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.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Liturgical Use of Incense - A Study

Let my prayer ascend to you as incense,
and the lifting of my hands as an evening sacrifice
(from the Byzantine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts)

Incense and its use among Christians is an interesting topic, and although pretty standard for those of us who are sacramental/liturgical Christians, it is often misunderstood by our Protestant Evangelical and charismatic brethren because it is a foreign concept to many of them.  Some of the less-charitable among them even deride this aspect of liturgical worship as "smells and bells," but tragically they do so in ignorance.   I have felt led for some time to do a study on the Biblical and ecclesiastical support for the use of incense, and this is the result of that endeavor.  As you read it, if you are a Protestant Evangelical or Charismatic, I am hoping and believing that I can shed some light upon any misconceptions you might have concerning Christian uses of incense, and if you are a liturgical Christian I am hoping this will give you a better understanding and appreciation concerning why we do what we do in our Sunday liturgies.  That being said, I now want to begin.

First, there is a Biblical precedent for incense that goes back to Mosaic times, and it is more than a precedent - it was mandated of God Himself.   In Exodus 30:1-8, we see that God instituted it as part of the worship of the Tabernacle - verses 7-8 prescribes offering it morning and evening as part of the prayers of the priests for the nation of Israel.  Later, in Malachi 1:11, a prophecy is recorded saying that incense shall be offered in the future among the Gentiles in the Lord's name, which is an obvious reference to the Apostolic Church.  The Magi, it must be remembered, brought frankincense and myrrh, two forms of incense (there are meanings behind these too we will get into later, as a profound spiritual truth was behind the offerings of the Magi to the child Jesus).  These are some historical precedences, but incense was part of the worship of ancient Israel, and when the Church came into being on Pentecost, the Apostles incorporated many things from Temple worship - mainly because they were from God himself - into the worship of the Church, and today we still hold to those. 

However, the most profound Biblical references to incense, as they relate to the worship of the Church, are to be found in Isaiah 6:4 and Revelation 5:8.  Both of these verses describe separate experiences, hundreds of years apart, in which two of God's servants, the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Saint John the Revelator, had an identical vision of the heavenly throne room.   Incense was a big part of both visions, and in Isaiah's case it was something so profound that he felt both awe and unworthiness at the same time, to which an angel touched his mouth with a coal from the censer and God anointed Isaiah to speak his Word - and, that Word later contained a lot of prophecy about the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.  In Saint John's case, it must also be remembered that Revelation, as well as being a prophetic book, is also upheld by the Church as a liturgical text.  That being said, both the liturgies of the ancient Jewish Temple and of the Apostolic Church were icons of the heavenly worship in the throne room of heaven, a belief held today still by the Church.  That being said, as I became a Catholic myself, I began to realize that much of what I have been taught about these verses in the churches I grew up in was missing something, and here is what that was - God works through the tangible, and always has - to convey his truth and exemplify his grace, God uses physical symbols such as water, oil, bread and wine (in the case of the Eucharist), fire, and yes, incense.  We are commanded in Scripture to worship the Lord with our entire being, and that includes body, soul and spirit; therefore, it involves the use of all the senses our Lord has given us.  What I find curious in some charismatic circles is that there is a great emphasis on things such as "dancing before the Lord," which they take literally and some use as a manipulation to determine how "spiritual" their members are, yet when it comes to verses like Isaiah 6:4, all of a sudden it is merely "symbolic" because it mentions incense!  Why is that??  Now, I have no problem if someone wants to express their joy of the Lord in dance, and indeed in the history of the Church this has Scriptural support.  However, for those who sanction that, why not incense then, since the Bible clearly teaches that as well??  Thus, the point of this study!

Another Scriptural precedent for incense is what it symbolizes, and almost unilaterally it has to do with prayer and intercession as vital components of worship to the Lord.  If you will notice the quote I used at the beginning of this study, it has its roots in a Bible verse found in Psalm 141:2.  It is used today in a Byzantine Catholic liturgy known as the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is celebrated during the Lenten, or Great Fast, season.  Our prayers, as the verse says, ascend to God like incense, and they are offered with the submission of our hands being lifted toward heaven, something that is not "pentecostal" but is a normative prayer posture in the Christian East.  The Church takes this one step further by actually utilizing incense in the offering of liturgical worship.  Therefore, it is bringing a Scriptural truth to life in a tangible form, and we then participate in the worship of the Church with our senses as well as our spirit and mind.  We are not mere abstractions, and a quasi-gnostic mentality has taken over in many Evangelical and charismatic circles in which they reject these tangible, physical acts of worship.  Tragically, they do not know what they are truly robbing themselves of, because God created our senses with reason, and we should use them to glorify Him just like we do everything else.   With that being said, I now want to talk at length about the symbolism behind liturgical incense, and what I am about to share is actually some powerful teaching.

First, let me explain what the censer is.  The liturgical censer is made from either brass or gold (both of which have spiritual meaning as symbols - gold symbolizing the kingship of Christ, and brass symbolizes holiness and righteousness), and the "bowl" of the censer is called a thurible.  I read an article recently by Coptic Pope Shenouda III, in the August 2010 Abba Antony magazine published by Saint Antony Coptic Orthodox Monastery in California, and in the article, titled "Symbols and Names of Saint Mary In the Bible," His Holiness Shenouda devotes a section to the Coptic tradition of the symbolism of Mary, in her office of the Theotokos (God-Bearer) as "the golden censer."  He is in essence referring to the thurible, or in the Coptic tongue, Ti-shory.  That being said, one of the meanings of the thurible of the censer is of Mary, the Bearer of Jesus, the Son of God and God the Son.  Proceeding, Pope Shenouda then talks about the contents of the censer as being symbolic of Christ - the coal symbolizes His humanity, and the fire His divinity (the latter with Scriptural support in Hebrews 12:9).  That being said, it can be also deduced that the smoke of the incense represents the High Priest ministry of Jesus, who intercedes and takes our sin before the Father in heaven.   Getting back to Isaiah 6:4 then, we see something very powerful - the coal that touches Isaiah's mouth and cleanses him, thus making him worthy, is a picture of Jesus' Passion on the Cross, and His shed blood for our sins!  And, as a result, we now can boldly approach the Throne of grace, and thus have our communion with the Father God restored.  So, instead of deriding incense as merely a display of "smells and bells," perhaps we should appreciate it more as a symbol of what Christ has done for us, and as a result we can offer our prayers to God as a sweet-smelling savor, like incense.  That being said, let us look at something else then regarding this.

