confession

Cyprian vs. Complacency

“… Only observe a discipline uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion.”   Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Bishop Cyprian led an African church in a time of great crisis.  First, there was a period of brutal persecutions from the Roman government.  He was criticized for going into hiding rather than stepping forward to become a martyr as many in his parish did.  Then, he had to argue with false teachers who wanted to close the doors of repentance to backsliders who wanted to come back to the faith.  A plague arose in the land and killed believers and pagans alike.  This shook the faith of many Christians who thought they and their families would be spared from such suffering.  After a period of relative calm, another persecution arose in which Cyprian would face the executioner’s axe.  In the midst of these difficulties, the saint encouraged a friend to practice a sober minded and pure path as a Christian.

It is easy for us to dismiss the need for such a walk of faith in this day and age.  Many of us succumb to the idea of “Getting our praise on” Sunday mornings, or as we listen to our favorite Gospel songs on the radio.  We sweep our sins under a rug since, “The Lord knows our hearts,” and didn’t mean to sin.  If a brother or sister of the faith (or even minister) dare give us a mild rebuke of our faults, they are not to “judge” us because “all have sinned.”  As long as we go to church, tithe, and love others; a disciplined spiritual life doesn’t seem to be necessary.

I believe that the Christian life called for by St. Cyprian is even more critical to us today than it was in first century Carthage.  To proclaim Christ before Constantine was an invitation to exile, torture, or death.  The courageous either hid and found ways to encourage people to remain faithful to Christ, or they boldly faced swords and wild beast.  A life of purity and sobriety gave our ancestors of the faith the strength and wisdom to do both.

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage

Today, Satan persecutes us with a more vicious torturer than any Roman official could send on us.  Complacency lulls our spirits to believe that we are walking in the narrow path of salvation when we are actually on a broad boulevard of destruction.  When we relegate worship to exuberant praise, can we hear the quiet voice that God uses to speak to us as he did Elijah?  How can we parts of the body of Christ heal from our sin sickness if we are unwilling to confess where the body is gathered?  Are we so holy that we cannot accept a word of correction from those who have made the journey before us and are walking with us?  “Oh, those are the traditions of men.  We don’t need to do all of that. God is not through with me yet.”  Instead of finding answers in prayer, the Bible, and ancient Christian writings to correct our backslidings, it is easier to make excuses for improper actions, words, and (especially) thoughts.  And since we do not face life threatening persecutions, being complacent in our Christian walk has captured far too many of us and misleading us to be no better than those who do not practice the faith at all.  Indeed, we are worse because we, supposedly, know better.

Not everyone is called to monasticism.  But, we are all called to spend time with ourselves and God in prayer as Jesus did.  All of us are called to observe times of God’s presence in our lives as the apostles did in the book of Acts.  The writings of early church fathers and mothers are available and are not hard for us to comprehend.  And the call to repentance given by our Lord back then is essential to our self-denial, taking up of our crosses, and following Him today.  Let us not be lulled by complacency in these times of ease.  But, let us struggle all the more against our sinister enemy who wants nothing more than for us to let our guards down.

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My Second Orthodox Pilgrimage: Monday Prelude

11/3

So, here it is once again.  You remember, the last time I went on a journey into Orthodoxy was my death knell to being a Baptist pastor.  At least I won’t have to worry about losing a job this time.  In fact, I may be gaining one instead.  Depending on how my interview goes, I may be working at the McDonald’s in Toano when I return.  Not a bad little part-time gig.  As far as church is concerned, I won’t have to worry about making my congregation upset with me.  My priest is driving us.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the news that I wasn’t selected for a job in my career field I interviewed for.  It took a couple of days.  It took a few days to get over that.  I was sorta thinking the job and the salary could be a spring board for me to afford to take the St. Stephen’s Course for a MA in Applied Orthodox Theology and evangelize in the Northern Neck.  I had dared to think to start a mission parish there.  A person must be Orthodox for at least 5 years before he is considered for the priesthood.  I was thinking I’d spend a year getting my secular career down pat and then begin my studies.  Then again, my walk with God has proven to me that His plans and mine can be a heck of a miss match.  Apparently, He has something else in mind.

Holy Cross Monastery (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia)

This trip is to the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virginia.  We are going to be with men who have committed themselves to prayer and repentance.  Instead of me plotting and planning, I need to do more of what they are doing.  I have my own personal demons that I have not been the most diligent at fighting.  I follow my nightly prayer rule about as consistently as Liverpool have been winning matches this season.  And my uncertainties and insecurities plague my mind.  I don’t expect any of the monks to put a cloak around me to make me invincible.  But, if someone could help point me in the right direction, that would be great.  Oddly enough, I think God has already sent someone my way to do just that.

