compassion

Contemplating Confession

No,  I didn’t rob a bank, pick up a hooker, or stab anyone.  No, it is none of your business exactly what I am guilty of.  But, I am a sinner and I did sin.  The medication for this sickness is confession and repentance.  In Orthodox Christianity, there is a process of coming forward to the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child beside the priest in the presence of the church.

It is a bit intimidating of a process.  Granted, with the chanting going on and speaking in a low voice with the priest, no one can hear your business.  Only when the priest declares absolution does anyone hear anything during the sacrament and even then nothing is disclosed about what was done.  Plus, the early fathers never demanded that everyone confess every sin in the church beside the priest before attending Divine Liturgy.  There may (and probably should) be a spiritually reliable person in one’s life to confess to.  Father does not need to hear every time you took an ink pen from work, drove over the speed limit, or fantasized over the new office intern.  We don’t believe anyone should beat up themselves over every sin.  Confession and repentance is an on-going process that we should be experiencing in our daily spiritual disciplines.  A daily and frequent seeking of God’s mercy and salvation from evil should and must be pursued and is enough to absolve us from sin if done in sincerity.

But, there are some things we do because of severity, frequency, and the potential danger that going before God during Vespers, Matins, or completely in private with the priest is advisable for the sake of our souls.  Such a confession can be the first act of recovery from an addiction or prevention of a bad situation from becoming worse.  In some cases, it may be a preparation for one to confess to legal authorities and prepare for civil consequences.  While such things as 12 step programs, anger management, and the like may be useful and effective in correcting outward behavior, sin is the illness of the soul and only the blessing of forgiveness from God can correct it.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9)

There was a time when I would have deemed such a practice as unnecessary.  But, when I think about it, Protestants sometimes have similar practices of confession.  At altar calls people can ask the preacher to pray for forgiveness.  Certainly, a pastor keeps an open door and heart to anyone to confess privately.  Many churches advocate prayer partners and spiritual mentors where one can go to when they can’t reach the pastor, or feel more comfortable spilling their guts with than with the pastor.  And all Christians are encouraged to repent of sins in private as part of their daily prayers.  So, why should anyone go before an icon, beside a priest, in a prayer service, and confess sins?  Let me briefly name three:

  1. The ordained priesthood has the ability to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit and succession by the resurrected Christ and his Apostles (John 20:22,23).
  2. Confession is essential for repentance and cleansing from sin (Mark 1:4,5).
  3. We are a community of people who seek to live anew, not just individuals seeking personal salvation (Matthew 3:5).

I am called to be the salt of the earth.  If I lose my savor to my sins, I am useless.  I am called to be the light of the world.  If I hide under the basket of my failures, I cannot fulfill my purpose to share the True Light (Matthew 5:13-16).    I pray and believe that confession will heal my wounded soul, give me the ability to heal those whom I have harmed, strengthen my Christian journey, and unite me even closer with my fellow believers and humanity as a whole.

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.

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.

Thoughts on Today’s Gospel Reading: Luke 5:12-16

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed

Luke 5:16

I am gearing my sermons and lessons to the command Jesus gave to the first disciples, “Follow Me.”  It was very easy for me to use the Gospel readings for the past two Sundays to preach from that theme.  For today’s Bible Study, we neither see a Master Teacher giving lessons from a borrowed boat nor telling a confessing sinful fisherman that he will catch men from now on.  In fact, we don’t see Jesus wanting attention at all.

Our Lord is in a certain city, perhaps on his way to a synagogue to teach a lesson, when a man full of leprosy comes to him seeking a cleansing.  Jesus is full of compassion and willingly heals the man.  But after it happens, Christ tells the man not to anyone but to the priest and make the prescribed Mosaic sacrifice.  The miraculous act of our Lord’s compassion was directed to be met with sobriety and order.  Human nature, either by the healed man’s disobedience or the observation of others who told of what happened, makes such a directive almost impossible.  In the words of the African-American music tradition:

I couldn’t keep it to myself what the Lord has done for me

Of course, Jesus does not retaliate against him and bring the leprosy back on him.  But, now Christ is unable to move about as freely as he would like.  Masses of people are now coming to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.  More than likely, the Lord healed those who came to him.  With the added stress of expectations and hopes of so many others weighing on him, Jesus needs to do something to handle the situation.

In the text of the Orthodox Study Bible, the word often is italicized to highlight the point of how important prayer is.  Except for medical professionals, we aren’t expected to heal people.  But, we all deal with more stress than we would like.  And at any moment, someone can spill our secrets, misuse our kindness, and demand more of us.  Stress can keep us from being effective.  It has been proven that it can kill us.  Frequent prayer is the means Jesus used to continue in wisdom and compassion.

To follow Jesus, we should follow his rule of prayer in the text.  Go somewhere to be to yourself as much as you can and pray.  Union with God enables us to handle the normal expectations of life and the added stress of the unexpected.  Being in crowds may feed the ego.  But, it starves the soul.  Find your wilderness, closet, mountain top, or somewhere else where you can be alone.  Pray often.  The morning mumble and mutterings while eating a doughnut is not enough to sustain faith.  One should take advantage of break times and lunch during the work or school day.  Even if long, audible prayers are not possible, concentrated and concise prayers are just as effective.  Either must be done in sincerity.  If we seek solitude and prayer often, we will also be able to live in wisdom and compassion.

