fasting

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

I knew that fasting was a part of my learning process in Orthodoxy when I first became an inquirer.  Going vegan twice a week didn’t frighten me one bit.  I did the Apostle’s and Dormition Fast with some difficulty in the first few days.  But, by the sixth day, it was a bit of a cakewalk.  As for the Nativity, it was kinda rough avoiding Christmas parties and the day after Thanksgiving turkey and ham sandwiches.  I have had my occasional slips and made a couple of loopholes for myself at times.  But, for a rookie, this Orthodox fasting thing really hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  My guide int this journey.  (C) John Gresham

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. My guide in this journey. (C) John Gresham

Great Lent, however, is more intimidating both in diet and spiritual expectation.  Clean Monday arrives about the same time the shad start running in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers.  I am not allowed to eat any fish with bones in it and there is no fish with more bones in it than shad.  Ah well, at least I can salt a few down for the winter.  But, my old man will be smoking his from day one.  Kicking red meat for 40 days this time of year will also be more difficult since it is the beginning of backyard barbecuing season.  Granted, oysters will still be in season and crabbers will start pulling pots again.  But, shellfish will not be cheap with this economy.    I had better learn to love tofu.

What really scares me about Great Lent is the significance of it all.  The Forgiveness Vespers where everyone, including the priest, ask each other to be forgiven for what they have done wrong to the other?  First of all, about the worst thing I can think of that I did wrong to anyone at St. Basil is that I forgot their names.  And then they also asking my forgiveness?  Who am I that any of these kind people should want such a blessing from me when they have always welcomed me with open arms.  And Fr. James to ask me for forgiveness?  We aren’t even in the same denomination.  Who am I to participate in such a practice?  It is at this point that I probably could and should go back to my comfortable corner of Christianity.

I can’t help but to see the beauty and power in such a pre-fast preparation.  When we face each other and ask for forgiveness, we will be facing the ultimate icons.  The ones God made in his image and likeness.  Even for those who have not directly said, done, or thought harm to one another; all are admitting their human problem of sin and seek forgiveness from Christ and each other.  I am scared because I know of my own sinfulness.  I am intimidated also because I am unworthy to have someone who I just met ask me to forgive them.

Yet, I believe I need to go forward with preparing for and observing Great Lent.  I can’t help but to think that there is something very special at the end of this journey at Pascha.  Not bragging rights.  No, boasting is not the goal here.  One of the saints said that if you fast only to boast of your own righteousness, you may as well eat meat.  This journey will probably not mean that I will leave my role as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  There is a bit more work I need to do in my community and I have a mortgage to pay.  Besides, I have not yet been on this Orthodox journey for a full year.  Many converts don’t take the plunge until two or three years.  Fr. James has told me that the church will be here when I am ready. 

Yet and still, there is bound to be something special at the end of this journey of Great Lent.  Just like pledging my fraternity and doing my first overnight backpack trip  alone on the Appalachian Trail go through this process, I will only kick myself for not having the nerve to do it.  Any time a spiritual journey brings us to a point of absolute humility with Forgiveness Vespers, the end must be an incredible celebration of the soul. 

I imagine this will not be easy.  Easter Sunday, my father will have baby back ribs coming out of the smoker fully infused with apple wood or hickory.  Tofu will not be able to compare to that.  Knowing that I will have no excuse for not, at least, calling someone who is ill and homebound other than my wife will be a challenge as well.  I admit, my pastoral care could be better.  Although my prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds since joining the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, it isn’t as tight as it could be.  I will have to read and study when I want to waste time with mahjong and You Tube.  Nope, this isn’t like my good old, “do it yourself” fast when I could just give up caviar, champagne, filet minion, and lobster. 

But, I remember the way I felt when my Dean of Pledges declared, “You Are Now Brothers” and was presented with the letters “Alpha Phi Alpha.”   I remember the way I felt when I reached the intersection of the Old Hotel Trail and the AT at the Hog Camp Gap parking lot where I resolved to go through with a journey that I could have easily chickened out of (especially seeing the bear on the side of the road).  In both cases, it wasn’t just a feeling.  I had a unique change of perspective.  The change I am about to go through will be more profound.

Fasting? Compare for Yourself!

