Month: June 2012

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Monday): Asking, Seeking, and Knocking

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

A Broad View (© John Gresham)

I am recovering from the Feast of All Saints of North America (overindulgence in a stuffed crust, super supreme pizza).  About to go to a staff meeting at the park ( I am supplying a salad and portabella mushrooms for myself as I am not going to eat any chicken).  And I have more than a few loose ends to tie up this week for the church.  Thus far, I can say that I am happy with my journey on this Apostles Fast.

I am finding so much history in Orthodoxy.  I knew that Christianity had existed in Ethiopia since high school.  But, thanks to modern technology, I have learned even more of this church as well as the Copts of Egypt.  You Tube has become a valuable instrument in my learning of the ancient faith.  Archbishop Lazar Puhalo and David Withun have very informative videos on the network.  I also listen to the lectures on the Ancient Faith Radio podcast.  I intend to visit either the Greek Orthodox Church or OCA Mission when I go to Charlottesville soon and will be able to visit the Antiochian Church on the fifth Sunday of July.  As soon as the Greek Church opens in Williamsburg, I will attend some midweek services.

Perhaps some would criticize my appreciation for Orthodoxy and wonder why I am asking, seeking, and knocking on their door when I have been a life-long Baptist and pastor a church.  History is one reason.  We African-American Baptist have a rich legacy of preaching, music, and theology that I do appreciate and thank God for.  But, the Baptist faith is only over 200 years old.  Yes, we can talk about the legacy of Robert Walker, Nat Turner, John Jasper, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the message they had for our community and nation.  But, we should also learn and celebrate the legacy and message of the African fathers who contributed to the very foundations of Christianity.  St Anthony the Great is recognized as the father of monasticism by both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  His contemporary, St. Athanasius, described Anthony as being of the Egyptian race.  In speaking of his fellow African, Athanasius put together the New Testament!  Seriously, how can we even call ourselves African-American Christians and not give recognition to the Africans that helped form the faith?  How can we not also celebrate those martyrs such as Cyprian of Carthage, Maurice and the Theban Legion?  Is the oppression and murder they suffered less important than that of King or the four girls that were killed in a Birmingham church bombing?  If we are going to tell the history of our Christian heritage, we ought to tell the whole story.

The Africans who contributed to early Christianity were not former slaves that had to overcome Jim Crow laws to be accepted by whites.  They were held as equals in faith going back to that first named Christian community in Antioch (Acts 13:1).  Race was a non-issue in the early Orthodox world.  Ethiopians have some icons of a pale skinned Jesus out of respect for the Russian Orthodox whom they have enjoyed a long kinship with.  There are churches and monasteries in Europe with icons of the Theotokos and Christ darker than I am.  Most images of Christ and others in the Bible are depicted as Middle Eastern, neither black nor white.  The history of the faith is multicultural and universal (Colossians 3:11).

I have to cut off here.

The Flaw of Faith Alone: (Part one) Lack Of Evidence

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James 2:26

Flight with Two Wings (© John Gresham)

This is the first of 3 sermons I will preach about our need for good works to show that we have faith in God.  My next sermon will come from Matthew 25:31-46 and the final from Acts 2:42-47.  I am grateful for the lectures on “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” from Father Andrew Stephen Damick for inspiring me to preach on this topic.  I pray that I  will correct myself by the grace of the Holy Spirit and lead others to correction as well.

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE:  (PART ONE) LACK OF EVIDENCE

James 2:14-26

(Introduction)  The Protestant Reformation leaders were right in pointing out the abuses of Medieval Catholicism, including the sale of indulgences and stressing works as a means to salvation.

(antithesis) In many of our doctrines, we ignore the point that good works are necessary as they are evidence that we have faith in Jesus Christ.  As a result of our lack of this sound evidence, we run around looking for false ones.

(thesis) We must commit ourselves to good works as well as having our faith secured by believing in the Gospel.

(relevant question)  Why are good works important?

(points)

  • evidence of compassion (vv. 15-17)
  • evidence of distinction (vv. 18-20)
  • evidence of awareness of God’s will (vv.21-26)

(conclusion)

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Saturday): His Peace

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

John 14:27

Parrot Island Sunrise (© John Gresham)

I imagined the disciples were troubled in their hearts and minds.  They knew that Jesus would be violently taken away from them.  They heard their Lord predict their coming cowardice, even that of the most outspoken of them.  And if the enemies would dare come after and have victory over the Master, what hope was there for the servants?  Yes, Jesus did tell them that he would rise again.  But, in times of imminent danger and suffering, words of eventual victory are hard to hear.

