transformation

Nativity Fast: My Baptist Foundations

The Lord has given us this day for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Fasting is not a part of the Baptist faith.  Although some of us are willing to give up a couple of foods for Lent, getting us to observe the Nativity Fast of the Orthodox Church is like expecting the Chicago Cubs to win the FIFA World Cup of Football.  Thanksgiving is here and we will be attending Christmas parties, feast, and dinners until New Year’s Day.  There are way too many food temptations around to swear off deserts or red meat, to say the least about going vegan.  Yet in my upbringing, I find a foundation to observe the fast.

Deacon and Deaconess John R. Gresham, Sr. (© John Gresham)

Deacon John R. Gresham, Sr., who loves Christmas more than any other holiday, deeply believes in selflessness.  Daddy does not buy anything for himself from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas.  If his rain coat were to tear on December 12th, he’d patch it up the best he could.  Or if his axe handle was broken on November 30th, he would borrow his neighbor’s if need be.  Other than gas for his vehicle, and perhaps a small sandwich, it was selfish to give to one’s self.  God gave his Son to us.  So, this season, we must focus on giving to others.

Deaconess Mickey Gresham is committed to sharing the special meal.  Each year, mom will buy inexpensive, little gifts and have them on our breakfast plates on Christmas morning.  Presents under a tree from Santa are nice.  But, the first meal of the day is symbolized with a present.  Among the breakfast items, she serves chitterlings (chittlins).  They are a reminder of the humble origins of African-Americans and, some of us, still consider them a seasonal delicacy (I think they are delicious).

During this fast, I will make the effort to following the example of my parents.  Chances are they will not convert to Orthodoxy (daddy was curious, yet unimpressed with my living room icon corner).  But, they have prepared me to follow the practices of Orthodox spirituality.  If and when I do convert, these practices of my Baptist parents will be a part of me.

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.

Today’s Sermon: Consuming Christ

“This is the bread which came down from heaven-not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead.  He who eats this bread will live forever.”

John 6:58

Let us be in prayer for all who live in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  Thanking God that the Tsunami didn’t greatly affect Alaska and Hawaii.  I wish I had spent a little more time (and money, if I had it) at the Newport News Greek Festival yesterday.  Spinakopida is sooooooo good!

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

CONSUMING CHRIST

John 6:53-58

(introduction)  Holy Communion is a practice that all Christians participate in.

(antithesis)  Oddly enough, there are different doctrines about this, even within our own Baptist denomination

(propositional statement) No matter our doctrine, Jesus calls all of us to consume him

(relevant question) Why is consuming Christ important to our faith?

(points [ v. 58])

  • consuming the things of this world cannot save our souls
  • consuming Christ allows us to abide in him and he in us
  • consuming Christ allows us to experience the fullness of salvation

(conclusion) We need no other sign of the divinity of Jesus except that he was, is, and is to come

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.

What Day Is It?

Okay, I know it is weird for a life-long Baptist to take up a journey toward Orthodox Christianity.  Yeah, I have put my foot in my mouth (size 13) at least once on this journey.  “Lawd John-John, why are you ‘foolin’ with that Catholic stuff anyway?”  As if I didn’t have enough reasons to seriously consider the ancient faith, here is another.  The origins of the names of the days of the week and what they symbolize are not only opposed to ancient church teachings.  They are destructive to humanity.  Search any website on the topic and these are the origins of names of our weekdays:

  • Monday – honoring the moon
  • Tuesday – honoring Tiw, the Norse god of war
  • Wednesday – honoring Woden (aka Odin), the supreme Norse god
  • Thursday – honoring Thor, the Norse god of Thunder
  • Friday – honoring Frigg, the Norse goddess of love
  • Saturday – honoring Saturn, the Roman god of the weather
  • Sunday – honoring the sun

Notice, of the seven days of the week, four of them recognize Norse gods, two of them recognize created heavenly bodies, and the last a Roman god.  None has anything to do with the Holy Trinity, Christian Faith, nor anything that feeds hope to the soul.  Think about it, the day for the god of war is Tuesday (Tyr’s-day).  Considering the lyrics of “Stormy Monday Blues,” (Tuesday is just as bad, Wednesday is worse, and Thursday’s oh so sad) it is small wonder that we have a bitter and loathsome attitude toward the work and school week.  Needless to say, with a corrupted view of the other days, our point of view of love will also be skewed.  So, what we have is a society of conflict with little love and only hopes for good weather.  What an uplifting spiritual outlook!

