The punk rock Orthodox priest

By Steve Beard

The symbolism was profoundly countercultural. When Sergei Rybko lumbered onto the stage in between rock bands at a dingy nightclub in Moscow, his appearance was sure to provoke a whiplashed double-take. Draped in a flowing black cassock and adorned with a massive gold cross, 49-year-old Rybko sports a shiny bald head and burly beard that would make the guys in ZZ Top jealous.

Moscow priestAs he looked across the faces of the teens and twentysomethings, he flashed the peace sign—thawing the ice with the nostalgic hand gesture popularized by the disillusioned bohemians of a different era.

The heart of his message to the understandably perplexed audience was eloquent and simple. As Rybko looked around the club, he told them that they had come together on that night because, in one way or another, they were a club of lonely-hearts—similar to the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” made famous by the Beatles. Under the roof of the club, their hearts are united by the music; but once they leave the range of the deafening decibels, they will be all alone.

“You don’t have to be alone,” he reminds them. “If you reach out to God, you will never be alone.” With a slight bow and another flash of the peace sign, Rybko leaves the stage to the applause of the crowd.

As you might have surmised, Rybko is a Russian Orthodox priest and his unique ministry was recently profiled on ABC News.

Rybko tends to the normal priestly duties of his parish by day, and ventures into the underbelly of Moscow’s rock subculture at night—a mission that was given to him by the late Patriarch Aleksei II, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who died last December.

Back at the club, a young rocker makes his way over to Rybko. “I wanted to say a big thank you for coming and for his support,” he told ABC correspondent Alexander Marquardt. “I had some questions I didn’t know who to talk to about, so I asked him and explained everything to me.”

Rybko’s expectations are modest. “At least they didn’t throw anything,” he says afterwards. “My job is to sow, it is up to God to cultivate,” he says. “If what I say changes someone, if it makes someone purer, closer to God, then that’s a successful evening.” Quite simply he believes that if the punkers and metalheads won’t come to church, the church should go to them.

In many ways, Rybko is the perfect candidate to reach out to a wayward flock. Before becoming a wandering hippy when he was young, he played in a rock band and led a small group of anarchists in rebellion against oppressive and rigid Soviet communism. “I used to be a rocker and I will always be one,” he reports. “For the average person behind the Iron Curtain, it represented the only truth that you could listen to.”

Those outside the walls of the sanctuary may not be interested in our internal church battles, but they are intrigued by truth—eternal truth that speaks to the heart, mind, and soul.

When Rybko first got involved in the church, he was a bell ringer. He took the opportunity to mix Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs along with the traditional Orthodox bell ringing. According to Rybko, the old ladies in the congregation actually liked the convergence of rock and ritual.

Twenty-one years ago, Rybko was ordained as a priest. Today, he attempts to live out his faith before those inside the sanctuary and those moshing at the rock clubs. “My job as a priest is to bring the life of Christ to the darkest basements,” he says. “In the club, I talk to people who are far away from God…. If I open the Bible [in the clubs] and start to talk like a priest, they will all run away. So I have to use their language but make sure they understand that a priest is speaking to them and that Christianity will solve their problems.”

I have a soft spot in my heart for Rybko’s outreach. When I was a teenager, I used to hang out at a notorious punk rock club called the Cuckoo’s Nest in Orange County, California. Despite having grown up in the church, it ended up being a group of mohawked and tattooed rockers that helped me to embrace my faith.

What really stuck out in the Rybko story was that in addition to hanging out at the clubs, he also opens up a small building behind the sanctuary to bands that need a place to rehearse. Amongst the instruments, amps, and graffiti, there is a large cross on the ceiling and icons of Jesus and the saints displayed on the walls.

As he is getting older, Rybko admits that he usually feels more comfortable preaching in church than hanging out at concerts and clubs. “Thirty years ago that would have been my home,” he says. “Now I feel more at home in church, that is closer to me. But it is my duty to go to the clubs. If I don’t, who will?”

Great question. God bless Sergei Rybko.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck.org. This article first appeared on Thunderstruck in October 2009. 

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Selling the Blues

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When tourists started showing up here, I couldn’t figure out what they saw in the place,” says Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, a 67-year-old blues musician and owner of the Blue Front Café. It’s a scruffy little drinking spot and informal music venue — a juke joint. The floor is weathered concrete. The barstools are hammered together from raw lumber and painted blue. Heat comes from a piece of oil-field pipe converted into a wood-burning stove.

“My parents started the Blue Front in 1948, and it ain’t been nothing but a juke joint ever since,” says Holmes, a slow-moving medium-built man with a rich, grainy speaking voice. He is sipping a late morning beer and smoking a long menthol cigarette. “It ain’t nothing fancy, but it’s authentic and original, and that’s what the tourists like, I’ve come to understand. They don’t have anything authentic in their regular lives, so they feel drawn to it. They want a taste of it. For a lot of blues fans, that’s what it’s all about.”

