Aspiration

Preparing for the Next Chapter

When I left the Baptist church to become an Orthodox Christian, I knew that I would not immediately be ordained into the clergy.  I had much to learn about the Church and parish life.  I needed time to adjust from being the key figure in an (almost) all African-American congregation to being in a “white” church.  Besides, not having to come up with sermons and teach the adult Sunday School class every week was very relaxing.  I have been serving as a lay chanter/reader during Matins and at the altar during Divine Liturgy.  While I haven’t really done as much as I should have with the VA Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, I have spoken about African saints at St. Andrews (OCA) and St. Nicholas (Ukrainian) this year.   It looks like my time of just absorbing and chilling is coming to an end.

Hanging with my good brothers John Norman and Orlando Greenhill at the 2013 St. Moses Conference.

Firstly, I have an ambitious vision for the VA Brotherhood.  I want to visit 8 to 12 different parishes in 2016 to encourage evangelism and have quarterly events in different parts of the state.  I also want to use a couple of contacts with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship to share the ancient faith on college campuses.  Starting a prayer group in my home in West Point is not completely out of the question.

Some of my brothers and sisters at St. Basil have been asking me if I want to become a deacon or priest.  While the thought has been in the back of my mind, I have preferred to keep it there for now.  I have been blessed with a financial gift to further my education.  Last week, I received an acceptance letter from the Antiochian House of Studies.  Earning a Masters of Applied Orthodox Theology will not guarantee me ordination into anything.  But, at least, I will have the tools needed to be effective wherever the Church needs me.

I have accepted the opportunity to teach the teen seminar at our Church for Sunday School.  Being a convert and former Baptist pastor, I hope to give these kids a perspective about Orthodoxy that they may not get from someone who was brought up in the Church.  Besides leading them to knowledge and spiritual maturity, I want to encourage them not to take the faith for granted.  Orthodoxy has a precious depth of 2,000 years of history, prayer, saints, spirituality, and wisdom that no other expression of Christianity can give.  If I can help instill a love for learning and living the ancient faith, that will be a blessing.

When I was still at Trinity Baptist Church, someone who was concerned about my talking about Orthodoxy from the pulpit asked, “Where is all of this leading?”  I didn’t know then.  I still don’t know now.  But, St. Cyprian of Carthage (whom we “new calendars” honor today) let God lead him in hiding during persecution to keep the Church encouraged and to his martyrdom as he encouraged his executor to behead him.  Before him, were Perpetua and Felicity who were martyred in that great city.  And before them were Neokorus (a Carthaginian who served in the Roman army in Judea) and his grandson Callistratus, the later was martyred as he was discovered praying ceaselessly to Jesus and refused to worship any pagan god.  And among those who taught Neokorus (who was a witness to the death and resurrection of our Lord) may have been the Apostle Thomas who told the disciples as Jesus was to lead them back across the Jordan to see the dead Lazarus, “Let us go with him and die” (John 11:16).  I guess I am going to die to something so that I can live to something greater.

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.

 

Today’s Sermon: Consuming Christ

“This is the bread which came down from heaven-not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead.  He who eats this bread will live forever.”

John 6:58

Let us be in prayer for all who live in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  Thanking God that the Tsunami didn’t greatly affect Alaska and Hawaii.  I wish I had spent a little more time (and money, if I had it) at the Newport News Greek Festival yesterday.  Spinakopida is sooooooo good!

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

CONSUMING CHRIST

John 6:53-58

(introduction)  Holy Communion is a practice that all Christians participate in.

(antithesis)  Oddly enough, there are different doctrines about this, even within our own Baptist denomination

(propositional statement) No matter our doctrine, Jesus calls all of us to consume him

(relevant question) Why is consuming Christ important to our faith?

(points [ v. 58])

  • consuming the things of this world cannot save our souls
  • consuming Christ allows us to abide in him and he in us
  • consuming Christ allows us to experience the fullness of salvation

(conclusion) We need no other sign of the divinity of Jesus except that he was, is, and is to come

Today’s Sermon: Follow Me

The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.”

John 1:43

It is “Revival Season” among the Baptist churches in our county.  We will have ours next week.  As I was thinking about a theme for us, I couldn’t help but to think of how many of us get caught up in the emotion of the singing and sermons of the week only to fizzle out once when September rolls in.  I pray that worshipers will understand that we are revived to follow and not just to “have church.”

