repentance

Modern Violence: The Mark of Cain

Does anyone remember the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible? Cain, a skilled farmer and tool user, was angry that his offering to God was not accepted.  His brother, Abel, made a living just by seeing to the needs of his flock of sheep.  His offering of the best of his animals and their best portions was accepted by the God he relied on.  In an English translation of the Septuagint (the Greek language Old Testament compiled and translated 200 B.C. in Egypt), God Himself gave comfort and instruction to the dejected brother; “Did you not sin? Even though you brought it rightly, but did not divide it rightly?  Be still; his recourse shall be for you; and you shall rule over him” (Genesis 4:7 from the Orthodox study Bible).  Rather than find comfort and instruction from the One he claimed to serve, Cain took a tool and killed his brother who, like him, was made in the image of God and had every right to live.  Cain would later mock the Creator.  The merciful one heard his cry for survival, as he offered no repentance, and allowed him to live and his descendants to create a society.  But this society was based not on a security from the Holy One.  It was based on wandering and human skill with God seen only as a tool for their dominance.

cain-and-abel

Compare Cain to Jesus Christ. First, Our Lord rejected Satan’s offers of self-gratification, arrogance, and earthly rule.  He made these rejections by strictly adhering to His heavenly Father.  As a result of this, Jesus was able to fulfill the prophecy about Him: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoking flax, He will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).  He cured people of all sorts of illnesses, even an unclean woman who should have been stoned to death for appearing in public (Mark 5:25-34) .  He healed people of demon possession, even one whom his society had given up on and preferred to have him kept ill rather than lose their questionable livelihood (Luke 8:26-39).  Rather than wish the worst on His tormentors, Christ asked:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do (Luke 23:34).  In a sense, Jesus took the advice that Cain ignored, “Be still; his recourse shall be for you; and you will rule over him.” Indeed, there is no one else we can turn to for the salvation of our souls as our knees bow and lounges confess that He is Lord (Philippians 2:5-11).

As Christian as we want to claim ourselves to be, we tend to base our existence on the mark of Cain. In our anger and frustration with things not going our way, we refuse to be still and wait to rule with (much less rule over) our brother.  We take tools to overcome, even people who mean us no offense, those who are in a weaker position.  In extreme cases, there is murder and warfare.  For most of us, we dehumanize and insult others who don’t share our point of view.  Whether or not blood is spilled; the humble and obedient example of Christ is ignored in favor of imposing and defending our point of view as right and all others as wrong for the sake of what we can gain in this world.

christ temptation

But, the Christian is not a citizen of this world. We belong to the kingdom to come and are to live as sojourners here.  Our tool is the cross with which we offer sacrificial love to those who love and hate us.  Our first and foremost responsibility is to do what Cain failed to do; repent and be still.  Repent because we are all sinners seeking salvation.  Be still because God accepts those who repent and obey His will despite their fallen state.  And if we are obedient even unto death as Christ was, we can fully enter into the fullness of His kingdom.  While still living, we can experience a peace in mind from Christ that goes beyond Cain’s understanding.

Let us expel the mark of Cain and imitate Christ. Through the scriptures, we can reject the roots of sin.  By this rejection, we can devote ourselves to genuine love for others; especially those in need and are disturbed by the evil one.  We can be forgiving no matter what injustice we may bear in this life.  Upholding our mark in this world may give us offspring, land, cities, comfort, and other things for survival.  But, these are temporal and will prevent us from obtaining a place in the world to come if we put too much emphasis on them.  We Christians should know and must do better.

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Baltimore and the Ancient Failure

I have always enjoyed visiting family in Baltimore.  I remember taking a solo road trip up there.  I visited the Frederick Douglass Maritime Museum, checked out a few local shops, ate a really good steak and cheese somewhere in the Fells Point area.  I had the opportunity to eulogize one of my relatives in the city.  I was warmly received the times I preached there.  Baltimore is really a nice town check out.

