Author: jaygresh

The Diaconate & River

A Path Seeker's Journal

The Colonial Parkway between I-64 and Yorktown has always been one of my favorite places in the state. As a kid, my family would drive from Richmond to my Uncle Bill and Aunt Edith’s house in Gloucester for weekends of crabbing, fishing, and swimming.  Brenda and I spent a day of our honeymoon with a great drive and picnic.  Even today, I can’t help but admire the York River on a rough and windy afternoon.  Looking up-river from Indian Fields Creek, I am awestruck that such a body of water comes from a couple of smaller rivers that can be wadded across at the King William and Caroline County borders.

IMGP9233_edited-1

I hadn’t planned and plotted this time in nature. It just seemed like a good place to enjoy in route to my church, St Basil the Great Orthodox in Hampton, to practice my role as a deacon during the Divine…

View original post 457 more words

Advertisements

Beyond Kavanaugh Craziness: Confronting Our Deplorable Sex Culture

I am afraid that too many people on either side of the Kavanaugh confirmation fiasco are going to continue to ignore the far deeper problem in our society than who sits on the Supreme Court. Our culture of “boys will be boys” is deeply embedded in America to a point where even many Christians are tolerant of sexual immorality.  I have mentioned the words of the late educator Benjamin Mays a couple of times before in my blog articles, “The problem is not failure.  The problem is low aim.”  While we can have all of the proper laws against rape,  extend the statute of limitations to a hundred years, and permit every DNA and polygraph test in courts of law and public opinion; unless we aim for purity and repentance in our minds and souls we will have many more Cosbys and Kavanaughs to come.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint, LXX canonized over 200 years before the birth of Christ), we read in the fourth Psalm Have remorse in your beds for what you have said in your hearts (1) and As you lie in bed, repent for what you say in your heart (2).  The context of the scripture addresses the sin of anger.  However, the sin of lust should also be expelled from our hearts and be repented of as we go to sleep.  The New Testament era writing The Shepherd Hermas warns us, Or do you suppose it is not an evil thing for for a righteous man if an evil desire arises in his heart? It is indeed a sin, and a great one (3).  Jesus Himself confirms, But, I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (4).  Please note, no actual physical sexual assault has to take place.  The sin begins in the mind.  And in the case of Hermas, the desire for the woman was in the context of marriage.  If our society taught remorse and repentance for lust while it is still in the mind and soul, rape (like any other sin) would still happen.  But, it would happen far less than it does now because the root of this horrible and obvious sin is being addressed and corrected at the root. 

e79e92b8fce42056efd087680bd9767b

Because the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are not in the Bible, it was easy for modern Christianity to ignore Hermas and other ancient books (no matter how highly regarded they were to early Christians). Biblical translators from the Maseoritic Hebrew text of the Middle Ages exchanged the words remorse and repent with less challenging terms like commune (King James and Revised Standard), meditate (New Revised Standard) , and ponder (New King James). As the reader feels less of a need to correct himself, he will make excuses for his thoughts.  I can’t help it, I’m a man. She shouldn’t have been dressed like that.  Those girls deserve it.  She really wants it.  She really wants me.  Ain’t no harm in thinking.  Since lust is such a difficult sin to overcome, making excuses for it seems to make common sense.  If the mind is set in the wrong direction, it only takes opportunity for thought to turn to action.  This is true even for clergy who proclaim the teachings of Jesus Christ.  While most men do not become rapist and molesters, the atmosphere of sexual violence is upheld when we make excuses for ourselves and others who aren’t “as bad as _______________.”  We give Satan a foothold everytime we do not use quiet moments outside of worship to be remorseful and repentant for our “little” sexual sins.  As long as he knows his foothold is unchallenged, he can be content for years and decades.  Sometimes the devil brings us down with a hurricane or tornado.  He is just as happy to rot us out like fungi and termites making our holiness and morality an empty shell.  To have a society full of judgemental and tolerant excuse making empty shells causes the demons great rejoicing.