In his wisdom and mercy, the Lord left his disciples with the gift of His peace.  A peace that is His light that overcomes the world’s darkness.  In John’s account of the Gospel, we don’t find Jesus expressing anguish and resolve in Gethsemane.  He tells of a Lord who calmly goes forth to meet his fate.  Before doing so, he gives the gift of this peace to his weak and fearful close friends.  He gives something of great value to those who can least afford it.  He gives His rock in the midst of a storm while he is about to go through his own storm so they could overcome theirs.

The peace of Jesus Christ is here for us today.  The ability to face hardship with an overcoming sense of calm is available to all who follow and rely on him.  Just as John, the Theotokos, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene found strength to remain at the cross; so can we find strength to withstand the heartbreaking sorrows of life.  Just as He endured his brutal and torturous death, we can also go through hell on earth.  His peace makes this possible.  His peace has no price tag and is offered to all who follow and believe.

Accept the gift.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Friday): In & Walking

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1

Boat and Blade (© John Gresham)

There is a big difference between being in and out of a canoe.  In the boat, I am dry.  With my paddle, I am making progress to my destination.  Being out of the canoe means I am in the river soaking wet.  The paddle can do me little good until I get back in the boat.  There is a difference between walking on and off of the trail.  On the trail, I know my steps are secure.  Wild animals keep their distance knowing the regular human traffic.  When I am off of the trail, the ground is not as stable.  Venomous snakes build their homes where people don’t tread.  The canoeists who spends more time out of than in his boat cannot make an effective journey.  The hiker that spends more time off than on the trail puts herself at risk for getting lost and being bitten.  Anyone can capsize.  But, one must get back in the boat.  Anyone can stray from a trail.  But one must get back on it.

Here is where there is no condemnation; when we are in Christ Jesus and we walk according to the Spirit.  True faith is not “getting your praise on” for sporadic moments.  It is to constantly be mindful of the Lord who loves us so much that he gave his life for our salvation.  This is the boat that we progress in.  True faith is more than being a moral person.  It is to surrender one’s will to that of the Holy Spirit.  This is the trail we walk.  Be in and walk accordingly.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Thursday): Do I Have To?

‘ But,  I want to do this.’

Rita Madden from the podcast, “Fasting Is Medicine” 

The answer to the question is obvious.  No, I do not have to fast.  I am a Baptist.  Our doctrine and dogma does not teach a need to refrain from any food any time of the year.  Our radical reformed denominational position is that ritual fasting is a tradition of man that Jesus did not teach and, therefore, should be ignored as some Roman Catholic superstitious practice.  In my African-American heritage, our people were deprived and suffered much under slavery.  So, why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating what we want, when we want it, as often, and as much as we can?  No, I don’t have to fast.  According to doctrine and culture, “I ain’t got no business fasting.”

Wake Dawn (© John Gresham)

But, I want to fast.  First of all, Jesus did it and did not speak against the practice.  The only guideline he gave about fasting is that we don’t make a boastful show of it and act on fast days as any other day.  Read Matthew 4:1-11 and the corresponding stories in Mark and Luke.  As a result of his fast, Jesus was able to withstand the temptations Satan tried him with and God sent angels down to minister to him.  I ask, who doesn’t want the ability to withstand temptation and have God’s mercy on us?  While Jesus does not make his fast a requirement, the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food for a period of time does have positive benefits to our souls, when applied to faith and aided with prayer ( Matthew 17:19-21; see my previous article).  It makes sense to fast.

It makes sense to fast as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.  We Protestants may give up one or two things we shouldn’t indulge in for Lent.  For pregnant and nursing women and those whose diets are directed by a physician, such limited fasting makes sense.  But, for the rest of us, “giving something up for Lent” falls short of the point.  Refraining from food should produce a hunger and the hunger should drive us to prayer and reliance on the Father who adopted us as his children through his Only Begotten Son with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Substituting huge portions of chicken for beef doesn’t do it.  The early church fathers were wise enough to see that we needed something to sustain us and suggested eating only simple foods such as vegetables, legumes, and bread.  We need some oil (fat) as well and a little fish for animal protein.  Rather than indulge in  vegan food substitution, they taught that we should stop eating while still hungry and never eat until we are full.

As I said in a previous post, the calendar of Orthodox fasting and feasting is just like hiking a trail.  When the Apostles Fast is over on the Feast of the Apostles.  After these major points, I continue to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord) until the next major point (the fast and feast of Mary).  And there are a couple of feast days thrown in the midst of those fast (the Nativity of John the Baptist in June and the Transfiguration in August).  The Christmas Fast (Nov. 15th thru Dec. 24th) will be tough to cope with because of Thanksgiving and those holiday food temptations.  But, there is the feast of St Nicholas  in early December and no weekday fast between Christmas and Epiphany.  Then, it is Lent and Easter again (with a couple of other feast and fast to observe).  It may seem like a lot to keep up with for most of us Protestants.  But, I think following such a cyclical pattern keeps me looking forward to God’s grace and mercy all year-long rather than waiting around for Christmas and Easter.

