prayer

Journey Into Great Lent (Day 24): Overcoming Despondency

Oh Lord, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talk give me not

But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me, thy servant

Oh Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for thou are blessed unto the ages of ages.  Amen

Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

The Path I Trod  (© John Gresham/DCR)

The Path I Trod (© John Gresham/DCR)

This is my first Orthodox Lent and I can safely say that I have NOT been perfect.  I had two meat-eating episodes (Western Christian Easter and my Pastoral Anniversary), a couple of egg/dairy incidents, and I haven’t developed the habit of reading every last ingredient in the stuff I eat.  Due to distance from the nearest Orthodox Church, I have made only one Akathist so far.  But, I have put my Jordanville Prayer Book to good use.  While I have been blessed with a few more victories over my personal demons have had my share of falls (and maybe someone else’s too).

I will confess that most of my spiritual failures begin with despondency.  My financial picture coming out of a winter where I am, essentially, laid off for two weeks in the winter looks like a bus accident.  Only by the grace of God do my wife and I manage to keep food in the house.  My pastoral salary covers almost all of the mortgage.  But, the utilities, medical bills, and old credit cards never seem to go away.  So, yeah, loosing heart is very easy for me to do.  Sleeping alone might be alright for a virgin monk.  But, I am a married man who kinda misses the good old days (and nights) with the wife.  Add to that any number of other things that go wrong in my life, and I will throw a my own mental whine and cheese party with the finest Zinfandels and Gorgonzolas. 

So, yesterday morning, I was listening to Fr. John Whiteford’s sermon on despondency and found the most effective tools for fighting against this toxic root of so many other sins.  Prayer and constructive labor.  Fr. John brought up St. Anthony’s struggle against despondency.  The answer to his prayers was how his neighboring  monks would weave baskets for a while, stop to pray, and resume their labor.    I am also reminded of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter R. Wicks*.  When he wasn’t doing something directly related to his pastoral or secular duties, he spent many spring and summer evenings in his backyard garden.  He used to tell me that was one of his favorite ways to relieve the stress of the world on his mind, think about the mercy of God, and put food on the table at the same time.  In the years I was blessed to know him, I have never seen him discouraged and ready to throw in the towel about anything.  The wisdom of the great saint, an old Baptist preacher, and a Othodox convert priest made more sense to me than spending my day off wallowing in my sorrows.

I wound up borrowing a push mower from my church to get my yard cut.  Pacing back and forth made me re-think about how the Lord is making a way for me to get through my troubles.  I also began to ponder how I can use my talents and skills to make a little money on the side until I can get the full employment I want.  And if it fails, I know that He who has made a way for me before will do so again.  Our Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount became clearer to me:

Therefore, do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.   (Matthew 6:31-33)

After planting the garden, I sat back on the porch with an iced tea thinking about how to restart my outdoor photography business and promote my secular writing for profit (turned out that I had a little more than I thought).  As I do constructive things, I don’t have time to feel despondent.  Yeah, I guess I could use one of the simple “catch-phrase” formulas to get me over the blues.  “PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens)” or “Speak life to every dry bone in your life” or whatever else is being said by some ministerial celebrity or another.  And if any of these things has helped you or someone you know overcome despondency, let God be praised.  But, the advice of St. Anthony, “Uncle Red,” and Fr. John has made a major difference in my journey. 

*Among the books that I inherited from Grandpa Wicks is a Russian Orthodox Bible, written in Slavonic (I think).  Fr. John Whiteford is ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia).  I wonder if “the old man” knew something he didn’t tell me before he died. 

 

Advertisements

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Sixteen): Reasons To Continue

