Month: January 2014

Memory Eternal: For Brandon

“Lord, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”  (Luke 23:42)

Just when he started to make some good choices, death chose to take him from us.  Just when the potholes in his road were being filled so he could go somewhere, he went away.  Brandon not only turned his life around.  But, he was young and had plenty of time to achieve great things.  At least, that’s what we thought.  That’s what I thought as I admired his laughter and good nature as we all sat and joked around the table this past Thanksgiving.  None of us knew that the crime he tried to turn from would turn on him.

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

Memory Eternal Brandon Glover

There was a thief on a cross who, unlike Brandon, had no hope of redemption on this earth.  He was condemned and nailed.  Left to hang on that tree until breathlessness or a merciful death blow would relieve him.  And yet, the thief did have one hope.  It was in a world to come.  It was through the Sinless One that was crucified with him.

Among the better decisions Brandon made, he looked upon Jesus as his source of hope.  He did’t know all there was about discipleship.  Nor did the thief.  But, they both had sense to believe in and call on the gateway to a better world.  Christ answered the one with faith,

Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.  (Luke 23:43)

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

The thief on the right of Christ is the upward side of the lower bar.

May Brandon’s faith suffice for his deeds.  Lord, please let his confession be sufficient for salvation.  Let your mercy shine upon him both now and forever.  And may your spirit of comfort be on his family.

Starting Over

So, let’s see.  I earned 30 credits toward a Master of Divinity at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University, completed the Evans-Smith Leadership Institute of STVUU and the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, served as a Communion Server for the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, President of the Pamunkey Baptist Association Sunday School and Literary Union, PBA Treasurer, First Vice-Moderator, and Moderator as well as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  And now, I am a church member with no office nor title.  Attending a funeral at Trinity over the weekend, one of the deacons politely addressed me, “Hi John.  How are you doing?”  I have always told myself and others that a title is not important to me.  But, I have to confess that I found it strange that this man had addressed me by my first name for the first time in about 20 years.  I did not have a seat in a pulpit that I was welcomed in by my predecessor.  This was a weird feeling.

Had I remained where I was, I suppose I could have risen higher.  I was a friend to some movers and shakers in the denomination.  Finishing my degree and putting my name out there would have gone a long way.  Or, perhaps I could have gone non-denominational and sought the position of evangelist, prophet, or conference teacher as a part of some modern “Five-Fold Ministry” movement.  Making the right connections would put me on a fast track to greater notoriety.  Even then, I could still keep my credentials as a Protestant clergyman.  

There is no fast track to rising in the ranks of Orthodoxy.  Attending seminary is not to be considered or recommended to the bishop until after at least five years in the church in good standing.  Even after earning an M.Div, there is no guarantee of becoming a priest immediately as the bishop (through prayer and the needs of the church) decides where to assign graduates and when, or if to ordain a seminary graduate into the priesthood.  Skipping from one jurisdiction to the other in the hopes of being ordained is not permitted except by the bishops involved in such a change.  As for leaving the church and starting a new Orthodox parish, whatever one would call such a church, it would not be recognized as Orthodox.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy.  He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

Hanging with Subdeacon Paul Abernathy. He is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and a rising voice in the Orthodox Church.

I am reminded about the value of humility.  Jesus taught us not to be the one at the wedding feast trying to get the important seat because someone more important than you might show up.  Instead, take the lowest seat in the house and there is a chance that someone will bring you up higher (Luke 14:7-11).  Exchanging my comfort and privilege in the high seat of the Baptist Pastorate to be just another Orthodox Christian in the congregation does not take away from who I am.  If anything, starting over can be a breath of fresh air in my spiritual journey.  I can re-learn what ministry and my calling is all about.  I am free to explore where God may have me to serve rather what others expect of me.

