self examination

African Monastic Wisdom: Rejecting Glory

There is a temptation among us all to gloat when we are proven right.  We especially tend to gloat when we had to endure a lot of criticism and insults until the truth came out on our side.  For some, we just want our opponents to admit their faults.  Others of us want to make a meal out of our “haters.”

St. Macarius of Egypt

To combat this tendency, God provides us with the example of St. Macarius of Egypt.  This well-respected African saint is one that almost all Orthodox Christians are familiar with as his words are in our prayer books.  Despite being sought after and honored by all races of Christian believers in life, he led an extremely austere life as a celibate monk with a simple diet and basic clothing.  From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we find this story (my paraphrase of it).

Macarius had taken the life of a hermit monk making hand crafts to support himself.  A local man saw him as a spiritual guide and took the monk’s work to the local village market to sell for him.

A young lady in the village became pregnant.  When asked who was the man she slept with, she lied and claimed it was the monk Macarius.  The people of the village seized him and led him into town to be humiliated, beaten, and spat upon.  The monk’s assistant also was tormented as he stood by the innocent man.  Rather than try to plead his case, Macarius worked harder to make more crafts telling himself that he has to support his new wife and child.

When it came time for the woman to deliver, she went through great pain as she couldn’t give birth.  When asked what was the matter, she confessed that she falsely accused the monk and that the father was another man.  The monk’s assistant quickly went to the outskirts of town to tell Macarius that the woman admitted her lie and that the whole village was coming to repent and honor him for their years of disbelief and abuse.  Rather than stay and receive them, Macarius fled his cave and went even further away to a desert where no one knew of what had happened.

I confess, I think I’d stick around for a few tearful apologies from the most irritating of the bunch.  But, this story is so opposite of myself and most of us.  Even though we may not want to put folk through the same cruelty they put us through, the object of our existence is not earthly glory from man under any circumstances.  St. Anthony died far away from his followers so that his relics would not be found to be venerated by anyone.  St. Moses the Black once disguised himself before a wealthy official as not to be discovered.  Even  our Lord when He had done mighty works in one village, did He not move on to another place to spread the Gospel (Mark 1:35-39).

How many of us strive to make a school honor roll not because we love learning the various subjects presented to us and challenging our minds, but for financial awards and praises from others?  How many of us bust our butts on our jobs not because we find our careers fulfilling our interest and passions, but because we want that pay raise, promotion, and recognition as the best in the profession?  While not every man or woman will be called to live in a cave or monastic cell, the monks and nuns remind us that there is a world beyond this one with greater glories than what this world can offer.  While recognition may come our way in our academics, employment, or community service; we must accept such things with the greatest of humility and make sure our true aim is for the kingdom of heaven.

When we make the glories of the kingdom of earth our true aim, we fall into the temptation Satan tried to offer our Lord.  The more we want earthly glory, the more we will serve the devil to get it.  Which is why Jesus rejected the overt plan of the devil.  Which is why Macarius fled the slippery slope of many praises that would have misled him.  Let us not be fooled into seeking earthly glory.

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African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.

Lessons From Lent: The Temptations

There really isn’t any point in fasting, praying, nor almsgiving during Great Lent and Holy Week if you are not trying to grow spiritually from the experience.  During this time of renewal, I ran across one of the spurious letters of St. Ignatius to the Philippians that made me take a second look at the tempting of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4).  Satan attempts to persuade Jesus into three frames of mind that would lead him into sin.

St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

First, is ignorance of the word of God.  In the previous chapter, our Lord was baptized, had the Holy Spirit descend on Him, and had been announced by the Heavenly Father as the Son.  Jesus needed no other proof as to who He was.  Thus, Satan’s challenge (if you are the Son of God) fell on deaf ears as our Lord chose not to be ignorant, but to pay attention to the word of God rather than obey the legitimate cravings of his flesh.