I can think of a few good reasons to quit the fast of Great Lent and leave Orthodox Christianity alone.  For one thing, I like to eat meat and dairy.  Whenever we Baptist get together for a meal between morning and evening services, you had better believe fried chicken in some form or fashion will be on the menu ( Why did the chicken cross the road?  Two preachers had a pan of biscuits.).  In the African-American Baptist Church, there is a movement to have a good time in worship with a focus on the emotions stirred up by the singing and preaching in our worship.  In fact, we are willing to take on secular music styles to draw people into worship.  No matter how much we are taught otherwise, we preachers frequently judge ourselves and others based on congregational response (AMEN) and will construct sermons with phrases and buzz words that will encourage such responses.  Right  now, I believe my church is at the edge of what could be a revival in our worship.  Our usher’s ministry has been blessed with the return of well-trained leadership.  The youth choir has new sponsors and directors who have volunteered their services.  We have two young adult men (in which there is a shortage of in many rural black churches) and their wives that have become more active in the work of the church.  These elements are combined with reliable, seasoned adults who consistently work to get things done.  So, why do I wish to continue to introduce elements of an archaic, bookish, ritualistic, and “dead” (they don’t get in the spirit like we do) church that most white people aren’t trying to learn about?  Why am I still striving to follow the disciplines and study the doctrines and writings of Orthodoxy when only one other preacher that I know of from any race also shows an interest?  Here are a few reasons.

The Holy Cross

  1. HISTORY- If it is important to learn and be aware of American and African-American History, why shouldn’t we also embrace the roots of the Christian faith?  Had there been no Athanasius, Catherine, nor Cyprian; there may not have been a Richard Allen, Charles Mason, or MLK.  Also saints like Basil, Ephraim, and Gregory (Palamas and the Theologian) served in a world where the color of one’s skin truly meant little in the sight of fellow Christians.  Having knowledge of Orthodoxy can help us see the fullness of our humanity and the possibility of racial reconciliation. 
  2. SPIRITUALITY- Having a good time on Sunday morning is no substitute for a sustained life of prayer and fasting through the week.  We need to have access to the time-tested prayers to help direct our communication with the Lord.  Words from the saints enhance what we read in the scriptures.  Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays is a great way to keep us mindful of our Savior’s betrayal and crucifixion, to help us be mindful of what we do, say, and think. 
  3. CULTURAL AWARENESS – Many Americans are illiterate when it comes to geography and different cultures.  The Orthodox Christian faith can open doors of learning for us.  Arabs, Copts, Ethiopians, Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and others are all a part of this church.  Likewise we can introduce them to our culture beyond the stereotypes of BET and Tyler Perry. 
  4. REVERENCE – I love the smell of incense, gazing at the iconostasis, and listening to Byzantine chant.  I can’t see us having these things at Trinity the third weekend after next.  But, to experience a divine liturgy is a beautiful thing.  While icon veneration is an obvious challenge to most of us (bow down and kiss a picture of MARY?!).  When the theology is explained and understood, it makes perfect BIBLICAL sense (they put the Bible together, so they should know what they are doing).  Oh, and the priest prepares the communion with bread baked from a believer.  It does not come pre-packaged in plastic and foil.  Even if we don’t adopt divine liturgy, we can always learn about reverence for God in worship. 
  5. COMMUNITY DIVERSITY – Too many smaller elements of black culture are being overshadowed by are very narrow and stereotypical definition of who we are (when was the last time you heard zydeco music on your local r&b radio station?).  There are too many instances were we say that someone isn’t “black enough” or is “trying to be white.”  We enrich and add to the African-American community when we are bold enough to expand our boundaries of our possibilities that older generations sacrificed their lives for us to have.  Just ask the world’s number one golfer or that family that lives in the White House.

So, will Trinity Baptist Church become Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church (maybe OCA)?!  Don’t bet on it.  Will I leave the Baptist denomination and seek to become a priest?  I’m not even worthy to day- dream about such a move.  It is way too early for such questions.  I haven’t even completed my first Paschal cycle.  The only thing I can do is continue on this journey and give my church family a glimpse of what I am going through and learning about.  In time, God will make my direction more clear to me.  Right now, I am to be faithful disciple.

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.

Journey Into Great Lent (Day Four): Distractions

No wonder Sts. Anthony, Isaac, and others went out into the desert.  There is always something to distract us from maintaining our prayers.  I haven’t really had any food temptations (yet).  But, there are always things to dissuade me from prayer.  Being an hour away from any Orthodox Church, I am not going to make it to too many Pre-Sanctified Gifts and Akathist services.  With daylight savings time, there is always something to do around the house and gorgeous sunsets to capture on my camera.  I am tempted to waste time on soccer rumors and the March Madness tournament.  And I tend to get too drowsy to pray Compline as I should.  It is only by the grace of God that some of my old demons have not come back to overtake me.  But, I am reminded of what happens when an evil spirit has been driven out of a man and he has nothing inside of himself:

Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45)

Thus, my aim is to limit, if not eliminate, the things that distract me from my prayer discipline.  I can still enjoy time in photography and watching a good game.  But, I must constantly and consistently fill myself with the Holy Spirit.  Without feasting on spiritual nourishment, I may as well eat a steak & cheese sandwich with fried onions and peppers.  If I dwell in distraction, sin will overtake me and make me a monster.  If I walk in discipline, I have hope that the Lord will save his unworthy servant. 