The call to be remorseful and repentant on our beds is not a time of fearful condemnation and self hate. If anything, it is just as much a time of rejoicing as it is a time of tears.  We ought to be mornful of our interior wickedness and consider ourselves to be chief among sinners (5).  But, God has given us this opportunity for self correction.  It is far less destructive to cleanse our hearts and minds than to have sexually violated someone (men get raped too).  We are much better off taking the treatments of healing our soul than letting them rot until we die.  Mourning over our sins brings about the promise of Christ to comfort us (6).  Repentance gives us that peace in mind that we can enter the kingdom of God (7).  Our Lord taught that if we clean the inside of a cup or dish, that the outside of it will be clean as well (8).  If we continue to make excuses for lust in our hearts and minds, people will see past our apperances of righteousness and despise us for the hypocrites we are; especially if we call ourselves “Christians” (9).

saint_macarius

Among the Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great was once accused of impregnating a young woman (10). Instead of passionately pleading his case, the monk (badly bruised and beaten by an angry mob) returned to his hut to sell off and make even more baskets to support the new wife that he resigned himself to be bound to.  When the time for her to deliver came, she couldn’t until she confessed that Macarius was not the culprit.  Rather than wait to gloat before his embarassed accusers and tormenters, the saint left the area so he could continue a life of undistracted prayer.  If this father can trust God in the midst of such an obvious and false accusation, we can do the same in confessing our private sins that we know we are guilty of.  Let’s do it now before accusers and tormenters arise and take us to task.

  1. Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 4:5
  2. John Cassian, On the Eight Vices, Philokalia Vol. 1, pg. 83
  3. Shepherd Hermas, Vision I:1-9, The Apostolic Fathers (edited by Jack N. Sparks) pgs. 161, 162
  4. Matthew 5:28
  5. 1 Timothy 1:15, Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
  6. Matthew 5:4
  7. Matthew 3:2
  8. Matthew 23:25, 26
  9. Romans 2:24
  10. Sayings of the Desert Fathers (translated by Benedicta Ward), pgs. 124, 125.

Ancient Christianity and Afro-American Conference 2018: A Sober Joy

Desert Fathers Dispatch

I grew up with traditional black Baptist revivals. Over the years, I’ve been to various conferences and services of different races and denominations. No matter what the event, there always seemed to be a push to get some sort of “high.”  Perhaps from the keynote speaker, music concert, prayer session, something was supposed to give the attendees a level of excitement and uplift that everyone would feel ecstatic and would leave yearning for the next event.  Some evangelist and worshipers refer to these experiences as “Holy Ghost Parties” (Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost Party ’cause the Holy Ghost Party don’t stop).  This year’s St. Moses Conference, several of us mentioned that we experienced something different. (1)  I’m not sure who came up with the term.  But, it fits: a sober joy.

IMGP9002_edited-1

Yes, it was joyous. Old friends were re-acquainted and new ones were made.  Our host in South…

View original post 482 more words

Wahrani: Pursuing Purity and Light

A Path Seeker's Journal

“Separated from the virginity of the soul and the light of the heart, the mind is the shadow of the Son of God and the reverse of Wisdom.” Saint Nikolai Velimirovich Prayers by the Lake LXIII

IMGP8701

In preparation for today’s hike on the Wahrani Nature Trail, I figured I’d find a prayer I could keep in mind along the way. The word of the modern Serbian sage Nikolai Velimirovich seems to have a finger on what is wrong with our society.  Our minds are detached from what brings life.

Our Lord was pure as was His Mother and Forerunner.   But, that purity meant more than just not having sexual contact.  Christ and the saints did not put their minds to toxifying their souls.  Even those holy people, known and unknown, pursued a path of purity practicing repentance when they fell rather than make and live in excuses for sins.  They…

View original post 259 more words

Church, Home, & Trail: A Trinity

A Path Seeker's Journal

As a devout Christian, I attend worship services every Sunday and mid-week when possible.  Sadly, some believers have begun to shun church membership thinking that it is better not to be surrounded with others who may be hypocritical sinners.  Not going to church because it is full of flawed people is like not going to the gym because it has too many out of shape people.  We are all struggling with faults and failures.  A good church is a hospital for sick souls.  I know my spiritual illnesses.  So, I get my medication every week from God with my brothers and sisters who love me, and I them.