What about the rioting?  That is a case of the invisible ugliness becoming visible.  Now, the whole world has seen what happens when a power structure has kept people powerless for decades.  Now we see how some powerless people respond when they feel threatened and vulnerable.  Yes, I am saddened, angered, disappointed, and deeply wounded that yet another black man died in the hands of a few policemen and that some blacks took to rioting.  But, I am also aware that something like this could happen anywhere where there is invisible ugliness.  All it takes is one trigger and a seaside city that is the home of generations of strong, black families can be the home of a violent outbreak in the struggle between the haves and have-nots.  Who knows, tomorrow, we could hear something about Hampton, VA (where I am typing from).

Many will disagree with my point of view.  But, I don’t believe that race nor racism is the ultimate source of the invisible ugliness.  The root of the problem goes back to the very roots of human history.  In an attempt to be like God without direction from God, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  Immediately after their eyes were open, they couldn’t be vulnerable to each other and hid themselves from the God they wanted to be like without Him.  Cain killed his brother, Abel, rather than to listen to God’s instructions to overcome sin.  In both situations, people sought to obtain the heavenly and earthly power on their own terms and the results have been spectacular failures.

The Europeans who came to these shores only wanted more land and opportunity than they had in their homelands.  But, rather than to do so in compassion and humility, they made their gains by inflicting a selfish and narrow-minded judgement on the Native Americans and (by purchase and theft) obtain African slaves to generate the wealth for the new nation.   Many of their descendants feel that they are in their right to do whatever they wish to maintain dominance in a kingdom that they obtained by wrong instead of right.  The Africans, for many years, held a moral high ground as they found the Gospel truth hidden in the wrong-headed doctrines of their slave masters.  But, over too much time and too many broken promises,  too many of us descendants have succumbed to having a heart and mind as mindlessly cruel as any oppressor.  Rather than leave vengeance the Lord, too many of us want a justice that punishes rather than a justice that restores the flesh and blood that is not our real enemy.  Like Adam & Eve, the racist and the rioter are too impatient to enjoy the good things they have and wait for something better.  Like Cain, the racist and the rioter would rather kill his own kind than to admit that he is wrong and live a life of repentance.

To be fair, not every white policeman is hunting Negroes.  Not every African American is running around with a stolen TV set.  But, too many of us replay the ancient failure in our hearts and minds.  We all want more and greater things and positions rather than patience and spiritual correction.  We want the world to revolve around us rather than for us to follow God.  Until this changes, your city and mine have the potential to be a Baltimore.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Us, Sinners.

Great Lent Week Four:  A Life Of Repentance

Our church observed the Liturgy of St. Andrew of Crete and the story of St. Mary of Egypt.  We began service about 6:30 pm.  By the time we were finished, it was a quarter to nine.  I had been in lengthy services at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference.  But, there I was seated and there were breaks between lecturers and preachers.  Standing, making tons of metany (bows touching the floor) through a lengthy series of odes, and prostrations with the prayer of St. Ephrem of Syria and at the icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent is something I would not have dreamed of doing years ago.  I went home last night thinking that it is a shame that all Christians do not do the same and gather the humble meaning of this service.  In fact, Orthodoxy offers something that modern Christianity often ignores at its own risk.

Prostrating before the Cross

The cannon of St. Andrew and the story of St. Mary reinforces our need to lead a life of repentance.  In a couple of weeks, we are going to celebrate Great and Holy Pascha (Easter) with enthusiastic shouts of praise in different languages and have plenty of food and drink at the end of service.  In my Antiochian Patriarchate, we will not resume the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.  We will observe several feast and fast in our yearly cycle and even during our fast, we are to reject gloominess and carry on as normal as to hide our struggle.  No, we Orthodox Christians are not a morbid bunch of ancient religious fanatics that constantly burden ourselves with the knowledge that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (I have one dear brother who is an incurable practical joker).

St. Mary of Egypt

Yet, our worship services, especially those leading toward (the Lenten Triodion) and during Great Lent, are designed to lead us to repentance and live a life of repentance.  We are to acknowledge that we have separated ourselves from God, the only and true source of life.  This is what Adam and Eve did in the Garden, not so much that they broke a command defying God’s authority.  But, they chose to seek an immortal existence based on the fulfillment of their desires rather than live according to the only life giving Word that is truly immortal.  By separating from that source of life, death came to rule over us.  Corruption, striving to act and hide away from God, infects our being.

