Jesus

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Anthony, King, Obama: The Time Is Now

The confluence of the days is no coincidence.  Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday will be celebrated on January 21st.  This is also the same date of the Second Inauguration of President Barak Obama.  Every American, in particular African-Americans, understand the importance and prophetic like significance of these events.  King was the voice for a better America and helped lead the country out of the satanic state of segregation.  Obama is a symbol of what anyone can achieve if they strive to do their best.  There is no way I could nor would want to dispel these two great men.  But, I do believe it is important for we as Protestant Christians, and especially African-American Christians to also regard Saint Anthony of Egypt.  Today is his feast day.

St. Anthony the Great

St. Anthony the Great inherited great wealth from his parents and could have lived a life of great splendor.  Yet hearing the Gospel message, he left his worldly possessions behind and took up a life of prayer in the desert.  His devotion to prayer was a great influence on Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria who gave the church its first creed and was the first to compile the list of books that became our New Testament.  Another Egyptian, Macarius, to write prayers that are still prayed by Orthodox believers around the world.  Anthony’s defence of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God during the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea helped the early church reject the heresy of Arianism.  Yet, rather than bask in the glories of his achievements, Anthony kept returning to his cave.  His followers followed his instructions and buried him in a secret grave so that he would not become the object of veneration.

The importance of Anthony is no less than that of MLK and Mr. Obama.  As we celebrate these to great men, now is the time for us to open our hearts and minds to learn about and celebrate our African-Christian heroes (and the saints of other lands as well).  Had there been no Anthony, the correct doctrines supported by Athanasius, Basil, Nicholas (yes, THAT St. Nicholas), and others may not have been as convincing to Emperor Constantine and the Council.  The rich prayer tradition of Orthodox and Catholic monks and nuns would not have developed in such meaningful ways.  Indeed, where would King have received his Holy Bible from?  What sort of Bible would Mr. Obama take the oath of office on? The “Desert Fathers” of Africa should and must be a part of who we African-American Christians honor during Black History Month as without them, we (and the world) might not be here and not have a true idea of who Jesus Christ is.

Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the era of Dr. King, we were too busy with fighting for our Civil Rights to learn much about our Christian history.  Now, it is possible that an African-American President who struggled during his first term could win a second.  Nothing is stopping us from reading the books of the early church fathers and talking to Eastern and Oriental Orthodox clergy.  Instead of choking our people on a diet of a modern Christian market, we can introduce them to the solid doctrines, prayers, and practices of our African ancestors.  Even if we choose not to convert to Orthodoxy (and I think some of us should), we should know our history.  We have no excuses not to learn.

Fasting? Compare for Yourself!

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

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

St. Seraphim of Sarov

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

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

Please take the time to compare for yourself,

 

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.

Athanasius, Daniel, and Proof of Christ?!?!

I have a most lousy copy of “On The Incarnation” by St. Athanasius.  If you see the Forgotten Books reprint of this for sale anywhere (www.forgottenbooks.org), forget it and get this book published by someone else.  It is digitally remastered from an older manuscript.  The letters are faded from light to dark making this an annoying read.  Fr. James Purdie was going to let me borrow a better version from his library.  But, I had already ordered this when I met with him last month.  Next time, I will ask to borrow from him before I waste my money and eyesight.  I will have to read this book again as I doubt I got half of what Athanasius was teaching.

From the dome at Sts. Constantine & Helen (© John Gresham)

Oh, but I did get one lesson from this great saint that threw me for a loop!  In the 39th section of the book, Athanasius refutes the Jews looking for a Messiah other than Jesus by referring to the prophet Daniel.  Daniel Chapter 9:20-27, the angel Gabriel reveals to the prophet the time of the Seventy Weeks between worship at the temple in Jerusalem until the temple is desecrated by the an abomination in the temple.  Notes in the Orthodox Study Bible interpret the Seventy weeks to mean 70 weeks of years (70 x 7), or  490 years.  Using the works of Hippolytus, a bishop of Rome 170-235 AD, the temple was commissioned to be rebuilt in 458 BC.  The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ happened in  30 AD.  This is in the time frame of the Seventy Weeks or 490 years (488 years to be exact).  Athanasius argues using Daniel 9:24- 25:

Seventy weeks are cut short upon thy people, upon the holy city, for a full end made to sin, and for sins to be sealed up, and to blot out iniquities, and to make atonement for iniquities, and to bring everlasting righteousness, and to seal vision and prophet, and to anoint the Holy of Holies; and thou shalt know and understand from the going forth of the word to restore and to build Jerusalem unto Christ the Prince.

Of course, I knew of the other Messianic prophecies that are repeated such as Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:1 that are repeated in the Gospel of Matthew.  But, I have never had this Daniel prophecy explained like this.  And unlike our modern-day “end-of-the-world experts,” Athanasius, Hippolytus, and similar scholars are the fathers of Christian doctrine.  No wonder the Orthodox Bible ends the Old Testament with Daniel and then goes into the Gospels.  Jesus falls into the prophetic chronology with the angel Gabriel announcing Christ first to the prophet and then to Mary.

Of course, you Orthodox Christians can explain this far better than me.  I do not claim to be an expert.  I am not even a catechist (yet).  But, seeing this chronological, prophetic proof of Christ, I have some questions about my own Protestant faith:

  • Why did Martin Luther and other leaders change this chronological pattern between Daniel and the Gospels?
  • Why don’t we teach this prophecy of the Seventy Weeks as part of our defense of faith?
  • Why don’t we make our parishioners aware of this prophecy, at least during Advent?
  • Of what profit is it to ignore the writings of Athanasius ( who gave us our first creed and New Testament canon), Hippolytus, and other ancient writers in exchange for the likes of John Hagee, Jack van Impe, and other prophetic “scholars?”

