Author: jaygresh

Cumberland Marsh & My Need for a Fundamental

A Beach Keeper's Journal

Cumberland Marsh Natural Area Preserve is one of those very rare places where the American beech trees haven’t been scarred by a love-stricken vandal’s pocket knife.  Holt’s Creek is a broad hidden waterway inside of the marsh that flows into a thoroughfare that creates  a wetland island in the Pamunkey River.  Once in the woods from the trail, hikers are treated to a series of small, non-tidal streams.  Eventually, the trail comes to a striking view of Holt’s from a high bluff.  In the late fall and winter, one can even catch a slight glimpse of the greater river that combines with the Mattaponi to form the York.  There are no steep ravines to navigate; the terrain is flat.  But, the distance from even secondary road traffic makes Cumberland Marsh an excellent hike.

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I have to confess, there was one ulterior motive for hiking Cumberland.  Rick’s Country Cafe has a…

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Habakkuk of Serbia: A Hat of Honor & Humility

There are some people who want to enter the clergy to wear impressive vestments.  It is an honor to wear the Sticharion and Orarion as well as the inner and outer cassock as a deacon.  But the item I most wanted to wear was the skufi.  This head gear is worn by deacons and priest in the Greek and Serbian jurisdictions.  Back in late 1980’s, it wasn’t uncommon to see Afrocentric minded blacks sporting them as a similar hat was a part of traditional West African dress.  No doubt, it can be found in the Middle East as well.  Two of my good friends, Fathers Justin Matthews and Turbo Qualls of St. Mary of Egypt in Kansas City wear them.  I like to wear my black, gold cross embroidered skufi to the grocery store after church to let people see that I practice a different type of Christianity from western Protestantism.

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In my daily reading of the lives of the saints in the Prologue of Orhid, I have been challenged to think twice as I wear this head gear. During the Turkish occupation of Serbia, Abbot Paisius and Deacon Habakkuk of the Travana Monestary were impaled on stakes in Belgrade. As he carried the instrument of torture, the deacon sang en route to death.  His mother saw him on the way and pleaded that he would save his life by converting to Islam.  Habakkuk’s reply was amazing:  “My mother, I thank you for your milk.  But, for your counsel I thank you not.  A Serb is Christ’s; he rejoices in Death.”

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I don’t know if this martyred deacon wore a skufi similarly embroidered as mine.  But, there is no doubt that Habakkuk had a sense of courage and faith that I don’t think I have come close to matching.  Sure, I had gone through my own set of trials and tribulations converting from being a Baptist pastor to an Orthodox layman.  Picturing what driving a stake through a human being is and that he and others could have avoided such a gruesome death teaches me that what I wear is not a matter of style.  The skufi, as well as my vestments, is a declaration that I will adhere to the Orthodox faith no matter what the world will inflict on me.  My calling is for a life long commitment to the kingdom to come, not to put on a show for this temporal nation.  Indeed, I must rejoice when condemned.

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My skufi sits on a make-shift hat rack (old TV “rabbit ear” antenna) beside my Liturgickon at my living room prayer corner.  Before wearing, it is to be surrounded by prayer and attentiveness.  Not only my hair, by my mind should be clean every Sunday morning as it is a part of my diaconate wardrobe.  Habakkuk, and other martyred saints, have given me a Christian model to aim for.  If tested, I pray that I will pass.  If I fail, that my repentance will be true and tearful.

The Diaconate & River

A Beach Keeper'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.

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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…

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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. 

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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).

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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.

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

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Wahrani: Pursuing Purity and Light

A Beach Keeper'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

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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…

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Church, Home, & Trail: A Trinity

A Beach Keeper'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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.