morning prayer

Prayer and Praise

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. ; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew 7:21-23

A Blessed Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos!

I believe that praise is a part of prayer.  Following the St. Philip’s Prayer Manual and the Jordanville Prayer Book, one can’t help but notice the words of celebration and exaltation to God from the Psalms and church fathers.  There ought to be a means for people to express their love and thanksgiving to God for his abundant grace and mercy.  Thus, praise is in the liturgy and prayers of Orthodoxy.  The Psalms are a part of the Bible and believers are free to use these and other expressions in their walk with the Lord.

But, I firmly believe that prayer, in particular as instructed by Christ in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, takes precedence over praise.  Jesus neither instructs nor do the disciples ask for instruction on how to praise. Jesus gives instructions on avoiding desiring public attention and using vain repetitions.  In the words he gave us to pray there is a praise.  But, it is not praise alone.  He taught us to seek to live here as if we were already in heaven, seek basic sustenance, repent and forgive, and plead to overcome the devil’s test.  Christ and the later fathers wisely included all of these facets in prayer.  To focus too heavily on one at the expense, or omission, of the others limits our spiritual development.

I fear that one of the weaknesses of contemporary, praise focused  Protestant worship that it is too easily subject to abuse.  Once when emotion and socialized pressure dominate the congregation, whomever leads the worship can then easily introduce un-biblical doctrine and practices.  For example, a phrase that is too often repeated these days (even by preachers who were taught better), “When praises go up, the blessings come down.”  I beg to differ.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly states that heavenly rewards come when we express our faith without drawing attention to ourselves (Matt 6:1-18).  Jesus did clearly state that, “If these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:37-40).  But, the praises from the disciples came as a result of a disciplined life of following His teachings.  These same disciples who did all that praising on Sunday were somehow absent in the face of the crowds shouting for His crucifixion.  The only people who spoke of His righteousness during this time of anguish and death were a thief and a non-believing Roman centurion (Luke 23).  No, the disciples were not wrong to praise the Lord on Palm Sunday.  But, the Passion of Christ shows that human vocal expression is far too fickle and reliant on crowds and conditions to be the central means of growing closer to God.

Here is another example of the abuse that is too easily injected in praise heavy worship.  People putting money on the altar during the sermon, lesson, and times other than the regular offertory period.  Every church has a time to present tithes, offerings, and a special donation.  But once conditioned emotionalism has taken the congregation, it is not hard for a charlatan minister to call for people to come up and “give the seed to the man (or woman) of God.”  The first two or three “sowers” may be hired and planted frauds.  But, others are sure to follow suit.  This is especially true if there are one or two “spirit-filled” people speak in tongues and a “praise team” leads a song or chant as this is going on.  The foundational practice of our faith must not be easily exploited expressions.

Is every praised-focused church and minister a heretical thief?  Of course not.  But, the dangers and temptations of such a worship and faith are real and should be avoided.  This is why the disciples sought and the Savior gave lessons on prayer.  The early church fathers and mothers stressed the discipline of prayer.  Give God the glory, honor, and praise.  But, do so in the proper context of seeking him in spirit and truth.

Today’s Sermon: A Lesson in Prayer

Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”

Luke 11:1

Thanking God for the instruction, prayers and support I have received from the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline.  I am really enjoying and growing in this journey and look forward to meeting others who are a part of this fellowship.  May the Lord bless a neighbor and friend, Dr. Leo Wagner, in his time of illness.

Another Dawn (© John Gresham)

A LESSON IN PRAYER

Luke 10:38-42, 11:1-13

(introduction) Our parents taught us how to pray from an early age

(antithesis) In our modern age, the definition of prayer and how to do it gets over-simplified

(propositional statement)  Jesus teaches a proper discipline of prayer for his believers

(relevant question) What are the steps in the Lord’s discipline in prayer?

(points)

  • prayer should be done in a certain place with few distractions (10:41-43, 11:1)
  • Jesus gives us words to direct our prayers (11:2-4)
  • our prayers can and should be offered to God whenever we have a need (11:5-8)
  • the purpose of our prayer is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives (11:9-13)

Well directed prayer is like a well-aimed arrow.  It will travel in the right direction even if it misses the mark of the bull’s-eye.

 

What We Bring To The Table: “Come Unto Me”

In my morning and evening prayers, I will either listen to Ancient Faith Radio or an Orthodox Christian chant playlist on You Tube.  Yet, there is something special about this classic hymn from the Church Of God In Christ.

