Holy Spirit

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Yeah, I probably sound like a broken record on this topic.  But, the more I follow Orthodox Christian prayer, the more I am overwhelmed at how the request for mercy is more essential than any other petition that we may offer.  Looking at the Morning prayer in the Orthodox Study Bible, in the opening trisagion, mercy is asked for seven times.  It is repeated another six times in the intercessory prayers and four times in the benediction.  In the evening prayers, mercy is asked for a total of twenty-two times.  So, if one were to pray these (an Orthodox Christian should pray at least in the morning and at night), one would pray for mercy thirty-nine times.  Include variations of the word and various orders and fellowship disciplines, it is asked for even more.

Untitled (© John Gresham)

This is not to say that we Protestants don’t ask for it.  But, there are some serious flaws in our prayers that we ought to correct.  Let me point out this one, that we believe we don’t have to use any sort of written prayers.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit does act in and on our individual souls, it is also a unifying force.  We see this in Acts 2 where the disciples are all together on one accord.  And what puts us together on one accord more so than prayer?  The prayers of Orthodoxy have been around for 2000 years.  The early church fathers came together and deemed mercy to the greatest of all petitions we can offer.  So, the church handed down the tradition that all Christians should be united in this basic plea to God.  We are to offer up our personal request according to our needs, give thanksgivings according to our joys, and offer up all other prayers according to our walk with the Lord.  But, whoever and where ever we are on life’s journey, we are all united by our need for God to show us unmerited kindness as we all have missed the mark of living in holiness.  We all stand in the need of mercy more than anything else.  Thus, it should be the forefront, center, and conclusion of all of our prayers.

And this is not to say that Orthodox Christians are perfect.  But, what has the fractured and individualistic nature of our prayers given to us?  Look at the number of denominations and (so-called) non-denominations we have.  Do we have unity of heart and mind among us?  Among African-American Baptist alone we went from one national body to four major ones and an untold number of spin-off fellowships headed by men, and some women, who’s only purpose in leaving the parent body was to become the HNIC (Head Negro In Charge).  As our denomination recognizes no hierarchical authority, the trend of such spin-offs will only continue based on egotistical preachers who would rather follow popular trends of gratification than academic scholarship and living in spiritual discipline.  With this fractured spirit among “one” denomination of one ethnic group, our prayers are then reduced to individualistic exercises of self-importance rather than anything done in the spirit of unity.

Perhaps I am being harsh.  Maybe I should concern myself with my own faith and stop looking at what other folks are doing.  But, I dare anyone to look at your morning and evening prayers and analyze your words.  What is the thing you ask God for more than anything else?  Is that petition a universal need of everyone?  Does that petition bring you to total humility to God’s will?

Our slave ancestors and Jim Crow survivors of all denominations did hold one prayer in common.  Lord, have mercy.  If we choose not to go back to the prayers of our ancient Christian forefathers, at least we should go back to the roots of our faith in America.  At least let our denominational heads agree that every Christian should make this common plea the central focus of daily prayer and develop a common text that underscores it’s importance.  In these times, we all need God’s mercy more than anything else.  It only makes sense that we have written prayers that unites us in this petition.

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 We Bring To The Table: Howard Thurman

I do read books, watch You Tube videos, and listen to podcast from the Orthodox Church.  Chances are that I may eventually become a convert, though no time soon.  But, there are some people and things about the African-American Protestant faith that I am not willing to easily discard.  In fact, I believe that we have some important offerings that can enhance the cause of Orthodoxy in America.  Every now and then, I will promote the best of what we bring to the table of the ancient faith.

Howard Thurman was a mystic and theologian who led believers to search for the root of bonding with God.  While many preachers were content to “Whoop” and holler.  Thurman called on his congregants, students, and listeners to think and concentrate on matters of the spirit.  It is easy to see emotionalism as a part of our church practice.  But, Thurman saw something more meaningful through our experience of slavery and segregation.  That we have to reach a point of silence and reflection.  From this point, what he calls the “centering moment,” we can then yield ourselves to the spirit higher than our own and be directed by it.  True faith has little to do with external expressions of religious acts.  But, it has everything to do with our internal pursuit of something more meaningful.

With such spiritual insight, Dr. Thurman was one of the most influential theologians of our faith.  It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King often traveled with a well-worn copy of one of his books.  The church he founded, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, still exist as do many of his books.  For those unfamiliar with this man, I suggest his book “Disciplines of the Spirit” as a good introduction to his thought and theology.

 

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.

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

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Saturday): Did Jesus Have A Liturgy?

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you:  do this in remembrance of Me.

