chirstianity

Preparing for the Next Chapter

When I left the Baptist church to become an Orthodox Christian, I knew that I would not immediately be ordained into the clergy.  I had much to learn about the Church and parish life.  I needed time to adjust from being the key figure in an (almost) all African-American congregation to being in a “white” church.  Besides, not having to come up with sermons and teach the adult Sunday School class every week was very relaxing.  I have been serving as a lay chanter/reader during Matins and at the altar during Divine Liturgy.  While I haven’t really done as much as I should have with the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I have spoken about African saints at St. Andrews (OCA) and St. Nicholas (Ukrainian) this year.   It looks like my time of just absorbing and chilling is coming to an end.

Hanging with my good brothers John Norman and Orlando Greenhill at the 2013 St. Moses Conference.

Firstly, I have an ambitious vision for the VA Brotherhood.  I want to visit 8 to 12 different parishes in 2016 to encourage evangelism and have quarterly events in different parts of the state.  I also want to use a couple of contacts with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship to share the ancient faith on college campuses.  Starting a prayer group in my home in West Point is not completely out of the question.

Some of my brothers and sisters at St. Basil have been asking me if I want to become a deacon or priest.  While the thought has been in the back of my mind, I have preferred to keep it there for now.  I have been blessed with a financial gift to further my education.  Last week, I received an acceptance letter from the Antiochian House of Studies.  Earning a Masters of Applied Orthodox Theology will not guarantee me ordination into anything.  But, at least, I will have the tools needed to be effective wherever the Church needs me.

I have accepted the opportunity to teach the teen seminar at our Church for Sunday School.  Being a convert and former Baptist pastor, I hope to give these kids a perspective about Orthodoxy that they may not get from someone who was brought up in the Church.  Besides leading them to knowledge and spiritual maturity, I want to encourage them not to take the faith for granted.  Orthodoxy has a precious depth of 2,000 years of history, prayer, saints, spirituality, and wisdom that no other expression of Christianity can give.  If I can help instill a love for learning and living the ancient faith, that will be a blessing.

When I was still at Trinity Baptist Church, someone who was concerned about my talking about Orthodoxy from the pulpit asked, “Where is all of this leading?”  I didn’t know then.  I still don’t know now.  But, St. Cyprian of Carthage (whom we “new calendars” honor today) let God lead him in hiding during persecution to keep the Church encouraged and to his martyrdom as he encouraged his executor to behead him.  Before him, were Perpetua and Felicity who were martyred in that great city.  And before them were Neokorus (a Carthaginian who served in the Roman army in Judea) and his grandson Callistratus, the later was martyred as he was discovered praying ceaselessly to Jesus and refused to worship any pagan god.  And among those who taught Neokorus (who was a witness to the death and resurrection of our Lord) may have been the Apostle Thomas who told the disciples as Jesus was to lead them back across the Jordan to see the dead Lazarus, “Let us go with him and die” (John 11:16).  I guess I am going to die to something so that I can live to something greater.

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Chronicles to Conversion: 15 Days Dealing With “Why”

To my man, Rob.

To be honest with you, the question of “why” I would leave a 16 year pastorate to become Orthodox hasn’t come up too often.  Oh, my church family was shocked and some tearful when I made the announcement within my sermon on December 1st.  But, the ones who took the time to follow my post on the church and my personal blog saw this coming.  I posted an icon with each of my manuscripts.  What good Baptist preacher does that?  And my excursion to the St. Moses the Black Conference in October was pretty much a sign that it was a matter of time before I stepped down.  Even those who didn’t go online heard the wording of some of my prayers and thought there was something different. “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal Have Mercy On Us” doesn’t sound quite like “God Is Good All The Time and All The Time God Is Good.”  They knew I was different.  The surprise was that I would actually move to that different perspective.

