destiny

This Journey of Great Lent: My Pre-fast Intimidations

I knew that fasting was a part of my learning process in Orthodoxy when I first became an inquirer.  Going vegan twice a week didn’t frighten me one bit.  I did the Apostle’s and Dormition Fast with some difficulty in the first few days.  But, by the sixth day, it was a bit of a cakewalk.  As for the Nativity, it was kinda rough avoiding Christmas parties and the day after Thanksgiving turkey and ham sandwiches.  I have had my occasional slips and made a couple of loopholes for myself at times.  But, for a rookie, this Orthodox fasting thing really hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church.  My guide int this journey.  (C) John Gresham

Fr. James Purdie, Priest of St. Basil the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. My guide in this journey. (C) John Gresham

Great Lent, however, is more intimidating both in diet and spiritual expectation.  Clean Monday arrives about the same time the shad start running in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers.  I am not allowed to eat any fish with bones in it and there is no fish with more bones in it than shad.  Ah well, at least I can salt a few down for the winter.  But, my old man will be smoking his from day one.  Kicking red meat for 40 days this time of year will also be more difficult since it is the beginning of backyard barbecuing season.  Granted, oysters will still be in season and crabbers will start pulling pots again.  But, shellfish will not be cheap with this economy.    I had better learn to love tofu.

What really scares me about Great Lent is the significance of it all.  The Forgiveness Vespers where everyone, including the priest, ask each other to be forgiven for what they have done wrong to the other?  First of all, about the worst thing I can think of that I did wrong to anyone at St. Basil is that I forgot their names.  And then they also asking my forgiveness?  Who am I that any of these kind people should want such a blessing from me when they have always welcomed me with open arms.  And Fr. James to ask me for forgiveness?  We aren’t even in the same denomination.  Who am I to participate in such a practice?  It is at this point that I probably could and should go back to my comfortable corner of Christianity.

I can’t help but to see the beauty and power in such a pre-fast preparation.  When we face each other and ask for forgiveness, we will be facing the ultimate icons.  The ones God made in his image and likeness.  Even for those who have not directly said, done, or thought harm to one another; all are admitting their human problem of sin and seek forgiveness from Christ and each other.  I am scared because I know of my own sinfulness.  I am intimidated also because I am unworthy to have someone who I just met ask me to forgive them.

Yet, I believe I need to go forward with preparing for and observing Great Lent.  I can’t help but to think that there is something very special at the end of this journey at Pascha.  Not bragging rights.  No, boasting is not the goal here.  One of the saints said that if you fast only to boast of your own righteousness, you may as well eat meat.  This journey will probably not mean that I will leave my role as Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church.  There is a bit more work I need to do in my community and I have a mortgage to pay.  Besides, I have not yet been on this Orthodox journey for a full year.  Many converts don’t take the plunge until two or three years.  Fr. James has told me that the church will be here when I am ready. 

Yet and still, there is bound to be something special at the end of this journey of Great Lent.  Just like pledging my fraternity and doing my first overnight backpack trip  alone on the Appalachian Trail go through this process, I will only kick myself for not having the nerve to do it.  Any time a spiritual journey brings us to a point of absolute humility with Forgiveness Vespers, the end must be an incredible celebration of the soul. 

I imagine this will not be easy.  Easter Sunday, my father will have baby back ribs coming out of the smoker fully infused with apple wood or hickory.  Tofu will not be able to compare to that.  Knowing that I will have no excuse for not, at least, calling someone who is ill and homebound other than my wife will be a challenge as well.  I admit, my pastoral care could be better.  Although my prayer life has grown by leaps and bounds since joining the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, it isn’t as tight as it could be.  I will have to read and study when I want to waste time with mahjong and You Tube.  Nope, this isn’t like my good old, “do it yourself” fast when I could just give up caviar, champagne, filet minion, and lobster. 

