John the Baptist

Embracing John The Baptist

I am sorry I haven’t worked on articles about my trip to the St. Moses the Black (Ancient Faith Afro-American) Conference yet.  Actually, I did type up a few rough drafts while in and on the road.  I will get on it as soon as I have time and get better.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been well and found out last Friday that my blood sugar level was 720.  I was hospitalized over the weekend and just got home Monday afternoon.  This morning, I tested out at 150.  I feel dizzy.  I’m ready for a morning nap.

I am grateful for the visits, prayers, and phone calls from my Trinity Baptist Church family and relatives on both sides of my family.   Fr. James Purdie came with his eldest children.  I kinda expected him to pray the Trisagion and offer up some other ancient prayers.  He also gave me an icon of John the Baptist.  This was no major surprise coming from an Orthodox priest.  But, the more I sat and looked at the icon, the more I thought of how I need to make my patron saint a part of me.

John the Forerunner

John didn’t eat the most elaborate diet.  I imagine locust and wild honey gets old kinda quick.  Nor was he very fashionable (camel’s hair garment).  I’m not much on clothes since I wear a uniform at work and a suit on Sundays.  A couple of sport shirts, jeans, and khakis round out my wardrobe.  I have to make a change in my eating and drinking.  Deserts are not a big problem for me, except for holidays.  I do okay on my weekly fast.  But, I eat myself silly on non fast days.  I don’t think there are too many juice-based drinks at the 7-11 that I have not tried and liked.  Such beverages have been a major addiction of mine.  On my trip to KC, I drank Hawaiian Punch like a comfort food.  No wonder my blood sugar level was up to ridiculous.    John and the later monastics had the right idea.  We need only to eat and drink what is necessary for health.

Spiritually, John provides a role model of what is most important about the Christian faith.  Repentance, giving to others, and living in expectation of seeing the Christ.  Again, I am no fan of “get your praise on” worship.  I don’t really get into buying stuff because I have little or no disposable income.  I do worry that people see the Christian faith more as a “feel good, self help, get what you want in this world today” religion rather than the “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” faith that Jesus calls us to.  Could it be that we have spiritual diabetics who only want the sugar of earthly blessings and no balance of muscle building proteins of self sacrifice?  Could it be that we have people with 720 blood glucose levels of praises instead of 60 to 100 of a prayer discipline?  I think we all need to monitor our bodies and souls and the later is far more important.

Yeah, I honor the saints of Orthodox Christianity.  Moses the Black, Cyprian of Carthage, Isaac the Syrian, Herman of Alaska, and others grace my icon corners.  But, John was the true forerunner not only of our Lord.  Except for the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), he was the role model for all saints.  He is a role model for all Christians as well.

 

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.

The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Thursday): A Pattern of Preaching

 A 10 minute sermon? This is proof that the center of Orthodox worship is not on the preached word. There is simply no way I can get away with a 10 minute sermon. I had better not preach much more than 20 minutes. But, we Baptist are expected to give an introduction, antithesis, thesis, relevant question, 3 points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with what the Vladyka said. I just find this form of preaching strange. I will keep watching and learning.

As a Baptist who has decided to journey toward Orthodox Christianity, I expected that I would say something to draw criticism from one side or the other.  I thought one of my colleagues would be the first to question my icons or wonder if I started “praying to Mary instead of Jesus.”  Nope, instead I have been “taken to the woodshed” by archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Canadian Orthodox Monastery of All Saints of North America.

In my comments on his sermon, I meant no criticism of his content.  I am certainly not ready to debate the man on theology.  I didn’t say that the length of his message was too short in the context of Orthodox Worship.  I said, perhaps in too many words, that a ten-minute sermon is not the norm for the Baptist Church.  He disagreed with my observation that “the center of Orthodox Worship is not on the preached word” (the Eucharist is the center, even he said that), and gave a stern repost to my comment, “I found this form of preaching strange.”

