transformation

The Transition Continues

Work and worship continues at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  What we had hoped to be a two month or so renovation seems to be more of a slower 9 month process.  We have taken down most all of the walls we don’t need and are starting to put up the ones we want.  We even have the metal studs and window and door frames up for the “crying room” (a good thing to have in a church where the couples are and have been fruitful and multiplied).  Putting up the drywall shouldn’t be the worst of issues.  But, we have to get a contractor in to handle some other things that we aren’t skilled for.  Our renovation guru has some great ideas for the church.  But, things will take a little longer than planned.

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Despite the chaos, I still love worship. Our church family is as close as ever as we have adjusted to our closer quarters.  With our chanter departing from us in November, there is an opportunity for someone to be ready to serve at Matins (while I am doing some of the reading, I need to find someone to teach me the tones).  We are getting out Sunday School up again next month, and our church will host the First Annual Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Symposium.  Today, we had a baptism and, of course, nothing stops us from our coffee hour fellowship.

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The thing that strikes me the most about the worship as we are renovating the building is that we can see the changes around us as we seek changes inside of us.  In our confessions, Eucharist, prayers, songs, and greetings of love; I can’t help but to enjoy the new things that are going on around us as well as the way we newly converted believers have jelled with those who have been in the faith much longer.  Sure, the building doesn’t look like a church.  But, the church within the building is gorgeous from our month old babies to the elders.  As we are now in the Dormition Fast, each of us are striving even more in our walk of salvation to grow in holiness.

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When all of the construction and renovation is done, St. Basil will be one of the most beautiful churches anyone could visit.  But, that will be then (God willing).  We are blessed to enjoy the beauty of what is happening now.  May God bless us in our fasting, sharing, worship, and all of our efforts to serve Him.

 

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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!

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

Chronicles to Conversion: The Big Weekend Is Here

This evening, I will make my first confession before God alongside my priest.  Early tomorrow morning, I will receive Holy Chrismation before Matins and will partake of the Eucharist which will mark my entry into the 2,000 year old body of Christ.  I am going into Orthodox Christianity with a deep sense of gratitude for the Baptist faith that I nurtured me for the past 46 years.  My grandmother Dinah was known for her devotion to God and wisdom in teaching Sunday School.  The passion for Biblical truth was passed down from Daddy Joe & Momma Di to their son John.  My mother is also the product of a very devout household which has produced generations of pastors and deacons.  The African-American Baptist community in King William County, the Pamunkey Baptist Association has given me many opportunities to develop socially and spiritually.  I grew up surrounded by saints who kept the faith through the awful oppression of Jim Crow to see the heights of our people rising in every profession once denied to us, even the Presidency of this nation.  Without the black church, I would have never known salvation.  Jesus would have never been real to me.  Baptist Liberty, Mt. Olive, Third Union, Trinity;  these in particular and others in general have well prepared me for the journey I am undertaking now.

Some are asking, “Why take this journey at all?”  Just as my past as an African-American is important to my faith, so is the ancient history of Christianity.  While the Bible is central and essential to our faith, I see no reason to ignore the prayers, spirituality, writings, and wisdom that led the early church fathers to compile the books together.  I see no reason to ignore the multi-cultural foundation of early church history and the role that Africans played in it.  After seeing the ancient faith still being practiced among the various Orthodox jurisdictions and learning and practicing the faith as best as I could “in the closet,” I felt it was only right to step out of the safety and security of what I have always known to be a part of the church that was always there.

I believe that African-Americans should learn about and consider converting to the church of Simeon called Niger, Simon of Cyrene and his sons Alexander and Rufus, and the Ethiopian Eunuch that was the first non-Jew to be baptized.  People in Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, and Serbia know of the “desert fathers” and venerate icons of Jesus and the saints that look like me. Sure, I suppose I could have continued to speak about these things from a Baptist pulpit.  That would be like telling someone about kayak fishing yet never having done it.  Sure, I could talk about paddling strokes, adapting equipment, and locating fish in shallow water from the comfort and safety of a pier.  But, until I get into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140, make my own rod holders, and drift the coves at Horn Harbor to pull up large croaker and red drum; I really can’t tell anyone what it is like to fish from a kayak.  Well, I can talk about kayak fishing not only in theory, but from experience as well.  The experienced are the most credible witnesses.

