Month: March 2013

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Eight): Reliance on God

Forgive me for not writing every day.  There are times when it is best to keep quiet.  Drinking a couple of glasses of “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” tends to help me stay out of trouble.  I am an African-American Baptist Pastor and serious inquirer of Orthodox Christianity.  I am in enough trouble as it is :)!

We Protestants do make attempts at fasting during Lent such as giving up one or two food items during the week.  For us, it is a form of self-discipline in honor of the fact that Jesus gave his life on the cross for our salvation.  Thus, we should give up something as well to show our loyalty and devotion to him.  It isn’t uncommon for older denominations to hold special Lenten services as well.  For my denomination, giving up something for 40 weekdays before Easter is a new practice that is not shared by everyone.  Some of us piously state that we are fasting from fasting.  Such an attitude shows ignorance of the scriptures, Christian history, and an unwillingness to walk with God in humility.  Those who fast only from caviar, lobster, too much salt, or too many sweets are merely mocking true faith as they can’t afford these things economic and healthwise.  But, for those of us who do put aside meats (and other items) as part of increasing attention on Christ in prayer and almsgiving to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection, sincere steps are greatly rewarded.  Those who by medical restrictions can do only a limited fast can still increase their prayers and works of love to others.

Cyprian Bluemood.  My Seond Life avitar.

Cyprian Bluemood. My Second Life avatar.

One of the key purposes of keeping the Great Lenten Fast (and every other fast in the Orthodox cycle) is to remind us of our reliance on God.  It is easy to forget about His divine providence when we are bombarded with super-sized fast food offerings, all you can eat buffets, and cooking shows (aka “food porn”).  Food, especially when well prepared, is a good thing and necessary for our survival.  Our problem is that we indulge in the stuff, frequently the most unhealthy forms of it.  We use it as a status symbol as we boast about what restaurant we went to, what we ordered, and what we cooked on the grill (OUCH!!!!!  That was my right foot).  We tend to eat for reasons of comfort or to hide from issues that are better solved by prayer and wise counsel.  So, eating is both a basic need and a gateway that brings out our arrogance, selfishness, and self-reliance.  It is no wonder why the fall of man was brought about in this ungodly fashion:

So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and the tree beautiful to contemplate, she took its fruit and ate.  She also gave it to her husband with her and he ate.  (Genesis 3:6)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ succeeded where Adam & Eve failed.  He was reliant on the Father to see him through his period of total self-denial (at least Adam & Eve could have indulged in everything else).  As He replied to the greatest of serpents:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:4)

With the reliance on God rather than his ability to satisfy his belly, Jesus was able to walk in humility (“Do not tempt the Lord your God.”), complete obedience (“You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”), properly use the scriptures to His faith (“It is written …” ), and rebuke the tempter (“Away with you, Satan!”).  Fasting is a vital key in imitating Christ. 

This is why the early church fathers gave directions on keeping the fast.  Firstly that it is not a legalistic requirement for salvation, but a wise practice in spiritual growth.  The very young and old, ill, and pregnant and nursing women need not fast.  If in a strange land and someone shows hospitality, eat what is given to you.  Eat grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables (since shellfish were considered trash at the time, they are permitted) for the sake of basic health.  But, do not indulge with even these simple foods.  Avoid all meats, dairy products, fish with a backbone, olive oil, and wine.  On a feast day in the midst of a fast, the latter three are permitted.  With the dietary directions, increase the time spent in prayer.  With money that would have been spent on expensive food, give to those in need.  Jesus destroyed the power of death by his death.  By His resurrection, we have hope to be children of the heavenly Father.  As He prepared for His earthly ministry, let us likewise show our reliance on God by keeping the fast.

To my fellow Protestant believers, our Easter celebration is right around the corner.  We have a right to be joyous and eat well.  There is no need for us to all the sudden try to keep Great Lent this year.  But, read and learn about Orthodoxy and what the church says about fasting throughout the year.  Meet and make friends with a priest or devout believer (bishops are cool too) and let them explain how keeping the fast helps them in their walk with the Lord and is a part of their overall journey.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Six) Confluence of Hope

I started to post something yesterday concerning the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I typed up some things about how I believe iconography is a beautiful part of prayer and worship that should not be rejected based on a very shallow (my father, an iconoclastic Baptist deacon, calls it  Islamic) perspective of the Ten Commandments.  For the time being, I am going to hold the bulk of my thoughts on iconography for another time.  But, I did make a post last year on the topic that is interesting enough.