  • Not true. The entire Liurgy preaches the Gospel. As with the Ancient Church, the centre of Orthodox Worship is the Eucharest. Only for the Gnostics was this not the case. I have seen & been Sectarian neo-Gnostic (Protestant) self-worship services. The consist in screaming, howling preachers who have to crack jokes, howl like dogs at the moon, torch singers, rock bands, feel-good-about-yourself empty, meaningless songs and self-congratulatory outbursts. All is emotion, self-centred and vain.

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

  • Do you really consider rock bands, the cheapening of the name of Christ Jesus, torch singers, tap dancers, joke-cracking preachers, howling, thereatening, leaping and dancing across the state slapping the bible up and down, prowling the stage cursing people and a purly Gnostic message could be considered “preaching the word” or “worshipping?” Would Christ stop at your concession stand in the lobby for soda and pop-corn before going into a multi-million dollar business centre called a “church?”

    allsaintsmonastery in reply to jaygresh 10 hours ago

 I am more than aware of the abuses of worship in the modern Christian worship and seek to avoid them like the plague.  And I confess to being a little humorous and very loud in the pulpit.  I am not ready to debate the Archbishop on theology as he is far more knowledgable and wise than myself.  But, I will defend the pattern of sermon construction that has been handed down to me from years of Baptist preaching.

I have been taught to give an introduction as a way to lead people into the message.  The antithesis brings the congregation into the particular problem that is common in our daily lives.  The thesis is the answer to the problem based on the scripture that is read.  A relevant question inquires that the preacher can properly apply the scripture to the problem (like in algebra where one has to show the whole equation and not just write down the correct answer).  The preacher then gives his points (usually three) with scriptures in the same context as the given text.  All is summarized in the conclusion that proclaims the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Can Archbishop Puhalo or someone else tell me what is wrong with this form of preaching?  Sure, I have heard many ministers use text out of context, stray away from the thesis, focus more on a celebratory conclusion rather than other elements of the message, and other abuses.  I admit guilt to not writing and preaching the best constructed sermons.  But when followed correctly, listeners (who pay attention) leave worship with a clear understanding of the text and how to apply the Gospel to daily living.  Other than the theological differences between the Baptist and Orthodox, this form of preaching is a good thing.

And let me leave today risking more wrath.  Orthodox Christians who want to call us Protestants fake, frauds, Gnostics, and other things (one You Tube commentator calls us “transvestites”); you need to go out and evangelize.  In my 45 years on this earth, I have had plenty of Jehovah’s Witnesses approach me, Mormons visit my home, Black Muslims sell me newspapers and bean pies.  I have yet to have an Orthodox Christian approach me.  I have had to take the time and look things up online for myself.   If any religion or denomination has the truth, it is the church that was founded in A.D. 33.  But, the only time most of us hear about this church is when a Greek festival is going on.  Plenty of people who were brought up in Protestant churches are leaving or aren’t that dedicated to the faith.  There is a rich harvest for you to pick from.  Black Americans will especially appreciate the fact that Africans were among the founders of Orthodoxy.  If God is not pleased with our heterodox beliefs, shame on us.  But, if we are remaining heterodox because we have never heard the Gospel coming from you Orthodox, you share in our shame.

I thank God that I was raised and serve as a Baptist.  I am equally grateful that I have found the rich history, heritage, and spirituality of Orthodoxy (and have applied for membership in St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline).

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Thursday): Do I Have To?

‘ But,  I want to do this.’

Rita Madden from the podcast, “Fasting Is Medicine” 

The answer to the question is obvious.  No, I do not have to fast.  I am a Baptist.  Our doctrine and dogma does not teach a need to refrain from any food any time of the year.  Our radical reformed denominational position is that ritual fasting is a tradition of man that Jesus did not teach and, therefore, should be ignored as some Roman Catholic superstitious practice.  In my African-American heritage, our people were deprived and suffered much under slavery.  So, why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating what we want, when we want it, as often, and as much as we can?  No, I don’t have to fast.  According to doctrine and culture, “I ain’t got no business fasting.”

