Month: July 2012

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Yeah, I probably sound like a broken record on this topic.  But, the more I follow Orthodox Christian prayer, the more I am overwhelmed at how the request for mercy is more essential than any other petition that we may offer.  Looking at the Morning prayer in the Orthodox Study Bible, in the opening trisagion, mercy is asked for seven times.  It is repeated another six times in the intercessory prayers and four times in the benediction.  In the evening prayers, mercy is asked for a total of twenty-two times.  So, if one were to pray these (an Orthodox Christian should pray at least in the morning and at night), one would pray for mercy thirty-nine times.  Include variations of the word and various orders and fellowship disciplines, it is asked for even more.

Untitled (© John Gresham)

This is not to say that we Protestants don’t ask for it.  But, there are some serious flaws in our prayers that we ought to correct.  Let me point out this one, that we believe we don’t have to use any sort of written prayers.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit does act in and on our individual souls, it is also a unifying force.  We see this in Acts 2 where the disciples are all together on one accord.  And what puts us together on one accord more so than prayer?  The prayers of Orthodoxy have been around for 2000 years.  The early church fathers came together and deemed mercy to the greatest of all petitions we can offer.  So, the church handed down the tradition that all Christians should be united in this basic plea to God.  We are to offer up our personal request according to our needs, give thanksgivings according to our joys, and offer up all other prayers according to our walk with the Lord.  But, whoever and where ever we are on life’s journey, we are all united by our need for God to show us unmerited kindness as we all have missed the mark of living in holiness.  We all stand in the need of mercy more than anything else.  Thus, it should be the forefront, center, and conclusion of all of our prayers.

And this is not to say that Orthodox Christians are perfect.  But, what has the fractured and individualistic nature of our prayers given to us?  Look at the number of denominations and (so-called) non-denominations we have.  Do we have unity of heart and mind among us?  Among African-American Baptist alone we went from one national body to four major ones and an untold number of spin-off fellowships headed by men, and some women, who’s only purpose in leaving the parent body was to become the HNIC (Head Negro In Charge).  As our denomination recognizes no hierarchical authority, the trend of such spin-offs will only continue based on egotistical preachers who would rather follow popular trends of gratification than academic scholarship and living in spiritual discipline.  With this fractured spirit among “one” denomination of one ethnic group, our prayers are then reduced to individualistic exercises of self-importance rather than anything done in the spirit of unity.

Perhaps I am being harsh.  Maybe I should concern myself with my own faith and stop looking at what other folks are doing.  But, I dare anyone to look at your morning and evening prayers and analyze your words.  What is the thing you ask God for more than anything else?  Is that petition a universal need of everyone?  Does that petition bring you to total humility to God’s will?

Our slave ancestors and Jim Crow survivors of all denominations did hold one prayer in common.  Lord, have mercy.  If we choose not to go back to the prayers of our ancient Christian forefathers, at least we should go back to the roots of our faith in America.  At least let our denominational heads agree that every Christian should make this common plea the central focus of daily prayer and develop a common text that underscores it’s importance.  In these times, we all need God’s mercy more than anything else.  It only makes sense that we have written prayers that unites us in this petition.

Today’s Sermon: The Foundation for Prayer

Our nation mourns the awful loss of life in Colorado.  Gun control and gun rights advocates have been arguing since the first news report.  I fear that instead of us becoming serious about prayer as a result of the tragedy, we will pay more attention to the arguing sides and deepen the divide in the nation.

Rays to the Water (©John Gresham)

THE FOUNDATION FOR PRAYER

John 5:13-15

(Thesis) Even a cheap magician relies on knowledge and practice of basic skills and not magic words.

(Antithesis)  Too many of us settle for cheap prayer based on enchanting words and not on a knowledge of God nor discipline in being in his presence.

(Propositional Statement)  For God to hear the petitions of the faithful, we must pray according to God’s will.

(Relevant Question) What is God’s will?

(Points)

  • Commit yourself to Jesus Christ as the Son of God
  • Know that you have the gift of eternal life through this committment
  • Maintain the commitment by continuing in His presence

(Conclusions)

Don’t just pray in the moment.  Make prayer a part of who you are.

