This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Contemporary Christian Music

The subject I want to address today is not an easy one, as it may tend to possibly offend some people, but it has to be addressed because it has become an issue in today's Christian circles.   Music and worship are the center of a major debate in the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, and therefore it has become something that some churches have even split over.  I am going to attempt to be as sensitive as possible with this subject, as I do have dear friends who may differ with me on this, but it doesn't make them any less Christian because of it.  However, I feel some strong convictions about this subject, as I see it as having some influence that it shouldn't have, and that is why it is important.

I want to state up-front that unlike some may accuse those of us who don't agree with CCM's use in the Church, we are not fighting this based on style.  I base that on two points.  First, there are some people who are Christians - more traditionalist than I am actually! - who do listen to secular rock music, but they also realize that the same music is not appropriate in a church setting either.  Second, my personal preferences in music, especially religious music, are actually quite diverse - I have in my own Christian music collection everything from ancient Syriac Orthodox liturgical chant to modern Southern Gospel, but despite the fact these styles are diverse, they are still part of the heritage of Christianity and my own collection reflects music that is both theologically sound and spiritually edifying, which is important.   A third observation I wish to make is this - I never listened to rock music, even as a non-Christian before I was born again, so I find it odd that in recent years "rock and roll church" is almost imposed as a new "tradition of men" upon people in churches; if I had nothing to do with it before I was a Christian, why would I have anything to do with it as a Christian??  These points being made, I also want to point out that what I am about to say here is meant with no disrespect towards some of my friends who may listen to CCM, and I hope they understand the spirit in which I say what I need to say here.  Believe it or not, I do know that listening to CCM will not cause someone to automatically become apostate, but at the same time as Christians mature, they also should be more discerning as to what they nurture their spirits with.  Now that we have established the groundwork, let us now begin to tackle the issue.

CCM is a relatively new innovation within the Christian community, only dating back to maybe the early 1970's when some younger people who were involved in other lifestyles before their conversions to Christ (mainly hippies and others) began to bring their old music into the Church with them.  As a result, there was the advent of "Christian rock" among the "Jesus People" movement, as well as the so-called "folk Masses' in Catholic parishes which were along the same lines.  At first, it was actually not too pervasive - some of the early Maranatha Praise music, as a matter of fact, is actually quite uplifting and edifying - as many Evangelical and conservative Catholic parishes still maintained doctrinal integrity.  That was largely true up until maybe the late 1980's when some things began to happen that radically changed the religious music industry for the worse. For one thing, many religious record companies were acquired by secular mega-corporations, and at that point it seemed like Christian music became an industry rather than a ministry.  More and more "Christian music" began to focus more on image and sales rather than the spiritual lives of its listeners, and that eventually led to some moral compromises among some CCM artists.  Another issue was within the Christian churches themselves, when a variety of new trends began to slowly infect them like bad diseases, and this too caused some problems - the "seeker-friendly" ideology of people like Bill Hybels, the rise of Rick Warren's "purpose-driven" philosophy in the mid-1990's, and this new trend in recent years called the "Emerging Church' all capitalized on the use of contemporary cultural trends to cater to the "seekers" at the expense of the Church's integrity.  A new emphasis in churches on marketing strategies (many borrowed from large corporations, which in itself was a problem) and increasing numbers left a spiritual void in American Christianity as many pastors who jumped on those bandwagons began to "dumb-down" their messages and capitalize on rock music as "worship" while heaping scorn upon those who had the discernment to see that this was a bad move.  It began to cause splits in churches, and it caused a lot of spiritual anguish for sincere people who only wanted to worship God in spirit and truth yet were denied that because the pastors of these churches wanted to make a good show rather than disciple their people.   Now, in 2010, we are seeing the fruit of that - many self-proclaimed conservative churches are now even questioning cardinal doctrines that at one time were not even up for debate because they are fundamental Christian beliefs.  Sin, repentance, hell, etc., are all subjects which have been blacklisted in fear of offending "seekers" who actually need to hear those messages.  And, it appears as if things are getting worse - here in Pinellas County, FL, for instance there are very few churches that actually teach the Gospel as it should be taught, because many of them are ashamed to do so.  Yet, they have dark sanctuaries, loud and scantily-dressed rock bands leading "worship," and numerics rather than discipleship is now the name of the game.  People like Rick Warren are multi-millionaires now as a result of this stuff, but at what cost??  Although I have gotten off-subject somewhat here, my point is that there is a connection between what I call "rock-and-roll worship" and these movements like the Emergent Church and "Purpose-Driven" philosophies, but those are not the subject of this lesson, although they are intimately tied into it.  What I wish to talk about today is about CCM, so let us begin. 

Some time back, I listened to a conservative Mennonite preacher by the name of Mose Stolzfus of Ephrata, PA, give a message about how CCM has made inroads into the Church.  I don't totally agree with many of his statements, as this same man also goes as far as to say only a-capella music is Scriptural (the Psalms don't agree with him, although there is nothing wrong with a-capella music in the Church), but he did make some excellent points in what he said.  One of the Scripture passages he used that stuck out for me was Isaiah 3:4-5, which is a verse dealing with children oppressing the people, being insolent toward the elders, and exalting what is base above what is honorable.  The first part of the verse is interesting also, in that it says God gave these insolent child dictators the reigns because of the infidelity of his people (some of these people who follow such a person didn't bother to read I Timothy 5:1, did they?).  Later on, in verses 16 and 17, it talks about the "daughters of Zion" being haughty and loose.  In this context, I believe this is talking about a time in the Church when the faith of our fathers is rejected by a younger generation in favor of a more worldly, lewd, and dumbed-down "worship" that leaves the people starving for spiritual nourishment (Hosea 4:6).  And, this is also a sign of the last-days Church too - see II Thessalonians 2:3-4, 11-12; I Timothy 4:1-2; II Timothy 3:1-10; 4:3; and the description of the Church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-17, among others.   It is interesting that music has become a focal point of this also, and that definitely has significance. 

Many proponents of CCM, especially those involved in the movements of Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, preach the "cultural relevency" angle when confronted with its problems, stating how kids "relate" to CCM today.  However, Jeff Godwin, in his 1990 book What's Wrong With Christian Rock? (Chino, CA: Chick Publications, 1990) on page 235 blows that argument out of the water when he writes that the problem with the "relating" hoax is that it cultivates friendship with sin rather than deliverance from sin.   Also, people who make that "relevency" argument underestimate the intelligence of youth - kids are not stupid, and to many "Christian rock" is actually a big joke.  As a more encouraging sign additionally, there are actually many Christian youth who want traditional worship over contemporary "worship," as they desire to have roots and structure, something that CCM and the Rick Warren books deny them - I can attest to this personally, as I have seen many young people turning to Catholic and Orthodox liturgies and really having a radical transformation in their spiritual walks as a result of these ancient Christian liturgies.  For the "seeker church" proponents and the CCMers to make such an assumption about today's youth is both absurd and insulting, and in the long run it is going to make these people a laughing stock once they see they have failed miserably.   Others use the "success" angle, and to counter that, and Kinberly Smith, in her book Oh Be Careful Little Ears (Mulkilteo, WA: WinePress Publishing, 1997) on pages 86-87 says the following:

Christians yearn  for a deeper relationship with Christ.  We want to experience Him.  This "yearning" is artificially "satisfied" through carnal music because, as discussed in chapter 5, we can "experience" the music with our bodies.  However, this "satisfaction" is short-lived, resulting in a constant need for further exposure to carnal music in order to remain "satisfied."  Because we are carnally satisfied, we are hindered from experiencing a deeper walk with the Lord.

Carnal Christian music is successful because, just like secular rock music, it satisfies our carnal nature - our "flesh."  It's an instant gratification that doesn't require active participation in prayer and Bible study.

In other words, CCM is a drug, and the more people are addicted to it, the more money those who produce it rake in - aha!!  Problem there is this - just because something sells well doesn't mean it is quality.  Also, it doesn't mean it is good for you either.   That being said, I hasten to say that those who push the CCM agenda will have much to answer for, as the blood of many lost souls will be on their hands one day.  Is making a quick buck or getting a few butts in the seats worth all that??  And, lest you think there is no fallout from CCM and its influence, I cite Dan Lucarini, a former contemporary worship leader who saw the error of his ways and wrote a very informative book on CCM that interweaves his own experience with valuable information entitled Why I Left The Contemporary Christian Music Movement (Webster, NY:  Evangelcal Press, 2002).  In Chapter 18 of the book, entitled "How Then Shall We Worship Together?" he describes in straight-forward language the spiritual consequence of CCM addiction when he talks about how hard it was for him and others to wean themselves of it.  He notes that it does create a spiritual stronghold in the heart and will be a spiritual battle to release, just like a crack addict has withdrawal from his vice. In other words, it takes the grace of God to deliver us from this bondage.  He also notes on page 125 a number of benefits if the church would remove CCM's worldly influence from its services:

1.  There would be fewer divisions and church splits
2.  There would be less temptation for immorality
3.  There would be fewer tensions between members
4.  There would be less insensitivity between the brethren
5.  There would be less compromise of our principles
6.  God will be pleased with all the above

