Transformation

The Transition Continues

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

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

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

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

 

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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!

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

Chronicles to Conversion: The Big Weekend Is Here

This evening, I will make my first confession before God alongside my priest.  Early tomorrow morning, I will receive Holy Chrismation before Matins and will partake of the Eucharist which will mark my entry into the 2,000 year old body of Christ.  I am going into Orthodox Christianity with a deep sense of gratitude for the Baptist faith that I nurtured me for the past 46 years.  My grandmother Dinah was known for her devotion to God and wisdom in teaching Sunday School.  The passion for Biblical truth was passed down from Daddy Joe & Momma Di to their son John.  My mother is also the product of a very devout household which has produced generations of pastors and deacons.  The African-American Baptist community in King William County, the Pamunkey Baptist Association has given me many opportunities to develop socially and spiritually.  I grew up surrounded by saints who kept the faith through the awful oppression of Jim Crow to see the heights of our people rising in every profession once denied to us, even the Presidency of this nation.  Without the black church, I would have never known salvation.  Jesus would have never been real to me.  Baptist Liberty, Mt. Olive, Third Union, Trinity;  these in particular and others in general have well prepared me for the journey I am undertaking now.

Some are asking, “Why take this journey at all?”  Just as my past as an African-American is important to my faith, so is the ancient history of Christianity.  While the Bible is central and essential to our faith, I see no reason to ignore the prayers, spirituality, writings, and wisdom that led the early church fathers to compile the books together.  I see no reason to ignore the multi-cultural foundation of early church history and the role that Africans played in it.  After seeing the ancient faith still being practiced among the various Orthodox jurisdictions and learning and practicing the faith as best as I could “in the closet,” I felt it was only right to step out of the safety and security of what I have always known to be a part of the church that was always there.

I believe that African-Americans should learn about and consider converting to the church of Simeon called Niger, Simon of Cyrene and his sons Alexander and Rufus, and the Ethiopian Eunuch that was the first non-Jew to be baptized.  People in Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, and Serbia know of the “desert fathers” and venerate icons of Jesus and the saints that look like me. Sure, I suppose I could have continued to speak about these things from a Baptist pulpit.  That would be like telling someone about kayak fishing yet never having done it.  Sure, I could talk about paddling strokes, adapting equipment, and locating fish in shallow water from the comfort and safety of a pier.  But, until I get into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140, make my own rod holders, and drift the coves at Horn Harbor to pull up large croaker and red drum; I really can’t tell anyone what it is like to fish from a kayak.  Well, I can talk about kayak fishing not only in theory, but from experience as well.  The experienced are the most credible witnesses.

So when I tell African-Americans and others about Orthodoxy, I won’t be doing this as someone who has read some books and heard a few podcast and visited a few websites.  I am a part of the ancient faith.  I am a credible witness.

 

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 6): Wisdom for the Road

7:00 am to 12:00 pm/ 13 October/ Kansas City MO

So by using the worst form of interstate transportation, I came half way across the country to attend a Divine Liturgy at a Serbian Orthodox Church that had elements of Ethiopian Orthodoxy (umbrellas over the Eucharist is cool).  St. Mary’s has three readers to give the scriptures in Amharic, English, and Serbian (or was it Slavonic).  This was a very beautiful worship experience.  If only I didn’t have to catch the 1 pm bus.  I would have loved to linger after service (and apologize for coming up for the blessings for the catechist when, officially, I am  not one) and have those last conversations and good-byes.  This inter-cultural, inter-racial fellowship was a glimpse of what heaven will look like.  If I could have, I would have decided to stay in KC and be a part of the family at St. Mary’s.

Yet, my calling is here in my beloved eastern VA and (for now) as a Baptist pastor.  But, what am I to do will all that I have experienced?  For over a year, I have grown in the knowledge and spirituality of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Perhaps if I were not a pastor, I could go ahead and convert.  But even if I could afford to leave Trinity Baptist Church, would it be fair for me to up and leave one of the most appreciative and loving congregations a man could ask for?