Thus far, I am a bit of a reporter and blogger as I strive to organize the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  Fr. James has asked me to be a part of the evangelism team.  And I have been asked to consider teaching a Sunday School lesson.  I doubt if my name will be mentioned alongside the well-know voices on AFR or OCN.  But, there is a place for me here in the Orthodox Church.  All I have to do is prepare for whatever God has for me to do and do well with where I am assigned.  In the mean time, this “lowest seat” is a good thing.  I am worshiping with good brothers and sisters in the faith.

 

From Martin to Macarius: A Weekend of Saintly Reflection

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Martin Luther King, Jr.  is the closest person that African-Americans (no, all Americans) have to a canonized saint.  Like the holy men and women of old, he had his failures in his struggles against sin.  But, whatever those failures may have been, they do not detract from his leadership in the struggle for human dignity, justice, and reconciliation.  Instead of hiding in comfort  from the challenges of his times, Dr. King faced them head on drawing criticism and hate from the active and passive supporters of division and repression (of both races).  Indeed, he died as a martyr of our Lord and Savior.  Because he was not baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church, we cannot canonize Dr. King as a saint.  But, because he was a Christian who believed in and taught the Trinitarian doctrine and the incarnation of God the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, we…

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Kiss The Who’s What?

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Now, here is a practice that modern day African-Americans (or anyone else outside of a liturgical tradition) ain’t havin’.  “Hmph!  Kissing some preacher’s hand.”  Maybe it wouldn’t be the worst obstacle for a black inquirer if the priest looks like Fr. Maximus Cabey or Fr. Jerome Sanderson.  Maybe it would be easier in an Ethiopian, or (at least) a Coptic parish where the pastor has some melanin to give him some color.  But, for children of Nat Turner, Huey P Newton, and Black Pride; to kiss some white man’s hand is down right blasphemy.  On the surface, it seems to do so would be to go back to the days when “massa’s preacher would tell us niggras to be good slaves and come back if we ran away.”  I must confess, at first. I had some issues with it in the back of my mind as well.

But, let’s think…

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Singletary’s 21 Day Financial Fast Day One: Yep, I need this

I have read her columns from time to time.  I have one of her books somewhere in the house.  And now that I am BROKE, this is a good time to take Michelle Singletary more seriously than I have in the past.  For her to suggest that people journal their 21 day financial fast is the easiest thing for me to do.  Actually, yesterday (the first day) wasn’t that hard to do.  I need gasoline.  I have plenty of food in the house.  So, why do I need to buy what I already have when it is not a regular grocery day for me?  Oh yeah,  those little knick-knack trips to the 7-11, my addiction to French’s French Fried Onions; all of that mess adds up.  Plus, I still need to find that second job to fill in for the income I’ve lost by leaving the Baptist pastorate to be an Orthodox Christian.  So, cutting expenses is crucial to me; even if it means cutting out my home internet service (I canceled DirecTV when I left Dominion in 2008  to become a substitute teacher.  Prosperity Gospel my foot!  Following Jesus for real may mean being deprived of this world’s goods).  Yeah, I have a couple of irons in the fire.  But, that is no reason for me to sit and wait, especially with my bills needing to be paid.

Rather than being inspired by future financial gain by saving and wise investing, I am looking towards the Desert Fathers and other monastic examples of my faith.  These men and women were not living in luxury.  I read somewhere that a monastic leader had company arriving and he asked one of the novices to put some lentils in the pot for a meal.  Seriously, they ate bread, lentils, and whatever herb they could find in the desert.  Mary of Egypt was in the desert for over 40 years and was naked by the time St. Zosimas discovered her because she started her life of solitude with only the clothing she had on at the time.  Of course,  I can’t take things to that extreme.  But, I know I can and must do better.  Even when I get out of this current pit I am in and if I start making Dominion money and benefits again, the example of the saints to live in frugality and modesty seems a more Christ-like way.

Kudos Mrs. Singletary.  I would buy your book as well.  But, money is a bit tight right now.