Furthermore, how can a society claim a spirit anything other than Norse when four of its week days honor Norse gods (including their supreme god) and only one honors a god of another culture (a Roman one who some Christians were martyred for not recognizing)?  It seems rather odd that modern Evangelicals would be up at arms against the “new age” and occult believers when we have co-opted the Gospel with such commemorations as “Holy Thursday,” “Good Friday,” and “Easter Sunday.”  Yes, I know we Christians regard Sunday as the day of our Lord and Savior.  But, why is it not spelled, s-o-n instead of s-u-n?  Maybe we need to think about this historic form of political correctness before we holler about “liberals” removing the Ten Commandments from state houses or prayer from schools.  Watering down the Christian faith is not a new phenomenon.  Christians have been doing this since the middle ages.

A New Day (© John Gresham)

Change the days of the week on our calendars worldwide?  That will probably happen when Liverpool wins the Super Bowl.  But, I think it may do us non-Orthodox Christians a bit of good to consider the weekly pattern established by the early church fathers:

  • Day honoring the angels
  • Day honoring John the Baptist
  • Day commemorating the betrayal of Christ
  • Day honoring the apostles
  • Day commemorating the crucifixion of Christ
  • Day honoring those who have fallen asleep
  • Day celebrating the resurrection of Christ

Orthodoxy gives us a far more spiritual outlook on the week.  Each day is an indisputable recognition of the faith.  If life and death are in the power of the tongue, it is to our spiritual benefit to mention the Orthodox perspective of the day in our daily prayers.  Compare for yourself; did the moon announce the birth of Jesus or did an angel do that?  Why honor thunder when you can honor the 12 men who led the faith we now practice?  And what, other than the resurrection, is more loving than our Savior laying down his life for us?  For the sake of transacting business and functioning in our world, the names of the days are what they are.  But in the pursuit of spiritual living, let’s honor the days that have been handed down to us by the fathers.

http://www.essortment.com/origins-names-days-week-64840.html  The Origins of the Days of the Week

http://www.serfes.org/orthodox/SevenDayCommemorations.htm  The Seven Day Commemoration in the Orthodox Church

Today’s Sermon: Keep Praying

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.

Luke 5:16

Very soon, I will have another blog.  My church has decided to have a website and I find Wordpress.com an effective and cost-effective tool.  Plus, the response to the Pamunkey Baptist Association site has been positive as well.  I will post my sermon notes here and on the upcoming site.  But, I will continue making a chronicle of my Orthodox journey here.

 

Crossing in the Morning (© John Gresham)

KEEP PRAYING

Luke 5:12-16

(thesis) It is easy to see the value of morning and nightly prayers

(antithesis) Too many challenges arise during the day for us to rely on these prayers alone

(propositional statement) Like Christ, we are to get away from our daily task and deliberately pray alone as much as possible

(relevant question) What are the advantages of such prayer?

(points)  Praying often keeps us:

  • humble
  • in line with God’s will
  • from getting caught up with the crowd

(conclusion)  We can’t all be monastics.  God blesses our efforts.

