spirituality

Where “Favor” Falls Short

Favor is a popular term in modern Christianity.  We hear it in songs and sermons.  We share it in inspirational social media post.  I used to be that weird country preacher that refused to jump on board every bandwagon of “relevant” ministry.  Now that I am Orthodox, I would rather ride a Greyhound bus from New York to LA than the wave of any popular catchwords or phrases.  In my Wednesday morning reading, I couldn’t help but to see how the pursuit of “favor” from God falls woefully short of seeking His mercy.

Out of sheer curiosity, I broke out my Strong’s Bible Concordance and found that the term “favor” appears a whopping six times in the New Testament.  Luke used the term in his version of the Gospel to describe how John the Baptist and Jesus grew up.  He used it four times to describe the relationship between the early Christians and those around them in Acts.    Not once does Jesus, Paul, nor any other epistle write describe favor as something worthy of being obtained or necessary to live as a Christian.  It is something good to have as it does give peace in mind and a sense of security.  But, “favor” is not the mark of the Christian according to the One whom we follow:

If any man would come after Me, let him humble himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.

“But what about the Old Testament?  Surely God wants us to have favor in the Old Testament.”  Here the term is used about 56 times.   In several places, the favor comes from an earthly king and not God.  Also, the wise Solomon suggest that favor can be misused as well.  Furthermore, I find this rationale most disturbing as the revelation of our salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, is not found in the Old Testament.  To try to use a term in the Old Testament as superior to the way it is used in the Gospels is an abuse of the scriptures and a denial of the significance of Incarnate God.  If this is your line of thought, for your own spiritual health, you should consider changing it.

In comparison, “mercy” is the greater goal both in the usage of the term and significance in Christian life.  This word appears 58 times in the New Testament (about 200 times in the OT).  For those who consider the “favor” to be a blessing, please consider the Beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Having a house that people say you can’t afford, a job that you don’t have the education for, or some other form of “ain’t fair favor” does not cross the lips of  Jesus as being a blessing.  Having compassion to those who are broken, confused, disturbed, lost, rebellious, … ; this is the one who is blessed.  We all fall into one of these conditions from time to time.  Sometimes we fall into multiple conditions at the same time.  Jesus teaches here what He repeats as the “Golden Rule” of this great sermon:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

When challenged about eating with tax collectors and other sinners in the house of Matthew, Jesus offers this rebuke from the prophet Hosea:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To follow Jesus is to desire everything He desires.  If He never mentions “favor” but clearly defines “mercy” as what He wants from us, why should we listen to preachers and singers and read books and social media post about a barely mentioned term instead of this requirement that appears in the New Testament some 9 times more often?  To mention “favor” in worship and fail to call upon Christ for “mercy,” or to call upon the former more often than the later is spiritual malpractice.  Such doctrine and teaching is producing Christians who are in the faith for what Jesus can give them in this world rather than how we are to prepare ourselves for the next.  If and when such believers fail to get the “favor” they seek, they wander from ministry to ministry seeking it.  They tend to blame themselves for not being a part of the right man or woman of God as the reason for not receiving their breakthrough.  They will patiently wait for what they want and in not getting it, they will put some sort of spin on why they don’t have it (“It isn’t my season yet).  Or, they eventually give up on Christianity all together.  The differences between such a false concept of our faith and an Islamic terrorist is that the Muslim does his job more quickly and only kills the body.  The empty pursuit of favor is killing souls and creating walking dead Christians.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get your concordance and look up “favor” and “mercy.”  See which one is used most often and why.  Favor from God  is not a bad thing to have.  But, don’t sell your walk with Jesus short.  As I heard from a priest last weekend, “You cannot be a Christian without mercy.”

 

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 Eight): Reliance on God

Forgive me for not writing every day.  There are times when it is best to keep quiet.  Drinking a couple of glasses of “SHUT UP AND LISTEN” tends to help me stay out of trouble.  I am an African-American Baptist Pastor and serious inquirer of Orthodox Christianity.  I am in enough trouble as it is :)!