Most people seem to accept that God has called me to do something different.  I am going to miss them, and they will miss me as well.  But, most ministers today don’t stay but maybe 5 or so years in their first pastoral assignment.  I was at Trinity for 16+.  In this day of pastoral scandals and suicides, I am walking away from the pulpit with nothing to be ashamed of and not in a coffin.  There are no hard feelings between myself nor anyone in the church.  Plus, there is a solid core of active members, some in their 20’s.  So, leaving when I am doing well and the church is doing well, is not a bad thing.

There have been some concerned voices that I was going about this unadvisedly.  But, that is the good thing about the St. Simon’s Order blog.  Anyone who has read my post over the past year and a half knows that my move to Orthodoxy was a work in progress and that I am not going into the ancient faith with some sense of looking for greener grass on the other side of the fence.  Heck, I will be picking up a part-time gig to make up for my lost pastoral salary.  Plus, when one of my trusted advisers is a pastor who has known me since my childhood and taught sociology and served as the dean of the chapel at a university, no one can say that I haven’t put any serious thought into making this change.

True, this doesn’t make sense.  Why would an African-American pastor who is well loved and respected walk away from his pulpit to join a predominately white church in a city that is over 93% white 50 miles away from home?  Because the church that I am joining is every bit as African as it is Arabic and European.  St. Basil Antiochian has people from different ethnic backgrounds.  I am reclaiming a part of my African heritage and helping to end the fact that “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America” (Martin Luther King “Letter from Birmingham Jail).  As I explained in the sermon a couple of Sunday’s ago, Peter asked to step out of the boat.  Jesus told him to come.  This conversion is my stormy sea to step out on.  In the end, Jesus calmed the storm and led them all safely to the other side.  No, I am not getting a lot of “whys.”  I am getting a lot of “we will miss yous, God bless yous, and good lucks.”

Chronicle of Conversion: Day Two Dizzy With a Direction

2 December

We had a wildlife management hunt at the park this morning.  So, I hit the woods about 4 am, assisted the hunters to the stands, and painted the men’s restroom at the Visitor’s Center.  The whole morning I replayed all that went on inside and outside of me yesterday.  This is kinda the “Morning After.”  And in my small town of West Point and rural King William County, I am sure the news is spreading quickly.  Thus far, I haven’t received any “nasty-grams” by e-mail, Facebook, or phone.  A co-worker at another park wanted to assist me at Trinity with some sort of plan for evangelism.  She does have some good ideas.  I referred her to our chairman of the deacon board.

My co-workers were interested and surprised that I made such a bold choice.  I am still in shock a bit that I made such a choice.  Who steps down from a 16 year pastorate with no other church in the waiting offering more money?  I never did anything that would cause a scandal nor shame my good name and reputation.  Plus, I have some very energetic young adults that are ready to work.  Leaving at a time when all is going well seems foolhardy.

I am foolhardy enough to believe that African-Americans should have exposure to the Orthodox Church.  This is the faith that our ancestors helped to establish.  Eastern Europeans know the names Athanaisus, Cyprian, Catherine, Moses of Ethiopia, and pray the prayers of Anthony and Macarius.  For us continue not to want to know who these brothers and sisters are while some white kid in Kiev kisses their icons is shameful.

I have a problem with the idea that unless people are shouting and waving their hands that they aren’t really worshiping “in the Spirit.”  Orthodoxy is a tried and proven alternative to this pervasive “holy peer pressure” that is happening too often among Baptist as well as its usual Pentecostal circles.

I got other issues too.  I will finish later.

Okay, it is later.  About 7 pm Eastern.  Keeping the Nativity Fast has proven to be extremely difficult.  Thanksgiving leftovers, staff hunt breakfast, and today my wife and her aide cooked a turkey; Great Lent is an easier fast to keep.  I will have to run from Christmas parties from now until the 25th.  

Oh, and a major piece of good news.  I may be getting Chrismated on Sunday, January 5th, 2014.  The Eve of Theophany will start a new chapter in my life.  I already have ideas for the new blog for the new Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  I am seeing a lot of possibilities on the other side of this time of confusion and sorrow.  