Colors at Vespers  © John Gresham

Colors at Vespers © John Gresham

 

Jouney Into Great Lent (Day Three): Lesson Too Soon Forgotten

Trying not to be judgemental and upset about the terrible things that happen in this world is nearly impossible, at least for me.  The Stubenville rape case and the pornographic society that gave birth to it makes me angry.  I know too many rape survivors.  I have read the horrible stats of how often it happens.  And the abusive nature of today’s porn only makes things worse.  I ranted a little bit on my Facebook page and was about to go ballistic on this blog.  But, a friend put me in check.  Then, I opened Philippians 2:14-16 and was further convicted:

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, sot that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

I am reminded of my wife’s Grandfather, Rev. Carter Wicks, constantly telling people, “don’t worry and don’t hurry.”  My grandparents, Joe and Dinah  Gresham, likewise had a steady and quiet faith about them.  I know things would make them angry and upset from time to time.  But, they never let it seem to get the best of them.  They were too busy aiming their lives to a better world than this one. 

Yesterday and this morning, I prayed the words of St Ephraim the Syrian.  Apparently, I forgot what I prayed.  How sorry I am for my forgetfulness.  It is only the third day.  I will build my memory in my heart and soul as well as mind. 

http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/holyfathers/st._anthony_the_great_humility_as_the_gateway_to_theology

Journey into Great Lent (Day Two): The Prayer of Self Examination

Oh Lord, Master of my life, keep me from the spirit of indifference, and discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter

(prostration)

Instead, grant to me, your servant, the Spirit of wholeness of being, humble-mindedness, patience, and love

(prostration)

Oh Lord and King, Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brother and sister, for you are blessed now and forever, Amen.

(prostration)

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

 

St. Ephraim the Syrian

There is alot to judge in this world. Two teenage boys were convicted of rape.  A man was banned from a library system for masturbating in public.  These are just two of the troublesome crimes that I heard about today.  It is easy to throw stones at people who commit such crimes of selfishness and lack of control. 

And yet, St. Ephraim’s words call out to us in such situations.  No doubt, he must have read or heard the words of Jesus:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with what judgement you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  (Matthew 7:1, 2)

I have never gotten a teenager drunk and had sex with her.  Nor have I committed a lewd act in a public place.  But, the log in my eye is my log.  I have no responsibility over what is in my brother’s or sister’s eye no matter how shameful it is.  My log is separating me from seeing the fullness of God.  Without this vision, how can I guide others to free themselves when I am still in chains?  The legal system did what it was supposed to do in both cases.  But, my Spiritual development must also be in effect for my salvation.  I must have hope that these boys will learn from their tragic error and become agents of healing for violated women.  I must hope that the other man will see the greater good in pleasing God and others rather than himself. 

I must also see myself as no better than they are.  Who is to say that under the same conditions that I wouldn’t have done likewise?  Who is to say I wouldn’t do worse?  Like them, I struggle with lust, selfishness, and shamelessness.  Certainly, the potential is there for me to do likewise.  Thus, rather than gloat over what they are about to suffer, St. Ephraim’s words bring me to a place of being aware of my own potential for evil. 

The elements of human wickedness are indifference, discouragement, lust of power, and idle chatter.  With these, any man can be brought down.  Yet, there are God-given elements that elevate our souls and keep us from committing evil acts; wholeness, humble-mindedness, patience, and love.  The key to rejecting the former and dwelling in the later is awareness of the sins we have done and forgiving others as we wish to be forgiven. 

I have been made aware of my failures.  I am sorry for my sins.  May this Lenten prayer be made manifest in me.

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

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

St. Anthony the Great

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

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

Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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

Fasting? Compare for Yourself!

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

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

St. Seraphim of Sarov

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

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

Please take the time to compare for yourself,

 

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.