But, I remember the way I felt when my Dean of Pledges declared, “You Are Now Brothers” and was presented with the letters “Alpha Phi Alpha.”   I remember the way I felt when I reached the intersection of the Old Hotel Trail and the AT at the Hog Camp Gap parking lot where I resolved to go through with a journey that I could have easily chickened out of (especially seeing the bear on the side of the road).  In both cases, it wasn’t just a feeling.  I had a unique change of perspective.  The change I am about to go through will be more profound.

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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

Today’s Sermon: The Demand of Self-Denial

I am back in the pulpit this morning.  I thank God for my friends, Rev. Randolph Graham and  Rev. Keith Lewis, who preached in my place and for my college buddy Dr. Wayne Weathers, for his stirring Homecoming message.  We were blessed to have the word of God delivered by Dr. Vincent Smith, Dr. Reginald Davis, Min. Marlene Fuller, and Pastor Willie Barnes for our revival services.

Again, I am most grateful to Fr. David Arnold and the St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church (OCA) and Fr. James Purdie and the St. Basil the Great (Antiochian) Orthodox Church for the wonderful Divine Liturgy, hospitality, and friendship.  Had I not known Christ or had been a nominal Christian, I would have asked to be a catechumen.  But, I must remain where I am until the Lord calls me to do otherwise (besides, gas cost too much for me to drive all the way out to Powhatan or Poquoson).

Yes, we had a great revival at Trinity Baptist Church.  Now that we have been revived, let us follow Jesus more closely!

Outward (© John Gresham)

 

THE DEMAND OF SELF-DENIAL

Mark 8:34 – 9:1

(introduction) We African-Americans have suffered external denial

(thesis) In the midst of that time, we cultivated lessons of (internal) self-denial to survive

(antithesis) With our liberation, we no longer consider self-denial important to our faith

(propositional statement)  Without self-denial, it is impossible to follow Jesus

(relevant question)  What makes self-denial so crucial?

(points)

  • self-denial puts ego aside (v.35)
  • self-denial holds the soul higher than earthly gain (v.35, 36)
  • self-denial gives us the strength to bear the cross (v.34)

(conclusion)  Shun the shallow theology of Gospel “catch phrases” and let the mind of Christ be in us (Philippians 2:5 – 8)

 

Confession: Accountability, Humility and Trust in the Body of Christ

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:23

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I John 1:9

I spent my final day of vacation from Trinity Baptist by visiting another Orthodox Church.  Today, it was St. Basil the Great Antiochian in Poquoson.  Poquoson is one of few places in Virginia east of I-95 I had never been to.  I never had much of a reason to.  The little bit of town that I did see seemed to be a nice bedroom community.  I didn’t visit the communities of the legendary “Bull Islander” watermen.  The next time I do, I will make it a point to buy some good fresh seafood.  But, today was all about worship at the church of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline.  About 20 years ago, the Antiochians opened their doors to some 2,000 Evangelical Christians giving them Chrismation into the Orthodox faith.

Even before the Divine Liturgy, I was struck by the deep spirituality of the ancient faith.  During the 9:15 Matins service, the priest, Fr. James Purdie, gave the sacrament of Confession to any who would come forward.  Yes, Confession.  A few (churches aren’t packed at one hour prayer services where there is more standing than sitting) people, in turn,  came up to the icon of the Theotokos, whispered their confession to Fr. James.   He then whispered back and they seemed to be in a conversation inaudible to the rest of the congregation.  Then he placed a portion of his priestly vestment over the person’s head and proclaimed their sin.  The forgiven believer kisses the icon, makes the sign of the cross, and takes their place back in the congregation prepared to receive the Eucharist (Communion).

Now, I can hear my fellow Baptist turn their noses up in disdain.  “You ain’t gotta do all that to repent.  Jesus knows your heart.  All you got to do say is, “Lord, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me in Jesus Name.  Amen.”  And there was a time in our rural congregations that a young lady that was pregnant or had a child out-of-wedlock had to repent before the whole church before she could take communion again, change membership to another church, or get married.  Rarely did the guy she slept with have to go through such an ordeal and many other sins didn’t require such a process.  So, the way it was practiced, confession was unfair (especially since some ministers and deacons were known womanizers) and burdensome.  As more and more children were being born out-of-wedlock, the sacrament seemed to be a hindrance to church attendance.