Bishop Randall Adler, the founding primate of the Charismatic Episcopal Church and himself a former Protestant charismatic pastor, has written a very excellent study about this called Making Visible the Void (San Clemente, CA: self-published, 1995).  Although a small book, it provides a rich study aid regarding the Biblical precedent for using incense in the worship of the Church, and I think he sums it well when he makes the following statement on page 26:

The use of incense in Church is not just some ritualistic tool that has no consequence.  It is not simply some aesthetic used to make the church smell pretty.  Instead, it is actually prayer.  How do I know this?  In Revelation 5:8, St. John says, "Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."  John goes on to say in the eighth chapter, verses three and four, "Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar.  And he was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.  And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand."  This is the worship of the Church Victorious that is offered to God in Heaven, and it is the worship we should replicate here on earth.  The incense we offer before God during the Daily Offices of Prayer and the Holy Eucharist is the prayers of the people.

Adler goes on to say, on pages 27-28, that God not only sanctions the use of incense, but also gives some strict guidelines for using it.  He also maintains - as I do - that the offering of incense is for the intercession of the saints!  One of those strict guidelines for usage is found in Exodus 30:9, where it talks about a prohibition from offering "strange incense" on the altar of God.  This has a very modern-day application to it, and the Church has some strong guidelines for the type of incense used even today.  The reason for this is simply that like so many things, the pagans and other religions do use incense as well, and for the same reason.  However, unlike the accusations often bandied about by some Protestant Evangelicals, the reason pagans use incense is because it is a corruption of God's law; pagans also use incense for intercessions to their deities, and Satan and his demonic hordes have done what they could over the years to corrupt holy things and bastardize them.  So, I say this based on that evidence - the Church did not borrow the use of incense from the pagans, but rather the pagans stole the idea from us!  Incense is Biblical, it is part of the worship of the Heavenly Throne Room (on which both the Hebraic liturgy of the ancient Temple as well as the liturgy of the Church are modeled, by the way!), and thus is not only appropriate for worship, but vital.  However, because Satan likes to corrupt things, he has robbed the Christian churches - in particular the Protestant Evangelicals - of a great blessing by dissemination of false information, hearsay, and prejudice.  If I were to have been exposed to some of the wacky stuff going on out there that some Evangelicals perceive liturgical worship as being, I would not want any part of it either!  However, thankfully, I have learned the truth, and I really and sincerely believe that if Protestant Evangelicals really understood that truth, they would be filling up liturgies to standing capacity, because they would discover something that many of them feel they are probably missing as part of their own Christian walks.  That is why it is time for us to begin to do as II Timothy admonishes by "studying to show ourselves approved," and not listening to stupidity often published by some disgruntled person with an axe to grind, such as the Jack Chick crowd and others. 

Moving on, I came across a good article about the use of incense in the Orthodox Christian liturgies by an Antiochian priest by the name of Father Theodore Ziton entitled "LITURGY AND LIFE -The Use of Incense in Church,"  which you can read for yourself  at  Fr. Ziton makes some excellent points as he writes the article, and he also uses it to explain the various uses of incense during an Orthodox Liturgy, and here is what he says:

1.  It represents adoration or worship paid to God alone, as present in the Holy Eucharist.  The burning of fragrant spices is symbolic of the unworthiness and humility of creation before He who created us.
2.  It represents prayer, which rises to God as smoke.
3.  It represents grace, as God flows his grace into our souls like the aroma of incense fills the church.

He goes on to mention why icons, relics, and the congregation, as well as the Gospel Book, are incensed at various points in the Liturgy:

1.  To honor God who crowned the saints in heaven (the Church Expectant), and who glorified their bodies.
2.  To show respect for certain friends and servants of the Lord Almighty, as well as for His Holy Gospel.
3.   By incensing the clergy, it represents honoring in their persons Jesus Christ, to Whom in the Liturgy they serve as representatives.
4.  By incensing the people, it shows that we as Christians are yielded vessels and temples of the Holy Spirit.  When we are censed in the congregation, it is also customary to cross ourselves as we receive that, like we do with any blessing.

Fr. Ziton continues that article with the fact that the fire of the incense represents holy zeal, which of course comes from Jesus Himself, and is the divine nature of Jesus Christ.  Fire is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the "consuming fire' that renews, cleanses, and convicts us.  As to the aroma and smoke of the incense itself, it represents of course our prayers and intercessions, and like any symbol it also serves to remind us of the importance of a consistent prayer life.  The sweet fragrance shows us that the sincere prayer of His people is pleasing to Him, and that He will honor a prayer prayed in humility and sincerity.  What we see here then, is that incense is an incentive to pursue faithfulness in our Christian walk through prayer.  We petition our needs, intercede for the needs of others, and also respond to the grace of the Holy Spirit's conviction to humbly confess and repent of our sins to God, who through His Son Jesus Christ provides blessed atonement for our sins.  And, that is why the Church uses incense in our worship!

Now, back to the censer itself.  As mentioned the bowl, or thurible, is a picture of the Theotokos, and the coal represents the humanity of Jesus Christ while the fire His divinity as God the Son.  Note too that the thurible is suspended from chains - sometimes three (symbolizing the Trinity of the Godhead) or by four (symbolizing the Four Evangelists that wrote the Holy Gospels).  In the Christian East, often there are some little bells attached to those chains (in the Western Church, censers don't typically have bells), and these you will notice are in groups of three (if there are four chains) or four (if their are three chains).  These bells represent two things:

1.  They are symbolic of the Twelve Apostles, or of the Cherubim about the Throne of God.
2.  They, by their ringing, symbolize praise to the Almighty.

