Month: June 2013

Today’s Sermon: The Purpose of Pentecost

Trinity Baptist Church, West Point

And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.  And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.

Acts 2:4, 5

The Holy Spirit empowers us to speak restoration to the wide variety of humanity. Simply speaking in tongues misses the point. The devout need completion. The wrong need careful correction. Wounded hearts need healing and hope. This is the purpose of Pentecost.

 

 

The Purpose of Pentecost

Acts 2:6-11 (All Chapter 2)

The purpose of Pentecost was and is not so that believers could receive the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues simply for the sake of energetic worship. This is a point that we often miss in our modern perception of the text. Not only do charismatic and Pentecostal/Holiness Christians get this wrong, even we Baptist and other mainline Protestants…

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Over-sexuality: How Orthodoxy Can Better Address the Real Problem

I think the Orthodox Church is making an awful mistake in its approach to abortion and same-sex marriages.  Of course, the ancient faith correctly stands against these sins based on the holy scriptures and the writings of the early fathers.  But, I have heard and seen several clerics and podcasters overlook the root cause of these evils and not promote the church’s best tools to fight against it. 

America is an over-sexual nation.  Boys start looking at porn as young as 8 years old.  In some cities, eleven year old girls have their first sexual encounters.  Even in our prime-time TV shows and other non-pornographic media, we are fed a diet of pursuing erotic gratification by any means necessary and legal.  We are taught that making love is the pinnacle of the human experience.  With such propaganda being such a part of our lives, unwanted pregnancies are going to happen.  Those attracted to the same-sex will seek social acceptability and flaunt their activity. 

The way to kill a weed is to kill the root.  Not the leaves nor flowers which can regenerate.  But, when the root is killed, the weed is killed.  When the root is weakened, the weed loses its vigor.  Thus to weaken and eliminate abortion and the gay marriage push,  Christianity must promote the fact that the pinnacle of human experience is union with God.  All other achievements and experiences are secondary and temporal.  In order for us to be eternal, we must seek the experience that is eternal.  When Americans understand and accept this truth, couples will reconsider how frequently they have intercourse.  Hetero as well as homosexuals will rethink their activity and better strive to put their will in God’s.

Anyone who fast according to Orthodox tradition gives up sexual activity as well as meat and dairy.  Thus, a married Orthodox couple permits themselves to make love only half a year.  Combine this with a woman’s regular cycle and time and energy spent in prayer disciplines and  other pursuits, married sex (as pleasurable as it is) does not mean quite as much as popular media promotes it.  Also, Orthodoxy offers the option of giving up one’s self to the monastic lifestyle.  People are free to devote themselves to celibacy and prayer.  This is a truly rebellious existance against the world of Sports Illustrated models and “pride” parades.  Orthodoxy has the tools of fasting and monasticism to attack the very root of abortion, gay marriage, and nearly every other toxic leaf and flower of our over sexed society.

But, too often, Orthodoxy clergy and laity settle for attacking leaves and flowers rather than the root.  There is nothing wrong with bishops marching for life.  But, why not have a march for celibacy as well?  There are atheist and secular voices who feel that too many people are thoughtlessly entering into sexual relationships and would like to see an option.  With over 2,000 years worth of holy men and women, I am certain that the clergy can find some common ground with these people as well as Catholics and Protestants.  Of course we should speak out against gay marriage.  But, the protection of our children from unnecessary sexual imagery and contact ought to be of greater concern.  I would dare say that most homosexual organizations are against the exploitation of children and would rather have gay teens pursuing academics, arts, and athletics rather than sexual activity.  Why not talk with the more sober-minded among this community?  As long as Orthodox leaders speak the same language as Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, the ancient faith will be seen as just another denomination of “hateful Christians.”   But if the Church has dialogue with the “pro-life” and “pro-equality” movements and offers God’s alternative, some of them may be led to Orthodoxy.  They will, at least, have more respect for your perspective. 

So to you bishops, priest,  scholars, and other Orthodox personalities (hello Ancient Faith Radio and OCN podcasters); use the tools of the great church you belong to.  It is because of your deep resources that some Protestants became attracted to Orthodoxy.

Donations & Sales For A Cause

“Go, sell the oil and pay your debt.  Thus you and your sons shall live by means of the rest of the oil.”

2 Kings (4 Kingdoms) 4:7  (read 4:1-7)

I don’t pastor a large and wealthy mega-church.  Not all state employees are getting fat off of taxpayers.  My wife is mentally and physically disabled.  Needless to say, I have a tendency to have more month than money.  Plus, there are educational goals I would like to accomplish as an informal environmental educator and in religion.  Yes, I am applying to other jobs to help fill in the gaps.  But, bills and objectives tend not to wait. 

