“During the Ferguson disturbances, near St. Louis, MO, a young Black Orthodox man told me that he would like to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, to which I replied, “By all means, do it right away, but you must take my direction in this matter. I want you and your friends to carry banners with Jesus Pantocrator and the Mother of God of Kazan and one of St. Moses the Black. You must also carry beeswax candles and burn frankincense as you march, while singing, “The Cross is the Guardian of the whole world. The Cross is the might of kings, the Cross angels glory, and wound to demons.” To which he replied – that would be out of character with the energy of the movement, and I said – we don’t take our cues from this world. Instead, we inform them as to what is proper.” – Archpriest Moses Berry
Father Moses Berry told me this story a few weeks back in a conversation over the phone. It stuck with me in the midst of navigating the political and social storm we all currently find ourselves in. When I saw him post this same story yesterday on Facebook it reinforced to me what I already thought: This is an important word for this moment – worth hearing and meditating on. I believe it presents, in flesh and blood, pastoral counsel the call to unflinching commitment to the two things always at tension in the Christian life: The call to be present in the world – its hurts, its wounds, its challenges while at the same time not being of it – not bound to its demands, ways or rules. Love God and Love Neighbor – on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Father Moses could have responded to this young man with the demands, ways and rules of one side of the ‘debate’ about Black Lives Matter. He could have forbade him from being there. He could have drawn upon all the talking points abundant in right wing media about how the entire movement was Marxist, atheist, anarchist, even anti-Christian.
On the other hand he could have also responded with the demands, ways and rules of the other side. Encouraging or insisting the young man buy into every aspect of the movement and ideology – even those that are contrary to how a Christian should live and speak. He could have drawn upon talking points abundant in left wing media to stir up the passions and even hatred and canceling of those who don’t ‘get it’.
But Father Moses did neither. The interaction is not a prescription of how every encounter should be resolved concerning this issue – pastoral work requires the one giving counsel to first deeply know the person whom he or she is giving counsel. But the encounter is an icon of a clear path through a clouded situation.
In this world we will be presented with dichotomies that demand allegiance to one side or another. Out of fear we will be tempted to either feel pressured to go ‘all in’ with one side, or out of the same fear we fail to act and enter into places we might actually be called to engage. What if I am misunderstood? What will people think of me?
I’m sure you have, but I know I’ve certainly experienced the cruelty of this age – even from fellow Christians.
If Father Moses had been bound by the demands, rules and ways of the world on either ‘side’ the young man seeking counsel may have either had his real desire to enter into the pain and hurt in his community quenched or he might have had that energy turned into pride or ideology. The advice was good because it affirmed the young man’s desire to go be present: You clearly resonate with the hurt, the anguish – good – as a Christian who has felt called to this you should not ignore that – but go as a follower of Christ, because if you truly want to bring healing, the only way is the cross.
I have some personal experience of being present at some of the Black Lives Matters gatherings in our own town. I went to several. I felt called to carry an icon of the mother of God “Softener of Evil Hearts”. I do not believe this was for everyone or maybe hardly anyone to do but I knew I was called to be present, even if I wasn’t sure why. If I had listened to the demands, ways and rules of the world on either side I would have not gone and I would have missed out on some very heartfelt and honest conversations, missed the potential build relationships and to listen. I also heard the gospel being spoken into the moment, in the spaces between and in surprising ways.
But any time we step into the world, the world’s problems, the world’s hurts, we must prepare ourselves first and foremost with prayer – prayer and the cross or we will be swept away because there is intense spiritual warfare around all of this. Expect to be misunderstood, to be labeled to be tempted.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. – Second Corinthians 4:7-9
Is anyone feeling hard pressed these days? Perplexed? Yes , this is nothing new for the Christian. But the answer, the path lies in the ultimate image of the one hard pressed, persecuted, struck down and yet not destroyed, not forsaken, not crushed. The Cross is the Guardian of the whole world. The Cross is the might of kings, the Cross angels glory, and wound to demons.
For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. – Second Corinthians 4:10-12
What is this death working in us that is life to others that St. Paul speaks of? Quite simply the Christian is to enter into the death at work in the world, knowing that Christ makes life out of this by showing His glory in the midst of suffering. If we simply tried to remain comfortable, safe in our faith, never risking for the sake of Christ, never being misunderstood, then how will the Resurrection be manifest in us? For it is when life comes from seemingly impossible – and in the world truly impossible circumstances that the Resurrection is shown.
St. Clement of Alexandria says: “The one who knows God will follow the Lord’s footsteps, bearing the cross of the Savior. It is said, ‘The world is crucified to him and he to the world.’ The Lord says, ‘He who loses his life will save it.’ We can “lose our lives” in one of two ways. First, we can risk our lives just as the Lord did for us. Secondly, we can separate our lives from the customary things of this world.“
Go to the places of hurt, of suffering, just as Christ did, but remain anchored in your heart where Christ dwells.
A desert father says “Be a friend to all but in your heart remain alone.”
We will be hard pressed, perplexed, yes, even persecuted and struck down. As Christians we are not to seek out persecution but we are also not to avoid the pain, suffering and hurt in this world. It seems these days Christianity has sometimes lost its call to do this and has become concerned about its own welfare, safety and influence. But know – this is not the Cross – and without the Cross there is no Resurrection no victory, no defeat of the true enemy of mankind – the one who truly inflicts harm and tears us from each other and causes men to be cruel to one another.
I’ll conclude with the “rest of the story” – Father Moses’ conclusion to his story – his own call to action from his own experience of being hard pressed, perplexed, struck down:
Black lives have always mattered to me. I remember suffering as a young man under the yoke of the godless authority (police) in Jefferson City, MO, who bound me in handcuffs and threw me in the back of the squad car and told me, “we’re going to take you over to Cedar City and let the wolves eat you.” If it wasn’t for a fair minded officer, Don Klein, who intervened, Heaven knows what would have become of me. My crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more. And also disobeying my grandma Dorothy, who said, “if you keep running around with these white folks, you’re going to end up with your ass in a sling.” It’s about time that we, as men and women of good will, address the ills of our society and not on its terms, but on the terms of otherworldly Christianity, which will always be in opposition to the wisdom of this world.