 

A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

The Kursk-Root Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

 

Between yesterday and today, as I observe both Eastern and Western Christian tradition, the confluence of hope is quite powerful.  We celebrated Palm Sunday at my church yesterday.  My friends at St. Basil and other churches celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel foretold to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God.  So (on top of going the view the remains of my recently deceased cousin and having a month delayed African-American History program), I am awash in the triumphant entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, the restoration of the Holy Images and the good news that the Christ is to be born all in the midst of the Lenten fast of both traditions. 

When we commit to following the Lord, things will get difficult.  From the first disciples that left their boats and nets, to St. Anthony that left his inheritance, to Rev. Steven Smith who left a well-paying career to attend Virginia Union University’s School of Theology (I remember him from way back in the early 1980’s); sacrifice is not easy.  There are times when we wouldn’t mind going back to our “Egypts” where we had more than manna and water (my wife has a can of vienna sausages that is starting to look good to me).  Praise be to God that we have a solid old covenant to step on and a greater new covenant to stand on and grow into.  The Israelites were given punishment for their gripes and grumblings against the God that had brought them out of slavery and bondage.  So, to all of us who have taken up the journey, let us be aware of the warnings of old.  The greater testament is this:  

… ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’   —   (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus enters triumphantly in our souls.  We celebrate with palm branches.  Jesus is the Word Incarnate.  We celebrate with images.  Jesus is born in the pure and faithful.  We celebrate with a feast in the midst of a fast.  May the confluence of hope refresh and restore us on the journey. 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (First Saturday): A Foundation for a Lenten Lifestyle

Needless to say, this is not the Lent I am used to.  I am accustomed to picking one or two things to “give up” between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Ascetic fasting is a far greater spiritual as well as dietary challenge.  Careful observance of prayers and reading or listening to Orthodox teaching does reveal things that are commonly overlooked.  Such as how much we spend on meat and dairy products as compared to simple vegan fare.  More importantly that we don’t give up our struggle against sin since sin is foreign to the way God made us.  He made Adam and Eve to be in communion with him and lovingly gave them free will to choose obedience or death.  By free will we choose death through sin rather than life in the way God created us.  Too often, we surrender to the idea that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  I think (and perhaps this is just my experience) we repent, and get back up thinking that we will sin again because that is the way we were made.  We use the Psalm as our reference:

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, and in sins my mother bore me.   —   Psalm 51:7

David’s sincere and deeply humble repentance is an admirable pattern for us to follow.  But, his words of anguish do not trump our creation:

The God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.   —   Genesis 1:26

Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good. —   Genesis 1:31

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

If we are to follow the advice of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and live a Lenten Lifestyle, I think we must begin with how we see our life and struggle against sin.  God makes good things, he made us, and we are essentially good.  Our task is to keep choosing to live in that goodness, that communion with God in a world so imbued with evil that we feel we have no choice but to live with some level or another of hopelessness that holiness is possible.  Jesus, the God Incarnate, came to us to prove that we can make the choice.  It takes  (among other things) humility, sacrifice, love, and a relentless focus on seeking the kingdom of God.  And we can choose these things rather than the immediate gratifications and pleasures of this world.  We can be seekers of spiritual growth rather than chasers of sensual comforts.  This is one reason why Great Lent is what it is in the Orthodox Church.  For 40 days (also weekends, Holy Week, and the three weeks before Lent), we can focus our attention on communion with God rather than consuming for our bodies.  After Pascha (Orthodox Easter) feasting, there are the weekly fast and other fast to observe and keep us mindful of what was experienced and learned during Great Lent.  Except for the pregnant and nursing, ill, very young, and very old; all are expected to keep a strict fast and attend weekly prayers on top of their current disciplines as much as possible.  May the Lord keep this church and the church keep the faith of Christ the Incarnate.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Four): Distractions

No wonder Sts. Anthony, Isaac, and others went out into the desert.  There is always something to distract us from maintaining our prayers.  I haven’t really had any food temptations (yet).  But, there are always things to dissuade me from prayer.  Being an hour away from any Orthodox Church, I am not going to make it to too many Pre-Sanctified Gifts and Akathist services.  With daylight savings time, there is always something to do around the house and gorgeous sunsets to capture on my camera.  I am tempted to waste time on soccer rumors and the March Madness tournament.  And I tend to get too drowsy to pray Compline as I should.  It is only by the grace of God that some of my old demons have not come back to overtake me.  But, I am reminded of what happens when an evil spirit has been driven out of a man and he has nothing inside of himself:

Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45)

Thus, my aim is to limit, if not eliminate, the things that distract me from my prayer discipline.  I can still enjoy time in photography and watching a good game.  But, I must constantly and consistently fill myself with the Holy Spirit.  Without feasting on spiritual nourishment, I may as well eat a steak & cheese sandwich with fried onions and peppers.  If I dwell in distraction, sin will overtake me and make me a monster.  If I walk in discipline, I have hope that the Lord will save his unworthy servant. 