There was a widow who was so deep in debt that the creditor was going to take her sons as slaves.  Rather than give her help, the Prophet Elisha showed her how to help herself.  In a nutshell, “Get a bunch of empty jars from your neighbors and fill them with the oil you already have.  Sell the jars of oil and you will have enough to pay your debt and live off of the rest.”  As a devout Christian, I have no problem using common sense solutions from the Bible.

I have a sales site for my photography, Baystride Images.  These are a few of my favorite photos I have created over the past couple of years.  You can order prints of various sizes and gifts of these images as well.  A 14″x16″ of a shoreline sunrise or a bald eagle coffee mug would be great additions to your home or office.  Or, why rush out and shop for a present from a big corporation when you can help a starving artist?

And what will this money go to?  I do have some immediate objectives:

In the long-term, I would love to pursue a masters in religion and purchase a Pentax K-5II.  But, taking care of these first four issues would answer my prayers.  Even if you do not wish to make a purchase, feel free to browse and visit by photography & nature blog, Baystride Images Journal.  I solicit your assistance, business, and (above all) prayers.  May God bless you for your time.

After A Year’s Journey: My Inquiry into the Orthodox Church

About this time last year, I decided to learn about Orthodox Christianity by immersing myself in the prayers and practices of the church as much as I could without making a full conversion.  It began with learning about the African saints that I wasn’t exposed to in my African-American upbringing.  I spent a lot of time on the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black‘s website and John Norman’s Ancient Christian Witness blog.  Playing on Second Life, I was led to Ancient Faith Radio and indulged in a steady diet of liturgical music and very informative and inspiring podcast.  Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” series was extremely eye-opening with his comparisons of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches and doctrines.  I wanted a practical guide in the prayers and fasting cycle of the church.  Thus, I joined St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline of the Antiochian Archdiocese and obtained a Greek Ecclesiastical Calendar which list all of the feast, fast, and saints that are recognized on each day of the year.  As my church does not have worship services on 5th Sundays, I visited and worshiped at Orthodox Churches including The Church of the Transfiguration in Charlottesville, Sts. Constantine & Helen in Newport News (Greek), St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond (Orthodox Church in America), and St. Basil the Great in Poquoson (Antiochian).

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

St. Basil has become my home away from home because all of the services are in English and it is the closest to my home in West Point and workplace in Williamsburg.  I have attended a few of the Vespers and Lenten services there as well as my first Pascha (Easter).  I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Bishop Thomas Joseph there in January.  Bro. Norman recommended that I meet the priest, Fr. James Purdie, and the church was on the list of Antiochian parishes suggested in the St. Philip’s Discipline.  Poquoson, to put it mildly, has a reputation of not being accepting to African-Americans.  St. Cyprian, by its name and iconography, would seem to be a better fit for me.  But, St. Basil is multi-ethnic (mostly converts, Eastern European descendants, and a few Ethiopians) and I feel the love of Christ among the congregation (as I have felt this love with the other churches I have worshiped in also).   Besides, I didn’t see so much as one Confederate flag in anyone’s yard driving to and from the church.  Even if I did, that alone is no indication of one being a Klansman.

After a year’s journey into Orthodoxy, I have come to understand and deeply appreciate some things about this ancient faith.  First of all, that Orthodox Christianity is a lifestyle and not just another denomination.  There are prayers that have been embraced by the church for hundreds  and two thousand years that have been handed down through the generations.  Somewhere in a little Serbian town, a blue-eyed blond teenager offers the words of St. Macarius of Egypt, a brown-skinned hermit that lived in the desert in the 4th century.  An Ethiopian can walk into a Russian Church during Great Lent and know when the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian is offered without being able to speak the language as he knows the bowing, crossing, and prostrations that are in the order of worship.  Of course Orthodoxy encourages people to pray to God from the heart with extemporaneous expressions.  But, when one prays a prayer of the church fathers,  there are others around the world offering the same words.  This is a “touching and agreeing” that goes beyond praying for the whole world.  This is prayer with the body of Christ in the world and a link between present and past generations of Christians.  It is encouraging to know that the same Trisagion prayer I  just offered was said by a monk  on Mt. Athos in 1313 and a Syrian shop keeper 13 minutes ago.

