reflection

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.

A Lesson From Great Lent

Satan approached Abba Macarius and began to beat him.  Seeing his attacks were of no avail, he left the saint.  Before leaving, the adversary said, “I do everything you do and more.  You fast; I don’t eat.  You keep all night vigils; I don’t sleep.  There is one thing in you that I cannot overcome.  That is humility.”    From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  Therefor God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name, …   Philippians 2:5-11

The only way to truly be an Orthodox Christian is to practice the faith in humility.  When we fail to be humble, we make ourselves vulnerable to being defeated by temptations and living in ways that are the very opposite of what we proclaim to believe.  When we are careful to practice humility, God’s grace empowers us to overcome the enemy of our souls.  We make our souls even more pure so that we can see God active in us and others.  And even if we fall into temptation, that empowerment calls us to repent quickly and not dwell in our wickedness.

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Macarius the Great

This Lenten Fast has been a reminder of the necessity of humility in being an Orthodox Christian.  Sure, we can talk about how we have maintained the traditions of Christ and His Apostles, determined the original Christian doctrine and the books of the Bible, and the whole nine yards.  I had been comparing Baptist and Orthodox doctrine and practice for over a year before my conversion and am still fully convinced that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church.  But, if we become arrogant or complacent about our faith, we do nothing more than just go through the motions.  When the motions become empty rituals, Satan is able to maintain his foothold in our hearts and minds.  He can even introduce new and more destructive sins into our being.

In her podcast “Search the Scriptures,” Dr. Jeanie Constantinou began this season by tackling the issue of corrupt clergy (yes, we have them in Orthodoxy as well).  In the opening episode, she tells of one priest that was defrocked for having an adulterous affair.  The affair was going on for 20 years.  My statement of how Eastern Europeans were not involved in American slavery in my “To Be Black and Orthodox” blog article attracted comments from a couple of people of Roma (Gypsy) ancestry.  They told me of how Orthodox Christians in Romania held Roma slaves for hundreds of years.  Some sources even mention that there were Roma slaves in monasteries.  I didn’t enter Orthodoxy blindly and knew that there were many sinful people and nations in it are past and present.  These revelations did sadden and surprise me.  Historians, psychologist, and other minds in the faith more experienced than my own have greater insights to these and other issues.  However, I believe lack of humility in following the Orthodox faith is a contributing cause in individual and church failures.

In his original podcast, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” Fr. Andrew Damick stated, “When the hand that holds the cross also holds the sword, much is risked.”   While the cross is a symbol of death to this world that leads to eternal life through Christ, the sword is a tool of earthly and immediate power.  When humility dictates our faith, we take up the cross and deny ourselves the selfish pleasures of this world (whether consensual or exploitive).  This is how we truly follow Jesus, as He taught in Matthew 16:24-27 .  Without humility, we become enemies to Christ as were the Pharisees.  That sword we use to attack or defend against worldly foes for the sake of earthly advantage is the same one we unwittingly use to cut ourselves away from the very One we claim to follow and His other-worldly kingdom.  To practice the Orthodox faith in this way is hypocritical and makes us targets for critics and eternal captivity.  As written in Isaiah 52:5 and repeated in Romans 2:24, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  As the skull of a pagan priest told St. Macarius, “Those who know God but denied Him are down below us.”

It is good that we have and made the effort to read the scriptures for the season and some other spiritual writings for our growth.  Perhaps some of us have added to or made a change in our prayer rule that make us seem more complete.  These things are good and (by the Holy Spirt and good counsel) can be carried with us beyond Great Lent.  But, let’s not deceive ourselves.  Satan is not only concerned by what we practice.  He is also concerned with how we practice.  Ten prostrations with Jesus Prayers in humility is a powerful breastplate that his fiery darts cannot penetrate.  One hundred of these done for the sake of boasting to one’s self or others creates a mere empty room that a demon can return to and bring in seven more worse than himself.

As I reflect on my times of failure, I believe some were caused by my lack of humility.  My readings, prayers, and almsgiving have all increased.  I was blessed to write a few good essays for my classes as well as on my blogs. Except for receiving hospitality from non-Orthodox believers, I kept the fast well.  But, I have had my moments where I thought that I was “the man.”  God allowed me to fall on my face to remind me that I still have much to learn.  As I think about the path God may be leading me on, I can see where I will be destroyed if I am not careful to strive to grow in humility.  While I believe I have learned this lesson, chances are that I will, at some time or other, have to be reminded of this.  Satan will have plenty of opportunities to tempt me with arrogance, pride, and self esteem.  If I have any sense in my head, I will be watchful.  Pray for me, a sinner.