Colors at Vespers  © John Gresham

Colors at Vespers © John Gresham

 

Jouney Into Great Lent (Day Three): Lesson Too Soon Forgotten

Trying not to be judgemental and upset about the terrible things that happen in this world is nearly impossible, at least for me.  The Stubenville rape case and the pornographic society that gave birth to it makes me angry.  I know too many rape survivors.  I have read the horrible stats of how often it happens.  And the abusive nature of today’s porn only makes things worse.  I ranted a little bit on my Facebook page and was about to go ballistic on this blog.  But, a friend put me in check.  Then, I opened Philippians 2:14-16 and was further convicted:

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, sot that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

I am reminded of my wife’s Grandfather, Rev. Carter Wicks, constantly telling people, “don’t worry and don’t hurry.”  My grandparents, Joe and Dinah  Gresham, likewise had a steady and quiet faith about them.  I know things would make them angry and upset from time to time.  But, they never let it seem to get the best of them.  They were too busy aiming their lives to a better world than this one. 

Yesterday and this morning, I prayed the words of St Ephraim the Syrian.  Apparently, I forgot what I prayed.  How sorry I am for my forgetfulness.  It is only the third day.  I will build my memory in my heart and soul as well as mind. 

http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/holyfathers/st._anthony_the_great_humility_as_the_gateway_to_theology

Journey into Great Lent (Day Two): The Prayer of Self Examination

Oh Lord, Master of my life, keep me from the spirit of indifference, and discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter

(prostration)

Instead, grant to me, your servant, the Spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love

(prostration)

Oh Lord and King, Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister, for you are blessed now and forever, Amen.

(prostration)

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

 

St. Ephraim the Syrian

There is alot to judge in this world. Two teenage boys were convicted of rape.  A man was banned from a library system for masturbating in public.  These are just two of the troublesome crimes that I heard about today.  It is easy to throw stones at people who commit such crimes of selfishness and lack of control. 

And yet, St. Ephraim’s words call out to us in such situations.  No doubt, he must have read or heard the words of Jesus:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  (Matthew 7:1, 2)

I have never gotten a teenager drunk and had sex with her.  Nor have I committed a lewd act in a public place.  But, the log in my eye is my log.  I have no responsibility over what is in my brother’s or sister’s eye no matter how shameful it is.  My log is separating me from seeing the fullness of God.  Without this vision, how can I guide others to free themselves when I am still in chains?  The legal system did what it was supposed to do in both cases.  But, my Spiritual development must also be in effect for my salvation.  I must have hope that these boys will learn from their tragic error and become agents of healing for violated women.  I must hope that the other man will see the greater good in pleasing God and others rather than himself. 

I must also see myself as no better than they are.  Who is to say that under the same conditions that I wouldn’t have done likewise?  Who is to say I wouldn’t do worse?  Like them, I struggle with lust, selfishness, and shamelessness.  Certainly, the potential is there for me to do likewise.  Thus, rather than gloat over what they are about to suffer, St. Ephraim’s words bring me to a place of being aware of my own potential for evil. 

The elements of human wickedness are indifference, discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter.  With these, any man can be brought down.  Yet, there are God-given elements that elevate our souls and keep us from committing evil acts; wholeness, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.  The key to rejecting the former and dwelling in the later is awareness of the sins we have done and forgiving others as we wish to be forgiven. 

I have been made aware of my failures.  I am sorry for my sins.  May this Lenten prayer be made manifest in me.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day One): Forgiveness With Friends

I had a very good worship service this morning with my church family at Trinity this morning.  Plus, we had a rehearsal for our Easter program after service as well.  I ate half a  large veggie lovers cheese stuffed crust pizza and was tempted to call it a day.  I could have called it a day.  But, I knew that nothing would replace the blessing of attending my first Forgiveness Vespers service.  As a Baptist, the idea of such a prayer service was a bit daunting.  To ask everybody in church to forgive you of your sins and then forgive everyone who ask as well is pushing it.  I mean, we all have been in those services where we are told to turn around and to your left and right to say to your neighbor whatever the preacher tells us to repeat.  This was deeper.  Even the priest ask each person for forgiveness.  The gift is given and the symbolic holy kiss is exchanged. 