 

 

 

Today’s Sermon: A Lifestyle That Can Proclaim Redemption

And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem

Luke 2:38

I won’t be playing “hooky” from my denomination for a while.  As we don’t have a regular morning worship at Trinity on fifth Sundays (the Pamunkey Baptist Association Sunday School & Literary Union meets on those days), I attended the Divine Liturgy at Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Newport News (Greek Festival October 25th thru 27th).  I will keep up my rule of prayer, keep in contact with Fr. James from St. Basil and Fr. David from St. Cyprian and other Orthodox believers during my drought until I can make another Liturgy on Dec. 30th.  I have heard rumors that St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Williamsburg will open for services in January 2013.  Hopefully, they will have some mid-week services that I can attend.

A Moment at Sandbridge (© John Gresham)

A LIFESTYLE THAT CAN PROCLAIM REDEMPTION

Luke 2:36-38

(introduction) We all have strikes against us

(antithesis)  Anna was of the wrong sex, tribe, age, and social position to serve as a priest

(thesis) Yet God pours out the spirit of prophecy on sons and daughters and revealed His Son and his true purpose to her

(propositional statement) No matter our calling, we all have the Holy Spirit in us.  By a correct lifestyle, Jesus is revealed to us so that we can proclaim redemption to others

(relevant question)  What are the elements of Anna’s lifestyle that led to her revelation and proclamation?

(points [all v.37])

  • Patience
  • Stay in the house
  • Put some things aside
  • Pray ceaselessly

(conclusion)  Christ will cross out the strikes for those who humbly seek the kingdom of heaven

Campaign 2012: A New Low for the American Christ

(JC)  “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I would not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here.”

(PP)  “Are You a king then?”

(JC)  You say rightly that I am a king.  For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

John 18:36, 37

Why am I on the journey toward the Orthodox Christian faith?  One reason is prayer.  In the ancient tradition, prayer is our means to not only communicate with God, but to become more like him.  The practice is to become a part of who we are.  This is evident in our Lord who prayed early in the morning, late in the evening, often alone, even in times of agony.  The Apostle Paul exhorted early believers to pray without ceasing.  From these and other examples, the early fathers from Anthony, Gregory Palamas, and even the American Seraphim Rose urged believers to have a daily discipline of prayer.  The Jesus Prayer, Hours, and various monastic rules were developed to instruct Orthodox Christians in this vital exercise of working out our faith in fear and trembling.  The church has a 2,000 year library of written prayers that anyone can use to help them with their own.

Western Christendom, in this nation in particular, has nothing to match Orthodoxy in prayer.  Too often, we just say a few sentences referring to our wants and needs and those of whom we care about.  With the Baptist concept of “Soul Liberty,” we and other Protestant churches do not have denominational-wide established rules nor collections of prayers.  While local pastors may teach about the importance of being in communion with God, we are free to “talk to God” as we wish any way that feels good to us.  As a result, we too often cheapen the practice.

Today, I saw how the 700 Club has cheapened the Savior to an awful low.  Pat Robertson and his host announced that the will be engaged in a special “America for Jesus 2012” drive from now until election day.  And let me quickly say that there are many believers in a liberal form of the Gospel who will, no doubt, have prayer vigils from Sunday, November 4th to Tuesday, November 6th.  I can’t help but to ask if this nation still needs prayer after the election is over, if not more so.  Christians on the left and right have decided to drag our Lord and Savior on their side rather than submit to the fact that He and His kingdom is above all of us.

How pathetic!  You aren’t praying for “Thy will be done.”  You are praying for your own will and choice in elected officials.  James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem warned us against such prayers:

You lust and do not have.  You murder and covet and cannot obtain.  You fight and war.  Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask amis, that you may spend it on your pleasures.  Adulterers and adulteresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Whoever therefore wants to be a friend to the world makes himself an enemy of God.  (James 4:2-5)

By pinning inordinate prayers on Barack Obama (who rejects Orthodox teaching on marriage) or Mitt Romney (who practices the heresy of Mormonism) you have chosen your politics over the Savior of our souls.  Shame on you!  It is one thing to have a political opinion.  It is another to make a crusade of prayer supporting it.  May God forgive you for such an awful perception of prayer.