Orthodox Christianity

The Ever Virgin Mary: My Bull’s- Eye Theory

“Failure is not the problem.  The problem is low aim.” — Dr. Benjamin Mays

Yes, I believe that Mary was a virgin through-out her life.  This belief was central in early church doctrine, continued (though somewhat skewed) in Roman Catholicism, and was unchallenged by the first wave of church reformers.  It wasn’t until the more radical reformed churches came into being that the perpetual virginity of Mary was questioned and rejected.  Many make this error based on the scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters with His mother waiting to speak to Him even though in that culture one’s cousins were also counted as siblings.  Others are misled by the text where Joseph did not know (as in carnal knowledge) Mary until she bore her son and named him Jesus.  This is a translation problem for in the same Gospel, Jesus declares He will be with us until the end of the age.  By that logic, after the end of the age, Jesus will no longer be with us.  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?

O Virgin Pure

Perhaps the most disturbing and failed excuse for rejecting Mary as ever virgin is that “she was still human.”  Yes, I believe and the Church teaches that Mary was fully human.  But, is it wise to believe that the natural state of humanity is to wallow in desires of the flesh, or to pursue purity and unity with God? If we aim for the best standard of physical pleasure, sex in heterosexual marriage, we aim for what God has ordained under the Old Covenant, which is good.  As humans, we have a chronic tendency to fall short of our goals.  Pursuing pleasure often distracts us from our goals.  In fact, we tend to excuse personal fulfillment of pleasure as a greater good (“all is fair in love and war”).  Combine aiming for the lesser goal with our tendency to fall short of our goals and the distraction of pleasure and you have a recipe for a society doomed for sexual failure.  It is like a darts thrower who never aims for the bull’s eye.  If there is no central point that he seeks, he will barely reach the inner circle where there is great value.  Instead, his darts will land on various parts of the board (at best) and may even stray far away from the board and hit by-standers causing injury.

But, let a society pursue the purity of an ever virgin Mary.  There is an unusual purity to aim for; to be human and offer one’s sexuality as a sacrifice as a celibate.  It was through the Virgin that the Savior was born and He was also celibate as he was fully human as well.  Mary becomes the bull’s-eye the dart thrower aims for.  With a central target, the thrower will still not make his goal all of the time.  But, he can hit the safe and valuable inner circle of holy matrimony.  A darts-man who hits this circle with regularity is as admired as the one who hits the bull’s-eye.  Novices at darts that constantly strive for the bull’s-eye will improve from hitting the wall, to hitting the outer areas of the board, to hitting either the highest targets of monasticism or matrimony. And this may be the root of why our modern society is engulfed in sexual immorality; rejecting the ever virginity of the fully human Mother of God has taken away the spiritual bull’s-eye that we should strive for in our sexuality.  We don’t see that supreme holiness can be born in us and in one another.  If we cannot see this possibility, then it is difficult to see ourselves and one another as much beyond potential sex partners.  We dehumanize each other in the worst ways.  Men are seen as lovable but brutal.  Women, especially in modern pornography, are treated in ways that if they really were dogs, the PETA would break every law in the world to protect them.  Even outside of porn, our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are too frequently thought of,  referred to, and treated as less than the icon made by  God that they are as we men are.

This is not to say that those of us who hold Mary to be Ever Virgin are perfect in obtaining sexual purity.  We are probably as bad as, and in some cases worse than anyone else.  But, holding her as one who abstained from sex even after giving birth gives us an example to aim for.  And if one constantly aims for the bulls-eye, the result will be to the better.

Contemplating Confession

No,  I didn’t rob a bank, pick up a hooker, or stab anyone.  No, it is none of your business exactly what I am guilty of.  But, I am a sinner and I did sin.  The medication for this sickness is confession and repentance.  In Orthodox Christianity, there is a process of coming forward to the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child beside the priest in the presence of the church.

It is a bit intimidating of a process.  Granted, with the chanting going on and speaking in a low voice with the priest, no one can hear your business.  Only when the priest declares absolution does anyone hear anything during the sacrament and even then nothing is disclosed about what was done.  Plus, the early fathers never demanded that everyone confess every sin in the church beside the priest before attending Divine Liturgy.  There may (and probably should) be a spiritually reliable person in one’s life to confess to.  Father does not need to hear every time you took an ink pen from work, drove over the speed limit, or fantasized over the new office intern.  We don’t believe anyone should beat up themselves over every sin.  Confession and repentance is an on-going process that we should be experiencing in our daily spiritual disciplines.  A daily and frequent seeking of God’s mercy and salvation from evil should and must be pursued and is enough to absolve us from sin if done in sincerity.