Yeah, now you want to talk about bringing people together, the nearness of simulating and giving three kisses to either side of one another’s face and exchanging the gift of forgiveness is deep.  I didn’t know how I was going to react.  All of this was strange to me.  Yet, the quiet warmth we shared with each other in this offering was very special.  We were all making a bold, first step into the challenge of Great Lent.  The struggle against our sinful selves and the striving to grow in God’s grace.  We were all going together as it was being done in other Orthodox churches around the world, as it was done for nearly  2,000 years. 

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

Traffic around the Jefferson Ave. interchange was no fun.  In fact, things were slow through Ft. Eustis.  Needless to Say, Satan was waiting for me.  No doubt, he will constantly await moments to distract and tempt me.  Needless to say, maintaining The Hours will be very important to me.  I may put an icon in the car as I already have a corner in the living room, bed room, and a couple of them at my desk at Trinity and York River. 

So, now it is into Clean Monday.  My wife is not joining me in the fast and has free range on the good stuff in the fridge and freezer.  But, I did find a very delicious vegetable soup mix not long ago.  That and a good, crusty bread will be dinner after Vespers.  Ah well, it is bed time.  I feel excited about tomorrow.

Are You Sure The Holy Ghost Is Leading You? Christian Life Coaches

First, I want to thank those of you who have suffered through the first installment of this series.  No, there are just some things you can’t make up (nor would I want to).  Some of you have suggested that I make comments about greedy, self-serving ministers.  Perhaps I will take on an example or two of that misbehavior (which shouldn’t be too hard to find).  But, I really want to address a means of ministry that fell right on my Facebook page.

Growing up, coaches were for sports.  They were demanding, pushy, and sometimes vulgar.  Their task was to instruct and inspire athletes to win contest by any legal means.  Christian life was handled by … Christians.  They were (and still are) people who strive to be patient, humble, compassionate, and loving.  Like Jesus, they were (are) there to guide whosoever will follow. 

So, you can imagine that I find the idea of a “Christian Life Coach” as odd as anchovy ice cream.  Not that a good priest, pastor, deaconess, or … REAL FRIEND doesn’t coach us from time to time in the ways of our Lord and Savior.  But, the coaching that is done by these people is part of the whole of who they are and not the definition of what they do.  And maybe that is why one of the world’s best coaches, Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho, is just a coach.  The man knows the game of football (soccer) like few others.  But, he is an awfully arrogant man (“I am a European Champion.  I am a Special One).  Christians can be highly knowledgeable in any field or discipline the Lord allows us to enter.  But we cannot be boastful, impatient, cruel, or have other characteristics many secular coaches have been and are. 

In the Orthodox world, believers sought (and still seek) out monastics and read the ancient fathers for guidance.  I was brought up in a small Baptist church where we all knew and looked out for each other’s best interest.  In any religious tradition, there are wise mothers and fathers, elders, and good friends available to walk this Christian journey with.  Has our modern, self-absorbed, me-and-my-Bible society grown so cold and isolated that the office of “Christian Life Coach” is a viable option for believers?  Are we to recruit and hire such coaches based on winning percentages and how well they recruit new talent?  It is bad enough that we are tempted to put priest, pastors, and musicians on pedestals.  What coach doesn’t want to be known for greatness?

I am not going to accuse everyone in this “Christian Life Coach” movement of being corrupt.  I know of a couple of well-meaning people who are involved in this.  In my opinion, we need more real friends than coaches.  We need more people who we can be honest and open with and will lovingly tell us when we are on the right path and where we are messing things up.  Besides, coaches look to make money from coaching.  Real friends are friends because they love you.

Then again, coaches don’t let players on the court, field, or pitch without the right uniform.  So if  Minister LaTacha Emanuel had a “Christian Life Coach,” she wouldn’t have exposed herself so awfully in the videos I wrote about last time.

Trinity Baptist Church, West Point

‘Father, give to me the portion of goods that falls to me’

Luke 15:12

 

Our Prodigal Problem

Luke 15:11-13

As we prepare to observe Holy Week, I bring us to this familiar story of the Prodigal Son. We all like to get a good shout on when the young man comes to himself, or comes to his senses. That after losing everything his father had given him, lowers himself to feeding the pigs, and wanting what the pigs were eating and no one would offer him anything; he remembered that even the servants in his father’s house had all the bread they wanted and leftovers. The son was on his way back and the father saw him from a long ways off. Isn’t it good to know that Our Father sees us from a long way off? The father runs to the son to hug and kiss him. Isn’t it…

View original post 1,468 more words