So when I tell African-Americans and others about Orthodoxy, I won’t be doing this as someone who has read some books and heard a few podcast and visited a few websites.  I am a part of the ancient faith.  I am a credible witness.

 

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 6): Wisdom for the Road

7:00 am to 12:00 pm/ 13 October/ Kansas City MO

So by using the worst form of interstate transportation, I came half way across the country to attend a Divine Liturgy at a Serbian Orthodox Church that had elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy (umbrellas over the Eucharist is cool).  St. Mary’s has three readers to give the scriptures in Amharic, English, and Serbian (or was it Slavonic).  This was a very beautiful worship experience.  If only I didn’t have to catch the 1 pm bus.  I would have loved to linger after service (and apologize for coming up for the blessings for the catechist when, officially, I am  not one) and have those last conversations and good-byes.  This inter-cultural, inter-racial fellowship was a glimpse of what heaven will look like.  If I could have, I would have decided to stay in KC and be a part of the family at St. Mary’s.

Yet, my calling is here in my beloved eastern VA and (for now) as a Baptist pastor.  But, what am I to do will all that I have experienced?  For over a year, I have grown in the knowledge and spirituality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Perhaps if I were not a pastor, I could go ahead and convert.  But even if I could afford to leave Trinity Baptist Church, would it be fair for me to up and leave one of the most appreciative and loving congregations a man could ask for?

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Having dinner the night before with Fr. Jerome Sanderson and Subdeacon Paul Abernathy shared an obvious piece of advice.  That morning Turbo Qualls reminded me of the challenge I have already taken.

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From the father and deacon:  Take your time and make good steps.  It is too easy to wish to either run away to St. Basil or try to force what little I know down the throats of my congregation (I tried by praying the opening prayer of the Trisagion prayers during the invocation.  Some of my members felt uncomfortable with springing it on them without warning.).  I can’t take the easy way out.  Bringing Orthodoxy to African-Americans and anyone else in this area who is willing to listen will be and is a challenge.  Actually, there are people I communicate with who are interested in how I came to be involved with Orthodoxy and how I balance being a Baptist pastor and yet one who practices elements of and has a deep appreciation for this ancient faith (praying the Hours, keeping the fasting rules, venerating icons).  I have set something of an idea that I would convert to Orthodoxy sometime in 2015.  Who knows, I may or may not convert then.  It may be that I remain Baptist, yet with a strong slant towards Eastern Christian thought.  Or, as some Orthodox have suggested, I will reach a point where I just can’t stand being away from the church so much and take the plunge.  In either case, I need to be very prayerful and careful of each decision I make about my journey and how I invite others to walk with me.

But this is a journey that I must share.  Turbo told me that a good pastor is someone who shares what he knows with his people.  I have not been shy about telling people about my journey.  I think that pursuing Orthodoxy has been one of the best things that has happened in my Christian journey.  I am learning about how the Bible came into being and how it was originally interpreted by the church who first established the faith.  I am learning about the church that was founded by Africans, Asians, and Europeans.  As best as conditions allow, I am practicing the faith the way it has been done for almost 2,000 years.  This is a pearl of great price!  How can I not want to share it?

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

So, what is the plan?  Right now, I see myself as a bridge builder between the traditional Black Baptist and Orthodox Churches.  My task is to interpret between both of these very different worlds.  There are some strong similarities, especially with the older manifestations of our church during slavery and Jim Crow.  Yet, there are stark differences in theology and thought.  Surely, there are people far more qualified for this task.  Yet, it has been given to me.  May the Lord lead me to lead others in love, truth, and wisdom.