St. Moses the Black (aka, the Ethiopian, Robber, and Strong)

I have this icon of St. Moses the Black with him holding up a scroll.  These are the words:

Let us force ourselves a little and let us never be slothful.  O Brethren, that we may receive forgiveness of sins.

I am kind of like that cigarette smoker who has tried time and time again to quit, but has not.  And to have this 2,000 year old brother to tell me to fight my temptations is a bit annoying, especially since in my 40 plus years of being a Christian, I have only learned of this African saint a couple of years ago.  I know this man’s story of how he was a former slave and gang leader who was convicted by the Holy Spirit through the loving hospitality of the monks that he attempted to rob. Moses, probably of Nilotic-southern Sudanese stock, was humble almost to a fault.  He considered himself to be the lowliest of the monks and did a lot of menial task for those who couldn’t.  He struggled with his personal demons for years.  When he was called upon to help judge a sinful brother, he carried a leaking basket of sand over his back to show how he left his sins behind him and is in no position to judge his fellow man.  So, when I see the icon of this brother telling me to keep pushing myself to do better spiritually, it is kinda hard for me to disregard him or make excuses.

I think this is the advantage of a holy icon and the Bible rather than just the scripture alone.  I can read about the Apostle Paul and his encouragement to fight the good fight and not to be weary of well doing until my  eyes roll out of my head.  And certainly I can read what Jesus taught about righteous living, “go and sin no more,” and his death, burial, and resurrection.  The icon puts a face on the lesson.  The life of the saint is the story of another person’s carrying of his (or her) cross that can’t be ignored.  “Well, all I need is Jesus!  I don’t need them ‘saints.’”  Maybe you don’t.  But, I do.  If the scripture is true, “There is nothing new under the sun,” I want to know who else got sunburn and how did they manage to heal and find shade.  Jesus was fully human.  But, He was also fully divine.  I want to know what other humans denied themselves, took up their crosses, and followed Him so that they could put on divinity as well.  I know that paint and wood, ink and paper, is not a god to be worshiped.  But, these representations of Christ, the Theotokos (Jesus is God the Son, Mary gave birth to Jesus, this makes her the mother of God; deal with it.), and the saints are reminding windows that there is a higher human existence to strive for.  Thus, I find it necessary to worship with and venerate holy icons as they represent the cloud of witnesses that surround me.

Along with the icons there is confession.  It is much easier to belong to a church that does not encourage this sacrament.  One can confess simply to himself and God with no priest around.  One may not need human accountability and encouragement on the journey of faith.  Again, I need this.  I am a part of the body of Christ and while only the priest needs to hear my issues, other members of the body can see that I am striving to do better in my walk as I see others.  And we confess not to put on a show of holiness, but it is an encouragement to come to this hospital for sin sick souls.  “Well, Jesus is my doctor!  He is all the doctor my soul needs!  I don’t need no priest standing beside me and putting his robe on me and praying on me!”  And what doctor doesn’t have a nurse on his staff?  Confession is done before the Lord.  The priest is an assistant and coach in this process and has the power to forgive sins just as Jesus gave that authority to his disciples (apostolic succession, as with the Theotokos, deal with it).   All Christian churches expect believers to improve spiritually.  Confession is a very effective tool for such growth as I admit my failures before God and receive encouragement and prayer from my priest.

I have to get some ducks in a row before I  leave.

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.

Each One An Icon

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness, … .’   So God mad man. in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.

Genesis 1:26, 27

How foolish I am!  How can I venerate and give honor to the saints on the wall and not show like love to the person on the street?  How dare I honor the Holy Theotokos and harbor lust for the girl I did not marry? 

What is a holy icon but a window and portrait of God’s greater glory?  Was it not by the hand of the painter that we have these windows?  Perhaps by the skill of a wood-carver and other craftsmen that we possess such items as reminders of the love of our Lord?

And yet God made the perfect icon when he made men and women.  In his image and likeness we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  With his breath of life we are all living souls.  Here is the icon I should honor and kiss in holiness.  Here is the image I should hold as evidence of God’s compassion and mercy.

Yet this is the icon that I hold in contempt.  I suspect it a thief and liar.  I condemn it for its flaws and imperfections.  I abuse it as a toy only fit for my pleasure and whims.  This icon which was not made by a man’s hands.  This image of God and made by God.  This likeness of which I am.  I am their brother and I have shown them fear, hate, and lust. 

Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  I am the chief of all sinners! 

Forgive my calloused thoughts and harsh words toward my fellow-man.  May the power of the Holy Spirit cleanse my heart and mind of wicked desires.  Let me hold high the value of each man, woman, boy, and girl.  We are the icons that you made.  Let us honor and love one another as such.