Saint Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry
A Labor of Love of Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC
He stands at the door and knocks
Knock, knock. Anybody home? (Revelation 3:20) I’ve always understood that as long as there is a longing in our hearts, we are still savable. Even when we are worn out and defeated by sin, the flame that once burned in our heart for God can be rekindled (2 Peter 3:9). Sometimes, yes, God knocks us off our horse like he did to Saint Paul (Acts 9:1-19), but more often it is literally like He is knocking at our heart of hearts. Human beings have an innate longing to know Him and to know who they are and why they are here. This is what keeps us seeking the Truth (Psalm 63:1).
Being a Christian is a daily struggle and we all fall short. Throughout history, Christians have taken that struggle seriously and worked hard to be ready for battle, both spiritually and physically. Early Christians faced the threat of torture and death every day—their crime was believing in Christ as the Messiah! Much like the early Christians, you live in dangerous conditions and are surrounded by evil, knowing that any day could be your last.
Many of the participants in this group are under serious threat. Take your fear to God and lay it at His feet! (Philippians 1:21) You will not be a hypocrite if you ask God, a god who-you-are-not-totally-sure-you-believe-in, for help (Mark 9:24). Take your first steps with blind faith (John 9:1-12), and your faith will surely grow (Luke 17:11-19) (John 9:1-12). God is your Abba/Father, a term more accurately translated as “daddy”, (Romans 8:15) and He already has given His all for you! (John 3:16-17) He knew you and loved you before you were even born (Psalm 139:13-16) and He is not going to give up on you now.
Are you a hopeless sinner?
Me too! Welcome to the club where everyone is a member (Romans 3:23)! Christ is said to be a friend to sinners; He does not reject us! Although true, nevertheless, He doesn’t say, “No Worries, carry on,” making us feel comfortable with our sin. Nor does he encourage us to celebrate sin like the world does nowadays. Jesus forgives us and tells us to “go and sin no more!” (Mark 2:1-12) (John 8:11)
As you have probably figured out through your own experience, going and sinning no more is practically impossible (1 Corinthians 10:13) (Mark 14:28). Knowing how hard it would be, the Risen Lord gave us the Church and the Sacraments to help cure us of our inclination toward sin and to help our transformation into the new creature He promised we would become (2 Corinthians 5:17) (Romans 12:2). He creates in us a new heart! (Psalm 51)
This transformation (Ephesians 4:20-24) takes time and effort! For example, you don’t get great abs by merely deciding to exercise. You have to come up with a plan, make time and do the work! Just as Christ died to save everyone, everyone is born with abdominal muscles! As should be expected, it takes a long time to lose the flab and develop those muscles and, you’re going to experience pain long before you see results. Nevertheless, if you keep at it, stay motivated and embrace the pain (Luke 14:27), you will learn to enjoy your workouts and you will eventually get that desired six-pack (Matthew 24:13).
When it is your heart’s desire to deepen your relationship with Christ, your daily workout is prayer, reading the Scriptures, Lives of the Saints, the Holy Fathers of the Church and reflecting on His love for you. The heavy lifting is exercising self-restraint, keeping the tongue tame and the mind clear. Self-examination followed by confession is like weighing in and accessing your progress (John 1:7-9) (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). As we get stronger, practicing love for God and neighbor becomes more and more natural (Matthew 22: 36-40); we don’t huff and puff and get all out of breath like we used to! Just like that inside-out glow one gets from a healthy lifestyle, the Joy of the Lord can be seen radiating from your face, even amid troubling situations (Hebrews 12:2). Make the Joy of the Lord your strength! (Nehemiah 8:10)
Offer your suffering, all the humiliation and pain, to the Lord and bear all for His sake and you will be greatly blessed (Luke 6:22). No matter where you are, or where you’ve been, you are dear to Christ. No matter how many times you fall, admit your failings and get up and try again! (Matthew 7:7:11) Our God is always ready to receive you and the Angels in heaven rejoice when you seek His forgiveness! (Luke 17:15)
How to Reap a Benefit from your Sins
Why are we still attracted to, and burdened by, sin after experiencing a sincere desire to change; even after being washed clean of our sins in the baptismal font? Is every failure a sign that we are too weak, too drawn to evil to ever be saved? No! When we fall and when we fail, we are given a wonderful opportunity to become stronger.