This makes perfect sense too, as today much of the conflict in Christian circles is generated over this issue, and it is tragic to have divisions because of some worldly tare-fertilizer in the wheatfield. Churches, back when I was a kid, were places that were once sanctuaries from the world, where the sinner could find redemption and the saint could find restoration.  Sinners even respected God's house, although they may not have accepted God's message.  And, the Church had no need to cater to them - the Church was what it was, and didn't have to use bad music or cheap marketing schemes to draw people, as the Holy Spirit does that anyway (it's His job, not ours!).  However, that isn't so anymore - nowadays, you see "pastors" that don't even have good hygeine, "worship teams" that look like skanks and sluts (forgive the language, but nothing is more appropriate to describe girls "shaking their booties for Jesus" on a church platform!), and a "sanctuary" of a church that is dank, dark, and looks more like a mosh pit than it does a place of worship.   And, for these scantily-clad girls standing up there in "worship teams" (note Isaiah 3;16-17 again here), the only thing being "uplifted" in a typical setting like that is not Jesus Christ, but rather a horny young man's libido - and, it is that inappropriate dress that causes the problem, along with the unnatural rhythms of most of that rock-and-roll stuff they call "worship music."  I know that was a bit coarse, and my apologies for that to my more sensitive readership, but fact is fact; the seductive dress of many of these young people is not for the purpose of worshipping the Lord!  It is catering to carnal nature.  Lucarini addresses that in his book as well when he notes that this is a form of idolatry in that it exults the singer on stage rather than the Lord of Hosts, and in His house yet to boot!  Not only is it inappropriate, but it is also rude!  People need to get back to standards as to how they present themselves in God's house, and men need to pull up those pants and not let your drawers show, as well as tucking in those shirttails, and you young ladies need to dress more appropriately for worshipping in God's house.  Save the sloppy dress for your clubs and keep it out of the church, please!

On pages 134-136 of his book, Lucarini also offers some very practical suggestions in order to reclaim and reform churches corrupted by this stuff:

1.  Learn to live by the principles
2.  If it's got that swing, it ain't good to sing!
3.  Break up that praise band
4.  If you think the music might offend someone, it probably will; so ASK FIRST!!
5.  Hymns are usually safe and sound
6.  Contemporary songs are acceptable, as long as the emphasis is not on a syncopated backbeat, but rather on melody and harmony.
7.  Use music for congregational singing, not just words on a screen.
8.  Put the microphones back in the stands.

I want to add something to this as a sacramental/liturgical Christian, because I have noticed a similar dumbing-down in liturgical worship as well.  Modern liturgies, such as the post-Vatican II Novus Ordo Mass and the Episcopal 1979 BCP, tend to focus more on politics and what I call hippie-isms rather than on the Lord Jesus Christ, whose Real Presence we celebrate in the Eucharist.  As a former Pentecostal who became Catholic as a result of the Convergence Movement of the early 1990's, I have seen the best and worst in liturgy, and that being said my concerns are not just directed at the Protestant Evangelical "praise music/CCM" phenomenon.   These modern liturgies are just as harmful among those of us who are sacramental/liturgical Christians as Rick Warren books and CCM is among Evangelicals, and it poses many of the same problems.  Now, I am not opposed to some things - for instance, surprisingly I have been greatly blessed and edified by some unusual things such as Fr. Frank Perkovich's Polka Mass as well as Vince Guaraldi's Jazz Mass, but the difference with those is that basically they are traditional music forms that do not alter the message of the Mass itself, so I personally see no problems with those.  Also, I have no problem using Southern Gospel music in worship either, in its proper context, as it too is part of the Christian musical tradition.  However, in many cases with things such as CCM as well as the so-called "guitar Masses" in some Catholic and Episcopal churches, the theology of the Liturgy is often compromised, and therefore these are not appropriate.  That is why it is important that we exercise good discernment as spiritual leaders regarding some supposedly "Christian" music.

Also, and as a final note, let me be clear that I am also not against secular music either.  I myself have been collecting vintage big band recordings for almost 30 years now, and it is a music I love and enjoy.  And, I have a testimony about how basically I believe God gave me an affinity for that music to protect me when I was younger, because had it not been for Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk records, my life might have turned out much worse, seriously! Therefore, it would be hypocritical of me to say that it is wrong to enjoy secular music.  However, secular music has its place too, and it is not in the worship of the Church.   The Church has provided us with 2000 years of highly diverse quality musical forms that we need not pilfer from the secular world just to make our services more "interesting."  God created us with an ear for good music, although many deprive themselves of it, and there is no harm in listening to quality music of a secular nature either.  Some of my more conservative friends would disagree on that with me, but that's their conviction.  However, I want to express some personal opinions about rock music.  For one thing, it is not quality, it is unnatural in its composition, and also unlike many other secular musical styles it embodies a philosophy and mindset that is at odds with Christianity, which is another reason why I do not feel it is appropriate for adaptation to a church setting.  God created us with giftings for discerning beauty and order in our world, and gave us the creativity to express that in various artistic forms.  Therefore, to me, rock music is a waste of God-given creativity, talent, and taste.  However, that is not a sufficient reason for its exclusion necessarily from Christian circles (although a good one!) but rather its reputation is.  Again, that reiterates that this issue is not about one's tastes or preferences, but rather about spiritual edification, of which rock music and its variations fall short.

This was a lengthy and controversial teaching, and I am sure some people may not appreciate it too much, but it is a conviction that needs to be voiced.  My advice to you is to pray, discern, and let God speak to your heart himself, and "study to show thyself approved" by reading His Word and understanding more of what He is looking for as we worship Him in spirit, and in truth. God bless and be with each of you today until I visit again next time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Some Reflections on the Middle Eastern Christian Situation

The thoughts  I am writing this week are not a religious theme - as a matter of fact, I am not exactly feeling all that sanctimonious to give a lot of spiritual wisdom.  I want to address a complex issue that has been on my mind for some time, and this may promise to be a lengthy. The recent tragic church bombing of an Assyrian church in Baghdad on Sunday, October 31, has gotten my attention, which is why I write this now.  Please keep the families of these victims in your thoughts and prayers, as these are a precious people of few numbers and every loss is a great tragedy for their people. 

For close to 20 years now, I have worked closely with Middle Eastern Christian minorities - Assyrians, Copts, Armenians, Maronites, and others - and as I have done so I have learned much.  And, it has not been easy in some cases, for at times the issues surrounding these groups can be such that it is like stepping into a hornet's nest for an outsider to their communities.   My desire has always been to see a united front among these Christian minorities, and at one time I actually thought there was such a unity.  However, due to meddling by the largely Islamic societies they have been forced to live in, oftentimes fracturing and factioning has caused inter-Christian disputes that have gotten violent, in particular regarding Lebanon.  And, unwittingly, I have sometimes gotten caught in the crosshairs of these conflicts, and there have been times I have wanted to just chuck it all and say "the heck with it," but I couldn't - these people mean something to me personally, and just when I am ready to give up, many of the good friends I have made among them are there to encourage me to press on, and I appreciate that so much.  One in particular I want to recognize is an Assyrian-American gentleman by the name of Ashur, with whom I have been talking about these issues over the past few days.  Ashur's encouragement and friendship have really been a godsend, and people like him make these efforts worthwhile.  I can only pray I get the blessing of knowing more like him.  That being said, I want to begin to tackle this to the best of my ability, as it is important to my own understanding as well as making others aware that many of these people, fellow Christians, are up against an evil that potentially could destroy their nations.  Of course that won't happen, as the Bible actually prophesies that many of them will be restored as nations, but at the same time we need to uplift and encourage them, as Islam is evil and if given the chance it will destroy all vestige of Christianity in that region, the very region that gave it birth and where many of its oldest churches still survive today.  Therefore, please bear with me as I struggle to write this.

Besides the Baghdad church tragedy last week, a couple of other things made this article necessary to write.  The first is the most recent.  There is a show on Thursday nights we watch called The Smoking Gun Presents the World's Dumbest, and a week or two ago they did an episode called "Dumbest Brawlers."  Most of the clips, interspersed with hilarious commentary by people like Danny Bonaduce, Tanya Harding, and Leif Garrett, are just amusing clips of normal people making jackasses out of themselves because they have had too much to drink or something.  However, one clip on that particular episode disturbed me - it was a clip of a gangfight between Greek and Armenian monks at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during an Easter Liturgy.   One would think that Church leaders and clergy would set a better example for their people based on their positions as religious/spiritual leaders for some Christian communities which are living under constant threat of bullying and terrorism by Islamic radicals, but this was just disgraceful; it made these monks, supposed holy men, look like fools while the Western world laughed at how stupid they really looked.  The Holy Sepulchre is a shrine that is equally shared by I believe seven Eastern Christian communities and the Roman Catholics, and therefore if any place should be a symbol of Christian unity, that venerable church should.  To have fights breaking out among the clergy is the height of blasphemy to me, and sadly this isn't the first time.  I read a magazine article a few years back about a similar skirmish breaking out among Coptic and Ethiopian monks in Jerusalem over similar territorial spats, and it broke my heart.  I have been a staunch advocate for all these Christian communities for over 20 years, and to see them fighting among themselves like that over stupid things makes me not only sick to my stomach but is simply embarrassing.  Unfortunately, a lot of this goes back to Islamic manipulation - I am convinced that the Muslims plot this to keep the Christians fragmented so that Islam can prevail in the region, as a united front against Islamic oppression would probably overcome Islamic control of the area.  Also, these same Islamic influences have tainted indigenous Christian attitudes towards the Jews and the state of Israel.  For all intentions, Israel and the native Middle Eastern Christians are and should be natural allies, as they face the same enemy.  However, they sadly are not, and anti-Semitic, anti-Israel hate speech is present among Christians there.   There is an evident pattern of this Islamic "divide and conquer" mentality over centuries that Bat Ye'or documents in her book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh-Dickinson, 2005) on page 35:

1.  The gradual erosion of resistance within the societies targeted but not yet conquered by jihad - this is accomplished by fostering economic reliance on Islamic overlords, forced abductions and slavery of religous minority populations, and deportation.
2.  As indigenous populations face a growing hostility, many are forced to immigrate as their societies are gradually altered and replaced by an Islamic lifestyle.  For those that remain, life becomes hell.
3.  The emergence of powerful collaborationist parties among the minorities that are economically and politically tied to Islamic sources.