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Having dinner the night before with Fr. Jerome Sanderson and Subdeacon Paul Abernathy shared an obvious piece of advice.  That morning Turbo Qualls reminded me of the challenge I have already taken.

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From the father and deacon:  Take your time and make good steps.  It is too easy to wish to either run away to St. Basil or try to force what little I know down the throats of my congregation (I tried by praying the opening prayer of the Trisagion prayers during the invocation.  Some of my members felt uncomfortable with springing it on them without warning.).  I can’t take the easy way out.  Bringing Orthodoxy to African-Americans and anyone else in this area who is willing to listen will be and is a challenge.  Actually, there are people I communicate with who are interested in how I came to be involved with Orthodoxy and how I balance being a Baptist pastor and yet one who practices elements of and has a deep appreciation for this ancient faith (praying the Hours, keeping the fasting rules, venerating icons).  I have set something of an idea that I would convert to Orthodoxy sometime in 2015.  Who knows, I may or may not convert then.  It may be that I remain Baptist, yet with a strong slant towards Eastern Christian thought.  Or, as some Orthodox have suggested, I will reach a point where I just can’t stand being away from the church so much and take the plunge.  In either case, I need to be very prayerful and careful of each decision I make about my journey and how I invite others to walk with me.

But this is a journey that I must share.  Turbo told me that a good pastor is someone who shares what he knows with his people.  I have not been shy about telling people about my journey.  I think that pursuing Orthodoxy has been one of the best things that has happened in my Christian journey.  I am learning about how the Bible came into being and how it was originally interpreted by the church who first established the faith.  I am learning about the church that was founded by Africans, Asians, and Europeans.  As best as conditions allow, I am practicing the faith the way it has been done for almost 2,000 years.  This is a pearl of great price!  How can I not want to share it?

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

So, what is the plan?  Right now, I see myself as a bridge builder between the traditional Black Baptist and Orthodox Churches.  My task is to interpret between both of these very different worlds.  There are some strong similarities, especially with the older manifestations of our church during slavery and Jim Crow.  Yet, there are stark differences in theology and thought.  Surely, there are people far more qualified for this task.  Yet, it has been given to me.  May the Lord lead me to lead others in love, truth, and wisdom.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 2): A Bad Blessed Bus Trip

( I actually typed this up on the way to Kansas City.  There is quite a bit of moaning an whining.  You may wish to skip down to the “REFLECTION” at the end of this post )

8:40 pm/9 October/Richmond VA

I think the Roman Catholics are right about Purgatory.  I have found it.   The Richmond Greyhound Bus Terminal waiting for a midnight bus to DC and Baltimore.  There cannot be too many more jacked up situations than where I am now.  I didn’t want to impose on anyone too much.  So, I asked my sister-in-law to get me here around seven.  We had a nasty little Nor’Easter  hit us and she doesn’t drive in the rain too well at night.  So, I will be waiting for a while as dude with the big floor scrubber does his thing and there is darn near nobody around.

Gina did hook me up with some sort of pumpkin spice bread.  I paid way too much for a “Powerade.”  These metal seats must have been part of the Spanish Inquisition.  Uncle Bob used to denounce Greyhound as a low class airline.  Chances are the Huxtibles would not be caught dead around here.  But, I paid half of what a plane would cost and dealt with no freaky airport security x-ray machines showing my butt naked body to some guard.

But, I can’t complain. The fact that I can afford to go to the conference is a blessing.  Plus, I got my wife a set of teeth.  The refund check was a gift that I was not looking for.  I probably could and should have spent the money on a couple of other things around the house.  But, next year’s conference will probably be in Oakland or somewhere else too far to travel.

The wi-fi sucks!  I can’t get on Facebook.  Yeah, this is Purgatory.  I will have to make the  best of it.