 

PS.  Anyone with a evening or night shift position available around the West Point and Williamsburg VA area, please let me know how and where to apply.

 

Weekly Reflections: Go Home For Your Anointed Birthing and Supernatural Shift to the Next Level

5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.  (Matthew 6:5-6)

No, this is not an excuse for anyone to attend “Mt. Pillow Temple of Rest Worship Center” (I borrowed this from my friend and frat brother Dr. Christopher Wyckoff) or “Bedside Baptist Church” Sunday morning.  Except for illness, inclement weather, lack of transportation, work schedule, or some other legitimate reason; I believe every Christian should attend worship somewhere on the Lord’s Day!   If you had issues with a church that didn’t do right by you, pick another church.  If you are away from home, chances are there is some church of your denomination or faith within driving distance.  If you belong to a faith that frowns upon going to a different church and you know your’re going to be out of town and it is absolutely not feasible to go anywhere else but where your host is going to, talk with your minister ahead of time.  But, a nonchalant attitude towards gathering with the saints together before God is inexcusable!  For the church’s first 300 years, Christians risked being thrown to the lions and having their heads chopped off for meeting in catacombs.  Christian slaves in America had to risk being discovered and beaten going to their “hush arbors.”  Ethiopian and Eastern European Christians faced prison and torture when discovered worshiping in secret when communist ruled those countries as in China as we speak .  And today, our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Syria, and other nations are coming together in churches that were bombed and gutted by fire by Muslims who have a skewed interpretation of their faith.  And you are going to sit your mentally and physically healthy behind at home because “I don’t feel like going to church;  I can read my Bible and pray at home;  the church is full of hypocrites?”  Staying away from church when you are capable of attending and calling yourself “Christian” makes you just as much of a hypocrite as the hypocrites who are in church.

At the home prayer corner

But, is going to church and religious conferences supposed to be the highlight of our faith?  Though being a devout Jew and attending regular synagogue worship, Jesus declares that the greatest and most instrumental place one is to pray and spend time with God is in his own home and room.  Worship in this place removes the element of hypocrisy as you are alone with no one to put on airs in front of.  There is no one in the pulpit in front of you nor the pews among you to impress with or pressure you into acting holy.  It is when we are one-on-one with God that we are able to wrestle with and overcome our sins.  Notice that Jesus overcame Satan and committed Himself to the crucifixion not among the multitude that he taught on a mountain top nor in a synagogue.  No, He was alone in the wilderness.  Now, if you have a personal wilderness to go to, go ahead and do that.  But, we all have a room in our homes we can go to.  So, Go home.

Go home into your room and shut the door.  The living room is where special guest are entertained.  The family room is where loved ones enjoy TV and games.  You have a cup of coffee with a neighbor in the kitchen.  Any one can see and hear you in these places.  Not everyone is allowed in your room.  And when you shut the door behind you, you have created a place where you can show and say any and everything you want to before God.  There are somethings you might not want to say and show in front of company, neighbors, or even family.  There are things about all of us that we ought to be discrete about.   It is not wise to tell everybody your business.  Nor is it wise to deceive yourself that you don’t have any issues to bring before God.  It doesn’t take a Ph.D to have that kind of wisdom.  Discretion is common sense.  And even in those traditions where confessions are made before a priest or minister, what good is it to practice the public sacrament without seeking God in private for His direct holy solution?  And even if you can speak in tongues and interpret everyone else’s, what good is it if you don’t talk to God and hear from Him for yourself by yourself?  And sure, you can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned.  As Christians, we are supposed to do these things.  But, what good is it to meet the physical needs of others and ignore your spiritual needs?  You should keep doing the one without ignoring the other.  So, go home.

