Orthodox Christianity

A Week at the ‘House’: Antiochian House of Studies Residency Program

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The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects.  Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith.  One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.  For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.

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Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh).  My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience.  There would be little time for “R&R.”  Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship.  The food will be plentiful and delicious.  But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.

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For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim).    Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider.  For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist.  Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism).  Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with.  It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression.  Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub.  I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6.  Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well.  We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students.  It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.

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The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together.  But, we all did more than just get along.  We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God.  The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling.  Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.  Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations.  Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical.  No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26).  From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3).  The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.

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Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders.  If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week.  I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year.  I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017.  But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.

The Trap of Little Sins

I have a little print-paper icon of St. Moses of Ethiopia that I use as a bookmark.  It is currently in use as I read My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt as part of my bedroom prayer rule.  On the icon are these words from the African monastic,

Even in little sins, let us force ourselves and not become lazy for truly we have forgiveness of sins

From the Russian priest, I found these words on page 58,

Most men not only bear Satan’s burden willingly in their hearts, but they become so accustomed to it that they often do not feel it, and even imperceptibly increase it

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It is not hard for us to wake up and repent of our “big” sins.  We are quick to be offended, saddened, or feel some other emotion when an obvious act of immorality has been committed.  If our vision along our spiritual journey goes no further than what can readily be seen, then Satan has blinded us.  As long as we aren’t observant that we don’t fall for the “minor” temptations and make excuses for us committing them, the evil one is allowing us to rot from the inside.  He is often waiting for the rot to set in so deeply that when faced with a major temptation, we will fall quite easily and not realize how we could do such a thing.

Oh, it is a little thing for a man to “check out” a shapely woman every now and then and consider it harmless.  Yet, our Lord taught us better;

But, I say to you, if a man looks upon a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:28)

In many cases of child molestation and rape it is not unusual for law enforcement to find the perpetrator had a pornography habit.  Affairs and fornication begin with the eyes and the mind long before the sexual organs are involved.  And rather than confront a son’s (or daughter’s, I suppose) lengthy times in the restroom or alone online, even Christian parents resign themselves to the phrase, “boys will be boys.”  The perpetual laziness in not being watchful against and embracing lust is the cause of men and women failing at relationships as we don’t know how to relate to one another as beings who pursue purity of heart.  Even as we pursue our “soul mates,” lust stains our souls so that we wouldn’t know the “right one” unless an archangel actually pointed him (or her) out.  And even if we do find a good spouse, those little sins left unchecked and well fed are able to rot the best of marriages.

Murder can begin with unchecked anger, theft with envy, hate with pride; every “big” sin begins with a “little” sin, or a series of “little” sins.  Care must be taken that we search them out within ourselves in times of contemplation and prayer.  We who seek God cannot afford to accept the worldly excuses for them.  They must not be tolerated in ourselves.  But, we must repent of them no matter how minor they may seem.

 

 

 