Bat Ye'or goes on to say that this fosters the dhimmi system, which forced religious minorities to submit and surrender to puppets of the Islamic authorities who basically sold out their people for status or financial gain.  Nowhere is this more evident than among the clergy of many Middle Eastern Christian communities, many of whom are mere "talking heads" and spokesmen for the dictators and would-be mahdis who subjugate and persecute their people.  Although not the only source, this is a reason why many Middle Eastern Christian leaders have taken a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel stance and have even went as far as to condemn what they deem "Christian Zionism" as a "heresy."  They even drew up a document to that effect actually.  It is really tragic that many of the Middle Eastern Christians - thankfully not all, as a growing number know better, which I will get to shortly - have been fed this garbage, and they are failing to realize that Israel may be their only friend - the Muslims hate them and want to kill them, the West doesn't acknowledge they exist, and they are so factional among themselves that Islamic insurgents can pick them off easily.  That recently became painfully evident when I had a debate with two ladies - one a Palestinian Arab Christian and the other an Armenian from Syria - who both condemned fellow Christians while extolling the virtues of both Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini.   The Armenian lady even had the audacity to say that the Assyrians in Iraq inflicted suffering upon themselves, which is absurd - she obviously didn't know the history of her own people, much less the Assyrians, as both nations suffered horrific genocides at the hands of the Turks and Kurds simply for being Christians.  It gets worse though, as an Armenian Catholic writer, Antranik Atamian, wrote a book called Middle Eastern Christians At The Crossroads published a couple of years back that more or less created something I had never heard of - an "Armenian Arab."  Anyone who knows even a rudimentary amount of information about Armenians knows that they are a people of great pride in their unique heritage, and they know they are distinct from Arabs - they are not even Semitic, for heaven's sake!  So, for an Armenian writer to say this is just unbelievable.  Both of these ladies were also virulently anti-Israel, and that amazed me even more; not so much the Palestinian girl as the Armenian though.  However, Islamic incursions are not the total cause of this prejudice, as many Christians have harbored a hatred of Jews that goes back centuries even before Islam due to poor discipleship and misinterpretations of the Church Fathers and their teachings.  However, are either the Catholic or Orthodox Churches really anti-semitic in their teachings, or is this a "tradition of men" that has been fostered by ignorance?  That is what I wish to discuss now.

In 1987, a Carmelite priest of Jewish heritage by the name of Fr. Elias Friedman wrote a small book called Jewish Identity, and what he says in it will blow a hole through almost any anti-semitic sentiment a professing Christian harbors.  Fr. Friedman begins by asserting that first off, "Jewish" is religious terminology while "Israel" or "Hebrew" is ethnic, and not every Jew is an Israelite, while many Israelites can be found among the nations (take, for instance, the 55 million Conversos/Anusim, of which I am a part).  That being said, he also says that although Israel was largely founded by secular Zionists, God still has a purpose and a prophetic plan for its existence.  Natural Israel, argues Fr. Friedman, still has a future place in God's plan, but it isn't the Church.  The Church and Israel together constitute the Chosen of God, and thus one day an "ingrafting" will happen - many Church visionaries, both Catholic and Orthodox, saw this too - in which the leadership of the Church will revert to natural Israel because of two things.  First, there is an Apostasy of the Gentiles coming.  Secondly, there is to be a mass conversion of many Jews to Christ when they realize He is their Messiah.  This has Biblical support too, as in Revelation 5:11-13 there is a direct reference to 144,000 of Israel sealed by the Lamb.  I personally believe this to be a class of priests of Hebrew blood who will arise in the end times in the Church and will lead it through its roughest time of persecution, the Great Tribulation, and they will be led by a prophetic leader of the Remnant who will be of Levitical birth but also ordained into the priesthood of the Church; that could be a future exiled Pope, possibly from Ethiopia, but his identity is not necessarily restricted to just the Latin Church either.  Therefore, based on these facts, I would caution many Middle Eastern Christians to read up more on the subject, because simply put one day the very people they are rejecting may lead them, and some of these nations also have a prophetic destiny as well (see Isaiah 19:23-25 for more on that) and will be in fellowship with natural Israel.

That being said, my own frustration and disillusionment with some among the Middle Eastern Christian communities I have advocated so strongly for has led me to re-evaluate some things, and as I did so a Bible passage came to me.  It is one of the parables of Jesus, and is found in Matthew 13:24-30, and it is about wheat and tares.  A tare is simply a weed that poses as a wheat plant, but in doing so it can overtake a field.  It is possibly a poisonous plant that cannot be consumed, and thus to ancient farmers it was important to discern the difference.  The harvest metaphor is used quite frequently of the end-times Church in Scripture, and what it says if it is taken at face value is this; the harvest is of souls, and there must be a sorting process at the harvest to root out the tares from the wheat.  "Tares" are evident in all churches today, and unfortunately in growing numbers; my mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, often says that many Orthodox churches are filled with what he calls "baptized pagans."  In other words, they identify as Christians, know the lingo and motions, but their hearts are far from God.  As hard as it is for me to come to this conclusion, Middle Eastern Christians are not exempt from having tares in their wheatfields either, and unfortunately many of the "tares" hold office as clergy in the Church, or they are people who, due to satisfying their own pride and ambition, sell out their identities to Islamic puppetmasters in order to cater some gain for their own selfish interests, and their people suffer for that.  A lot of the fighting, killing, and feuding among professed Middle Eastern Christians is the result of tares flourishing in the wheatfields - I have heard stories in particular of Christians of different communities killing each other by masses in Lebanese villages in particular, and the ones who promote Islamic interests exploit this in order to foster discord and mayhem, as Islam is controlled by Satan and Satan knows that if he can keep God's people divided, he will prevail.  However, the good news is that there are others among them who are sincere and godly people, and those people deserve great admiration and respect because they often become martyrs or exiles due to taking a stand for the truth.  One day, the tares will be sorted out, and the promises made to the Assyrians, Copts, and other Christian nations in the Middle East in Isaiah 19 and other passages will be for the faithful Remnant of their people, and the same also goes for Israel - there are many Jewish and/or Hebraic people who will also burn in the fires of hell for eternity unless they understand their need for Jesus Christ as their Messiah, and it is the faithful Remnant of Israel that will inherit the blessings God has promised.  Understanding that helps me to deal with some attitudes I come across on occasion, like those of the Palestinian Christian girl I mentioned earlier as well as the Armenian woman.  Compromise with the enemy may bring some temporal luxury, but in the end it has a high cost, and my advice to Middle Eastern Christian people today is to stand by your convictions, stand for your God-given identities, and stand against the demonic onslaughts of Islamic control.  Much more can be said on this, but I will leave it for now as I may have more to revisit in a future article.  God bless the Assyrians, Copts, Armenians, and other Christian peoples of the Middle East, and may He awaken in them the truth and a passion to stand for it.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talking About Hell

Recently, there was a discussion on a Facebook forum about whether or not it is essential to mention hell when talking to a non-believer, and that got me thinking personally on the subject.  So, today's talk is a little different - it is not a teaching, a devotional, and definitely not a discourse on hell, but rather just a sharing of some thoughts.  I hope this can be of help to someone, and if so, feel free to use the material.

When I was around 6 years old, the First Baptist Church in my hometown of Parsons, WV, showed a film entitled The Burning Hell.  Originally filmed in 1975 I believe by an independent Baptist evangelist in Mississippi, Rev. Estus Pirkle, it was a graphically realistic film that was designed to more or less alert sinners to the possibility of eternal damnation if they didn't accept Christ as Savior.   The message in the film is Biblical and sound, but when Mom made me go see that as a child, I had nightmares about it for weeks.  You see, growing up in a very conservative Holiness/Pentecostal environment in rural West Virginia, it must be understood that religion is a little more strict and high-test than it would be in a similar church setting elsewhere, and although one of the strengths of that is that it produces a well-grounded and staunch faith unfortunately the downside of it is that it can also lead to a faith based on legalism and fear.   Hell, the Second Coming, and sin were three subjects that were taught extensively in mountain churches when I was growing up, and although this is not a problem in itself, often the other side of the story - namely, the love of Christ, joy in the Spirit, etc. - was not emphasized as much.  My own mother, as a matter of fact, once came to Christ not out of a desire to know Him as her Savior, but out of fear, and the weak foundation of her conversion later caused her to backslide miserably.  Even in my early Christian walk, I served God more out of fear than out of joy and love, and it took several years for me to understand there was more to Christianity than just the negative, and when I did, then I became stronger in my own convictions about the reality of hell, but with a difference - this time, I was seeing in retrospection, and I saw Christ delivered me from that awful place, and it became a source of joy.  I have never wavered in my convictions - hell is a very real place, and a very real danger for someone who doesn't accept by faith the grace God offered through the Blood of His Son, Jesus Christ - and in a way I have become a more staunch defender of them.  However, if I could have chosen to come to Jesus differently, I think I would have preferred it if someone had grounded me in a more balanced way.  That being said, let's talk about witnessing a little.

