ego

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.

 

Jouney Into Great Lent (Day Three): Lesson Too Soon Forgotten

Trying not to be judgemental and upset about the terrible things that happen in this world is nearly impossible, at least for me.  The Stubenville rape case and the pornographic society that gave birth to it makes me angry.  I know too many rape survivors.  I have read the horrible stats of how often it happens.  And the abusive nature of today’s porn only makes things worse.  I ranted a little bit on my Facebook page and was about to go ballistic on this blog.  But, a friend put me in check.  Then, I opened Philippians 2:14-16 and was further convicted:

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, sot that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

I am reminded of my wife’s Grandfather, Rev. Carter Wicks, constantly telling people, “don’t worry and don’t hurry.”  My grandparents, Joe and Dinah  Gresham, likewise had a steady and quiet faith about them.  I know things would make them angry and upset from time to time.  But, they never let it seem to get the best of them.  They were too busy aiming their lives to a better world than this one. 

Yesterday and this morning, I prayed the words of St Ephraim the Syrian.  Apparently, I forgot what I prayed.  How sorry I am for my forgetfulness.  It is only the third day.  I will build my memory in my heart and soul as well as mind. 

http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/holyfathers/st._anthony_the_great_humility_as_the_gateway_to_theology

Today’s Sermon: The Demand of Self-Denial

I am back in the pulpit this morning.  I thank God for my friends, Rev. Randolph Graham and  Rev. Keith Lewis, who preached in my place and for my college buddy Dr. Wayne Weathers, for his stirring Homecoming message.  We were blessed to have the word of God delivered by Dr. Vincent Smith, Dr. Reginald Davis, Min. Marlene Fuller, and Pastor Willie Barnes for our revival services.

Again, I am most grateful to Fr. David Arnold and the St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church (OCA) and Fr. James Purdie and the St. Basil the Great (Antiochian) Orthodox Church for the wonderful Divine Liturgy, hospitality, and friendship.  Had I not known Christ or had been a nominal Christian, I would have asked to be a catechumen.  But, I must remain where I am until the Lord calls me to do otherwise (besides, gas cost too much for me to drive all the way out to Powhatan or Poquoson).

Yes, we had a great revival at Trinity Baptist Church.  Now that we have been revived, let us follow Jesus more closely!

Outward (© John Gresham)

 

THE DEMAND OF SELF-DENIAL

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

(introduction) We African-Americans have suffered external denial

(thesis) In the midst of that time, we cultivated lessons of (internal) self-denial to survive

(antithesis) With our liberation, we no longer consider self-denial important to our faith

(propositional statement)  Without self-denial, it is impossible to follow Jesus

(relevant question)  What makes self-denial so crucial?

(points)

  • self-denial puts ego aside (v.35)
  • self-denial holds the soul higher than earthly gain (v.35, 36)
  • self-denial gives us the strength to bear the cross (v.34)

(conclusion)  Shun the shallow theology of Gospel “catch phrases” and let the mind of Christ be in us (Philippians 2:5 – 8)

 

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.”

Ambition, Aspiration, Ascension

Now when he had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight.

Acts 1:9

 

Falls on a Creek (© John Gresham/DCR)

 

I am not preaching to the Protestant calendar.  So today’s sermon is not the traditional 3-point message.  Thursday was the feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church.   I had notes to preach from the story in Luke.  But, I typed my manuscript from the Acts account to help put my own ambitions in check.

AMBITION, ASPIRATION, ASCENSION

Acts 1:1-11

(antithesis) The disciples looked at the political ambition of Jesus restoring Israel (v.6)

(thesis) Jesus taught them that they would receive heavenly power to do something greater (v.8)

(propositional statement) Jesus ascended to heaven not by the ambition of the flesh, but by his willingness to do the Father’s will (v.9)

(points)

  • Ambition is limited to human borders and relies on human abilities
  • Too much ambition is detrimental to the church and the world
  • Aspiration is energized by  Inspiration and causes us to do some peculiar things
  • Aspiration produces results for the greater good

(conclusion)  Live focused on the will of God and let the Spirit lift you here and the here after.

