faith

Where “Favor” Falls Short

Favor is a popular term in modern Christianity.  We hear it in songs and sermons.  We share it in inspirational social media post.  I used to be that weird country preacher that refused to jump on board every bandwagon of “relevant” ministry.  Now that I am Orthodox, I would rather ride a Greyhound bus from New York to LA than the wave of any popular catchwords or phrases.  In my Wednesday morning reading, I couldn’t help but to see how the pursuit of “favor” from God falls woefully short of seeking His mercy.

Out of sheer curiosity, I broke out my Strong’s Bible Concordance and found that the term “favor” appears a whopping six times in the New Testament.  Luke used the term in his version of the Gospel to describe how John the Baptist and Jesus grew up.  He used it four times to describe the relationship between the early Christians and those around them in Acts.    Not once does Jesus, Paul, nor any other epistle write describe favor as something worthy of being obtained or necessary to live as a Christian.  It is something good to have as it does give peace in mind and a sense of security.  But, “favor” is not the mark of the Christian according to the One whom we follow:

If any man would come after Me, let him humble himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.

“But what about the Old Testament?  Surely God wants us to have favor in the Old Testament.”  Here the term is used about 56 times.   In several places, the favor comes from an earthly king and not God.  Also, the wise Solomon suggest that favor can be misused as well.  Furthermore, I find this rationale most disturbing as the revelation of our salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, is not found in the Old Testament.  To try to use a term in the Old Testament as superior to the way it is used in the Gospels is an abuse of the scriptures and a denial of the significance of Incarnate God.  If this is your line of thought, for your own spiritual health, you should consider changing it.

In comparison, “mercy” is the greater goal both in the usage of the term and significance in Christian life.  This word appears 58 times in the New Testament (about 200 times in the OT).  For those who consider the “favor” to be a blessing, please consider the Beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Having a house that people say you can’t afford, a job that you don’t have the education for, or some other form of “ain’t fair favor” does not cross the lips of  Jesus as being a blessing.  Having compassion to those who are broken, confused, disturbed, lost, rebellious, … ; this is the one who is blessed.  We all fall into one of these conditions from time to time.  Sometimes we fall into multiple conditions at the same time.  Jesus teaches here what He repeats as the “Golden Rule” of this great sermon:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

When challenged about eating with tax collectors and other sinners in the house of Matthew, Jesus offers this rebuke from the prophet Hosea:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To follow Jesus is to desire everything He desires.  If He never mentions “favor” but clearly defines “mercy” as what He wants from us, why should we listen to preachers and singers and read books and social media post about a barely mentioned term instead of this requirement that appears in the New Testament some 9 times more often?  To mention “favor” in worship and fail to call upon Christ for “mercy,” or to call upon the former more often than the later is spiritual malpractice.  Such doctrine and teaching is producing Christians who are in the faith for what Jesus can give them in this world rather than how we are to prepare ourselves for the next.  If and when such believers fail to get the “favor” they seek, they wander from ministry to ministry seeking it.  They tend to blame themselves for not being a part of the right man or woman of God as the reason for not receiving their breakthrough.  They will patiently wait for what they want and in not getting it, they will put some sort of spin on why they don’t have it (“It isn’t my season yet).  Or, they eventually give up on Christianity all together.  The differences between such a false concept of our faith and an Islamic terrorist is that the Muslim does his job more quickly and only kills the body.  The empty pursuit of favor is killing souls and creating walking dead Christians.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get your concordance and look up “favor” and “mercy.”  See which one is used most often and why.  Favor from God  is not a bad thing to have.  But, don’t sell your walk with Jesus short.  As I heard from a priest last weekend, “You cannot be a Christian without mercy.”

 

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Against Modern Heresies, Simply Stand and Practice

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

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

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch

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

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

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

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

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

Memory Eternal: For Brandon

“Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”  (Luke 23:42)

Just when he started to make some good choices, death chose to take him from us.  Just when the potholes in his road were being filled so he could go somewhere, he went away.  Brandon not only turned his life around.  But, he was young and had plenty of time to achieve great things.  At least, that’s what we thought.  That’s what I thought as I admired his laughter and good nature as we all sat and joked around the table this past Thanksgiving.  None of us knew that the crime he tried to turn from would turn on him.

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

There was a thief on a cross who, unlike Brandon, had no hope of redemption on this earth.  He was condemned and nailed.  Left to hang on that tree until breathlessness or a merciful death blow would relieve him.  And yet, the thief did have one hope.  It was in a world to come.  It was through the Sinless One that was crucified with him.