The second dangerous frame of mind is a vainglorious relationship with God.  Here, Satan was careful to use scriptures to give Jesus a sense of assurance of safety if He would cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple.  But, rather than fall for the seemingly legitimate bait of scripture, our Lord stood on the more humble command not to put God to the test.

The final mentality that Satan used to tempt Christ was direct rebellion against God for the sake of the world.  No doubt, the splendors of the ancient world’s kingdoms were great.  Yet, Jesus knew there was a much greater and everlasting kingdom that was not built by human conquest and construction.  Our Lord felt that this place was so great that He commanded the devil to leave him for even offering up such a choice.

Christ overcoming Satan

Considering my own struggles and temptations, I can see where every sin is linked to one of these three frames of mind.  For the sake of satisfying legitimate cravings we ignore the truth God indisputably revealed to us.  We say and act as we wish because we have adjusted the scriptures to fit our bidding rather than to submit to what the scriptures say believing we have God’s approval.  For the sake of what we can gain in the world, we gladly serve the devil himself in direct defiance that God has something greater for us if we are faithful and patient.

Pascha (Easter) is a few days away.  I anticipate enjoying every form of meat and dairy product that my palate chooses and wallet can afford.  But, I pray that I will spend times meditating on these lessons from my first Lenten Fast as an Orthodox Christian.  Rely on the word of God and forsake the flesh.  Walk with God in humility and not vainglory.  Serve God only and reject this world as it calls us to serve Satan.

A Blessed Holy Week and Pascha to all.

 

Against Modern Heresies, Simply Stand and Practice

Religion is an open market in America.  Christianity in this nation is no exception.  Though we all claim to serve the same God, the fact that there are about 40,000 different denominations and non denominations all claiming to preach and teach the Gospel is quite confusing.  The doctrines of these churches tend to change with popular opinion and worship styles with the latest trends.  A good friend who studied at Duke University’s School of Divinity shared a profound quote with me some years ago.  “Let the church be the church.  Let the world be the world.  And let the church offer something different from the world.”  With the wide variety of doctrine and practice being governed by the world and not by an ancient and holy standard, it is no wonder there is such confusion about true faith in this country.  The 40,000 church “church” is no different from the world that honors all opinions and considers all opinions valid.

The Orthodox Church provides the unchanged historic and spiritual link between Jesus Christ and the world.  Thus, when we hear doctrines and see practices that are well out of line with Holy Tradition (including and especially the Bible that we canonized), many of us would like to shout “heretic” to the top of our lungs and carry out a crusade against those who teach such doctrines.  Knowing the horrific struggles of our forefathers from the righteous martyrs of our first 300 years to the modern sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East in defense of the faith, we can’t help but to be offended by distortions of the Gospel.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch

Before we pick up bricks and throw them at our critics, let us first consider ourselves and our own sinfulness.  As the accusers with the adulterous woman, it is way too easy for us to drag the wicked before Christ and not address our own wickedness first (and I am stepping on my own toes here as well).  Our Lord made it imperative for us to carry our crosses, not to throw stones.  It is impossible to carry one thing and throw something else with efficiency and effectiveness.  Those who would throw condemn themselves.  Those who will carry receive the blessing.

In reading the Syriac version of St. Ignatius’s second letter tho the Ephesians, this advice may be the best way for we Orthodox Christians to confront those who we disagree with:

 Pray for all men; for there is hope of repentance for them, that they may be counted worthy of God. By your works especially let them be instructed. Against their harsh words be ye conciliatory, by meekness of mind and gentleness. Against their blasphemies do ye give yourselves to prayer; and against their error be ye armed with faith. Against their fierceness be ye peaceful and quiet, and be ye not astounded by them. Let us, then, be imitators of our Lord in meekness, and strive who shall more especially be injured, and oppressed, and defrauded.   (chapter 10)

I think that we really have to be patient with people with these doctrines.  Unless we were born into an Orthodox family, it wasn’t that long ago that we were Protestants and Nondenominationals.  Unless you grew up in Alaska or near an immigrant neighborhood in Pittsburgh or some similar city, you wouldn’t have known an onion dome from indoor football stadium.  In all honesty, even “cradles” don’t know everything about Orthodoxy.  So, we shouldn’t demand that our heterodox neighbors and friends readily jump and accept what little we are able to tell them about the faith.