5:35 am/10 October/Baltimore, MD

I thought Richmond was bad.  At least Richmond hand a restaurant.  Richmond, not considered a pro sports city, has a much larger terminal than downtown Baltimore.  Both terminals have me more than a bit disappointed in how the customers have a choice between these horrible metal seats and the floor.  I am not saying Greyhound should provide us with Lazy-Boy recliners and sofas.  But, these seats offer no comfort.  If the company is going to offer us slightly overpriced food (Richmond) or only vending machine food (Baltimore), they should give us some measure of comfort.  And yet again, NO FACEBOOK!  THE WI-FI DOES NOT WORK!

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

2:44 pm/ 10 October/Zanesville OH

For every joy there is a frustration.  Between Frederick MD and Pittsburgh is some of the finest fall scenery I have ever seen.   And yes, Pittsburgh is the HOLY LAND with about 3 or 4 Orthodox Churches within sight of the interstate.  Actually, Wheeling WV and eastern Ohio are kind of nice too (not yet in Zanesville).  I am not sure how the area does in tourism.  But, I would definitely visit here.

I don’t think my laptop is allowing me access to Greyhound’s unsecured wi-fi.  This could be for my benefit.  So, I won’t cry about that.  But, once again, I am furious with the metal chairs in the Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.  Riding a bus is a more meaningful way of travel than flying.  You get to see the country at a slower pace than you do a train.  But, uncomfortable terminals and sub-par, overpriced food take away from what should be a nice experience.  Again, I liked what I saw of Pittsburgh outside of the Greyhound terminal.  It really seems to be a nice place to visit even if you don’t like sports.  But the terminal was just another place where Greyhound must improve.  Next year, if I go anywhere, I may check out Amtrak for an unadvertised early bargain.

REFLECTION

A couple of people at the conference (somewhat jokingly) called my journey on the bus ascetic.  When I think about the saints who lived in deserts, ate dry bread, and dealt with worse conditions than mine; yeah, I seem like a cry-baby wuss.  Jesus told us to deny ourselves and carry our cross.  Following Jesus does not always happen in times or situations of comfort.  People who only want to move with a savior that calls them to creature comforts of life are missing the point.  We are to pursue the Christian faith, we have to learn to endure hardship and accept sacrifice.  No, not everyone is going to be a St. Anthony the Great (he gave up a life of wealth to move out into the Egyptian desert to live a life of prayer).  But things like maintaining a discipline of prayer and fasting helps us remember what our Lord has gone through for our salvation.

So, I will put some “Ben-gay” on my back again and be grateful for the journey.  Not just going to the conference.  The journey of Christianity is to walk through this strange land we live in knowing that we are citizens of the greater and eternal kingdom.  May I live like such a citizen.

Embracing John The Baptist

I am sorry I haven’t worked on articles about my trip to the St. Moses the Black (Ancient Faith Afro-American) Conference yet.  Actually, I did type up a few rough drafts while in and on the road.  I will get on it as soon as I have time and get better.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been well and found out last Friday that my blood sugar level was 720.  I was hospitalized over the weekend and just got home Monday afternoon.  This morning, I tested out at 150.  I feel dizzy.  I’m ready for a morning nap.

I am grateful for the visits, prayers, and phone calls from my Trinity Baptist Church family and relatives on both sides of my family.   Fr. James Purdie came with his eldest children.  I kinda expected him to pray the Trisagion and offer up some other ancient prayers.  He also gave me an icon of John the Baptist.  This was no major surprise coming from an Orthodox priest.  But, the more I sat and looked at the icon, the more I thought of how I need to make my patron saint a part of me.

John the Forerunner

John didn’t eat the most elaborate diet.  I imagine locust and wild honey gets old kinda quick.  Nor was he very fashionable (camel’s hair garment).  I’m not much on clothes since I wear a uniform at work and a suit on Sundays.  A couple of sport shirts, jeans, and khakis round out my wardrobe.  I have to make a change in my eating and drinking.  Deserts are not a big problem for me, except for holidays.  I do okay on my weekly fast.  But, I eat myself silly on non fast days.  I don’t think there are too many juice-based drinks at the 7-11 that I have not tried and liked.  Such beverages have been a major addiction of mine.  On my trip to KC, I drank Hawaiian Punch like a comfort food.  No wonder my blood sugar level was up to ridiculous.    John and the later monastics had the right idea.  We need only to eat and drink what is necessary for health.