It is a fact that our muscles get stronger and bigger when we push them past the limit; they tear and heal, creating bulk. The injury to the muscle can make it stronger! It is when we become lazy and skip our workouts that our muscles lose their tone and we get weak. In a recent homily, Fr. Steven encouraged us to reap the benefit of our sins by taking the opportunity to truly repent, confessing our sins and receiving absolution. Every time we sincerely repent, we come out stronger! We are Christian athletes and warriors, but our enemy is cunning! Thank God the Church provides us with the tools to outsmart the evil one, renew our strength, learn from our mistakes and turn every failure into a success.
Saint Gregory Palamas
Saint Gregory Palamas, a Holy Father of the Church, lived in the 14th century and studied hesychasm, the mystical monastic practice of solitude and prayer. He would ask God repeatedly to “Bring light into the darkness.” Through repetition, this simple prayer, similar to the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”, can become as habitual and even as involuntary as breathing, replacing idle thoughts with the Light of Christ. In his biography of the Saint, John Meyendorff explained Saint Gregory’s understanding of the transformation we were discussing above: “When spiritual joy comes to the body from the mind, it suffers no diminution (decrease) by this communion with the body, but rather transfigures the body, spiritualizing it (and) rejecting all evil desires of the flesh, it no longer weighs down the soul but rises up with it, the whole man becoming spirit, as it is written: ‘He who is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6-8).”
“Heavy Burden of the Flesh”
Homily by Fr. Steven Webb
Orthodox theology teaches that the first Adam brought death to all creation and Christ, the second Adam brings life, restoring mankind to our intended state. Saint Gregory Palamas tells us in his Homily for Holy Saturday (still read in churches across the globe today), that “The Pre-eternal, Uncircumscribed and Almighty Word and Omnipotent Son of God could clearly have saved men from mortality and servitude to the devil without Himself becoming a man.” Nevertheless, God chose to become one of us because “the Incarnation of the Word of God was the method of deliverance most in keeping with our nature and weakness, and most appropriate for Him who carried it out, for this method had justice on its side, and God does not act without justice. As the Psalmist and Prophet says, “God is righteous and loves righteousness” (Psalms 11:7), “and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (Psalms 92:15). Man was justly abandoned by God in the beginning as he had first abandoned God.”
So, in God becoming man, and through His saving Passion (His suffering and death on the Cross) and Resurrection, St. Gregory explains that we can be divinely regenerated and mystically renewed and recreated in such a way that we would no longer be from the old Adam and so attract “the curse” – meaning the curse of death. Instead, mankind could be born of the New Adam and so have God’s blessing, not being children of the flesh, but God’s children, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God through Jesus Christ. Yes, St. Gregory is preaching the Scriptures here pure and simple – and it’s beautiful. Of course, we know we all put on Christ during the baptismal rite.
However, having said all of that about the Incarnation and God’s justice, St. Gregory also speaks on a very important truth about our life after baptism, one we all struggle with and that is what he calls the heavy burden of mortal flesh. It’s the flip side of everything we’ve just discussed, yet it’s not a contradiction. St. Gregory says the heavy burden of mortal flesh weighs us down so as to exercise us, to test and correct us.
Why? So that we may forsake the wretchedness of this world! All of this while we invisibly have put on Christ so we can strive – very important this word strive – so we can strive to share in Christ’s manner of life here and now. This explains the sad reality that we simply don’t burst into complete holiness directly after baptism – even though we receive Christ. The heavy burden of this mortal flesh tests us and, when we fall into sin, we learn correction through repentance. This is all so very standard, but we must understand that God has willed it to be so. Of course, we are to strive to become like Christ and in the process, we are to be tested and corrected.
He also tells us that, “In His wisdom, power and love for mankind, God knew how to transform, incomparably for the better, the falls resulting from our self-willed waywardness.” I would add that this is why we should rejoice “as one rescued out of suffering” when we come to confession, because God is eager to forgive us of our sins when we fail the test, when we miss the mark. Even though we fail when we sin, if we have genuine contrition for our failures, we can have a true healing and transformation, and Christ runs out to meet us with a royal coat, a ring for our finger and a feast with a fatted calf. IF – and ONLY IF – we are like the prodigal son and have genuine contrition (Luke 15:11-32). This is the fruit of the correction – we sin, we feel contrition, and through repentance we are healed and transformed!