Taking spiritual medicine only at church on Sunday is no different than following doctor’s orders only in the hospital.  Real healing and growth comes from being consistent in nearness to God every day.  So, I keep a daily rule consisting of prayers…

View original post 376 more words

Feast of the Dormition: The Need to be Watchful

Today is the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Theotokos literally means the one who bore God.  This term is more descriptive than simply saying, ‘the Virgin Mary’ (although we Orthodox call her this as well).  Mary is the example as she had Jesus developing inside of her and coming through her.  We should also have Christ inside of and purifying us and seen coming out of us in the way we act, speak, and think.

It is more mournful that the commemoration of death (dormition = falling asleep) of the holy Mother is in the wake of such horribly disturbing revelations of child sex abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania. Catholicism is not alone in dealing with damaging sinfulness.  Recently, a sex abuse scandal has arisen in a major mega church near Chicago.  Other Protestant congregations have had ministers arrested for such wickedness.  While little is heard of Orthodox clergy failures in America, I am (alas) certain that such scandals do arise where our faith is more dominant.

church-scandal

Why do these things happen? On the surface, we outside of Rome can say that the Catholics should allow their clergy to be married.  Almost all Protestants expect their pastors to have a wife.  Orthodoxy encourages men to carefully consider marriage and marry as we accept married and unmarried men into the diaconate and priesthood.  Biblical and theological scholars greater than myself can argue this to death.  Again, this is more of a surface argument.

I think the greater reason of why such sins arise in all Christian clergy is that we are not as watchful as we should be over our own souls. As a former Baptist pastor and current Orthodox altar server, I know how easy it is to be distracted by other functions of ministry.  We want to write and deliver sermons that invoke a response from our congregations.  We want to make sure we say each portion of the liturgy clearly and reverently.  We want to make sure that our Christian education, evangelism, and social service programs are efficient and effective.  Yes, all of these exterior things are important and we should watch over them.

There is a danger in watching too much on our exterior aspects of ministry.  We become so attentive of our outward projections that Satan convinces us to make an allowance for one or two, what seems to be, minor weaknesses.  In time, these “minor” weaknesses can become major and obvious.  At this point, we can become criminals such as the priest in the investigation.  We can become hypocrites like those caught in consensual affairs.  We can slowly rot with our layers of secret sins that are easily hidden from public view.  Sex, greed, anger, pride; all of these and other sins grow inside of us when we become careless about and make excuses for them.  There is no seminary degree we can earn, honor that can be bestowed on us, nor number of years of service that can substitute for watchfulness and repentance of “minor” weaknesses.  We must either struggle against them, or they will enslave us in one form or another.

elder-paisios

St. Paisios of Mt. Athos gave a good word of advice on being watchful, “Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land!” From the Bible, St. Paul taught us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Romans 13:14). Even when there is a sin that we are particularly weak to, it is still our responsibility to strive against it.  St. Moses the Black taught that wise and continual meditation on God’s laws, prayer, and thinking of the world to come will cause wicked thoughts to weaken and find no place (Philokalia vol. I pg. 97).  Even still, there are times when a temptation stands right in front of us.  Our Lord gives us the example of victory in such a circumstance.  “As it is written, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  You shall not tempt the Lord your God.  Get behind me … you shall love the Lord your God and serve Him only” (from Matthew 4:1-11).

And when we confess and repent, we must do so with humility, remorse, and resolve not to fall again. Going through a rite for the sake of hiding a sin is not confession.  Pointing out that other people have done worse is neither humility nor remorse.  Yet, we cannot condemn ourselves as if we are beyond hope and restoration.  In our tears of repentance, let them be tears of a sorrowful joy that we can be healed and grow closer to Christ.

Dormition Fast: The Continuing Importance of August

I used to look forward to the month of August as it was a season of church services and great meals.   The African-American Baptist Churches in King William have their Homecoming and Revival services this month.  After the Sunday morning worship, there was a “dinner on the grounds” with relatives who moved up to DC, Philly, and other places up north.  Then about 3 or 4 pm, the first night of a week of Revival services will start.  When I was a boy, that meant preaching every night for six straight nights.  Now a days, some churches will have three nights of preaching, maybe a gospel concert, or whatever the congregation decides to do that year.