Revive Us Lord (© John Gresham)

 

FOLLOW ME

John 1:35-51 (v.43)

(introduction) We know nothing about Philip’s character when Jesus called him and can assume he was an ordinary man

(antithesis) Yet Jesus called him to do the same thing as the two of John’s disciples and as Simon who Jesus called a “rock”

(propositional statement) Discipleship is the common call for all of us no matter if we are the greatest of saints or worst of sinners

(relevant question)  How does the average person take up the path of discipleship, following Jesus?

(points)

  • rely on reliable sources (v. 35, 36, 44)
  • put aside preconceived notions and see for yourself based on those sources (v.37-39, 46)
  • spend time with Jesus where He is (v. 39, 2:1)

(conclusion) We need no special skill nor dramatic conversion story to follow Jesus.  Just a desire and to be diligent to walk with him.

The Greater Glory

A blessed feast of the Transfiguration to all.  Too bad we Baptist haven’t made a deliberate observance of this feast.  It seems like a great reason to have a fish fry.  As much as we love our croakers, spot, and trout (with a crab cake or two on the side); this ought to be the third biggest holiday in Virginia east of I-95.  Yes, I know there is something more important to the feast than the food.  Which brings me to my two-cents of thinking today.

Tidal Flat (© John Gresham)

In the 16th chapter of Mathew, we find Peter pulling Jesus to the side and rebuking him about the foretelling of his trial, death, and resurrection. The idea that the Christ, the Son of the Living God should have to suffer and die at the hands of his enemies seemed foolish.  The disciple, perhaps, thought his heaven-sent Master should continue to be earthly healer, teacher, and prophet that everyone had come to adore.  Maybe this fisherman thought that the One who called him to be a fisher of men should be that political Messiah that would restore Israel to the glories of David and Solomon.  Either way, Peter had his eyes on a lesser glory.  Jesus, the meek and mild, proved to be highly intolerant of anyone who wanted to reduce him down to an earthly purpose.  “Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  (I guess the baby in the manger grew up)

Rather than leave Peter with such a hard rebuke, Jesus showed him and Zebedee’s boys what greater glory looked like.  “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as the light.”  No earthly royal regalia could match it.  “And behold Moses and Elijah appeared to them talking with him.” Talk about a royal court of greatness.  Poor Peter thought that honoring them with earthly tabernacles would be a sufficient means of honoring these three in this glory.  But, before he could finish his sentence, God the Father provided something greater.  “Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I and well pleased.  Hear Him!”  (Pete, who was that you were trying to correct?).  As Peter, James, and John cowered in fear, Jesus touched and gave them a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid.”  And they saw him alone back in the form they were accustomed to.

I think we sometimes forget that Jesus was not sent here to be known as a social “do-gooder” nor political “values-bearer.”  He came to save the souls of all who would believe in him.  Of course we want to improve our communities and practice moral behavior.  But, when we reduce the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior to earthly pursuits, we become an affront to Jesus.  When He called Peter, “Satan,” it wasn’t because the disciple had a homosexual marriage with a Skinhead inside trader.  Peter tried to re-direct Jesus from his ultimate greater glory.  Today, we commemorate the manifestation of the greater glory of Christ our Lord and that His kingdom is of a law and prophetic spirit that is above the shelters of man’s creation.

We forget the lesson of the Transfiguration when we weld the Christian faith to either side of the political spectrum.  Fr. Seraphim Rose was criticized for his letter stating his case against the popular social struggles for a better world in the 1960’s.  He was no supporter of war, racism, and other evils many Christians struggled against.  But, he wisely saw that if the faithful were not careful, they would take their eyes off of the greater glory of our Lord and let the Left hijack Christianity to a crusade to “make the world a better place.”  A similar thing is happening today from the Right.  We should not support gay marriage, pornography, and other moral ills.  But, in our crusade for family values, we are ignoring our own inward struggles of working out our salvation as we busy ourselves pointing out the failures of others.

Conservative or liberal?  Though we are free to choose between these two sides of the coin of earthly authority (one-sided coins have no value and are physically impossible), we are not allowed to weld our faith in Jesus to either side.  The Transfiguration is a glimpse of the greater glorious kingdom we can be a part of through our Lord and Savior.  Entry into the kingdom and inviting others to join us, this must be our central goal.  My other goal is to fix stuffed flounder in a bag for dinner.

