hope

The Transition Continues

Work and worship continues at St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  What we had hoped to be a two month or so renovation seems to be more of a slower 9 month process.  We have taken down most all of the walls we don’t need and are starting to put up the ones we want.  We even have the metal studs and window and door frames up for the “crying room” (a good thing to have in a church where the couples are and have been fruitful and multiplied).  Putting up the drywall shouldn’t be the worst of issues.  But, we have to get a contractor in to handle some other things that we aren’t skilled for.  Our renovation guru has some great ideas for the church.  But, things will take a little longer than planned.

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Despite the chaos, I still love worship. Our church family is as close as ever as we have adjusted to our closer quarters.  With our chanter departing from us in November, there is an opportunity for someone to be ready to serve at Matins (while I am doing some of the reading, I need to find someone to teach me the tones).  We are getting out Sunday School up again next month, and our church will host the First Annual Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Symposium.  Today, we had a baptism and, of course, nothing stops us from our coffee hour fellowship.

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The thing that strikes me the most about the worship as we are renovating the building is that we can see the changes around us as we seek changes inside of us.  In our confessions, Eucharist, prayers, songs, and greetings of love; I can’t help but to enjoy the new things that are going on around us as well as the way we newly converted believers have jelled with those who have been in the faith much longer.  Sure, the building doesn’t look like a church.  But, the church within the building is gorgeous from our month old babies to the elders.  As we are now in the Dormition Fast, each of us are striving even more in our walk of salvation to grow in holiness.

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When all of the construction and renovation is done, St. Basil will be one of the most beautiful churches anyone could visit.  But, that will be then (God willing).  We are blessed to enjoy the beauty of what is happening now.  May God bless us in our fasting, sharing, worship, and all of our efforts to serve Him.

 

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Chronicle of Conversion: Day 5 Not Wallowing, But Walking On

First, Memory Eternal to Nelson Mandela!  I can think of no other man in my generation who had ever moved the world in the ways of reconciliation as this man did.  Instead of a call for justice and retribution, Mandela called for forgiveness and peace.  While South Africa has many problems, the nation did not turn into a racial war zone as many had predicted.  In 2010, they hosted a heck of a World Cup.  Sometimes, letting bygones be bygones is a great way to move forward.

I am tempted to rant a bit about those who oppose my choice to become Orthodox.  But, I suppose Mandela could have ranted about his mistreatment at Robben Island Prison.  But, he had a habit of warmly greeting his prison guards.  He refused to let the attitudes of others determine his.  I see the work that lies before me.  It is in my best interest not to let my critics worry me and focus on the task, I feel, God is leading me to.  So, I have begun to reach out to others who are interested in forming the Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.  As expected, I have produced a working rough draft of a monthly newsletter/blog for the group as well.  I won’t wallow in worry.  I will walk on through this storm.  I am following someone and something greater than I.

You'll Never Walk Alone!

You’ll Never Walk Alone!

Journey Into Great Lent (Day 24): Overcoming Despondency

Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not

But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant

Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages.  Amen

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The Path I Trod  (© John Gresham/DCR)

The Path I Trod (© John Gresham/DCR)

This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect.  I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat.  Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far.  But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use.  While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).

I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency.  My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident.  Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house.  My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage.  But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away.  So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do.  Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk.  But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife.  Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas. 

So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins.  Prayer and constructive labor.  Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency.  The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring  monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor.    I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*.  When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden.  He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time.  In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything.  The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.

I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut.  Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles.  I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want.  And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again.  Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:

Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.   (Matthew 6:31-33)

After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought).  As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent.  Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues.  “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another.  And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised.  But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey. 

*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think).  Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).  I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died. 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Six) Confluence of Hope

I started to post something yesterday concerning the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  I typed up some things about how I believe iconography is a beautiful part of prayer and worship that should not be rejected based on a very shallow (my father, an iconoclastic Baptist deacon, calls it  Islamic) perspective of the Ten Commandments.  For the time being, I am going to hold the bulk of my thoughts on iconography for another time.  But, I did make a post last year on the topic that is interesting enough.

 

A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

The Kursk-Root Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

 

Between yesterday and today, as I observe both Eastern and Western Christian tradition, the confluence of hope is quite powerful.  We celebrated Palm Sunday at my church yesterday.  My friends at St. Basil and other churches celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel foretold to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God.  So (on top of going the view the remains of my recently deceased cousin and having a month delayed African-American History program), I am awash in the triumphant entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, the restoration of the Holy Images and the good news that the Christ is to be born all in the midst of the Lenten fast of both traditions. 