As an Orthodox Christian, I still look forward to August. But, things are way different.  The first 15 days of the month is the Dormition of the Theotokos Fast.  I can’t touch a piece of fried chicken, or two for $2.22 hot dogs at the 7-Eleven.   But, tofu and the occasional $20 lobster tail are cool.  This is a heck of a tradeoff until I remember why I am fasting.  The woman who bore God is very significant in the ancient Church as she was the only person with Jesus from the Annunciation, Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection.  I have to ask myself if I have given so full of an embrace of the Lord each day of my life.  To be honest, I tend to keep Him in neat little compartments throughout the day.  Even though I keep the Daily Cycle, I have rushed through a few sentences just to have an internal bragging point over my Catholic and Protestant friends and family.  Giving the Lord any real attention?  I have made that a secondary concern more often than I want to admit.

dormition-3

I am fasting to remind myself to follow Mary’s example to be consistent and humble when seeking to embrace God. She didn’t demand to be counted among the Apostles as they spread the Gospel throughout the world.  Living in the care of John the Evangelist, she didn’t go anywhere and evangelize as several women did.  But, her significance as the birth-giver of God the Son was not lost on anyone.  Almost anyone can say something about Jesus Christ.  The true test is that we have Him inside of us to where he naturally comes out of us and we follow Him to the point of death that we may celebrate His resurrecting power.  Can we do this without the desire to be the star of the show?  Can we do this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and allow Him rule over our actions, words, and (even) thoughts?  Can we follow Mary’s example of bearing and sharing Christ?

I am sure I’ll have other opportunities to feast with my family and friends. I enjoy a cook-out as much as the next person and can hold my own on a barbeque pit and grill.  One of my former Baptist pastors taught that a fast is not only about giving something up, but putting something on to glorify God and grow spiritually.  So, my revival consist of adding something to my prayers, readings, and almsgiving as well as driving past fast food hamburgers.  When I can, I will attend the Paraklesis services.  I have left the Baptist years ago.  But August still remains a very important month for renewal.

YES Newport News: The Perpetual Need for Friendship and More

My good friends of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity proclaim their slogan, “Friendship is essential to the soul.” Although I’d never trade in my beloved brotherhood of Alpha Phi Alpha, I can’t help but to agree with them.  As a result of the recent Youth Equipped to Serve (YES) trip to Newport News, I would dare add two other essentials that we often make light of in our society.

yes newport news photo

For years, people half-jokingly note that a wineo will share his last sip of wine with his buddy. From what I have observed from those who attend church meal programs and homeless shelters, those who are down on their luck have few problems sharing a table with one another.  Sometimes they pass each other on the same street corners.  Those who have homes and can’t afford full refrigerators know that they aren’t that far removed from their brothers & sisters who reside under the overpasses.  Rev. Bruce, Curtis, and the others who run the homeless programs at St. Paul’s Episcopal are not overlords giving charity to wayward riff-raff.  No, they are friends of these men and women who have come to know and trust them.  The providers and those being provided for share d compassion and love as well as a meal.

From an interview with Ancient Faith Radio, I heard that compassion means to co-suffer with someone. When it comes to people who are financially and materially less fortunate, I think the word gets re-defined with doing something good so you can feel good.  Everyone likes giving a gift for “Angel Tree” or “Toys For Tots” during the holidays.  But, that kid doesn’t look as cute in March when the clothes are outgrown and toys are broken.  Friendship has to be more than just kind acts to produce rose garden moments.  What we really need in the world is to be able to accept the aromas of urine and weed and see that such odors do not detract from our fellow human as the image of God.

wealth-and-poverty

Along with compassion, we need a better understanding of what love really is. As we make our way through the world’s marketplaces, there is too strong a tendency to confine love to “me, my four, and no more.”  This confinement closes us off not only from giving, but receiving love as well.  The biblical definition of love (I Corinthians 13) is extensive and is to be applied to all, even enemies.  Because we have so deeply blended the term with our own desires and egos, those who are against us are likely to come from the very ones we care for the most.