I first heard and sang this at the Hampton University Minister’s Conference in 2007 (I think it was 2007) and fell in love with its melody and lyrics.  The refrain is a musical version of Matthew 11:28-30.  For a people suffering through the lynch mobs and segregation signs back in the day, “Come Unto Me” was a welcome and healing song.  If the Orthodox Church is going to reach out to African-Americans, it would have to reach us with the same message of hope.  I believe it can.  The “how” will be interesting.

 

 

The Greater Glory

A blessed feast of the Transfiguration to all.  Too bad we Baptist haven’t made a deliberate observance of this feast.  It seems like a great reason to have a fish fry.  As much as we love our croakers, spot, and trout (with a crab cake or two on the side); this ought to be the third biggest holiday in Virginia east of I-95.  Yes, I know there is something more important to the feast than the food.  Which brings me to my two-cents of thinking today.

Tidal Flat (© John Gresham)

In the 16th chapter of Mathew, we find Peter pulling Jesus to the side and rebuking him about the foretelling of his trial, death, and resurrection. The idea that the Christ, the Son of the Living God should have to suffer and die at the hands of his enemies seemed foolish.  The disciple, perhaps, thought his heaven-sent Master should continue to be earthly healer, teacher, and prophet that everyone had come to adore.  Maybe this fisherman thought that the One who called him to be a fisher of men should be that political Messiah that would restore Israel to the glories of David and Solomon.  Either way, Peter had his eyes on a lesser glory.  Jesus, the meek and mild, proved to be highly intolerant of anyone who wanted to reduce him down to an earthly purpose.  “Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  (I guess the baby in the manger grew up)

Rather than leave Peter with such a hard rebuke, Jesus showed him and Zebedee’s boys what greater glory looked like.  “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as the light.”  No earthly royal regalia could match it.  “And behold Moses and Elijah appeared to them talking with him.” Talk about a royal court of greatness.  Poor Peter thought that honoring them with earthly tabernacles would be a sufficient means of honoring these three in this glory.  But, before he could finish his sentence, God the Father provided something greater.  “Behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I and well pleased.  Hear Him!”  (Pete, who was that you were trying to correct?).  As Peter, James, and John cowered in fear, Jesus touched and gave them a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid.”  And they saw him alone back in the form they were accustomed to.

I think we sometimes forget that Jesus was not sent here to be known as a social “do-gooder” nor political “values-bearer.”  He came to save the souls of all who would believe in him.  Of course we want to improve our communities and practice moral behavior.  But, when we reduce the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior to earthly pursuits, we become an affront to Jesus.  When He called Peter, “Satan,” it wasn’t because the disciple had a homosexual marriage with a Skinhead inside trader.  Peter tried to re-direct Jesus from his ultimate greater glory.  Today, we commemorate the manifestation of the greater glory of Christ our Lord and that His kingdom is of a law and prophetic spirit that is above the shelters of man’s creation.

We forget the lesson of the Transfiguration when we weld the Christian faith to either side of the political spectrum.  Fr. Seraphim Rose was criticized for his letter stating his case against the popular social struggles for a better world in the 1960’s.  He was no supporter of war, racism, and other evils many Christians struggled against.  But, he wisely saw that if the faithful were not careful, they would take their eyes off of the greater glory of our Lord and let the Left hijack Christianity to a crusade to “make the world a better place.”  A similar thing is happening today from the Right.  We should not support gay marriage, pornography, and other moral ills.  But, in our crusade for family values, we are ignoring our own inward struggles of working out our salvation as we busy ourselves pointing out the failures of others.

Conservative or liberal?  Though we are free to choose between these two sides of the coin of earthly authority (one-sided coins have no value and are physically impossible), we are not allowed to weld our faith in Jesus to either side.  The Transfiguration is a glimpse of the greater glorious kingdom we can be a part of through our Lord and Savior.  Entry into the kingdom and inviting others to join us, this must be our central goal.  My other goal is to fix stuffed flounder in a bag for dinner.

 

Today’s Sermon: Preparation For A Manifestation

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves, and there He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white bright light.

Matthew 17:1, 2

This has been a very busy week for me.  We just wrapped up the Pamunkey Baptist Association Annual Session Thursday.  I am blessed to serve as Moderator of a fellowship of 14 African-American churches united in ministry and service.  We have plans in motion to renovate our historic building and provide faith-based services to our county.  I thank God that I am working with spirit led pastors and lay persons.