 

Today’s Sermon: Confession and Discipleship

… “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  … “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”

Luke 5:8, 10

Farewell Friend (© John Gresham)

Saturday was the funeral for my colleague, Dr. Leo Wagner.  Before his death, I shared with him my interest in Orthodox Christianity.  He was enthusiastic about my pursuit as we African-Americans have little exposure to the ancient faith.  He was aware of the role Africans played in helping to form the church’s doctrine and told me that he looked forward to hearing how or what Orthodoxy could contribute to our churches.  I pray that he is watching my journey with Athanasius, Cyprian, Mary of Egypt, and all of the other saints from all corners of the faith.

Praying birthday blessings to my wife.  In her illnesses, Brenda has taught me more about life than perhaps if she were well.  I would like the thorns of MS and bipolar disorder be miraculously removed from her.  But, the grace of God is sufficient.

CONFESSION & DISCIPLESHIP

Luke 5:1-11

(Introduction)  Peter showed great faith in letting Jesus teach from his boat and then go out and fish after an unsuccessful night (vv. 5-7)

(antithesis)  The miracle and simply following Jesus afterward is not what made Peter a disciple

(thesis)  Peter’s confession was the pivotal point that endeared him to Jesus (and the astonishment of his companions vv. 8-10)

(propositional statement)  There can be no true discipleship without true confession

(relevant question)  What makes true confession so crucial to following Jesus?

(points)

  • Confession identifies the mercy of Christ as the source of our blessings (v. 8)
  • Confession puts us in a state of humility (v. 8)
  • Christ confirms confessors (v. 10)

(conclusion)  If we short-change God on our confessions, we short-change ourselves from the fullness of walking with him

Of Struggles and Saints

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Dr. Leo C. Wagner (© John Gresham)

I bid a fond “farewell” to a wise pastor, skilled preacher, excellent instructor, and good friend.  Rev. Dr. Leo C. Wagner died yesterday morning.  Here was a man who could have remained in Chicago, perhaps finding a congregation that would have paid him handsomely.  But, the Lord led him to the small town of West Point, VA to pastor Mt. Nebo Baptist Church.  Rather than seek to make his own ministry shine individually, Dr. Wagner engaged himself to work with and lead the Pamunkey Baptist Association as Moderator for a term.  He knew how to joke with people and to give Godly advice at the right moment.  His compassion was felt by public school students in town as well as seminarians at Virginia Union University.  We lost a giant in the Baptist church and a friend to all who knew him.  Lord have mercy and bless his widow.

Today is Monday.  Gosh, how we bemoan the beginning of the work and school week.  As if we are facing some sort of torture.  I confess that I sometimes look at my bills and how they crush my meager paychecks and wish I had the salary I was once earning.  I look at my wife’s illnesses and wish I could enjoy the times when she was mentally and physically healthy.  Yeah, I write stuff that is very spiritual.  But, I am a man with the same wishes and desires as anyone else.  I struggle with the same temptations and anguish over my failures and sins.

But, each morning, I consider the saint that is commemorated  for the day.  Today, the martyrs Sophia and her daughters, Faith, Hope, and Love are remembered for their faithfulness to death.  A mother was forced to watch her teen and pre-teen girls be subject to extremely cruel tortures and beheadings and then bury them.  Then she died at their grave 3 days later of a broken heart as she didn’t leave their side.  With the loss of Dr. Wagner, I am even more mindful that others have struggled and run the race of life before me and endured far greater hardship.  Who am I to whine about my difficulties?  What right do I have to hold on to bad habits?  No, this great cloud of witnesses surround me as an example to keep fighting, running and struggling.

And above all, there is Christ.  He went from a heavenly home to a womb and manger.  His own people rejected him.  Crowds misunderstood him and wanted only magic tricks and miracles.  Where there were once cries of honor, he heard shouts for his crucifixion.  There is no crown without a crucifixion nor sainthood without struggle.

HAIL JESUS!

 

Foolish Fighting & Wrong Weapons

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this age, against spiritual host of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Ephesians 6:11-13

Toward Dawn (© John Gresham)

I remember when Matthew Shepherd, a gay man, was brutally beaten and left to die.  I thought that sooner or later some armed homosexual or sympathizer would take up arms against a Christian church, or other organization of the faith for our silence on (and in some cases acceptance of) gay bashing.  Well, it has happened.  Thank God that the security guards at the Family Research Council did their job effectively to prevent a tragic loss of life.  No, I should say, “another tragic loss of life.”  The murder of Sikh worshipers by an ultra-conservative gunman happened two weeks ago.

