hope

Icons and the Black Church: The Time Has Come

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 ensnared us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set 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

Today, I used one of my vacation Sundays to worship at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond VA.  Like Father Moses Berry before me, I was stunned to see the huge icons of St. Moses the Ethiopian and the Saint of the church both looking like the African men that they are.  I also couldn’t help but notice that the icons of Christ and Mary on the iconostasis were also a bit brown in colour as well as some of the others on the walls.  Except for three smaller icons that were bowed to and kissed, I didn’t see anything that looked like worship of a “graven image.”  The pictures were more like going to your uncle’s house with photos of the family “old heads” on the wall over the sofa.  The focus of the worship was on Jesus with the sermon coming from the Gospel reading, the music taken straight from the Psalms (a couple of chants were entire Psalms), constant prayers for God’s mercy, and the Eucharist as the climax of the worship.

My Living Room Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

With so few Orthodox churches in our communities and our focus on the Civil Rights struggles, I can understand why older generations of black ministers didn’t learn and teach about the many African saints who are honored by the ancient faith.  With greater access to information through the internet, and immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, it is far easier to learn about the church.  The Brotherhood of St. Moses The Black has been promoting Orthodoxy to the African-American community for over two decades.  So, there is information out there about saints, patriarchs, monks, nuns, and martyrs from the “Motherland.”  As Protestants, we need not venerate such icons.  But, as a people who wants to celebrate its rich past, it only makes sense that we learn about the Orthodox saints from Africa.  And as they worked and worshiped with Europeans and Middle Eastern people, we can also give respect to some of the other great heroes of our united Christian past such as St. John Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian and American saints such as Herman of Alaska and Peter the Aleut.  Christianity is universal and iconography shows this.

Yes, I know what the Second Commandment is.  It is also repeated in Exodus 20:23 as well.  Icons are not gods.  Nowhere in Orthodox doctrine and worship will you find anyone calling them gods.  Icons of the saints are pictorial reminders of those who lived godly lives and for us to follow their example.  Believers cross themselves (which is a physical expression of the Gospel), bow to, and kiss the icons as a matter of reverent respect and not worship.  Had the saints been alive, they would be greeted with handshakes, hugs, and kisses like we do with all other living people who we respect and love.  The Israelites and Jeroboam made golden bulls and said, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  Solomon made idols of the gods of his foreign wives and they led his heart away from the Lord.  I have yet to meet any Orthodox cleric or layperson to hold up an icon and say, “This is God.”  They are icons that are worshiped with and not worshiped themselves.

A few of the Saints: ( l – r from lthe bottom) Sophia, Fulvainus-Matthew, Anthony, Elesbaan, Moses the Ethiopian, Cyprian, Djan-Darada, Maurice, Athanasius, and Mary of Egypt. (thanks to Bro. John Norman, the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Detroit Chapter, and St Innocent Orthodox Church in Redford MI)

Let’s not use tradition nor narrow-minded biblical interpretations (the Bible was compiled by the Orthodox Church) deny us from the encouraging stories from the men and women of God from our African past.  Let us recognize them as members of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us  as we focus on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1, 2).

Foolish Fighting & Wrong Weapons

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Ephesians 6:11-13

Toward Dawn (© John Gresham)

I remember when Matthew Shepherd, a gay man, was brutally beaten and left to die.  I thought that sooner or later some armed homosexual or sympathizer would take up arms against a Christian church, or other organization of the faith for our silence on (and in some cases acceptance of) gay bashing.  Well, it has happened.  Thank God that the security guards at the Family Research Council did their job effectively to prevent a tragic loss of life.  No, I should say, “another tragic loss of life.”  The murder of Sikh worshipers by an ultra-conservative gunman happened two weeks ago.

I cannot help but to wonder if either of these men had a well-developed life of prayer before they decided to pick up arms.  I am willing to bet that they didn’t.  Attempting to shoot unarmed Christians and shooting unarmed Sikh mistaking them for Muslims (who most likely would have been unarmed) is no a sign of someone who makes the serious effort to be more like God.  No, this is the end result of those who believe in their ideology more than the crucified and risen Savior.  A true prayer life requires one to be repentant to an reliant on God throughout the day.  These characteristics call on us to be humble and consider our own faults before becoming angry in our disagreements with others.  With a focus on seeking Godliness, we see that our real enemies are not people who can only harm the flesh.  Our true adversaries are our passions of lust, greed, gluttony, envy, arrogance, and the like.  Even if we were to succeed in overcoming our earthly opponents, without victory over the spiritual enemies we have achieved nothing for our souls.