 

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.

 

 

 

Great Lent Week Five: Don’t Be Too Happy

I don’t know.  Perhaps I am a bit of a kill-joy or something.  But, I think that constantly pursuing happiness in this world doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Depression and sorrow aren’t things people want an abundance of in their lives either.  But, the pursuit of worldly happiness is something that I think we would do well to tone down a bit.

Subdeacon Paul Abernathy

When people earn or receive wealth, status, and power, there is a tendency to forget God.  There are stories of how musicians and singers began careers in the church with good intentions.  But, fame (small and great) went to their heads and they fell into horrible errors.  Many a preacher had become too big for his pants and fell into disgrace as well.  Yet, many Christians will post “decrees and declarations” for God to shower us with money, success, and happiness not realizing that these things are also traps used by Satan to make us so comfortable and complacent that, in time, we wind up turning away from God instead of toward Him.

Subdeacon Paul Abernathy once shared in a speech that we should ask God to grant us that which is necessary for salvation.  Sure, who doesn’t want more money?  But, what if having it leads to making poor decisions in spending and saving?  In the writings of several holy saints and the Bible we are taught that it is better to have little in peace with the presence of God than to be in abundance with strife and evil.  And even if the wealth is made by one’s hard work and is blessed of God, we will not be able to take one cent of it with us to heaven and are counted no better than any other devout Christian who makes do with less.  Everyone wants good health and recovery from illness and injury.  Of course we serve the God who is able to heal whatever may be wrong with us and we should pray to Him.  But, we must be wise to see that if He does heal us, that we do not become complacent in our faith to Him or base our faith solely on what He is able to do for us.  After all, even the perfectly healthy has to die to this world.  If our happiness is based only on our health in this world, how shall we enter any joy in the world to come?  I am struck by the words of St. Paisios;

Saint (Elder) Paisios of Mt. Athos

I wish you many years – but not for them to be too happy, because happiness in the world isn’t really so healthy.  When a man is too happy in this world, he forgets God and forgets death.

Let us accept and welcome the wounds that life inflicts on us.  For a while, they will hurt.  There are lessons for our souls in this pain that cannot be obtained in worldly happiness.  When we receive earthly blessings, let’s praise God and keep going on our way.  Jesus often sent those who he healed home with the instruction not to say anything about what happened.  There is a gift in being sober minded in our times of earthly blessings and happiness.  Reach for this gift and we won’t loose site of God in times of victory or defeat.

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 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.

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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

Songs That Moved Me: Four Cornered Room

“Go to your cell.  Your cell will teach you everything.” — St. Moses the (Black) Ethiopian

Of course, St. Moses and the other great monastics of Orthodoxy could not have had an album from War on their turn tables back in the day.  In fact, they couldn’t have had turn tables.  But, if they did, I imagine any monk or nun would have heard this song and felt it fitting in to their spiritual journey.  I forgot that I had a copy of “The World Is A Ghetto” cassette.  The whole thing is a masterpiece of 1970’s funk.  But, that fourth track, “Four Cornered Room,” strikes me as one of the best songs to prepare for daily prayers.  I would dare say it is better than most contemporary Gospel music.

First of all, War was a band that never called to make a living from the Gospel.  These were just some dudes from L.A. making songs about “Low Rider” cars, old westerns (“Cisco Kid”), and other stuff to bob your head to.  Chances are, most of us aren’t reading our Bibles and singing hymns 24/7.  We work regular jobs either as highly educated and trained professionals, something unskilled and minimum wage, or something somewhere in between.  And even for full-time pastors and church staff, chances are that your daily duties keep you from any sort of introspective time in reflective self-examination.  So, “Four Cornered Room” is not a directive from a pulpit nor a praise break by an on stage performer.  It is a hint of what needs to be done by someone as regular as you and I.  While ministers and musicians called by God do a service to mankind, there are moments when our souls are better fed by those who offer real words as they walk beside us than from occupants of honorable seats.

It was Jesus Himself that taught us the value of the “Four Cornered Room.”  While War wasn’t giving an intentional Biblical lesson, they almost parallel the Gospel:

Thinking, talking; we’ve worked out our problems – Look like we should have better days in front – Just because we took our time to think and talk – For a much better understanding  (War, “Four Cornered Room”)

and

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6)

Also, consider how many of our slave ancestors took the time to be one on one with God and themselves.  How else could we have heard such spiritual lyrics as:

Nobody knows the trouble I see – Nobody knows but Jesus – Nobody knows the trouble I see – Glory Hallelujah.