Bells have always been a symbol of both praise and of drawing attention to the important parts of the Liturgy, such as the holiness of God in the Eucharist or during the sung Trisagion (or Sanctus in the Western Church).  I will be doing the next study more in-depth on bells, but for here I wanted to specifically mention that their inclusion on the censer in the East represents something interesting - by swinging the censer, our prayers and praises rise together unto the Lord as one!  Adoration, praise, and thanksgiving to the Almighty are very fundamental to our worship as individuals and as a Church, and the ringing of bells reminds us of that.  And, this will more or less bridge this study with our next one.

It is my hope and prayer that this study has not only dispelled some really dumb misunderstandings about why we as sacramental/liturgical Christians use incense in our worship, but also I hope it instilled a new appreciation for why we do what we do.  Symbolism is the way God speaks to us oftentimes - it is not something to be shunned or discarded, but is rather how He created us to understand things, and throughout Scripture symbolism is used for a lot of things.  As liturgical Christians, we use a lot of symbolism in our worship, as practically even the most minor details of a church's furnishings may have symbolic significance.  In that aspect, it merely means we are surrounding ourselves with these symbols to remind us that God is always near to us as believers, and these symbols also convey profound truths of our faith.  We must remind ourselves - particularly if we have been brought up in this mindset of metaphor and abstraction that characterises much of Evangelicalism, where God is often deprived of his personhood and made a mere abstraction that floats around out there like Caspar the Friendly Ghost or something - that God is real, and we are real people, not ghosts and spooks.  God created our senses for a reason, so let us use all of them to give worship and adoration to Him, for honestly after what He's done for us it is the least we can do.  God be with and bless you all until next time.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Truth Behind Myths and Legends - Werebeasts and Similar Phenomena

This is the last in a series of articles I wanted to write addressing the various creatures, myths, legends, etc., and noting some truths that are contained at the core of the legend and mythology.  In this final article I want to address the issue of werebeasts and how they fit into some prophetic Scripture about the rise of increased demonic activity in the latter days, which we are now in.

According to a Wikipedia article I researched in preparation for this study, a werewolf and similar creatures are part of a phenomenon called lycanthropy, from a Greek root meaning "wolf-man" (the Old English term werewolf means the same thing).  It refers to an ability a person has to shapeshift into an animal form, which throughout history has been a part of the folklore of many cultures.  For example, the ancient Olmec civilization in Mexico had a belief that beings that were half-jaguar and half-man could have relations with women and thus produce were-jaguar babies, and among the many artifacts from this civilization are grotesque statuary of infants who had fangs and other attributes of jaguars (Marion F. Briggs, Associate Editor, and Jill L. and Peter Furst, Research consultants.  "Awakening in the Americas" in Time Frame 1500-600 BC: Barbarian Tides.  {Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1987} p. 160).  To the north, other Native American Indian tribes have the tradition of the "skin walkers," which today has also filtered into occultism and witchcraft via Navajo influences (  Part of that whole thing also involves a commitment to Satanism, and is tied into cannibalism.  This phenomenon was also substantiated by Christian theology about evil spirits, as was enunciated by St. Thomas Aquinas in his dictum Omnes angeli, boni et Mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra ("All angels, good and bad have the power of transmutating our bodies")( 
However, it must be noted that the historic Church teaching has never advocated angels manipulating humans, and those who did were often fallen angels rather than the Host of Heaven.  That being said, there is a similar connection here between lycanthropic manefestations and the Nephilim, in that two possibilities exist:

a.  Werebeasts were the bastard children of fallen angels and human women, and thus were physically part of the Nephilim

b.  Lycanthropy is a form of demonic possession of a person open to it, and the demonic spirit possessing the person has the power to transform the host body into that of a beast.

I personally will not rule out either of these, as I personally see both as being feasible, being demons do have the power of manipulating people they possess in some bizarre ways.  There is also a Scriptural precedent for the existence of lycanthropomorphs as well, and it is found in Daniel 4:25-26, when God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to be vexed by a spirit that caused him to take on the characteristics of an ox for a number of years.  Though many Bible scholars have interpreted this as either vexation by a spirit or insanity - as I once believed also - upon looking at the verse again it is apparent that Nebuchadnezzar was more than just vexed or insane; he became a beast essentially.  In other words, I have come to believe that the spirit which did control Nebuchadnezzar for some time was a lycanthropic manefestation.   That, I know, will gain me some dubious responses, but the evidence weighs in favor of this interpretation.  That being said, let us now deal with why this issue is so important to be discussed.