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 5): Wisdom From New Friends

1:00 pm – 9:30 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

During lunch, we had round table discussion about race and the church. Sure enough, there are some Orthodox congregations who are not receptive to black converts. One of the things that has crippled the spread of the Orthodox church was the various ethnic groups kept their faith closed and did not evangelize to others of any race. Except for St. Herman and the other Russian missionaries to Alaska in the 18th century, the church made no major effort to win converts. In 1987, the Antiochians threw the doors of Orthodoxy open to all who sought the faith. But because of traditional ethnic bonds and good old American racism, there are still some Orthodox churches that keep their doors closed to African-Americas who may want to convert.

Thank God this has not been my experience. There is not one Orthodox church that I have visited that I was not welcomed. The church I attend (when I can) is in a city with a reputation for being bigoted. But, the members are from all over Hampton Roads and various ethnic backgrounds. To me, the racial divide works both ways. I think black people need to open their minds and hearts and see that the Holy Spirit is more than just clapping and shouting in church. We need to learn that Africans originally practiced liturgical worship. Even today when Ethiopians immigrate here, they don’t go to our AME, Baptist, COGIC, or any other African-American congregation. They go to any Orthodox church they can find. And if there is enough of them in a general area to have a congregation, they form a parish.

Perhaps one of the most compelling people I have met and heard is Rodney Knott. Bro. (Dortheos) Knott directs ReEngage Services, a mentoring program to encourage men to be responsible fathers and contributors to society. He has a sense of compassion and toughness that seems to be very effective. I was blessed to be in the small group discussion with him and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel. I’d love to have those two brothers come to King William and evangelize for a week. I think they could convert almost half of the men in the county to the Orthodox Church.

Again my health was not up to par, which reeked havoc on my attention span. What I did hear of Mother Katherine Weston’s talk on “Loneliness” was very interesting. I had no idea there was no such word until the 1800’s and the industrial revolution. One thing I did write down that is worth thinking about in this time of social media meanness and isolation that she said, “Real conversation can be messy.” No doubt, there can be no true community nor church unless we are willing to have compassionate dialog.

IMGP8129_edited-1 IMGP8133 IMGP8134_edited-1 IMGP8137_edited-1 IMGP8140_edited-1 IMGP8144

Actually, I was impressed with the nuns who attended the conference. These women have rejected the world’s standards of beauty of clothing, make-up, and all to live in humble simplicity. There was one younger sister, I guess mid-20’s, who could probably attract a nice young man. Yet, she has shunned human marriage for a divine, spiritual matrimony to God and the church. There is nothing like being in the presence of women monastics. They are full of wisdom and compassion.

I had been looking forward to hearing and meeting Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy.  Had he been Protestant, Paul could have started his own non-denominational church and made himself a bishop.  He could be a mega-church minister with a little time and effort.  Instead, this brother is in the Hill District of Pittsburgh “Building Community in Profound Brokenness.”  I liked what he said about not cutting ourselves away from redemptive suffering.  When we run from it, the result is fear and self hate.  When we accept it, we become one with the suffering people we serve.  I ate with him and Fr. Jerome.  I will share notes on that conversation in my final article.

Dr. Carla Thomas is a wonderful combination of brilliance and compassion.  While I am not qualified to open and run a free clinic as she did in a small town in Alabama, she does present a model for building an Orthodox community anywhere.  Meet a practical need of the people and make the prayers a part of what is done.  From her clinic, an Orthodox Church was organized.  Indeed, something similar is happening to Paul in Pittsburgh.  The goal is to bridge the faith with the needs of people.

Fr. Moses Berry uses history as a bridge.  His museum in the heart of Ozark country and traveling lectures about slavery and black communities during Jim Crow helps to break down the barriers between the races.  We tend to put up stereotypes and avoid facts.  Not Fr. Moses.  He has slave neck irons to show the pain of the brutal system and quilts that depict the fact that we are a people who (by the grace of God) constantly create something out of nothing.  I like his example.  We should talk with one another about the past in love and not accusation.