God rewards those who come to Him in prayer at home.  Of course Christians should come to Sunday morning worship.  It is good for believers to attend various conferences, convocations, and the like.  We ought to meet brothers and sisters from other places, exchange ideas, and hear from and be inspired by other speakers.  But, trying to sell these events as the greatest thing we can ever attend is over-reaching.  Chances are that if one church group has a conference that will “take you to the next level,” some other group will have a convocation that will “birth you to a new breakthrough.”  While churches, denominations, and fellowships of all stripes bombard the faithful with slick advertisements of “life changing” gatherings; Jesus directs us to the most significant place to meet God and promises that if we do so as He directs, we will receive far more than tote bags and wrist bands that we can show to the folks back home.  Go home to your room and closed the door.  The Father in heaven may give a few glimpses of Himself in the convention centers.  But, the Father IS in the secret place.  He who comes to Him in secret will be openly rewarded.  Attend a conference if you can.  Attend Sunday worship as you should.  But, in the words of Public Enemy, don’t believe the hype about how “The Anointed Voices of the Rem-ah Mass Choir, The Shabbach Praise Team, and Fire Baptized Agape Preached Word from First Presiding Prelate His Holiness Apostle Bishop Pookie Pook will give you an Overflowing Shondo Birthed Blessing that will Take You To The Next Level!”  Go to church.  Go to a conference.  Do good to those who are less fortunate.  Go home to your room and pray as instructed.

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

Chronicles to Conversion: The Big Weekend Is Here

This evening, I will make my first confession before God alongside my priest.  Early tomorrow morning, I will receive Holy Chrismation before Matins and will partake of the Eucharist which will mark my entry into the 2,000 year old body of Christ.  I am going into Orthodox Christianity with a deep sense of gratitude for the Baptist faith that I nurtured me for the past 46 years.  My grandmother Dinah was known for her devotion to God and wisdom in teaching Sunday School.  The passion for Biblical truth was passed down from Daddy Joe & Momma Di to their son John.  My mother is also the product of a very devout household which has produced generations of pastors and deacons.  The African-American Baptist community in King William County, the Pamunkey Baptist Association has given me many opportunities to develop socially and spiritually.  I grew up surrounded by saints who kept the faith through the awful oppression of Jim Crow to see the heights of our people rising in every profession once denied to us, even the Presidency of this nation.  Without the black church, I would have never known salvation.  Jesus would have never been real to me.  Baptist Liberty, Mt. Olive, Third Union, Trinity;  these in particular and others in general have well prepared me for the journey I am undertaking now.

Some are asking, “Why take this journey at all?”  Just as my past as an African-American is important to my faith, so is the ancient history of Christianity.  While the Bible is central and essential to our faith, I see no reason to ignore the prayers, spirituality, writings, and wisdom that led the early church fathers to compile the books together.  I see no reason to ignore the multi-cultural foundation of early church history and the role that Africans played in it.  After seeing the ancient faith still being practiced among the various Orthodox jurisdictions and learning and practicing the faith as best as I could “in the closet,” I felt it was only right to step out of the safety and security of what I have always known to be a part of the church that was always there.

I believe that African-Americans should learn about and consider converting to the church of Simeon called Niger, Simon of Cyrene and his sons Alexander and Rufus, and the Ethiopian Eunuch that was the first non-Jew to be baptized.  People in Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, and Serbia know of the “desert fathers” and venerate icons of Jesus and the saints that look like me. Sure, I suppose I could have continued to speak about these things from a Baptist pulpit.  That would be like telling someone about kayak fishing yet never having done it.  Sure, I could talk about paddling strokes, adapting equipment, and locating fish in shallow water from the comfort and safety of a pier.  But, until I get into a Wilderness Systems Pungo 140, make my own rod holders, and drift the coves at Horn Harbor to pull up large croaker and red drum; I really can’t tell anyone what it is like to fish from a kayak.  Well, I can talk about kayak fishing not only in theory, but from experience as well.  The experienced are the most credible witnesses.

So when I tell African-Americans and others about Orthodoxy, I won’t be doing this as someone who has read some books and heard a few podcast and visited a few websites.  I am a part of the ancient faith.  I am a credible witness.