What We Bring To The Table: Howard Thurman

I do read books, watch You Tube videos, and listen to podcast from the Orthodox Church.  Chances are that I may eventually become a convert, though no time soon.  But, there are some people and things about the African-American Protestant faith that I am not willing to easily discard.  In fact, I believe that we have some important offerings that can enhance the cause of Orthodoxy in America.  Every now and then, I will promote the best of what we bring to the table of the ancient faith.

Howard Thurman was a mystic and theologian who led believers to search for the root of bonding with God.  While many preachers were content to “Whoop” and holler.  Thurman called on his congregants, students, and listeners to think and concentrate on matters of the spirit.  It is easy to see emotionalism as a part of our church practice.  But, Thurman saw something more meaningful through our experience of slavery and segregation.  That we have to reach a point of silence and reflection.  From this point, what he calls the “centering moment,” we can then yield ourselves to the spirit higher than our own and be directed by it.  True faith has little to do with external expressions of religious acts.  But, it has everything to do with our internal pursuit of something more meaningful.

With such spiritual insight, Dr. Thurman was one of the most influential theologians of our faith.  It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King often traveled with a well-worn copy of one of his books.  The church he founded, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, still exist as do many of his books.  For those unfamiliar with this man, I suggest his book “Disciplines of the Spirit” as a good introduction to his thought and theology.

 

Today’s Sermon: Let Jesus In Your House

I want to thank Sub-Deacon Paul Abernathy for bringing up this text in one of his talks at the Ancient Christianity Afro-American Conference.  If this guy were a Baptist, he would be a pastor somewhere.  Well educated, articulate, young; yeah, this brother would be a star among preaching circuits and revival services.  But, a sub-deacon?  Perhaps we should learn from such humility.

LET JESUS IN YOUR HOUSE

Matthew 8:14-15

(antithesis) Why should we let Jesus into our house when the Centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 didn’t?

(thesis) As following disciples, rather than passer-by strangers, we should seek the Lord’s presence in our innermost selves.

(relevant question)  What are the advantages of such a presence in our lives?

(points)

  • Christ blesses the goodness that we already have (Peter’s mother in law in his home v. 14)
  • Christ sees and ministers to our relatively insignificant ailments (she had a fever and he touched her hand v.14, 15)
  • Touched by Christ, we are empowered to serve others whomever they are (she served them v.15)

(conclusion)  Don’t settle for a great passing faith.  Build your life in the presence of Jesus Christ.

Answers

A friend and sister in Christ gave surveys to the pastors of the Pamunkey Baptist Association.  Here are my answers.

On The Path (© John Gresham)

Pastor John Robert Gresham, Jr. – Trinity Baptist Church

Q:  What would you want your congregation to know about you?

A:  That I am a devout seeker of God’s will.  This seeking has led me to seriously study Orthodox Christianity.  I admire the history, spirituality, and tradition of the ancient faith and have incorporated many of its practices in my daily walk.  Orthodoxy has a lot to offer us and I share what I can in line with the Baptist faith.  Other than that, I love my congregation dearly and feel embarrassingly blessed to serve them on Sundays and everyday.

Why did you choose to be the pastor of the church?

I don’t think I had a choice.  God called me and Trinity’s pastoral search committee asked me not to go anywhere else.  I was hijacked (lol)!  But, I have always known of the faith and love at Trinity when Rev. James Carter was there.  I grew up in Baptist Liberty and often worshiped and worked with members of Trinity in PBA and BGC events.  So, I had a good idea of the congregation I would inherit (if it were God’s will).  When Rev. Carter retired, there was nothing negative about his legacy and service.  Good leadership was already  in place.  All I had (and still have) to do is serve and serve well to be accepted as the pastor.

What is one of the advantages of being the pastor?

“Ah-Ha” moments that result in changed lives.  When a person takes hold of something that I said in a sermon, lesson, or even a cook-out, and grows from it.  Sometimes they happen as soon the word is preached.  Sometimes they take longer.  But, to God’s glory, they happen.  In the meantime, I have to find joy in just planting and watering seeds.  The ultimate harvest belongs to God, not myself.