Many Protestant Evangelicals for years have relied upon vocal, direct witnessing for bringing converts to our faith, and it has been viewed as an acceptable practice in which a lot of time and resources have been invested.   However, as I have grown personally in faith and also after becoming part of a more liturgical/sacramental expression of Christianity, I began to see that this approach might not have exactly been the best thing, and it doesn't seem to have Biblical precedent.   Personal evangelism is vital and needed, no doubt, but an important factor has been left out of the equation, and that is the Holy Spirit.  When I accepted Christ as my Savior and became born again at age 16, for instance, it was the Holy Spirit that led me to my pastor, and he led me to Christ at the altar of the church.  There was no knocking on doors, tracts, or "sinner's prayers" involved in my conversion.  And, over the years, I have come to realize that the most effective conversions are those where the Holy Spirit is preparing the hearts and minds of a person to receive Christ, and if that be the case, they will come looking for that.   If you are the vessel God uses, then that is where true evangelism starts.  The Gospel is not to be hawked door-to-door like a peddler's gadget, and it is not to be advertised like a Billy Mays project either - the Gospel and its seed are sown in ground that has been prepared to receive it, and only then can an effective witness and evangelism take place.  A lot of churches could save a lot of money if they would just let the Holy Spirit draw the people to them instead of trying to do it with futile efforts.  It may not bring great numbers, but the people it does bring to Christ will be people who will joyfully receive Him.  Something to think about the next time your church tries a big soul-winning workshop!

That being said, back to the subject of hell.  Is it appropriate to bring up hell when you are actually witnessing in this way to a person wanting to come to Christ?  I would say yes, but again, we must be led of the Holy Spirit to present it to them.  Hell is not a pleasant subject, and it is not something that Christians need to be throwing around casually either.  Hell is a serious topic, and the idea is to keep someone from going there, and sometimes talking too soon or too much about it scares them away and is counterproductive.  That is what the Holy Spirit is for.  The Holy Spirit, not us, is who convicts a person of sin.  And, the Holy Spirit is the one who opens the ears and hearts of a person to receive the Gospel.  And, if that desire is strong in the seeking person wanting to know the Lord, the subject of hell will come up somewhere, I guarantee it.  Thing is, usually it will be the person themselves that brings up the subject, and our duty as Christians is to be informed about it enough to tell them the truth.  This is true especially in dealing with children who feel led to be born again, and with them in particular we need to be especially sensitive to the Spirit.  Little kids, for instance, don't need to see movies like The Burning Hell, and even some adults may not be prepared for something that bold either.  However, what is interesting is that teens are often responsive to more blunt discussions like this, as they have been immersed in many cases in a culture of rock music and slasher films that glorify hell and Satan, and thus that presents an opportunity to show them that as Christians, hell and Satan are indeed real, and also not something that should be glorified in popular culture as it often is.   Adults too are varied in how they respond - some take the delicate touch of a neurosurgeon, while others are more "in your face" and can have a more bolder witness on the subject.  Again though, the Holy Spirit is always the determining factor in the way the subject is to be approached, and exercising good discernment is vital; a person's eternal soul could depend on that.

Regarding the Facebook discussion, a fellow named Greg mentioned that the actual purpose of the Gospel is reconciliation, and he was quite correct.  We don't come to Christ to be merely saved from hellfire, although that is definitely an important component.  The primary reason God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the Cross for us is quite simple - He died in order for us to be reconciled to the Father, and to break the separation that original sin imposed upon humanity.  In other words salvation is restorative, not just redemptive, in focus.  If we were merely just saved from hell, then we would not grow spiritually nor would we need the joy and peace Christ gives.  Also, God does not send people to hell, nor does he will for us to go there - as a matter of fact, originally hell was created as a solitary confinement for Satan and the fallen angels and their demonic charges, and not for man.  However, we choose the consequence of hell and eternal damnation if we reject what God wants to give us, which is eternity with Him as He originally intended for us to be in the first place.  Also, I want to clear up another misconception - it must be understood that God does not need us!  Before the stones start to fly, let me explain that - God doesn't need us, yet He desires us because He loves us and we are made in His image.   When a person dies in their sins without knowing Christ, it breaks the Lord's heart - I believe He weeps over that as the person is created in His image and thus a loss of such a great treasure as a human life eternally is a tremendous blow to the Lord.   Christ deals with us as individuals, and does take an interest in us personally because He loves each and every one of us.  However, He also is a perfect gentleman, and will not force His will on us;  that is why we choose to follow Jesus and to receive by faith the precious gift of His ultimate grace - His very life! - to redeem and restore us.  And, that is what the Gospel is all about.

For those that say hell is not part of presenting the Gospel to others, I want to point you to Romans 3:23 - it says the wages of sin is death!  Now, you may say that does not directly refer to hell, and no, it does not.  As a matter of fact, common sense will tell you that most sinful activities, if they are not stopped, can kill you.  However, I also want to refer you to Revelation 20:14 - this is a verse about the Final Great White Throne Judgement, and states the fate of the unrighteous dead.  What it says is this in the second part of the verse - "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire.  This is the second death."  This earthly body will die, yes, and sin often accelerates the process.  However, let us also remember that our temporal death is only part of the story - we have an eternal soul and spirit.  And, it has to go somewhere!  If we are in Christ, that means eternal life in the presence of Christ in heaven, but if we die in our sins, it means hell.  Hell is the lake of fire, and it is like death to the soul although not in a literal sense.    And, it must be understood that the dread of hell is not in the literal lake of fire (and I do believe it is a literal place, although that is another subject entirely - for more on that, read Perry Stone's Secrets From Beyond the Grave, as it will be an eye-opener!).  Related to this, we must also understand that we are a creature in which an important principal applies - our choices do have consequences!  Choices are just that - choices.  We make them everyday, and with every one a chain of reaction results as a consequence.  Choices can be good or bad, and bad choices do have bad consequences - for instance, it is a bad choice to stick your finger in a live light socket, and the consequence is that you will be electrocuted.  However, let us ask this - if a light socket was an important element to mention in educating someone ignorant about electricity, would you not warn them of the dangers of handling it wrongly?   It is not something you have to think about, but rather just a safety measure that could save a life.   Same way when approaching hell - hell is the consequence of a bad choice, a choice we have the freedom to make but a bad one nonetheless.   Therefore, it is important that it comes up somewhere in the conversation.   Now, ideally, if a person is led to you in order to find Christ and His salvation, sooner or later in that conversation they are going to bring up the subject.  So, do we just skirt it?  NO!!  God is a God of integrity, and He wants His truth to be shared openly for those seeking it.  Therefore, an informed and Spirit-led response regarding hell is something we need to prepare ourselves for - II Timothy 2:15 tells us to "study to show ourselves approved," and this is a good example of why the Apostle instructed his young minister St. Timothy to do so.  That being said, hell is an aspect of the Gospel message - it is not the central aspect, but it is important.  To avoid it, even when the inquirer asks about it, is unthinkable. 

A lot more could be said on this subject, but I feel this gives a basic position on the issue.  Therefore, next time someone approaches you and wants to know about Christianity or how to become a Christian, it is important to understand the Holy Spirit sent them to you to reach them, and you need to be open to the Holy Spirit to do that.  And, we need to present our faith honestly and truthfully to them, even seemingly unpleasant thoughts such as sin and hell.  If we do that, a life could be eternally saved.  God bless and be with you this week.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Foot-Washing - a Forgotten Practice in Christianity

The practice of footwashing is something that today is only observed by a few groups - some conservative Holiness/Pentecostals, some groups of old-time Baptists, and the Old German Baptist Brethren are among some who do still actively practice it - and at certain times of the year in some of our liturgical/sacramental churches (it is traditionally observed on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week).  It is also one of those practices that makes many uncomfortable, and I am one of those who feels like that - no one, aside from my wife or a doctor if it's deemed absolutely necessary, ever sees my unshod feet.  It is actually kind of embarrassing for me.  So, this is a study that I feel is needed, and it goes against some of my personal feelings on the issue, but it is also something I feel adds a rich dimension to our spirituality that we also have lost over many generations, and perhaps it is something worth considering to bring back into the worship of the Church again.  Therefore, although I personally feel embarrassment at showing bare feet to anyone,  it is important to get past personal quirks and see value in some ancient practices. 