I am no night owl.  So again, I got a ride back with Mrs. Mathews and the boys.  I hope someone recorded the “Circle Wrap Up” and will post it on You Tube or Ancient Faith Radio.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 2): A Bad Blessed Bus Trip

( I actually typed this up on the way to Kansas City.  There is quite a bit of moaning an whining.  You may wish to skip down to the “REFLECTION” at the end of this post )

8:40 pm/9 October/Richmond VA

I think the Roman Catholics are right about Purgatory.  I have found it.   The Richmond Greyhound Bus Terminal waiting for a midnight bus to DC and Baltimore.  There cannot be too many more jacked up situations than where I am now.  I didn’t want to impose on anyone too much.  So, I asked my sister-in-law to get me here around seven.  We had a nasty little Nor’Easter  hit us and she doesn’t drive in the rain too well at night.  So, I will be waiting for a while as dude with the big floor scrubber does his thing and there is darn near nobody around.

Gina did hook me up with some sort of pumpkin spice bread.  I paid way too much for a “Powerade.”  These metal seats must have been part of the Spanish Inquisition.  Uncle Bob used to denounce Greyhound as a low class airline.  Chances are the Huxtibles would not be caught dead around here.  But, I paid half of what a plane would cost and dealt with no freaky airport security x-ray machines showing my butt naked body to some guard.

But, I can’t complain. The fact that I can afford to go to the conference is a blessing.  Plus, I got my wife a set of teeth.  The refund check was a gift that I was not looking for.  I probably could and should have spent the money on a couple of other things around the house.  But, next year’s conference will probably be in Oakland or somewhere else too far to travel.

The wi-fi sucks!  I can’t get on Facebook.  Yeah, this is Purgatory.  I will have to make the  best of it.

5:35 am/10 October/Baltimore, MD

I thought Richmond was bad.  At least Richmond hand a restaurant.  Richmond, not considered a pro sports city, has a much larger terminal than downtown Baltimore.  Both terminals have me more than a bit disappointed in how the customers have a choice between these horrible metal seats and the floor.  I am not saying Greyhound should provide us with Lazy-Boy recliners and sofas.  But, these seats offer no comfort.  If the company is going to offer us slightly overpriced food (Richmond) or only vending machine food (Baltimore), they should give us some measure of comfort.  And yet again, NO FACEBOOK!  THE WI-FI DOES NOT WORK!

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

2:44 pm/ 10 October/Zanesville OH

For every joy there is a frustration.  Between Frederick MD and Pittsburgh is some of the finest fall scenery I have ever seen.   And yes, Pittsburgh is the HOLY LAND with about 3 or 4 Orthodox Churches within sight of the interstate.  Actually, Wheeling WV and eastern Ohio are kind of nice too (not yet in Zanesville).  I am not sure how the area does in tourism.  But, I would definitely visit here.

I don’t think my laptop is allowing me access to Greyhound’s unsecured wi-fi.  This could be for my benefit.  So, I won’t cry about that.  But, once again, I am furious with the metal chairs in the Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.  Riding a bus is a more meaningful way of travel than flying.  You get to see the country at a slower pace than you do a train.  But, uncomfortable terminals and sub-par, overpriced food take away from what should be a nice experience.  Again, I liked what I saw of Pittsburgh outside of the Greyhound terminal.  It really seems to be a nice place to visit even if you don’t like sports.  But the terminal was just another place where Greyhound must improve.  Next year, if I go anywhere, I may check out Amtrak for an unadvertised early bargain.

REFLECTION

A couple of people at the conference (somewhat jokingly) called my journey on the bus ascetic.  When I think about the saints who lived in deserts, ate dry bread, and dealt with worse conditions than mine; yeah, I seem like a cry-baby wuss.  Jesus told us to deny ourselves and carry our cross.  Following Jesus does not always happen in times or situations of comfort.  People who only want to move with a savior that calls them to creature comforts of life are missing the point.  We are to pursue the Christian faith, we have to learn to endure hardship and accept sacrifice.  No, not everyone is going to be a St. Anthony the Great (he gave up a life of wealth to move out into the Egyptian desert to live a life of prayer).  But things like maintaining a discipline of prayer and fasting helps us remember what our Lord has gone through for our salvation.