Wake Dawn (© John Gresham)

But, I want to fast.  First of all, Jesus did it and did not speak against the practice.  The only guideline he gave about fasting is that we don’t make a boastful show of it and act on fast days as any other day.  Read Matthew 4:1-11 and the corresponding stories in Mark and Luke.  As a result of his fast, Jesus was able to withstand the temptations Satan tried him with and God sent angels down to minister to him.  I ask, who doesn’t want the ability to withstand temptation and have God’s mercy on us?  While Jesus does not make his fast a requirement, the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food for a period of time does have positive benefits to our souls, when applied to faith and aided with prayer ( Matthew 17:19-21; see my previous article).  It makes sense to fast.

It makes sense to fast as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.  We Protestants may give up one or two things we shouldn’t indulge in for Lent.  For pregnant and nursing women and those whose diets are directed by a physician, such limited fasting makes sense.  But, for the rest of us, “giving something up for Lent” falls short of the point.  Refraining from food should produce a hunger and the hunger should drive us to prayer and reliance on the Father who adopted us as his children through his Only Begotten Son with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Substituting huge portions of chicken for beef doesn’t do it.  The early church fathers were wise enough to see that we needed something to sustain us and suggested eating only simple foods such as vegetables, legumes, and bread.  We need some oil (fat) as well and a little fish for animal protein.  Rather than indulge in  vegan food substitution, they taught that we should stop eating while still hungry and never eat until we are full.

As I said in a previous post, the calendar of Orthodox fasting and feasting is just like hiking a trail.  When the Apostles Fast is over on the Feast of the Apostles.  After these major points, I continue to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord) until the next major point (the fast and feast of Mary).  And there are a couple of feast days thrown in the midst of those fast (the Nativity of John the Baptist in June and the Transfiguration in August).  The Christmas Fast (Nov. 15th thru Dec. 24th) will be tough to cope with because of Thanksgiving and those holiday food temptations.  But, there is the feast of St Nicholas  in early December and no weekday fast between Christmas and Epiphany.  Then, it is Lent and Easter again (with a couple of other feast and fast to observe).  It may seem like a lot to keep up with for most of us Protestants.  But, I think following such a cyclical pattern keeps me looking forward to God’s grace and mercy all year-long rather than waiting around for Christmas and Easter.

So, as one Orthodox mother told her neighbors, “But, I want to do this.”  Bishops and priest can’t judge their parishioners on whether or not they do it.  Surely, no officers in the Baptist church will threaten to remove my ordination for grilling some pork chops this evening.  This is a choice I made on my own free will.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Roots of Discipleship

The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus

John 1:37

Vewing the Valley (© John Gresham)

Two of John’s disciples heard their teacher proclaim the presence of the Greater One.  Rather than stay with the one who had led them, they sought the One he constantly refered to.  Following Jesus, they went to the place where he stayed.  No crowds were present, just the two men spending time with the Lord.

What good is it for the roots to simply rely on moisture from the drops of rain and dew dripping from the leaves when there is a greater source of water?  Do roots do any good staying in a ball when there is fertile ground to find firm establishment?  Such roots do nothing productive for the tree and are only fit to rot so that new roots can find the nourishment to go forward as the predecessors should have.

Too often the faithful put their faith in the preacher and not the One that is (and MUST BE) proclaimed.  Even when the preacher speaks truth, there is a tendency to uplift the human rather than seek out the greater truth of the divine.  This is the realm of “Sunday Christians.”  They stay in the root ball of the weekly worship without penetrating the rich soil of the Divine Savior nor drinking from the ever flowing fountain of His Spirit.  Perhaps others will learn from their erroneous existence and seek something better.

Let us not make such an error.  Sermons from even the best pastors are mere drops of water from leaves.  Take the drops, but search out the Spirit of Truth that cleanses and restores us.  Grow deeper in solitude and only another or two spending time in God’s presence.  When discipleship takes the path of such a root, it attracts others to come and grow.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Consistent Testimony

… Behold the Lamb of God!