When we commit to following the Lord, things will get difficult.  From the first disciples that left their boats and nets, to St. Anthony that left his inheritance, to Rev. Steven Smith who left a well-paying career to attend Virginia Union University’s School of Theology (I remember him from way back in the early 1980’s); sacrifice is not easy.  There are times when we wouldn’t mind going back to our “Egypts” where we had more than manna and water (my wife has a can of vienna sausages that is starting to look good to me).  Praise be to God that we have a solid old covenant to step on and a greater new covenant to stand on and grow into.  The Israelites were given punishment for their gripes and grumblings against the God that had brought them out of slavery and bondage.  So, to all of us who have taken up the journey, let us be aware of the warnings of old.  The greater testament is this:  

… ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’   —   (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus enters triumphantly in our souls.  We celebrate with palm branches.  Jesus is the Word Incarnate.  We celebrate with images.  Jesus is born in the pure and faithful.  We celebrate with a feast in the midst of a fast.  May the confluence of hope refresh and restore us on the journey. 

 

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.

Today’s Sermon: Cesar’s Coin or God’s Creation

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to Go the things that are God’s.”

Matthew 22:15-22

No matter what political view you may have, please go and exercise your right and duty to vote for the candidate of your choice.  Do not let victory go to your head nor loss to your heart.  Instead, focus on the real aim of our existence as Christians.  That is to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A Full View (© John Gresham)

CAESAR’S COINS OR GOD’S CREATION

Matthew 22: 15-22

(introduction) In every election, we end up choosing between conservative or liberal

(antithesis) Too often, Christians try to put Jesus completely on one side or the other

(thesis) Scripture and early church tradition does not clearly state what side of the coin is wrong or right

(propositional statement)  Participate in the earthly governance.  But our focus is to live as people made in God’s image

(propositional question)  Why should we avoid tying our faith too much into our politics?

(points)

Politics will kill the innocent to stay in power (v.15, 16  ch. 2)

True spirituality is unimpressed with political flattery (v.16-18)

Only the Lord’s wisdom is worthy of our wonder (v. 22)

(conclusion) Earthly ballots are good.  The heavenly book is best.

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

Of Struggles and Saints

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Dr. Leo C. Wagner (© John Gresham)

I bid a fond “farewell” to a wise pastor, skilled preacher, excellent instructor, and good friend.  Rev. Dr. Leo C. Wagner died yesterday morning.  Here was a man who could have remained in Chicago, perhaps finding a congregation that would have paid him handsomely.  But, the Lord led him to the small town of West Point, VA to pastor Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.  Rather than seek to make his own ministry shine individually, Dr. Wagner engaged himself to work with and lead the Pamunkey Baptist Association as Moderator for a term.  He knew how to joke with people and to give Godly advice at the right moment.  His compassion was felt by public school students in town as well as seminarians at Virginia Union University.  We lost a giant in the Baptist church and a friend to all who knew him.  Lord have mercy and bless his widow.

Today is Monday.  Gosh, how we bemoan the beginning of the work and school week.  As if we are facing some sort of torture.  I confess that I sometimes look at my bills and how they crush my meager paychecks and wish I had the salary I was once earning.  I look at my wife’s illnesses and wish I could enjoy the times when she was mentally and physically healthy.  Yeah, I write stuff that is very spiritual.  But, I am a man with the same wishes and desires as anyone else.  I struggle with the same temptations and anguish over my failures and sins.

But, each morning, I consider the saint that is commemorated  for the day.  Today, the martyrs Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love are remembered for their faithfulness to death.  A mother was forced to watch her teen and pre-teen girls be subject to extremely cruel tortures and beheadings and then bury them.  Then she died at their grave 3 days later of a broken heart as she didn’t leave their side.  With the loss of Dr. Wagner, I am even more mindful that others have struggled and run the race of life before me and endured far greater hardship.  Who am I to whine about my difficulties?  What right do I have to hold on to bad habits?  No, this great cloud of witnesses surround me as an example to keep fighting, running and struggling.

And above all, there is Christ.  He went from a heavenly home to a womb and manger.  His own people rejected him.  Crowds misunderstood him and wanted only magic tricks and miracles.  Where there were once cries of honor, he heard shouts for his crucifixion.  There is no crown without a crucifixion nor sainthood without struggle.