On To Pentecost: The Worst Of Sinners

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Luke 18:13

Humility is the most difficult characteristic for the Christian to maintain.  It is too easy for us to look at our salvation (either through the sacraments of Orthodoxy or as a born again Baptist) as a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card.  It is too easy to find abortion doctors, kidnapping rapist, troubled celebrities, and corrupt politicians that we compare ourselves favorably against.  With this ease of judgement (a power that belongs to God alone), complete humility is impossible for those of us outside of monastic communities.  Even monks and nuns must struggle for this goal as well.

The Pharisee and the Publican

The Pharisee and the Publican

While we may adhere to lowly words of our prayer discipline, our thoughts and words in general conversation are too much like the Pharisee.  “Thank God I am not like James Gosnell, Ariel Castro, OJ Simpson, Tea Party members, Barack Obama and his supporters, … .  I love my wife, my children, my country, my people, … .  Does not God know our words and thoughts outside of our hours of prayer?  Asking for mercy in a few appointed times without the heart, mind, and lips that seek it at all other is hypocritical.  At least the Pharisee’s hypocrisy was obvious.  We hide ours in Jesus Prayers and Gospel radio.

The Apostle Paul called himself the chief among sinners.  Sure, he could boast that he was no longer a persecutor of the Church and that he was the great missionary of Christ to the Roman world.  But, Paul understood that God alone is the judge of all mankind and that it is better to think lower of one’s self as the humble are exalted and those who exalt themselves are brought down low.  A plethora of saints from the early fathers to Seraphim Rose taught the same thing, that one should think of himself no better than our enemies.  If we honestly look at our sins as the things that separate us from communion with God, we all have reason to hang our heads down and beat our breast begging for mercy. 

Let us be careful of our thoughts and words outside of prayer.  We may be the baby-killing, teen-raping, dirty politicians with inflated egos that we are better than.  God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Sixteen): Reasons To Continue

I can think of a few good reasons to quit the fast of Great Lent and leave Orthodox Christianity alone.  For one thing, I like to eat meat and dairy.  Whenever we Baptist get together for a meal between morning and evening services, you had better believe fried chicken in some form or fashion will be on the menu ( Why did the chicken cross the road?  Two preachers had a pan of biscuits.).  In the African-American Baptist Church, there is a movement to have a good time in worship with a focus on the emotions stirred up by the singing and preaching in our worship.  In fact, we are willing to take on secular music styles to draw people into worship.  No matter how much we are taught otherwise, we preachers frequently judge ourselves and others based on congregational response (AMEN) and will construct sermons with phrases and buzz words that will encourage such responses.  Right  now, I believe my church is at the edge of what could be a revival in our worship.  Our usher’s ministry has been blessed with the return of well-trained leadership.  The youth choir has new sponsors and directors who have volunteered their services.  We have two young adult men (in which there is a shortage of in many rural black churches) and their wives that have become more active in the work of the church.  These elements are combined with reliable, seasoned adults who consistently work to get things done.  So, why do I wish to continue to introduce elements of an archaic, bookish, ritualistic, and “dead” (they don’t get in the spirit like we do) church that most white people aren’t trying to learn about?  Why am I still striving to follow the disciplines and study the doctrines and writings of Orthodoxy when only one other preacher that I know of from any race also shows an interest?  Here are a few reasons.