The Transition Continues: New Structures & Old Time Reverence

My church looks more like an Erector Set with icons.  Our  choir director, Chuck Simerick doubles as the lead contractor leading the Saturday building sessions and weeknight work.  It is amazing to see how we have gutted the place and put up these metal studs.  After a while, there will be some drywall up as well.  We have all been busy giving our hands in labor.  This certainly is not an overnight process.  In fact, we won’t be finished for a few months still.  But, nothing worthwhile takes place in an instant.  Try to microwave a 4 lb. Boston Butt and smoke another for an hour per pound at 250 degrees and see which one is edible. IMGP0502 IMGP0503 IMGP0505 In speaking of new structures, the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black will hold its First Symposium on Saturday, September 4th at 4 pm!  I am excited that my church will be hosting the event in spite of our work.  In fact, I think it is symbolic that this movement to introduce the ancient faith to African-Americans, which is a work in progress, is having its first event in a work in progress.  I am also excited that Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy of FOCUS Pittsburgh and the St. Moses Mission will be the guest speaker.  This brother is articulate, inspiring, and filled with the grace of God!  Don’t take my word for it.  Check out the speech given a couple of years back.  Better still, meet with us at Hampton for the symposium! st moses symposium flyer Meeting Bishop Thomas last year, he said he’d be interested in an informal meeting with my (then) congregation and others in my area.  I am still very interested in forming this structure; a bridge of dialogue between the African-American Baptist and the Orthodox Church.  A Pentecostal Apostle and and Orthodox Archpriest in New York have done that with two East-West Meet & Greet sessions.  Perhaps in October, I can bring this idea up again.  We will see if God is willing. Yet, as their is a need for some new structures, I am glad to experience something that is (and should be) without change.  I remember on first Sunday mornings how my grandfather prepared the communion.  Deacon Joseph (“Daddy Joe”) didn’t say much when he did it.  It seemed that he had his mind fixed on the task at hand.  He cut the crust off of a few slices of bread and cut them in what seemed to be perfectly measured little squares.  Daddy Joe had a glass bottle with some sort of bulb and tube thing on it where when he squeezed the bulb, the perfect amount of grape juice came out into each cup.  Though a symbol of the body and blood to the Baptist, he prepared the Lord’s Supper with reverence. IMGP0512 IMGP0515 With no iconostasis blocking my view, I got a chance to watch Fr. James prepare the Eucharist.  It was as if the spirit of my grandfather was right there as Fr. carefully prayed the prescribed prayers in preparing the body and blood of our Lord.  The bread came from the oven of one of our members and was broken with the name of each one of us in mind and a few for any visiting Orthodox guest.  The wine and water mixed appropriately as prayers were constantly offered as part of the process.   Bishops and priest have been preparing the Lord’s Supper in the same spirit of reverence since the days of the Apostles. IMGP0521 IMGP0524 There is no Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper without reverence from the one who prepares and the one who receives.  It is better not to take it at all than to take the literal (or even symbolic) body and blood of Christ with an attitude of spiritual complacency.  These are holy gifts which should not be taken lightly.  That we are able to serve (ordained clergy) and receive them is of the great grace of God.  When we cheapen them by having the wrong frame of mind; we cheapen grace, ourselves, salvation, and God.  May this not be so with us.  Please, be in prayer before, during, and after partaking of this meal.  As we say in our Divine Liturgy, “The Holy Things Are For The Holy.”

The Transition Continues

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

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

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

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

 

The Need To Read Something Deeper

During the first 300 years of Christianity, to be a member of the clergy or known as an unapologetic Christian was a sentence to torture and death.  Early believers read and followed any papyrus or scroll written by and about  these men and women  they could find.  After the persecutions ended under Constantine, Christians who were ready to renounce the world before wild beast did so in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and the Siberian forest.  Those who did not become monks and nuns sought their advice and were greatly influenced by their wisdom.  Despite disputes between them, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians (and early Roman Catholics) held the ancient monastic writings and early church fathers in the highest regard second only to the Bible.

Unfortunately, something changed during the magisterial and radical reformations as well as the revivalist movements in Western Christianity.  There arose this idea that earthly wealth and influence was a sign that God’s favor was upon one’s life.  While the early Baptist, Methodist, Church Of God In Christ and other denominations may have intended that their churches would be among the flourishing examples of this doctrine, this concept has landed in the hands of many freelance “non-denominational” clergy who use it and the name of Jesus to reap millions of dollars from people who are unknowing about Christian history.

What I find most frightening about this earthly wealth as evidence of God’s favor doctrine is that intelligent and well-meaning people have and are falling for this trap hook, line, and sinker.  They fall for it because the TV and radio stations blast the latest sermons and Gospel hits without any meditative and  self-sacrificial lessons from the more contemporary likes of Howard Thurman or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, much less from Ignatius of Antioch or Theophan the Recluse.  Books by well publicized inspirational authors dominate bookshelves at Barnes & Nobel and Wal-Mart where profits come before investigating the roots of Christian spirituality.   No one is telling modern Christians that there is a firmly grounded, tried and true alternative to “flavor of the month” Christian preachers and writers.

What makes this trend of adhering to those who promote such a doctrine is that it ultimately fails.  There are people who have been blaming themselves for not receiving their “breakthroughs” and “shifts” saying that they weren’t faithful enough or their “season” has not come yet.  Like rain and sunshine, God allows any person who works hard and smart to get rich or go broke.  Those who fail to receive the financial promises they have been seeking for years will give up on Christianity and become bitter.  Those who do become well off in the midst of such false doctrine will become arrogant and blind to what it is to become Christ like when called to “… Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.  Then come and follow me.”