This is exactly why I am constantly saying in confession and in my sermons that we should not squander (waste) any test or tribulation, indeed, any sin we commit. This isn’t an endorsement to sin, God forbid; what I’m saying is that we don’t want to waste the expensive lesson that can transform us. We are transformed through our falling and then subsequent crawling back to God with a heavy heart begging forgiveness. This process makes perfect sense of St. Gregory’s explanation that “In His wisdom, power and love for mankind God knew how to transform, incomparably for the better, the falls resulting from our self-willed waywardness.”
Let these wise words of St. Gregory Palamas sink in as we struggle and strive and wrestle with the heavy burden of mortal flesh!
The sacrament of Confession
Not all of the exercise that makes us physically stronger is recreational/done in the gym; day to day life brings plenty of opportunities to break a sweat and build our physical strength. Similarly, in addition to intentional activities such as prayer, we can build our faith and our relationship with God through our day-to-day interactions with Him and with our fellow man. When we judge (Romans 14:10-12), or envy, lash out in anger, act out on or give attention to vile thoughts, it is an opportunity (in a weird sort of way) to get stronger and closer to God. When something we do hurts our relationship with someone we love, and we think about the pain and disappointment we have caused, the sadness that we feel is remorse. That is currency of gain, the potential increase, and the opportunity for benefit. Remorse is the tearing of our muscle and repentance it the healing!
You’ve probably seen Roman Catholic confessionals in the movies, the little booths on the side wall of the church with a screened window between them that obscures the view between the priest and the penitent (James 5:16). The urgent need to confess is often correctly portrayed on the silver screen as being right before a person’s death and is a long-standing tradition in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and other traditional forms of Christianity. Confession is also part of the preparation a Christian does before receiving the Holy Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:27-31).
In Orthodox Churches the confessional is quite different. In a quiet corner at the front of the church, you stand before an icon of Christ and kiss the Cross and the Bible that are on the stand in front of you. The priest stands next to you and, with both your heads bowed down, he listens carefully to you as you list your faults and concerns. He waits until you are finished and then talks to you, giving you advice, reprimanding you with fatherly love and comforting you. If he finds your confession to be sincere, which is almost always, he has you bend forward and place your forehead on the Bible. Then he covers your head with his stole and makes the sign of the cross, touching you on the head, each shoulder and back, as he says the prayer of absolution over you (Matthew 16:19) (Matthew 18:18). Here are the prayers said before and after confession:
Behold, my child, Christ standeth here invisibly and receiveth thy confession: wherefore, be not ashamed, neither be afraid, and conceal thou nothing from me: but tell me, doubting not, all things which thou hast done: and so shalt thou have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo, His holy image is before us: and I am but a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all things which thou dost say to me. But if thou shalt conceal anything from me, thou shalt have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, thou depart unhealed.
The Priest, at this point, gently and respectfully questions the Penitent concerning his or her sins. Then the priest shares his genuine and loving and heartfelt, and possibly stern, pastoral concern and direction to the Penitent. The Penitent receives this admonishment knowing that these pastoral words come from the Good Shepard, Jesus Christ, Himself.
O Lord God of the salvation of Thy servants, gracious, bountiful and long-suffering, who repentest thee concerning our evil deeds, and desirest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live: Show Thy mercy now upon Thy servant, (Name), and grant unto him (her) an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance, pardoning his (her) every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary. Reconcile and unite him (her) unto Thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom also are due unto thee dominion and majesty, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
May our Lord and God Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounties of His love towards mankind, forgive thee, my child, (Name), all thy transgressions. And I, his unworthy Priest, through the power given unto me by Him, do forgive and absolve thee from all thy sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God loves us and is always ready to forgive us. All we have to do is ask with a sincere and contrite heart. But don’t forget, the evil one is always looking for ways to make us stumble, to distract us, and ultimately to snatch us away while we are in a state of sin (1 Peter 5: 5-10). Remember also that God will not be mocked by false tears and manipulation (Galatians 6:7-10). We are the ones who fall and we are the ones who have to get up again and continue the fight, BUT WE ARE NOT ALONE! How valuable are the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ as we fight our way through life! (Galatians 6:2) How blessed we are that the Saints and Martyrs who stand before the throne of God are at the ready to intercede for us! Please know that the people of St. Nicholas and my family thank God for your prayers for us and we pray for you and all those in prison every day.