As we mentioned earlier in the discussion on vampirism, in recent years there has been a surge in interest regarding werewolves, as evidenced by the recent popularity of the Twilight films and other such productions on TV and in the cinema.  Prior to that, in the 1980's when I was in high school a couple of more lighthearted movies called Teen Wolf (the first featured Michael J. Fox in the starring role, the second Jason Bateman) pictured the werewolf as a protagonist character, persecuted and misunderstood.  Then of course was Lon Chaney's classic portrayal of the beast in film in the 1930's.   Werebeasts and pop culture are now intertwined, along with the recent interest in witches (Sabrina, Harry Potter, Charmed) and vampires, and what all this is signifying is a renewed fascination with the occultic and that is also a sign of the times.  By portraying such things as harmless, romantic fantasies, it opens doors for people - especially children - to experiment with occultism and satanic activities.  The recent Twilight movies exemplify that well, as they portray both werewolves and vampires as romantic, attractive love interests.  The danger thus lies therein - if people romanticize these things, they may strive to emulate them, and thus they will begin searching for ways to do so.  And, the demonic spirits out there ready to possess and deceive people are more than willing to indulge those fantasies.  As a result of all that, I foresee a surge in occultic activity similar to that which happened in the late 1800's which produced Theosophy and the roots of the New Age movement we see today.  However, as the times are getting closer to the return of Christ, this resurgence of the occult may not be as subtle as the Theosophists and New Agers were; young people have a fascination now more than ever with the "dark side" of spirituality, and this of course has been on the rise since the late 1960's, although in the past 15 years many Evangelical and Catholic churches ignore it and don't teach about its dangers like they did about 30 years ago.  That laxity on the part of the churches - due in large part to a spiritualized "political correctness" mentality called "the seeker-friendly" or "Purpose-Driven' church - has produced a vacuum that the enemy is more than eager to fill.  It is no accident that these Twilight movies, as well as the Harry Potter stuff, has been so popular, even in supposedly "Christian" circles - it is simply a prophetic sign of the times.  As God begins to make himself more real to his Remnant, the enemy will also make some bolder and more bizarre things manefest among his people as well.  Atheism and agnosticism are not filling the void that many who rejected Christianity hoped it would, and Christianity has become so weak an impotent in its witness that most churches have become mere entertainment venues for "C-rock" concerts and motivational talks.  And, the youth are searching; they are hungry spiritually, yet they are being malnourished by secularism and the Church both.  So, they go in search of something more tangible, and Satan has the perfect thing for them.  The purpose of these articles is the awaken Christians from their slumber and to say that these things are real threats to the souls of many, and therefore we need to be more aggressive in our efforts to make sure they know who the real Savior, who loved them to die for each of their sins, is.  Satan can do all sorts of interesting things - werewolves, vampires, and magick rituals are all part of that song-and-dance - but in the end he will double-cross those who fall for his tricks.  Only Jesus Christ can give eternal life, and our hope is in the Cross of Christ and what it represents.  For you parents out there, pay attention to pop culture - things are getting very blatant and bold, and a real fascination with evil is growing as people romanticize demonic possession and other garbage like it.  Rick Warren and other so-called "pastors" are too chicken to address the issue, for fear of "offending" someone, but the truth MUST be told.  And, that is what Sacramental Present Truths is about, and why I attempt with my best effort to disseminate fresh information to you.  However, it is up to you to act upon it, so now that you have the tools, let God show you how to use them.  God bless you all, and please pray for this ministry.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Statement of Faith

I wanted to take a different approach this week than I have been, as you all needed a little break also from the "heavier" stuff, so what I wanted to do was to explain a little bit of what this page is about, what beliefs it expresses, and also a little background on how it developed.  It is a little history lesson of my own ministry efforts thus far, and will give you an idea of where I come from.

How It All Began

I accepted a call to the ministry back in July of 1986, when as a 16-year-old and a new Christian, I was attending a church camp in Cowan, WV.   The night was interesting I recall, because I had recently - January 27th of the same year - come to Christ and was a new Christian.  A lot of things were battling inside me then, including a fear of the book of Revelation (my mother is largely to thank for that, as her theology was mixed with junk like The Omen and other occultic movies, which scared me) as well as getting a lot of opposition at home from my mother and others who seemed to want to nit-pick and find fault with every aspect of my newly-acquired faith.  Fortunately, I had some good early influences, including the pastor who led me to Christ, the late Olen Phillips and his dear wife Linda.  Pastor Olen and Linda were practically like a second set of parents to me, and they took a great interest in my discipleship when I was a young Christian.  Olen went on to his eternal reward a few years ago, but I owe him a great debt for leading me to Christ, and this is where it started.  As to the camp night, it was I believe the last night of the week we were at camp, and around a big bonfire the many ministers and counselors at the camp led us in a rededication service, and it was that night that I received my call.  However, it would not be fully realized until a church convention in Ceredo, WV, in November 1987 when the call was clear and strong within me, and it was then I really began pursuing it. 

Upon graduation from high school in 1989, I went off to Bible college at a little tiny Baptist school in the panhandle of Florida called (then) Baptist Bible Institute.  Located in the tiny town of Graceville, it was there I would begin to really discern some things I would see later.  However, that previous summer - on June 21, 1989 to be precise - I had begun to open up some to my Pentecostal past, which since I had become a new Christian I had rejected due to some very negative experiences and a faulty example my mother and some other people had set.  Warming up to and becoming more curious about that, I attended services at a little Pentecostal Holiness congregation on Newcastle Street in Brunswick, GA, that summer (my father had lived in Brunswick, and I was staying with him and working to earn a little cash for the coming school year) and on this particular night, a Thursday, the church had a visiting evangelist from Michigan who was ministering, and he was talking about the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.  As the man was preaching, I recall, I felt like he was preaching at me!  And, as he did so, I got this strong urge to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  So, when the call was given at the end of the service, I was ready and went forward.  A group of old Pentecostal ladies, glory buns and all, began to lay hands on me, and the lady pastor of the church, Sis. Ann Mayfield, began praying along with the visiting evangelist.  As they did so, it was as if I had a spring inside my gut that started gushing upwards, and the next thing I knew I was speaking in some language that I had no idea of.  Little did I know that this was what "speaking in tongues as an initial evidence" was about, and after that night the Holy Spirit really began to accelerate things over the next couple of years.

Another major step in this happened the following year, after I had decided to leave the Baptist denomination and become part of the Foursquare movement, due to the influence of Dr. Jack Hayford, whose ministry really touched me then and provided something I could relate to.  I began in early 1990 attending a small Foursquare congregation in Dothan, AL, and on April 21 of that same year, I was about to have another experience that would rock my world spiritually.  That day, a very spiritually dynamic lady evangelist, Sis. Shirley James, was speaking at the church, and she operated in the gifts of word of knowledge and healing.  As she began to close that service that day, she began to operate in the Holy Spirit, and before long He told her to call me up to be prayed over.  So, up I went, and she began to pray; as she did so, the Holy Spirit began speaking to her about healing a speech problem I had (although I was 20, I talked like a 12-year-old then because my voice had not changed) as well as telling me that I had a calling to work with young couples.  After speaking that over me, Sister Shirley laid hands upon my head, and all of a sudden I was flat on the floor!  I found out later that this was something called "being slain in the Spirit," and it was something else, as nothing like that had ever happened to me before.  Then, it was as if things started really coming into perspective for me, and it would be an interesting ride from that point onward.