Anthony and the Desert Fathers did what the rich young man failed to do.  And because these men and women renounced the world to devote themselves to a true and pure pursuit of God, they were and are greatly honored by Christians of many generations.  Church Fathers such as Basil and John Chrysostom did not enrich themselves in their leadership positions.  They built schools and hospitals and dressed just as modestly as a monk or reader.  The lessons of the Philokalia did not come from men who hustled for “seed offerings” to repair their private jets.  These were monks who ate little more than beans, bread, and vegetables.  None of them expected to become wealthy.  They were too busy obeying the requirements for following Christ, “Deny thyself, take up thy cross, and follow me.”

Perhaps the latest book by the latest Christian preacher or inspirational speaker may have a good quote or two.  Snack foods do have a few bits of nutrition.  But, a healthy body is the time-tested result of good meals and exercise.  Our journey with Christ should also include the time-tested spiritual writings of the Bible and the writings of those who were of the atmosphere that the New Testament books were written and compiled.  How does one find such books in the midst of  a Trinity Broadcast Network dominated Christian environment?  It isn’t easy.  But, it is possible.

 

I personally recommend Fr. Athanasius Iskander’s “Practical Spirituality According to the Desert Fathers” (it’s FREE) is a great introduction to some of the most enlightening men of the monastic world.  One need not be a church history buff to apply these ancient lessons to modern life.  The Fr’s name sake wrote a short volume “The Life of Saint Anthony,” the man who was the father of all monks and nuns.  “Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers” is a reader friendly introduction to the 38 volume set of the Early Church Fathers (which can be read by anyone online for FREE).  Orthodox Churches tend to maintain libraries as most public ones have little concerning church history and this ancient faith.  Roman Catholic sources are useful as they do point several sources older than 1054 AD (the date of the Great Schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

To grow spiritually, we must not rely on recent authors alone as our source of Christian literature and teaching.  Take the time to discover ancient Christian writings and talk to a priest who is well versed in the early and monastic writings.

Transition: A New Metropolitan, Building, and Six Months In Orthodoxy

Not only have I made a major change from being Baptist to Orthodox.  Other major changes are under way now.  The change that affects all of us Antiochians is that of our new Metropolitan Joseph.  Metropolitan Philip (Memory Eternal) has left a tremendous legacy of church unification and expansion.  It is my prayer, and that of others, that our new Sayedna will let God lead him and use the gifts he has been granted with to lead our diocese for years to come.

His Eminence the Most Reverend Metropolitan Joseph

In speaking of transitions, St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church  is now located at 1520 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666.  The building was a child care center located beside a Mormon Church and across the street from a United Methodist Church.  While I did get used to going to church in Poquoson, I think our new location will be better for evangelism and outreach as we are not far from the Mercury Blvd corridor.  Not to mention that I have two gift cards from Bass Pro Shops and there is a store less than 2 miles away!

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

The new building at 1520 Todds Lane

Gutting and renovations will take time

Gutting and renovations will take time

We have a lot of work to do

We have a lot of work to do

Last Sunday, we held Divine Liturgy and a building sanctification in rather close quarters.  Over the coming days, weeks, and months; we will be taking out walls and putting in new ones.  A lot of mess will have to be gathered up and thrown away.  We are not hiring contractors (we don’t have that kind of money).  But, we are blessed to have people who are willing to work and have some brothers who actually know what they are doing.  As long as no one tries to put a paint brush in my hands, we will have a fine house of worship.  Compared to the churches around us, we will not look much like a religious building.  Perhaps we can put up one of those Russian style onion domes on top or something.

Fr. James with the holy water

Fr. James with the holy water

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Our first Divine Liturgy in our Hampton home

Six months into Orthodoxy, I feel at home here.  On the surface, it would seem strange that a black ex-Baptist country preacher would feel welcomed in a white church.  But, as I explained in previous articles, the Orthodox Church is a white church that is not.  It is rooted in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.  The worship is the same as it was in the 4th century and traces its teachings back to the Apostles.  At Antioch, two African church leaders were among those who ordained Paul to spread the Gospel to the Greeks and Romans.  I am a part of the Church that was for all people from the very beginning.  While racism is still a reality in America, it is time for us to end 11 o’clock Sunday morning as our most segregated hour.   Orthodoxy has its issues with ethnocentrism.  But, it is still the church where saints of all races and all times are embraced and welcomed.