Praise be to God that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus Christ died as a man.  But, death and the grave could not contain the Immortal One as He was (is and always will be) incorruptible.  He taught us that if we are to follow Him we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses.  Jesus came teaching not only love and morality, which are good things that we strive to practice.  Jesus taught us to repent for the eternal kingdom is at hand.  We are to turn and strive to keep our lives turned away from our corruptible desires that lead to death as He has come from heaven, taken on flesh, and conquered death by His death.  We are to be one with our Lord as His body, the Church.

St. Andrew of Crete

This is why we offer the prayer, “Lord have mercy,” from the beginning to end of the weekly Divine Liturgy.  During the week, we follow our personal rules of prayer that include the words of ancient saints of the Church.  Our rules may be as simple as morning and evening to keeping the Hours during the whole day.  This is why confession is not merely something done in the privacy of our own homes.  We come before God with our father or mother confessor in a corner of the Church as others pray for us as well.  All that we practice is a part of living in repentance.  During Great Lent, we add prayers, services, almsgiving as well as fasting and marital sexual abstinence to focus more on the call from Christ to repent.

Is a life of repentance necessary?  Can’t we simply resolve to love more?  Perhaps.  But, love without repentance blurs the standards of holy living to a point where good and evil are conditional and defined by individuals and not by God.  Can’t we simply resolve to be more moral?  Probably.  But, morality without repentance becomes arrogant and self-righteous which erodes compassion and mercy.  Can’t we just praise the Lord?  Yes.  But, praise without repentance is far too easy of a trap for people to fall into. Repentance keeps us humble as we see our own faults before we see those of others. This allows love to grow deeper in the individual towards God and others.  The humble soul knows there is a standard to live by and constantly seeks to live by it.  By humility, a believer can praise wholeheartedly yet not do so any higher than he lives.

So, let us be cautious to live in repentance.  God blesses those of a broken heart and contrite spirit.

Great Lent Week Three: Deeper Than Inside

And when you fast …

Yes, this is the time when Lent gets on your last nerve.  I have seen that Little Cesasr’s Bacon Wrapped Deep Dish Pizza advertised one too many times.  Spring is here and everyone is ready to enjoy the warmer tempereatures and lack of ice and snow.  But, we have a few more weeks of soul searching, intensive repentance, deliberate spiritual reading; our struggle continues.

One of the better known songs by the post-punk indie band (hey, I listen to a lot of different genres) Rites of Spring is “Deeper Than Inside”  I doubt that they meant any spiritual interpretation to their name or lyrics.  But, I am considering a couple of things.  The whole punk rock movement (also early hip-hop) was a rebellion against the huge, corporate monster music industry.  It was a couple of kids who knew how to play a couple of chords and say what was on their minds.  To seriously take on Great Lent, no matter what branch of Christianity you follow, is an act of rebellion against our arrogant and comfort seeking society.  We strip down faith to the sacrificial and repentant following of Jesus Christ as he has called us to do.

Even more so, we stive to know God and confess our sins in a more meaninful way.  Added prayers from the ancient fathers guide our focus to our deeper issues.  It isn’t so much that someone took an ink pen from work, cussed out a stranger, or cheated on their spouse and looks for a legalistic band-aid to cover his/her wound.  We deal with deeper ailments that show themselves when we do not fight against them.  Anger, fear, lust, envy, laziness, greed; these are the passions that monks and nuns have gone into the deserts and forest to fight against.  They have been so gracious as to share with the Church the wisdom they have been blessed with to help us non-monastics with our spiritual journey.  If we settle for a mere, “say 20 Hail Marys,” or “well, God knows my heart,” we have only cut the flower of our weeds.  Perhaps we may have even cut a few leaves and the stem.  Great Lent reminds us to stive to kill the roots of our visible sins.  A dead root cannot  produce a flower.  A wounded root does not readily reproduce.  A root left undisturbed will flourish again.

May God grant us His mercy and strength to continue the struggle.

