Ancient Christianity and Afro-American Conference 2018: A Sober Joy

I grew up with traditional black Baptist revivals. Over the years, I’ve been to various conferences and services of different races and denominations. No matter what the event, there always seemed to be a push to get some sort of “high.”  Perhaps from the keynote speaker, music concert, prayer session, something was supposed to give the attendees a level of excitement and uplift that everyone would feel ecstatic and would leave yearning for the next event.  Some evangelist and worshipers refer to these experiences as “Holy Ghost Parties” (Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost Party ’cause the Holy Ghost Party don’t stop).  This year’s St. Moses Conference, several of us mentioned that we experienced something different. (1)  I’m not sure who came up with the term.  But, it fits: a sober joy.

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Yes, it was joyous. Old friends were re-acquainted and new ones were made.  Our host in South Carolina welcomed us with open arms.  First timers were took great pleasure in meeting people they had known only by blogs and social media.  The leadership mixed planning with handshakes and hugs.  There was even an impromptu concert of traditional black church music.  We all were enthralled with the wisdom from Abbot Tryphon.  While the Orthodox Church does not have “celebrity” preachers, he is one of the more recognizable monastic authors, bloggers, and podcasters among all of our jurisdictions.  Behind the scenes, Jonathan and Sabrina Vilord and others at Holy Apostles (OCA) made every effort to make the event all but flawless.  Yes, there was joy among us.  But, it was channeled and contained to something different than a “high.”

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Orthodox worship, as the former Pentecostal minister and Orthodox convert Fr. Barnabas Powell describes, is a fireplace for our fire.(2) The repetitive calls for the Lord’s mercy in Vespers (evening prayers), Matins (aka Othros, morning prayers) and the Divine Liturgy keeps us from thinking too highly of ourselves (Romans 12:3).  The Church was full of icons of a plethora of saints reminding us of the cloud of witnesses who have led exemplary lives (Hebrews 12:1).  Partaking of the body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist is life-giving and spiritually nourishing in every way (John 6:54-58).  But, in the context of our worship, we are directed to be sober minded and seek purification.

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Our patron, Abba Moses, is one of the most honored of the Desert Fathers for his relentless pursuit to become one with God.(3)   Renouncing his former life as a criminal and gang leader wasn’t enough.  He became a monk.  Still dissatisfied with turning his life around, he struggled for over 10 years against lustful thinking.  Reaching an honored status among the heiromonks of Sketis, the former criminal refused to judge a brother’s sinfulness when God put his own wickedness behind him.  Knowing that he would die by the same sword he lived by, Moses willingly accepted martyrdom at the hands of vandals.

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The gift of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, instructions to the early church, our worship and the example of St. Moses combined together to give sobriety to the joyful spirit that we enjoyed.   In this time when so many people of all backgrounds are leaving churches and Christianity, this sort of “Holy Ghost Party” should be offered more frequently in more places.  In a way, it is at every Orthodox Church.  For 2,000 years, we haven’t stopped.

Notes:

  1. The lectures from the Ancient Faith & Afro-American Christianity (aka St. Moses the Black) Conference can be heard on Ancient Faith Radio.
  2. One of a few podcast where Fr. Powell uses this description
  3. Three good sources on St. Moses the Black are The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, On the Holy Fathers of Sketis The Philokalia: vol. one, and St. Moses the Ethiopian by Jerome Sanderson.
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