Choir and chanters

Choir and chanters

Taking the Eucharist

Taking the Eucharist

The most unifying thing about us and makes us all a part of each other is the Eucharist.  We don’t have Communion one Sunday a month with individual cups filled with some liquid that is supposed to be grape juice sealed with some sort of wafer.  Communion is not an afterthought taken lightly at the end of a service.  We believe as Jesus, the apostles, and the scriptures taught that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ and that we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood each Lord’s Day.  We believe that the Eucharist must be taken to give life to our souls and that it is the high point of our worship.  We are to be one with Christ and one with each other.  Thus, we use one cup as we have one Savior.

Athanasius:  Relevance in the Black Church Today

 

I believe it is time for African-American Christians in particular and all Christians in general to acknowledge Athanasius of Alexandria (aka Athanasius the Great) and his contribution to our faith.  I am sure there are some who would dare say that those old writers do not matter as much as they are not relevant to what is going on in the church today.  Nothing can be further from the truth.

African-Americans say the same cliché every year around Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If this statement is true, then there can be no future for a Christian people who ignore the black man who gave the church its first creed, boldly stood against the greatest heresy of his time (which was also started by a black man), and made a list of 27 books that would be canonized as the most important collection of scriptures to Christians.

St. Athanasius the Great.  (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

St. Athanasius the Great. (from the icon at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Church in Redmond Michigan)

Many people look at the history of Christianity as if all of the early saints looked like some Western European renaissance painting.  This is completely incorrect!  The Ecumenical Councils were attended by deacons, priest, and bishops from all corners of the known world.  Some were Celts and Saxons with pale skin and light eyes.  Others were Nubians and even Asiatic Indians with skin as dark as coal.  Most were some shade of brown between these extremes of racial scale.  Among the attendees of the First Council in Nicaea was a deacon from Alexandria who was greatly influenced by the monk Anthony of the desert.  Athanasius declared the scriptures taught that Jesus was co-equal and co-substantial with God the Father.  This was in opposition to the popular belief at the time that, according to a chant at the time, “there was a time when He was not.”  The Egyptian priest Arius declared that Jesus was the first and greatest of the created beings.  Although Athanasius won the initial argument at the Council, Arius had many friends in high places.  His chants and songs were popular.  Athanasius was driven into exile and was derided by his opponents as “a little black dwarf.”

Despite the number of influential opponents, Athanasius held firm to what the scriptures taught.  He won support from several other bishops and had the backing of the monastic community that was known for their devotion to prayer and leaving worldliness for the relentless pursuit of holiness.  At the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, Arianism was once and for all denounced.  The Creed that Athanasius proposed the first time included a deliberate belief in the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father as well as his original statement of faith describing Jesus as the, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made

The very presence and contribution of Athanasius to the first two great councils is very relevant for us today.  The fact that it was a black man (at that time, he was a young deacon) who led the fight for true Christian doctrine counters the long-standing myth that “Christianity is the white-man’s religion.”  In all honesty, we may not know exactly what he looked like.  But, that Arius (again, himself an African) and his supporters used color to describe him shows that there must have been a significant amount of melanin in his skin.  Also, that Athanasius had supporters from all over the known world, in particular the bishop (aka Pope) of Rome, shows that Christianity was a cosmopolitan faith that drew people to the truth no matter what ethnicity or race they were from.  This is also seen in Acts chapter 2 where devout men from all over the world were in Jerusalem to hear Peter’s Pentecostal sermon and in Acts 13 where the church in Antioch with its African and Middle Eastern priesthood sent two Jews to bring the Gospel to Europe.

Despite the presence of racism that still exist, today’s America is far more of a mixture of people than it was some 50 years ago.  My generation and those after me attend whatever universities we can afford and qualify for, pursue whatever careers we are interested in, and marry whomever we love.  Our nation’s most visible black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is married to a white woman.  Our President Barak Obama is not only the result of a racial mixture, his father was an African and not an African-American.  Add to the traditional black and white dynamic the Native Americans (the true owners of the land), Hispanics, Asians, Middle Easterners, and others; and you have an extremely powerful and wealthy cosmopolitan nation.  If such a diverse people could come together in Nicaea and Constantinople for the sake of true doctrine back then, surely we can do so now.  If our Christian forefathers and mothers 2,000 years ago could go beyond their various ethnicities for the sake of the Gospel, then who are we not to work toward this goal today.  A society of different people striving together in unity is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