The Holy Cross

  1. HISTORY- If it is important to learn and be aware of American and African-American History, why shouldn’t we also embrace the roots of the Christian faith?  Had there been no Athanasius, Catherine, nor Cyprian; there may not have been a Richard Allen, Charles Mason, or MLK.  Also saints like Basil, Ephraim, and Gregory (Palamas and the Theologian) served in a world where the color of one’s skin truly meant little in the sight of fellow Christians.  Having knowledge of Orthodoxy can help us see the fullness of our humanity and the possibility of racial reconciliation. 
  2. SPIRITUALITY- Having a good time on Sunday morning is no substitute for a sustained life of prayer and fasting through the week.  We need to have access to the time-tested prayers to help direct our communication with the Lord.  Words from the saints enhance what we read in the scriptures.  Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is a great way to keep us mindful of our Savior’s betrayal and crucifixion, to help us be mindful of what we do, say, and think. 
  3. CULTURAL AWARENESS – Many Americans are illiterate when it comes to geography and different cultures.  The Orthodox Christian faith can open doors of learning for us.  Arabs, Copts, Ethiopians, Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and others are all a part of this church.  Likewise we can introduce them to our culture beyond the stereotypes of BET and Tyler Perry. 
  4. REVERENCE – I love the smell of incense, gazing at the iconostasis, and listening to Byzantine chant.  I can’t see us having these things at Trinity the third weekend after next.  But, to experience a divine liturgy is a beautiful thing.  While icon veneration is an obvious challenge to most of us (bow down and kiss a picture of MARY?!).  When the theology is explained and understood, it makes perfect BIBLICAL sense (they put the Bible together, so they should know what they are doing).  Oh, and the priest prepares the communion with bread baked from a believer.  It does not come pre-packaged in plastic and foil.  Even if we don’t adopt divine liturgy, we can always learn about reverence for God in worship. 
  5. COMMUNITY DIVERSITY – Too many smaller elements of black culture are being overshadowed by are very narrow and stereotypical definition of who we are (when was the last time you heard zydeco music on your local r&b radio station?).  There are too many instances were we say that someone isn’t “black enough” or is “trying to be white.”  We enrich and add to the African-American community when we are bold enough to expand our boundaries of our possibilities that older generations sacrificed their lives for us to have.  Just ask the world’s number one golfer or that family that lives in the White House.

So, will Trinity Baptist Church become Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church (maybe OCA)?!  Don’t bet on it.  Will I leave the Baptist denomination and seek to become a priest?  I’m not even worthy to day- dream about such a move.  It is way too early for such questions.  I haven’t even completed my first Paschal cycle.  The only thing I can do is continue on this journey and give my church family a glimpse of what I am going through and learning about.  In time, God will make my direction more clear to me.  Right now, I am to be faithful disciple.

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 (First Saturday): A Foundation for a Lenten Lifestyle

Needless to say, this is not the Lent I am used to.  I am accustomed to picking one or two things to “give up” between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Ascetic fasting is a far greater spiritual as well as dietary challenge.  Careful observance of prayers and reading or listening to Orthodox teaching does reveal things that are commonly overlooked.  Such as how much we spend on meat and dairy products as compared to simple vegan fare.  More importantly that we don’t give up our struggle against sin since sin is foreign to the way God made us.  He made Adam and Eve to be in communion with him and lovingly gave them free will to choose obedience or death.  By free will we choose death through sin rather than life in the way God created us.  Too often, we surrender to the idea that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  I think (and perhaps this is just my experience) we repent, and get back up thinking that we will sin again because that is the way we were made.  We use the Psalm as our reference:

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, and in sins my mother bore me.   —   Psalm 51:7

David’s sincere and deeply humble repentance is an admirable pattern for us to follow.  But, his words of anguish do not trump our creation:

The God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.   —   Genesis 1:26

Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good. —   Genesis 1:31

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

If we are to follow the advice of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and live a Lenten Lifestyle, I think we must begin with how we see our life and struggle against sin.  God makes good things, he made us, and we are essentially good.  Our task is to keep choosing to live in that goodness, that communion with God in a world so imbued with evil that we feel we have no choice but to live with some level or another of hopelessness that holiness is possible.  Jesus, the God Incarnate, came to us to prove that we can make the choice.  It takes  (among other things) humility, sacrifice, love, and a relentless focus on seeking the kingdom of God.  And we can choose these things rather than the immediate gratifications and pleasures of this world.  We can be seekers of spiritual growth rather than chasers of sensual comforts.  This is one reason why Great Lent is what it is in the Orthodox Church.  For 40 days (also weekends, Holy Week, and the three weeks before Lent), we can focus our attention on communion with God rather than consuming for our bodies.  After Pascha (Orthodox Easter) feasting, there are the weekly fast and other fast to observe and keep us mindful of what was experienced and learned during Great Lent.  Except for the pregnant and nursing, ill, very young, and very old; all are expected to keep a strict fast and attend weekly prayers on top of their current disciplines as much as possible.  May the Lord keep this church and the church keep the faith of Christ the Incarnate.