We Protestants do make attempts at fasting during Lent such as giving up one or two food items during the week.  For us, it is a form of self-discipline in honor of the fact that Jesus gave his life on the cross for our salvation.  Thus, we should give up something as well to show our loyalty and devotion to him.  It isn’t uncommon for older denominations to hold special Lenten services as well.  For my denomination, giving up something for 40 weekdays before Easter is a new practice that is not shared by everyone.  Some of us piously state that we are fasting from fasting.  Such an attitude shows ignorance of the scriptures, Christian history, and an unwillingness to walk with God in humility.  Those who fast only from caviar, lobster, too much salt, or too many sweets are merely mocking true faith as they can’t afford these things economic and healthwise.  But, for those of us who do put aside meats (and other items) as part of increasing attention on Christ in prayer and almsgiving to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection, sincere steps are greatly rewarded.  Those who by medical restrictions can do only a limited fast can still increase their prayers and works of love to others.

Cyprian Bluemood.  My Seond Life avitar.

Cyprian Bluemood. My Second Life avatar.

One of the key purposes of keeping the Great Lenten Fast (and every other fast in the Orthodox cycle) is to remind us of our reliance on God.  It is easy to forget about His divine providence when we are bombarded with super-sized fast food offerings, all you can eat buffets, and cooking shows (aka “food porn”).  Food, especially when well prepared, is a good thing and necessary for our survival.  Our problem is that we indulge in the stuff, frequently the most unhealthy forms of it.  We use it as a status symbol as we boast about what restaurant we went to, what we ordered, and what we cooked on the grill (OUCH!!!!!  That was my right foot).  We tend to eat for reasons of comfort or to hide from issues that are better solved by prayer and wise counsel.  So, eating is both a basic need and a gateway that brings out our arrogance, selfishness, and self-reliance.  It is no wonder why the fall of man was brought about in this ungodly fashion:

So when the woman saw the tree was good for food, was pleasant to the eyes, and the tree beautiful to contemplate, she took its fruit and ate.  She also gave it to her husband with her and he ate.  (Genesis 3:6)

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ succeeded where Adam & Eve failed.  He was reliant on the Father to see him through his period of total self-denial (at least Adam & Eve could have indulged in everything else).  As He replied to the greatest of serpents:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:4)

With the reliance on God rather than his ability to satisfy his belly, Jesus was able to walk in humility (“Do not tempt the Lord your God.”), complete obedience (“You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”), properly use the scriptures to His faith (“It is written …” ), and rebuke the tempter (“Away with you, Satan!”).  Fasting is a vital key in imitating Christ. 

This is why the early church fathers gave directions on keeping the fast.  Firstly that it is not a legalistic requirement for salvation, but a wise practice in spiritual growth.  The very young and old, ill, and pregnant and nursing women need not fast.  If in a strange land and someone shows hospitality, eat what is given to you.  Eat grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables (since shellfish were considered trash at the time, they are permitted) for the sake of basic health.  But, do not indulge with even these simple foods.  Avoid all meats, dairy products, fish with a backbone, olive oil, and wine.  On a feast day in the midst of a fast, the latter three are permitted.  With the dietary directions, increase the time spent in prayer.  With money that would have been spent on expensive food, give to those in need.  Jesus destroyed the power of death by his death.  By His resurrection, we have hope to be children of the heavenly Father.  As He prepared for His earthly ministry, let us likewise show our reliance on God by keeping the fast.

To my fellow Protestant believers, our Easter celebration is right around the corner.  We have a right to be joyous and eat well.  There is no need for us to all the sudden try to keep Great Lent this year.  But, read and learn about Orthodoxy and what the church says about fasting throughout the year.  Meet and make friends with a priest or devout believer (bishops are cool too) and let them explain how keeping the fast helps them in their walk with the Lord and is a part of their overall journey.

Are You Sure The Holy Ghost Is Leading You? Christian Life Coaches

First, I want to thank those of you who have suffered through the first installment of this series.  No, there are just some things you can’t make up (nor would I want to).  Some of you have suggested that I make comments about greedy, self-serving ministers.  Perhaps I will take on an example or two of that misbehavior (which shouldn’t be too hard to find).  But, I really want to address a means of ministry that fell right on my Facebook page.