A Pastoral Brotherhood

Left to right:  Evans White (Providence), Morris Randall (Ephesus), Eli Jones (Wayland), Robert Brown (St. Paul)

Shawn Knight (Baptist Liberty), John Gresham (Trinity), Shelwood Claude (Bethany), and Wilbert Talley (Third Union)

PREPARATION FOR A MANIFESTATION

Matthew 17:1, 2

(introduction) the Transfiguration was a glorious manifestation of God

(antithesis) even less dramatic manifestations catch us flat-footed

(propositional statement) Peter’s discipleship is a model for us to best handle God’s manifestation

(relevant questions) How do Peter’s six days before the Transfiguration parallel our preparation for manifestations

(points)

  • Knowing Jesus is Lord (16:16)
  • Being honest with how we see Jesus at the risk of being rebuked (16:22, 23)
  • Continuing to follow Jesus despite our spiritual struggle

(conclusion)  If we continue to seek Christ diligently, He will show himself to us

Here a Chick-Fil-A, There a Chick-Fil-A: Dormition Day One

So, I can be an idealist trying to make a better and fair world for everyone by boycotting a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  Or, I can be a defender of the biblical principles and the first amendment by eating at a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  I couldn’t have made up such silliness if I tried.

Firstly, I think the LGB&T community (it’s most radical elements, perhaps I should say) have picked a foolish fight.  Nowhere in Chick-Fil-A’s corporate policy nor general operations do they check the sexual preference status of potential customers or employees.  If this were the case, than legal argument can be presented.  But, the president of a company has every right to express his religious beliefs in a religious magazine.  It seems that you are showing the same sort of intolerance you want to defeat.  Hypocrisy only defeats your cause.

And to the conservative minded, I can’t help but to wonder where were your “Defend Freedom of Speech” voices when the Dixe Chicks were being boycotted and Rev. Jeremiah Wright was being cursed for his cursing.  Somewhere between 60% to 65% of all heterosexual marriages end in divorce.  Is this the result of LGB&T bullying, or that we are disobedient to the biblical principles that promote lasting unions between men and women?   Somehow, I don’t think eating fast food in the name of freedom will make these statistics any better.

There is a good reason why we should consider taking up the Fast of the Dormition.  That for the next 14 days we stop trying to have things our way and submit ourselves to God’s will.  That we sacrifice our pleasures and seek his purpose in our lives instead.  It will take more than two weeks of veganism to heal the social-political rift in our nation.  But, the Dormition is a good time for us to take a breath and think about something more important.  Putting aside sensual desire to bear something greater than one’s self.  Yielding to the will and Spirit of God even when it moves beyond one’s  expectations.  Mary did these things.

It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.  More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word.  True Theotokos, we magnify you.

Benediction of the Morning and Evening Prayer, The Orthodox Study  Bible

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Yeah, I probably sound like a broken record on this topic.  But, the more I follow Orthodox Christian prayer, the more I am overwhelmed at how the request for mercy is more essential than any other petition that we may offer.  Looking at the Morning prayer in the Orthodox Study Bible, in the opening trisagion, mercy is asked for seven times.  It is repeated another six times in the intercessory prayers and four times in the benediction.  In the evening prayers, mercy is asked for a total of twenty-two times.  So, if one were to pray these (an Orthodox Christian should pray at least in the morning and at night), one would pray for mercy thirty-nine times.  Include variations of the word and various orders and fellowship disciplines, it is asked for even more.

Untitled (© John Gresham)

This is not to say that we Protestants don’t ask for it.  But, there are some serious flaws in our prayers that we ought to correct.  Let me point out this one, that we believe we don’t have to use any sort of written prayers.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit does act in and on our individual souls, it is also a unifying force.  We see this in Acts 2 where the disciples are all together on one accord.  And what puts us together on one accord more so than prayer?  The prayers of Orthodoxy have been around for 2000 years.  The early church fathers came together and deemed mercy to the greatest of all petitions we can offer.  So, the church handed down the tradition that all Christians should be united in this basic plea to God.  We are to offer up our personal request according to our needs, give thanksgivings according to our joys, and offer up all other prayers according to our walk with the Lord.  But, whoever and where ever we are on life’s journey, we are all united by our need for God to show us unmerited kindness as we all have missed the mark of living in holiness.  We all stand in the need of mercy more than anything else.  Thus, it should be the forefront, center, and conclusion of all of our prayers.

