Black was speaking in should have been standing room only.  And had those police officers been in either audience, they may have learned that the very New Testament that they have was put together by a black man, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.  They may have learned why blonde haired, blue eyed, Russians love St. Moses of Ethiopia as an example of humility and forgiveness.  Maybe they did have reason to suspect that the young man they brutalized was up to no good.  But, if these men had knowledge of the African saints (better still, been devout Orthodox Christians), they would have handled the situation far more peacefully.

The situation in Baltimore also grieves me as my wife and I have family there.  Morgan State University is an historically black college like our alma matter, Virginia State University.  It is bad enough that someone outside of our race commits violence against us.  But, we haven’t even made our own communities safe places for ourselves.  And for this to happen on a campus where our young adults are striving to have a better future is nothing short of horrible.  In a place of higher learning, there should be more images of St. Anthony who is regarded as the father of Christian monasticism and St. Cyprian who led the church in Carthage during some of the worst Roman persecution.  St. Perpetua’s diary is one of the oldest writings of a Christian martyr.  But, even among our best and brightest, our youth and young adults are infected with the images of the likes of 2 Chainz, Nikki Manaj, Rick Ross (who is not the real Rick Ross), and that ilk.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black at the 2014 Ancient Faith Afro American Conference in Lima, Ohio

And what is the response to these unfortunate incidents?  A rally chanting “No Justice = No Peace?”  I have heard it said that it is crazy to do the same thing and expect a different result.  Equality and justice are good things to strive for.  But, apparently there is something deeper plaguing our society than rouge cops in Ferguson and Charlottesville.  That same rouge spirit surfaces in other places at other times.  At Morgan State, the administration is asking students to promote the positive things that are going on at the school.  There is nothing wrong with putting one’s best face forward.  But, unless the oral issues are dealt with, putting on a great shade of lipstick will not hide the rotting teeth.

I believe the real issue is that the religious culture in America does not honor and celebrate the holy men and women that God has given to us as examples of how to live.  We ignore their images, their role in establishing Christian doctrine, and their words of prayer and wisdom.  Think about it, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated not with worship services, special chants and prayers, and special meals that keep with the Lenten Fast.  Irish and non-Irish tend to honor this holy man by having parades, parties, and drinking Guinness Stout.  The Feast of St. Nicholas is on December 6th (18th for Old Calendar Jurisdictions), not on Christmas Day.  December 25th (January 6th) is reserved for the birth of Jesus Christ.  St. Peter the Aleutian is not made known to Native Americans outside of the Pacific Northwest although his martyrdom is the first known on this continent.  Unlike Protestant missions, the Orthodox faith was not forced on anyone and Natives took to the Church as they could keep their culture and language and be Christian at the same time.  During the 1960’s, African-American Christians were too busy with the Civil Rights Movement to learn about the Desert Fathers, Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity, and the black saints.  Painting Jesus with an “afro” or “dreadlocks” is not good enough!  Too many black church leaders ignore the depths of African contributions to early Christianity, do not try to share what they know with their congregations, or try to mix true Orthodoxy with Protestant doctrines.

The Orthodox Church is also greatly at fault here as we have done a poor job of evangelism.  The late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip criticized our willingness to stay in our own little ethnic ghettoes when the wave of Evangelicals came into the Church in 1987.  But, we haven’t had too many parishes in working class, mixed race communities, much less the lower income housing projects and trailer parks since then.  Archbishop Iakovos marched with Dr. King in 1965.  It doesn’t take a lot of courage for cradle Greeks or Serbs to share a prayer of St. Macarius with someone that has never heard of him.   The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Church has the light of God of 2,000 years and we in America have kept it under a bushel basket for way too long.  No wonder this nation is stumbling in the dark.