Great Lent Week One: The Need for Humility

Week one of Great Lent has been completed. Thus far, I haven’t had any hallucinations of Philly steak & cheese tacos with chili & cheese chitterlings on the side. Actually, I found some very good vegan spring rolls at a Dollar Tree. Liquid smoke with beans, corn, and grilled onions is not a bad meat substitute. Thanks to a raise, my hours, and re-financing my mortgage, I can splurge on a pint of oysters every now and then. The fast will pluck my nerves eventually. But, it is good for me and my body feels better.

I have decided to gorge on reading this season. I started reading Confessions by St. Augustine (if it was good enough for Fr. Seraphim Rose, it’s good enough for me) at the beginning of the Triodion. I also decided to re-read On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius and The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides. A fourth book this season is really making me consider how important humility is to the spiritual life; The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism by (St.) Bishop Ignatius Brianchninov.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov 1807-1867

Monks, like those of us outside of monasteries, can easily fall victim to arrogance and a desire to put our will above humble obedience. Oh, we may think these holy men are so full of the grace of God that they can’t fall for the traps we do. With his knowledge of the Orthodox fathers (African fathers are highly regarded), St. Ignatius teaches aspiring monks to keep a disciplined focus on their spiritual growth. For example, St. Moses the Black warned an elderly monk to remain with the brothers who were tending to his illness rather than go into a nearby town for treatment. He didn’t listen and wound up getting a woman pregnant. Another monk, Nikita was convinced that an angel instructed him to read the Old Testament and spiritual books rather than to pray. Despite his fame and renown, it was discovered by his brothers he was really under a Satanic spell and lost his ability to read anything. Only after many tears and much repentance did God’s spirit come back to rest on he who became St. Nikita of Novgorod. Without humility, the holiest among us are able to fall from grace.

If this is true for monks who kept themselves in the deserts of Egypt and Russian forest, how much more is it true for us who “declare and decree” that we are “blessed and highly favored” and “no weapon of the enemy formed against us shall prosper?” Not everyone wants to go on a vegan diet and read old books for 40 days. But, perhaps all Christians should use Lent as a time for some down time soul-searching. Focusing a little less on praise and a little more on repentance is not a bad idea, especially since Jesus made this an essential part of His preaching after His 40 days of fasting. Pushing one’s self to prayer in overcoming a long-standing bad habit and keeping a journal of spiritual growth can also be beneficial to our souls as we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection. A nominal Christian, or one who is “spiritual, but not religious” would do well to observe humility as the scriptures and church history proves that the exalted are brought low.

A Standard for Shouting

I was one of Dr. Harold Braxton’s “boys.” Dr. Braxton was the Religious Affairs Director and Dean of the School of Humanities at Virginia State University. After preaching in the Foster Hall Chapel, he served his Pastoral duties at Union Grove Baptist Church. I was blessed to serve under him with the Baptist Student Union and as a Seminary Intern when I was enrolled at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University. Quite a few of young people, especially aspiring ministers benefitted from “Doc’s” steady wisdom and refusal to fall for the latest trends in preaching.

Charismatics were known for seeking out new members among the freshmen on campus. Their ministries were very exciting and upbeat. The lonely and impressionable students often fell to the style and expressiveness of what they had to offer. For a while, I was among those who fell for their doctrines and worship. But, after seeing some faults with this non-denominational movement and remembering the firm foundation given to me by my Baptist parents and community in King William, Dr. Braxton’s “boring” chapel sermons and steady Christian walk on campus made a lot of sense to me.

Virginia State University

I remember a word of wisdom he gave in one sermon that all but killed my flirtation with charismania. “Don’t shout any higher than you live.” To several students, these were words of the devil designed to “quench the Spirit.” “Doc” was a very spiritual man and was known to give a good “whoop” every now and then from the pulpit. But, the words from this veteran campus minister and pastor was a standard for us to avoid making exuberant praise and worship the standard of who we were as Christians. As young adults, we were faced with a plethora of temptations. Shouting, speaking in tongues, and the like may be exciting to participate in. But, true spiritual life meant having the Holy Spirit guide us through these struggles. As we are likely to fall to them, we must not carry some sort of false face of Holiness. Instead, we had to be humble about who we are in the Lord as we are far from who we ought to be. And being in our late teens and early twenties, not many of us could boast about how God brought us out from what we used to be since we weren’t really old enough to be anything to be brought out of.