There is hope that comes from the Four  Cornered Room that no matter what our struggles and challenges are, if we would just get to that one place where we can be to ourselves, Someone will meet us and help us come to a better time and place.

 

African Monastic Wisdom: Avoiding False Prophets

This is a re-tread article published back in May.  I didn’t plan on posting anything today.  But, the picture below blew my mind.

I couldn’t have made this up if I tried 😦

Rather than write a whole new article, this post makes the point clearly.  For those of you who flock to such ministries (at least, those of you who have not already labeled me a “hater” and moved on), please read the article, think, and pray.  

 

“They are guessers rather than prophets.  Therefore, if sometimes they foretell such things truly, even so no one need wonder at them.  For physicians also who have experience of diseases, when they meet the same disease in others can often tell beforehand, judging from experience.  And again, seamen and farmers, looking at the state of the weather, from their experience prophesy that there will be a storm or fine weather.  No one would say because of this that they prophesy by supernatural inspiration; but by experience and practice.”  St. Anthony the Great, The Life of St. Anthony the Great  pgs 47, 48

Here is another example of why Protestant Christians, and African-Americans in particular, would do well to know and learn from the ancient saints of Orthodox Christianity.  There is a plethora of modern day false prophets that prey on the emotions of believers for profit and vanity.  The wisdom of the ancient fathers guide us away from such predators.

For about a decade, there has been a movement in too many churches called the “Five Fold Ministry.”  It is interpreted that in the body of Christ (the church of which there are 400,000 different denominations and non-denominations) that there are to be five offices of administrative and spiritual leadership:  apostles, evangelist, pastors, prophets, and teachers.  Of these, the role of the prophet in the modern church is proving to be the most bizarre and ridiculous.

False Prophet David Taylor

Angel Feathers? Really?

Among them are well meaning men and women who want to offer words of encouragement to people who are struggling with life’s challenges.   By using passages of scripture out of context (“God is going to make you the head and not the tail, the lender and not the borrower”) accompanied with familiar religious “buzz words” and phrases (“breakthrough, release, shift” ), the “prophet” guesses that things will get better for the person going a crisis of health, finances, relationships, and the like.  Well, everyone wants to hear that God is going to act in their behalf.  And there are some who “prophecy” believing that misusing scripture and getting people’s hopes up to make them feel better is a good thing to do.  If the guess turns out to be right, then the “prophet” builds a reputation for credibility.  If the guess is wrong, it can be explained away (“I saw with the eyes of man yet God saw something further”), patience can be called for (“it isn’t your season yet”), or the hearer can be faulted (“There may be something wrong with your faith”).  If the prophet seems sincere and can gain the trust of the gullible, he (or she) can be wrong numerous times without being held accountable.

While there are some honestly mistaken prophets who are not after personal gain, there are also con artists who deliberately lie to people for the sake of fortune and fame.  Some have small yet loyal followings.  Others can be seen on television.  In either case, these guessers do not care for the souls of a broken humanity except to exploit and manipulate people for their gain.  They have become skilled at the art of scripture manipulation and know how to make the guesses to keep them in business.  They also have the support of their loyal base of followers to speak up for them when they are incorrect, or to put a doubter in their ranks in line.  While the honestly mistaken prophet is a victim of ignorance, the deliberate false prophet is an especially evil person who victimizes the gullible.

The ancient fathers and scripture has little tolerance for either sort of “prophet.”  The Old Testament prophets who spoke of Israel’s and Judah’s coming captivity were always at odds with those who spoke of peace and safety.  A glaring example of this is Micaiah’s prophecy that Ahab would fall and Israel would be defeated at Ramoth-gilead despite the 400 “prophets” that declared victory for the king (I Kings 22 Masoritic, III Kings 22 Septuagint).  Jesus himself is more impressed with people who do the will of His Father than those who prophecy in His name (Matthew 7:21-23).  Jesus did not command his disciples to prophecy, but to preach the Gospel.  If any of them were to give a prophetic word (Peter to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11) they did not let prophecy become their defining role as they were the apostles.  Our Lord and the apostles warned us to be wise and not to follow false prophets.  St. Anthony calls such guesses, “The Devils Prophecies” and gives us these words of truth:

St. Anthony the Great

Therefore we must not make much of these things, nor live our life of hardship and toil for the sake of knowing the future, but in order to please God by living well.  And we must pray, not in order to know the future, nor is that the reward we must ask for our hard life; but that our Lord may be our fellow-worker in conquering the devil. (The Life of St. Anthony the Great pg. 48)

Perhaps the best way to deal with modern day prophets is to avoid them.  The honestly mistaken are like loose wires.  Deliberate deceivers are playing with matches beside leaky gas lines.  Both are destructive to true faith.