Prayer of St. Symeon the New Theologian
O God and Lord of all! Who hath the power over every breath and soul, the only One able to heal me, hearken unto the prayer of me, the wretched one, and, having put him to death, destroy the serpent nestling within me by the decent of the All-Holy and Life-Creating Spirit. And vouchsafe me, poor and naked of all virtue, to fall with tears at the feet of my spiritual father, and call his holy soul to mercy, to have mercy on me. And grant, O Lord, unto my heart humility and good thoughts, becoming a sinner who hath consented to repent unto Thee, and do not abandon unto the end the one soul, which hath united itself unto Thee and hath confessed Thee, and instead of all the world hath chosen Thee and hath preferred Thee. For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man. Amen. (please note that confessing to a priest is ideal, but when not possible, God makes a way; He always hears you.)
What is Orthodox Christianity and why is it different?
Orthodox Christianity is the original form of the Christian faith that was founded by Christ Himself on Pentecost; it is the One True and Apostolic Church that has kept historical records and acquired and preserved Holy Tradition (1 Corinthians 11:2) (2 Peter 2:1-3) (James 2:18). Although marked with many battles and revolts, the Church has stood strong against internal and external attempts to destroy it (Matthew 16:18). Without the History, Holy Fathers, Saints, Icons, and the deep understanding of Theology contained all aspects of Orthodoxy, faith—what society believes about God and our purpose for being—has been reduced to emotion-driven personal choices.
Those seekers of truth who look for historical facts and consistent theology have been shouted down with slogans and faulty interpretations that promote the notion that everything hinges on belief in an idea, any idea that one chooses! (James 2:24) Ironically this infection of self-will and blind belief devoid of facts has now spread to secular society, resulting in incredible confusion about even the most basic self-identity markers; we are more lost to who we are and our purpose than ever! Politics have become slogan driven and devoid of reason (Matthew 24:37). The people who dare bring up fact-based data are considered to be the crazies! Lord, Have mercy on us all!
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”
+ St. Anthony the Great
In the Orthodox Faith, personal responsibility is foundational (Philippians 2:12) (Ephesians 2:10). Obtaining your Salvation requires that you want it, take concrete steps to claim it, and fight for it until your dying day (Matthew 11:12). The structure and solid foundation of the Orthodox Faith will help you improve your relationship with the Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, and give you insights that will help you find strength and courage to bear your heavy cross. It is our hope that learning that you are not alone, that you have like-minded fellow strugglers—your brothers and sisters, both in prison and in the world, as well as the Saints of the Church, you will be greatly encouraged!
If you would like more information about the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution, write me and ask. With God’s help, I will find a priest for you to discuss these things with you.
A blessed falling asleep
Christopher Ferguson March 1,1977 – June 17, 2019
May his memory be eternal!
Our dear brother Christophorus entered into the Heavenly Kingdom after a long illness. His Orthodox name means ‘Bearer of Christ’ or ‘the one who carries Christ (in his heart)’ and he was truly a light in the darkness. While at Marion, Chris heard about our ministry through his cell mate, Christian C.. He read his Christian’s letters and Good-NewsLetters, participating vicariously, like many of you did at first. He was also friends with Paul, Richard and others in this ministry. He switched his designation to Christian/Orthodox in 2012 and truly desired baptism.
Christophorus was a seeker of truth long before finding Orthodox Christianity and had studied several faiths. He repeatedly asked God to reveal Himself to him and, just like in the case of Saint Moses the Black, God did! (remember the story about St. Moses from last summer’s GNL?) Chris studied and was fluent in Hebrew and Arabic.
Christophorus had many visions of angels and of Christ that led him to embrace Orthodox Christianity. At one time he was a practicing Muslim and, while reading from the Quran in Arabic, an angel appeared to him and warned him away from Islam!