Yet, there is something to be said for the accountability, humility, and trust that I saw today.  Not that every sin needs to be confessed to a priest in Orthodoxy.  But, he is the spiritual Father of the congregation and is responsible for giving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  So, if one is troubled by a serious or recurring wrong, he or she has the responsibility to let the priest know of this and repent with the priest offering an understanding ear, encouragement, and practical solution to the sin as well as a proclamation that the sin is forgiven.  To come and confess one’s sin is a sign of humility and spiritual maturity.  That one doesn’t play off his or her missing the mark as something to be nonchalantly brushed aside in private or in some little box in a corner.  Orthodox confession is done where people cannot hear what is being said, but they know that something is being said and forgiveness is proclaimed.  It takes courage and a sense of trust in one’s priest and church family that the confession will not be material for gossip and speculation.  If I had to leave before the Divine Liturgy, Matins and the Confessions were enough for me to praise God for.

“So Rev., are you trying to say we ought to have confession in the Baptist church?”  I am not sure how it can be introduced or reintroduced.  Nor do I dare say that all is perfect among the Orthodox with this sacrament.  But, let us consider what we have in our lack of a sacrament of Confession.  We are accountable to no one.  I don’t have to tell pastor nothing.  All he is supposed to do is visit grandma in the nursing home and get his shout on so I can pat my foot and feel good about myself.  We are not humble.  We would rather talk about how “blessed and highly favored,” we are than to express any sort of public humility.  And we continue to perpetuate an atmosphere of mistrust by not having the courage to trust.  And if pastors aren’t challenged with the responsibility to forgive sins, they can be tempted to be irresponsible with their own sins.  We can put on great performances of “whooping” sermons and “sanging” choirs and soloist.  But without accountability, humility, and trust in the body of Christ; we are missing something in our walk with the Lord that is far more valuable than cultural expressiveness.

I don’t know.  I will work on the Sunday School lesson and my sermon this week and be back serving at Trinity next Sunday.  Maybe I should keep silent and just chalk this up as a “grass looks greener on the other side of the fence” episode.  Or, perhaps the Lord will bless me (or someone else) with a way to explain Confession so that my fellow Baptist can understand it’s value even if they don’t agree to do it.  And if we want to do it, how do we bring such a sacrament to a church that doesn’t even see Communion as a sacrament?

Trisagion: Prayers To Aim With

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us

The Trisagion (thrice holy) Prayer

Let me confess.  As soon as I got my Orthodox Study Bible, I immediately started using the Morning and Evening Prayers without asking any questions.    Common sense should have told me to, at least, look up what the word Trisagion meant.  This probably isn’t a smart move.  It helps to do some reasearch behind the words one uses before using them.  A lot of people fall into false doctrine over repeating stuff they heard, seen, or read without doing any other background investigation.  Fortunately, I came to find the Trisagion to be in line with the scriptures and sound in doctrine as I made it a part of my prayer life.  But, I will strive not to leap before looking and advise others to refrain from jumping too soon as well.

One thing that lead me to pray the Trisagion (follow along with the link) is that part of it is the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 5:9-13, Luke 112-4) that I grew up with.  If Jesus taught us to pray these words, then why not use them.  Granted, everything in scripture should not be taken too literally.  But, the words of the prayer allow us to put God in his proper perspective, calls us to seek his will, directs us in our petitions, calls us to repentance, ask for His protection, and (through the Biblical embellishment) concludes by giving Him the glory and praise.  The Trisagion ends with this bedrock of Biblical prayer.

