conversion

One Year Later

On Christmas Day, Wednesday December 25th, 2013; I will preach my last sermon at Trinity Baptist Church. I will also resign my Certificate of Ordination in the Baptist Denomination. As of January 1, 2014; I will be a member of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Poquoson. I will also work with the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black in its efforts to introduce Orthodoxy to African-Americans and all who seek this ancient Christian faith.

From the sermon, Stepping Out of the Boat  (http://trinitybcofwestpoint.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/todays-sermon-stepping-out-of-the-boat/)

It was the sermon that I knew I had to preach sooner or later.  Actually, I converted to Orthodox Christianity earlier than I thought I would.  My original plan was to continue to serve as the Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church for another year or two to make sure my finances were in order, had another job, and was going to receive some sort of title (although I knew the priesthood was out of the question for the first 5 years of being Orthodox).  But, I remembered the advice of a preacher who got put out of his church, “A good pastor does not stay at a church longer than he should.”

I also thought it wise to follow the advice of a pastor I looked up to since childhood, “John, if you remain Baptist, you will only become bored and frustrated.”  I had to choose between being broke or crazy.  I already had one person suffering from mental illness in my home.  We didn’t need two.  So, I renounced the Baptist denomination and became an Orthodox Christian.  People were angry, disturbed, and saddened at my decision.  Creditors have sent me some mail no one wants to receive.  No, the transition has not been easy.  I have had to stand alone as no other minister I knew of, of any race made, such a leap.

In Thought

In Thought

And yet, I know firmly that I made the right decision.  While I still struggle to make ends meet, God has provided the means to keep the bills paid and something in the fridge.  I am still friends with my former congregants.  My church family at St. Basil has welcomed me with open arms.  And not only they, but other Orthodox Christians and Churches have counted me as a brother in the faith.  With all of the challenges I have had this past year, I can say that I have grown in ways that I could not have had I remained where I was.

If it is God’s will, my growth in the Orthodox Church will continue as I seek to be more deeply rooted in the ancient faith.  Central to this is my personal asceticism.  I have found my rule of prayer to be the truest means to know the ways of God.  I have found a pattern of words from the church and early fathers as well as my own expressions that bring me closer to the Holy Trinity.  I see a new light to the scriptures when I read them.  The works of the desert fathers have been very influential to me and I look forward to reading other writings, including those of Seraphim Rose and the Philokalia.  Even fasting has become more of a part of who I am (although I do start to hallucinate about Philly steak and cheese burritos half way through Great Lent).

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

Fr. James Purdie & Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy

I enjoy being one of the Matins Chanters.  Reading the six Psalms (3, 37, 62, 87, 102, & 142) and chanting the Evlogateria (Benedictions) re-enforces the meaning of the Gospel.  The 50th Psalm is the call for the very first and essential thing Jesus proclaimed, repentance.  Divine Liturgy is the most heavenly form of worship I have ever experienced as the body and blood of our Lord is the focus of our worship.  We all partake from the same cup, venerate the Theotokos (God-bearer, Virgin Mary), and enjoy one another’s company during and after worship at coffee hour (the food is so good).

I look forward to the challenge of evangelization.  Fr. Adam Sexton of St. Andrews OCA has given me an invitation to speak.  I believe others will follow.  I must be mindful to practice humility at all times.  It is way too easy to think too much of myself.  It is also too easy to speak and write as if all Protestants are corrupt and doomed (I fear that I have made that mistake already and repent to anyone whom I have needlessly offended).  But, as a member of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I am excited about the prospects for sharing my faith.

I thank all of you who have read my blog articles and kept me in prayer.  May the fullness of God bless you as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and enter into the year 2015.

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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.

 

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 20 Icons of Flesh and Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronicles to Conversion: Day 18 Discovering the Sabbath

For the first 300+ years, Christianity had no Bible nor legal status.  Epistles and Gospels were floating around from church to church.  There was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which is far older than our Old Testament and more accurately matches the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls).  To instruct the early Christians, the men who were ordained by the apostles who would ordain others after them relied on the tradition handed down by those who walked with Jesus during his ministry on earth.

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch with his “friends”

One of the most admired of these men was Ignatius.  According to Orthodox tradition, he was the child that Jesus sat in the midst of the disciples when they asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Ignatius became a disciple under John the Gospel writer and served as the bishop of Antioch after Peter and Paul before his martyrdom to the lions in Rome.  En route to his death, this bishop wrote a series of letters concerning church unity and practice.

In his Epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius gives a lesson on how Christians are to approach the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day (note:  they are NOT the same):

Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for “he that does not work, let him not eat.”688 For say the [holy] oracles, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread.” 689But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them.690 And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week].

The idea that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” was not taught by the first Christians nor is it taught by the first and oldest continuous expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church.  Saturday is still the Sabbath Day.  It is a day of great reverence for the law of God.  But, it is not a day of rest as taught by Judaism.  Those who wish to work should do so.  If chores have to be done, let them be done.  We are to do as we wish as long as we are mindful that the Lord is the creator and sustainer of all things.

Sunday is the day Christians are to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  Ignatius gives no ban on labor or travel.  But his words, “as a festival,” indicate that we friends of Christ are to be joyful and in celebration with one another.  As ancient believers were under persecution until 325 AD, I doubt if any of them asked to have Sunday off from the job.  Nevertheless, the Lord’s Day was the day to be with fellow believers and celebrate the gift of salvation.