The problem is not gun ownership nor having a political point of view.  Fingernail files can be used as weapons.  Left and Right are the two sides of the same cheap coin of human rule and both are needed for the coin to have value.  The problem of American society is that we are not truly prayerful.  When we pray, it us usually for God to do something for us or support our point of view.  Instead of being repentant, we point the finger at the sins of others to comfort us as not being as bad as they are.  Instead of reliance on God, we commit ourselves to human reliance to boast of what we have earned or beg for what we deserve.  Humility cannot be born of such characteristics.  These are the planting beds for the very ills which we should seek to overcome.  Combine this sort of prayer with divisive politics and we have an atmosphere for fearful and mistrusting attitudes.  These attitudes are then manipulated by marketing puppet masters and talking heads.  Those who focus left or right rather than inward and above become further rooted in toxicity.  At best, the toxicity is quieted by some sense of basic civility.  At worst, there is a breaking news story at 6 pm.

I urge you to fight the real enemy!  Heterosexual lust is far more damaging to marriage and male-female relationships than homosexual marriage will ever be.  Arrogance kills more Americans than Muslims, Sikh, Jews, and all other non-Christians combined.  We probably are more likely to be killed by someone who says they are Christian than anyone else.  Greed is the real enemy of the hard-working tax payer.  Gluttony traps even the poor in poverty.  To fight these enemies, we must be on the battlefields of our own hearts, minds, and souls.  Our weapons are prayer, scripture, and action.  Our strategy is to walk humbly with the Lord our God.  We must stop trying to exonerate and excuse ourselves and seek the Holy Spirit with an honest and complete assessment of ourselves so that we can be healed.  Then we will properly be able to assist others in the healing process.

I expected some sort of retaliation.  Most likely, it will be met with more retaliation.

Today’s Sermon: A Lesson in Prayer

Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”

Luke 11:1

Thanking God for the instruction, prayers and support I have received from the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline.  I am really enjoying and growing in this journey and look forward to meeting others who are a part of this fellowship.  May the Lord bless a neighbor and friend, Dr. Leo Wagner, in his time of illness.

Another Dawn (© John Gresham)

A LESSON IN PRAYER

Luke 10:38-42, 11:1-13

(introduction) Our parents taught us how to pray from an early age

(antithesis) In our modern age, the definition of prayer and how to do it gets over-simplified

(propositional statement)  Jesus teaches a proper discipline of prayer for his believers

(relevant question) What are the steps in the Lord’s discipline in prayer?

(points)

  • prayer should be done in a certain place with few distractions (10:41-43, 11:1)
  • Jesus gives us words to direct our prayers (11:2-4)
  • our prayers can and should be offered to God whenever we have a need (11:5-8)
  • the purpose of our prayer is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives (11:9-13)

Well directed prayer is like a well-aimed arrow.  It will travel in the right direction even if it misses the mark of the bull’s-eye.

 

Campaign 2012: Can’t We All Get Along?

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual.  Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis.

Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Where Do We Go From Here?”

And so while all Christians agree that helping the poor is a Christian
responsibility, it is not a self-evident truth that the best way to accomplish
that is more government welfare, or universal health coverage. I certainly would
not suggest that those Christians who disagree with my take on that are not
Christians because they don’t see it my way, but they should return the favor,
since the Church has no clear teachings on how government should handle public
charity.

Father John Whiteford “Hypocrisy of the ‘Christian Left'”

With it (the tongue) we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been mad in the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth we proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not be so.

James 2:9, 10 (emphasis mine)

Both Wings Extended (© John Gresham)

Politics bring out the worst in people, especially in election years.  Most of us like to think of ourselves as independents and moderates.  But, we are often swayed one way or the other by hardcore left and right-wing propaganda and their very vocal adherents.  Finding non-biased sources of polices and statistics is ever more difficult as well-financed media and online friends loudly and frequently spew out the “facts” that support their position.  And while it is tempting to talk about how there was so much civility in politics years ago, one only needs to open a history book and read where South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane over the issue of slavery.