But, there are some things we do because of severity, frequency, and the potential danger that going before God during Vespers, Matins, or completely in private with the priest is advisable for the sake of our souls.  Such a confession can be the first act of recovery from an addiction or prevention of a bad situation from becoming worse.  In some cases, it may be a preparation for one to confess to legal authorities and prepare for civil consequences.  While such things as 12 step programs, anger management, and the like may be useful and effective in correcting outward behavior, sin is the illness of the soul and only the blessing of forgiveness from God can correct it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)

There was a time when I would have deemed such a practice as unnecessary.  But, when I think about it, Protestants sometimes have similar practices of confession.  At altar calls people can ask the preacher to pray for forgiveness.  Certainly, a pastor keeps an open door and heart to anyone to confess privately.  Many churches advocate prayer partners and spiritual mentors where one can go to when they can’t reach the pastor, or feel more comfortable spilling their guts with than with the pastor.  And all Christians are encouraged to repent of sins in private as part of their daily prayers.  So, why should anyone go before an icon, beside a priest, in a prayer service, and confess sins?  Let me briefly name three:

  1. The ordained priesthood has the ability to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit and succession by the resurrected Christ and his Apostles (John 20:22,23).
  2. Confession is essential for repentance and cleansing from sin (Mark 1:4,5).
  3. We are a community of people who seek to live anew, not just individuals seeking personal salvation (Matthew 3:5).

I am called to be the salt of the earth.  If I lose my savor to my sins, I am useless.  I am called to be the light of the world.  If I hide under the basket of my failures, I cannot fulfill my purpose to share the True Light (Matthew 5:13-16).    I pray and believe that confession will heal my wounded soul, give me the ability to heal those whom I have harmed, strengthen my Christian journey, and unite me even closer with my fellow believers and humanity as a whole.

Revolution Calling

I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth.  But, now I see the pay-offs everywhere I look.  Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?

Revolution Calling  Queensryche

So, let’s see.  The world and every agenda of it has given me a new lie to swallow.  I remember the Twana Brawley fiasco and how that propelled Al Sharpton to the national spotlight.  The football player turned war hero Pat Tillman who was shot not by the enemy in a fire fight, but by a fellow soldier.  How one girl from West Virginia refused to go along with the exaggerations of her heroism and another’s death was ruled a suicide when even Stevie Wonder could see by the evidence she was raped and murdered.  And now, I find out that the Matthew Shepherd case that had Americans thinking about homophobia and its victims was spun in a way to make him the poster child for gay hate crimes though other factors, namely drug abuse, were involved in his death.  There are plenty of other true stories that any cause could highlight for the sake of their agendas.  But, the media’s and society’s thirst for exaggeration and falsehood has obscured truth so much that many people have become calloused to one another.  A change in politics does little or no good as both those on the left and the right have proven to be liars with no sense of remorse.  Conservatism, liberalism, and even moderation are all failing and have failed our nation and humanity.

Monastic Contemplation

Anthony did well to go into an African desert to devote his life to prayer.  Seraphim of Sarov did likewise in the forest of Russia.  It was the the Son of God and the evangelist John that taught us to renounce the world ant its ways.  Perhaps if I were single and had no debts to repay, St Catherine’s, Valaam, or even Holy Cross would be good places for me to live the rest of my years.  But, total monasticism is not my calling.

Again, I started this blog as an extension of my second life character, an Orthodox monk.  In real life, I have done the unthinkable in leaving a stable Baptist pastorate to convert to the Church.  I think I should consider and commit myself even more to the faith and spend even more time in reading and studying the scriptures, desert and early church fathers, and other elements in Orthodox doctrine and practice to deepen my faith.  This world offers little truth and no hope.  There is a greater kingdom than this one.  Achieving the greater kingdom must be my ultimate goal.  I still have a job to do, a wife to love and take care of, and hobbies.  But, the kingdom of God and His righteousness is the highest goal and of greatest importance to me.

