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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

A Need To Return

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:13, 14

Sunrise through Darkness (© John Gresham)

Before they ever heard of the Jesus Prayer or could read anything in English, the slaves in America cried out, moaned, and sang the most profound of all Negro Spirituals:

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Have mercy Lord, have mercy Lord on me

It was the song of the whipping post, sexual assault, auction block, and tobacco field.  They didn’t know why they were going through such a horror.  The way the slave masters taught about God was wrong. The slaves had sense enough to know that somewhere there was a God of mercy.   If they sought Him with their whole lives in the midst of their anguish, He would answer them.  This Negro Spiritual continued through the days of Jim Crow.  With growing aspirations in the face of burning crosses and segregating signs, the prayer was still prominent on our lips as it came from the depths of our experience.  The youngest child memorized it quicker than the alphabet.  Seasoned saints remembered it if they forgot everything else.

Those dreadful days of our fathers and great grandmothers will not rise again, Praise the Lord!  And yet as we have moved from slave cabin to share cropper shack to nice house to the White House, we have lost a part of the prayer.  No, all of the words are still there.  But the depth and meaning of the prayer, I fear, has been lost in the complacency of progress and the antics of our modern worship.

Are these words even mentioned in our churches anymore?  And if so, how much weight do we put on them?  Are these words spoken in our prayer closets?  Wait, do we even go into our prayer closets and expose ourselves to the merciful God as we were once exposed to unmerciful racist?  And if this simple song/prayer way good enough for the ancestors who endured the absolute worst conditions, isn’t it good enough for we who live in a far better world?

Listening to a lecture from Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy, he challenged a conference of mostly Afro-American Orthodox believers to live their faith with the same tenacity of the early church fathers such as Saints Anthony, Athanasius, and Moses.  For we who are not Orthodox Christians, we can certainly look at the prayer lives of those who were in bondage and second class citizenship and imitate them.  Pray from the depths of spirit and sufferings, not simply for the stuff of this world.  Pray in deep humility, and not as if we deserve anything.  In the words of our Lord, “This man went down to his house justified … he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Let us return to the prayer life of those who were before us.

What Are You Reading?

 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth and be turned aside to fables.

2 Timothy 4:3, 4

Not a Christian Best Seller (© John Gresham)

There is one good thing about losing electric power for a day.  You can always read a book that you never found time for.  I purchased a copy of The Life of St. Anthony the Great by St. Athanasius the Great weeks ago and put in with my other icons in the living room.  I took it with me to Charlottesville thinking that it was going to be 100 degrees Saturday and I could, at least, thumb through a few more pages.  Thanks to Friday night’s storm, my eyes were opened.  St. Anthony was a Holy Spirit driven sage whose teachings of monasticism is still influential on Orthodox and Catholic Christians.  The author, St. Athanasius was also a giant of the faith as he is credited for compiling the 27 books of the New Testament and forming the Nicene Creed.  These and other men and women bore some of the worst persecution under the Romans and led the way in establishing the Christian faith under the reign of Constantine.  Writings by Irenaeus, Basil, John Chrysostom, and others are still in existence and can be purchased online or some very good indie bookstores.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Christian books sold today are not deeply rooted in early church teachings.  Most of them are more “positive thinking,” ego-building fluff than the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  Look at the covers of their paperbacks and hard back covers.  There is the author with the perfect hair, smile, and make-up.  There is the author with a pose and facial expression that, supposedly, shows wisdom and confidence.  The scriptures they use, frequently, are curious mish-mashes of verses taken out of their biblical context to support their marketable points of view.  Except for a few Catholic writers, there are few (if any) quotes from the saints who were of the same, or a few generations after Jesus and the apostles.  The sole purpose of such books is to make a maximum profit by selling a cheap and shoddy version of the Gospel.

I am not saying there are no modern Christian writers worth reading.  Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible is my favorite text-book from seminary.  I would put Howard Thurman’s spiritual writings beside those of any Orthodox ascetic.  I had the pleasure of visiting a pastoral care class taught by Wayne Oates at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary many years ago.  While some of my favorite non-Orthodox books are very scholarly and technical, most can be well understood by the average layperson.  Because the authors aren’t (and never were) TV personalities, don’t expect to find their books at Wal-Mart or Costco.  If you are fortunate enough to live near, or visit a college town, go to the independent and used bookstores (you will save money).  Online sources are great too.  Major-chain booksellers may special order stuff on request.