The doctrine that Athanasius defended is very relevant today as well.  Consider the presence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the African-American community with their corrupted belief that the “Word was a God (John 1:1 in the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).”  It is no accident that this modern form of Arianism has reared its ugly head.  Because the old saying is true, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  Had we read “On the Incarnation” where Athanasius gives a detailed argument of why it was necessary for the Word of God to take on humanity for our salvation, we would have far fewer blacks in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and fewer still believing the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an equal to any other Christian belief.  Furthermore, with the amendment made to the Athanasian Creed in the Second Ecumenical Council, there would be no modern “modalism” or Oneness Pentecostals that teach that God is one person that manifest Himself in three different modes.  We would not be led to any idea that we should focus on one person of the Trinity at the expense of the other two, which leads to all sorts of false doctrines.  When we know our role in the history of Christianity and accept the roles of other people and their contributions to the true pursuit of God, we are better prepared to stand on what is right.  Standing for what is right and for what one believes in is as relevant for us today as it was back then.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Holy Bible.  The early Christians had the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Old Testament (which is older than the Hebrew Masoretic Text of Protestant Bibles).  There were various Gospels and letters circulating throughout the known world.  Some were heretical and false in doctrine.  Some were correct and well-respected in some communities, yet unheard of in others.  Local bishops did have some authority to direct clergy in their jurisdictions as to what books were useful to read during worship, which were edifying for study, and which were to be avoided.  Athanasius, the Patriarch of the prominent city of Alexandria, made a list of 27 books that he felt all bishops, priest, and deacons should study and read to their congregations in 367 AD.   He shared his list with other clergy as well as those in Africa.  This list of books proved to be so popular that in 398 AD in the African city of Carthage, a synod of clergy met and declared these 27 books to be the New Testament Cannon.

If Athanasius is irrelevant to the modern African-American church or any church of our times, why then do we still use the list of books he felt were important for Christians to read?  If this list of books proved to be tried and true for some 2,000 years, could it be that the person who made the list is worth knowing about?  What else did he write?  Who were his influences?  Who were some of the other African, Asian, and European brothers and sisters who believed, taught, and stood as he did?  Athanasius and his contemporaries provided the very foundation of body of scripture that we hold to be holy.  If his work is relevant, surely he is relevant as well.  And in a community where some still denounce Christianity as the slave master’s religion, Athanasius is a great rebuttal to this myth as it was this “little black dwarf” that gave the world this universally accepted collection of the written record of Christianity.

Again, I give you the familiar quote; “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”  If modern Christianity in general and African-American Christianity in particular does not know this and other great saints of early Christianity, what will be our future?  Shall we continue to give the likes of the Hebrew Israelites and Nation of Islam to denounce the black church as racially weak instead of standing on the shoulders of our ancient giants who stood alongside others of all races?  Shall we continue to read the latest books from the latest bishops who’s works fade away as other bishops who are more marketable occupy bookshelves with their latest releases while this bishop has more than proven his timeless contribution to the faith?  Shall we continue to reach for the latest conference and convocation to inspire us to receive “the next level of blessings” when we have not looked into our own basements and crawl spaces of Christianity to see what our foundation is and how it was built?  I consider that to continue to ignore the contributions of Athanasius, other African saints, and ancient saints of Christians of other races is not benefiting to us or anyone else.

No, I don’t expect every African-American to become an Orthodox Christian three weeks from next Tuesday.  But, there is a great treasure trove of doctrine, history, and spirituality that we are not tapping into when we ignore these deep roots of Christianity.  During our ordeals of slavery and segregation, perhaps it was due that we didn’t learn about such saints.  We were too caught up with the matters of the times.  Orthodox communities were very closed societies, even to the average white American.  But, blacks today have every sort of door open that we can learn more about our ancient pillars of Christianity.  We have every ability to incorporate their wisdom and words into our current AME, Baptist, COGIC, and non-denominational churches.  For those who wish to convert to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church but feel uncomfortable among a mostly white congregation, there are Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox jurisdictions as well as Eastern European and Middle Eastern ones.  Do not let fear of the unfamiliar prevent you from learning about the African Christians that helped pave the way for us all.

The Marcus Garvey Factor & African American Orthodoxy

Marcus Garvey was not an Orthodox or any other Christian that I know of.  Yet, this forefather of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism provides a couple of doorways for African-Americans to leave the confines of Protestantism and dive into the deep waters of Orthodoxy.