Perhaps you saw the book at a store.  Maybe you saw the broadcast on some religious TV station.  Media Minister Jentezen Franklin wants you to join his “FAST/2013” Movement.  The book is being sold everywhere.  One can contribute $58 to his ministry and receive a “FAST/2013 kit”  consisting of a magazine, the book, DVD, and bracelets.  Visit his website and one can order these products as well. 

I pray you haven’t spent money on this “movement” and if you have, that you have kept your receipt.  Fasting is a very good spiritual practice that Christians should participate.  But, this practice is not simply a piece of wisdom for a modern preacher to turn into a product to be marketed.  Fasting is a long-standing part of the Christian life that was ordained by Jesus Christ with a tradition handed down by the early church fathers

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Michael Hyatt, the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing and an Orthodox Deacon) has a very good lesson about fasting on Ancient Faith Radio’s “At The Intersection of East and West” podcast.  Anyone with internet access can listen to this two-part series (each about a half hour-long).  Some of the other podcasters have some thoughts about fasting as well. 

I urge you to take a look at what Mr. Franklin and  Deacon Hyatt have to offer.  Compare them based on the foundation of what tradition they are teaching from and which series of lessons leads you to a “humble walk with your God” (Micah 6:8).  Ask yourself where do they get their doctrines and rules about fasting from. 

Please take the time to compare for yourself,

 

Nativity Fast: My Baptist Foundations

The Lord has given us this day for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Fasting is not a part of the Baptist faith.  Although some of us are willing to give up a couple of foods for Lent, getting us to observe the Nativity Fast of the Orthodox Church is like expecting the Chicago Cubs to win the FIFA World Cup of Football.  Thanksgiving is here and we will be attending Christmas parties, feast, and dinners until New Year’s Day.  There are way too many food temptations around to swear off deserts or red meat, to say the least about going vegan.  Yet in my upbringing, I find a foundation to observe the fast.

Deacon and Deaconess John R. Gresham, Sr. (© John Gresham)

Deacon John R. Gresham, Sr., who loves Christmas more than any other holiday, deeply believes in selflessness.  Daddy does not buy anything for himself from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas.  If his rain coat were to tear on December 12th, he’d patch it up the best he could.  Or if his axe handle was broken on November 30th, he would borrow his neighbor’s if need be.  Other than gas for his vehicle, and perhaps a small sandwich, it was selfish to give to one’s self.  God gave his Son to us.  So, this season, we must focus on giving to others.

Deaconess Mickey Gresham is committed to sharing the special meal.  Each year, mom will buy inexpensive, little gifts and have them on our breakfast plates on Christmas morning.  Presents under a tree from Santa are nice.  But, the first meal of the day is symbolized with a present.  Among the breakfast items, she serves chitterlings (chittlins).  They are a reminder of the humble origins of African-Americans and, some of us, still consider them a seasonal delicacy (I think they are delicious).

During this fast, I will make the effort to following the example of my parents.  Chances are they will not convert to Orthodoxy (daddy was curious, yet unimpressed with my living room icon corner).  But, they have prepared me to follow the practices of Orthodox spirituality.  If and when I do convert, these practices of my Baptist parents will be a part of me.

The Nativity Fast: St. Isaac The Syrian’s Perscription

This life has been given to you for repentance.  Do not waste it in vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

The fast that I kinda dreaded is here.  And, oddly enough, I don’t dread this.  In fact, I am embracing this year’s Nativity Fast.  No meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, and limited fish until December 25th.  Why would I, still a Baptist pastor who loves all of the seasonal feasting this time of year, submit to endure such an act of self-denial?  To identify and end all of the vain pursuits of my actions, words, and thoughts.

It would be too easy for me to fast this time of year and get on some sort of self-righteous kick about how Orthodoxy is superior to the absolute foolishness of western Christendom’s Christ-Mass.  But, self-righteousness is as vain of a pursuit as substance abuse or addiction.  This is an opportunity to seek greater humility not only by saying “no” to the foods that I enjoy (my mother-in-law makes a delicious turkey hash).  I will also use this time to reflect on spiritual growth without boasting to myself (or anyone else) that I am growing. 

This is a departure from what we see in many corners of Christianity.  We do quite a bit of declaring about how “Blessed and Highly Favored” we are.  Watching TBN’s “Praise-a-Thon,” blessings, favor, and promises are being sold to people for seed offerings of over a thousand dollars.  We want “stuff” from God, will pay top dollar for it, and will tell all the world that we got it and who gave it to us. 

