My church looks more like an Erector Set with icons. Our choir director, Chuck Simerick doubles as the lead contractor leading the Saturday building sessions and weeknight work. It is amazing to see how we have gutted the place and put up these metal studs. After a while, there will be some drywall up as well. We have all been busy giving our hands in labor. This certainly is not an overnight process. In fact, we won’t be finished for a few months still. But, nothing worthwhile takes place in an instant. Try to microwave a 4 lb. Boston Butt and smoke another for an hour per pound at 250 degrees and see which one is edible. In speaking of new structures, the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black will hold its First Symposium on Saturday, September 4th at 4 pm! I am excited that my church will be hosting the event in spite of our work. In fact, I think it is symbolic that this movement to introduce the ancient faith to African-Americans, which is a work in progress, is having its first event in a work in progress. I am also excited that Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy of FOCUS Pittsburgh and the St. Moses Mission will be the guest speaker. This brother is articulate, inspiring, and filled with the grace of God! Don’t take my word for it. Check out the speech given a couple of years back. Better still, meet with us at Hampton for the symposium! Meeting Bishop Thomas last year, he said he’d be interested in an informal meeting with my (then) congregation and others in my area. I am still very interested in forming this structure; a bridge of dialogue between the African-American Baptist and the Orthodox Church. A Pentecostal Apostle and and Orthodox Archpriest in New York have done that with two East-West Meet & Greet sessions. Perhaps in October, I can bring this idea up again. We will see if God is willing. Yet, as their is a need for some new structures, I am glad to experience something that is (and should be) without change. I remember on first Sunday mornings how my grandfather prepared the communion. Deacon Joseph (“Daddy Joe”) didn’t say much when he did it. It seemed that he had his mind fixed on the task at hand. He cut the crust off of a few slices of bread and cut them in what seemed to be perfectly measured little squares. Daddy Joe had a glass bottle with some sort of bulb and tube thing on it where when he squeezed the bulb, the perfect amount of grape juice came out into each cup. Though a symbol of the body and blood to the Baptist, he prepared the Lord’s Supper with reverence. With no iconostasis blocking my view, I got a chance to watch Fr. James prepare the Eucharist. It was as if the spirit of my grandfather was right there as Fr. carefully prayed the prescribed prayers in preparing the body and blood of our Lord. The bread came from the oven of one of our members and was broken with the name of each one of us in mind and a few for any visiting Orthodox guest. The wine and water mixed appropriately as prayers were constantly offered as part of the process. Bishops and priest have been preparing the Lord’s Supper in the same spirit of reverence since the days of the Apostles. There is no Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper without reverence from the one who prepares and the one who receives. It is better not to take it at all than to take the literal (or even symbolic) body and blood of Christ with an attitude of spiritual complacency. These are holy gifts which should not be taken lightly. That we are able to serve (ordained clergy) and receive them is of the great grace of God. When we cheapen them by having the wrong frame of mind; we cheapen grace, ourselves, salvation, and God. May this not be so with us. Please, be in prayer before, during, and after partaking of this meal. As we say in our Divine Liturgy, “The Holy Things Are For The Holy.”
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 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.
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.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I Corinthians 13:11 (emphasis mine)
Don’t get me wrong. I think it is cool for toddlers and pre-school kids to learn about Santa Claus. It is neat to have them write up their Christmas list and expect to see flying reindeer and all that. The legend is useful to encourage good behavior (if not but temporary) and can be a stepping stone to teach children about virtues such as kindness, humility, charity, and hope. Consider Santa, Rudolph, and others as training wheels on a bike. Every child needs training wheels on a bike as they learn to ride.
Now, imagine how foolish a healthy teenager looks on a top class mountain bike with training wheels. Or, how about an adult athlete high tech racing bicycle with such supports. Except for those who have severe problems with balance or some other health issues, it is foolish older people to rely on training wheels. And this is the problem with teens an adults who continue with a Santa Claus spirituality with no desire to grow up to one of St. Nicholas.
Who was St. Nicholas? Read and listen to the links. He was a Bishop (who could trace his ordination back to the Twelve Apostles) who served at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Here are a few highlights of lessons we can all learn from this great saint:
- protect the honor of women
- aid the poor
- humbly avoid recognition for good deeds
- do not act violently, even against falsehood
- Christ and the Theotokos restores those who are faithful
Now, perhaps three and four year olds are better off not hearing about how a kind bishop kept three daughters of a poor man from becoming prostitutes. But, why shouldn’t our 13 and 14 year olds hear this story? Why is there a problem to recognize that the first “Secret Santa” helped to form Christian doctrine? Is it that embarrassing to admit that even kind people have occasional anger management issues? And why is it ungodly to talk about his story of redemp… . Oh yeah. We Protestants can’t quite seem to accept that “mother of God” thing.
We get upset when our little kids act like spoiled brats as their minds are so stuck on Santa Claus. But, they will grow out of it. Or will they? Not if they aren’t taught to have a St. Nicholas spiritual outlook. By constantly recycling an immature fantasy image of this good man that really did exist, we are producing 15 to 95 year old spoiled brats who still want stuff from an elf who lives in the North Pole. “Keep Christ in Christmas?” How can we when we make a mockery of one of his devout early followers and refuse to grow up in faith?
Let your kid send a letter to the fat guy in the red suit. Be sure to leave some cookies and eggnog on a little table near the tree. But, we who are of age need to ditch the training wheels of childhood fantasy. This season (feast day is Thursday, December 6th), it would be a good idea for those of us of age to measure our lives to that of the real man of God.