Truth

Garvey was a direct influence on the African Orthodox Church.  Bishop George Alexander McGuire, a former Anglican pastor from the West Indies and ally of Garvey, sought the creation of a Christian church headed by black clergy with roots going back to the origins of the faith.  A Kenyan and two Ugandan clergymen became members of the AOC in their homelands and began seeking a connection with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.  Their churches became a part of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 1940’s.  In particular, the Church in Kenya faced bitter opposition from the British colonial government in the 1950’s.  The Archbishop of Cyprus dared preach against colonialism in Nairobi and won the respect of African independence leaders.  Today, the church continues to grow steadily from its grass-roots of black people who wanted an authentic form of Christianity that was not handed down to them by their colonial masters.

Emperor Haile Selassie venerating the cross during Orthodox worship

Garvey is better known as the man who proclaimed that there would be a black king crowned in Africa.  This statement is the birth of Rastafarianism, named after the pre-coronation name of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie Ras Tafari.  The popularity of Rastafari grew with the rise of Reggae music and its biggest star, Bob Marley.  A year before his death, Marley converted to Christianity and became a member of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.  It was only natural that a man who sang about African freedom and redemption would be a part of a form of Christianity that came to Africa by the ministry of the Apostles Mark and Matthew.

Brother Bob Marley

For African-Americans fearful of being labeled a “sell-out” or “forgetful of where you came from” in their pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, the Garvey Factor with the witness of 2,000 years worth of the African martyrs, saints, and theologians crushes such shallow criticisms.  Charges like that do not deepen the faith of black Christians.  They only scare us from knowing more about who we are.  And when a person is too scared to know himself, anyone else is empowered to define him.  These charges keep us on familiar plantations and keep us fed on mere scraps.  While this was (only by the grace of God) nourishment enough when we had access to nothing else, we can now go to our own fertile fields and choice foods in the Orthodox world.

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Together in worship (C) John Gresham

Do not let the critics keep you shallow and scrap fed on a plantation.  For those who have seriously looked (and peeking your head in the door and going the other direction because you didn’t want to be the “only one” is not seriously looking) at Orthodoxy and decided to remain AME, Baptist, COGIC, and etc; fine.  You made an informed choice.  If you feel your choice was right, you shouldn’t mind others investigating the ancient faith and choosing for themselves.  And if the fear of being the only black person or lack of a black clergy makes you so uncomfortable about Eastern Orthodoxy (Antiochians, Greeks, Russians, OCA, …), look into the AOC, Copts, Eritreans, and Ethiopians.  Garvey and McGuire awakened black Christians to the fact that we did not have to settle for the faith that was handed down to us by former colonial and slave masters.

The Ancient Faith & Afro American Christianity Conference 2012

I have attached a couple of resources that highlight Garvey’s influence on modern African Eastern Orthodoxy:

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/history/fr._raphael_morgan

http://www.orthodoxytz.com/OrthodoxMission.asp

http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/orthodoxy_in_africa

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.

A Response to Paul Talbot

In response to my article,  The Ever-Virgin Mary:  My Bull’s-Eye Theory,  I received this response from Paul Talbot.  I have never met him.  I am a bit suspicious if this is a friend of mine trying to pick my brain (what little I have), or if this is someone who frequently post opinions against those who do not hold to his interpretation of Christianity.

Mary was a virgin through-out her life. Not true and this article offers NO evidence for that statement at all, it only attacks and attempts to discredit the substantial evidence against the statement.

This belief was central in early church doctrine, Not true. The early church knew Jesus brothers. One of them, James, led the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James in the bible, another wrote the book of Jude in the bible.

continued (though somewhat skewed) in Roman Catholicism, True.

and was unchallenged by the first wave of church reformers. True, because they had been indoctrinated all their lives by the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

I confess that I am not the best at apologetics.  But, here is my attempt.  I recommend  the Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy Blog as a far better resource for defending Orthodox Christian doctrine.  

Dear Sir,

I mean you no personal insult.  I am afraid that your criticism of my article shows you have not considered basic Biblical language translation, ancient and eastern culture, and that you overlooked the main point of the article and (thus) failed to put up a legitimate argument against it.