Growing up, coaches were for sports.  They were demanding, pushy, and sometimes vulgar.  Their task was to instruct and inspire athletes to win contest by any legal means.  Christian life was handled by … Christians.  They were (and still are) people who strive to be patient, humble, compassionate, and loving.  Like Jesus, they were (are) there to guide whosoever will follow. 

So, you can imagine that I find the idea of a “Christian Life Coach” as odd as anchovy ice cream.  Not that a good priest, pastor, deaconess, or … REAL FRIEND doesn’t coach us from time to time in the ways of our Lord and Savior.  But, the coaching that is done by these people is part of the whole of who they are and not the definition of what they do.  And maybe that is why one of the world’s best coaches, Real Madrid’s Jose Mourinho, is just a coach.  The man knows the game of football (soccer) like few others.  But, he is an awfully arrogant man (“I am a European Champion.  I am a Special One).  Christians can be highly knowledgeable in any field or discipline the Lord allows us to enter.  But we cannot be boastful, impatient, cruel, or have other characteristics many secular coaches have been and are. 

In the Orthodox world, believers sought (and still seek) out monastics and read the ancient fathers for guidance.  I was brought up in a small Baptist church where we all knew and looked out for each other’s best interest.  In any religious tradition, there are wise mothers and fathers, elders, and good friends available to walk this Christian journey with.  Has our modern, self-absorbed, me-and-my-Bible society grown so cold and isolated that the office of “Christian Life Coach” is a viable option for believers?  Are we to recruit and hire such coaches based on winning percentages and how well they recruit new talent?  It is bad enough that we are tempted to put priest, pastors, and musicians on pedestals.  What coach doesn’t want to be known for greatness?

I am not going to accuse everyone in this “Christian Life Coach” movement of being corrupt.  I know of a couple of well-meaning people who are involved in this.  In my opinion, we need more real friends than coaches.  We need more people who we can be honest and open with and will lovingly tell us when we are on the right path and where we are messing things up.  Besides, coaches look to make money from coaching.  Real friends are friends because they love you.

Then again, coaches don’t let players on the court, field, or pitch without the right uniform.  So if  Minister LaTacha Emanuel had a “Christian Life Coach,” she wouldn’t have exposed herself so awfully in the videos I wrote about last time.

Dear Santa, please grow up and become St. Nicholas!

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I Corinthians 13:11 (emphasis mine)

Not Santa Claus.  St. Nicholas

Not Santa Claus. St. Nicholas

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it is cool for toddlers and pre-school kids to learn about Santa Claus.  It is neat to have them write up their Christmas list and expect to see flying reindeer and all that.  The legend is useful to encourage good behavior (if not but temporary) and can be a stepping stone to teach children about virtues such as kindness, humility, charity, and hope.  Consider Santa, Rudolph, and others as training wheels on a bike.  Every child needs training wheels on a bike as they learn to ride.

Now, imagine how foolish a healthy teenager looks on a top class mountain bike with training wheels.  Or, how about an adult athlete high tech racing bicycle with such supports.  Except for those who have severe problems with balance or some other health issues, it is foolish older people to rely on training wheels.  And this is the problem with teens an adults who continue with a Santa Claus spirituality with no desire to grow up to one of St. Nicholas.

http://www.piousfabrications.com/2010/12/st-nicholas-of-myra.html

http://oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=103484

Who was St. Nicholas?  Read and listen to the links.  He was a Bishop (who could trace his ordination back to the Twelve Apostles) who served at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea.   Here are a few highlights of lessons we can all learn from this great saint:

  • protect the honor of women
  • aid the poor
  • humbly avoid recognition for good deeds
  • do not act violently, even against falsehood
  • Christ and the Theotokos restores those who are faithful

Now, perhaps three and four year olds are better off not hearing about how a kind bishop kept three daughters of a poor man from becoming prostitutes.  But, why shouldn’t our 13 and 14 year olds hear this story?  Why is there a problem to recognize that the first “Secret Santa” helped to form Christian doctrine?  Is it that embarrassing to admit that even kind people have occasional anger management issues?  And why is it ungodly to talk about his story of redemp… .  Oh yeah.  We Protestants can’t quite seem to accept that “mother of God” thing.