Spiritually, John provides a role model of what is most important about the Christian faith.  Repentance, giving to others, and living in expectation of seeing the Christ.  Again, I am no fan of “get your praise on” worship.  I don’t really get into buying stuff because I have little or no disposable income.  I do worry that people see the Christian faith more as a “feel good, self help, get what you want in this world today” religion rather than the “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” faith that Jesus calls us to.  Could it be that we have spiritual diabetics who only want the sugar of earthly blessings and no balance of muscle building proteins of self sacrifice?  Could it be that we have people with 720 blood glucose levels of praises instead of 60 to 100 of a prayer discipline?  I think we all need to monitor our bodies and souls and the later is far more important.

Yeah, I honor the saints of Orthodox Christianity.  Moses the Black, Cyprian of Carthage, Isaac the Syrian, Herman of Alaska, and others grace my icon corners.  But, John was the true forerunner not only of our Lord.  Except for the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), he was the role model for all saints.  He is a role model for all Christians as well.

 

After A Year’s Journey: My Inquiry into the Orthodox Church

About this time last year, I decided to learn about Orthodox Christianity by immersing myself in the prayers and practices of the church as much as I could without making a full conversion.  It began with learning about the African saints that I wasn’t exposed to in my African-American upbringing.  I spent a lot of time on the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black‘s website and John Norman’s Ancient Christian Witness blog.  Playing on Second Life, I was led to Ancient Faith Radio and indulged in a steady diet of liturgical music and very informative and inspiring podcast.  Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” series was extremely eye-opening with his comparisons of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches and doctrines.  I wanted a practical guide in the prayers and fasting cycle of the church.  Thus, I joined St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline of the Antiochian Archdiocese and obtained a Greek Ecclesiastical Calendar which list all of the feast, fast, and saints that are recognized on each day of the year.  As my church does not have worship services on 5th Sundays, I visited and worshiped at Orthodox Churches including The Church of the Transfiguration in Charlottesville, Sts. Constantine & Helen in Newport News (Greek), St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond (Orthodox Church in America), and St. Basil the Great in Poquoson (Antiochian).

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

St. Basil has become my home away from home because all of the services are in English and it is the closest to my home in West Point and workplace in Williamsburg.  I have attended a few of the Vespers and Lenten services there as well as my first Pascha (Easter).  I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Bishop Thomas Joseph there in January.  Bro. Norman recommended that I meet the priest, Fr. James Purdie, and the church was on the list of Antiochian parishes suggested in the St. Philip’s Discipline.  Poquoson, to put it mildly, has a reputation of not being accepting to African-Americans.  St. Cyprian, by its name and iconography, would seem to be a better fit for me.  But, St. Basil is multi-ethnic (mostly converts, Eastern European descendants, and a few Ethiopians) and I feel the love of Christ among the congregation (as I have felt this love with the other churches I have worshiped in also).   Besides, I didn’t see so much as one Confederate flag in anyone’s yard driving to and from the church.  Even if I did, that alone is no indication of one being a Klansman.

After a year’s journey into Orthodoxy, I have come to understand and deeply appreciate some things about this ancient faith.  First of all, that Orthodox Christianity is a lifestyle and not just another denomination.  There are prayers that have been embraced by the church for hundreds  and two thousand years that have been handed down through the generations.  Somewhere in a little Serbian town, a blue-eyed blond teenager offers the words of St. Macarius of Egypt, a brown-skinned hermit that lived in the desert in the 4th century.  An Ethiopian can walk into a Russian Church during Great Lent and know when the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian is offered without being able to speak the language as he knows the bowing, crossing, and prostrations that are in the order of worship.  Of course Orthodoxy encourages people to pray to God from the heart with extemporaneous expressions.  But, when one prays a prayer of the church fathers,  there are others around the world offering the same words.  This is a “touching and agreeing” that goes beyond praying for the whole world.  This is prayer with the body of Christ in the world and a link between present and past generations of Christians.  It is encouraging to know that the same Trisagion prayer I  just offered was said by a monk  on Mt. Athos in 1313 and a Syrian shop keeper 13 minutes ago.