In at least nine other verses of scripture, it is written that Jesus has brothers.  However, the language of the New Testament was not English.  It was Greek.  In the oldest Greek translations of the Bible, the word generally translated “brother” is adelphos.  Adelphos literally means “kinsman” which can be taken as “brother, cousin, fellow countryman” or even “fellow believer.”  This word is used some 80 times in the New Testament as Paul used it frequently to describe his relationship to other Christians.  Thus, the “brothers” of Jesus may have just as well been his first cousins, or close childhood friends.

A glimpse of ancient culture will give some clarity to this term “Brother.”  Jesus was brought up in a culture that regarded general kinship.  Lot was the nephew of Abraham as stated in Genesis 11:27-31.  But, in Genesis 13:8 and 14:14, 16, the text clearly does not use the term “nephew.”  The term used is “brother,” which in Hebrew is ‘ach (fellow tribesman, or blood relative).  So, even when the Hebrew is translated into Greek (the Greek language Septuagint was the version of the Old Testament used by the Apostles as it was written some 200 years before the birth of Christ), the word adelphos was used indicating no specific relationship between the two men other than the fact that they were kinsmen.  By the way, in Strong’s Concise Concordance (I am using this and Vine’s Concise Dictionary of the Bible), the term “nephew appears only twice in the Old Testament with neither reference referring to the story of Abraham and Lot.

No, my article had no “proof” that Mary was ever-virgin.  That was not the main point.  But, since proof is what you wish to criticize me on, I ask you what is your proof that Mary had marital sex and bore these James, Jude, and the other “brothers.”  See that I have given you the argument of the languages and culture from a text that you can readily obtain and are probably familiar with.  But, I would also ask that you dive even deeper into the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and others were of the same generation of and one or two generations removed from the Apostles.  Almost every time they mention her name, they call her the Virgin Mary.  Consider this, if she had other children, why would anyone have continued to call her a virgin?  And in every version of the Nicene Creed (the oldest accepted in 325 AD and revised in 381, both of which are older than the canonized Holy Scriptures of 398) she is the Virgin Mary.  So, if you have some proof that the earliest interpreters and translators of the Old and New Testaments are wrong, please set up a blog site and post what you have found.  Let me know when you posted this.

Again, the meat of my article had little to do with offering proof of Mary’s Virginity.  My point was that believing in Mary as ever-virgin (whether Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or Orthodox Christian) can help us strive for sexual purity.  The aim for us is to flee adultery and fornication whether it is the act or even the thought of them.  Of course, we Christians aim to be Christ-like.  Second only to Him (both fully human and fully divine) is His mother who was the fully human “maidservant of the Lord.”  A maidservant dedicates her body, mind, and spirit to the service of her Master.  Likewise, our aim is to dedicate our whole selves to our Master, God the Holy Trinity.  An ever-virgin Mary (with her Son and our God) makes the perfect target for us to aim for; that we would seek to keep ourselves pure as she did so that Christ can be a part of us and born in us as she was.   If a person cannot maintain sexual control, then let him find a wife or her husband and keep their sexual activity for that spouse (as Paul advised the Corinthians in his first epistle 7:1-9).  It makes sense for us to aim for the highest level of purity (the bull’s-eye) and feel confident in attaining the second (the inner circle around the bull’s eye).

Since you chose to disregard the main point of my article, I am curious to know how your perception of Mary can help lead someone to sexual purity.  By believing Mary to be either unwilling or unable to set aside her sexual desires (even within a legitimate marriage) to be the Lord’s handmaiden, where then is your example for people to set aside his (or hers) for the greater purpose of God?  If you deny the dart thrower the ability to hit the bull’s-eye (celibacy for God’s glory), how then can he best focus on the inner circle (faithful, heterosexual marriage)?  If your doctrine of rejecting Mary’s ever virginity, in fact or theory as my article was a theory, gives someone a high point to aim for in the struggle for control of sensual desires, I would like to read your blog article.  As I mentioned earlier, I would be glad to read your work on your site.

Also, you failed to answer the question I posted in the first paragraph of my article you challenged:  Also, if Jesus did have blood siblings as we define them by our western standard, why is it that he left the care of His mother to a disciple rather than one of the children she supposedly gave birth to?  James and Jude were alive.  Why were they not chosen for the task?  Do you have any proof that they were somehow less worthy to care for their own blood mother than a disciple?  I would like for you to provide proof with your answer.