self examination

Lesson From Lent: King’s Kitchen Table

Imagine being a young black pastor in the segregated south and you have been called upon to lead a movement against injustice. The demonstration is having some success and the supporters of the evil structure have constantly threatened and denounced what you are doing.  One night, a particular threatening phone call shakes you.  Fear quickly invades your heart and mind as you consider the real possibility of death and the death of your young family.  It is at that point where your fine seminary education cannot help you.  Your saintly parents are too far away to come to your aid and comfort.  At that point, you come to a place where you must know God for yourself not through scholarship nor friends.  The only way to know Him at this point is by a deep, honest, and sincere outpouring of one’s self through prayer.  Then, and only by this knowledge of God, are you able to carry on with your life’s mission.  In a speech given in Chicago about a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this confession to his audience.

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In the current political and social climate, it is not unusual for us to speak, write, and demonstrate against the injustices we see around us. This is a good thing.  But, imitating Dr. King in seeking justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor does come with a price that is often overlooked by an American mind frame that wants to forget that he was a Christian minister.  Indeed, this is a price we all must pay if we pursue the will of God from any religious viewpoint.  In particular for we who claim to believe Him who taught us that self-denial and taking up the cross are the prerequisites to follow Him, we especially must make the effort  to tear our homes apart looking for the lost coin that will cover the cost.  We must come to deeply, honestly, and sincerely know God through prayer.

Too often we don’t try to make such an effort. Sure we may go to church practicing some pious ancient ritual, getting caught up in a spontaneous praises, or some variation of these extremes.  We read the Bible and other religious books and magazines to help us on our Christian journey.  On the surface, we know how to show people what religion we practice and how to apply our faith to just about every social concern.  My concern is that too many of us never try to go deeper than the surface show before men and confront the depths of how much we need God until, like Dr. King, circumstances drive us to a place where we can no longer run and hide.  More troubling is that we don’t even try to reach that point because we fail to recognize our real enemy, Satan and his legions, and how he makes war inside of us.  With our unwillingness to grow closer to God in this critical way, the devil is comfortable with us going through our motions.

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Contemplating this new step in my journey

This Great Lenten Fast, I have added King’s Kitchen Table to my rule of prayer. I typically do this right after dinner keeping in mind a sermon from St. John Chrysostom of how donkeys and oxen eat and go to their work while we eat so much we become useless and unable to bend our knees for prayer.  After washing the dishes, which is a form of service, I offer the first prayer of the Trisagion, to the Holy Spirit, before sitting down to the table.  Afterward, I sit and offer one ode of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  I follow this up with a Psalm, the Gospel reading, and a prayer from The Veil from the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of the Hours.  The final offering is A Prayer for the Children of Africa in America written by the black abolitionist, Maria W. Stewart.  I end my time at the kitchen table by writing in my spiritual journal, examining my thoughts in light of the penitential prayers that I had offered.

Those who wish to pray at the kitchen table need not be as elaborate as this. The following elements are more important.  Timing; again, I keep this practice right after dinner.  So that during dinner, I am mindful that I have to pray after eating.  This mindfulness helps me to reduce my temptation for gluttony, a common sin that I have too regularly overlooked.  Thus, I see that if this bad habit can be overcome, by seeking oneness with God my other evils can be overcome as well.  Sacrifice; any nightly prayer activity means cutting away time from entertainment and rest.  Those who are very attached to watching TV can start by going to the table during commercials while that favorite show is on. In time, intentionally increase the time spent at the table vs. that in front of the screen.  Work; dishwashing is not the hardest labor in the world.  But, praying while working is common among monastics.  If not the dishes, folding clean laundry or some other chore can be done.  Uplifting music is a good addition to this routine.  Repentance; prayer is not simply offering God list of request.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus commanded people to repent for the sake of the kingdom.  Adorations, intercessions, praises; these things have their place.  But, repentance and self-examination brings us to struggle against the real enemy in ourselves.  Unless we struggle internally, anything we attempt, even what we succeed against, externally will be meaningless in our goal of salvation.

 

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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.

 

 

 

St. Sonny of Rollins: A Model for Ministry

I don’t know if Mr. Rollins would say that he qualifies for, or (like John Coltrane) ever desired to become a saint. Sonny Rollins is one of the premiere jazz artist in the world who is known for the distinctively powerful sound coming from his saxophone. As I watched the “Jazz” documentary series by Ken Burns, I found a compelling pattern of wisdom that mimics that of the Desert Fathers of ancient Christianity and that many a modern-day preacher would do well to practice.