Circus of Titles

When I was a boy, all we had was reverends.  The AME had one or two bishops.  But, every other preacher was a reverend.  Now everyone wants to be a bishop, apostle, prophet of the fourth quadrant of the western hemisphere.  Climbing the ladder, can’t be reverend no more.

Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Douthat Falls (© John Gresham)

The African-American Baptist church is caught up in a circus of standards.  Too many of our clergy have picked one or two verses of scripture to give themselves new identities among their congregants and colleages.  Our denomination has long rejected the idea of a clergy hierarchy as found among liturgical bodies.  Thus, the only ordained offices among us  are that of Pastor (frequently called reverend) and Deacon.  Our kinsmen in the African Methodist Episcopal denominations and the Church of God in Christ organized it’s heirarchy of bishops and other such leaders with doctrinal requirements of education, years of service, and other standards long established by their national (now worldwide) bodies.  Baptist ministers that wanted to rise in a heirarchy converted to one of the other churches, put their time and effort into God’s service, and (if needed and passed the required examinations) were elevated to such offices.

Thanks to our lack of authority above the local congregation (our state, and national bodies cannot dictate anything to the local church), there is a disturbing trend among Baptist and “non-denominational” churches.  Clergy men and women are bestowing the title “bishop” on themselves and among one another in cliques within the church.  As we don’t have any governance as to who may receive such a title, there are a wide range of bishops from those with legitimate seminary degrees and years of influential service to “jack legs” that have little more than a GED and ministry training from imitating what is shown on TBN or Word Network.  And with the popularity of the “five fold ministry” model (And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelist, and some pastors and teachers for the equiping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ  Ephesians 4:11, 12), there are too many people running around the church calling themselves anything they wish.

It would be easy to say that we need to call our prominent pastors and theologians together and set up standards for ministers who wish to work to such offices.  But, that is impossible with our traditional lack of oversight of local churches.  Maybe our state and national leadership can denounce the usage of such titles.  But, many churches would leave the denomination all together.  Therefore, any slick sounding “bishop” with little or no theological training can teach a false doctrine and have a good number of people believe him over someone with an M. Div because the title is sounds so authoritive.  If a “prophet” has connections to a tele-evangelist, or can host some sort of “holy convocation” in a hotel ballroom, she will hold more influence than the dean of the chapel at the nearby seminary.  Indeed, a popular “Archbishop” can start his own school of religion to teach popular doctrines in defiance of a denominational institution that is dedicated to teaching the truth.

I thank God that there are still some black Baptist pastors who refuse to join the circus of titles.  May we stand firm in the midst of the monkey doo-doo that people are accepting as “the will of God.”

Each One An Icon

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to our likeness, … .’   So God mad man. in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them.

Genesis 1:26, 27

How foolish I am!  How can I venerate and give honor to the saints on the wall and not show like love to the person on the street?  How dare I honor the Holy Theotokos and harbor lust for the girl I did not marry? 

What is a holy icon but a window and portrait of God’s greater glory?  Was it not by the hand of the painter that we have these windows?  Perhaps by the skill of a wood-carver and other craftsmen that we possess such items as reminders of the love of our Lord?

And yet God made the perfect icon when he made men and women.  In his image and likeness we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  With his breath of life we are all living souls.  Here is the icon I should honor and kiss in holiness.  Here is the image I should hold as evidence of God’s compassion and mercy.

Yet this is the icon that I hold in contempt.  I suspect it a thief and liar.  I condemn it for its flaws and imperfections.  I abuse it as a toy only fit for my pleasure and whims.  This icon which was not made by a man’s hands.  This image of God and made by God.  This likeness of which I am.  I am their brother and I have shown them fear, hate, and lust. 

Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy!  I am the chief of all sinners! 

Forgive my calloused thoughts and harsh words toward my fellow-man.  May the power of the Holy Spirit cleanse my heart and mind of wicked desires.  Let me hold high the value of each man, woman, boy, and girl.  We are the icons that you made.  Let us honor and love one another as such.