 

Today’s Sermon: The Foundation for Prayer

Our nation mourns the awful loss of life in Colorado.  Gun control and gun rights advocates have been arguing since the first news report.  I fear that instead of us becoming serious about prayer as a result of the tragedy, we will pay more attention to the arguing sides and deepen the divide in the nation.

Rays to the Water (©John Gresham)

THE FOUNDATION FOR PRAYER

John 5:13-15

(Thesis) Even a cheap magician relies on knowledge and practice of basic skills and not magic words.

(Antithesis)  Too many of us settle for cheap prayer based on enchanting words and not on a knowledge of God nor discipline in being in his presence.

(Propositional Statement)  For God to hear the petitions of the faithful, we must pray according to God’s will.

(Relevant Question) What is God’s will?

(Points)

  • Commit yourself to Jesus Christ as the Son of God
  • Know that you have the gift of eternal life through this committment
  • Maintain the commitment by continuing in His presence

(Conclusions)

Don’t just pray in the moment.  Make prayer a part of who you are.

What Are You Reading?

 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables.

2 Timothy 4:3, 4

Not a Christian Best Seller (© John Gresham)

There is one good thing about losing electric power for a day.  You can always read a book that you never found time for.  I purchased a copy of The Life of St. Anthony the Great by St. Athanasius the Great weeks ago and put in with my other icons in the living room.  I took it with me to Charlottesville thinking that it was going to be 100 degrees Saturday and I could, at least, thumb through a few more pages.  Thanks to Friday night’s storm, my eyes were opened.  St. Anthony was a Holy Spirit driven sage whose teachings of monasticism is still influential on Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  The author, St. Athanasius was also a giant of the faith as he is credited for compiling the 27 books of the New Testament and forming the Nicene Creed.  These and other men and women bore some of the worst persecution under the Romans and led the way in establishing the Christian faith under the reign of Constantine.  Writings by Irenaeus, Basil, John Chrysostom, and others are still in existence and can be purchased online or some very good indie bookstores.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christian books sold today are not deeply rooted in early church teachings.  Most of them are more “positive thinking,” ego-building fluff than the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  Look at the covers of their paperbacks and hard back covers.  There is the author with the perfect hair, smile, and make-up.  There is the author with a pose and facial expression that, supposedly, shows wisdom and confidence.  The scriptures they use, frequently, are curious mish-mashes of verses taken out of their biblical context to support their marketable points of view.  Except for a few Catholic writers, there are few (if any) quotes from the saints who were of the same, or a few generations after Jesus and the apostles.  The sole purpose of such books is to make a maximum profit by selling a cheap and shoddy version of the Gospel.

I am not saying there are no modern Christian writers worth reading.  Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible is my favorite text-book from seminary.  I would put Howard Thurman’s spiritual writings beside those of any Orthodox ascetic.  I had the pleasure of visiting a pastoral care class taught by Wayne Oates at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary many years ago.  While some of my favorite non-Orthodox books are very scholarly and technical, most can be well understood by the average layperson.  Because the authors aren’t (and never were) TV personalities, don’t expect to find their books at Wal-Mart or Costco.  If you are fortunate enough to live near, or visit a college town, go to the independent and used bookstores (you will save money).  Online sources are great too.  Major-chain booksellers may special order stuff on request.

As you choose Christian (or other religious books in general), please be discerning.  Submit yourself to a disciplined life of prayer and reading the scriptures before you purchase anything by anybody.  Keep a prayer journal where you honestly deal with your thoughts and feelings about your walk with God.  Books recommended by your pastor and trusted friends in the faith can be a very good source.  But, be rooted and honest in the pursuit of spirit and truth so that you don’t waste money, time, intelligence, and your soul on religious sounding fluff and bad doctrine.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Thursday): Ending The Journey (this part of it)

Tomorrow is the Feast of St.s Peter and Paul.  I intend to eat a fair amount of dead animal.  I may wake up early to spend some time on a mountain Saturday.  Sunday, I will attend divine liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church.  This journey of the Apostles Fast is coming to an end.  In all honesty, I am going to miss it.  Oh, I will still maintain and seek to expand my prayer life.  And I will keep the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as be more conscious of my eating on other days.  But, the weeks of fasting have been very interesting and inspiring for me.  God revealed and reminded me of his truth.