What is one of the disadvantages of being the pastor?

That’s an odd question.  As Christians on a whole, we are supposed to count all things as a joy.  I hate making mistakes.  I do struggle with procrastination.  It hurts to see the results of such failures.  But, with spiritual discipline, these things can be overcome as all things work out toward the glory of God.

Why is the Holy Spirit so important to the body of Christ?

Another odd question.  The Holy Spirit is, in the words of the early church fathers, “the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified” (Nicene Creed).  No Holy Spirit = no Trinity = no Christianity.  The Spirit comes to us from the Father to us and reminds us of the ways of the Son.

If you were the “PBA Preacher for the Month” and all churches gathered in your sanctuary –  what would you preach about?

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me”  (Matthew 16:24).  I fear that too many people today turn to Jesus to get stuff.  True discipleship means giving stuff up and taking up suffering for the sake of something better.  He is that something better.

How do you explain “The Trinity” to your congregation?

The baptism of Jesus is probably the best.  “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”  (Matthew 3:16, 17).

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.”  How is this being done in your church?

Other than our regular Sunday School program, I give a very brief children’s sermon 3 out of 4 Sundays (I don’t do it youth (2nd) Sunday as I try to make the sermon oriented to them).  My children’s sermons are stories I make up based on the main sermon.  The kids feel included in the “grown up” service and it is a good prelude to the message.

Can you tell about an experience of God’s presence showing up in your congregation that was very powerful and overwhelming?

It shows up in all of our services in one form or another.  One time that truly moved me was a few years back when a friend of one of our members was shot in a hunting accident.  A few of the members called me and asked if we could have a special prayer service to ask God to heal him.  I don’t remember a lot of shouting and all.  But, the flow of compassion and concern for this young man who wasn’t a part of our flock was wonderful.  Days later, he was released from the hospital.  Our compassionate prayers were answered as we wished.  It was a bit foolish of me not to keep such prayer services going.

What is more important in your life than you?

The spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on earth through love, truth, and spirit.

Write the word that comes to mind when you see these words.  (Feel free to answer as many as you like)

Pressure –  life in general                            Personal Sacrifice – self-discipline

Rejection –    preserver                                       Loneliness – maintain hope

Popularity –  fickle                                                Pride – dangerous

Disqualification – restoration                            Jealousy – unnecessary

Faithful –  discipleship                                         Inspirational –  Holy Spirit

Trustworthy –   truth                                           Approachable –  Jesus Christ

Forgiving –     merciful                                          Self-discipline – lifestyle

Decision Maker –  wise                                       Qualified – God decides

Successful Leader –   by who’s standard?        Motivator – self through love

Assuming Responsibility –   difficult but necessary      Follower – disciple

Are there any final words you would like to share with me?

Thomas gave a great description of what Christian discipleship is about in John 11:16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  To follow Jesus means being willing to put a lot of things about us at risk.  No, it  means putting ourselves at risk.  Our dreams, goals, ideals, perceptions, preconceived ideas, traditions, and even our lives are to be placed as unimportant in comparison to being in the presence of God.  Sometimes this risk leads to an obvious happy ending (as in the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus).  Sometimes the happiness is indirect and leads to a greater glory (as in the case of the stoning of Stephen with Saul consenting in Acts 7:55-60).  Nevertheless, the risk must be taken.  I pray for the courage to take it.

A Need To Return

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:13, 14

Sunrise through Darkness (© John Gresham)

Before they ever heard of the Jesus Prayer or could read anything in English, the slaves in America cried out, moaned, and sang the most profound of all Negro Spirituals:

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Have mercy Lord, have mercy Lord on me

It was the song of the whipping post, sexual assault, auction block, and tobacco field.  They didn’t know why they were going through such a horror.  The way the slave masters taught about God was wrong. The slaves had sense enough to know that somewhere there was a God of mercy.   If they sought Him with their whole lives in the midst of their anguish, He would answer them.  This Negro Spiritual continued through the days of Jim Crow.  With growing aspirations in the face of burning crosses and segregating signs, the prayer was still prominent on our lips as it came from the depths of our experience.  The youngest child memorized it quicker than the alphabet.  Seasoned saints remembered it if they forgot everything else.