The first movement of the prayer is an invocation.  We are to approach God with a calmed spirit, acknowledging Him in His fullness and giving him glory.  With the right approach to God, we then call for his presence.  Please note that as well as giving him acknowledgement of his essence, we are inviting him into ourselves.  That’s right, we want God to dwell inside of us.  It is too easy for us to take for granted that we have the Holy Spirit inside of us and have Jesus in our hearts.  Let us be mindful that “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).  We are responsible for “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).   As none of us who are alive are in heaven, it makes sense for us to ask for our ultimate salvation.

Also note that repentance is a part of this invocation.  The call for repentance is underscored by repeating the basic Trisagion Prayer three times:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us

All three Synoptic Gospels teach that the first thing Jesus commanded us to do after his trial in the desert was to “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).  After giving glory to the fullness of God, we are led into humble repentance as the second movement of the Trisagion.To offer up our regular prayers without repentance is arrogant and inexcusable!  In an impromptu moment of great stress or suffering, such an omission is tolerable.  But, when we enter into our regular morning, noon, or evening prayers, repentance is essential.  We do not go to God as if we are sinless.  The Apostle Paul wisely repeats the words of the Psalmist, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10, Psalm 13:3 Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 14:3 Western translations).  Let us remember that if we repent, God is merciful to forgive us.  As a reminder that we must also forgive others if we seek forgiveness, the last movement of the Trisagion is the Lord’s Prayer.

Why do I find this prayer necessary?  The Trisagion is a perfect series of prayers to calm down my mind and spirit for prayer.  I wake up in the morning groggy, hungry, and wondering if Liverpool FC will win their next match.  In the afternoon, my work duties clog my mind.  I get home, I am thinking about dinner and what I have to do at the church.  And at night, sleep.  This is the prayer that helps me put all other things aside and all of my other prayers in focus.  The written prayers make more sense.  My personal prayers are more settled.  C’mon, I irritate people when I rush to them with babble and dribble.  God is forgiving and merciful.  But, just as I prefer to approach people in a calm and orderly fashion, why shouldn’t I do the same for the One we serve?

I encourage all of my Catholic and Protestant friends to pray the Trisagion.  This pattern of prayer has lasted longer than our denominations have been in existence.  I believe if you use it as part of your regular quiet time for a week, you will see how valuable it is and not pray without it.  And to my Orthodox friends, don’t take this precious jewel of a prayer for granted.  Cherish the beauty and power of the Trisagion and share it with others.

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.

 

Today’s Sermon: Preparation For A Manifestation

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves, and there He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white bright light.

Matthew 17:1, 2

This has been a very busy week for me.  We just wrapped up the Pamunkey Baptist Association Annual Session Thursday.  I am blessed to serve as Moderator of a fellowship of 14 African-American churches united in ministry and service.  We have plans in motion to renovate our historic building and provide faith-based services to our county.  I thank God that I am working with spirit led pastors and lay persons.

A Pastoral Brotherhood

Left to right:  Evans White (Providence), Morris Randall (Ephesus), Eli Jones (Wayland), Robert Brown (St. Paul)

Shawn Knight (Baptist Liberty), John Gresham (Trinity), Shelwood Claude (Bethany), and Wilbert Talley (Third Union)

PREPARATION FOR A MANIFESTATION

Matthew 17:1, 2

(introduction) the Transfiguration was a glorious manifestation of God

(antithesis) even less dramatic manifestations catch us flat-footed

(propositional statement) Peter’s discipleship is a model for us to best handle God’s manifestation

(relevant questions) How do Peter’s six days before the Transfiguration parallel our preparation for manifestations

(points)

  • Knowing Jesus is Lord (16:16)
  • Being honest with how we see Jesus at the risk of being rebuked (16:22, 23)
  • Continuing to follow Jesus despite our spiritual struggle

(conclusion)  If we continue to seek Christ diligently, He will show himself to us

Here a Chick-Fil-A, There a Chick-Fil-A: Dormition Day One

So, I can be an idealist trying to make a better and fair world for everyone by boycotting a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  Or, I can be a defender of the biblical principles and the first amendment by eating at a said fast food restaurant because it’s president told a religious magazine that he believes marriage should only be between heterosexuals.  I couldn’t have made up such silliness if I tried.