 

Chronicles of Conversion: Day 9 Motivation

A brother on the Black Orthodox Christians Facebook Page, Colin, must have been digging through the crates when he found this lost gem of hip-hop.

In all honesty, I remember this beat from Schooly D’s “P.S.K” (the father of all “gangsta” rap).  In fact, I have heard some of these lines from the mouths of other MCs.  There is great value in the original.

Yeah, listening to this right after my Matins prayers has me pumped.  Not that I am a sudden expert on Orthodoxy.  But, I know enough to know that people would do well to come and see what is Orthodox Christianity and choose a spiritual direction based on prayer, and information.  I am sure some will choose not to convert to the faith.  But, I see my role is to bring the information to the people and point them to where they can learn more.  Since folk are more likely listen to someone who is walking what they are talking, I guess it inevitable that I’d convert.

Piecing together the Desert Fathers Dispatch, I have brother Robert, who is providing me with some good advice about expanding the reach of the blog.  I am still forming an e-mail list of every Orthodox Church of every jurisdiction in the state.  Some parishes don’t have websites.  So, snail mail must be used.  I suppose I will create brochures about African saints as well.  I hope to meet with other believers and get more suggestions and help.  Perhaps February would be good to get people together.  Maybe late March.  We will see.  In the meantime, I am motivated to live the life.  That is the best example of the faith and knowledge.

Chronicle of Conversion: Day 5 Not Wallowing, But Walking On

First, Memory Eternal to Nelson Mandela!  I can think of no other man in my generation who had ever moved the world in the ways of reconciliation as this man did.  Instead of a call for justice and retribution, Mandela called for forgiveness and peace.  While South Africa has many problems, the nation did not turn into a racial war zone as many had predicted.  In 2010, they hosted a heck of a World Cup.  Sometimes, letting bygones be bygones is a great way to move forward.

I am tempted to rant a bit about those who oppose my choice to become Orthodox.  But, I suppose Mandela could have ranted about his mistreatment at Robben Island Prison.  But, he had a habit of warmly greeting his prison guards.  He refused to let the attitudes of others determine his.  I see the work that lies before me.  It is in my best interest not to let my critics worry me and focus on the task, I feel, God is leading me to.  So, I have begun to reach out to others who are interested in forming the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  As expected, I have produced a working rough draft of a monthly newsletter/blog for the group as well.  I won’t wallow in worry.  I will walk on through this storm.  I am following someone and something greater than I.

You'll Never Walk Alone!

You’ll Never Walk Alone!

Chronicle Of Conversion: Day Four And Wise Steps

Happy Founder’s Day to my Brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity!  A Blessed Feast of St. John of Damascus!  And DID YOU SEE LUIS SUAREZ DESTROY NORWICH TODAY?!

Yeah, there are questions about why I am making such a dramatic change from being a Baptist pastor to being an Orthodox Christian without any title.  I have to admit, it will be weird not being called “pastor” and “reverend.”  One of my favorite professors in seminary, Dr. Charles Jones (Memory Eternal) used to remind us that, “Your momma and daddy did not name you ‘reverend.'”  I never did like being called that outside of church too much anyway.  Inside of church, hey, that is the position I hold.  I have heard a lot of people declare, “I don’t need a title to serve the Lord.”  I guess I will be putting that claim to use.

In making my decision, I am glad that I chronicled my journey into Orthodoxy so that no one can say this is some knee-jerk reaction to me not getting the money, perks, or something else I wanted.  In fact, anyone who reads my post from June of 2012 up to today will see this was a long and well trodden path I have taken to this point.  I remember meeting with Fr. James Purdie that August (at the NY Deli, the best eatery in the Williamsburg Area and owned by Greek Orthodox Christians).  He told me, “We don’t rush people to convert.  Take your time.  We are always going to be here.”  Oh, I had moments where Orthodoxy felt so right that I would have jumped ship had I had the same income I did when I worked at Dominion and not a pastor.  But, being a highly regarded pastor who relied on that church salary to pay the mortgage, staying where I was for as long as I did made more sense.  Plus, it gave me plenty of time to make sure that I wanted to convert and not based on positive or negative emotions.

I benefited from the wisdom from three wise advisers.  They didn’t interject or object to the course I was taking.  Initially, I found their silence somewhat frustrating.  Apparently, they were watching me think, ponder, pray, and post my views.  They wanted me to develop into the genuine Christian God was calling me to be.  Had I tried to move too soon or not at all and not been genuine, these men would have put me back on a fraternity pledge line (they are all Alpha Men).  I thank God they had and have my back.

So, I can give a word of advice to those who want to convert to Orthodoxy.  Take your time.  Make sure your steps are firm and that you are willing to commit to the faith.  The Orthodox Church is not a club for saints to get their praise on once or twice a week.  This is a hospital for sinners where we meet God with all of our senses and are expected to maintain the medicines of prayer, fasting, alms-giving, the scriptures, and living as new creatures in Christ.  Talk with the open minded and knowledgeable friends who truly care about your spiritual journey.  Carefully chronicle and think about your growth as you read about and participate in the faith.  When the time truly comes to convert, you will be able to look at your journey and see that the time is right.

The bird knows when it is time to display it’s feathers.