Lord’s Supper

Weekly Reflection: My New Home

And so it begins.  At 8:45 AM, I received Chrismation beside my sponsor, Seraphim Hamilton, by my priest, Fr. James Purdie.  Fr. James joked with my wife saying that she had better take her photos quickly as the ceremony is over in the blink of an eye.  And as it was.  I was sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with Chrism (a specially scented oil used for the newly baptized and converts).  Being anointed and reading the Nicene Creed, I was welcomed into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

Prelude to Worship © John Gresham

It wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.  I was already on the path to conversion and pretty much considered myself a closet Orthodox Christian in the first place.  This pretty much confirmed what had already happened to me.  If anything, I was more joyful that my wife who rarely attended services at Trinity Baptist Church in my 17 years as pastor was at my side.  She may have been unsuccessful at taking photos with her camera.  But, she had the strength to be with me on this part of my spiritual journey.  That is what really made me happy.

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

Let Us Attend © John Gresham

During Matins, some of the other worshipers came in and whispered words of congratulations.  St. Basil was packed today and there was a guest deacon from St. Paul’s in Emmaus, PA where Fr. Andrew Damick is the pastor.  My wife, who is not really interested in converting any time soon, followed the Divine Liturgy better than I did when I first visited the church.  Taking the Holy Eucharist was moving to me as I took the bread and wine from the same cup as all of my fellow believers.  This was a common-union in act as well as word.  Immediately after receiving the body and blood of our Lord and Savior, I could not wait to give a piece of the blessed bread to the woman who has put up with the best and worst (and I gave her plenty of worst) of me.

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Receiving Holy Water © John Gresham

Then came the Theophany service and the blessing of the Holy Water.  This was a first for me.  The service was not as long as Pascha (Orthodox Easter … Pascha is Greek for Passover).  But, you could tell the little children were more than a bit restless.  There were a few snacks prepared for Coffee Hour (in some traditions, this is the “Agape Meal”).  But the best part of the repast was the conversation with Seraphim and Jeff Edens as we shared how we came to Orthodoxy.  We have Ethiopians, Russians, and a couple of other immigrants and first and second generation (“cradles”) at St. Basil.  But,  most of us are converts from either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism.  Me being the first African-American convert in the church means that I have an interesting story of how I came to the faith.  But, in the end, I think we all came to the Orthodox Church for the same reason.  We all wanted to experience the presence of God the same way the early Christians did.  Of all the denominations, we found this church to be the oldest and most authentic form of worship with a deep well spring of history,  spirituality, and wisdom.  We don’t hate our former denominations in any way, shape, or form.  In the end, God and God alone determines who enters His kingdom.  We believe Othodoxy offers a more complete and holistic path of self denial, carrying our crosses, and following Jesus Christ.  Nearly 2,000 years of the same doctrine seems a good path to follow.

I thank God for my wife and my new church home (in a most unlikely place).  St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church,  1022 Poquoson Avenue, Poquoson, Virginia  23662.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Eleven): Confession and Concerns

Okay, let me first begin with my confession.  With the knowledge of my spiritual father, I did break the fast to celebrate Easter with my family.  Since I am still a Baptist among a deeply Baptist family (my ancestors helped establish churches in King William and Mathews Counties), Father James didn’t have a problem with it as long as I didn’t overindulge.  I did okay for the main meal.  But, cheesecake is a downfall for me.  I hope next year the Gregorian and Julian calendars will be in sync for Easter/Pascha.  Even still, I have no excuse for eating desert with no discipline.  Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.

I am greatly concerned for Louisville player Kevin Ware.  I was watching the first half of the game with my Duke HATING relatives (I am the only Duke fan on either side of my family) and saw when his leg collapsed underneath of him as he was coming down from trying to block a shot.  Looking at the score, one would not know that the Cardinals was without a key player.  Congratulations to them on a very prideful win and may Mr. Ware make a full and swift recovery.

My greater concern is for the sake of a lost sense of spiritual devotion in the Baptist Church.  I remember when Deacon Joseph D. Gresham used to wake up early every first Sunday of the month and cut slices of white bread into little squares for communion.  He also had this bottle with a little bubble pump contraption that used to put the right amount of grape juice into the cups.  I didn’t know Deaconess Mariah Berkley.  But, I understand she used to make the communion wine (yes, it was real) for St. John’s Baptist.  Members could taste it when she used too much or too little sugar.  Years ago, the deacons and deconesses put care, detail, and love into preparing the Lord’s Supper.

While I can understand that with large congregations, the quest for convenience may be a necessity.  But, I can’t help but to wonder about those pre-filled and foil sealed communion cups with the plastic wrapped wafers on top.  What was once a task of loving responsibility has turned into a convenience industry.  What if our faith were to turn into such a communion?  Shall the cups of our faith be filled by cold machines, or by loving saints who are able to guide us along the way as we journey together in the Lord?  Can the bread of life be a tasteless and useless disc, or shall it be the full leavened bread that allows us to grow in His grace?  And if the care, detail, and love from the old days of preparing the Lord’s Supper are gone, how much more is the devotion of those who partake of and serve it?  “Oh John, you are just mad because Duke got their hind parts whipped and you are taking your frustrations out on the church that you are still a part of!  Get over it!”  Perhaps a plausible argument.  But, if given a choice between your mother’s made from scratch home cooked meals, or frozen dinners from the grocery store, which would you choose?  If given the choice of walking with the Lord with fellow devout seekers and a cloud of witnesses, or with the modern pre-fabrications that seek to make a profit, which would you choose?  If pre-packaged food is inferior to food cooked in love, how much more dangerous is pre-packaged faith?

St. Mary of Egypt taking her last Holy Communion

In whatever form of communion that is served in your church, please keep remembering the faith of the saints that have gone on before you who prepared, served, took the Lord’s Supper in reverence and love.   Elements may be pre-packaged from cold machinery.  But, true faith can never become plastic and foil.  Do not take these things in as pasteurized and preserved grape juice and a flavorless disc.  Do take in the bread from heaven and the wine that gives life to mankind. 

‘Take, eat, this is My body. …   This is My blood …’   (Mark 14:22, 24)

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.