So, as one Orthodox mother told her neighbors, “But, I want to do this.”  Bishops and priest can’t judge their parishioners on whether or not they do it.  Surely, no officers in the Baptist church will threaten to remove my ordination for grilling some pork chops this evening.  This is a choice I made on my own free will.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Wednesday): How?

Because of your unbelief, for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.

Matthew 17:21,22

Moss, Stone, and Water (© John Gresham)

And here is the problem.  We are called to confront issues of darkness that cannot be overcome easily.  Our passions overcome us and those around us to a point when all seems out of control.  The quick cures that we learned when we began our walk with the Lord aren’t working.  Passages of scripture recited as if they were magic words don’t penetrate the heart of our struggles.  Imitations of what we see in televised ministries or read in popular devotionals are equally ineffective.  Lack of our expected timely results lead us to doubt and disbelief.  When these two impostors take root, nothing can be accomplished.

Overcoming the forces that throw us into fire and flood requires three elements; and without the first, the other two are meaningless exercises.  Faith the size of the insignificant mustard seed is the foundation of victory.  This sort of faith is not something that is easily held on to.  It takes far more attention to maintain a mustard seed in one’s hand than a coconut or even a pecan.  Faith requires watchfulness and discipline to hold on, especially when things are not easily obtained.  Indeed, if one is watchful and disciplined to hold on to hope, almost nothing can stand in his way.

Our Lord suggest that there are times that faith needs the practical assistance of prayer and fasting.  We must be in constant communication with God to exorcise our demons and those of others.  We must practice tangible control of our own desires before we can successfully overcome the intangible wickedness that fights against us.  With these two tools forged with the one necessary element, we cannot be overtaken in sin nor swallowed up in the despairing situations around us.  Even when we stumble, we are able to rise again in repentance and not fall as easily nor deeply as before.  With this sure-footed walk with the Savior, we can reach down and help others come on the journey with us.  Have faith above all.  In faith, pray and fast.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Tuesday): What?

… “Follow Me.”

Matthew 9:9

 

Flight of Three (© John Gresham)

 

Not a glaring and loud advertisement for a life changing mega church conference.  Not a boastful and vainglorious promotion of an empowering series of DVD lessons for $59.99 plus tax.  No appeal to sow a sacrificial seed offering by popular power preachers to keep the television ministries reaching people all over the world who may not be able to receive such programing in the first place.  Jesus approaches a sinful man in his sinful practice who is friends with sinners with two simple words, “Follow Me.”

To follow is to walk away from where one is and make deliberate steps behind the one accepted as ahead.  As long as the leader is in motion, the follower must also move.  Every day the world turns, plants cycle the air, creatures follow instinctive patters.  Every day the one who was with and was God moves.  We should be likewise place our steps behind his.

Note that his steps are not sporadic.  There may be moments of significance.  But, he walks in consistency as life is consistent.  Our walk must not be limited to unique pauses nor can it be built on infrequent commemorations.  For if we follow only on those moments, what is there to prevent us from losing sight of the leader?  We are most likely to lose sight of who he truly is and where he is going.  Conditions can distort our vision and enemies can distract us if our footsteps are too far away from his.

No, we must have the discipline to follow and follow closely.  Even if we lack the nerve to see him nailed or the hope to see him at the rising moment, even if we don’t get an early glimpse of his glory; we are called to follow.  If we are diligent and obedient, we will be blessed in the here and here after.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Monday): Why?

Question:  Why does Christianity have such a bad name today?

Archbishop Puhalo:  The hypocrisy and bigotry of Christians.  The hypocrisy and bigotry we have is, first of all, to think that we have a special righteousness or holiness as Christians automatically simply because we are Christians without any real sincere work to transform our hearts and to transform our inner persons, to transform our being so that we come into accord with the moral imperatives of Jesus Christ rather than the moral laws that people have super-imposed on Christ.

From the documentary, “A Pilgrim’s Way” (0:32-1:10)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhQ98qolWTE

How sincere is the work we do to “transform our being?”  Do we simply look forward to baby Jesus on Christmas and observe the resurrection on Easter Sunday?  Or, does the Christian calendar have other special observances and practices to help guide us in our pursuit of God? The Apostle Paul taught that whether or not we observe particular days of worship is a matter of conscience and faith.  We Baptist observe the well-known holidays of Christmas and Holy Week.  Other than that, we feel the individual believer should be led by the Holy Spirit daily and that calendar observances are not required of anyone.