I hope to see Fr. James this week while I am in Hampton on business.  I will re-read “On The Incarnation” again as soon as I get my hands on a better copy.  And I will continue to ask questions.

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: Consuming Christ

“This is the bread which came down from heaven-not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead.  He who eats this bread will live forever.”

John 6:58

Let us be in prayer for all who live in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  Thanking God that the Tsunami didn’t greatly affect Alaska and Hawaii.  I wish I had spent a little more time (and money, if I had it) at the Newport News Greek Festival yesterday.  Spinakopida is sooooooo good!

Sts. Constantine * Hellen Greek Orthodox Church (© John Gresham)

CONSUMING CHRIST

John 6:53-58

(introduction)  Holy Communion is a practice that all Christians participate in.

(antithesis)  Oddly enough, there are different doctrines about this, even within our own Baptist denomination

(propositional statement) No matter our doctrine, Jesus calls all of us to consume him

(relevant question) Why is consuming Christ important to our faith?

(points [ v. 58])

  • consuming the things of this world cannot save our souls
  • consuming Christ allows us to abide in him and he in us
  • consuming Christ allows us to experience the fullness of salvation

(conclusion) We need no other sign of the divinity of Jesus except that he was, is, and is to come

Communion Confusion

“My Priest” has assigned me to read On The Incarnation by St. Athanasius and Of Water and Spirit by Fr. Alexander Schmemman.  I have also decided to revisit Baptist doctrine in light of Orthodoxy.  Sooner or later, I may reach the tipping point where I either remain where I am or convert.  As of right now, I am remaining a Baptist pastor (I am still a novice in studying Orthodoxy and I have an ill wife to provide for.  Thus, I will not make any hasty decisions about something as important as this).

My First Orthodox Cross (© John Gresham)

There are times when we Baptist are clear as mud.  Take for example, communion.  I have found three opposing doctrines about how we are to approach this ordinance (sacrament).  In the Philadelphia Baptist Confession of Faith of 1707 (Revival Literature 2007), I found these words:

Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly, by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, by spiritually receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of His death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, by spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, ans the elements themselves are to their outward senses.  (Of the Lord’s Supper, pg. 68)

Strangely enough, the well-regarded A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (American Baptist Churches, Judson Press 1991) throws the 1701 confession out of the window:

It is not a sacred mystery in which some divine power is imparted by the very eating and drinking.  No attempt should be made to create an atmosphere of deep solemnity, which would invest this occasion with som dignity different from that of other worship services.  There should be quiet reverence in any meeting where a congregation gathers to worship the Lord, but no extra solemnity should characterize the Lord’s Supper.  (pg. 167)

Can the spiritual receiving of and feeding of Christ not be a sacred mystery?  And how is it that this day of worship not to be taken differently than other days as we only observe Communion Sunday once a month (or less)?  The National Baptist (in which I am a member of) used to include the Articles of Faith in our New National Baptist Hymnal where we find these words:

And to the Lord’s Supper, in which the members of the church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self-examination. (article 14)

In other words; yes, it is a solemn event for us.  But, we still aren’t taking in anything special as it is just a commemoration.  We are somewhere between the manual and the 1707 confession.  With other Baptist bodies with their own doctrines and (thanks congregational rule combined with to “Soul Liberty” and Sola Scriptura) independent churches with the Baptist label, I am sure that my feeble review just scratches the surface of how many different explanations we have about Communion and how it should be practiced.

Maybe I am wrong.  But, I really don’t see the benefit of our denomination having a wide variety of interpretations of this significant practice of the Christian faith.  We frown up when our seminary trained pastors leave the Baptist Church and form their own independent ministries.  Yet, it was our Lord and Savior who told his opponents that a house divided against its self cannot stand.  It is my prayer that, at least, officials of the major Baptist conventions will get together and hammer out a more universal doctrine on Communion that we can set as the standard.  But, I fear that herding cats in a thunderstorm may be an easier and more likely task.

Today’s Sermon: Everyday as the Sabbath

Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he rested from all His works God began to make.

Genesis 2:3

Fr. James Purdie of St. Basil pointed out that the first full day after God made man, He rested.  I am sure, at least, one of the great church fathers or mothers pondered this and came up with something far more meaningful than what I am about to preach this morning.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

EVERYDAY AS THE SABBATH

Genesis 2:1-3

(thesis)  We are all familiar with God resting on the seventh day of the creation story

(antithesis) Since God didn’t use a modern or ancient man-made calendar, who knows what that seventh day was

(propositional statement)  As the Lord is merciful to allow us to see another day, let us count each day as a Sabbath whether or not we attend church that day.

(relevant question)  How do we make each day a Sabbath?

(points)  no matter what day it is (v.2):

  • bless it
  • sanctify it
  • rest in God in it

(conclusion)  May God find us ready to join him on that day of Christ’s return on any day.

Today’s Sermon: Keep Praying

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.

Luke 5:16

Very soon, I will have another blog.  My church has decided to have a website and I find Wordpress.com an effective and cost-effective tool.  Plus, the response to the Pamunkey Baptist Association site has been positive as well.  I will post my sermon notes here and on the upcoming site.  But, I will continue making a chronicle of my Orthodox journey here.

 

Crossing in the Morning (© John Gresham)

KEEP PRAYING

Luke 5:12-16

(thesis) It is easy to see the value of morning and nightly prayers

(antithesis) Too many challenges arise during the day for us to rely on these prayers alone

(propositional statement) Like Christ, we are to get away from our daily task and deliberately pray alone as much as possible

(relevant question) What are the advantages of such prayer?

(points)  Praying often keeps us:

  • humble
  • in line with God’s will
  • from getting caught up with the crowd

(conclusion)  We can’t all be monastics.  God blesses our efforts.