Read full story HERE.

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Tracy Chapman singing “Stand By Me”

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 6.57.43 PMBen E. King, the lead singer for the Drifters and solo star whose voice graced classics like “Stand by Me,” ”There Goes My Baby” and “Spanish Harlem,” recently died at 76.

Barely two weeks earlier, another legendary singer-songwriter, Tracy Chapman, covered “Stand by Me” during an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

Watch it HERE.

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The False Equation of Atheism and Intellectual Sophistication

lead_largeThe Age of Atheists will likely stay confined to certain intellectual circles: The casual philosopher, the dogmatic non-believer, the coffee-table book collector. But insofar as its argument represents a broader pathology in contemporary conversations about belief, this book matters. Most people form their beliefs and live their lives somewhere in the middle of the so-called “culture divide” that outspoken atheists and believers shout across. The more these shouters shout, the more public discourse veers away from the subtle struggle of the average person’s attempt to be human.

Read the entire Emma Green review at The Atlantic, HERE.

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A Calling to Redeem Rap Music

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By Emma Green

“We don’t challenge any heresy in the church!” John Perkins declared at a recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We don’t challenge the ugliness and dehumanization of rap in our community because it makes money for rappers.”

In the evangelical world, the 84-year-old minister and civil-rights activist is treated as a prophetic figure. Younger pastors refer to him as their hero, and the Christian rock band Switchfoot even wrote a song in his honor. Church leaders had gathered to discuss the “the gospel and racial reconciliation”—a longtime struggle for the Southern Baptists, a denomination that split off from other American Baptists in 1845 so that its ordained members could still own slaves. Of the many challenges to contemporary race relations in the church, Perkins said, one of the most pernicious is rap music.

“Somebody’s gonna say to me, you’ve got Christian rap, like they think that I’m a fool. I understand that,” he said. “You’ve got to challenge immorality—that’s the whole idea, especially if it’s pathological.”

Read the rest of Emma Green’s article from The Atlantic, HERE.

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Documenting the Blues in the Mississippi Delta

20150326-lens-margo-slide-GVSC-superJumboBy Fayemi Shakur

“Although Margo Cooper did not know it when she began more than 20 years ago, she has followed that tradition and produced a documentary project that archives the oral and visual histories of blues musicians, their families and communities in northern Mississippi and the Delta.

“Her project, “Deep Inside the Blues,” includes B. B. King, Sam Carr, Bobby Rush, R. L. Burnside, Otha Turner and many others. It is, for her, a love letter to the people she befriended in the Deep South. It is also, for her, a love letter to the genre that entranced her when she was a teenager. What started simply as a passion for the blues in high school developed into something deeper, as she discovered love and suffering, survival and self-determination, joy and pain, a light in the darkness.”

To read the entire profile of her work, click HERE.

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Elvis is Everywhere

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.26.42 PMBy John Leland, The New York Times

“Let’s be frank here: Elvis devotees are a lot like fish in a barrel. Anyone can shoot them, with reliably satisfying results. Their reverence almost invites intrusion. So the measure of a portfolio of Elvis believers is not the colorfulness of the characters – that much is a given – but the empathy of the photographer. Anyone can capture the tribe’s signature plumage. The trick is teasing out the individual humanity underneath.”

Photographer Clémentine Schneidermann began to chronicle the passion of Elvis fans in the “small Welsh town of Porthcawl, where pilgrims in shaggy sideburns gather each September for an Elvis festival. By then she had questions. Why Elvis? Why Wales? What are the parameters of devotion, and the rewards for those who don the rhinestones?”

From the NY Times story:

“The project is not about Elvis, but about how these people want to escape,” she said. “Most are from a working-class background, and they don’t have much money, and Elvis helps them cope with reality.”

Fans were only too happy to invite her into their homes to see their artifacts, often gathered at some expense. In lives buffeted by the four winds, Elvis provided a direction and sense of possibility.

“Every time I asked them, why Elvis, they didn’t talk about the music,” Ms. Schneidermann said. “They were attracted by the American dream, an image of America.”

In her photos, taken in South Wales, the subjects wear their dreams quietly, but in defiance of whatever mundane concerns shape their lives. Escape isn’t easy – for most people, it isn’t even possible. But faith takes strength as much from setbacks as from triumphs.

To read the entire story, click HERE.

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The sting of Easter

The finding of the Empty Tomb of Christ, 'Sacro Monte di Crea.' Statues by Antonio Brilla, 1889. (Public domain).

The finding of the Empty Tomb of Christ, ‘Sacro Monte di Crea.’ Statues by Antonio Brilla, 1889. (Public domain).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Steve Beard

“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (I Corinthians 15: 54-55).

That poetic and electric passage from Saint Paul has long been associated with my Easter tradition. This past Sunday, however, it did not soar in my soul like it had in the past.