And this is not to say that Orthodox Christians are perfect.  But, what has the fractured and individualistic nature of our prayers given to us?  Look at the number of denominations and (so-called) non-denominations we have.  Do we have unity of heart and mind among us?  Among African-American Baptist alone we went from one national body to four major ones and an untold number of spin-off fellowships headed by men, and some women, who’s only purpose in leaving the parent body was to become the HNIC (Head Negro In Charge).  As our denomination recognizes no hierarchical authority, the trend of such spin-offs will only continue based on egotistical preachers who would rather follow popular trends of gratification than academic scholarship and living in spiritual discipline.  With this fractured spirit among “one” denomination of one ethnic group, our prayers are then reduced to individualistic exercises of self-importance rather than anything done in the spirit of unity.

Perhaps I am being harsh.  Maybe I should concern myself with my own faith and stop looking at what other folks are doing.  But, I dare anyone to look at your morning and evening prayers and analyze your words.  What is the thing you ask God for more than anything else?  Is that petition a universal need of everyone?  Does that petition bring you to total humility to God’s will?

Our slave ancestors and Jim Crow survivors of all denominations did hold one prayer in common.  Lord, have mercy.  If we choose not to go back to the prayers of our ancient Christian forefathers, at least we should go back to the roots of our faith in America.  At least let our denominational heads agree that every Christian should make this common plea the central focus of daily prayer and develop a common text that underscores it’s importance.  In these times, we all need God’s mercy more than anything else.  It only makes sense that we have written prayers that unites us in this petition.

What We Bring To The Table: Howard Thurman

I do read books, watch You Tube videos, and listen to podcast from the Orthodox Church.  Chances are that I may eventually become a convert, though no time soon.  But, there are some people and things about the African-American Protestant faith that I am not willing to easily discard.  In fact, I believe that we have some important offerings that can enhance the cause of Orthodoxy in America.  Every now and then, I will promote the best of what we bring to the table of the ancient faith.

Howard Thurman was a mystic and theologian who led believers to search for the root of bonding with God.  While many preachers were content to “Whoop” and holler.  Thurman called on his congregants, students, and listeners to think and concentrate on matters of the spirit.  It is easy to see emotionalism as a part of our church practice.  But, Thurman saw something more meaningful through our experience of slavery and segregation.  That we have to reach a point of silence and reflection.  From this point, what he calls the “centering moment,” we can then yield ourselves to the spirit higher than our own and be directed by it.  True faith has little to do with external expressions of religious acts.  But, it has everything to do with our internal pursuit of something more meaningful.

With such spiritual insight, Dr. Thurman was one of the most influential theologians of our faith.  It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King often traveled with a well-worn copy of one of his books.  The church he founded, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, still exist as do many of his books.  For those unfamiliar with this man, I suggest his book “Disciplines of the Spirit” as a good introduction to his thought and theology.

 

Today’s Sermon: Let Jesus In Your House

I want to thank Sub-Deacon Paul Abernathy for bringing up this text in one of his talks at the Ancient Christianity Afro-American Conference.  If this guy were a Baptist, he would be a pastor somewhere.  Well educated, articulate, young; yeah, this brother would be a star among preaching circuits and revival services.  But, a sub-deacon?  Perhaps we should learn from such humility.

LET JESUS IN YOUR HOUSE

Matthew 8:14-15

(antithesis) Why should we let Jesus into our house when the Centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 didn’t?

(thesis) As following disciples, rather than passer-by strangers, we should seek the Lord’s presence in our innermost selves.

(relevant question)  What are the advantages of such a presence in our lives?

(points)

  • Christ blesses the goodness that we already have (Peter’s mother in law in his home v. 14)
  • Christ sees and ministers to our relatively insignificant ailments (she had a fever and he touched her hand v.14, 15)
  • Touched by Christ, we are empowered to serve others whomever they are (she served them v.15)

(conclusion)  Don’t settle for a great passing faith.  Build your life in the presence of Jesus Christ.

Answers

A friend and sister in Christ gave surveys to the pastors of the Pamunkey Baptist Association.  Here are my answers.

On The Path (© John Gresham)

Pastor John Robert Gresham, Jr. – Trinity Baptist Church

Q:  What would you want your congregation to know about you?

A:  That I am a devout seeker of God’s will.  This seeking has led me to seriously study Orthodox Christianity.  I admire the history, spirituality, and tradition of the ancient faith and have incorporated many of its practices in my daily walk.  Orthodoxy has a lot to offer us and I share what I can in line with the Baptist faith.  Other than that, I love my congregation dearly and feel embarrassingly blessed to serve them on Sundays and everyday.