Early in his career, Sonny emulated some of the great jazz artist of his time such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and the highly influential Charlie Parker. He made the tragic mistake of many young aspirants of seeking greater creativity through a heroin needle. But, unlike so many others who succumbed to the drug, Rollins overcame his addiction. He left the New York City music scene with all of its trappings and temptations and became a lowly day laborer. During this period of cleansing, he developed a desire to be the best artist he possibly could by being disciplined to his craft. When he came back to the clubs and recording studios, Sonny became one of the most formidable musicians on any instrument. One of the most acclaimed jazz albums, “Saxophone Colossus,” came after he made his return.

Sonny carefully chose who to associate with not only to stay clean, but to challenge his skills as well. John Coltrane, who also overcame a heroin addiction, was one such colleague. Legend has it that ‘Trane would call Sonny and play a riff or two from is sax into the phone and hang up. Sonny would call back and play something he had either been working on or from the top of his head and hang up. In Proverbs, it is written that as iron sharpens iron does a man sharpen another man. It is little wonder that no chronicle of great jazz musicians can be complete without these two men.

Sonny was true to his craft as a performer. He prefered to play in front of an audience rather than to make records in a studio. When performing, he refused to play uninspired. Jazz critics noted that Rollins would play the same lines over and over again as he felt it was the right thing to play rather than give the people what they wanted to hear when he didn’t feel like it. “Fake it ’till you make it,” was not a philosophy for this musician.

Sonny in thought

Sonny’s devotion and honesty in his craft was so extreme that he would abruptly stop performing for years. Legend has it that he would spend his time on the Brooklyn Bridge and other lonely places playing his sax. Perhaps this was to find inspiration and new ideas. Or, maybe he simply grew weary of concerts and recording contracts. But, when Rollins returned to the music scene, he did so with more brilliant and unique sounds.

So, what does this have to do with modern preaching and pastoral ministry? I think a lot. First of all, that ministers of today (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) need to take the time to humble themselves to eliminate addictions. Many of us are junkies on food, TV, lust, greed, pride, and even a few on drugs and alcohol. For us to approach altars and pulpits without doing the work to, at least, control our passions is spiritual malpractice. Playing off issues with excuses (“God is not through with me yet”) without making real effort to cleanse the soul doesn’t fool anyone for long. People see through the facades and either deem the ministry as a den of hypocrisy, or make excuses for their sinful ways as well as they praise the Lord. St. Moses the Black struggled against his passions for well over 10 years as did St. Mary of Egypt. There are some bad and evil habits that are hard to break. But, ministers of the gospel are called to strive to break them. Putting our personal business in the street is not a good idea. Neither is merely plastering over our faults with catch phrases. We must work with God to repair where we are broken, even if it means leaving our altars and pulpits for a while.

St. Moses the Black

We should be careful of the company we keep. I heard one preacher refer to a young lady who said, “I count my fingers and I count my friends. If I have more friends and fingers, I count my friends again.” St. Arsenius was one of the most strict ascetics who refused to be disturbed from his solitude, in particular by the opposite sex. monastics in general kept a distance from being popular and preferred a circle of the Abbott (or Abbess) and a couple of co-laborers. We likewise should have people around us that we can learn from and with and keep our inner circle of friends limited to a handful that can help us grow spiritually. Celebrity chasing should also be avoided that we don’t fall into the trap of seeking fame and fortune. Arsenius prayed that God would cause him to forget the visit of a noblewoman. Moses deceived a wealthy official that wanted to lavish him with gifts. Our goal as ministers is not to obtain the trappings of material success. While an ox should not be muzzled as it is treading out the grain, that is no excuse for us to be pigs. Our goal is to proclaim the gospel by what we preach, teach, and (most importantly) how we live.

We must be true to our congregations. In my years of preaching ministry, I have heard preachers “fake it ’till they make it” by using catch phrases (“when prayers go up, blessings come down”), popular songs, and “whooping” for the sake of getting a response from worshipers. In every seminary or minister’s conference, we are encouraged to develop our own voices. The fact is that well all fall into the trap of mimicking someone else because that is what people like to hear (I was more into Gardner C. Taylor). Some preachers have a style that people come to hear Sunday after Sunday and they preach the thing the same way even though they know God wants them to say something else differently. Fr. Seraphim Rose (who was heavily influenced by Egyptian and Russian monastics) was notorious for speaking little and speaking what came from God and 2,000 years of Christian wisdom and truth. I heard from a wise preacher that we are to preach to an audience of One. When we fail to address that One, we run the risk of forgetting who is One. We must preach only what we are called to and as much or as little as necessary.