And I must do this with a sense of love and laughter.  Whenever I express my challenges and difficulties, my priest always reminds me to laugh at myself (and I give me plenty of material to do that).  I can’t be so hardcore about working out my salvation in fear and trembling to forget that (1) Jesus took care of much of the process by conquering death by His death and (2) everyone I see is an icon of God.  Thus, in my revolt against the world and it’s ways, I am called to express compassion, joy, and hope as well as to be humble, sober minded, and serious about the things of God.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  — Matthew 5:16

Visiting An Orthodox Church: What To Know Before You Go

Chances are, your first experience in visiting an Orthodox Church will not be like visiting just another Protestant denomination or non-denominational church.  This One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is pre-denominational and has traditions that go back to the Apostles themselves.  I recommend that you speak with a friend or priest before you make your first visit that will help guide you in exploring the faith.  But, there are a few quick things to know before you go for the first time:

Tom, Jon, Orlando, and Ian hanging out at the Conference.

Tom, Jon, Orlando, and Ian hanging out at the Conference.

  1. You need not carry your Bible = It was funny.  I was the only one with a Bible when I started attending Orthodox worship.  For the first 300 years of Christianity, there was no Bible.  After the Biblical canon was accepted in 398 AD, it isn’t like they were sold at the local book shops.  The epistle and Gospel is read each day and the Psalms are prayed before the Divine Liturgy.  So, the Bible is a part of the worship.
  2. Late and on time for Divine Liturgy = If you are on time for Liturgy, there is already worship going on.  Orthros or Matins is a series of prayers offered before the Liturgy.  The priest reads the Gospel, hears confessions, begins preparing the Eucharist.  Chanters, readers, and sub deacons offer prayers and psalms.  There is no break between the morning prayers and morning worship.
  3. Let us stand aright … and for most of the service = There were no pews in ancient Christianity. One was to stand in the presence of God, not kick back and relax for the singing and sermon.  Visitors and members are welcome to make use of the pews and seats that are provided.
  4. The priest is not sitting down on the pulpit = Nah, he isn’t in that cushioned chair (or 2 piece love seat combo in some non-denominational contemporary churches).  He is standing behind this wall of pictures, walking around with burning incense, holding up the Gospel Book and a cross.  The worship is the Divine Liturgy.  Liturgy means work of the people.  If the congregation has to stand up, so does the priest.
  5. The sermon is over already? = While a 20-30 minute three points and a “whoop” is a standard (especially for African-Americans) in Protestant churches, Orthodoxy is all together different.  Most homilies are 15 minutes or less.  Inspiration must be found in the words of the message and not in the style of the messenger.
  6. Looking at the pictures = Good.  That’s why the icons are there.  We worship with all of our senses including vision.  Looking at pictures of Jesus, Mary, and the other holy images can help keep your focus on God instead of the upcoming sporting event or last night’s TV show.
  7. Crossing theology = No, we don’t do it fore good luck.  We worship God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (thumb and first two fingers held together).  Jesus was fully human and divine (last two fingers together in the palm).  He came down from heaven (head) to earth (chest) we confess him as Lord as the thief on the right side of the cross (start from the right) and we follow him (move to the left).
  8. No communion for you = Some priest will give you a blessing when you come forward.   We do share the Blessed Bread after the service with all who attend the Divine Liturgy.  A member may give you a piece of the bread during the service.  But, even though you may be baptized, born again, Holy Ghost filled, sanctified, and everything else, unless you have been catechized into the doctrine and chrismated as well as baptized in the name of the Trinity, you may not partake of the Eucharist.
  9. About Christian radio music = You can hear that on your own time.  Divine Liturgy has the traditional hymns and chants that go back a century or two.  In some parishes, there are beloved songs from Christian cultural traditions (a Negro Spiritual is not out of the question) other than Arabic Byzantine, Ethiopian, or Slavic.  But, contemporary Christian music does not make it into any part of Orthodox worship.
  10. No pressure = The priest will not “open the doors of the church.” Members will invite you to come again.  But, no one is going to hound you to become a member.  All we ask is that you take the time to learn about church history and the Orthodox faith.

Starting Over

So, let’s see.  I earned 30 credits toward a Master of Divinity at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University, completed the Evans-Smith Leadership Institute of STVUU and the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, served as a Communion Server for the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, President of the Pamunkey Baptist Association Sunday School and Literary Union, PBA Treasurer, First Vice-Moderator, and Moderator as well as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  And now, I am a church member with no office nor title.  Attending a funeral at Trinity over the weekend, one of the deacons politely addressed me, “Hi John.  How are you doing?”  I have always told myself and others that a title is not important to me.  But, I have to confess that I found it strange that this man had addressed me by my first name for the first time in about 20 years.  I did not have a seat in a pulpit that I was welcomed in by my predecessor.  This was a weird feeling.