As you choose Christian (or other religious books in general), please be discerning.  Submit yourself to a disciplined life of prayer and reading the scriptures before you purchase anything by anybody.  Keep a prayer journal where you honestly deal with your thoughts and feelings about your walk with God.  Books recommended by your pastor and trusted friends in the faith can be a very good source.  But, be rooted and honest in the pursuit of spirit and truth so that you don’t waste money, time, intelligence, and your soul on religious sounding fluff and bad doctrine.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Thursday): Ending The Journey (this part of it)

Tomorrow is the Feast of St.s Peter and Paul.  I intend to eat a fair amount of dead animal.  I may wake up early to spend some time on a mountain Saturday.  Sunday, I will attend divine liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church.  This journey of the Apostles Fast is coming to an end.  In all honesty, I am going to miss it.  Oh, I will still maintain and seek to expand my prayer life.  And I will keep the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as be more conscious of my eating on other days.  But, the weeks of fasting have been very interesting and inspiring for me.  God revealed and reminded me of his truth.

Daybreak (© John Gresham)

Prayer means more than giving thanks, praises, and asking for stuff.  Prayer is seeking unity with the Lord.  For those who are new to following Jesus, praying without a disciplined spiritual life can be expected.  But, a shallow perception of communication with God must be outgrown.  The seeking of divine guidance must be perpetual in our hearts and minds.  Too often, we pray for immediate results.  We live in a culture that seeks tangible and well-defined conclusions, and the sooner the better.  This is a very dangerous prayer life.  Suppose we get the results when and the way we want them?  Then arrogance quickly sets in as if we are proven better than others because we have the results.   Complacency is another risk; that one need not pray again unless another need or want arises in our lives.  Suppose we don’t get the results, or get them in a later time in a way that doesn’t please us?  Two possibilities are ready to distort our souls. We may disbelieve in the loving God who answers prayer as we didn’t get our results.  We may also chase after spiritual snake oil salesmen posing as ministers of the Gospel who boast that they can get you the results we are looking for.

A consistent and perpetual seeking of God; this is the type of prayer that doesn’t rely on gratifying results.  When they come, one with such a prayer life remains humble.  When they don’t come, the one remains patient and relies on God’s wisdom.  Results and lack of them are mere stones on the pathway to the eternal.  This is one reason why hermits and monastics can remain in secluded prayer unbothered by the world around them.  This is one reason why the martyrs faced death with a sense of joy and peace in mind.  If we were all thrown to the gladiators and wild beast or were made to live in ascetic cells, having this sort of prayer life would be a bit easier as we would have nothing else to seek after and death would be just moments away.

The challenge for us who are not in monasteries and coliseum is to be consistent and perpetual seekers of God.  This is why the morning and evening Orthodox prayers guide us in seeking mercy.  This is why there are prayers of the Hours and cycles of fasting.  This is why monks, nuns, and other seekers desire an inward prayer of the heart and silently move their lips as they offer up the Jesus Prayer.  The early church fathers gave us traditions of fasting and prayer that have encouraged the rejection of this world and withstood great persecution.  Arrogance, complacency, disbelief, and gullibility await those who have no depth in their spiritual selves.  Thus, our prayers must be continuous to withstand and overcome these adversaries.

Thank you for your time.  I pray God will also bless you in the journey of life.

The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Saturday): Did Jesus Have A Liturgy?

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you:  do this in remembrance of Me.

Luke 22:19

 

Daylight Despite Clouds (© John Gresham)

Okay, so far in my self-study and practice of Orthodox Christianity, I can see the logic and benefits.  Take the prayer life; using the prayers written in the Orthodox Study Bible and other sources has reignited a sense of my need to pursue God with discipline and diligence.  I was trying to do that on my own with some measure or another of success.  But, following these prayers that have been handed down from the church fathers has been an extra push for me.  Trying to observe the Hours (I am not too sharp at midnight, but I am trying) reminds me of my need for the Holy Spirit through out my day.  Fasting is the best medicine for the body and it does the budget a world of good too moving from a meat to plant-based diet.  I even see the wisdom of iconography.  I refuse to rush into converting as there is no Orthodox Church within a 30 mile radius of my home and I have much to do as a Baptist pastor to seek lost souls, strengthen the saints, and serve my community.