There isn’t a need for us to run and see who we can pick theological fights with.  Chances are, someone will step to us instead.  When they do, simply stand on the truth that you have received and come to know for yourself.  And we can stand not simply because we know the right scripture verses and can quote the right desert fathers.  We can stand because we participate in the services, prayers, fasting, and love of the Church.  We can stand as we seek God’s mercy and humble ourselves before Him and show our love for the holiest of icons; man who was made in His image and likeness.  Stand and practice the faith.

Embracing Great Lent

I am excited about this weekend.  Sunday is Forgiveness Vespers and the beginning of the greatest period of reflection and renewal in the Orthodox Church, Great Lent.  I half jokingly believe my excitement will die down after drool myself silly over the umpteenth Hardee’s Monster Burger commercial.  But, this is a time that I have been looking forward to.  Last year, I participated as an outsider looking in.  This year, I am a part of the brothers and sisters in Christ who will ask each for and forgive each other with the kiss of peace.  Along with the fasting, we will devote ourselves to being more intentional in our prayers and giving our time and talents as well as our treasures to the less fortunate.

Prostrations in Prayer

While many non-denominational churches are embracing fasting in some form or another during different parts of the year, Great Lent is the central fast in Eastern Christianity.  Antiochians and Greeks may observe the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas) on a different date than our Slavic brethren.  Ethiopians celebrate Timket (Epiphany or Theophany) more elaborately than Armenians.  But, as the great feast of Pascha (the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter) is the same through out the Orthodox world.  The forty days before the great feast is a time we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls to celebrate our Lord’s conquest of death by His death and the renewal of life by His Life victoriously restored.

I am embracing this great season not only because it is my first time doing this as an Orthodox believer.  I can’t help but to believe that Lent is a preparation for me to do some good work in the church.  Friends inside and out of Orthodoxy have asked if I am interested in becoming a priest.  Slow down, it will be about five years before I would be considered for seminary in the Antiochian jurisdiction and even then, a M.Div does not necessarily mean instant ordination into the priesthood.  Looking at the complexity of of Divine Liturgy and other services and remembering the challenges I had as a Baptist pastor, I am in no rush to assume that office again, if ever.

Forgive one another their sins

One of the readers has approached me about chanting during Matins.  The head of our Christian Education Dept. asked if I was interested in teaching an adult Sunday school class.  I accepted and am waiting on a date.  I am also a part of the parish evangelism group and will soon announce the inaugural meeting of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black/VA Chapter.  So, I am and am about to get some things done.

But, I can’t help to believe there is something deeper to be done and starting with myself.  I have some sins that I kinda swept under the carpet and made more than a few excuses for.  They need to be resolved.  Despite my reputation as an easy going guy, I do have issues with insecurity.  My loud voice and friendly personality hides the fact that I am often lonely and withdrawn.  More than I care to admit of my personality looks like a bungee jump gone wrong.  So, if I am going to be this wonderful chanter, reader, evangelist, teacher, organizer, and (dare I say) priest; I have quite a bit to work on.  I pray that God will cause me to dig deep within myself to recognize my flaws and begin managing them if not correcting them all together.

St Ephrem of Syria

 

The Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian is traditionally said many times throughout each day during Great Lent, in addition to our daily prayers.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. (+)

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. (+)

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed from all ages to all ages. Amen. (+)

(The “(‘+)“ indicates that those praying make a deep bow or prostration at this point.)