Let us make a stronger effort to share our faith with others.  The first and best way for us to do so is to live Orthodoxy.  Let us maintain the fasting, prayer rules, veneration of saints and their icons and love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  We need not pester people.  But, we can invite friends, neighbors, and relatives to our worship services.  We can host special programs that focus interesting portions of our beliefs.  Our Lord taught us that the harvest is ready, but the laborers are few.  We make up a very small percentage of Christians in this nation.  But, we can’t let that discourage us.  After all, He did take two fish and five loaves of bread to feed thousands.  Let us take what little we have and see the miracles God can and will do through us in healing America’s racial divide.

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St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Athanasius:  Relevance in the Black Church Today

 

I believe it is time for African-American Christians in particular and all Christians in general to acknowledge Athanasius of Alexandria (aka Athanasius the Great) and his contribution to our faith.  I am sure there are some who would dare say that those old writers do not matter as much as they are not relevant to what is going on in the church today.  Nothing can be further from the truth.

African-Americans say the same cliché every year around Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If this statement is true, then there can be no future for a Christian people who ignore the black man who gave the church its first creed, boldly stood against the greatest heresy of his time (which was also started by a black man), and made a list of 27 books that would be canonized as the most important collection of scriptures to Christians.

St. Athanasius the Great.  (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

St. Athanasius the Great. (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

Many people look at the history of Christianity as if all of the early saints looked like some Western European renaissance painting.  This is completely incorrect!  The Ecumenical Councils were attended by deacons, priest, and bishops from all corners of the known world.  Some were Celts and Saxons with pale skin and light eyes.  Others were Nubians and even Asiatic Indians with skin as dark as coal.  Most were some shade of brown between these extremes of racial scale.  Among the attendees of the First Council in Nicaea was a deacon from Alexandria who was greatly influenced by the monk Anthony of the desert.  Athanasius declared the scriptures taught that Jesus was co-equal and co-substantial with God the Father.  This was in opposition to the popular belief at the time that, according to a chant at the time, “there was a time when He was not.”  The Egyptian priest Arius declared that Jesus was the first and greatest of the created beings.  Although Athanasius won the initial argument at the Council, Arius had many friends in high places.  His chants and songs were popular.  Athanasius was driven into exile and was derided by his opponents as “a little black dwarf.”

Despite the number of influential opponents, Athanasius held firm to what the scriptures taught.  He won support from several other bishops and had the backing of the monastic community that was known for their devotion to prayer and leaving worldliness for the relentless pursuit of holiness.  At the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, Arianism was once and for all denounced.  The Creed that Athanasius proposed the first time included a deliberate belief in the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father as well as his original statement of faith describing Jesus as the, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made

The very presence and contribution of Athanasius to the first two great councils is very relevant for us today.  The fact that it was a black man (at that time, he was a young deacon) who led the fight for true Christian doctrine counters the long-standing myth that “Christianity is the white-man’s religion.”  In all honesty, we may not know exactly what he looked like.  But, that Arius (again, himself an African) and his supporters used color to describe him shows that there must have been a significant amount of melanin in his skin.  Also, that Athanasius had supporters from all over the known world, in particular the bishop (aka Pope) of Rome, shows that Christianity was a cosmopolitan faith that drew people to the truth no matter what ethnicity or race they were from.  This is also seen in Acts chapter 2 where devout men from all over the world were in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecostal sermon and in Acts 13 where the church in Antioch with its African and Middle Eastern priesthood sent two Jews to bring the Gospel to Europe.

Despite the presence of racism that still exist, today’s America is far more of a mixture of people than it was some 50 years ago.  My generation and those after me attend whatever universities we can afford and qualify for, pursue whatever careers we are interested in, and marry whomever we love.  Our nation’s most visible black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is married to a white woman.  Our President Barak Obama is not only the result of a racial mixture, his father was an African and not an African-American.  Add to the traditional black and white dynamic the Native Americans (the true owners of the land), Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, and others; and you have an extremely powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan nation.  If such a diverse people could come together in Nicaea and Constantinople for the sake of true doctrine back then, surely we can do so now.  If our Christian forefathers and mothers 2,000 years ago could go beyond their various ethnicities for the sake of the Gospel, then who are we not to work toward this goal today.  A society of different people striving together in unity is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