So, I will put some “Ben-gay” on my back again and be grateful for the journey.  Not just going to the conference.  The journey of Christianity is to walk through this strange land we live in knowing that we are citizens of the greater and eternal kingdom.  May I live like such a citizen.

There Is An Alternative: Letter To A Frustrated Friend

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

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

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

Dear Terrance,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On To Pentecost: Accepting Mary the Theotokos

As a teenager, I once raised my voice in disrespect to my mother.  My Father was in the house.  My parents were (are, as they are still alive) old school when it came to corporal punishment.  In my childhood, I knew that when I did wrong, I would get a spanking.  An hour or two afterwards, all was forgiven.  I never thought that they hated me or were going to kill me, no matter how much I angered them.  That time, as I look back at it, I praise God that daddy only fussed at me.  If he would have laid one finger on me, he would have killed me.  That is the angriest I had ever seen my father until this very day.

So, I can’t help but to wonder how we anger God the Son when we Protestants vocalize similar disdain and disrespect toward the woman who brought Him into the world.  “MARY DOES NOT SAVE YOU!  ONLY JESUS SAVES YOU!  YOU NEED TO READ YOUR BIBLE!”  Of course, ultimate salvation comes from believing in Jesus Christ.  He and He alone came down from heaven, was crucified, and rose from the grave.  The Holy Trinity that we worship is the three persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Mary was a human being and cannot be included in the divine Godhead.  Anyone who proclaims anything different is a heretic that needs to be corrected.  Yet by her very character, role in our salvation, and the meaning of her presence; Mary should be honored and respected by all Christians.

 

The late Patriarch Paulos  of Ethiopia.  This man has studied the Bible in Geez, Amharic, Greek, Slavonic, and English.

The late Patriarch Paulos of Ethiopia. This man has studied the Bible in Geez, Amharic, Greek, Slavonic, and English.

 

First of all, that Mary was a virgin.  She was pure and untouched through any lawful or unlawful sexual contact.  We are taught by the Apostle Paul to think of things that are pure and praiseworthy.  In our over sexed society where even our ministers are engaging in illicit activities, it only makes sense that we would uphold someone who has kept herself from human intercourse.  In our society, women are frequently refered to in rather unflattering terms (need I give you examples?).  Here is one woman who cannot be regarded with such vulgar labels.  Which is more that God the Father confirmed her character by sending Gabriel to her with these words;

Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!  (Luke 1:28)

If God the Father favors and was with this pure woman, why then shouldn’t Mary be a part of our Christian living?  And what has been the result of not making her and her virgin character a part of our Protestant pursuit of holy living?  It is no wonder that Satan has had an easy time convincing us to disregard sexual purity.  When the blessing and favor of celibacy is ignored, we readily succumb to fornication as a way of life.  Without the iconic example of being clean, we frequently turn to the mild filth of sexually suggestive comedy and drama, horrific crimes of child molestation and rape, and everything in between the extremes.  This is not to say that venerating an icon of the Theotokos will instantly cure lust (oh, how I wish it would).  But, reflecting on the story of her purity and devotion to the One she gave birth to is a way to refocus our minds on the right way to look at our selves sexually. 

Old Time Religion

As I preached at Trinity Baptist Church yesterday, Mary was a virgin not only with her body.  She was virginal in her close associations as well.  She was betrothed to Joseph of the house of David and  spent three months with her cousin, Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias the priest.  Perhaps she had one or two shady acquaintances.  But, her loving ties were with people who knew how to walk with God.  Furthermore, Mary had to have a pure relationship with God.  When Isaiah was in God’s presence, he fell on his face and cried out “woe to me.”  Eve tried to hide herself from God because of her sin.  In the company of Gabriel (who had previously appeared only to a prophet and priest), Mary was troubled about the greeting and wondered what he meant.  Isn’t this what we want of our kids, spouses, and ourselves?  Don’t we want pure bodies, close friendships with God-fearing people, and a secure walk of faith?  And if so, what is wrong with giving honor (not worship) to the woman who embodies these blessings and gave birth to our Savior?