Contemplating Confession

No,  I didn’t rob a bank, pick up a hooker, or stab anyone.  No, it is none of your business exactly what I am guilty of.  But, I am a sinner and I did sin.  The medication for this sickness is confession and repentance.  In Orthodox Christianity, there is a process of coming forward to the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child beside the priest in the presence of the church.

It is a bit intimidating of a process.  Granted, with the chanting going on and speaking in a low voice with the priest, no one can hear your business.  Only when the priest declares absolution does anyone hear anything during the sacrament and even then nothing is disclosed about what was done.  Plus, the early fathers never demanded that everyone confess every sin in the church beside the priest before attending Divine Liturgy.  There may (and probably should) be a spiritually reliable person in one’s life to confess to.  Father does not need to hear every time you took an ink pen from work, drove over the speed limit, or fantasized over the new office intern.  We don’t believe anyone should beat up themselves over every sin.  Confession and repentance is an on-going process that we should be experiencing in our daily spiritual disciplines.  A daily and frequent seeking of God’s mercy and salvation from evil should and must be pursued and is enough to absolve us from sin if done in sincerity.

But, there are some things we do because of severity, frequency, and the potential danger that going before God during Vespers, Matins, or completely in private with the priest is advisable for the sake of our souls.  Such a confession can be the first act of recovery from an addiction or prevention of a bad situation from becoming worse.  In some cases, it may be a preparation for one to confess to legal authorities and prepare for civil consequences.  While such things as 12 step programs, anger management, and the like may be useful and effective in correcting outward behavior, sin is the illness of the soul and only the blessing of forgiveness from God can correct it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)

There was a time when I would have deemed such a practice as unnecessary.  But, when I think about it, Protestants sometimes have similar practices of confession.  At altar calls people can ask the preacher to pray for forgiveness.  Certainly, a pastor keeps an open door and heart to anyone to confess privately.  Many churches advocate prayer partners and spiritual mentors where one can go to when they can’t reach the pastor, or feel more comfortable spilling their guts with than with the pastor.  And all Christians are encouraged to repent of sins in private as part of their daily prayers.  So, why should anyone go before an icon, beside a priest, in a prayer service, and confess sins?  Let me briefly name three:

  1. The ordained priesthood has the ability to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit and succession by the resurrected Christ and his Apostles (John 20:22,23).
  2. Confession is essential for repentance and cleansing from sin (Mark 1:4,5).
  3. We are a community of people who seek to live anew, not just individuals seeking personal salvation (Matthew 3:5).

I am called to be the salt of the earth.  If I lose my savor to my sins, I am useless.  I am called to be the light of the world.  If I hide under the basket of my failures, I cannot fulfill my purpose to share the True Light (Matthew 5:13-16).    I pray and believe that confession will heal my wounded soul, give me the ability to heal those whom I have harmed, strengthen my Christian journey, and unite me even closer with my fellow believers and humanity as a whole.

Revolution Calling

I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth.  But, now I see the pay-offs everywhere I look.  Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?

Revolution Calling  Queensryche

So, let’s see.  The world and every agenda of it has given me a new lie to swallow.  I remember the Twana Brawley fiasco and how that propelled Al Sharpton to the national spotlight.  The football player turned war hero Pat Tillman who was shot not by the enemy in a fire fight, but by a fellow soldier.  How one girl from West Virginia refused to go along with the exaggerations of her heroism and another’s death was ruled a suicide when even Stevie Wonder could see by the evidence she was raped and murdered.  And now, I find out that the Matthew Shepherd case that had Americans thinking about homophobia and its victims was spun in a way to make him the poster child for gay hate crimes though other factors, namely drug abuse, were involved in his death.  There are plenty of other true stories that any cause could highlight for the sake of their agendas.  But, the media’s and society’s thirst for exaggeration and falsehood has obscured truth so much that many people have become calloused to one another.  A change in politics does little or no good as both those on the left and the right have proven to be liars with no sense of remorse.  Conservatism, liberalism, and even moderation are all failing and have failed our nation and humanity.