It is important for us to extend the borders of friendship, compassion, and love.  All three are essential in our relationship to Christ and one another.  He showed them by becoming one of us and destroying the power of sin and death, our greatest enemies.  As we are all made in God’s image and likeness, living in these three components makes us more and more like him.  Let’s not dwell in stereotypes, socio-political images, nor racial and sexual mistrust.  Our souls are far too important to waste.

Great Lent: The Feast of St. Simon of Cyrene & Cross bearing

So, today is the feast of an obscure saint in the Orthodox Christian calendar, Simon of Cyrene. Anyone who is familiar with the oldest expression of the Christian faith knows that his obscurity is not due to modern-day racism.  Orthodox Christianity acknowledges a plethora of holy men and women from the African continent as well as Europe and the Middle East.  Athanasius & Cyril of Alexandria, Anthony, Macarius, and Moses the Ethiopian with other great Desert Fathers.  St. Mary of Egypt is venerated on April 1st and on the fifth sunday of Great Lent.  Again, the first Orthodox parish I ever visited  is named for the bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage.  Simon did carry the cross for our Lord on that fateful day on Calvary.  But, not much else was recorded about him after the Crucifixion (Mark 15:21).

Simon of Cyrene icon

Because of this act recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), Simon is to be respected and celebrated as an example of how to follow Jesus in His words; “Let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23) Self denial is critical to the Christian life as it allows us to struggle against our passions and draw closer to the Savior.  Simon was compelled to carry the cross.  It can be determined that he saw something compelling about the one that was to be nailed on this tree as the cross-bearer brought up Alexander and Rufus to believe in the Crucified.

We are quick to carry so many other things in our society. Flags of patriotism, clenched fist of protest, electronic devices for communication and entertainment, lucky key chains and keys for our cars and homes, purses and wallets with our earnings, and so many other things in and outside of ourselves.  But these items cannot cleanse our souls and do not require us to turn our lives to holy living.  If anything, we simply add the name “Jesus” and other religious words to such things to make excuses for our sins.  We should not be surprised to find that we still wallow in personal and social problems that we should have overcome by now.  We must carry something that can compel us to change our direction and share this compulsion with others.

Featured Image -- 1506

Unlike St. Patrick’s Day, there is no tradition of wearing a particular color to show one’s heritage on this day. We aren’t “required” to give gifts as with the honoring of St. Nicholas.   Nor is there any romantic inclinations similar to St. Valentine.  Perhaps that is a great blessing of an obscure feast day; it is not over commercialized.

st~Simon

We can best commemorate St. Simon of Cyrene by following what our Lord taught us to do. Let us deny ourselves from our own pleasures and will and take on suffering for the sake of Christ and our fellow-man every day.  Even though we may feel that we are unfairly singled out and made to suffer unjustly, Our Lord submitted Himself to the greatest humiliation for the sake of our salvation and gained the greatest name of all.  In this self-denial and bearing our crosses, God will reveal His compelling love for us.  When we see this under such conditions, we can best share the Gospel by the way we live, even if no one notices us by name.

Great Lent: Seeking the narrow path

And so the Great Lenten Fast is upon us all. Roman Catholics and traditional Protestants have been to Ash Wednesday services.  Some of the more modern churches have created their own approaches to this special season.   Eastern and Oriental Orthodox have performed the rites and rituals of Forgiveness Sunday.  From the sanctuaries adorned with icons and incense to those with professional lighting and sound systems, serious-minded Christians have taken up some form or fashion of what our Lord has taught us, “… Seek and you will find;…” (Matthew 7:7)

monk-in-prayer-orthodox

Great Lent is a period of intentionally seeking God through repentance with an emphasis on almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. These things the Lord spoke of in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 -7), are not options that we can participate in if we wish.  Nor are they thoughtless habits of a culture or nation that we use out of seasonal kindness or times of distress.  Jesus never said, “if,” to almsgiving, fasting, and prayer; He said “when” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16).  We are expected to do these things.  Early Christian communities saw the wisdom of concentrating their efforts in these areas of spiritual life in the period leading up to celebrating our Lord’s resurrection.  Thus, we take up an extra collection of our finances to be given to the poor, refrain from eating certain foods (as our physical condition can accept), and devote more of our time to prayer in church services and at home.