As a Baptist pastor, I cannot and will not just walk in the church with an icon of the Theotokos and tell everyone to venerate and make prostrations.  But, in my private prayer life, I see the beauty, theology, and value in giving her proper honor as taught in the Orthodox Church.

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!

On To Pentecost (Bright Wednesday): Little Milestones on the Way

CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD

DESTROYING DEATH BY DEATH

AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMB

BESTOWING LIFE!

 The Great and Holy Pascha has come and gone.  But, the journey with Christ does not end!  The “Birthday of the Christian Church,” Pentecost is less than 50 days away.  After the final, fast-free day of the week (Remembrance Saturday), it is back to the normal Wednesday and Friday fast commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord and Savior.  Thus, even without the great milestone of remembering the day the Holy Spirit came into the world to spread the Gospel to the world, I would still have a way of life (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) that I should still continue in.  Plus, the next few Sundays contain hymns reminding us of everyone from St. Thomas, the Myrrh Bearing Women,  Paralytic, Samaritan Woman, and the Blind Man.  Our Lord’s Ascension is on Thursday, June 13th. 

One thing about major milestones is that there are some significant milestones to be reached and revered before getting to that big one.  A person with plenty of time on his hands going from Washington DC to Virginia Beach would do well to take in the history of Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Williamsburg.  What tour guide doesn’t recommend a stop or two en route to one’s main destination?  These are great learning opportunities and chances to check one’s bearings and supplies. 

Pentecost

So as the spiritual journey now points to Pentecost, I am going to stop at these other points to check myself and the things that are around me.  One thing I will definitely check up on is my eating habits.  I ate way too much meat and cheese on Sunday and paid the painful price with a gout attack.  It just so happens (God has a way of giving us help when we need it most) that podcaster  and dietitian Rita Madden posted her last edition for a while entitled Eastern Orthodox Healthy Eating and Living Toolbox.  Her very first, and most profound, point is that we have to like having a new wellness lifestyle.  She supports this point with a quote from St. John Chrysostom, “Every work that does not have love as it’s beginning and root is nothing.”  So, in order for healthy eating to work for me, I must enjoy it and seek communion with God as I do it. 

Today, I started at dinner.  I fixed a vegetarian chilli with garlic bread (okay, I love butter and cheese) and took about one minute between bites.  My goal is to get better at eating slowly and not being quite as much of a carnivore, even on non-fast days.  When I get a little better with those, I will work on reducing my portion size to “eat just enough to stave off hunger” (St. John Chrysostom).  By Pentecost, I want to feast a lot better than I did on Pascha.  I was far too much a glutton.  I wish not to make that mistake again.  If I take care to take one milestone at a time, I will get to where the Lord is leading me.

Journey into Great Lent (Day 29): The Journey Worth Taking

It’s almost over.  Then again, it isn’t.  Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week.  Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter).  Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?).  Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough).  I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline.  No more self-denial!  YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!

Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Icon of Palm Sunday

No, wait … .  I am sorry.  But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast.  These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength.  I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast.  The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure.  It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline. 

Then again, the journey is not over.  And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism.  There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord.  Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent.  Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion.  In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God?  Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent?  Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety?  Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world.  Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should. 

Without prayer, fasting is just dieting.  This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations.  Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained.  We are to be awed to be in God’s presence.  As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion).  As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours).  In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God.  The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year.  The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well.  Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year.  We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). 

To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday.  I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting.     But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon.  And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills.  But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods.  Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer.   I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking.  I won’t turn back.