John 1:36

A Mattaponi Dawn (© John Gresham)

There is something to be said for consistency.  That what is spoken one day is the same as the days before and for days to come.  A true testimony does not change.  But, it remains the same.

One day, the religious leadership approached John the Baptist asking if he were the Christ or one of the prophets.  He denied claims to both.  He quoted the words of Isaiah and pointed that the great Messiah was yet to come with a greater baptism.  But John did not claim any position that was not his, even though he could have claimed the lesser of the two.  John kept to the task of baptism for the remission of sins in humble obedience to God.

The next day, John identified and proclaimed the one he spoke of the day and days before.  “Behold the Lamb of God!”  John was a good man and, rightfully, drew a crowd of the faithful.  But, the Lamb of God was (is) the perfect offering without blemish or spot.  The true first-born.  This Lamb would go down and rise again, thus able to take away the sins of the world.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power that shows he is the Son of God.  As in the day before, John didn’t speak of his greatness.  He bore witness to something greater.

And still the next day, John makes the same proclamation as he sees Jesus.  John has two of his disciples standing with him and made no gesture nor spoke in protest as they left him to follow the One he spoke of.  The baptizer has seen the one who offers the greater baptism.  The precursor has laid down the path as prophesied.  With the Lamb present, John understood that he his position had to decrease.  There was no point of his disciples following him any longer as there was a greater one for them to follow.

A false witness changes as it sees opportunity for gain, the need to conceal inconvenient truth, and threats to its status.  The true witness always points to something greater.  Gain and status are temporal.  Truth is never stopped.  It is best to understand our role in God’s will and let him have his way.  Our consistent testimony let’s him work through us for his glory.

Amen

A Pursuit of the Spirit of Christ: In the Beginning

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

John 1:1

A Douthat Sunrise (© John Gresham/DCR)

The opening 18 verses of John’s Gospel is the glory of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.  Jesus is described as the light and giver of life.  Though John the Baptist may have revealed the light, he isn’t to be confused as the light.  Belief in the light is what gives us rebirth not as physical creatures.  We become children of God.  It is impossible to truly pursue the Spirit of Christ without accepting this introduction of who Jesus is.

Before anything else existed, the Word existed.   In many religions (and among many Christians), things such as commandments, law, and morality are put at the forefront of faith.  Word is far more meaningful to true spiritual pursuit than these things.  Commandment, law, and morality are useful as they set limits of behavior and practice for the good of individuals and society.  There can be no civilization and community without them.  But, they were not there in the creative process of God and only appeared after creation took place.  Adam was given a commandment after the Lord God made him and placed him in the garden with the tree that he was forbidden to eat from.  The Law of Moses was given after the Lord God made the promise of land to Abraham’s descendants and they were free from Egypt and slavery.  So, to have a faith where the morality and the Word are one in the same is wrong.  Morality is secondary as it is a created boundary.   A true pursuit of Jesus must focus on pursuing the Word.

The fact that the Word became flesh goes above and beyond the latter boundaries.  For the creator to take the form of the created ends the wall of separation between the two.  The creator can easily reject the created because of its flaws and faults.  He who made the flesh has every right to condemn it for its constant infringements of commandments, law breaking, and immorality.  Yet, this Word possesses light and life.  These qualities have no rejection in themselves.  But, they offer renewal to anyone who is willing to accept them.  And as these qualities are a part of the Word that was with God and is God, light and life are far more desirable, powerful, and merciful than the secondary boundaries of commandment, law, and morality.  According to these, we should all die in our sins.  The Word gives us light and life in the fullest as it became flesh and dwelt among us.  A true pursuit of Jesus calls for us to behold his glory. 