Like all believers who are actively living between what theologian George Eldon Ladd referred to as the “already and the not yet” of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, I found myself heavy hearted as I staggered between the empty tomb and the freshly dug graves of young Christian martyrs in Kenya.

“The mistake they made was to pray to Jesus,” began the Reuters news report. An eyewitness described the gruesome execution of three female students at the hands of bloodthirsty and suicidal Islamic terrorists on a Kenyan university during a Maundy Thursday massacre.

“The mistake they made was to say ‘Jesus, please save us,’ because that is when they were immediately shot,” Reuben Mwavita, 21, told the news agency.

“The attackers were just in the next room, I heard them ask people whether they were Christian or Muslim, then I heard gunshots and screams,” Susan Kitoko, 24, told reporters.

Many of the victims were students associated with the college’s Christian Union that were attending an early morning prayer meeting. “They killed all my friends. I was praying with them when we heard gun shots and two guys who wore hoods and carried long guns came in. I escaped because I was standing next to the rear door, so I dashed out with one other friend,” said Kenneth Luzakula, a Christian Union student.

“I could hear my friends still praying loudly and calling the name of Jesus Christ,” he said. “Others were screaming. I heard gunshots repeatedly from the toilet nearby where we had hidden. They killed my friends but I know they are all in heaven because they died worshipping God.”

Family members and friends who grieved on Easter Sunday were assured that that the young martyrs would “rise again with Christ.” As a parent, I can only imagine how long that spiritual reality will take to sink in for a mom and dad forced to bury a child.

The already and the not yet. “How long, O Lord, how long?” they asked in the Old Testament. “Let this cup pass from me,” we read in the Gospels. The living between two worlds, two realities, is the journey set before us. Lord, help us.

“To witness is to be a martyr,” said Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, on Easter Sunday. “I am told by the Coptic Bishop in England that the Coptic Christians murdered in Libya last month died proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord. They are martyrs, a word that means both one that dies for their faith and one that witnesses to faith.

“There have been so many martyrs in the last year. … These martyrs too are caught up in the resurrection: their cruel deaths, the brutality of their persecution, their persecution is overcome by Christ himself at their side because they share his suffering, at their side because he rose from the dead.

“Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead the cruel are overcome, evil is defeated, martyrs conquer.”

Martyrs conquer. That is a gospel of flesh and blood. That is a gospel I can affirm. That is a gospel that rings true.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck Media. 

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Keeping It Real: An Easter Sermon

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By Kenneth Tanner

If you were inventing a story that you wanted people in the ancient world to believe as fact, the last thing you’d want to do is start with a woman seeing someone walking around alive whom everybody already knew was dead as a doornail.

Almost no one in the ancient world accepted the word of a woman as an eyewitness: not in court, not in a family dispute, not in everyday life. They were not considered reliable.

Silly of the ancients to be that way about women but that’s the way it was. And it’s one of the reasons the gospel accounts of the resurrection are believable.

Mary Magdalene—from whom Jesus cast out many demons before she repented and followed him to the bitter end and beyond—is the first disciple to whom Jesus appears.

Not just a woman but that woman, a woman who was possessed … ‘don’t you remember?’ some must have said. Folks in Rome or Jerusalem or Athens or Corinth were supposed to buy this story? No, these eyewitness accounts aren’t made up. They tell it like it was—like it is—and leave belief to us.

Now, they had beaten Jesus so badly before they nailed him to the cross that he would likely have died anyway. He lasted in extreme agony for three hours on the cross. He bled out before they put a spear through his dead heart. The cross was overkill: brutal, nasty, unjust, and inexcusable. But it’s what we humans do when God shows up.

To read the rest of the sermon, click HERE.

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The Christian militia defending refugees, livelihood against Islamic State in Iraq

imrs.phpMore than 100,000 Iraqi Christians, already a tiny minority, are fleeing the Islamic State. They are torn between staying in a war zone or abandoning their 2,000-year-old cultural roots.

Times are dire for the last remaining Iraqi Christians. “Twenty years ago, we were 1.5 million. Now, the most optimistic figures are speaking about 350.000,” states Archimandrit Emanuel Youkhana, head of Iraq’s largest Christian relief organization, CAPNI. Youkhana is not a man of endless lamenting. Throughout the past decade, he tended to his community and tried to weather the years of civil war. But now, with the rise of the Islamic State militant group, his words have become hard and bitter. “This disaster broke the co-existence, the links between the different religions. Wherever you go, ask a Yazidi or Christian. They feel they have been betrayed by their next-door neighbor.” The Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — declared Mosul, about 20 miles from the Iraqi Christian heartland in the Nineveh plains, its capital in June.

One specific Christian community from the Nineveh plains, the Assyrians, cherish a culture much older than Christianity — and it is their historic sites in Nimrud and other places that the Islamic State has been destroying relentlessly.

To read the rest of the Washington Post story by Nicole Crowder with photo essay by Andy Spyra, click HERE

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