Why did you choose to be the pastor of the church?

I don’t think I had a choice.  God called me and Trinity’s pastoral search committee asked me not to go anywhere else.  I was hijacked (lol)!  But, I have always known of the faith and love at Trinity when Rev. James Carter was there.  I grew up in Baptist Liberty and often worshiped and worked with members of Trinity in PBA and BGC events.  So, I had a good idea of the congregation I would inherit (if it were God’s will).  When Rev. Carter retired, there was nothing negative about his legacy and service.  Good leadership was already  in place.  All I had (and still have) to do is serve and serve well to be accepted as the pastor.

What is one of the advantages of being the pastor?

“Ah-Ha” moments that result in changed lives.  When a person takes hold of something that I said in a sermon, lesson, or even a cook-out, and grows from it.  Sometimes they happen as soon the word is preached.  Sometimes they take longer.  But, to God’s glory, they happen.  In the meantime, I have to find joy in just planting and watering seeds.  The ultimate harvest belongs to God, not myself.

What is one of the disadvantages of being the pastor?

That’s an odd question.  As Christians on a whole, we are supposed to count all things as a joy.  I hate making mistakes.  I do struggle with procrastination.  It hurts to see the results of such failures.  But, with spiritual discipline, these things can be overcome as all things work out toward the glory of God.

Why is the Holy Spirit so important to the body of Christ?

Another odd question.  The Holy Spirit is, in the words of the early church fathers, “the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified” (Nicene Creed).  No Holy Spirit = no Trinity = no Christianity.  The Spirit comes to us from the Father to us and reminds us of the ways of the Son.

If you were the “PBA Preacher for the Month” and all churches gathered in your sanctuary –  what would you preach about?

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me”  (Matthew 16:24).  I fear that too many people today turn to Jesus to get stuff.  True discipleship means giving stuff up and taking up suffering for the sake of something better.  He is that something better.

How do you explain “The Trinity” to your congregation?

The baptism of Jesus is probably the best.  “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”  (Matthew 3:16, 17).

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.”  How is this being done in your church?

Other than our regular Sunday School program, I give a very brief children’s sermon 3 out of 4 Sundays (I don’t do it youth (2nd) Sunday as I try to make the sermon oriented to them).  My children’s sermons are stories I make up based on the main sermon.  The kids feel included in the “grown up” service and it is a good prelude to the message.

Can you tell about an experience of God’s presence showing up in your congregation that was very powerful and overwhelming?

It shows up in all of our services in one form or another.  One time that truly moved me was a few years back when a friend of one of our members was shot in a hunting accident.  A few of the members called me and asked if we could have a special prayer service to ask God to heal him.  I don’t remember a lot of shouting and all.  But, the flow of compassion and concern for this young man who wasn’t a part of our flock was wonderful.  Days later, he was released from the hospital.  Our compassionate prayers were answered as we wished.  It was a bit foolish of me not to keep such prayer services going.

What is more important in your life than you?

The spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on earth through love, truth, and spirit.

Write the word that comes to mind when you see these words.  (Feel free to answer as many as you like)

Pressure –  life in general                            Personal Sacrifice – self-discipline

Rejection –    preserver                                       Loneliness – maintain hope

Popularity –  fickle                                                Pride – dangerous

Disqualification – restoration                            Jealousy – unnecessary

Faithful –  discipleship                                         Inspirational –  Holy Spirit

Trustworthy –   truth                                           Approachable –  Jesus Christ

Forgiving –     merciful                                          Self-discipline – lifestyle

Decision Maker –  wise                                       Qualified – God decides

Successful Leader –   by who’s standard?        Motivator – self through love

Assuming Responsibility –   difficult but necessary      Follower – disciple

Are there any final words you would like to share with me?

Thomas gave a great description of what Christian discipleship is about in John 11:16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  To follow Jesus means being willing to put a lot of things about us at risk.  No, it  means putting ourselves at risk.  Our dreams, goals, ideals, perceptions, preconceived ideas, traditions, and even our lives are to be placed as unimportant in comparison to being in the presence of God.  Sometimes this risk leads to an obvious happy ending (as in the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus).  Sometimes the happiness is indirect and leads to a greater glory (as in the case of the stoning of Stephen with Saul consenting in Acts 7:55-60).  Nevertheless, the risk must be taken.  I pray for the courage to take it.