Isaac the Syrian gives us a better direction in the Christian life.  Each day we have the chance to repent and bear the fruit of repentance as Jesus and John the Baptist called us to do.  This is not to say that God never satisfies our material needs.  But, the blessings, favor, and promises are not the main reasons for our existence.  We are corrupt creatures of the flesh.  We are called to turn from corruption and live as incorruptible children of God.  Repentance is the direction we take to receive a gift far more meaningful than the stuff of earth.  We become more like our Father. 

And if this is the true aim of our earthly existence, we should be on guard of the things we do, say, and put our minds on.  Even if a man does not rape, isn’t lust for a woman he knows he can’t have a foolish line of thinking?  Or a woman not slandering her neighbor, what good does it do for her to wish something harmful to her rival?  Not only the obviously wicked, sometimes we have to rise above secular pursuits that keep us from fully seeking and embracing the Lord’s mercy and love.  Favorite sports teams should not lead us into an obsession.  Fine wines ought not cause us to become forgetful. 

Fasting is a choice.  The humble pursuit of God is not.  Let us use these days wisely.

Today’s Sermon: A Lifestyle That Can Proclaim Redemption

And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem

Luke 2:38

I won’t be playing “hooky” from my denomination for a while.  As we don’t have a regular morning worship at Trinity on fifth Sundays (the Pamunkey Baptist Association Sunday School & Literary Union meets on those days), I attended the Divine Liturgy at Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Newport News (Greek Festival October 25th thru 27th).  I will keep up my rule of prayer, keep in contact with Fr. James from St. Basil and Fr. David from St. Cyprian and other Orthodox believers during my drought until I can make another Liturgy on Dec. 30th.  I have heard rumors that St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Williamsburg will open for services in January 2013.  Hopefully, they will have some mid-week services that I can attend.

A Moment at Sandbridge (© John Gresham)

A LIFESTYLE THAT CAN PROCLAIM REDEMPTION

Luke 2:36-38

(introduction) We all have strikes against us

(antithesis)  Anna was of the wrong sex, tribe, age, and social position to serve as a priest

(thesis) Yet God pours out the spirit of prophecy on sons and daughters and revealed His Son and his true purpose to her

(propositional statement) No matter our calling, we all have the Holy Spirit in us.  By a correct lifestyle, Jesus is revealed to us so that we can proclaim redemption to others

(relevant question)  What are the elements of Anna’s lifestyle that led to her revelation and proclamation?

(points [all v.37])

  • Patience
  • Stay in the house
  • Put some things aside
  • Pray ceaselessly

(conclusion)  Christ will cross out the strikes for those who humbly seek the kingdom of heaven

Here a Chick-Fil-A, There a Chick-Fil-A: Dormition Day One

So, I can be an idealist trying to make a better and fair world for everyone by boycotting a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  Or, I can be a defender of the biblical principles and the first amendment by eating at a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  I couldn’t have made up such silliness if I tried.

Firstly, I think the LGB&T community (it’s most radical elements, perhaps I should say) have picked a foolish fight.  Nowhere in Chick-Fil-A’s corporate policy nor general operations do they check the sexual preference status of potential customers or employees.  If this were the case, than legal argument can be presented.  But, the president of a company has every right to express his religious beliefs in a religious magazine.  It seems that you are showing the same sort of intolerance you want to defeat.  Hypocrisy only defeats your cause.

And to the conservative minded, I can’t help but to wonder where were your “Defend Freedom of Speech” voices when the Dixe Chicks were being boycotted and Rev. Jeremiah Wright was being cursed for his cursing.  Somewhere between 60% to 65% of all heterosexual marriages end in divorce.  Is this the result of LGB&T bullying, or that we are disobedient to the biblical principles that promote lasting unions between men and women?   Somehow, I don’t think eating fast food in the name of freedom will make these statistics any better.

There is a good reason why we should consider taking up the Fast of the Dormition.  That for the next 14 days we stop trying to have things our way and submit ourselves to God’s will.  That we sacrifice our pleasures and seek his purpose in our lives instead.  It will take more than two weeks of veganism to heal the social-political rift in our nation.  But, the Dormition is a good time for us to take a breath and think about something more important.  Putting aside sensual desire to bear something greater than one’s self.  Yielding to the will and Spirit of God even when it moves beyond one’s  expectations.  Mary did these things.

It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.  More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word.  True Theotokos, we magnify you.