We get upset when our little kids act like spoiled brats as their minds are so stuck on Santa Claus.  But, they will grow out of it.  Or will they?  Not if they aren’t taught to have a St. Nicholas spiritual outlook.  By constantly recycling an immature fantasy image of this good man that really did exist, we are producing 15 to 95 year old spoiled brats who still want stuff from an elf who lives in the North Pole.  “Keep Christ in Christmas?”  How can we when we make a mockery of one of his devout early followers and refuse to grow up in faith?

Let your kid send a letter to the fat guy in the red suit.  Be sure to leave some cookies and eggnog on a little table near the tree.  But, we who are of age need to ditch the training wheels of childhood fantasy.  This season (feast day is Thursday, December 6th), it would be a good idea for those of us of age to measure our lives to that of the real man of God.

 

Bringing Orthodoxy to the African-American Community: Some thoughts

I had a long conversation with my priest last week and he asked me if I had any ideas about how the Church might become more attractive to the African American community. Since I have never been “black enough” and have always had a tendency to go my own way, it was a question I really do not have an answer to.
My journey to Orthodoxy was partially engendered by my disgust with the name-it-claim-it, hyper-emotional, sometimes straight up heresy I was drowning in, among other things. I know that it was an intellectual pursuit for me that became a spiritual one as time and life went on. Most of my friends aren’t as bookish and inclined to research as I am. They also think the Orthodox Church is “boring” because there isn’t such an emphasis on the emotional showmanship. Others have issues wi…

th anything that might be remotely “Catholic” (although there is less of that these days because they know me).
One thing I said was that many of my friends have issues with the ethnic emphasis (or even the label on the sign) in many of the churches. They wonder if they will be welcome in a “Greek” or “Russian” church, and if they will speak English there. In the US Antiochian Patriarchate, Fr Nicholas said, Met. Philip has asked that signs downplay the  patriarchy name on signs in order to de-emphasize the “foreignness” for some seekers.
So…Anyone have any ideas? I would like to continue this conversation with Fr N and have something to bring to him.
Elizabeth Gatling from the Black Orthodox Facebook Page
A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