Monastic Contemplation

Anthony did well to go into an African desert to devote his life to prayer.  Seraphim of Sarov did likewise in the forest of Russia.  It was the the Son of God and the evangelist John that taught us to renounce the world ant its ways.  Perhaps if I were single and had no debts to repay, St Catherine’s, Valaam, or even Holy Cross would be good places for me to live the rest of my years.  But, total monasticism is not my calling.

Again, I started this blog as an extension of my second life character, an Orthodox monk.  In real life, I have done the unthinkable in leaving a stable Baptist pastorate to convert to the Church.  I think I should consider and commit myself even more to the faith and spend even more time in reading and studying the scriptures, desert and early church fathers, and other elements in Orthodox doctrine and practice to deepen my faith.  This world offers little truth and no hope.  There is a greater kingdom than this one.  Achieving the greater kingdom must be my ultimate goal.  I still have a job to do, a wife to love and take care of, and hobbies.  But, the kingdom of God and His righteousness is the highest goal and of greatest importance to me.

And I must do this with a sense of love and laughter.  Whenever I express my challenges and difficulties, my priest always reminds me to laugh at myself (and I give me plenty of material to do that).  I can’t be so hardcore about working out my salvation in fear and trembling to forget that (1) Jesus took care of much of the process by conquering death by His death and (2) everyone I see is an icon of God.  Thus, in my revolt against the world and it’s ways, I am called to express compassion, joy, and hope as well as to be humble, sober minded, and serious about the things of God.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  — Matthew 5:16

Starting Over

So, let’s see.  I earned 30 credits toward a Master of Divinity at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University, completed the Evans-Smith Leadership Institute of STVUU and the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, served as a Communion Server for the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, President of the Pamunkey Baptist Association Sunday School and Literary Union, PBA Treasurer, First Vice-Moderator, and Moderator as well as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  And now, I am a church member with no office nor title.  Attending a funeral at Trinity over the weekend, one of the deacons politely addressed me, “Hi John.  How are you doing?”  I have always told myself and others that a title is not important to me.  But, I have to confess that I found it strange that this man had addressed me by my first name for the first time in about 20 years.  I did not have a seat in a pulpit that I was welcomed in by my predecessor.  This was a weird feeling.

Had I remained where I was, I suppose I could have risen higher.  I was a friend to some movers and shakers in the denomination.  Finishing my degree and putting my name out there would have gone a long way.  Or, perhaps I could have gone non-denominational and sought the position of evangelist, prophet, or conference teacher as a part of some modern “Five-Fold Ministry” movement.  Making the right connections would put me on a fast track to greater notoriety.  Even then, I could still keep my credentials as a Protestant clergyman.  

There is no fast track to rising in the ranks of Orthodoxy.  Attending seminary is not to be considered or recommended to the bishop until after at least five years in the church in good standing.  Even after earning an M.Div, there is no guarantee of becoming a priest immediately as the bishop (through prayer and the needs of the church) decides where to assign graduates and when, or if to ordain a seminary graduate into the priesthood.  Skipping from one jurisdiction to the other in the hopes of being ordained is not permitted except by the bishops involved in such a change.  As for leaving the church and starting a new Orthodox parish, whatever one would call such a church, it would not be recognized as Orthodox.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy.  He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy. He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

I am reminded about the value of humility.  Jesus taught us not to be the one at the wedding feast trying to get the important seat because someone more important than you might show up.  Instead, take the lowest seat in the house and there is a chance that someone will bring you up higher (Luke 14:7-11).  Exchanging my comfort and privilege in the high seat of the Baptist Pastorate to be just another Orthodox Christian in the congregation does not take away from who I am.  If anything, starting over can be a breath of fresh air in my spiritual journey.  I can re-learn what ministry and my calling is all about.  I am free to explore where God may have me to serve rather what others expect of me.