I also confess that divine liturgy intimidates me.  Seriously, all of that chanting, incense, and prayers is far more than we have in our order of service.  And I don’t speak anything other than American English.  Even the Jordanville Prayer Book has words in it that I didn’t learn in seminary.  Shouldn’t worship be simple and easy enough to understand so that a messenger can read it (Habakkuk 2:2)?  Did Jesus have a liturgy?

He probably did.  Think about it, the Last Supper took place not on any old day of the year.  It was on the Day of Unleavened Bread.  Certain scriptures had to be read and prayers prayed by Jews in order to properly celebrate what God did for his people.  More than likely, Jesus followed the prescribed order of worship that was handed down to him since the days of Moses.  But, then Our Lord did something else.  He redefined that meal with his own body and blood.  That we are to come together with the bread and wine in remembrance of him.  The Apostle Paul handed the tradition down to the Corinthian believers and other church fathers did the same as well.  Liturgy can be described as the public spiritual connection to the God of Israel, connected to God the Son and our Savior Jesus Christ, and all who believe in him.

Liturgy is not a spectator sport.  Reading books and watching You Tube videos are not enough.  I will have to attend before I can make any decisions of if I think this is right for me.  I will have a few opportunities to get away from my church and attend the Sunday morning worship in a couple of Orthodox churches between now and mid-September.  I will also attend Homecoming Services among my fellow Baptist.  May God reveal the truth to me.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Consistent Testimony

… Behold the Lamb of God!

John 1:36

A Mattaponi Dawn (© John Gresham)

There is something to be said for consistency.  That what is spoken one day is the same as the days before and for days to come.  A true testimony does not change.  But, it remains the same.

One day, the religious leadership approached John the Baptist asking if he were the Christ or one of the prophets.  He denied claims to both.  He quoted the words of Isaiah and pointed that the great Messiah was yet to come with a greater baptism.  But John did not claim any position that was not his, even though he could have claimed the lesser of the two.  John kept to the task of baptism for the remission of sins in humble obedience to God.

The next day, John identified and proclaimed the one he spoke of the day and days before.  “Behold the Lamb of God!”  John was a good man and, rightfully, drew a crowd of the faithful.  But, the Lamb of God was (is) the perfect offering without blemish or spot.  The true first-born.  This Lamb would go down and rise again, thus able to take away the sins of the world.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power that shows he is the Son of God.  As in the day before, John didn’t speak of his greatness.  He bore witness to something greater.

And still the next day, John makes the same proclamation as he sees Jesus.  John has two of his disciples standing with him and made no gesture nor spoke in protest as they left him to follow the One he spoke of.  The baptizer has seen the one who offers the greater baptism.  The precursor has laid down the path as prophesied.  With the Lamb present, John understood that he his position had to decrease.  There was no point of his disciples following him any longer as there was a greater one for them to follow.

A false witness changes as it sees opportunity for gain, the need to conceal inconvenient truth, and threats to its status.  The true witness always points to something greater.  Gain and status are temporal.  Truth is never stopped.  It is best to understand our role in God’s will and let him have his way.  Our consistent testimony let’s him work through us for his glory.

Amen

How To Respond To Atheism

It is no secret that atheism and unbelief is growing in our country.  I read an article in the Guardian where church membership may very well be less than the 40% mark that most of us took for granted.  With the ongoing hypocritical scandals and false doctrine in many denominations and congregations, I suspect things will only get worse.  But, just because Atheism is growing means that the faithful should do nothing.  This morning, I will preach our response.

Reflective Dawn (© John Gresham)

 

BECAUSE HE IS, WE MUST GO

Matthew 28:16-20

Thesis:  Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to declare his resurrection from the grave

Antithesis:  Like the time of the first disciples, there are forces in society that oppose this message

Propositional Statement:  We are called to spread the Gospel of Jesus despite the obstacles before us

Points:

  • We can overcome our own doubts (17)
  • We can go beyond our comfort zones (19)
  • When we go, Jesus will be with us (20)