This practice has a Biblical precedent that is found in John 13:1-17, and it is connected to the Eucharist and the Agape Feast in traditional Christian practice.  The idea of washing another's feet, as well as receiving the blessing, is to demonstrate humility and service to our brethren in faith, citing Jesus' example.   Some churches, such as the Free Will Baptist groups, treat it as an ordinance, while others such as the Old German Baptists (Old-Order Dunkards) observe it as an integral part of the Agape Feast, along with the "holy kiss."  The purpose, therefore, is to build and strengthen bonds and fellowship among Christians, and in every context I have studied this in regard to different church traditions, every one of them agree that the ordinance of feet-washing is to be practiced only among those "of like precious faith."   In other words, it has sacramental significance.  Also, the fact that such a practice demonstrates humility also promotes an environment of extending and receiving forgiveness among fellow Christians - a person cannot wash the feet of another that he hates or is in conflict with obviously, which is also the reason why many churches who practice it also institute it before receiving Communion.  It seems to also be practiced in smaller, more closely-knit fellowships too, which is also practical - although it is possible to do this in a large church setting, it would also be cumbersome too.  Then again though, I have become more of a proponent of smaller, more tightly-knit congregations in recent years instead of the huge megachurches, which are often more about numerical growth than spiritual development (that also explains a lot of the entertainment spirit, carnality, and lack of fellowship one finds in megachurches these days too - our priest at our parish, Fr. John Poole, addressed this well a few weeks back when he said that many churches lack the "community factor" today).  These same megachurches often don't follow the Bible as seriously as smaller churches either, meaning that passages like John 13 are often viewed by these people as allegorical, despite evidence to the contrary that the ancient Church practiced feet-washing as well, being it was also rooted in a Middle Eastern custom you still see practiced in many countries today.  Also, I think this whole self-centered interest regarding being "purpose-driven" and also the infection like a bad virus of a lot of pop psychology in Christian circles has denigrated an emphasis on teaching humility and servanthood, just like it has with teachings on sin, repentance, hell, and related subject matters.  Most pastors are too cowardly to even touch these subjects because it might diminish their membership rosters and also their pocketbooks if the offerings fall off.  That worldliness and compromise has cost Christianity much, and as a result we have churches full of baptized pagans who are so Biblically illiterate that it is shameful - yet, the pastors don't care because the member rolls are big and so are their bank accounts.  If these churches were to introduce footwashing or other practices, and if - GOD FORBID! - they spoke about sin and repentance, people would be charging for the doors.  Our carnal nature is scared of truth, and more pastors are about appeasing carnality than they are proclaiming truth, and Rick Warren and others are selling best-selling books tickling people's ears with this garbage.  Any rate, I digress, so I should get back on subject.

Angie Cheek, a contributor/editor to the Foxfire 40th Anniversary Book - Faith, Family, and the Land (Mountain City, GA:  The Foxfire Fund, 2006) says it better than I could on page 61, as she writes about the practice of footwashing among Appalachian Christian churches, when she writes "Those who would be great leaders must be willing servants."  I got this book recently, and being I have Appalachian roots myself and had heard of churches back home in West Virginia that practiced footwashing, I never though much of it, mostly because of my own quirkiness about exposing my own naked foot to anyone besides my wife.   But, the Foxfire book, as well as some things I have read recently about the ancient Amazigh Christian communities in North Africa that also practiced this as part of their faith centuries before, made me realize that there may be substance to this.  Therefore, I spent a couple of weeks looking more into it.  What I have found was interesting.  That being said, let us talk some about the practice itself.

A number of common things are noted when reading up on churches that still practice footwashing, be they old-time Appalachian Baptists or Old-Order Dunkards.  These include the following:

1.  It is always practiced in connection with Communion or the Eucharist

2.  It is sex-segregated - only men can wash men's feet, and women can wash women's.  To cite that, there is a quote by an old-time Baptist preacher, Rev. Ben Cook, in the Foxfire 40th book .  Rev. Cook, now deceased, was a veteran Southern Baptist preacher in the mountains of Rabun County, GA years ago who had to fight with the local Baptist association to get approval to observe footwashing in his church, but was eventually allowed to do so.  He says regarding the practice in his congregation, "We put the ladies on one side of the church and the men on the other.  The men wash the men's feet, and the women wash the women's feet."  (ibid. p. 63).

3.  Humility is a necessity in its practice also.  Esco Pitts, an old-time mountain Pentecostal Christian who although was limited in education had more wisdom in regard to this practice than many of the highly-educated theologians who try to explain it away. He says, "That humble spirit is the thing - not what you do but how humble your heart is.  It's not necessary to wash feet, but it is necessary to be humble to do it if it is necessary (ibid. p. 62).  The Old German Baptist Brethren hold a similar position as well, as is noted in their Doctrinal Treatise (Covington, OH: Vindicator Press, 1970 {3rd ed.}) on page 21:

The Christian virtues of faith, love, obedience, humility, service, and sacrifice are part of the foot-washing ordinance as exemplified by the Savior.  As we are to follow His example, they are the part that man complies with in order to receive the promised cleansing.  We cannot wash away sin by washing our brother's feet, but we can love him, and be of humble service to him, and sacrifice for him.  These are the visual lessons the Savior teaches through foot-washing.

Notice, in both of these vastly different Christian expressions, the same emphasis comes to light - humility!
Humility is sadly lacking in today's society, and that is unfortunately reflected in today's churches.  Many churches are so caught up in social programs, catering to "seekers,' and other such stuff that they often forget to be a cohesive Body among themselves as God intended them to be.  That is why old-time churches often have a family feel - practices like footwashing and the "holy kiss" solidify relationships, and the Church thus becomes the spiritual family it was meant to be.  Social programs, evangelism, and all the other programs many churches institute do have their place, and many benefits are in such things, but first and foremost there needs to be the forging, solidifying, and strengthening of bonds among the local body of believers before we can be a witness to anyone else. We as Christians are a spiritual family, after all, so we need to act like one.  Therefore, I see a merit for reviving the practice of footwashing - before people participate in the life of a church, they need to be fully reconciled to the brethren and be an integral part of the community with full fellowship.  If they are not, then they are strangers that can be used of Satan to destroy individual churches, and church strife is a major weapon in Satan's arsenal.  I say this especially to our liturgical/sacramental churches, because we often lose the essence of the depth of the Liturgy when we don't have genuine community amongst our people.  Catholic churches like mine should be some of the most enthusiastic to embrace these time-honored and Scriptural practices, yet we are often the most resistant to it.  Church, it must be noted, is more than just an hour on Sunday mornings; we as the Church are the Bride of Christ, and He wants His Bride to be spotless, free of rends and tears, and complete.  And, whether you agree with it or not, footwashing and other related practices are means to bring that about. 

Much more can be written on this subject, but essentially the value of a tangible act like footwashing is to teach us about fellowship and humility to our brethren, and Jesus Himself was the best example of that. Therefore, it may be in our best interest to revisit these subjects, for in them we could find what our churches are missing.  God bless and be with you all until my next visit with you.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Sacrament of Unction - Annointing of The Sick

This past week, a bit of tragic news came about my mother-in-law in Indiana that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  After asking several of my friends to lift her up in prayer, one of my friends (also a distant relative) at the little Pentecostal church in my hometown of Hendricks, WV, offered to have a prayer cloth sent to her, and that got me thinking.  Prayer cloths are very scriptural, and the verse that sanctions their use can be found of course in Acts 19:11-12, where God used cloths to bring healing AND deliverance from evil spirits through prayer cloths that had been anointed.   For the past 100 or so years, prayer cloths have also been a part of Pentecostal churches and their devotional practices, and there is a reason why this practice was revived.  Granted, there are those who use these as talismans, or they make money off of them by deception, but that still doesn't take away their use and validity in the Body of Christ.  The Pentecostals do this of course as an act of faith - the word used is a "point of contact," and that too is part of Christian faith as well.  However, does this practice fit into sacramental/liturgical worship?  That is what we are going to discuss now.

Even a person with a basic knowledge of Catholic teaching knows that we have seven sacraments.  I personally prefer the Eastern Christian term mysteries, but the idea is the same - a visible sign of an inward grace granted by Divine mercy, and a truth that cannot be explained.   The seven Mysteries, or Sacraments, are as follows:

1.  Baptism
2. Chrismation (or Confirmation)
3. The Eucharist
4. Holy Matrimony
5. Holy Orders
6. Reconcilliation
7. Unction

The last one, called Holy Unction, is often wrongly assumed to be just the "Last Rites" for the dying, but in reality it entails a lot more.  It is a Mystery of the Church, and it has as its Scriptural foundation James 5:14-15, which in the KJV Bible says the following:

Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.  And if he has committed sins, he shall be forgiven.