Benediction of the Morning and Evening Prayer, The Orthodox Study  Bible

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.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Tuesday): Cyprian and Nicodemus

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, …

John 3:1, 2

The Path (© John Gresham)

Before I began to seriously consider Orthodoxy, I was drawn to St. Cyprian of Carthage.  First of all, I thought the name sounded cool and I was proud of the fact that he was an African.  I have an icon of him (I printed from an online image) beside the computer in my study at home as a reminder to avoid pornography websites.  I began to watch websites that talked about how horribly the women are treated in the industry and have no desire to indulge in it again.  I never prayed to the icon (as Orthodox and Catholics are falsely accused of).  Nor did I even think to venerate him, unless naming my Second Life avatar after him and living as an Orthodox monk was a way of paying him deep respect and admiration.  The icon was there when the Holy Spirit freed me from that sinful desire.  Thus, I consider Cyprian as one in the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1, 2) that interceded for me.

As I have become increasingly diligent about the ancient faith, I am seeing myself in the light of another in that cloud whose walk with Jesus is a forerunner of mine.  Nicodemus was a well-trained religious authority.  He had status and clout among the Jewish hierarchy and as long as he towed the party line, all would be well with him.  But, he met this man who had kicked over the money tables, did a number of signs, gave a strange answer of his authority, and didn’t set up a clique to rival the Jews right then and there.  Instead of dismissing the rabble-rouser, this Pharisee and Priest saw that he must have been sent by God, asked questions, and listened.  He would later be rebuked by his colleagues for suggesting that the Galilean be fairly investigated before being completely denounced.  At the burial of the Crucified One, he brought one hundred pounds of aloes and myrrh.  In some Christian and Jewish traditions, Nicodemus was martyred for accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

I am a Baptist among Baptist.  My certification of studies comes from one of the most respected African-American seminaries.  I have pastored for 15 years and serve as a Moderator of a local association.  I now serve on a state-wide commission for evangelism.  If I play by the rules and work my contacts in high places (and finish my M.Div.), my star could rise in the Baptist faith.

But, I saw this faith that gave the world the first confession of Jesus and compiled the Bible.  This faith that never considered skin color to be a badge of racial supremacy nor inferiority from the time they were first called Christians.  This faith that gives guidelines in pursuing a spiritual life and becomes a way of life.  I am observing Orthodoxy the same way Nicodemus observed Jesus.  The more I see, listen, and understand; the more I accept it.  Because of my position, I cannot follow the faith right now.  There will come a time of conversion.  I pray that when that day comes, that I will have the courage to do it, even if it means martyrdom.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Monday): Better Diet and Prayer Life

New Day (© John Gresham)

No, I have not been perfect in this fast.  I didn’t read every ingredient of every product I consumed to make sure there was no oil or dairy in it.  Potato chips are a special weakness of mine as well.  I will make sure I am more strict with myself on the Wednesday and Friday fast until the Dormition in August.

Other than that, taking up this fast has been very good for me.  As far as food is concerned, my palate has been opened up to a whole new world of possibilities.  I would have never dreamed of being satisfied with grilled vegetables and tofu.  But, the barbecue master Steven Raichlen is absolutely correct; “Anything that taste good baked, boiled, steamed, or fried will taste better grilled.”  While fish is to be avoided, shellfish are permitted.  A fast that allows for crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters can’t be that hard.  And a vegetable based diet came out a bit cheaper than my normal meat based fare.  I don’t know if I have lost any weight.  But, my body feels very good.

Spiritually, the fast has been equally good if not better.  It used to be that I would try to maintain morning and evening prayers on my own.  The prayers I use in the Orthodox Study Bible, the Jordanville Prayer Book, and the St Phillip’s Prayer Discipline website are like helping hands in my journey of faith.  One central theme I have noticed in Orthodox prayer is the seeking of mercy.  I don’t hear that as often in many of our Protestant prayers.  Thanksgiving, praises, supplications; all good things and prayed in all of Christendom.  But, without mercy from God, what good are the other things we pray for and about?  The constant seeking of divine mercy is what keeps us humble and reliant on God’s grace rather than our own power, intellect, and wealth.

So, I have learned to feed my body better stuff.  I have also learned to nourish my prayer life with what is truly needed.  Fr. Steven Freeman has a great article about the Apostles Fast and a very interesting blog as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

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