This is a heck of a topic to address.  It is almost embarrassing as it seems that a faith that has had brown skinned bishops, priest, and saints since day one ought to be the most popular expression among those who celebrate Black History Month.  I can honestly say that, other than a couple of Ethiopian immigrants, I have never met a black Orthodox Christian.  Yet, our community is heavily religious.  So, the question of how do we make the faith more appealing to the African-American community is one that is bound to arise and should be addressed.  I have no silver bullet answers.  But, it will take effort from the church and blacks to bridge the gap with each other.
For the Orthodox, a little active evangelism to us would help.  And it isn’t that you must immediately try to shove the Divine Liturgy down our throats either.  But, making us aware of the Africans who helped develop Christianity is a great place to start.  In a lot of cities, there are major festivals and get-togethers where vendors can sell art and books.  Sell some icons of St. Moses, Cyprian, Athanasius, Mary, and the like.  Develop some brochures about the black saints that you honor on your calendar.  Books about the Desert Fathers would sell.  A homecoming at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) would be an evangelistic gold mine for Orthodoxy.  Our folk will spend (Lord knows we spend) money on anything for the sake of “cultural awareness.”  Get the material in our hands and let the Lord take things from there.
And since I brought up the topic of HBCUs, it wouldn’t hurt to send a priest or deacon to one of our campuses on a weekly basis to develop a ministry among the students.  I have seen a lot of students get up in charismatic ministries and get ruined by them.  I was almost a victim as well.  Thankfully, the Southern Baptist Convention invested in a campus ministry intern that gave me good guidance.  College students tend to be more open minded and will accept nearly anything that is Afrocentric, or different than the falsehood they see around them.  Some wouldn’t mind the disciplines of prayer and fasting if they know it is for their spiritual benefit.  Various Islamic sects found converts on campus during my years at Virginia State University (1985-89) and I was accosted by 5%ers at Virginia Union University (a Baptist school) once.  Just show up and someone will come to you and listen.
Hosting events that celebrate African-American culture would help as well.  How about a concert of traditional Negro Spirituals after the Divine Liturgy during Black History Month?  While I would never advocate putting “Mary, Mary’s” latest single into the Divine Liturgy, our music tradition is not that distant from Orthodox doctrine (you had the period of martyrdom, we had slavery).  Get a couple of your bishops and best choir directors to meet with some of our knowledgeable musicians and put together a quality function.  There are some of us who are willing to take a serious look at Orthodoxy.  Just bring it to where we are.
Now for my folk, drinking two or three full glasses of OPEN YOUR MIND will help.  St. Cyprian Orthodox Church (I think they were ROCOR before they became OCA) was in Northside Richmond (VA) for many years in a house before they built their new building in Powhatan County (which does have a rural black population).  Black families should have done more than just peek in the door  and leave (I ain’t seen none of us in there, so I didn’t think we were welcome).  Negroes Please!  Look at the icons.  Read who their saints are.  Greeks, Russians, Serbs, etc.,  they may not be NAACP members.  But, their ancestors weren’t in the KKK either.  Even converts (the ones I’ve met) put their traditional American racial stereotypes behind them.  Orthodoxy may not be perfect.  But, neither are we!
And don’t give me that excuse about worship style either.  For every verse in the Bible (you know, that book that the Orthodox was nice enough to put together for us) about praising God with loud voices, there is another about being silent and meditative in his presence as well.  Perhaps it would do our community some justice to become liturgical worshipers rather than spend Mega-money on Mega-conferences so that Mega-celebrity preachers with Mega-titles can live in Mega luxury.   The fact that so many of us believe in these shisters  when we ought to know better is turning many in my generation and younger away from organized Christianity all together.  I am not saying we all ought to convert to Orthodoxy the first time we attend a Divine Liturgy.  But, if the church is making the effort to seek us, we ought to return the favor by attending for a few weeks to a month and see the history and spirituality of this ancient faith that our African ancestors helped to organize and die for.
“So Rev., when will YOU convert?”  As a member of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, I am under the guidance of an Antiochian priest.  Fr. James Purdie has told me that I don’t need to rush.  My Baptist congregants and colleagues have not put me under interrogation despite the fact that I have not hidden my journey from them.  I do expect that I will reach the “tipping point” sooner or later.  In the mean time, I am just making sure that my steps are firm.  I pray that I will make the right steps at the right time.  The only thing as bad as making a move too soon is moving too late.  My only prayer is that the Lord makes a way for me to provide for my wife.

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.

Today’s Sermon: Cesar’s Coin or God’s Creation

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to Go the things that are God’s.”

Matthew 22:15-22

No matter what political view you may have, please go and exercise your right and duty to vote for the candidate of your choice.  Do not let victory go to your head nor loss to your heart.  Instead, focus on the real aim of our existence as Christians.  That is to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A Full View (© John Gresham)

CAESAR’S COINS OR GOD’S CREATION

Matthew 22: 15-22

(introduction) In every election, we end up choosing between conservative or liberal

(antithesis) Too often, Christians try to put Jesus completely on one side or the other

(thesis) Scripture and early church tradition does not clearly state what side of the coin is wrong or right

(propositional statement)  Participate in the earthly governance.  But our focus is to live as people made in God’s image

(propositional question)  Why should we avoid tying our faith too much into our politics?

(points)

Politics will kill the innocent to stay in power (v.15, 16  ch. 2)

True spirituality is unimpressed with political flattery (v.16-18)

Only the Lord’s wisdom is worthy of our wonder (v. 22)

(conclusion) Earthly ballots are good.  The heavenly book is best.

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.

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.