Among the better decisions Brandon made, he looked upon Jesus as his source of hope.  He did’t know all there was about discipleship.  Nor did the thief.  But, they both had sense to believe in and call on the gateway to a better world.  Christ answered the one with faith,

Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.  (Luke 23:43)

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

May Brandon’s faith suffice for his deeds.  Lord, please let his confession be sufficient for salvation.  Let your mercy shine upon him both now and forever.  And may your spirit of comfort be on his family.

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: 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.

 

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (part 4): Morning and Hope

7:30 am to 12:00 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

I rode over to the church with Fr. Justin and Turbo.  One day, I’d like to take a road trip with these brothers.  They seem full of great stories, wisdom, and just cool dudes to hang out with.  The day began with the Rite of Sing of Psalms with Toparia, Epistle,  and Gospel.  Let’s just call it Matins prayer on steroids.  In my normal discipline, it is just me, my icons, prayer books, a candle, and some (Dollar General) incense.  This morning worship had more Psalms (duh) and prayers, some I was familiar with.  Others were a bit new to me.  Again, one of the most beautiful things about the worship is that we were all together.  Another thing that was great was the meditative nature of such worship.  There is no entertainment value in a group of nuns singing and chanting and the congregants following along.  It is a call for reflection and repentance in the presence of God. I cannot tell you how many times “Lord, have mercy” was rapidly prayed.  Plus, there was a sermon from Fr. Maximus Cabey.  He is the pastor of an OCA church in Green Bay, WI.

Growing up as a black Baptist in the south, the idea of a black pastor in a liturgical church (except for the Episcopalians) seems odd to me. Yet, Fathers Maximus, Moses, and Jerome Sanderson serve in what I grew up believing in “white” churches.  “Dead white” churches at that because they were not Baptist, Pentecostal, or (at least) Methodist.  While I am not myopic to think that there is no racism in the Orthodox church, it seems that there may be less in the ancient faith than their is in Western Christianity.  The challenge is to make the faith known.IMGP8124 IMGP8128_edited-1 IMGP8135_edited-1

This is the great thing about the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black.  Yes, the goal is to bring Orthodoxy to African-Americans.  But, it is not exclusively black in membership nor target audience.  I was blessed to meet a white sister, Sarah Motley, from Roanoke who had been going to these conferences for six years.  I will work with her to form a Virginia chapter of the Brotherhood.  In a Sunday School lesson, Fr. James Purdie taught that Orthodoxy has it’s roots in Africa.  Yet, it is deeply embraced by Eastern Europeans.  Serbs pray the prayers of St. Macarius of Egypt.  Russians refer to the doctrines of St. Cyprian of Carthage.  Any Greek will tell you that St. Athanasius’s enemies referred to him as the “black dwarf.”  If the Orthodox church is good enough for these white people, I see no reason why African-Americans ought not learn about and convert to this ancient faith that Africans were very instrumental in establishing.  The Brotherhood is named for an Ethiopian (I think one of those really dark skinned Nilotic or Para-Nilotic people rather than a brown skinned Amharic) who is widely honored by the Orthodox world for his non-judgmental kindness and wisdom.

After breakfast, Fr. Jerome Sanderson reminded me so much of my late grandfather-in-law in is lecture about living with nature.  I really should be ashamed of myself for my poor gardening and I have an Ag. Education degree.  I have been good (at one time) about walking trails and along shorelines outside of work.  I need to do more of that.  I didn’t get Brother Michael’s last name.  His work at Emmaus  House in New York is very similar to Reconciliation Ministries in KC.  Fr. Paisius Altschul continued on the theme of “The Church In the Village.”  Overall, it seems that the goal of Orthodoxy is to be a part of the community that meets the needs of the people who live there.  In the case of the fore-mentioned ministries, especially the needs of the least of these.  My challenge will be to make this community/Orthodox model apply to rural and small town Virginia.  Some things are already in place.  I just have to get up and do something.

 

 

Embracing John The Baptist

I am sorry I haven’t worked on articles about my trip to the St. Moses the Black (Ancient Faith Afro-American) Conference yet.  Actually, I did type up a few rough drafts while in and on the road.  I will get on it as soon as I have time and get better.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been well and found out last Friday that my blood sugar level was 720.  I was hospitalized over the weekend and just got home Monday afternoon.  This morning, I tested out at 150.  I feel dizzy.  I’m ready for a morning nap.

I am grateful for the visits, prayers, and phone calls from my Trinity Baptist Church family and relatives on both sides of my family.   Fr. James Purdie came with his eldest children.  I kinda expected him to pray the Trisagion and offer up some other ancient prayers.  He also gave me an icon of John the Baptist.  This was no major surprise coming from an Orthodox priest.  But, the more I sat and looked at the icon, the more I thought of how I need to make my patron saint a part of me.