No Greater Hell

… and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites.  There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:51

But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly I say to you I do not know you.’

Matthew 25:11

And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:30

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. …”

Matthew 25:41

Crossing (© John Gresham)

Is there a worse version of hell than the descriptions Jesus gave to his disciples during the eschatological discourse?  Can the reasons for going to such a hell be more frightening?  Note, if you would, the ten virgins who were locked outside of the banquet hall being told by the bride groom, “Assuredly I say to you I do not know you.”  These women are left disowned and vulnerable.  The wicked servant fares no better being counted among the hypocrites for abusing his fellows and carousing with drunkards.  He and the virgins did not live in expectation for something greater.  They mistakenly believed they had plenty of time before being in the full presence of the bridegroom and master.  The unprofitable servant made no effort to increase the wealth the master gave him, not even to give the gift to those who could make some sort of profit.  He too goes to the place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In these three examples, the graphic punishment is not some demon in a red suit armed with a pitchfork.  To be disowned by the Lord Jesus Christ and left vulnerable in great tears and agony goes beyond any sort of vengeful torture.  This is why the martyrs endured the wild beast, burning pitch, and other horrors of earthly cruelty.  They chose to die brutally rather than be separated from the source of life and life eternal.  And the source of life is to do well to one’s neighbor, practice self-control, increase love and spirit, and to anticipate a glory beyond what this world can give.

Indeed, to ignore the plight of the least of humanity is the apex of being separate from Jesus Christ.  The Lord identifies himself with the “least of these.”  The cursed are to suffer the same total separation as the ultimate rebels against God not because they committed some act of immorality.  They are punished for their lack of compassion and mercy.  Morality is good.  But, it is no substitute for the love that gave it’s self to our unworthy humanity for our salvation.  If we do not love likewise, we have missed the whole point of the crucifixion and resurrection.  If we miss the point, we will miss his return.   There can be no greater hell than that.

Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect

Matthew 24:44

Let us live in his presence believing that his greater glory will come.

Questions About My Journey

It is written in Proverbs that one should seek advice before taking on a project.  So, I selected four friends who hold Masters of Divinity Degrees (one has a D.Min) to give their input on the questions I have concerning the African-American church and Orthodox Christianity.  My questions are:

  • What have you learned about the church (Orthodox) in seminary?
  • Is there something about it that is dangerous or a threat to our protestant tradition (besides the fact that they don’t allow women in their clergy)?
  • What are the elements of their faith that we must absolutely reject?
  • Does their church have any relevance to the African-American community?

One thing about asking questions to the wise is that they will throw questions back at you.  So, this morning I will answer what has been put before me.

Footbridge at Sunset

What do I think is distinctively different between Orthodox Christianity and Christianity?  History is a glaring difference between the ancient church and the churches I see around me.  The history of my church only goes back to 1889 and my denomination to the colonial period of America.  Orthodoxy can trace its physical roots all the way back to the 12 apostles and the day of Pentecost.  Of course, true salvation depends upon faith and only God decides who will and won’t be granted into his eternal kingdom.  But, in a world of a new denomination (or non-denomination) being founded almost every other weekend (it seems), I think it is important that people know the original body of Christ still exist some 2,000 years since they were first called Christians in Antioch.  No preacher filled with his own sense of importance can just put on a collar and call himself “bishop.”  He must meet the standards and rise to the office.  Scripture is not interpreted by the opinions of popular theologians that lean to a political bias.  There is the long-standing tradition of interpretation from the colleagues and disciples of the New Testament writers and the writers themselves.  We tend to say what “my Bible says.”  But, had it not been for their church, we wouldn’t have a Bible since they were the ones who put it together over 300 years after they got started.  Yes, black American Christianity in particular and American Christianity as a whole has developed an authentic voice without the Orthodox Church among us.  But, the fact that the ancient church still exist and has this deep historic perspective should not be ignored.