Fr. Seraphim Rose

I heard Dr. William Curtis of the Hampton Minister’s Conference say that sometimes we need to leave ministry for a while and come back refreshed. Perhaps one of the reasons why good preachers go bad is that they didn’t have the courage to leave the pulpit. Because they want to keep pleasing their congregations and maintain their positions, they find themselves confused and frustrated. Such a man (or woman) of God is likely to fall into false doctrines, self medicate with substances, seek sexual pleasures outside of marriage, or even commit suicide. To leave the preaching ministry, especially if one earns a pastoral salary, is a major risk. But, if one is to preach, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” one may be called to put up or shut up. The one who is wise enough to shut him (or her) self up will be blessed. St. Macarius had an opportunity to enjoy great adoration from a nearby village that was about to repent to him after falsely accusing him of fathering a child. Rather than stay and accept their repentance and praises, he went deeper into the desert. St. Thais as well left her monastery after a highly regarded monk declared her to be the holiest among her sisters. Nothing more was written about Thais. The writings of Macarius are highly regarded throughout the Orthodox world and not unknown to Catholics and traditional Anglicans. Both are honored as examples of those who put their pursuit of God above the praises of man. No position nor amount of popularity must be allowed to take precedence over this pursuit.

In the documentary, Sonny Rollins is quoted, “We must always strive to be the best.” The pattern of this “saxophone Colossus” toward greatness is in line with the scriptures and saints. May we of the priesthood of believers, in particular those of the ordained clergy, do likewise.

Cyprian vs. Complacency

“… Only observe a discipline uncorrupted and chastened in the virtues of religion.”   Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Bishop Cyprian led an African church in a time of great crisis.  First, there was a period of brutal persecutions from the Roman government.  He was criticized for going into hiding rather than stepping forward to become a martyr as many in his parish did.  Then, he had to argue with false teachers who wanted to close the doors of repentance to backsliders who wanted to come back to the faith.  A plague arose in the land and killed believers and pagans alike.  This shook the faith of many Christians who thought they and their families would be spared from such suffering.  After a period of relative calm, another persecution arose in which Cyprian would face the executioner’s axe.  In the midst of these difficulties, the saint encouraged a friend to practice a sober minded and pure path as a Christian.

It is easy for us to dismiss the need for such a walk of faith in this day and age.  Many of us succumb to the idea of “Getting our praise on” Sunday mornings, or as we listen to our favorite Gospel songs on the radio.  We sweep our sins under a rug since, “The Lord knows our hearts,” and didn’t mean to sin.  If a brother or sister of the faith (or even minister) dare give us a mild rebuke of our faults, they are not to “judge” us because “all have sinned.”  As long as we go to church, tithe, and love others; a disciplined spiritual life doesn’t seem to be necessary.

I believe that the Christian life called for by St. Cyprian is even more critical to us today than it was in first century Carthage.  To proclaim Christ before Constantine was an invitation to exile, torture, or death.  The courageous either hid and found ways to encourage people to remain faithful to Christ, or they boldly faced swords and wild beast.  A life of purity and sobriety gave our ancestors of the faith the strength and wisdom to do both.

Bishop Cyprian of Carthage

Today, Satan persecutes us with a more vicious torturer than any Roman official could send on us.  Complacency lulls our spirits to believe that we are walking in the narrow path of salvation when we are actually on a broad boulevard of destruction.  When we relegate worship to exuberant praise, can we hear the quiet voice that God uses to speak to us as he did Elijah?  How can we parts of the body of Christ heal from our sin sickness if we are unwilling to confess where the body is gathered?  Are we so holy that we cannot accept a word of correction from those who have made the journey before us and are walking with us?  “Oh, those are the traditions of men.  We don’t need to do all of that. God is not through with me yet.”  Instead of finding answers in prayer, the Bible, and ancient Christian writings to correct our backslidings, it is easier to make excuses for improper actions, words, and (especially) thoughts.  And since we do not face life threatening persecutions, being complacent in our Christian walk has captured far too many of us and misleading us to be no better than those who do not practice the faith at all.  Indeed, we are worse because we, supposedly, know better.

Not everyone is called to monasticism.  But, we are all called to spend time with ourselves and God in prayer as Jesus did.  All of us are called to observe times of God’s presence in our lives as the apostles did in the book of Acts.  The writings of early church fathers and mothers are available and are not hard for us to comprehend.  And the call to repentance given by our Lord back then is essential to our self-denial, taking up of our crosses, and following Him today.  Let us not be lulled by complacency in these times of ease.  But, let us struggle all the more against our sinister enemy who wants nothing more than for us to let our guards down.

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.

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.

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.”

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!