African Monastic Wisdom: The Pursuit of Purity

“The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God.  Its immediate purpose, however is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal.  We should therefore always have this purpose in mind; and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule”  — St. Moses the Black

 

First, I acknowledge my debt to Fr. Paisius Altschul, the Priest at St. Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church, for making this very powerful quote from St. Moses a part of his article “African Monasticism:  It’s Influence on the Rest of the World” (Epiphany Volume 14:4, 1995).  I am acquainted with the influential saint and his acts of forgiveness and humility.  I find these words of the article and quotation extremely timely in this era of a Christianity which chases after anointings, breakthroughs, and “favor.”

Fr. Paisius with Subdeacon John Norman at the Ancient Faith Afro-American Christianity Conference 2011

The Desert Fathers of Egypt set the tone for pursuing the Christian life at a time when the faith could have been easily swept up in common culture and popularity.  When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (no, he did not make it the state religion), converting to the faith became the “in” thing to do for status and upward mobility.  Three hundred years prior to this, those bold enough to declare themselves or found out to be Christian ran the risk of torture and death.  With the emperor giving a seal of approval to the Church, people accepted the faith for a variety of wrong reasons without facing any sort of challenge from the government.

The monastics  understood that there was still one horrible persecutor that had to be overcome that was more dreadful than even the worst of the previous emperors:  Satan.  They understood that to fight against this great enemy with all of their energies, they could not be distracted by the things of their world.  Even the normal and honorable pursuits of a career, trade, spouse, and family were to be shunned for the sake of seeking a pure heart and the kingdom of heaven.  Anthony the Great is regarded as the father of all who turned their backs on the world for the sake of the world beyond.  By this lifestyle devoted to prayer, these men and women received renowned wisdom and were sought after by kings and commoners alike.  They became advisers to bishops and other clergy (such as the relationship between Anthony and Athanasius).  Their influence spread from the African deserts to those of the pre-Islamic Middle East, Greek and British isles, and the Russian and Siberian forest.

And what was the guiding wisdom of these desert dwelling monks and nuns?  In a nutshell, we must constantly strive for purity and the kingdom of God.  Even though most people are not called to become monastics, they taught that Christians must set aside time for prayer, renounce the vanities of this world, and devote ourselves to becoming transformed to becoming children of God.  Such a pursuit was for whosoever would obey the command of Jesus, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.”

St. Macarius the Great. One of the most influential Desert Fathers.

In a Christianity of “favor ain’t fair,” I fear that the wisdom of the African monastics is sorely lacking.  In fact, such a view of God reduces the divine to being an agent of unfair earthly advantage rather than the Eternal One who commands us to conform to His will in order to enter His kingdom.  While I do not claim to be an expert on the Desert Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or the Philokalia; it is safe to say that none of the African saints taught such an idea as seeking God’s favor for earthly blessings.  These were men and women who, in best conditions, dwelled in monastery cells with a diet of whatever was in season.  The more extreme of them lived in caves and wore the same garment until it was threadbare (Mary of Egypt).  While they had no argument against those who earned reward and wealth in the world or received such things by some sort of luck, material blessings were not the point of being a Christian.  To make worldly possessions through one’s abilities and labor as evidence of possessing the grace of God will corrupt the believer into self righteousness where those who fail are considered unable or unworthy of the kingdom.  To make worldly possessions through some divine intervention without personal merit as the standard of God’s grace turns the focus of the Christian away from the kingdom of God to the kingdoms of the earth.  Purity of heart cannot be obtained through either of these paths.