In late 1992, I transferred to Southeastern College, and after a couple of really deficient church experiences, something began to awaken within me bringing me back to a feeling, a desire, I had had many years previous.   When I was but a young kid, I remember my cousins in Baltimore taking me to this big Catholic church somewhere off Pratt Street, and I remember the feeling I had of going there.  The liturgical/sacramental expressions of Christianity had always been something that I had felt a drawing to for many years, and I even incorporated elements of it in my own ministry when I used to itinerate and speak at churches.  There is something about the symbolism, the order, and the holiness of sacramental worship that makes it more approachable than a lot of the abstract spirituality of my earlier Protestant fundamentalist upbringing, and in college I began to explore that more in-depth.  It even started back in high school when my sophomore history teacher, Ms. Robb, piqued an interest with me in the Byzantine Empire and also Eastern Orthodoxy.  That, of course, led me to more ancient expressions of Christianity, starting with the Armenians and later with the Assyrians.  I wanted, of course, to incorporate this into my own ministry as a Pentecostal clergy, and in late 1989 I even felt like I had a call to the Assyrian people; little did I know that it would be them who ministered to me though later on!  This of course caused some interesting situations to arise within the Pentecostal circles I was part of, because unfortunately Pentecostalism is very anti-sacramental and anti-liturgical, although in all honesty they actually have more of a sacramental understanding of the Lord's Supper than many Catholics do, which was also surprising to find out!  At around the same time, a number of other Pentecostals and Charismatics were being led in a similar direction, and like myself they wanted to retain the best of their Pentecostal past while at the same time adapting a more liturgical/sacramental form of worship.  The resulting situation of that became something called the Convergence Movement, and I was fully aboard with it by the mid-1990's.   By early 1995, as a matter of fact, I had begun to attend liturgical services, starting with an Episcopal charismatic congregation in Lakeland, FL, and later in full communion with a "Continuing Anglican" body until the year 2000, when on Easter Sunday I was received into the Catholic Church as a Maronite-rite faithful.

That all leads up to the present day, when over the past 10 or so years I have done a lot of re-evaluation and soul-searching.   I have grown much in knowledge since those early days, and although I have probably become more of a staunch Catholic in my personal beliefs, I have also found that there are flaws in what is considered to be the "Historic Catholic" Church, meaning in a broad sense both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy.  The Roman Catholics, for instance, I have found to be somewhat complacent, compromising, and even ambivalent toward conservatives and traditionalists among them (once, when contemplating pursuing the permanent diaconate with my Maronite Eparchy, I was told I was "too conservative" as a matter of fact for the clergy), and many Catholic priests are so detached from their congregations, so uneducated in basic Catholic teaching, that to be honest I don't feel I need to formally be a part of it anymore.  I also have been greatly disappointed by the Eastern Orthodox - I still have a great love for their liturgy and their spiritual legacy, but there is a pharisaism, legalism, and a triumphalist attitude that they are the only true Christians and everyone else is going to hell, that I cannot in good conscience be a part of the "Canonical" Orthodox Church because I know I am a Christian, and have been one since 1986, and I also know that there are many people who are not Orthodox who love the Lord, who serve Him faithfully, and in whom the Spirit of God dwells without question, and these people cross all denominational lines.  Although my spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, and other men of God like him have called the Orthodox to task on this for years, many of their parishes remain ethnic ghettos, and their people think they are God's gift to the human race.  That to me is not of God, but is a religious spirit and a deception of the enemy, and that is why I refuse to be part of any church that doesn't know how to discern God's people.  Therefore, in recent years I have opted more for the independent Catholic movement, and at present time am part of a vibrant new jurisdiction called the Synod of Saint Timothy.   They are a wonderful, spiritually-sensitive group of Christians that have caught a vision from God and have followed it faithfully, and although few in number, the Synod is a vision of the Church of tomorrow as it should be, and also a reminder of the Church's spiritual legacy of the past. 

I don't know what God has in store for my ministry as a whole, as even now I have had to go through some re-evaluation of my own convictions and am currently seeking direction as to what I should do as part of the bigger picture.  However, I do know God has gifted me to write, and that is what this particular ministry is about.  That being said, this ministry has went through some growth and restructuring over the 20 or so years it has existed, and I want to talk now specifically about that.

How It All Began

This writing ministry is a new step in a journey that started back around 1993 or so, when I felt the call to minister more actively.   At that time, I called the ministry Saint Isaac of Nineveh Ministries, named after a tenth-century Assyrian Church Father who wrote a lot about personal consecration and spiritual renewal.  The early part of that ministry was mostly speaking in churches and publishing occasional articles as I was able to do so, and between 1993-1996 I had spoken in over 25 churches of all denominations in 5 states, including ethnic churches such as African American, Assyrian, Armenian, Indian, and other groups.   Due to some challenges that hit us back in 1996, the ministry itself lay dormant for a number of years until God started dealing with me again in early 2001.  It was at that time my ministry took on a different facet, as I began publishing the Present Truth Trumpet magazine in late 2001, and continued to publish until the end of 2003, when the financial burden of it, and also a lack of support from the readership, forced me to discontinue it.  However, I did have regular access to the internet, and began to see that this is where I could have the most impact and reach the most people.  So, beginning in 2007, I started to randomly publish teachings and writings on two pages I had set up, and that eventually led to this page being set up at the beginning of 2010.  As of late, this has proven to be my most effective ministry venue, and in the future perhaps God will use it to open other doors for me.  Any rate, that is the story.