These verses tell us what the real Mystery of Holy Unction is all about, and not only is this a Mystery of faith in sacramental/liturgical churches, but also it has been a part of Pentecostal prayer and devotional practice for decades.  Almost every Pentecostal denomination has a strong statement, based in part on this verse, supporting the Scriptural belief in divine healing.  Another verse this relates to as well is the one where it says "By His stripes we are healed" (I Peter 2:24).   Another connection made in the passage from James is that sickness and sin are both taken care of by this sacrament - how many of you saw that?   In other words, it is in the truest sense the "Full Gospel," in that through anointing in the name of the Lord with oil, sin and sickness are both forgiven and healed.  God wants for us to be reconciled fully to Him as His people, and this is the way He chose to initiate that.  Again, this is a practice going back to the earliest times of the Church, with this quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem giving validity to the practice:

The oil of gladness with which Christ was anointed was a spiritual oil; it was in fact the Holy Spirit himself, who is called the oil of gladness because he is the source of spiritual joy. But we too have been anointed with oil, and by this anointing we have entered into fellowship with Christ and have received a share in his life. Beware of thinking that this holy oil is simply ordinary oil and nothing else. After the invocation of the Spirit it is no longer ordinary oil but the gift of Christ, and by the presence of his divinity it becomes the instrument through which we receive the Holy Spirit. While symbolically, on our foreheads and senses, our bodies are anointed with this oil that we see, our souls are sanctified by the holy and life-giving Spirit.  (see http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/57/Anointing_with_the_Holy_Spirit____Cyril_of_Jerusalem_on_Confirmation.html for the full text)

As St. Cyril wrote also, the anointing with oil also has a sanctifying aspect to it as well, meaning that it cleanses our sins and heals our bodies.  That is one reason why over the centuries it has almost exclusively come to be associated with the Last Rites in the Roman Church, as many people sought this sacrament just before they passed on in order to prepare them for reception into the hereafter.  However, it is not just for the deathbed, but for anytime it is needed. 

Being we attend a small traditional Anglo-Catholic parish here in Tampa Bay, one very important thing our rector does every Sunday after the Eucharist is to offer this unction to parishioners.  He prays for the sick, anoints them with Holy Chrism, and many have been healed by him doing this.  Fr. John doesn't do that like some televangelist either, but is following a very ancient Christian practice with Biblical roots.  And, it is the Sacrament of Holy Unction.  Now that we have established its Scriptural and historical continuity, let me now briefly explain how the practice is observed.

In general, when Unction is given, it is usually for someone who needs a physical healing, but can also be for deliverance from bondage or for peace of mind when worries and other issues plague us.  A validly-ordained minister should always administer the sacrament though, and here is why - I Timothy 5;22 admonishes us not to lay hands suddenly on just anyone, as it could cause trouble.  Oppressive spirits - harassing demons of depression and other things - can be transferred to a person whose faith may not be as strong, and thus cause a large number of problems.  Also, we are likewise told elsewhere to test spirits, and to not have someone's hands laid on us indiscriminately either.  That was unfortunately a weakness in the past in some Pentecostal and charismatic circles, as you had people running around laying hands on everyone else, and as a result mayhem and confusion happened.  That is why, I have come to believe, that it is acceptable to practice the laying on of hands in three circumstances:

1.  The ordained ministry - we must do things "decently and in order," submitting to the authority of the local church on that

2.  Within the family setting - God has given a special dispensation for couples, in particular fathers, to pray over the home and those in it, as the husband/father is the priest of the household.  The wife, likewise, can have some authority here as well, for if the husband is the elder and priest of the household, his wife is like a deacon.  Besides, in that setting, we know the spirituality of our spouses, and therefore it can be banked upon to be pretty safe.

3.  In the absence of a clergy at a meeting, in particular an informal prayer gathering or something, the people in the group are usually well-known to each other, and thus it is acceptable for brethren within the same assembly to pray over each other in this way.

The manner in which it is normally done is to anoint either the forehead, or if sickness the affected part of the body, with a blessed anointing oil in the sign of the cross, and then the prayer is to be prayed over that person "in the name of the Lord."  The prayer can be from a liturgical text or it can be what is called a spontaneous ejaculatory prayer, which is what many charismatic prayer groups do.  It is also good to have a member of the clergy administering it if possible, and at least 2 other laymen assisting with the prayer.   This lends to the Scriptural "when two or three are gathered together in My name" idea, and thus the power of prayer is in concord with the Body in general. 

Back to prayer cloths, if one is used, it must be prayed over and blessed by a member of the clergy, and these are used in cases of physical infirmity.  Since this is often a practice for a person who is unable to be in a church setting, it is important to instruct the recipient on its use and to understand the Scriptural mandate behind the use of a prayer cloth.  Also, a strong admonition must be given to advise the recipient that these cloths are not magic talismans, and to use them as such would mean occultism, which is forbidden for Christians to engage in.  The recipient of the prayer cloth places the cloth upon the affected area of the body requiring healing, and prays a personal prayer of healing "in the name of the Lord." If another person is present who is a Christian, they can and should be in agreement with the prayer, as there is power in numbers who pray.  A person who receives and uses a genuine prayer cloth in the correct manner may not be healed overnight, but they should notice a difference in the very near future.  The Bible is also clear on that too, because although miraculous healings can and do happen, Mark 16:18 tells us that if the believer lays hands on the sick, they shall recover.  God alone determines miraculous healings, but He does and will heal the person who is believing for a healing one way or another.

This was a brief teaching, and so much more can be said about this subject, but this is just to address the fundamentals and give you an idea of what Holy Unction is all about.  Some believe in and practice this Mystery of our faith without even realizing it, but it is OK because God does honor the righteous.  God bless you until next week, and if any of you feel led to do so, please keep my mother-in-law, Gloria  Webster, in your prayers.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Agape Feast - Why There Is A Need to Revive This Biblical Observance

There are many practices that much of the modern Church has lost that were practiced by Christians of old, and one of those is a meal called the Agape Feast (or the Love Feast, as it is known in some circles).  There are a lot of misconceptions about what this was or is, and among those misconceptions are the following:

1.  It has been thought of as the same as the Eucharist, which it is not.
2.  Some, including many modern-day Roman Catholics and Orthodox, believe the informal "coffee hour" at the end of Sunday Liturgy is the Biblical Love feast, but this is not so either
3.  Many, including a number of Protestants in the Southeastern US, believe the potluck suppers they have periodically are the equivalent of the Agape Feast, but this is not true either.

Therefore, being there are misconceptions as to what the Agape Feast actually is, I felt led to do a teaching on it here.  What you may discover may be surprising actually!

My mother's folks - more specifically, my maternal great-grandmother's family - were part of a religious tradition called Dunkards.  Dunkards are an Anabaptist/Pietist sect that originated via the efforts of a minister by the name of Alexander Mack in Schwartznau, Germany, back in the early 1700's, and many Dunkards, fleeing persecution, fled to the area of the Potomac Highlands of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia back in the early 1800's, and among those were my ancestors.  Although not raised Dunkard myself, the influence of their legacy has been in our family now for generations, and it is a great spiritual legacy to have because these people really lived their Christianity - my grandfather still speaks of the old Dunkard Church up in Sugarlands near St. George, WV, as a fine example of "7-day-a-week Christians," and indeed they did live up to that legacy well.   As part of that legacy, the Dunkards took the New Testament seriously, and one thing they practice faithfully even to this day is the Agape Feast.  Much of the way they observe this feast - usually twice a year, depending on the particular group - is very much reflective of the New Testament observance of the practice, and therefore their literature provides some rich material for me to do this study. However, I want to bring this back to the liturgical/sacramental expression of the Christian faith, and that is why the more I study this, the more I feel it could be something we as Catholic Christians could revive. 

As for the practice itself, it seems to be rooted in the Passover seder, as it reflects much of the seder in its observance.  When we look at the passage of the Last Supper in Matthew 26, we see that Jesus is observing the seder with his disciples in the Upper Room, and it is important to note something there - the institution of the Eucharist, the liturgical text of which we find in Matthew 26:26-30 as well as Luke 22:17-20, took place after the actual meal!  This is one evidence that they are to be treated as two separate observances.  There were also two other practices associated with this meal that need to be noted:

1.  Washing of the feet (John 13:5-12)
2.   Reconcilliation of the brethren, forgiving each other's faults and confession to one another

The account in John 13 has these occurring after the Supper, but among Dunkards and Moravians, this happens prior to the meal itself, as it is believed by them (correctly, I think) that you cannot have fellowship with your brethren if there are issues existing, and thus a "spirit of concord" is not present in the feast if any issues among the brethren are not duly resolved before partaking of the meal.  The Didache, a specific manual of Church discipline that dates back to earliest times, gives specific guidelines for this in reference to the Agape feast:

And when coming together on the Lord's own day, break bread and give thanks after confessing your transgressions. In that manner, your sacrifice will be pure. And do not let anyone coming with a quarrel against a brother join you until they get reconciled, in order that your sacrifice is not impure. For this has been spoken of by the Lord, "in every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King," says the Lord, "and My name is wonderful among the nations."
(The Didache, Chapter 14)


Many of the same requirements for the Agape Feast, as a matter of fact, also mirror the reception of the Eucharist.  As a matter of fact, it is highly recommended by the early Church that all sin and conflict be dealt with before partaking of the Feast together, because the Agape Feast was also seen as an act of worship, the ultimate expression of Christian fellowship.  As such, it was also seen as a witness to the outside world as well, for if Christians could be seen to practice the love among themselves they taught, it would show the world around them that the love of Christ was a real thing that they too could have.  Thus, although not meant to be evangelistic - non-believers and those not in fellowship with the particular assembly were often discouraged from partaking of the Agape, due to the fact it was an act of fellowship among the brethren - it often was a powerful witness to the sinner and outsider.  The reconcilliation, forgiveness, and footwashing aspects could often be full of emotion too, as it broke down barriers in the Body and brought people closer (I will be doing a separate teaching later on foot-washing, as it is also a forgotten practice in the Church of today too) as well as expressing true humility as brethren to each other.  In short, the actual Agape Feast could be a beautiful experience.