I think we would all do well to heed the wise words of Dr. Harold Braxton today. Pointing firstly to myself, it is way too easy for me to point a finger at modern churches and stick out my chest as a member of the Orthodox Church. It is easy to be complacent belonging to the 2,000 year old continuous connection to Christ and His Apostles. But, what good is it for me to boast of the greatness of Holy Tradition if I fail to devote myself to prayer and love for others? An icon on the wall is good. But, without using it as a window toward heaven and seeking the presence of God, it is nothing more than an interesting piece of religious art. Sure, I burn incense. But, clouds of smoke mean little more than a fragrance for my home if I do not have compassion on my fellow man. Like anyone else, Satan continues to attack me from all directions. How dare I act or speak as a sinless man. No, my shouting ought not be loud at all. May God bless me not to think of myself more than I should.

St Mary of Egypt: An Antidote for Sexual Addictions

Most people struggle with lust from time to time.  We all aren’t so overcome by it that we have violated anyone else.  But, with so much “eye candy” presented to us in every form of media, we are all guilty of thoughts and actions that we are ashamed of.  Of course, we Christians are quick to say, “Just Take It To Jesus And Pray.”  And this is the ultimate solution to our struggle with impure sexual thoughts, words, and actions.  But, our Lord also gives us forerunners who have struggled with and overcame the same sins which besiege us today as there is nothing new under the sun.  Among such great men and women who have been transformed by the power of repentance and forgiveness is Mary of Egypt.

St. Mary of Egypt

Mary was a sex addict.  She gave into lust at the age of 12.  In her story to the monk/priest Zosimas, she wasn’t forced into prostitution or the victim of rape or incest.  She just loved sex and would give herself simply for pleasure and not money. After some 17 years of her shameless behavior, she joined a group of pilgrims sailing from Egypt to Jerusalem to venerate the Holy Cross.  She used her body to pay her fare constantly tempting men to have their way with her.

When she came to the church, she sought to enter.  Time and time again, she was blocked by an invisible force.  She realized that the force was her own sinful lifestyle that kept her from entering the church.  She grieved  deeply at this revelation.  Seeing an icon of the Theotokos, Mary repented of her lustfulness promising that if she were allowed to worship at the Cross that she would no longer live in her sexual exploits.  After her prayer, she was able to walk into the church and worship.

Mary made good on her promise.  She crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert with nothing more than three loaves of bread and the clothes on her back.  Led by the Holy Spirit, she lived in the desert for 47 years repenting of her sins.  This was no easy feat.  The thoughts of her former pleasures tormented her.  The desire for meats, wine, and other things also tempted her to leave the desert.  Yet, she constantly prayed in deep humility and tears to be free from her lust.  It took some 17 years of struggles to be free from her sexual addiction and lust.

Fr. Zosimas giving the Eucharist to Mary

It wasn’t until she met Zosimas in the desert that she even saw and spoke to another person.  By that time, her clothing was completely gone and he gave her his outer robe to cover her.  He saw the holiness of her story and her prayers.  The following year, he was able to give her the Eucharist.  The year after that, Mary was found dead.

Mary shows us that sexual immorality keeps us from the fullness of Christ.  Oh, we may still go to church and worship.  We may even make excuses for what we do.  “They were just pictures.  I was born this way.  We are in love, so it’s okay.”  Let’s stop fooling ourselves.  The sexually immoral will have no part in the kingdom of God.   Mary shows us that our repentance must be serious.  Casually saying, “well, the Lord knows my heart,” is not enough.  There should be a deep sorrow for what we have done and a serious commitment to change our ways.  Mary shows us that our struggle against sin is not always over in an instant.  Some addictions are stubborn to leave us and can only be overcome by (as our Lord taught His disciples) by prayer and fasting.  And indeed, fasting should be a part of the life of the faithful.  By following Mary’s example of following Christ, we can overcome even the worst of our sexual sins and live in purity.

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

The icon of St. Mary of Egypt at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church in Hampton

Having been a sinful woman,

You became through repentance a Bride of Christ.