Had I remained where I was, I suppose I could have risen higher.  I was a friend to some movers and shakers in the denomination.  Finishing my degree and putting my name out there would have gone a long way.  Or, perhaps I could have gone non-denominational and sought the position of evangelist, prophet, or conference teacher as a part of some modern “Five-Fold Ministry” movement.  Making the right connections would put me on a fast track to greater notoriety.  Even then, I could still keep my credentials as a Protestant clergyman.  

There is no fast track to rising in the ranks of Orthodoxy.  Attending seminary is not to be considered or recommended to the bishop until after at least five years in the church in good standing.  Even after earning an M.Div, there is no guarantee of becoming a priest immediately as the bishop (through prayer and the needs of the church) decides where to assign graduates and when, or if to ordain a seminary graduate into the priesthood.  Skipping from one jurisdiction to the other in the hopes of being ordained is not permitted except by the bishops involved in such a change.  As for leaving the church and starting a new Orthodox parish, whatever one would call such a church, it would not be recognized as Orthodox.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy.  He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy. He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

I am reminded about the value of humility.  Jesus taught us not to be the one at the wedding feast trying to get the important seat because someone more important than you might show up.  Instead, take the lowest seat in the house and there is a chance that someone will bring you up higher (Luke 14:7-11).  Exchanging my comfort and privilege in the high seat of the Baptist Pastorate to be just another Orthodox Christian in the congregation does not take away from who I am.  If anything, starting over can be a breath of fresh air in my spiritual journey.  I can re-learn what ministry and my calling is all about.  I am free to explore where God may have me to serve rather what others expect of me.

Thus far, I am a bit of a reporter and blogger as I strive to organize the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  Fr. James has asked me to be a part of the evangelism team.  And I have been asked to consider teaching a Sunday School lesson.  I doubt if my name will be mentioned alongside the well-know voices on AFR or OCN.  But, there is a place for me here in the Orthodox Church.  All I have to do is prepare for whatever God has for me to do and do well with where I am assigned.  In the mean time, this “lowest seat” is a good thing.  I am worshiping with good brothers and sisters in the faith.

 

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 27 Establishing My Cell

I am using the days of the Feast of the Nativity to reclaim and restore some things in my life that I have let slide for way too long.  My gross little tank half filled with tannin stained water is a 35 gallon tank with schools of golden barbs and neon tetras.  I have my medical and other bills together and will set things up to slowly pay them off.  Tomorrow is going to be in the upper 50’s.  So I will get to my car cleaned up.  But today was a combination of the kitchen, some laundry, and my all important cell.

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The Modern Monastic with my patron saints John the Baptist and Cyprian of Carthage and a photo with my wife.

Monks live cells as a place of prayer and solitude.  As my wife’s condition went south, I moved to the spare bedroom.  She had used it to store some of her notebooks and other things.  I used it as well as a bit of a dumping ground.  And I have never been a neat freak in the slightest.  With me clearing out my office at the church and my wife and her aide slowly tackling getting the home office/junk room straight, I figured making my bedroom into a proper monastic cell would be a better option.

St. Moses the Ethiopian told a brother monk, “Go to thy cell and thy cell will teach thee everything.”  In the state it was in, the only thing my cell could teach me is that I am a mental and spiritual bus accident waiting to happen.  Seeing that I have been in three of them and there was damage in each, I figured I’d do something about it.  Finishing the job, I found 3 bags of clothes that are heading for a donation bin.  I haven’t decided what to do about my shortwave radio and scanner.  And if my shotgun was in the house, I would have shot the old DirecTV box for fun.

But, a couple of items in my cell have prominence.  I have an Oxford Study Bible with the Apocrypha that I have owned for about 20+ years.  I also have the New Jerusalem Bible my father gave me when I graduated from VSU in 1989.  Both of those Bibles have been with me in quiet contemplation and major wrestling matches.  The photo of my wife and I taken when we got back together in 2000 (we did separate for two years for the sake of mutual mental health).  Despite our inner demons and outer differences, we love and are very loyal to each other.  A copy of the Life Magazine photo of Archbishop Iakovos with Martin Luther King Jr during the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.  Perhaps a foretaste of Orthodox Christianity and African-Americans coming together for dialogue and working together for the betterment of humanity.

Along with my prayers before my Matins in the living room, I am reading the Ante Nicene Fathers and taking notes.  I need to remind myself to push myself to pray Compline.  And also to spend time enjoying leisurely reading while listening to some good jazz every now and then.

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.