What We Believe

The Sacramental Present Truths blog, and its writer, uphold first of all the historic Creeds of the Church Catholic, namely the Nicene, Apostle's, and Athanasian Creeds.  And, being influenced by the Christian East, we subscribe to the Orthodox rendering of the Nicene Creed without the ex patre Filioque.  That being said, there are also some specifics we hold to as well

1.  This blog upholds the inerrancy, infallibility, and divine Authorship of the Holy Scriptures.

2.  This blog, and its editor, uphold that salvation is through our faith in God's grace, and that the Cross of Christ is central and the only way to salvation.

3.  The Trinitarian Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is upheld and maintained.  The Athanasian Creed expresses the Trinitarian doctrine well, and therefore our belief refers to that.

4.  The personhood, Godhood, and Lordship of Jesus Christ is upheld and maintained - Jesus was born of Mary Ever-Virgin, was crucified by Pontius Pilate on the Cross, was buried, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus is both the Son of God and God the Son, fully human and fully God.

5.  The importance of the Holy Tradition of the Church Catholic is upheld, and thus with Scripture and the present-day inspiration of the Holy Spirit our faith as Christians is defined.  We realize that on minor issues the Church Fathers did vary in opinion, and these issues are not matters of faith and one can hold to those things according to conscience.  However, fundamental Christian doctrine, as stated in #'s 1-4 above, are not negotiable.  And, neither is the faith as expressed in the historic Creeds of the Church - that is basic Christianity, and as such is foundational to our faith.

6.  We believe in the reality and person of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father through the Son and with the Father and Son is to be worshipped and glorified.  That being said, we also believe in the present day work and ministry of the Holy Spirit, and that He does actively work in the life of a believer and all of the gifts of the Spirit - I Corinthians 12 - are valid and active today.  We also believe, as Joel 2:28 prophesied, that the Holy Spirit will in the latter days be poured out upon all flesh, and there will be more manifestations of the Holy Spirit as the Second Coming draws near.  We also affirm the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is received through the Mystery of Chrismation, but also the infilling of the Holy Spirit and evidence thereof according to Acts 2.

7.  The Church, we believe, is the mystical Body of Christ.  It is Holy, Catholic, and endowed with Apostolic authority to administer the mysteries (Holy Sacraments) of the faith.  The two major Mysteries are of course Holy Baptism and the Eucharist, but also there are 5 additional Mysteries - Annointing of the Sick (Unction), Dispensing of Holy Orders, Reconcilliation, Holy Matrimony, and Chrismation.  As to the Eucharist, we uphold that Jesus Christ is really present in the elements of the Eucharist, but do not attempt to define or explain this as it is a Mystery of faith that we witness to and receive.  The Mysteries are not to be taken lightly, but are impartations of divine grace.  To not partake of the Eucharist seriously can have devastating consequences.

8.  We believe in the reality of angels and demons.  Angels are God's ministers on earth, and are sent to protect and minister comfort to the faithful.  Satan is a real fallen angel, and there are angelic and demonic princes and principalities - however, a demon is distinct from a fallen angel, as it is a disembodied spirit of a nephilim or other ungodly creature that resulted from hybridized angel/human unions.  Demons are the slaves of fallen angels and of Satan.  Satan however is not equal to God, but is rather a created being and ultimately will face defeat.  That being said, we believe in the reality of the spirit world, and that demons can oppress and/or possess people open to their influences; only the Blood of Jesus Christ assures this cannot happen.

9.  Heaven is a real place, and so is hell.  Hell was created as a prison for Satan, but due to man's deception and fall, and subsequent sin nature, it is the ultimate penalty for our sins.  Only Jesus Christ and His shed blood can save us from that fate.  Also, God does not send people to hell, but we send ourselves there by our disobedience and separation from God.

10.  We uphold the three-fold Apostolic ordained ministry of deacons, presbyters, and bishops.  Also, although these offices are not available to women, they can minister in other ways, and therefore there is also the office of deaconness.  In addition to deaconnesses though, women can be gifted to preach, and can be lay exhorters or evangelists, as well as functioning as teachers and in the gifts of prophecy, discernment, and words of wisdom and knowledge.

11.  We affirm Holy Baptism as the rite of initiation into the Church, although through Chrismation a person becomes more spiritually aware and accountable for their faith.  However, we also affirm the reality of the born-again experience, and that it is the first event on the pilgrimage of salvation.  Salvation is a process, not a one-time experience;  we are saved from past sin when born again, we are being saved daily as we walk with Christ with a living, active faith, and we will be saved once we pass on to our eternal reward, be that by Rapture or repose, and we do so in a state of grace, meaning that we have a living relationship with Jesus Christ.  Those who do die in a state of grace will inherit eternal life; those who reject, apostasize, or otherwise die in their sins will face everlasting punishment in hell.  The Bible is clear on this, and thus it is not a matter of debate.

12.  The Church is multi-faceted, and as such we believe in the communion of saints, which is called the Church Expectant.  The saints departed this life can still agree in prayer with us, intercede on our behalf in prayer, and can be totally cognizant of what goes on in the earth.  We, as living Christians, are the Church Militant.  Upon the return of Christ for His Church, the Church Militant and the Church Expectant together will become the Church Triumphant, the spotless Bride of Christ.

13.  Based on #12, we also affirm some things about Mary, Mother of Jesus:

       a.  She is the Theotokos, or "God-Bearing vessel," of which the Ark of the Covenant was an icon.
       b.  She is Ever-Virgin, and had no other children of her own besides our Lord.
       c.   Upon her death, she was bodily assumed into Heaven, a picture of the resurrection our bodies will   experience one day
       d.   She has, like the rest of the Church Expectant, an intercessory ministry of prayer.

       These are doctrines regarding Mary that were affirmed by the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, but that being said it must be emphasized that later doctrines of the Roman Church,  such as the Immaculate Conception, Mary's sinlessness while on this earth, and the so-called "Queen of Heaven" doctrine, are not substantiated by either Holy Tradition or Holy Scripture, and are thus rejected by this ministry.