Purity can only be obtained through the grace of God.  We are to be co-workers for our salvation by constantly pointing ourselves to this purpose.  While we non-monastics  live in the regular world, we must consider becoming a pure being the true point of our existence.  Sure, we should strive to do our best in our employment and studies, obtain quality possessions, develop healthy relationships of all sorts, enjoy times of recreation, and set aside an inheritance for future generations.  But, if purity is difficult to reach even for those who purposely aim for this, it is all but impossible for those who do not.  St. Anthony taught that if one were to renounce the world and live in the desert, he will overcome all temptations and would still have to conquer lust.  St. Mary of Egypt struggled against the legitimate and lustful desires of her former life for 47 years before she obtained purity of body and soul.  How much more difficult is it then for someone who desires God’s “favor” for a job promotion, fine possessions, and an attractive spouse?  Pursuing favor over purity is like pursuing alcohol instead of water.  The soul of such a person becomes intoxicated and dehydrated.  Sooner or later, the soul dies.  A sip of strong drink or wine has its place as Jesus Himself changed water into wine at the wedding feast.  Not long after that, He offered living water to a strange and sinful woman, St. Photini (yes, the Samaritan woman at the well had a name and was considered equal to the Apostles) that if she would drink of it, she would never thirst again.  If the wine of “favor” comes our way, let it come and celebrate.  But, it must never be the main beverage we seek.  We need the living water of purity of the body and soul and drink of it constantly as our entrance into the kingdom of God relies on it.

And we Orthodox Christians must be aware that we are not drunk with the wine of complacency in our faith.  It is easy to boast in the fact that, “We have seen the true light ….” as members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But, unless we devote ourselves to spiritual growth,  we are no better off than our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends.  Indeed, there are many who have never heard of this ancient faith and its spiritual depth and richness who have found salvation through Jesus Christ with nothing more than the Bible and a humble and sincere walk with God.  As one Orthodox bishop noted about Protestants, “they have taken the little they had and make much while we too often take our much and do little with it.”  While the bishop was talking about evangelism, unfortunately, the same can be said for our spiritual development if we don’t take our pursuit of purity seriously.

Embracing Great Lent

I am excited about this weekend.  Sunday is Forgiveness Vespers and the beginning of the greatest period of reflection and renewal in the Orthodox Church, Great Lent.  I half jokingly believe my excitement will die down after drool myself silly over the umpteenth Hardee’s Monster Burger commercial.  But, this is a time that I have been looking forward to.  Last year, I participated as an outsider looking in.  This year, I am a part of the brothers and sisters in Christ who will ask each for and forgive each other with the kiss of peace.  Along with the fasting, we will devote ourselves to being more intentional in our prayers and giving our time and talents as well as our treasures to the less fortunate.

Prostrations in Prayer

While many non-denominational churches are embracing fasting in some form or another during different parts of the year, Great Lent is the central fast in Eastern Christianity.  Antiochians and Greeks may observe the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas) on a different date than our Slavic brethren.  Ethiopians celebrate Timket (Epiphany or Theophany) more elaborately than Armenians.  But, as the great feast of Pascha (the Resurrection of our Lord, Easter) is the same through out the Orthodox world.  The forty days before the great feast is a time we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls to celebrate our Lord’s conquest of death by His death and the renewal of life by His Life victoriously restored.

I am embracing this great season not only because it is my first time doing this as an Orthodox believer.  I can’t help but to believe that Lent is a preparation for me to do some good work in the church.  Friends inside and out of Orthodoxy have asked if I am interested in becoming a priest.  Slow down, it will be about five years before I would be considered for seminary in the Antiochian jurisdiction and even then, a M.Div does not necessarily mean instant ordination into the priesthood.  Looking at the complexity of of Divine Liturgy and other services and remembering the challenges I had as a Baptist pastor, I am in no rush to assume that office again, if ever.

Forgive one another their sins

One of the readers has approached me about chanting during Matins.  The head of our Christian Education Dept. asked if I was interested in teaching an adult Sunday school class.  I accepted and am waiting on a date.  I am also a part of the parish evangelism group and will soon announce the inaugural meeting of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black/VA Chapter.  So, I am and am about to get some things done.

But, I can’t help to believe there is something deeper to be done and starting with myself.  I have some sins that I kinda swept under the carpet and made more than a few excuses for.  They need to be resolved.  Despite my reputation as an easy going guy, I do have issues with insecurity.  My loud voice and friendly personality hides the fact that I am often lonely and withdrawn.  More than I care to admit of my personality looks like a bungee jump gone wrong.  So, if I am going to be this wonderful chanter, reader, evangelist, teacher, organizer, and (dare I say) priest; I have quite a bit to work on.  I pray that God will cause me to dig deep within myself to recognize my flaws and begin managing them if not correcting them all together.

St Ephrem of Syria

 

The Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian is traditionally said many times throughout each day during Great Lent, in addition to our daily prayers.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. (+)

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. (+)

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed from all ages to all ages. Amen. (+)

(The “(‘+)“ indicates that those praying make a deep bow or prostration at this point.)