What is appealing to me about the Orthodox tradition?  History is one thing.  Another would be monasticism.  The monastic tradition is honored in Orthodoxy, invisible in much of Protestantism, and doesn’t exist in the black church.  Too many of us Negro preachers are way off the chain when it comes to materialism and behavior.  Back in the day, Dr. Alix James used to tell seminarians to wear simple suits and little jewelry.  I have seen stuff in conferences and pulpits that make some pimps jealous.  Vow of celibacy?  Yeah, right.  Marital infidelity among American Protestant clergy is no secret.  According to the reports I have read on the subjects, the only difference between sexual abuse cases among Protestants and Catholics is that we prefer women over the age of 16.  I am sure the Orthodox Church has a few bad apples as well.  But, celibacy is a choice among its priesthood.  Giving up one’s earthly possessions is a time-honored lifestyle of faith that goes back to the second chapter of Acts.

Let me get personal.  My wife has bipolar disorder and muscular sclerosis.  Needless to say, I have been a celibate for the past seven years.  The reaction I get from Protestantism is more of gloom and despair as if my life depends on having a normal married sex life.  But, in the eyes of Orthodoxy, I am a blessed man.  I still have a wife to love and care for (which I do).  But, I am blessed because I have the challenge to overcome my natural desires (sometimes I wish he would bless someone else instead).  To a degree, I get to live the life of Paul, Saint Anthony (the father of monasticism), and other great leaders of the church.  As for a vow of poverty, I left a job at Dominion Virginia Power that gave me a very good salary and benefits package to substitute teach in King and Queen and West Point because the Holy Spirit told me to.  And though I am working year-round as a ranger at York River State Park, what I earn now is still a far cry from what I had and I don’t count it as a loss.

So, I see Orthodoxy as a rebellion against the excesses of Protestant America and those of the black church in particular.  But, I desire rebellion not for its own sake.  I have no heart to throw out the baby with the bath water.  There are elements about the church I was raised in that are well worth keeping.  Our story of faith in the midst of struggle as slaves and second class citizens, the spirituality of our hymns and praises, the form of our preaching; no, I am not prepared to put these things aside.  I am prepared to seek the truth from the ancient fathers and hold on the truth from my fathers.  That is why I am on the journey.

A Lenten Journal: A Pursuit of the Doctrine of Christ (Holy Saturday)

… “You see these great buildings?  Not a single stone will be left on another; everything will be pulled down.”  Mark 13:2

We are often awestruck by the things we make.  The disciples, some poor Galileans perhaps, couldn’t help but to note the enormity of Jerusalem’s skyline.  There is no crime in noting good craftsmanship or recognizing feats of labor and skill.  Yet, they tried to get someone greater than the city to be as awestruck as they were by it.  The “stone the builders refused” proclaimed an end to the ones that had been erected.

We make such fuss and fanfare over the things we build.  Skyscrapers to shopping malls are our landmarks.  Our homes are our castles.  Churches are being constructed as grandiose “worship centers” with every amenity we can think of.  Those who shepherd in such places can expect to be well housed themselves even as the one in whose name they preach had no place to lay his head.

Path to a Great Stone (© John Gresham)

We need buildings for everything.  Mega-churches are not inherently bad.  And pastors should receive compensation according to the church budget.  But, let us not be distracted by what we have made because it will all come down.  Even, dare I say especially, the things that we make for the sake of holy worship.  The disciples were raving about buildings while their master was about to be put in a grave.  So if Jesus was to be brought down, what is a temple?  The Hagia Sophia and Notre Dame are tourist attractions.  Other great churches of the east and west have fallen into rubble.  Likewise, our storefronts will be stores again while our “praise tabernacles” will one day meet the wrecking ball.

Only one that had been brought low was resurrected and done so with even more power than before the fall.  Only one was the temple that is the temple that makes us temples.  Only one can bring us to a city that can never be ruined by the will of man.  That city is built on the word of God.

Your Brother In Christ,

Cyprian Bluemood

Order of Saint-Simon of Cyrene