The first Orthodox monk he saw was in a vision. A man in a flowing black robe sped up to him and stopped right in front of him. Chris’s eyes were fixed on his long chain with a golden cross on it. When he looked up at the man’s face, he saw himself! He didn’t know what to make of what he had seen until he received the book “Precious Vessels”, that the author and translator, Herman Middleton, a member of our church at the time had sent to him through our ministry. Amazed, he wrote, “I was shocked and been staring at them pictures all day every day!” He said he never knew there were Christians who dressed like that and “It was me that I saw!” Chris spent a lot of his time in Segregation, giving him the opportunity to exercise the Faith and memorize several books of the Bible.
Like our brother Elijah Johnson, who left the suffering of this world last January, Christophorus was never baptized but is accepted into the Church by volition; his correspondence proved it was his express will and desire was to be Orthodox. Where there is a will, God makes a way!
We held a 40th-day memorial for him on July 27th and will remember him every year on the anniversary of his birth into the Kingdom of God, June 17th. In this picture there is a picture of Christophorus and one of Mary, Mama-Jo’s mother-in-law; it was the 4th anniversary of her passing that week. Fr. John Moses, who had just died that morning, was also commemorated at this service. In the background there is an icon of our church’s patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra and Lycia.
The bowl contains koliva, a grain and fruit mixture covered with powdered sugar and decorated with Jordan Almonds; Eva decorated it. The Koliva is blessed, reminding us that the earthly parting of a saint of God is just the beginning of the blessings their life brings to the world (Psalm 116:15). The prayer says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls onto the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” At the end of the service, the Koliva is shared with all in attendance. Any extra can be scattered at the grave site for the birds.
Chris is survived by a loving family: his daughter Hali in Asheville, mother Eugenia in NY, sister Christine and her son in Italy, his dear friend Pam and many others whose names are known to God. We had the privilege to get to know his daughter and bring her to see him for the first time when she was 19. When Hali met him, she didn’t recognize him at first; he looked very different from the pictures she had of him. She even asked him to show her his ID! You see, Chris had had the physique of a champion body builder. He was a champion at everything he did! When he turned his life over to God, he did so whole heartedly, fasting and praying without reservation. When Christophorus switched his attention from building up his body to perfecting his heart and soul, he fasted extensively; fasting took a toll on his body but magnified his soul. (Please note that extensive fasting should not be done without the supervision of a doctor and/or priest!)
Mama-Jo took Hali to see her dad three additional times, the last being in October 2018 when he was in ICU at Central. At one of the earlier visits, a special Seg visit, Mama-Jo was visiting Bademus at the same time and she and Chris got to see each other for the first and only time. What joy! Hali is a Catechumen at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and we hope someday to baptize her into the Faith.
Christophorus, brother and friend, pray to God for us!
Here are excerpts (a few selected parts) of one of Chris’s earliest letters, written 10/8/2010.
“Praise the Lord! I received your NewsLetter and I was very Happy. It came just in time!!! Because some one sent me some material saying that the Cross Symbol was pagan in origin and it had me very upset! What makes it even worser is that it was a Christian who sent it.
Now, I have read the history of the Christian Church and other history books on the Church and is very familiar with the story of Constantine and the Symbol or the Cross he saw in the sky and the victory he won in battle for honoring that symbol.
I also have read how early Christians who loved Jesus would tattoo the Symbol of the Cross on them for proof they will never renounce their faith and get martyred….
…This is what they said to try to turn my heart from the Cross and it did not work!!! So the Lord truly did lead you to write that newsletter on that subject…”
“If Christ’s symbol was a bullet, I would wear it in remembrance of Him!”
Your Brother in Christ,
The Good NewsLetter (GNL) is a labor of love of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC. We send these letters to approximately 70 people in prison, raising funds for postage and printing through donations. As of February 2018, we have baptized 7 souls through this prison ministry and had two accepted into the Church (at their repose) by volition. Read more of our publications under Outreach at https://www.stnicholasoc.org/. Interested in prison ministry? Write us at [email protected] or St. Dismas Prison Ministry, PO Box 19616, Asheville, NC 28815. Thank you for your prayers and support.