A discipline of prayer, the Hours, has become my favorite tool for maintaining my spiritual life.  I don’t have time to go through the 119th Psalm or 100 Jesus Prayers.  But, I keep the prayer of Hours at my desk at work for 9am, noon, and 3pm and at my bedside if I wake up in the middle of the night.  Years ago, I heard a Baptist deacon suggest that we keep “short sin accounts.”  When we sin, we must not let too much time accumulate before we repent.  Keeping the Hours, even with brief prayers, is extremely helpful in spiritual warfare.  Knowing that monks, nuns, and other Orthodox believers are doing the same thing makes the prayers more powerful.  The whole body of the church is lifting up the name of Jesus at the same times.

Fasting is another portion of the Orthodox lifestyle that has become a part of me.  Refraining from meats, dairy, fish with backbones on Wednesdays, Fridays, and according to certain periods of the year is a healthier approach to life than eating whatever, whenever, and how much one chooses.  Wednesday is the commemoration of the betrayal of Christ and Friday the crucifixion.  This is a great weekly practice to keep the suffering of our Lord in our minds during the week.  There is nothing wrong with these foods and they are to be eaten during fast-free periods as well.  But, as an Orthodox Christian, you practice the wisdom of setting aside some pleasures and delights of this world to focus on the world beyond.  No, the bishops and priest do not send policemen to force believers to fast.  But, understanding the purpose of the practice makes fasting more of an invitation than a threat.

Unholy images, such as graphic violence and pornography, are among Satan’s greatest weapons to distract us from God.  In Orthodox Christianity, icons (holy images) are used to keep our focus on worship in the church and in our home icon corners.  The icons are not artistically accurate and are painted (or written) in a way to highlight Christian doctrine.  They are not to be worshiped as God.  But, as the gold-hammered cherubim on the Mercy Seat and cherubim woven into the fabric of the temple in the Book of Exodus, icons represent the presence of Christ, Mary, and the saints and are to be honored as such.  Having icons to pray with has been a blessing to me.  Incense, which symbolizes the prayers of the people being lifted up to heaven is another great tool in public and personal worship.  Sight, sound, touch, hearing, and taste are all a part of the Orthodox daily life.

The stories of the numerous saints and martyrs are very inspiring.  Who knew the woman at the well and the centurion at the crucifixion had names and helped to spread the Gospel?  And how odd is it that during Black History Month, we African-Americans will have pictures of Malcolm X in our churches and not one icon of the Egyptian Bishop who compiled the list of books that would be accepted as the New Testament?  Instead of buying the newest book from some “flavor of the month” bishop about “going to the next level,” Orthodoxy offers a rich foundation of ancient wisdom from the Desert Fathers to the new martyrs of the Soviet persecutions.   

I admit, my first visits to a Divine Liturgy were confusing.  Greek words, no soul-stirring Gospel music, the sermon lasting about 10-minutes, I can’t have communion, all the standing (St. Cyprian has no pews and a few chairs), bowing, crossing (prostrations during Lent), incense, Mary the Theo-what, and kiss the preacher’s hand?  It is no wonder that most dyed-in-the-wool Protestants and nominal Christians would quickly reject Orthodoxy as pagan idolatry and detestable to any real “Bible-believeing” Christian.

But, the 4th century  bishops of the Orthodox Church selected the books of the Bible.  If I can trust their judgement in the Holy Scriptures, who am I to doubt a worship that is just as old?  After participating in the services a few more times, I understood what was going on and why things were done.  I can go into a Greek church and keep up.  I love going to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  It is worship that is in line with the scriptures, 2,000 years of tradition, and symbolically connects earth to heaven.