Another custom that was often practiced - and still is by many Old-Order Dunkards - as an act of fellowship was the kiss of peace.  There were two ways this was done, but the Eastern practice - embracing and kissing on first the left and then the right cheek - is I feel the more desirable and authentic way (Dunkards do a kiss on the lips, men to men and women to women - that is the other method, but many people would be uncomfortable with that today, including myself).  The kiss of peace was a way of expressing the love of Christ to fellow believers, and in modern times it has been formalized and depersonalized to a mere handshake in many churches during the offeratory or other parts of the service.  It used to, though, be the standard way of greeting fellow believers.  All of these things likewise were important parts of the Agape Feast as well.
Now to talk about the specifics of the Agape Feast itself.  Ideally, it was always held prior to a Liturgy, usually the night before, and at certain times of the year (although some local congregations have been known to observe it weekly).  It is not a meal in the traditional sense, as you do not eat of it out of hunger - strangely, the traditional observance says you eat your actual meal before partaking of the Agape Feast.  Being it was considered an act of worship, it was eaten in humility and without natural desires and appetites dictating its consumption.  In the Dunkard tradition, the traditional Agape Feast often consisted of boiled beef, a thin beef comsumme, bread, and apple butter, with either milk or water as a drink to accompany it.  In some cases, it was also eaten out of a communal pot, but most today practice eating with individual dishes for their portions.  At the conclusion, the remainder of the food was often given to the poor or less fortunate as an act of charity.  As I have researched the practice though, I believe a better way of doing it is to have roast lamb, fresh pita bread, fresh parsley, and a white cheese with either chaimen (an Armenian hot sauce made with cayenne pepper, cumin, lemon juice, garlic, and fenugreek) or garlic cloves - the latter mirror the "bitter herbs" of the Passover meal. Wine, or a natural fruit juice or water, should also accompany the meal too.  And, although there is no set rubric on when to observe this, I would say that either on the vigil before Easter or Christmas Eve are good times.  Again, when the meal is partaken of, the remainder should also be given to the less-fortunate, such as a homeless ministry or something, and leftovers being taken home is not an option unless there are needy people in the church who could use the food - that would be a mandate then, as we have to take care of our own as a Body first.  It must again be stressed that this is an act of worship and not a dinner party, and therefore it needs to be eaten modestly, in moderation, and with a worshipful attitude. 

Again too, it is important that before the meal a spirit of unity in the Body is present, and therefore mutual confession - the old resolving of ought with our brother if any exists - is essential.  For those of us who are Catholic Christians though, it is an ideal time to also encourage our clergy to offer confessions too, as this is important as well. Then the footwashing, which may be the most humbling of all - I, for one, do not like exposing my naked foot to anyone, and this was a hard thing for me to personally accept, but God uses things like this to teach us humility.  Also, the washing of others' feet is a humbling experience too that is a lost virtue in today's Church - many Catholics do have remnants of this practice on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week, but it really needs to be revived as a regular practice.  Finally, the kiss of peace - we, after all, are a spiritual family, and thus need not be afraid to express Christian love to eact other; it is an Agape Feast after all we are experiencing! 

The Agape Feast I feel is something lost on much of today's Church, which unfortunately tends to be a weekly assembly of strangers we say hello to and doesn't have a real sense of community.  The Agape Feast, if revived, could reinforce those communal bonds that we as Christians need to have with each other, and it could also be a time of healing and restoration in the Body as well.  Perhaps this is why today's churches are so weak in their faith - the sense of community, healing, and humility are lacking, and with "name-it-and-claim it" televangelists and "purpose-driven" pastors lifting up the "seeker" and individual often at the expense of the household of faith, it is little wonder America is going to hell in a handbasket! Healing and restoration begin with us, remember, and the Agape Feast is a perfect expression of this very thing.

There are a couple of resources I wish to recommend to you for further study.  If you want to learn more about the Dunkard tradition of the Agape Feast, please read The Love Feast by Frank Ramirez (Elgin, IL:  Brethren Press, 2000).   There is also a revival of this happening among the Maronite Catholic community as well, as they now have a practice called the Tauditho (an Aramaic word meaning "Thanksgiving") that is a Maronite adaptation of the Passover seder.  A guide for observing this, by Maronite priest Fr. Antonio Elfighali, is available online at http://www.maronite-heritage.com/Maronite%20Tauditho%20Meal.php, or you can order the booklet by writing bounaantonio@yahoo.com.  These are some resources that will introduce you to the practice of the Agape Feast as practiced by different Christian traditions.  Also, there are ample references to the practice in the writings of the Early Church that you can read up on yourself, and hopefully this will serve as a guide to direct you.  Thank you again for allowing me to share with you this week, and may the blessings of God our Father be with you all.

___________________________________________________________________________________

I don't often do this, but I wanted to make a "plug" for something this week as well.  A hometown friend and old schoolmate of mine from my elementary school days, Cheryl Canfield, is a talented singer who has recorded a very nice CD of old hymns in a "country Gospel" style.  Inspired by the old hymnal used in the Free Methodist Church in my hometown of Hendricks, WV, Cheryl  has done a fantastic job staying true to her West Virginia roots.  I had the privelege of hearing a track from the CD, and although not a big fan of "Country Gospel" personally, it was very well-done and she sung it from her heart. If you would like to get the CD, I think she is asking $10 per copy, and you can send your check or money order to the following address and she will make sure you get it:


Cheryl Canfield


RR. 1 Box 178-A

Hambleton,WV 26269

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fasting and Abstinence

Over the next couple of studies, I want to take some time to talk about some devotional practices that we as Christians partake in, and I want to begin by talking about fasting and abstinence.  Although technically this is not one of the seasons of the Church year when this is practiced (Lent and Advent are generally fasting and abstinence periods) it is nonetheless important because as Christians we are to devote time to the worship of our God, and that involves primarily 5 main disciplines:

1.  Corporate worship (attending Mass, other services, etc. to fellowship with the Body)
2.   Tithing
3.   Prayer
4.   Bible study
5.   Fasting and abstinence

It must be understood that none of these practices, in and of themselves, are essential for your salvation, but they are acts of worship and do keep your Christianity vital.  They are also the ultimate reference to what James 2:26 talks about:  faith without works is dead.  In other words, you can be a lazy Christian, never cracking open a Bible, never attending church, and never praying, fasting, or giving of your tithes to God's house, and it may get you into the door of heaven, but you won't have the vitality of the Christian experience in your life without an active practice (your works) of the faith that we have invested into the grace God gave us in our salvation.  Remember, God doesn't need us; we need Him!  However, He does love us, and therefore desires us to be in fellowship with Him, which is why Jesus died for our sins on that Cross.  Accepting Christ and being born again though is just the first part of the journey, and our salvation is a daily walk afterwards that requires us giving honor to God in our works.  This is why we give to God's house, we worship with our brethren, and we also maintain a personal devotional life that entails prayer, Bible study, and fasting.  When we do these things, they renew us, and thus we are able to commune with God the way He intended for us to do so.  That being said, the five basic disciplines I mentioned are not just mere obligations on our part to fulfill, but rather acts of worship!  As we actively practice them, we renew ourselves in spirit, and thus God can be more personal to us.  The works themselves, as previously stated, do not save - God doesn't need our worship, because He is God! - but rather they benefit us because they are our response to God's love for us.  If we think of these things more in that light rather than as just a formal set of rules to follow, we would benefit as Christians more from them.

Now, to talk about fasting and abstinence.  I suppose the first thing we need to do is clear up something about this by saying that fasting and abstinence are two separate things.   They are related to each other, but they are not synonymous terms.  Here is the definitions according to Church practice:

1.  Abstinence has to do with quality of food or other consumptive goods.  It is customary during certain times of the year to abstain from things such as dairy products, red meat, wine, olive oil, snack foods, and sweets, but also from non-food items - you can abstain, as a spiritual practice, from things like sex, playing games, and television also.

2.  Fasting involves the quantity of consumptive goods - all that means is that you eat less at certain designated fasting times than you normally would.  Usually,  that involves three things - fasting before receiving the Eucharist, eating one small meal and one main meal, or a total fast where all food is fasted except water and enough to sustain the body during daily activity. Oftentimes, fasting goes hand-in-hand with abstinence as well, especially during Lent, because although you are abstaining from red meat, etc., you also are eating less of what you are able to eat. 

Fasting is a normative practice in Christian worship, and has been so for centuries.  It is something we inherited from our Jewish roots, as fasting was a very important discipline during the Old Testament period in Temple worship (Ex. 24:18, Nehemiah 1:4, Jeremiah 48:5-8, among other references).   Often, fasting was also associated with humility and repentance, a renunciation of the pleasures that caused bondage in order to regain focus on the Lord and His worship.  This is still true partially today as well, as that aspect of fasting has carried over.  However, it also has a greater purpose, and that is of spiritual discipline - by learning to deny the flesh, we can focus more on God and His glory.  Ancient Eastern Orthodox ascetic writers described it as a type of warfare also against what they called the "Passions." (fleshly desires) in order to bring their mind and spirit more in conformity with the act of prayer to God (Procurat, Golitzen, and Peterson, Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church {Lanham, MD:  Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996} pp. 43-44).  As a result of this conformity, the practitioner is brought more into focus in regard to prayer and almsgiving.  References to fasting and abstinence are quite abundant among the early writings of the Church Fathers and other ascetical writers, and fasting was once a more important discipline than it seems to be today apparently.  This is truly a tragedy too, because there are great benefits to fasting according to the way God has directed the Church to do so, and we are missing out these days on a lot as a result. 