Daybreak (© John Gresham)

Prayer means more than giving thanks, praises, and asking for stuff.  Prayer is seeking unity with the Lord.  For those who are new to following Jesus, praying without a disciplined spiritual life can be expected.  But, a shallow perception of communication with God must be outgrown.  The seeking of divine guidance must be perpetual in our hearts and minds.  Too often, we pray for immediate results.  We live in a culture that seeks tangible and well-defined conclusions, and the sooner the better.  This is a very dangerous prayer life.  Suppose we get the results when and the way we want them?  Then arrogance quickly sets in as if we are proven better than others because we have the results.   Complacency is another risk; that one need not pray again unless another need or want arises in our lives.  Suppose we don’t get the results, or get them in a later time in a way that doesn’t please us?  Two possibilities are ready to distort our souls. We may disbelieve in the loving God who answers prayer as we didn’t get our results.  We may also chase after spiritual snake oil salesmen posing as ministers of the Gospel who boast that they can get you the results we are looking for.

A consistent and perpetual seeking of God; this is the type of prayer that doesn’t rely on gratifying results.  When they come, one with such a prayer life remains humble.  When they don’t come, the one remains patient and relies on God’s wisdom.  Results and lack of them are mere stones on the pathway to the eternal.  This is one reason why hermits and monastics can remain in secluded prayer unbothered by the world around them.  This is one reason why the martyrs faced death with a sense of joy and peace in mind.  If we were all thrown to the gladiators and wild beast or were made to live in ascetic cells, having this sort of prayer life would be a bit easier as we would have nothing else to seek after and death would be just moments away.

The challenge for us who are not in monasteries and coliseum is to be consistent and perpetual seekers of God.  This is why the morning and evening Orthodox prayers guide us in seeking mercy.  This is why there are prayers of the Hours and cycles of fasting.  This is why monks, nuns, and other seekers desire an inward prayer of the heart and silently move their lips as they offer up the Jesus Prayer.  The early church fathers gave us traditions of fasting and prayer that have encouraged the rejection of this world and withstood great persecution.  Arrogance, complacency, disbelief, and gullibility await those who have no depth in their spiritual selves.  Thus, our prayers must be continuous to withstand and overcome these adversaries.

Thank you for your time.  I pray God will also bless you in the journey of life.

The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Friday): Reality Check

Then David took his staff in his hand, and chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook.  He put them in a shepherd’s bag to store away, and in his hand was his sling.  He then approached the Philistine.

I Kingdoms 17:20 (Orthodox Study Bible)

I Samuel  17:40 (Western Bibles)

Onward Wall (© John Gresham)

One of the great pitfalls of preaching is that we want to sound like someone else who is very popular.  In my recent e-mail exchanges with Archbishop Puhalo, I am reminded of lessons learned from the AME Bishop Adam Richardson about Prophetic Sermon Preparation.  I am called to preach with my own voice, the one God  gave me.  I have always admired the wisdom and sermonic pace of Gardner C. Taylor.  Other than him and perhaps one or two other “old school” preachers, I don’t try to follow anyone’s style.  Even with those giants of the pulpit, I am well aware of my limitations.  I lack all of their education.  I have tried from time to time, but, I cannot “whoop” (the expressive pattern of repetition and tone usually found in African-American preaching).  So, I tend to study the text that I am going to preach from for a couple of days, create an outline similar to the one described in my last post, and proceed to write a manuscript.

Call and Response worship is a hallmark of the Black American Church.  We preachers expect to hear some “Amens” during the sermon.  The problem is when we focus too much getting a response from the congregation and not enough on the content of our messages.  We wind up preaching stuff that is only meant to draw responses, or bury our good messages with an overabundance of response begging, especially toward the end of the sermon.  I confess, I like to hear some responses as much as the next preacher.  But, my task is to declare the Gospel without stroking the needs of my ego.

On Good Friday, seven ministers of the Pamunkey Baptist Association gave seven minute sermons on the seven final words of our Lord as he was being crucified.  My contribution to the service went over well enough.  It was brief (even shorter than my allotted time), insightful, and did get a response though not the loudest nor most enthusiastic.  But, this was a service and not a competition.  If I simply apply myself to crafting a good message under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I need not concern myself with time limits nor responses.  The advice I got from my former campus minister, Rev. Adrian Arnold, will be my guide for the pulpit, “Always be genuine in your faith.”