John the Forerunner

John didn’t eat the most elaborate diet.  I imagine locust and wild honey gets old kinda quick.  Nor was he very fashionable (camel’s hair garment).  I’m not much on clothes since I wear a uniform at work and a suit on Sundays.  A couple of sport shirts, jeans, and khakis round out my wardrobe.  I have to make a change in my eating and drinking.  Deserts are not a big problem for me, except for holidays.  I do okay on my weekly fast.  But, I eat myself silly on non fast days.  I don’t think there are too many juice-based drinks at the 7-11 that I have not tried and liked.  Such beverages have been a major addiction of mine.  On my trip to KC, I drank Hawaiian Punch like a comfort food.  No wonder my blood sugar level was up to ridiculous.    John and the later monastics had the right idea.  We need only to eat and drink what is necessary for health.

Spiritually, John provides a role model of what is most important about the Christian faith.  Repentance, giving to others, and living in expectation of seeing the Christ.  Again, I am no fan of “get your praise on” worship.  I don’t really get into buying stuff because I have little or no disposable income.  I do worry that people see the Christian faith more as a “feel good, self help, get what you want in this world today” religion rather than the “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” faith that Jesus calls us to.  Could it be that we have spiritual diabetics who only want the sugar of earthly blessings and no balance of muscle building proteins of self sacrifice?  Could it be that we have people with 720 blood glucose levels of praises instead of 60 to 100 of a prayer discipline?  I think we all need to monitor our bodies and souls and the later is far more important.

Yeah, I honor the saints of Orthodox Christianity.  Moses the Black, Cyprian of Carthage, Isaac the Syrian, Herman of Alaska, and others grace my icon corners.  But, John was the true forerunner not only of our Lord.  Except for the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), he was the role model for all saints.  He is a role model for all Christians as well.

 

Jakes & Perry Circus: An Answer To A Friend

I see the Holy Spirit blessing in this. I don’t believe Tyler Perry was playing. He’s a blessed man of God who told the truth. God wants us to share our riches. People are so use to seeing Perry as Madea, we need to also look at how God has blessed him and rejoice with him. He’s smart, anointed, and trusts God. I don’t know about you, but I pray that God will bless me enough to write million dollar checks. Like he said, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Don’t hate, appreciate. Anticipate the blessing that God promised. You never know who God may send the blessing through or to.

My Friend,
It is silly ministry stunts like this so common in modern Protestantism that has driven me to the path of Orthodox Christianity. I could attack this ridiculous pep rally in a few different areas. But, let me focus on one major point that we have received from Jesus Christ himself:
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”   Matthew 6:1-4

What our Lord taught on the Sermon on the Mount is the direct opposite of the circus in this video. I don’t curse Tyler Perry and his success. Nor do I have anything against him giving any amount of money to any cause he sees fit. The problem is in the way that he did it. Had he simply mailed the check, or transferred funds to TD Jakes’s account with no fanfare, according to scripture, the Father in heaven would have blessed the gift. Indeed, doing the will of the Father by obeying the words of the Son (Matthew 7:24-27) means that the Holy Spirit blesses the act as well as all three persons of the Holy Trinity are co-equal and consubstantial.