What is most disturbing is that the meanest and nastiest attitudes among political supporters of both sides of the coin are Christians.  The Apostle James was so right when he noted the hypocrisy of our words.  This is not to say that every Christian ought to agree or disagree with either political party.  But we, of all people, ought to have sense enough to see the value of both of their platforms and seek to combine the best of both to improve ourselves, the nation, and the world.  Rather than respectfully give and take as humble people as God called us to be, we tear each other to pieces with our words and attitudes like pit bulls and fighting cocks.   Dog and cock fights are cruel illegal forms of entertainment ran by ring masters.  And when we children of God fail to keep our words and attitudes in check, we reduce ourselves to being animals controlled by the whims of this world.

The real question is not Obama or Romney, big or small government, or more or less taxes.  The real question is how to state your position.  Shall it be said with insults and rancor that only stir up angry opposition or with simple and humble words that may still stir up angry opposition?  The real question is how to respond to those who are against your position.  Shall we use bitter name calling  and hate that will only make a bad situation worse or with respect and meekness that may still offend those who want to make a bad situation worse?

America is like a burning house.  We who belive in Jesus Christ can either add fuel to the fire or try to slow the flames down.  In some cases, we may even extinguish them for a time.  Deliverance can only come from our Lord himself.  Support and vote for the candidates of your conscience.  But, do so in the spirit of mercy and humility Christ called us to live by.

Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one can see the Lord.

Hebrews 12:14

What We Bring To The Table: “Come Unto Me”

In my morning and evening prayers, I will either listen to Ancient Faith Radio or an Orthodox Christian chant playlist on You Tube.  Yet, there is something special about this classic hymn from the Church Of God In Christ.

I first heard and sang this at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference in 2007 (I think it was 2007) and fell in love with its melody and lyrics.  The refrain is a musical version of Matthew 11:28-30.  For a people suffering through the lynch mobs and segregation signs back in the day, “Come Unto Me” was a welcome and healing song.  If the Orthodox Church is going to reach out to African-Americans, it would have to reach us with the same message of hope.  I believe it can.  The “how” will be interesting.

 

 

The Greater Glory

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

Tidal Flat (© John Gresham)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Today’s Sermon: Preparation For A Manifestation

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves, and there He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white bright light.

Matthew 17:1, 2

This has been a very busy week for me.  We just wrapped up the Pamunkey Baptist Association Annual Session Thursday.  I am blessed to serve as Moderator of a fellowship of 14 African-American churches united in ministry and service.  We have plans in motion to renovate our historic building and provide faith-based services to our county.  I thank God that I am working with spirit led pastors and lay persons.

A Pastoral Brotherhood

Left to right:  Evans White (Providence), Morris Randall (Ephesus), Eli Jones (Wayland), Robert Brown (St. Paul)

Shawn Knight (Baptist Liberty), John Gresham (Trinity), Shelwood Claude (Bethany), and Wilbert Talley (Third Union)

PREPARATION FOR A MANIFESTATION

Matthew 17:1, 2

(introduction) the Transfiguration was a glorious manifestation of God

(antithesis) even less dramatic manifestations catch us flat-footed

(propositional statement) Peter’s discipleship is a model for us to best handle God’s manifestation

(relevant questions) How do Peter’s six days before the Transfiguration parallel our preparation for manifestations

(points)

  • Knowing Jesus is Lord (16:16)
  • Being honest with how we see Jesus at the risk of being rebuked (16:22, 23)
  • Continuing to follow Jesus despite our spiritual struggle

(conclusion)  If we continue to seek Christ diligently, He will show himself to us

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.

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.

 

Today’s Sermon: Let Jesus In Your House

I want to thank Sub-Deacon Paul Abernathy for bringing up this text in one of his talks at the Ancient Christianity Afro-American Conference.  If this guy were a Baptist, he would be a pastor somewhere.  Well educated, articulate, young; yeah, this brother would be a star among preaching circuits and revival services.  But, a sub-deacon?  Perhaps we should learn from such humility.

LET JESUS IN YOUR HOUSE

Matthew 8:14-15

(antithesis) Why should we let Jesus into our house when the Centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 didn’t?

(thesis) As following disciples, rather than passer-by strangers, we should seek the Lord’s presence in our innermost selves.

(relevant question)  What are the advantages of such a presence in our lives?

(points)

  • Christ blesses the goodness that we already have (Peter’s mother in law in his home v. 14)
  • Christ sees and ministers to our relatively insignificant ailments (she had a fever and he touched her hand v.14, 15)
  • Touched by Christ, we are empowered to serve others whomever they are (she served them v.15)

(conclusion)  Don’t settle for a great passing faith.  Build your life in the presence of Jesus Christ.