Luke 22:19

 

Daylight Despite Clouds (© John Gresham)

Okay, so far in my self-study and practice of Orthodox Christianity, I can see the logic and benefits.  Take the prayer life; using the prayers written in the Orthodox Study Bible and other sources has reignited a sense of my need to pursue God with discipline and diligence.  I was trying to do that on my own with some measure or another of success.  But, following these prayers that have been handed down from the church fathers has been an extra push for me.  Trying to observe the Hours (I am not too sharp at midnight, but I am trying) reminds me of my need for the Holy Spirit through out my day.  Fasting is the best medicine for the body and it does the budget a world of good too moving from a meat to plant-based diet.  I even see the wisdom of iconography.  I refuse to rush into converting as there is no Orthodox Church within a 30 mile radius of my home and I have much to do as a Baptist pastor to seek lost souls, strengthen the saints, and serve my community.

I also confess that divine liturgy intimidates me.  Seriously, all of that chanting, incense, and prayers is far more than we have in our order of service.  And I don’t speak anything other than American English.  Even the Jordanville Prayer Book has words in it that I didn’t learn in seminary.  Shouldn’t worship be simple and easy enough to understand so that a messenger can read it (Habakkuk 2:2)?  Did Jesus have a liturgy?

He probably did.  Think about it, the Last Supper took place not on any old day of the year.  It was on the Day of Unleavened Bread.  Certain scriptures had to be read and prayers prayed by Jews in order to properly celebrate what God did for his people.  More than likely, Jesus followed the prescribed order of worship that was handed down to him since the days of Moses.  But, then Our Lord did something else.  He redefined that meal with his own body and blood.  That we are to come together with the bread and wine in remembrance of him.  The Apostle Paul handed the tradition down to the Corinthian believers and other church fathers did the same as well.  Liturgy can be described as the public spiritual connection to the God of Israel, connected to God the Son and our Savior Jesus Christ, and all who believe in him.

Liturgy is not a spectator sport.  Reading books and watching You Tube videos are not enough.  I will have to attend before I can make any decisions of if I think this is right for me.  I will have a few opportunities to get away from my church and attend the Sunday morning worship in a couple of Orthodox churches between now and mid-September.  I will also attend Homecoming Services among my fellow Baptist.  May God reveal the truth to me.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Wednesday): The Mind

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

How many clichés and quotes are there that teach that a man will wind up where his mind is?  My late grandfather-in-law and mentor, Rev. Carter Wicks, used to say that “A Man Is His Mind.”  If his and other similar words are true, I think it pays for us to do more than periodical reality checks.  We need daily monitoring and adjusting.  Because there are so many strong temptations to keep us thinking about the things of the world rather than the things of God.  This is not to say that we should all become strict monastics and leave everything we have to live in a cave the rest of our lives for the sake of prayer and contemplation.  But, unless prayer throughout the day becomes a part of our lives, we risk our faith eroding into spiritual uselessness.

I am not simply talking about the obvious sins that hold us down such as lust, anger, hate, greed, and the like.  Anything that separates us from the love of God and love for our fellow-man is carnal.  Take politics (and throw it in a cesspool where it belongs), conservatism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin of our need for earthly government.  We will all take a different stance from one another for various reasons.  But, in order for a coin to have any value, it has to have both a head and tail.  Both sides must work in cooperation with each other.  Due to the presence of wealth and winner-take-all power hyped up by the likes of Fox and MSNBC, we have harsher polarizing arguments than constructive agreements.

What saddens me is that Christianity is buying into this earthly coin and the argument that we must staunchly defend one side or the other.  As people of this nation, of course we will have opinions of which direction this nation should take.  But, we who have been given the Gospel of God’s redeeming love should never give into vilifying those whose political opinions do not match our own.  If anything, we should be a mediating force between (no, above) the right and left and seek Godly solutions to our national, state, and local problems.  As Martin Luther King Jr noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” rather than being a thermostat that controls the temperature in a house, the church has become a thermometer that only measures and reflects the temperature.  And when we spend more time reflecting our chosen sides rather than seek after something of far greater value, we make ourselves useless (and sometimes harmful) to the Gospel.

So, to my brothers and sisters to the left and right, I make this suggestion.  For every minute you spend watching Fox News or MSNBC, spend a minute and a half in honest and sincere contemplative prayer.  For every moment listening to Beck or Maddow, spend a moment and a half in self-reflection in light of the Lord who created and loves both equally.  Most of us who are in our 40’s have, perhaps, another 30 to 40 years to call ourselves Americans.  Where we go after that depends on where we have put our minds.  If we have set our minds on earthly divisiveness and strife based on one side or the other of a political coin that will eventually be destroyed, that is where we can expect to spend eternity.  If we have set our minds on seeking spiritual purity and loving others, we will be in that place of eternal wholeness.