Jesus described the way to the kingdom of God as a narrow path that we are to find (Matthew 7:13, 14). Some dismiss the extra efforts made by Christians during the Lenten season as  trying to earn salvation instead of relying on faith.  There is no doubt that our Lord freely gave us great mercy when He was nailed to the cross, died, and arose from the grave.  But, what do we do with this free gift?  In another parable, a master gave sums of money to his three servants (Matthew 25:14-28).  Two of them took their five and two talents, made an effort to trade with them, and doubled what they had.  The lone servant with the one talent hid it fearing his master’s power.  The two who made effort with what they received were blessed and welcomed to join in their master’s joy.  The one who did nothing not only gained nothing was chastised for being lazy and that which he did receive was taken away from him as he was thrown outside of the master’s presence.  Furthermore, Jesus taught that whomever would follow Him must make the effort of self-denial and taking up his cross.  We ought to be doing these things all year-long throughout our lives anyway.  Lent is a reminder and a reenforcement of our duty as Christians.

The days and weeks of struggle of Lent are a challenge. There is always the temptation to splurge our disposable income on ourselves rather than give to someone else.  Sometimes we barely have time to say, “Lord have mercy” with our hectic schedules.  Making more time for prayer and special worship services can be difficult.  As an avid customer of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, I know the pain of not eating favorite foods.  However, the Holy Spirit led the newly baptized Jesus into the desert where He completely fasted for 40 days (Matthew 4:1).  The early Church Fathers and modern preachers understand the value of instructing believers to fast only as to what their bodies can handle.  We are not being asked to surrender the money for our utility bills to any organization.  And one can, at least, pray during commercials and better still cut out a half hour of TV entertainment and propaganda disguised as news.

IMGP5405

And let us consider what Great Lent leads to; the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Whether you have Easter services on April 1st or Pascha (the Lord’s Passover) on the 8th, we honor the triumph of the Light of Life over the forces of darkness.  This Light, Jesus Christ, took on human form and showed the way of going beyond earthly kingdoms of anger, conflict, and wickedness.  He has shown that forgiveness, repentance, humility and love were the cornerstones of the greater kingdom to come.  By His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus proved that even when the ways of this world seem victorious, they only lead to failure.  Enduring humiliation and pain with compassion even for enemies for the sake of righteousness is what brings us ultimate victory.  We don’t have to have nails in our hands and feet.  So, is it that difficult to offer a hand to those in need?  We are not required to wear crosses of thorns on bleeding heads.  Is making more time for more prayer too much to ask?  We need not hang on a cross being mocked with bitter wine from a sponge.  Why not pass by pizza and beer?  God does call some of us to lead special ministries and movements for the poor, social justice, missionary work and other things for the good of humanity.  But, all of us can take part in sacrificing a part of our selves in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in preparation to participate in the Feast of Feast which is a foretaste of the kingdom to come.

If you desire to participate in Lent for the first time, observe it in the way your church prescribes to the best of your ability. Talk with your priest or pastor if you have health issues or other concerns that may hinder your efforts.  If your church does not endorse Lenten practices but does not prevent members from these activities, do somethings that make you a little uncomfortable, but not so hard that you give up out of discouragement.  Give up the pocket change you were going to use on unhealthy fast food.  While mentioned, kicking the fast food habit may be a good form of fasting.  Cutting out that “umpteenth” re-run of your favorite comedy would be a great time for prayer and reading the Bible and other holy writings.

Wherever you are on your Christian journey, make as much use of your time and effort as you can during Great Lent for forgiveness and repentance. Make the effort to give alms, pray, and fast in a way that builds your soul and those of whomever you come in contact with.  Do these things with all seriousness as Jesus notes that not all will find the narrow gate.  But, if we ask, seek, and knock He will give us good things.