meditation

Journey Into Great Lent (First Saturday): A Foundation for a Lenten Lifestyle

Needless to say, this is not the Lent I am used to.  I am accustomed to picking one or two things to “give up” between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Ascetic fasting is a far greater spiritual as well as dietary challenge.  Careful observance of prayers and reading or listening to Orthodox teaching does reveal things that are commonly overlooked.  Such as how much we spend on meat and dairy products as compared to simple vegan fare.  More importantly that we don’t give up our struggle against sin since sin is foreign to the way God made us.  He made Adam and Eve to be in communion with him and lovingly gave them free will to choose obedience or death.  By free will we choose death through sin rather than life in the way God created us.  Too often, we surrender to the idea that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  I think (and perhaps this is just my experience) we repent, and get back up thinking that we will sin again because that is the way we were made.  We use the Psalm as our reference:

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions, and in sins my mother bore me.   —   Psalm 51:7

David’s sincere and deeply humble repentance is an admirable pattern for us to follow.  But, his words of anguish do not trump our creation:

The God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.   —   Genesis 1:26

Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good. —   Genesis 1:31

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

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

If we are to follow the advice of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and live a Lenten Lifestyle, I think we must begin with how we see our life and struggle against sin.  God makes good things, he made us, and we are essentially good.  Our task is to keep choosing to live in that goodness, that communion with God in a world so imbued with evil that we feel we have no choice but to live with some level or another of hopelessness that holiness is possible.  Jesus, the God Incarnate, came to us to prove that we can make the choice.  It takes  (among other things) humility, sacrifice, love, and a relentless focus on seeking the kingdom of God.  And we can choose these things rather than the immediate gratifications and pleasures of this world.  We can be seekers of spiritual growth rather than chasers of sensual comforts.  This is one reason why Great Lent is what it is in the Orthodox Church.  For 40 days (also weekends, Holy Week, and the three weeks before Lent), we can focus our attention on communion with God rather than consuming for our bodies.  After Pascha (Orthodox Easter) feasting, there are the weekly fast and other fast to observe and keep us mindful of what was experienced and learned during Great Lent.  Except for the pregnant and nursing, ill, very young, and very old; all are expected to keep a strict fast and attend weekly prayers on top of their current disciplines as much as possible.  May the Lord keep this church and the church keep the faith of Christ the Incarnate.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Five): Broken

Oh Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister …

From the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

As with most men, lust is a problem that I struggle with.  In today’s society, it is tolerated as long as one keeps his hands to himself.  In fact, lust is expected, celebrated, and used for commercial purposes (Hooters, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and the like).  The ease in which one can access the most abusive and cruel forms of pornography on the internet makes this sin even more dangerous.  Since taking up the journey toward Orthodoxy, I have put aside my worst manifestations of this sin.  Yet, I still succumbed to my eyes and imagination more times that I wish to count or share. 

This Lent, I have made it a special point to refrain from such wicked imaginations.  I tell myself that if an Orthodox married man refrains from touching his wife during the fast, what gives me the right to fantasize being with any woman.  My wife suffers from both Bipolar Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.  Thus, lust has been a great burden on me.  But, I went into the fast believing that God will deliver me from this chronic problem.

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

Monarchs (© John Gresham)

A necessary part of the spiritual healing process is to be made fully aware of one’s sin.  By indulging in lust, I separate myself from the greatest icon I have in my home.  My wife is my greatest icon for Christ counts Himself with the lowly and afflicted:

‘In as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”   (Matthew 25:40)

The other icons I have in my home, if I ignore or misuse them, that would be bad enough.  They are man-made widows into heaven.  In fact, I can change windows and move them around as I see fit without any consequences.  But, how many times have I ignored, shut out, been angry with, neglected, and belittled my wife desiring someone else?  How many times have I failed to pray for, pray with, and show affection for my wife?  Again, since being on the Orthodox journey, I have improved.  Praying for her, struggling against my passions, and offering the Lenten Prayer has broken me to see how far I have fallen and how far I have to go.  What I have done to her, I have done to Jesus.  What I do to her, I do to Jesus.  No wonder Paul advises us to “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”  (Philippians 2:12).

It is no wonder why the Early Fathers (some date back to Irenaeus for this tradition) prescribed the 40 day Lenten Fast.  Once when we are broken by the awareness of our fallen state, it takes time to be moulded into useful vessels of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy calls for fasting throughout the year to help remind us that we are still a work in progress.   In the Trisagion Prayers, we constantly ask for the mercy of the Holy Trinity.  The Jesus Prayer underscores the fact that we are to be the tax collector and not the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14).   In the Ancient Faith, confession is a sacrament before God with the priest as a witness in the body of Christ as well as a private act.  And that we begin the fast with Forgiveness Vespers where we all ask each other, including the priest and bishops present, to forgive our sins. 

I am broken as I have seen and understand that I have not been a good husband nor as good as others think I am.  It is not my place to compare myself to other men.  I will be judged on my actions, words, and THOUGHTS (Matthew 5:27-30).  I acknowledge my broken state.  I have faith in the healing process.  I have hope that the Lord will restore my wife.  I have hope that He will restore me for her according to His will.

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: 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.

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: 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.

 

 

 

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

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)