The thing about that is that too many modern Western Christians think that fasting is an optional thing, and thus it is largely ignored or dismissed as irrelevant for the days and times we live in because our society demands more out of us.  With "positive confession," "seeker-sensitive," and "Purpose-driven" heresies and fads permeating much of today's Christian circles, fasting is often seen by many contemporary pastors and church leaders as a legalism with little value, and therefore the discipline is not taught.  And, we see the fruit of that in much of today's "Churchianity":  Christians don't pray, they think "church" is some big party, sin and repentance are not even addressed, and as a result many people sitting in churches are little better than baptized pagans because they have never been taught spiritual discipline.   Those who do take fasting and abstinence seriously often have a skewered understanding of it - they treat it as a sort of "holy hunger strike" to get what they want out of God without understanding what fasting is supposed to be about.  In that regard, they are really no different than the Buddhists, Hindus and animists, all of whom have fasting as a part of their religions as well but in their theologies they "give to get," meaning they hope to reach some sort of "nirvana" or enlightenment, or they hope to appease their gods by fasting in order to gain some prestige or material wealth.  Many Christians too have fallen into that trap, and I have heard of people in churches, at the prodding of theologically offbase televangelists or ill-trained pastors, "fasting" to get a fancy car, a high paying job, or some other material perk.  They fail to realize that God doesn't work that way - if he did, I am sure many of us would be materially much better off than we are!  Again, fasting is an act of worship, whereby we deny ourselves physical pleasures in order to focus more on God and to also crucify our sinful flesh, as Jesus commanded - what do you think that whole "take up your cross and follow me" thing in the New Testament is all about, not to mention the many references about dying to self??  That is truly what fasting is about, as well as how many of the Fathers and Saints of the Church understood it.  Our understanding today could benefit from more study of the Ancient Church, instead of trying to make the Church more "relevent" to the worldy, secular culture.   That is something that Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and some of these other people would do well to listen to. 

I want to also now talk about some specific aspects of fasting and abstinence.  One thing to note is that one should never fast on Sundays, with the exception of the hour or so before partaking of the Eucharist, because Sundays are always days of celebration - each Sunday commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, although Easter (or Paska, in the Eastern Church) is the official feast of the Resurrection.  Therefore, even during Lent it is permissible - and mandatory! - not to fast or abstain on Sundays.   This is a teaching that also is often neglected by sincere but misinformed Catholics and Orthodox too, and I have a story to relate as an example.  A few years back, Barb and I had thought about converting to the Orthodox Church, and we began attending a local Antiochian Orthodox parish here close to where we live.  However, what I discovered was something that was disturbing - the extent of legalism and triumphalism on the part of some in that parish, to the point where they denied Catholics and Protestants were Christians, later dissuaded us from being part of that communion.  And, when it came to fasting, a couple of catechists as well as a priest there actually taught that if you even ate a fried shrimp or a piece of cheese on a Lenten day you would be in danger of hellfire.   What they essentially did in this church was to take ascetical monastic fasting regimens and apply them legalistically on their parishioners to the degree that it made it almost impossible to even eat!  It was only later that I understood that what they were doing was wrong, and I adopted the more realistic Western Church fasting and abstinence practice instead, as it was more in line with Church teaching.   Monastics have indeed had commendable fasting regimens, but I am sure they never intended those to be used so rigidly and legalistically as some of their spiritual descendants have done.  And, that made me look at some other bad practices I have seen over the years.

Catholics and Orthodox are not the only churches to practice fasting and abstinence, as the old-time Holiness and Pentecostals did likewise.  Having grown up in that environment, I was familiar with the discipline of fasting, and indeed there were some stellar people of faith in those old-time churches that sincerely fasted, sometimes for days, and they did so according to Biblical direction.   These people were also serious prayer warriors, and they considered fasting a normative practice to pray for revival, the lost souls of their loved ones, and for just getting closer to God.   Their fasting regimen was a bit different though, as many of these people took quite literally the idea of not eating anything, save drinking water to stay hydrated for health reasons, for up to 40 days straight.  God saw their hearts and honored that too, although it isn't exactly what the Bible taught or the Church practiced for centuries in regard to fasting and abstinence.  Nonetheless, they never pushed that conviction onto others, and their hearts sought Christ and His Spirit in spirit and truth, and God honored that.   Unfortunately, the children and grandchildren of those early Holiness and Pentecostal saints never caught the vision they had, and in many churches today fasting is rarely if ever mentioned.   That too is tragic, because one reason many of those churches are alive today is because of the fervent prayers and fasting of these wonderful people of God.  Now, I don't recommend that anyone do that, as a 40-day total fast is a tall order for anyone to fill, but there are some who feel led by the Lord to do that, and to them I say God bless their obedience.

Moving on, we're still talking about techniques of fasting and abstinence, and I want to give some general guidelines as to how it is done in both East and West.   In the Christian East, the practice is generally to abstain from red meat, dairy, olive oil, and wine during the four major fasting/abstinence cycles in the Church year, but some monastics also practice what is called xerophagy.  What that essentially entails is the eating of uncooked vegetables and fruits only, the consumption of water or pure fruit juice only, and nothing cooked, no dairy, no eggs, no meat, nor anything else similar.  It is an extreme form of abstinence, and if a person has the conviction to undertake the effort, it is noble and well within Church guidelines to do so.  However, it is not required.  In addition to xerophagy, another practice is also abstinence from worldly entertainments, sexual relations (if married of course, as unmarried Christians should not be having sex anyway!), and other pleasures.  Oftentimes, this goes hand-in-hand with the dietary fasting/abstinence, but is more left up to individual conviction.  It is also customary to re-direct resources or energy normally used in such pursuits and appetites to the Lord's work - volunteering more, giving money normally spent on items you are fasting to a ministry, etc.  That way, fasting and abstinence truly becomes an act of worship then.

In the Christian West, in general fasting/abstinence is confined to the Fridays of Lent, as well as to Good Friday and Ash Wednesday.  The rules of fasting are not quite as strict as they are in the Christian East, as basically the faithful abstain from red meat on those days as well as other things they may have personal convictions to "give up for Lent."  In general, fish and dairy are permitted on Fridays, but not poultry or red meat (an interesting side to this is that when Catholic missionaries first came to the Americas with the explorers and discovered beavers, Church officials allowed beaver to be classified as a fish and thus it was allowable to eat during Lent, although God only knows why someone would eat beaver in the first place!).  Also, abstinence from alcohol is prescribed as well during fast days, and among more traditional Anglicans and Roman Catholics no sexual relations were allowed during the fasting periods either.  Along with that, in both East and West, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, in order to prepare to celebrate the Risen Savior on Easter.   Therefore frequent confessions are encouraged (many Catholics today still go to confession during Lent, the only time they partake of the sacrament actually in many cases).  These are just some general practices, although much more can be said.

There are a couple of things I need to stress in regard to fasting and abstinence though that are very important:

1.  Fasting and abstinence are not only confined to Lent and other designated days.  As a matter of fact, if a person has the conviction and discipline to do so, a periodic personal time of fasting and abstinence is a good practice to get into.

2.  Fasting should never be reduced to a legalistic obligation - remember, it is a form of worship and not a mere motion you go through.  Therefore, the Church has always taught and maintained (although some of its leadership seems to be ignorant about it!) that we are to fast as we are able.  What that means is if you have health issues that preclude you from observing the fasting and abstinence the Church recommends, the Church is also flexible enough to take that into consideration and that person can fast or abstain from other things besides vital components of their diets that may be prescribed by a doctor or other authority.   This is where giving up sugar, television, or other things can come into play.  Fasting is not a bondage, but an act of worship, and anyone who teaches otherwise - even clergy! - is in direct defiance of the Church's teaching on the subject.  The important thing is that you are observing the fast or abstinence, and God will see that as does the Church.

I also encourage you to consult the local parish calendars that you should receive each year, because in general there will be days marked when fasting or abstinence is prescribed, and usually it is the symbol of a color-coded fish - if the fish is red, it means fast, or blue for abstinence (some days will have one of each too).  Generally too, if a specific day for fasting and/or abstinence does come along, the parish bulletin you receive each week should advise you of that, as well as providing guidelines (Orthodox churches are particularly good about doing this, as much of my information here comes from old bulletins I have archived).
Therefore, be assured that you will be informed one way or another.  And, if you do have specific dietary needs, talk to your priest, and I am sure he can work with you - in general, special circumstances for fasting are spelled out in church bulletins or canonical writings, but for your own peace of mind you can always talk to your priest too.  Hopefully this provides some direction.

That being said, I will conclude this teaching about fasting and abstinence.  I advise though that this is not an exhaustive study on the subject, but only provides some basic information to answer some basic questions.  Hopefully, you can use it to whet your own appetite to research it further, and one book I recommend is David Bercot's Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1998).  Bercot's book has direct quotations from the Ante-Nicene Fathers addressing many of these issues, and you can find a good article on fasting on pages 274-276, which I also used for research material.  Also, especially around the Lenten and Advent seasons, consult your local parish bulletins as well, because they often will provide inserts for fasting guidelines that contain valuable information as well.  That being said, God bless and be with you until next time.