Thus far, I am a bit of a reporter and blogger as I strive to organize the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  Fr. James has asked me to be a part of the evangelism team.  And I have been asked to consider teaching a Sunday School lesson.  I doubt if my name will be mentioned alongside the well-know voices on AFR or OCN.  But, there is a place for me here in the Orthodox Church.  All I have to do is prepare for whatever God has for me to do and do well with where I am assigned.  In the mean time, this “lowest seat” is a good thing.  I am worshiping with good brothers and sisters in the faith.

 

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.

IMGP8407

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.

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 20 Icons of Flesh and Blood

I have an icon wall of saints that I look up to.  Of course, these are not all of the great men and women of the faith that inspire me.  But, these are the friends that grace the east wall in our living room (top to bottom, left to right):

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  • Basil the Great of Cappedocia (patron of my church)
  • Mary the Theotokos
  • Christ Panocrantor
  • Cyprian of Carthage (my personal co-patron)
  • Athanasius of Alexandria (hero of canon and doctrine)
  • Isaac the Syrian (wise desert father)
  • Felicity and Perpetua (example of true sisterhood)
  • Peter the Aleut (chose death over conversion)
  • Anthony of the Desert (father of monastics)
  • Moses of Ethiopia (honored for repentance and forgiveness)
  • Philip the Apostle (patron of my prayer discipline)
  • Catherine of Alexandria (scholar and martyr)
  • Seraphim Rose (perhaps America’s most famous monk)
  • Panteleimon (healer and martyr)
  • Raphael of Brooklyn (organizer of the faithful Antiochians)
  • Herman of Alaska (evangelist to the natives)

I have a few other important images on our desk below the icon wall (left to right):

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  • Gregory the Theologian (from my first visit to St. Basil)
  • H.L. Mays (my former shop teacher and mentor)
  • Louise Kersey (a dear cousin known for her kindness)
  • St. Mary of Egypt Parish Icon (from my pilgrimage)
  • Kursk-Root (from a ROCOR deacon and hiking partner)
  • Carter Wicks (my wife’s grandfather and ministry mentor)
  • Three crosses (Byzantine, Coptic, and Ethiopian)
  • Anthony the Great (on the book written by Athanasius)

These pictures and crosses cannot talk, move, nor do anything else.  The faces stare back at me as I gaze upon them.  I think about the lives they have led and the examples of faith they gave.  Except for Christ, none of them were sinless.  But, the images remind me to take the best of their character and add to my life.  I fall short in my deeds, words, and thoughts.  But, I am growing and have grown from how foolish I was in the past.  In the words of the church that raised me:  “I’m not all that I ought to be.  But, thank God I am not what I used to be.”  “Please, be patient with me.  God is not through with me yet.  When God gets through with me, I shall come forth as pure gold.”

Media images move.  Politicians take stances.  They dance on music videos.  Actors and Actresses play their roles.  Luis Suarez does the amazing (sorry, I am a fan).  In a world where nothing stays still, there is something  of great value in both ancient icons and images of those who have shaped our better natures.  By one act or word, yesterday’s hero can turn into today’s villain and vice versa (see Luis Suarez).  And when we dwell solely on the left or right side of the corrupt coin of earthly existence, anyone who is of the opposite side can be seen as a bitter, sub-human enemy no matter the goodness of their intentions or nature while those whom we side with are saints no matter how deplorable their actions, words, and thoughts.

While modern media of moving pictures can entertain and (on occasion) educate and inform, I believe we need to make room in our lives for the still images.  The still images that cause us to remember where we came from, what love is, and that the world of good people goes beyond our limited borders of place and time.  As we are all made in the image of God, we should give that same consideration to the living images we see every day.  Let us not let modern media drive us away from the cloud of witnesses that surround us nor from human brotherhood that we are a part of. Love and honor whomever you hold dear in icons or photos.  Love and honor the person who gave you the finger who cut you off in traffic and gave you the middle finger because you have an Obama or Tea Party bumper sticker.