I cannot help but to wonder if either of these men had a well-developed life of prayer before they decided to pick up arms.  I am willing to bet that they didn’t.  Attempting to shoot unarmed Christians and shooting unarmed Sikh mistaking them for Muslims (who most likely would have been unarmed) is no a sign of someone who makes the serious effort to be more like God.  No, this is the end result of those who believe in their ideology more than the crucified and risen Savior.  A true prayer life requires one to be repentant to an reliant on God throughout the day.  These characteristics call on us to be humble and consider our own faults before becoming angry in our disagreements with others.  With a focus on seeking Godliness, we see that our real enemies are not people who can only harm the flesh.  Our true adversaries are our passions of lust, greed, gluttony, envy, arrogance, and the like.  Even if we were to succeed in overcoming our earthly opponents, without victory over the spiritual enemies we have achieved nothing for our souls.

The problem is not gun ownership nor having a political point of view.  Fingernail files can be used as weapons.  Left and Right are the two sides of the same cheap coin of human rule and both are needed for the coin to have value.  The problem of American society is that we are not truly prayerful.  When we pray, it us usually for God to do something for us or support our point of view.  Instead of being repentant, we point the finger at the sins of others to comfort us as not being as bad as they are.  Instead of reliance on God, we commit ourselves to human reliance to boast of what we have earned or beg for what we deserve.  Humility cannot be born of such characteristics.  These are the planting beds for the very ills which we should seek to overcome.  Combine this sort of prayer with divisive politics and we have an atmosphere for fearful and mistrusting attitudes.  These attitudes are then manipulated by marketing puppet masters and talking heads.  Those who focus left or right rather than inward and above become further rooted in toxicity.  At best, the toxicity is quieted by some sense of basic civility.  At worst, there is a breaking news story at 6 pm.

I urge you to fight the real enemy!  Heterosexual lust is far more damaging to marriage and male-female relationships than homosexual marriage will ever be.  Arrogance kills more Americans than Muslims, Sikh, Jews, and all other non-Christians combined.  We probably are more likely to be killed by someone who says they are Christian than anyone else.  Greed is the real enemy of the hard-working tax payer.  Gluttony traps even the poor in poverty.  To fight these enemies, we must be on the battlefields of our own hearts, minds, and souls.  Our weapons are prayer, scripture, and action.  Our strategy is to walk humbly with the Lord our God.  We must stop trying to exonerate and excuse ourselves and seek the Holy Spirit with an honest and complete assessment of ourselves so that we can be healed.  Then we will properly be able to assist others in the healing process.

I expected some sort of retaliation.  Most likely, it will be met with more retaliation.

Campaign 2012: Can’t We All Get Along?

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual.  Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis.

Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Where Do We Go From Here?”

And so while all Christians agree that helping the poor is a Christian
responsibility, it is not a self-evident truth that the best way to accomplish
that is more government welfare, or universal health coverage. I certainly would
not suggest that those Christians who disagree with my take on that are not
Christians because they don’t see it my way, but they should return the favor,
since the Church has no clear teachings on how government should handle public
charity.

Father John Whiteford “Hypocrisy of the ‘Christian Left'”

With it (the tongue) we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been mad in the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth we proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not be so.

James 2:9, 10 (emphasis mine)

Both Wings Extended (© John Gresham)

Politics bring out the worst in people, especially in election years.  Most of us like to think of ourselves as independents and moderates.  But, we are often swayed one way or the other by hardcore left and right-wing propaganda and their very vocal adherents.  Finding non-biased sources of polices and statistics is ever more difficult as well-financed media and online friends loudly and frequently spew out the “facts” that support their position.  And while it is tempting to talk about how there was so much civility in politics years ago, one only needs to open a history book and read where South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane over the issue of slavery.

What is most disturbing is that the meanest and nastiest attitudes among political supporters of both sides of the coin are Christians.  The Apostle James was so right when he noted the hypocrisy of our words.  This is not to say that every Christian ought to agree or disagree with either political party.  But we, of all people, ought to have sense enough to see the value of both of their platforms and seek to combine the best of both to improve ourselves, the nation, and the world.  Rather than respectfully give and take as humble people as God called us to be, we tear each other to pieces with our words and attitudes like pit bulls and fighting cocks.   Dog and cock fights are cruel illegal forms of entertainment ran by ring masters.  And when we children of God fail to keep our words and attitudes in check, we reduce ourselves to being animals controlled by the whims of this world.

The real question is not Obama or Romney, big or small government, or more or less taxes.  The real question is how to state your position.  Shall it be said with insults and rancor that only stir up angry opposition or with simple and humble words that may still stir up angry opposition?  The real question is how to respond to those who are against your position.  Shall we use bitter name calling  and hate that will only make a bad situation worse or with respect and meekness that may still offend those who want to make a bad situation worse?

America is like a burning house.  We who belive in Jesus Christ can either add fuel to the fire or try to slow the flames down.  In some cases, we may even extinguish them for a time.  Deliverance can only come from our Lord himself.  Support and vote for the candidates of your conscience.  But, do so in the spirit of mercy and humility Christ called us to live by.

Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one can see the Lord.

Hebrews 12:14

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

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

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

 

 

The Greater Glory

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

Tidal Flat (© John Gresham)

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

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

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

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

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