 He came first to those who had all of the necessary boundaries for righteousness in individuals and society.  But, they held on to their law and ancestry rather than receive him and believe in his name.  Adhering to Mosaic Law and claiming Abraham as their father were the spoken grave mistakes of the Jews in the Gospels.  We run the risk of being just like them when we cling so tightly to morality, race, and nationality that we cannot accept the Word that created all things.  Our righteousness is limited to ourselves and what we believe should be done.  The righteous Word is all merciful and reaches out to all that will accept his authority over their lives.  Our boundaries govern those born of flesh.  To receive him and believe in his name is to be born of God.

May we be born of God, pursue the Word, and behold His Glory.

A Lenten Journal: A Pursuit of the Doctrine of Christ (Third Friday)

And he instructed them to take nothing for the journey …    Mark 6:8

The more stuff we carry, the more difficult it is to reach the summit.  Last year, I hiked Cold Mountain by the Appalachian and Old Hotel Trails with a very heavy backpack.  A camper I met along the way tried it on and asked me if I were in the military.  Only one with much mental discipline and physical strength could bear such a heavy load for any distance.  I considered the question a compliment and took pride that I made the loop solo with such a load.  But, I also learned that for the spiritual journey of life, we are more effective when we are not overburdened in the first place.

A Weary Self Portrait (© John Gresham)

The more things the disciples carried, the more they would be distracted by the things they had to lose.  Food, shelter, and clothing are necessary.  But, when we tie these things on to our faith, we damage our ability to effectively minister to the world.  Where is the repentance in our possessions?  Can a devil be driven out by homes and cars?  And what if we are called to pay the ultimate dues for our belief in Jesus, aren’t we tempted to use our wealth to bribe our way out of lesser cost?  How much more would we try to use it not to die for the cross?

John the Baptist preached with mercy and power that a wicked king would listen reverently even if he didn’t repent.  Herod had him killed only because he made an oath based on momentary lust.  John wore a camel’s-hair garment and ate locust and wild honey.  He had nothing to corrupt him and preached the incorruptible Christ.  Avoid the corruption of possessions by having only what you need to do the will of Christ.  By this, our witness of the Gospel becomes so evident and true that even our enemies will be reluctant to kill us.  Make sure your backpack isn’t too heavy.  You may not be able to go the distance and reach the summit.

Yours in Christ,

Brother Cyprian Bluemood

Order of Saint-Simon of Cyrene

A Lenten Journal: A Pursuit of the Doctrine of Christ (First Friday)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.”   –  Mark 1:15

What is the Gospel that Jesus is referring to in this portion of his ministry?  Surely he is not going about Galilee proclaiming he has died and risen from the tomb.  He hasn’t even told this to the first four disciples yet as he has just called them to be fishers of men.  So, was Jesus foretelling what would happen to him to masses of people even before he would tell his closest followers who wouldn’t understand him?

Praise for Good News

I revert back to the previous 14 verses of this chapter.  The word of prophecy has been fulfilled.  The voice that cried out in the wilderness, John the Baptist,  has fulfilled his purpose.   Jesus was baptized by this man of great faith and simple life.  Baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sin though he had no sin.  Jesus was confirmed as the coming Lord by the Father and the Holy Spirit.   The Lord had withstood testing and tempting by Satan and came through the desert without sin.  John’s imprisonment now opens the door for the ministry that he said would be greater than his.  Therefore, the Good News is that one can receive spiritual renewal and victory over evil by believing that Jesus is the prophesied Lord from Heaven because he has become one with us and triumphed over Satan.  Repent and believe.

John’s baptism flew in the face of the Pharisees call for strict, legal obedience as it didn’t follow the Mosaic ritual.  It was an antithesis to the earthy rule of Herod and Rome as he spoke of something greater.  Jesus declared not the restoration of David’s Israel nor the majesty of Cesar.  “The Kingdom of God is close at hand.”   Entrance into this divine realm only two things are required.  Repent and believe.

May you see beyond burdensome legalism and supremacist arrogance.  Good News is simple and available to all.  Repent and believe.

Yours In Christ,

Brother Cyprian Bluemood

Order of Saint-Simon of Cyrene