A discipline of prayer, the Hours, has become my favorite tool for maintaining my spiritual life.  I don’t have time to go through the 119th Psalm or 100 Jesus Prayers.  But, I keep the prayer of Hours at my desk at work for 9am, noon, and 3pm and at my bedside if I wake up in the middle of the night.  Years ago, I heard a Baptist deacon suggest that we keep “short sin accounts.”  When we sin, we must not let too much time accumulate before we repent.  Keeping the Hours, even with brief prayers, is extremely helpful in spiritual warfare.  Knowing that monks, nuns, and other Orthodox believers are doing the same thing makes the prayers more powerful.  The whole body of the church is lifting up the name of Jesus at the same times.

Fasting is another portion of the Orthodox lifestyle that has become a part of me.  Refraining from meats, dairy, fish with backbones on Wednesdays, Fridays, and according to certain periods of the year is a healthier approach to life than eating whatever, whenever, and how much one chooses.  Wednesday is the commemoration of the betrayal of Christ and Friday the crucifixion.  This is a great weekly practice to keep the suffering of our Lord in our minds during the week.  There is nothing wrong with these foods and they are to be eaten during fast-free periods as well.  But, as an Orthodox Christian, you practice the wisdom of setting aside some pleasures and delights of this world to focus on the world beyond.  No, the bishops and priest do not send policemen to force believers to fast.  But, understanding the purpose of the practice makes fasting more of an invitation than a threat.

Unholy images, such as graphic violence and pornography, are among Satan’s greatest weapons to distract us from God.  In Orthodox Christianity, icons (holy images) are used to keep our focus on worship in the church and in our home icon corners.  The icons are not artistically accurate and are painted (or written) in a way to highlight Christian doctrine.  They are not to be worshiped as God.  But, as the gold-hammered cherubim on the Mercy Seat and cherubim woven into the fabric of the temple in the Book of Exodus, icons represent the presence of Christ, Mary, and the saints and are to be honored as such.  Having icons to pray with has been a blessing to me.  Incense, which symbolizes the prayers of the people being lifted up to heaven is another great tool in public and personal worship.  Sight, sound, touch, hearing, and taste are all a part of the Orthodox daily life.

The stories of the numerous saints and martyrs are very inspiring.  Who knew the woman at the well and the centurion at the crucifixion had names and helped to spread the Gospel?  And how odd is it that during Black History Month, we African-Americans will have pictures of Malcolm X in our churches and not one icon of the Egyptian Bishop who compiled the list of books that would be accepted as the New Testament?  Instead of buying the newest book from some “flavor of the month” bishop about “going to the next level,” Orthodoxy offers a rich foundation of ancient wisdom from the Desert Fathers to the new martyrs of the Soviet persecutions.   

I admit, my first visits to a Divine Liturgy were confusing.  Greek words, no soul-stirring Gospel music, the sermon lasting about 10-minutes, I can’t have communion, all the standing (St. Cyprian has no pews and a few chairs), bowing, crossing (prostrations during Lent), incense, Mary the Theo-what, and kiss the preacher’s hand?  It is no wonder that most dyed-in-the-wool Protestants and nominal Christians would quickly reject Orthodoxy as pagan idolatry and detestable to any real “Bible-believeing” Christian.

But, the 4th century  bishops of the Orthodox Church selected the books of the Bible.  If I can trust their judgement in the Holy Scriptures, who am I to doubt a worship that is just as old?  After participating in the services a few more times, I understood what was going on and why things were done.  I can go into a Greek church and keep up.  I love going to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.  It is worship that is in line with the scriptures, 2,000 years of tradition, and symbolically connects earth to heaven.

This and next year, I do not anticipate leaving the Baptist Church and Converting to Orthodoxy.  On a practical level, I can’t afford to leave the pulpit and my wife is not that enthusiastic about a church that has no women clergy.  Spiritually, there are elements of the black church that still have tremendous value to me.  The preaching of Gardner Taylor, Howard Thurman‘s wisdom, the strength of the Negro Spirituals to Thomas Dorsey and the Staple Singers; I don’t think it is good for me to turn my back on such a legacy.

Yet, many of those who claim to inherit this legacy are doing just that.  I see too many ministers and ministries chasing after the newest and “most relevant” styles of trying to attract “paying customers” rather than standing firmly on the shoulders of the giants of our churches.  Rather than a refuge for our sin-sick souls, there is a tendency for too many of our churches to praise our way to some “next level” without knowing and walking on the firm  foundation the older generations set before us.  This is a bad trend.

So, I will use my time wisely to read and study more about the ancient faith.  I will continue the practices of prayer, fasting, and attend the Divine Liturgies and other services when I can.  I will also gain strength from the faith of my father’s and grandfather’s generations.  My time to convert will come.  May I do so in grace, wisdom, mercy, and love.