Firstly, I think the LGB&T community (it’s most radical elements, perhaps I should say) have picked a foolish fight.  Nowhere in Chick-Fil-A’s corporate policy nor general operations do they check the sexual preference status of potential customers or employees.  If this were the case, than legal argument can be presented.  But, the president of a company has every right to express his religious beliefs in a religious magazine.  It seems that you are showing the same sort of intolerance you want to defeat.  Hypocrisy only defeats your cause.

And to the conservative minded, I can’t help but to wonder where were your “Defend Freedom of Speech” voices when the Dixe Chicks were being boycotted and Rev. Jeremiah Wright was being cursed for his cursing.  Somewhere between 60% to 65% of all heterosexual marriages end in divorce.  Is this the result of LGB&T bullying, or that we are disobedient to the biblical principles that promote lasting unions between men and women?   Somehow, I don’t think eating fast food in the name of freedom will make these statistics any better.

There is a good reason why we should consider taking up the Fast of the Dormition.  That for the next 14 days we stop trying to have things our way and submit ourselves to God’s will.  That we sacrifice our pleasures and seek his purpose in our lives instead.  It will take more than two weeks of veganism to heal the social-political rift in our nation.  But, the Dormition is a good time for us to take a breath and think about something more important.  Putting aside sensual desire to bear something greater than one’s self.  Yielding to the will and Spirit of God even when it moves beyond one’s  expectations.  Mary did these things.

It is truly right to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God.  More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word.  True Theotokos, we magnify you.

Benediction of the Morning and Evening Prayer, The Orthodox Study  Bible

Today’s Sermon: The Foundation for Prayer

Our nation mourns the awful loss of life in Colorado.  Gun control and gun rights advocates have been arguing since the first news report.  I fear that instead of us becoming serious about prayer as a result of the tragedy, we will pay more attention to the arguing sides and deepen the divide in the nation.

Rays to the Water (©John Gresham)

THE FOUNDATION FOR PRAYER

John 5:13-15

(Thesis) Even a cheap magician relies on knowledge and practice of basic skills and not magic words.

(Antithesis)  Too many of us settle for cheap prayer based on enchanting words and not on a knowledge of God nor discipline in being in his presence.

(Propositional Statement)  For God to hear the petitions of the faithful, we must pray according to God’s will.

(Relevant Question) What is God’s will?

(Points)

  • Commit yourself to Jesus Christ as the Son of God
  • Know that you have the gift of eternal life through this committment
  • Maintain the commitment by continuing in His presence

(Conclusions)

Don’t just pray in the moment.  Make prayer a part of who you are.

What We Bring To The Table: Howard Thurman

I do read books, watch You Tube videos, and listen to podcast from the Orthodox Church.  Chances are that I may eventually become a convert, though no time soon.  But, there are some people and things about the African-American Protestant faith that I am not willing to easily discard.  In fact, I believe that we have some important offerings that can enhance the cause of Orthodoxy in America.  Every now and then, I will promote the best of what we bring to the table of the ancient faith.

Howard Thurman was a mystic and theologian who led believers to search for the root of bonding with God.  While many preachers were content to “Whoop” and holler.  Thurman called on his congregants, students, and listeners to think and concentrate on matters of the spirit.  It is easy to see emotionalism as a part of our church practice.  But, Thurman saw something more meaningful through our experience of slavery and segregation.  That we have to reach a point of silence and reflection.  From this point, what he calls the “centering moment,” we can then yield ourselves to the spirit higher than our own and be directed by it.  True faith has little to do with external expressions of religious acts.  But, it has everything to do with our internal pursuit of something more meaningful.

With such spiritual insight, Dr. Thurman was one of the most influential theologians of our faith.  It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King often traveled with a well-worn copy of one of his books.  The church he founded, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, still exist as do many of his books.  For those unfamiliar with this man, I suggest his book “Disciplines of the Spirit” as a good introduction to his thought and theology.