inspiration

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.

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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: 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.

What Day Is It?

Okay, I know it is weird for a life-long Baptist to take up a journey toward Orthodox Christianity.  Yeah, I have put my foot in my mouth (size 13) at least once on this journey.  “Lawd John-John, why are you ‘foolin’ with that Catholic stuff anyway?”  As if I didn’t have enough reasons to seriously consider the ancient faith, here is another.  The origins of the names of the days of the week and what they symbolize are not only opposed to ancient church teachings.  They are destructive to humanity.  Search any website on the topic and these are the origins of names of our weekdays:

  • Monday – honoring the moon
  • Tuesday – honoring Tiw, the Norse god of war
  • Wednesday – honoring Woden (aka Odin), the supreme Norse god
  • Thursday – honoring Thor, the Norse god of Thunder
  • Friday – honoring Frigg, the Norse goddess of love
  • Saturday – honoring Saturn, the Roman god of the weather
  • Sunday – honoring the sun

Notice, of the seven days of the week, four of them recognize Norse gods, two of them recognize created heavenly bodies, and the last a Roman god.  None has anything to do with the Holy Trinity, Christian Faith, nor anything that feeds hope to the soul.  Think about it, the day for the god of war is Tuesday (Tyr’s-day).  Considering the lyrics of “Stormy Monday Blues,” (Tuesday is just as bad, Wednesday is worse, and Thursday’s oh so sad) it is small wonder that we have a bitter and loathsome attitude toward the work and school week.  Needless to say, with a corrupted view of the other days, our point of view of love will also be skewed.  So, what we have is a society of conflict with little love and only hopes for good weather.  What an uplifting spiritual outlook!

Furthermore, how can a society claim a spirit anything other than Norse when four of its week days honor Norse gods (including their supreme god) and only one honors a god of another culture (a Roman one who some Christians were martyred for not recognizing)?  It seems rather odd that modern Evangelicals would be up at arms against the “new age” and occult believers when we have co-opted the Gospel with such commemorations as “Holy Thursday,” “Good Friday,” and “Easter Sunday.”  Yes, I know we Christians regard Sunday as the day of our Lord and Savior.  But, why is it not spelled, s-o-n instead of s-u-n?  Maybe we need to think about this historic form of political correctness before we holler about “liberals” removing the Ten Commandments from state houses or prayer from schools.  Watering down the Christian faith is not a new phenomenon.  Christians have been doing this since the middle ages.

A New Day (© John Gresham)

Change the days of the week on our calendars worldwide?  That will probably happen when Liverpool wins the Super Bowl.  But, I think it may do us non-Orthodox Christians a bit of good to consider the weekly pattern established by the early church fathers:

  • Day honoring the angels
  • Day honoring John the Baptist
  • Day commemorating the betrayal of Christ
  • Day honoring the apostles
  • Day commemorating the crucifixion of Christ
  • Day honoring those who have fallen asleep
  • Day celebrating the resurrection of Christ

Orthodoxy gives us a far more spiritual outlook on the week.  Each day is an indisputable recognition of the faith.  If life and death are in the power of the tongue, it is to our spiritual benefit to mention the Orthodox perspective of the day in our daily prayers.  Compare for yourself; did the moon announce the birth of Jesus or did an angel do that?  Why honor thunder when you can honor the 12 men who led the faith we now practice?  And what, other than the resurrection, is more loving than our Savior laying down his life for us?  For the sake of transacting business and functioning in our world, the names of the days are what they are.  But in the pursuit of spiritual living, let’s honor the days that have been handed down to us by the fathers.

http://www.essortment.com/origins-names-days-week-64840.html  The Origins of the Days of the Week

http://www.serfes.org/orthodox/SevenDayCommemorations.htm  The Seven Day Commemoration in the Orthodox Church

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

Today’s Sermon: Confession and Discipleship

… “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  … “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”

Luke 5:8, 10

Farewell Friend (© John Gresham)

Saturday was the funeral for my colleague, Dr. Leo Wagner.  Before his death, I shared with him my interest in Orthodox Christianity.  He was enthusiastic about my pursuit as we African-Americans have little exposure to the ancient faith.  He was aware of the role Africans played in helping to form the church’s doctrine and told me that he looked forward to hearing how or what Orthodoxy could contribute to our churches.  I pray that he is watching my journey with Athanasius, Cyprian, Mary of Egypt, and all of the other saints from all corners of the faith.

Praying birthday blessings to my wife.  In her illnesses, Brenda has taught me more about life than perhaps if she were well.  I would like the thorns of MS and bipolar disorder be miraculously removed from her.  But, the grace of God is sufficient.

CONFESSION & DISCIPLESHIP

Luke 5:1-11

(Introduction)  Peter showed great faith in letting Jesus teach from his boat and then go out and fish after an unsuccessful night (vv. 5-7)

(antithesis)  The miracle and simply following Jesus afterward is not what made Peter a disciple

(thesis)  Peter’s confession was the pivotal point that endeared him to Jesus (and the astonishment of his companions vv. 8-10)

(propositional statement)  There can be no true discipleship without true confession

(relevant question)  What makes true confession so crucial to following Jesus?

(points)

  • Confession identifies the mercy of Christ as the source of our blessings (v. 8)
  • Confession puts us in a state of humility (v. 8)
  • Christ confirms confessors (v. 10)

(conclusion)  If we short-change God on our confessions, we short-change ourselves from the fullness of walking with him

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?

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).