The doctrine that Athanasius defended is very relevant today as well.  Consider the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the African-American community with their corrupted belief that the “Word was a God (John 1:1 in the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).”  It is no accident that this modern form of Arianism has reared its ugly head.  Because the old saying is true, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Had we read “On the Incarnation” where Athanasius gives a detailed argument of why it was necessary for the Word of God to take on humanity for our salvation, we would have far fewer blacks in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and fewer still believing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an equal to any other Christian belief.  Furthermore, with the amendment made to the Athanasian Creed in the Second Ecumenical Council, there would be no modern “modalism” or Oneness Pentecostals that teach that God is one person that manifest Himself in three different modes.  We would not be led to any idea that we should focus on one person of the Trinity at the expense of the other two, which leads to all sorts of false doctrines.  When we know our role in the history of Christianity and accept the roles of other people and their contributions to the true pursuit of God, we are better prepared to stand on what is right.  Standing for what is right and for what one believes in is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Holy Bible.  The early Christians had the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Old Testament (which is older than the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Protestant Bibles).  There were various Gospels and letters circulating throughout the known world.  Some were heretical and false in doctrine.  Some were correct and well-respected in some communities, yet unheard of in others.  Local bishops did have some authority to direct clergy in their jurisdictions as to what books were useful to read during worship, which were edifying for study, and which were to be avoided.  Athanasius, the Patriarch of the prominent city of Alexandria, made a list of 27 books that he felt all bishops, priest, and deacons should study and read to their congregations in 367 AD.   He shared his list with other clergy as well as those in Africa.  This list of books proved to be so popular that in 398 AD in the African city of Carthage, a synod of clergy met and declared these 27 books to be the New Testament Cannon.

If Athanasius is irrelevant to the modern African-American church or any church of our times, why then do we still use the list of books he felt were important for Christians to read?  If this list of books proved to be tried and true for some 2,000 years, could it be that the person who made the list is worth knowing about?  What else did he write?  Who were his influences?  Who were some of the other African, Asian, and European brothers and sisters who believed, taught, and stood as he did?  Athanasius and his contemporaries provided the very foundation of body of scripture that we hold to be holy.  If his work is relevant, surely he is relevant as well.  And in a community where some still denounce Christianity as the slave master’s religion, Athanasius is a great rebuttal to this myth as it was this “little black dwarf” that gave the world this universally accepted collection of the written record of Christianity.

Again, I give you the familiar quote; “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If modern Christianity in general and African-American Christianity in particular does not know this and other great saints of early Christianity, what will be our future?  Shall we continue to give the likes of the Hebrew Israelites and Nation of Islam to denounce the black church as racially weak instead of standing on the shoulders of our ancient giants who stood alongside others of all races?  Shall we continue to read the latest books from the latest bishops who’s works fade away as other bishops who are more marketable occupy bookshelves with their latest releases while this bishop has more than proven his timeless contribution to the faith?  Shall we continue to reach for the latest conference and convocation to inspire us to receive “the next level of blessings” when we have not looked into our own basements and crawl spaces of Christianity to see what our foundation is and how it was built?  I consider that to continue to ignore the contributions of Athanasius, other African saints, and ancient saints of Christians of other races is not benefiting to us or anyone else.

No, I don’t expect every African-American to become an Orthodox Christian three weeks from next Tuesday.  But, there is a great treasure trove of doctrine, history, and spirituality that we are not tapping into when we ignore these deep roots of Christianity.  During our ordeals of slavery and segregation, perhaps it was due that we didn’t learn about such saints.  We were too caught up with the matters of the times.  Orthodox communities were very closed societies, even to the average white American.  But, blacks today have every sort of door open that we can learn more about our ancient pillars of Christianity.  We have every ability to incorporate their wisdom and words into our current AME, Baptist, COGIC, and non-denominational churches.  For those who wish to convert to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but feel uncomfortable among a mostly white congregation, there are Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox jurisdictions as well as Eastern European and Middle Eastern ones.  Do not let fear of the unfamiliar prevent you from learning about the African Christians that helped pave the way for us all.