HAIL JESUS!

 

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)

 

Confession: Accountability, Humility and Trust in the Body of Christ

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:23

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I John 1:9

I spent my final day of vacation from Trinity Baptist by visiting another Orthodox Church.  Today, it was St. Basil the Great Antiochian in Poquoson.  Poquoson is one of few places in Virginia east of I-95 I had never been to.  I never had much of a reason to.  The little bit of town that I did see seemed to be a nice bedroom community.  I didn’t visit the communities of the legendary “Bull Islander” watermen.  The next time I do, I will make it a point to buy some good fresh seafood.  But, today was all about worship at the church of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline.  About 20 years ago, the Antiochians opened their doors to some 2,000 Evangelical Christians giving them Chrismation into the Orthodox faith.

Even before the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by the deep spirituality of the ancient faith.  During the 9:15 Matins service, the priest, Fr. James Purdie, gave the sacrament of Confession to any who would come forward.  Yes, Confession.  A few (churches aren’t packed at one hour prayer services where there is more standing than sitting) people, in turn,  came up to the icon of the Theotokos, whispered their confession to Fr. James.   He then whispered back and they seemed to be in a conversation inaudible to the rest of the congregation.  Then he placed a portion of his priestly vestment over the person’s head and proclaimed their sin.  The forgiven believer kisses the icon, makes the sign of the cross, and takes their place back in the congregation prepared to receive the Eucharist (Communion).

Now, I can hear my fellow Baptist turn their noses up in disdain.  “You ain’t gotta do all that to repent.  Jesus knows your heart.  All you got to do say is, “Lord, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me in Jesus Name.  Amen.”  And there was a time in our rural congregations that a young lady that was pregnant or had a child out-of-wedlock had to repent before the whole church before she could take communion again, change membership to another church, or get married.  Rarely did the guy she slept with have to go through such an ordeal and many other sins didn’t require such a process.  So, the way it was practiced, confession was unfair (especially since some ministers and deacons were known womanizers) and burdensome.  As more and more children were being born out-of-wedlock, the sacrament seemed to be a hindrance to church attendance.

Yet, there is something to be said for the accountability, humility, and trust that I saw today.  Not that every sin needs to be confessed to a priest in Orthodoxy.  But, he is the spiritual Father of the congregation and is responsible for giving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  So, if one is troubled by a serious or recurring wrong, he or she has the responsibility to let the priest know of this and repent with the priest offering an understanding ear, encouragement, and practical solution to the sin as well as a proclamation that the sin is forgiven.  To come and confess one’s sin is a sign of humility and spiritual maturity.  That one doesn’t play off his or her missing the mark as something to be nonchalantly brushed aside in private or in some little box in a corner.  Orthodox confession is done where people cannot hear what is being said, but they know that something is being said and forgiveness is proclaimed.  It takes courage and a sense of trust in one’s priest and church family that the confession will not be material for gossip and speculation.  If I had to leave before the Divine Liturgy, Matins and the Confessions were enough for me to praise God for.

“So Rev., are you trying to say we ought to have confession in the Baptist church?”  I am not sure how it can be introduced or reintroduced.  Nor do I dare say that all is perfect among the Orthodox with this sacrament.  But, let us consider what we have in our lack of a sacrament of Confession.  We are accountable to no one.  I don’t have to tell pastor nothing.  All he is supposed to do is visit grandma in the nursing home and get his shout on so I can pat my foot and feel good about myself.  We are not humble.  We would rather talk about how “blessed and highly favored,” we are than to express any sort of public humility.  And we continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of mistrust by not having the courage to trust.  And if pastors aren’t challenged with the responsibility to forgive sins, they can be tempted to be irresponsible with their own sins.  We can put on great performances of “whooping” sermons and “sanging” choirs and soloist.  But without accountability, humility, and trust in the body of Christ; we are missing something in our walk with the Lord that is far more valuable than cultural expressiveness.

I don’t know.  I will work on the Sunday School lesson and my sermon this week and be back serving at Trinity next Sunday.  Maybe I should keep silent and just chalk this up as a “grass looks greener on the other side of the fence” episode.  Or, perhaps the Lord will bless me (or someone else) with a way to explain Confession so that my fellow Baptist can understand it’s value even if they don’t agree to do it.  And if we want to do it, how do we bring such a sacrament to a church that doesn’t even see Communion as a sacrament?