14.  The Second Coming of Christ, which is to be immanent and personal, is both affirmed and proclaimed by this ministry.

15.  We affirm that God created the heavens and the earth, all that is visible and invisible, and that evolution is not compatible with our beliefs as Christians.  Although advocating an "old-earth creationist" view, this ministry nonetheless upholds that this earth, and that we as a human race, have divine origins and are not evolved from monkeys or anything else.

16.  Being we uphold the Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition of the Church, there are certain lifestyles and attitudes we do not believe Christians should involve themselves in or support.  Therefore, this ministry rejects homosexuality, abortion, pornography, racism, slavery of others, drug and alcohol abuse, certain forms of worldly entertainments, defacing our bodies with tattoos and such, occultism, and conformity of the Church with the world.  We also reject commercialism, fads, and other abherrations that have plagued contemporary Christianity, and therefore we do not support such things as "seeker-sensitive Christianity," Rick Warrenism, the so-called "Gospel of inclusion," and "word/faith theology," among other things.  These things seek to water down the Gospel of Christ, and they seek the approval of the world rather than consecration to the Savior.  Therefore, they cannot be accepted by sincere Christians. 

This is only a partial statement of our beliefs and convictions with this ministry, and although it may not cater to everyone's fancy, that is not the purpose.  I preach conviction that I have been given about these matters, and that is what this ministry is about.  May you go with God, and look forward to talking with you again soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Truth Behind Myths and Legends Part IV - Vampirism

I have been working on this series for some time, and as I continue to do so, it is getting more interesting especially considering the trends in popular culture today.  After a week of dealing with hard-headed Greek Orthodox laypeople, a bitter anti-Catholic self-professed Messianic Jew, and an ill-informed Evangelical girl who thinks it's a "sin" to burn a demonic book like the Quran, I am realizing the Church needs to be made aware of the forces that are assaulting her from inside and out.  Many Christians are so deluded by some things that are in popular culture that they are a hair's-breadth from hell, and yet the deception continues.  In the near future, I am going to address an article to a study about the Remnant Church, because there needs to be more teaching on the subject.  However, today, I need to continue what we were talking about with a teaching about something that is gaining a lot of attention and interest, and though many feel it is mere legend or fairy tale, I am going to be showing you that some of this stuff is very real by sorting out the truth from the myth.  Therefore, let us get started.

How many of you know of the "Dracula" legend?  I am sure at some point many of us older folks have seen the classic 1930's film with Bela Lugosi dressed in a tux and cape and sporting fangs, and his heavy Eastern European accent saying "I vant to suck your blahd..." is iconic as far as most people's perception of what a vampire is.  It has inspired a lot of Halloween hijinks, made a lot of costume people rich, and even when I was a kid I was drawn to that fictional character as I liked his tux!  When I became a Christian though, I lost all desire to be enamored by such things, and over the years as I have grown God has begun to open my eyes to some things.  The book that the Lugosi film was based on is Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was written in 1897.  Stoker used a 15th-century Wallachian prince named Vlad the Impaler as his inspiration for the character, based on a lot of legend and hearsay that was handed down over the years.   The real Vlad the Impaler though would have actually had more in common with Russia's Ivan the Terrible than he would have with Lugosi's character, as simply put Vlad was just more or less a brilliantly ruthless tyrant and nothing more than that.  In some ways, he was a hero; in others he was an evil man.  But, a vampire he was not.  The ruthlessness with which Vlad dealt with his enemies, in particular the Islamic Ottomans who were trying to conquer Europe at that time, is the source for much of the "Dracula" persona.  Vlad was, for instance, called the Impaler for a good reason - the way he executed his enemies was by shish-kabobing them on stakes on his palace grounds, and in essence he had a "garden" of executed, decomposing bodies around his castle ramparts, and was said to eat his lunch in the middle of that mess, which later evolved into crazy stories about him drinking the blood of his enemies, etc.  No evidence suggests he engaged in such practices though, and actually he was not even insane - rather, he was a rather efficient ruler who knew how to use terror and intimidation to let people know he was in charge.  Many other rulers have done the same over the centuries, so in that aspect there is nothing really too unique about Vlad doing this either.  But, at times fiction tends to be more convincing than truth, and the fiction over the years have turned Vlad into a darker monster than he probably was, and thus Stoker picked up on that for inspiration.  Related to this as well is an Eastern European vampiric creature called a stregoi, and some legends say that Vlad became one of these when he died.  This stregoi mythology is one of many dealing with vampire-like creatures that circulate in a variety of cultures throughout the world.  For the most part, these are legend, but may have a real - and sinister - source that goes back to times of antiquity.  So, let us examine that now.

It goes back actually to Levitical law in the Bible, when Moses, through inspiration from God, imposed sanctions against the consumption of blood by the Hebrews.  This is actually an early gift of God to people, because He was in effect teaching them hygeine as well as what would later be a basic medical knowledge.  This was at a time when pagan cultures were doing all sorts of bizarre stuff, including human sacrifices in which blood and flesh were often consumed from the sacrificial victim.  The barbaric practice of human sacrifice was strongly condemned by Mosaic law, and Scripture today still prohibits it.  Often though, human sacrifice involved both the consumption of human flesh - cannibalism - as well as the drinking of human blood - or vampirism.  Blood is universally accepted as being the life of the creature it inhabits, and some pagan cultures attached great significance to blood rituals in that by either self-mutilation (the Maya in Central America, as a matter of fact, went so far as to pierce their genitals with stingray barbs in the delusion that somehow the letting of blood would show them favor with their rain gods) or by the letting of blood from a sacrificial animal or human and drinking it because they thought that doing these acts would ensure one of two things:

1.  The blood was an appeasement to a god in return for something - rain, fertile crops, many children, etc.
2.  The consumed blood would increase one's own attributes - strength, longevity, fertility, etc.