Those dreadful days of our fathers and great grandmothers will not rise again, Praise the Lord!  And yet as we have moved from slave cabin to share cropper shack to nice house to the White House, we have lost a part of the prayer.  No, all of the words are still there.  But the depth and meaning of the prayer, I fear, has been lost in the complacency of progress and the antics of our modern worship.

Are these words even mentioned in our churches anymore?  And if so, how much weight do we put on them?  Are these words spoken in our prayer closets?  Wait, do we even go into our prayer closets and expose ourselves to the merciful God as we were once exposed to unmerciful racist?  And if this simple song/prayer way good enough for the ancestors who endured the absolute worst conditions, isn’t it good enough for we who live in a far better world?

Listening to a lecture from Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy, he challenged a conference of mostly Afro-American Orthodox believers to live their faith with the same tenacity of the early church fathers such as Saints Anthony, Athanasius, and Moses.  For we who are not Orthodox Christians, we can certainly look at the prayer lives of those who were in bondage and second class citizenship and imitate them.  Pray from the depths of spirit and sufferings, not simply for the stuff of this world.  Pray in deep humility, and not as if we deserve anything.  In the words of our Lord, “This man went down to his house justified … he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Let us return to the prayer life of those who were before us.

What Are You Reading?

 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables.

2 Timothy 4:3, 4

Not a Christian Best Seller (© John Gresham)

There is one good thing about losing electric power for a day.  You can always read a book that you never found time for.  I purchased a copy of The Life of St. Anthony the Great by St. Athanasius the Great weeks ago and put in with my other icons in the living room.  I took it with me to Charlottesville thinking that it was going to be 100 degrees Saturday and I could, at least, thumb through a few more pages.  Thanks to Friday night’s storm, my eyes were opened.  St. Anthony was a Holy Spirit driven sage whose teachings of monasticism is still influential on Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  The author, St. Athanasius was also a giant of the faith as he is credited for compiling the 27 books of the New Testament and forming the Nicene Creed.  These and other men and women bore some of the worst persecution under the Romans and led the way in establishing the Christian faith under the reign of Constantine.  Writings by Irenaeus, Basil, John Chrysostom, and others are still in existence and can be purchased online or some very good indie bookstores.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christian books sold today are not deeply rooted in early church teachings.  Most of them are more “positive thinking,” ego-building fluff than the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  Look at the covers of their paperbacks and hard back covers.  There is the author with the perfect hair, smile, and make-up.  There is the author with a pose and facial expression that, supposedly, shows wisdom and confidence.  The scriptures they use, frequently, are curious mish-mashes of verses taken out of their biblical context to support their marketable points of view.  Except for a few Catholic writers, there are few (if any) quotes from the saints who were of the same, or a few generations after Jesus and the apostles.  The sole purpose of such books is to make a maximum profit by selling a cheap and shoddy version of the Gospel.

I am not saying there are no modern Christian writers worth reading.  Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible is my favorite text-book from seminary.  I would put Howard Thurman’s spiritual writings beside those of any Orthodox ascetic.  I had the pleasure of visiting a pastoral care class taught by Wayne Oates at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary many years ago.  While some of my favorite non-Orthodox books are very scholarly and technical, most can be well understood by the average layperson.  Because the authors aren’t (and never were) TV personalities, don’t expect to find their books at Wal-Mart or Costco.  If you are fortunate enough to live near, or visit a college town, go to the independent and used bookstores (you will save money).  Online sources are great too.  Major-chain booksellers may special order stuff on request.

As you choose Christian (or other religious books in general), please be discerning.  Submit yourself to a disciplined life of prayer and reading the scriptures before you purchase anything by anybody.  Keep a prayer journal where you honestly deal with your thoughts and feelings about your walk with God.  Books recommended by your pastor and trusted friends in the faith can be a very good source.  But, be rooted and honest in the pursuit of spirit and truth so that you don’t waste money, time, intelligence, and your soul on religious sounding fluff and bad doctrine.