This and next year, I do not anticipate leaving the Baptist Church and Converting to Orthodoxy.  On a practical level, I can’t afford to leave the pulpit and my wife is not that enthusiastic about a church that has no women clergy.  Spiritually, there are elements of the black church that still have tremendous value to me.  The preaching of Gardner Taylor, Howard Thurman‘s wisdom, the strength of the Negro Spirituals to Thomas Dorsey and the Staple Singers; I don’t think it is good for me to turn my back on such a legacy.

Yet, many of those who claim to inherit this legacy are doing just that.  I see too many ministers and ministries chasing after the newest and “most relevant” styles of trying to attract “paying customers” rather than standing firmly on the shoulders of the giants of our churches.  Rather than a refuge for our sin-sick souls, there is a tendency for too many of our churches to praise our way to some “next level” without knowing and walking on the firm  foundation the older generations set before us.  This is a bad trend.

So, I will use my time wisely to read and study more about the ancient faith.  I will continue the practices of prayer, fasting, and attend the Divine Liturgies and other services when I can.  I will also gain strength from the faith of my father’s and grandfather’s generations.  My time to convert will come.  May I do so in grace, wisdom, mercy, and love.

On To Pentecost: The Worst Of Sinners

God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Luke 18:13

Humility is the most difficult characteristic for the Christian to maintain.  It is too easy for us to look at our salvation (either through the sacraments of Orthodoxy or as a born again Baptist) as a “Get Out Of Hell Free” card.  It is too easy to find abortion doctors, kidnapping rapist, troubled celebrities, and corrupt politicians that we compare ourselves favorably against.  With this ease of judgement (a power that belongs to God alone), complete humility is impossible for those of us outside of monastic communities.  Even monks and nuns must struggle for this goal as well.

The Pharisee and the Publican

The Pharisee and the Publican

While we may adhere to lowly words of our prayer discipline, our thoughts and words in general conversation are too much like the Pharisee.  “Thank God I am not like James Gosnell, Ariel Castro, OJ Simpson, Tea Party members, Barack Obama and his supporters, … .  I love my wife, my children, my country, my people, … .  Does not God know our words and thoughts outside of our hours of prayer?  Asking for mercy in a few appointed times without the heart, mind, and lips that seek it at all other is hypocritical.  At least the Pharisee’s hypocrisy was obvious.  We hide ours in Jesus Prayers and Gospel radio.

The Apostle Paul called himself the chief among sinners.  Sure, he could boast that he was no longer a persecutor of the Church and that he was the great missionary of Christ to the Roman world.  But, Paul understood that God alone is the judge of all mankind and that it is better to think lower of one’s self as the humble are exalted and those who exalt themselves are brought down low.  A plethora of saints from the early fathers to Seraphim Rose taught the same thing, that one should think of himself no better than our enemies.  If we honestly look at our sins as the things that separate us from communion with God, we all have reason to hang our heads down and beat our breast begging for mercy. 

Let us be careful of our thoughts and words outside of prayer.  We may be the baby-killing, teen-raping, dirty politicians with inflated egos that we are better than.  God, be merciful to me a sinner!

Journey Into Great Lent (Day 24): Overcoming Despondency

Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not

But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant

Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages.  Amen

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The Path I Trod  (© John Gresham/DCR)

The Path I Trod (© John Gresham/DCR)

This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect.  I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat.  Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far.  But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use.  While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).

I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency.  My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident.  Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house.  My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage.  But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away.  So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do.  Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk.  But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife.  Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas. 

So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins.  Prayer and constructive labor.  Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency.  The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring  monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor.    I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*.  When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden.  He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time.  In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything.  The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.

I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut.  Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles.  I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want.  And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again.  Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:

Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.   (Matthew 6:31-33)

After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought).  As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent.  Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues.  “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another.  And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised.  But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey. 

*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think).  Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).  I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died.