Having attained angelic life,

You defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross;

Therefore, O most glorious Mary you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

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.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

I knew that fasting was a part of my learning process in Orthodoxy when I first became an inquirer.  Going vegan twice a week didn’t frighten me one bit.  I did the Apostle’s and Dormition Fast with some difficulty in the first few days.  But, by the sixth day, it was a bit of a cakewalk.  As for the Nativity, it was kinda rough avoiding Christmas parties and the day after Thanksgiving turkey and ham sandwiches.  I have had my occasional slips and made a couple of loopholes for myself at times.  But, for a rookie, this Orthodox fasting thing really hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  My guide int this journey.  (C) John Gresham

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. My guide in this journey. (C) John Gresham

Great Lent, however, is more intimidating both in diet and spiritual expectation.  Clean Monday arrives about the same time the shad start running in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers.  I am not allowed to eat any fish with bones in it and there is no fish with more bones in it than shad.  Ah well, at least I can salt a few down for the winter.  But, my old man will be smoking his from day one.  Kicking red meat for 40 days this time of year will also be more difficult since it is the beginning of backyard barbecuing season.  Granted, oysters will still be in season and crabbers will start pulling pots again.  But, shellfish will not be cheap with this economy.    I had better learn to love tofu.

What really scares me about Great Lent is the significance of it all.  The Forgiveness Vespers where everyone, including the priest, ask each other to be forgiven for what they have done wrong to the other?  First of all, about the worst thing I can think of that I did wrong to anyone at St. Basil is that I forgot their names.  And then they also asking my forgiveness?  Who am I that any of these kind people should want such a blessing from me when they have always welcomed me with open arms.  And Fr. James to ask me for forgiveness?  We aren’t even in the same denomination.  Who am I to participate in such a practice?  It is at this point that I probably could and should go back to my comfortable corner of Christianity.

I can’t help but to see the beauty and power in such a pre-fast preparation.  When we face each other and ask for forgiveness, we will be facing the ultimate icons.  The ones God made in his image and likeness.  Even for those who have not directly said, done, or thought harm to one another; all are admitting their human problem of sin and seek forgiveness from Christ and each other.  I am scared because I know of my own sinfulness.  I am intimidated also because I am unworthy to have someone who I just met ask me to forgive them.

Yet, I believe I need to go forward with preparing for and observing Great Lent.  I can’t help but to think that there is something very special at the end of this journey at Pascha.  Not bragging rights.  No, boasting is not the goal here.  One of the saints said that if you fast only to boast of your own righteousness, you may as well eat meat.  This journey will probably not mean that I will leave my role as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  There is a bit more work I need to do in my community and I have a mortgage to pay.  Besides, I have not yet been on this Orthodox journey for a full year.  Many converts don’t take the plunge until two or three years.  Fr. James has told me that the church will be here when I am ready. 

Yet and still, there is bound to be something special at the end of this journey of Great Lent.  Just like pledging my fraternity and doing my first overnight backpack trip  alone on the Appalachian Trail go through this process, I will only kick myself for not having the nerve to do it.  Any time a spiritual journey brings us to a point of absolute humility with Forgiveness Vespers, the end must be an incredible celebration of the soul. 

I imagine this will not be easy.  Easter Sunday, my father will have baby back ribs coming out of the smoker fully infused with apple wood or hickory.  Tofu will not be able to compare to that.  Knowing that I will have no excuse for not, at least, calling someone who is ill and homebound other than my wife will be a challenge as well.  I admit, my pastoral care could be better.  Although my prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds since joining the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, it isn’t as tight as it could be.  I will have to read and study when I want to waste time with mahjong and You Tube.  Nope, this isn’t like my good old, “do it yourself” fast when I could just give up caviar, champagne, filet minion, and lobster. 

But, I remember the way I felt when my Dean of Pledges declared, “You Are Now Brothers” and was presented with the letters “Alpha Phi Alpha.”   I remember the way I felt when I reached the intersection of the Old Hotel Trail and the AT at the Hog Camp Gap parking lot where I resolved to go through with a journey that I could have easily chickened out of (especially seeing the bear on the side of the road).  In both cases, it wasn’t just a feeling.  I had a unique change of perspective.  The change I am about to go through will be more profound.