In reality, we as Christians know that these things were a mockery or fake, futile deceptions on the part of demons to either defame or substitute the only TRUE sacrifice of Blood given for us, and that is the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross for our sins.  Demons knew this long before the first coming of Christ, because they saw that for some reason God placed a special meaning on blood, and thus they sought to deceive man with corruptions of that.  In early times, Satan had even went so far as to delude people into thinking CHRISTIANS were consuming real blood in the Eucharist in order to bastardize the proclamation of the Gospel, but our theology of the Eucharist is a mystery of faith that we understand ONLY through being born again of the Spirit of God.  It is amazing the lengths Satan goes through to discredit the Gospel and its core message, but he fails to realize that God is much greater than he is, and thus God's plan is perfect and complete.  As a matter of fact, back when a dispute arose in the early Church about whether or not Christians of Gentile background should be compelled to keep Judaic law, the Church Council in Jerusalem basically said in Acts 15:29 that Gentile Christians were to observe only four things:

1.  Abstain from meat offered to idols
2.  Abstain from blood
3.  Abstain from things strangled
4.  Avoid sexual immorality

So, the prohibition on blood consumption was upheld by the early Church, and with good reason - from a scientific point of view, the blood is the conduit through which waste is removed from the body as well as being a supplier of necessary elements that sustain life, and in that waste in the blood were toxins and other such things that could be potentially dangerous.  The prohibition on things strangled went along the same lines, because kosher preparation has as its key procedure the draining of blood by slitting the throat.  If the blood was allowed to remain in an animal carcass, it could speed up decomposition as well as retaining toxins that would saturate the meat, and thus it would be unhealthy.  Even today, government standards for butchers, grocery stores, and restaurants have similar procedures in place about proper preparation of meat, and it stems back to this.  God, then, created healthy living practices for us to follow that we still practice today.  And thus, blood consumption is still discouraged even in today's society for similar reasons that they were in Levitical law.

That being said about consumption of blood, let us now talk about vampirism directly.  A vampire is a person who drinks the blood of others for a variety of reasons, and it is very much tied into occult practices.  The reason they do this is to gain the "life force" of the victim to increase their own attributes.  This is something that ties into a discipline of the occult known as spiritism, which more or less says that the "spirit" or life force of the person can be passed to another through the consumption of their body or blood.  Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of such activity in this youth subculture called "Goths" and although many cult experts don't classify this form of vampirism as religious in nature, there are subcultures within the "Goth" subculture that are  occultic, and we are seeing today the rise of vampire "churches" and temples, for instance, in many cities.  The reason I say this is that there are two groups of practioners of this stuff, one believing in the literal drinking of another's blood while another group believes in what is called "psychic vampirism," which means they "feed off of" auric/psychic energies of their companions in the practice.  Right there, we see a religious connection, and it is of no surprise either as "Goths" are prime candidates for initiation into occultic groups, although with many "Goths" all it is about is the fashion and politics as well.  Nonetheless, whether involved innoculously for the "look" or seriously into the "scene" itself, this Gothic subculture is not something that should be encouraged.  And, now in the past couple of years there have been these Twilight movies that have racked up the ratings in theatres, and those are making vampirism some romantic quest and thus recruiting more interest in the lifestyle.  This is an end-time trap of  Satan to deceive young kids into a lifestyle that is hideous and against all God stands for, and the timing of it is no accident.  With the gradual rise in occultic activity over the last several decades - stuff like Dungeons and Dragons, Pokemon, Harry Potter, a renewed interest in the Qabala due to high-end celebs like Madonna embracing it, and now the Twilight enterprise - influencing youth culture, I see that the enemy is priming and recruiting a generation of young people by deception regarding the supernatural, and it is nothing to take lightly.  Years ago, churches used to be on guard against this stuff, but nowadays in this new world of the "lovey-dovey, seeker-friendly, purpose-driven" so-called "gospel," much of that is ignored.  As a matter of fact, some self-professed "Christian" groups actually endorse stuff like Harry Potter and other occultic nonsense, and I even understand now that there is a "Christian Goth" movement!  People do not realize that this stuff is nothing that born-again Christians should be messing around with, and with professed "Christians," including high-profile leaders, embracing this stuff, they are weakening their own testimonies.  Vampires, I do believe, are very real - they are not the romantic stuff of the Twilight films, nor do they look like Bela Lugosi - and I want to quickly address a theory I have regarding what participation in this activity can lead to.

Involvement in the occultic religions is a serious business, and is a time bomb you don't want to be next to when it goes off.  Occultists - especially committed ones - do believe in spiritual forces, and they constantly attempt to manipulate such forces in order to gain something, be that knowledge, strength, longevity of life, etc.  The spiritual forces they mess with though are demons, and demons exact a high price for their "services" - they will possess, oppress, and eventually destroy those who serve them, all under the delusion that it is the occultist in charge of things.  And, demon possession is real, people - it is not pretty, and not something that people should get mixed up in.  Furthermore, demons are also disembodied spirits, and can manifest those vessels they are invited to possess in any way they choose.  That being said, a person involved in vampirism is also more than likely going to open themselves up to demonic influence, and when they do, it is possible that as a demon gains control in them and manifests itself, it can alter the appearance of the person into something sinister.  I will go into that more in the next study when I talk about werebeasts and such, but vampires too can take on attributes and physical characteristics of those things possessing them.  If they do not receive deliverance and are born again by the shed Blood of Jesus Christ, they will die in that bondage and will be spending eternity in hell with the very demons that possessed them being their tormenters.  And, in this last day, the battle is intensifying:  Satan is getting more blatant and bolder, and people who are disillusioned with what they feel is "status-quo" religion are wide open for his deception.  As a matter of fact, I want to go on record as saying to expect more unusual supernatural things to happen on both sides of the lines, as God's Spirit is moving as well.  We live in exciting times, so let us not become so rationalized in our thinking that we dismiss what we may be seeing more of one day.

That all being said, I will close for this study, but will be back next time to discuss what werewolves are, and the separation as well of the mythology from the facts.  God bless you.