Sermon on the Mount

Yet, look at what happens in the video. A famous entertainer is on a major stage with a famous minister in a large congregation mentioning another large conference also produced by the said minister. So, he is clearly in a place to be seen among the righteous religious leaders even though (to my knowledge) he has no clerical credentials. What does he do? He announced his contribution of money that the average attendee of this service obviously cannot afford to give. The announcement is made with loud praises and tongue speaking. It was as if a whole band of trumpets were sounding. Oh sure, they all may have been saying “praise God, hallelujah,” and other Christian expressions. But, Perry still was disobedient to the commandment of Jesus Christ! He did a charitable deed before men to be seen by them and received glory from men! Thus, as he has violated the word of the Son, he has no reward from the Father. And as this act was against two persons of the Trinity, why would the third person, the Holy Spirit, bless such a thing?
Let me not be critical of Perry’s sincerity. He did a good thing giving money to TD Jakes’s youth center. But, had he read the scriptures, he would have known it would be better for him to do it in private as Jesus instructed. Here is the danger in what he has done. Now the masses that were there looked up to the famous man who gave the large amount. They praise God and celebrate such a wonderful gift. But, what about the person who doesn’t have nearly as much to give nor the ability to give? Perhaps there was a “Tonya Perry” in their midst who despite being on welfare, gave whatever was in her penny jar to help this youth center. In the eyes of Jesus, who gave the most (Mark 12:41-44)?
“Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:43-44)
So, what we have is a mass of people (ministers as well as laypersons) who’s praises are more focused on the fame and fortune gift and ignoring the word of the Savior they serve (Matthew 6:19-24). Again, the words of the Son have been ignored. Needless to say, the Father whom He is One with has been overlooked as well. Thus, with the Father and Son being in the co-equal and consubstantial Trinity, could the Holy Spirit be involved in this?
I do not think Tyler Perry is a bad person. Despite my doctrinal differences with him, I respect and honor TD Jakes for his effort to do something for young people. But, this was an unfortunate circus act allowed by ministers who failed to stand on the teachings of Jesus Christ. A left-field, out of context reference to the 23rd Psalm did not impress me (who was stopping Jakes from building a youth center?). Using the name of the Lord and spiritual expressiveness does not hide facts that the wrong method of giving was used and the wrong concept of giving was shown.
I have serious issues with pop-media Christianity, especially as it tends to stray away from the way the holy scriptures had been interpreted since ancient times. Too many of us are being fooled by any and everything that sounds religious and stirs us up. Paul teaches us to be sober as we wait for that Day that comes like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). I have no problem with people being joyous nor having plenty of money. But, it is possible for people to get drunk on these things as quickly as liquor or wine. Perhaps I am a bit of a critic, and please forgive me if I have personally insulted you or anyone else I know or don’t know. But if being sober minded in faith and true to the scriptures means being a hater, what is the definition of hate?

The Journey Continues: The Dormition Fast

One of my frat brothers posted a photo of himself being led out to “the block” on the first day of the pledge line on Facebook.  I am not sure who took the photo of me the same day.  But, I put this up on my page as well.

Beginning the Journey (@ John Gresham)

Back then, to pledge a Greek-letter organization was a journey.  The big brothers would place all sorts of challenges and obstacles before us as test to see if we had the mettle to strive for our goal.  The aim was to complete the 4 to 6 week pledge process, participate in the rituals, and become brothers of the fraternity.  I am very glad that I “crossed the burning sands” to become a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American college fraternity.  So, what does my pledging Alpha have to do with the journey that I am on now?  My desire to become an Orthodox Christian (which will not happen this or next year) does come complete with some burning sands of its own.  Among these is maintaining a fast that no good Baptist would even think about observing.

To us of the Calvinist line, the Virgin Mary’s significance is pretty much spent after she gives birth to Jesus.  We may mention that Christ told John to take her into his home as his mother at the crucifixion.  Other than that, we see where the 12 -year-old Son of God had to be about His Father’s business in Jerusalem rather than keep up with His earthly parents.  We also see where any elder woman who does His Father’s will is His mother.  So, for us to voluntarily surrender eating meat, dairy, fish with bones (save the feast of the Holy Transfiguration on Aug 6th), and marital sexual relations for two weeks in her honor is a very tall order.  To make a special effort to improve our prayer lives, scripture reading, and love for others in remembrance of this woman instead of her Son seems to shift the focus of our devotion to someone other than God.  Besides, black and white Baptist churches in my part of the world begin holding Homecoming and Revival Services where we feast on spirit-filled preaching, anointed singing, and plenty of good food.

What we ignore is that in John taking Mary as his mother is that the ageing faithful are to be cared for as directive of Christ.  Frederica Matthews-Green brings up an interesting point in her podcast on the Dormition Fast.  We don’t mind taking care of a helpless infant as much because the baby will grow and be able to take care of it’s self.  Taking care of an elderly person who becomes more and more helpless is a far greater challenge as they will eventually die.  Death is our common destiny.  The love of Christ extends as a baby to his youthful mother.  It also extends as a dying man to a mother who will also die.  Thus, this season is to remind us to have tender love for one another as we are all on a journey that leads us to the end of this life.  By following the Light that gives Life to all, our journey will lead to eternal life with Him.

Dormition of the Theotokos

In the frat, we learned the organizations history, “steps,” and traditions through repetition and enduring hardships.  Those critics on the outside ridiculed us saying that we shouldn’t have to go through all that just to wear “some letters.”  Sometimes the lessons of Christian living are best learned by enduring some sort of challenge or obstacle that reminds us to rely on God and his mercy rather than our own understanding and will.  There is no doubt in my mind that Mary was greatly loved by the first Christians.  Her loss was mourned, and then celebrated as the Mother of God (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God – John 1:1) was accepted into heaven.  Thus, the ancient church fathers and mothers began the practice of fasting and ending the fast with a great feast in her honor.  I see the purpose and wisdom in this observance and voluntarily embrace it.

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.