It is good to know where you are (© John Gresham)

As an avid hiker, I know the value of a good guide and well-marked trail.  Sure, GPS coordinates accurately give starting and destination points.  But, most units don’t include maps.  Maps point out scenic views, switchbacks, stream crossings, and other features on the trail.  Well written guides give info about wildlife, seasonal conditions, photos, and advice from those who have hiked the trail before.  Trail markers let you know that you are still on the right path.  Some indicate distance and if there are any other paths nearby.  Combine the guide and markers and the hiker has a better sense of where he is, what to expect, how to deal with it, and is better prepared to handle the unexpected.

I am using the prayers, feast, and fast of Orthodox Christianity with the Holy Spirit as my guide and trail markers.  I am not abandoning the church I was brought up in and serve as a pastor.  But, I recognize my need for clearer directions in my life’s journey.  The Orthodox calendar gives me greater indication of the value of the days and weeks of the year.  Fast are like those gruelling switchbacks along a mountain.  We’d rather not deal with them.  But, they help keep us from the risk of steep slopes of gluttony and over-indulgence.  Feast are like those wonderful summit views or valley streams to rejoice in the God that leads us in the journey of life.  Yes, I do lift up my own prayers.  It is also good to read those of saints who have successfully made the same journey.  It is also good to read the shared prayers of those who are also walking the same path.

I am embracing the Apostle’s Fast remembering the faith they spread throughout the world despite the horrific persecution and death that they suffered.  While God does give blessings, we should keep in mind that there can be no crown of glory without a cross of great suffering.  We should also note that the Gospel of our Lord is to be spread beyond our own communities and comfort zones.  The Holy Ghost empowers us to speak “someone else’s language.”  I pray that my fellow non-Orthodox Christians will join our brothers and sisters of the ancient faith and ether give follow the fast or pray for us who are on this leg of the journey as we all seek the same waters and summit.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Roots of Discipleship

The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus

John 1:37

Vewing the Valley (© John Gresham)

Two of John’s disciples heard their teacher proclaim the presence of the Greater One.  Rather than stay with the one who had led them, they sought the One he constantly refered to.  Following Jesus, they went to the place where he stayed.  No crowds were present, just the two men spending time with the Lord.

What good is it for the roots to simply rely on moisture from the drops of rain and dew dripping from the leaves when there is a greater source of water?  Do roots do any good staying in a ball when there is fertile ground to find firm establishment?  Such roots do nothing productive for the tree and are only fit to rot so that new roots can find the nourishment to go forward as the predecessors should have.

Too often the faithful put their faith in the preacher and not the One that is (and MUST BE) proclaimed.  Even when the preacher speaks truth, there is a tendency to uplift the human rather than seek out the greater truth of the divine.  This is the realm of “Sunday Christians.”  They stay in the root ball of the weekly worship without penetrating the rich soil of the Divine Savior nor drinking from the ever flowing fountain of His Spirit.  Perhaps others will learn from their erroneous existence and seek something better.

Let us not make such an error.  Sermons from even the best pastors are mere drops of water from leaves.  Take the drops, but search out the Spirit of Truth that cleanses and restores us.  Grow deeper in solitude and only another or two spending time in God’s presence.  When discipleship takes the path of such a root, it attracts others to come and grow.

Holy Ghost Headquarters

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

Acts 2:1

I remember in college how charismatic Christians took on an air of superiority toward others because they “spoke in tongues” as evidence that they had the Holy Spirit.  I knew that I was baptized according to the formula written in Matthew 28:19, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and that I was “Born Again” (John 3:3) in high school as I came to know Jesus for myself.  I pray that this Pentecost (Western Christians observed it last week) we will understand how we come to receive the Spirit of God and not focus so much on our doctrinal rituals and manifestations.

 

Beauty of New Life

HOLY GHOST HEADQUARTERS

Acts 2:1

(Introduction) We tend to describe some churches as “Holy Ghost headquarters” because of their energetic style of worship

(Antithesis) If Paul is right about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19), style of worship has nothing to do with whether or not the Spirit of God is with us

(Thesis) To receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we must be prepared in our practice of faith

(Relevant Question) How do we prepare to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit

(Points)

  • Obedience The disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus told them (Acts 1:4)
  • Patience They stayed there for 50 days after Passover (Leviticus 23:16, Acts 2:1)
  • Unity They were all together in place and purpose (Acts 2:1)

(Conclusion) A properly prepared church receives power to persuade others to come into the Kingdom of God.