humility

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.

Fasting? Compare for Yourself!

Perhaps you saw the book at a store.  Maybe you saw the broadcast on some religious TV station.  Media Minister Jentezen Franklin wants you to join his “FAST/2013” Movement.  The book is being sold everywhere.  One can contribute $58 to his ministry and receive a “FAST/2013 kit”  consisting of a magazine, the book, DVD, and bracelets.  Visit his website and one can order these products as well. 

I pray you haven’t spent money on this “movement” and if you have, that you have kept your receipt.  Fasting is a very good spiritual practice that Christians should participate.  But, this practice is not simply a piece of wisdom for a modern preacher to turn into a product to be marketed.  Fasting is a long-standing part of the Christian life that was ordained by Jesus Christ with a tradition handed down by the early church fathers

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Michael Hyatt, the President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing and an Orthodox Deacon) has a very good lesson about fasting on Ancient Faith Radio’s “At The Intersection of East and West” podcast.  Anyone with internet access can listen to this two-part series (each about a half hour-long).  Some of the other podcasters have some thoughts about fasting as well. 

I urge you to take a look at what Mr. Franklin and  Deacon Hyatt have to offer.  Compare them based on the foundation of what tradition they are teaching from and which series of lessons leads you to a “humble walk with your God” (Micah 6:8).  Ask yourself where do they get their doctrines and rules about fasting from. 

Please take the time to compare for yourself,

 

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

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

I Corinthians 13:11 (emphasis mine)

Not Santa Claus.  St. Nicholas

Not Santa Claus. St. Nicholas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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: 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

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!

 

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?

Today’s Sermon: Follow Me

The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.”

John 1:43

It is “Revival Season” among the Baptist churches in our county.  We will have ours next week.  As I was thinking about a theme for us, I couldn’t help but to think of how many of us get caught up in the emotion of the singing and sermons of the week only to fizzle out once when September rolls in.  I pray that worshipers will understand that we are revived to follow and not just to “have church.”

Revive Us Lord (© John Gresham)

 

FOLLOW ME

John 1:35-51 (v.43)

(introduction) We know nothing about Philip’s character when Jesus called him and can assume he was an ordinary man

(antithesis) Yet Jesus called him to do the same thing as the two of John’s disciples and as Simon who Jesus called a “rock”

(propositional statement) Discipleship is the common call for all of us no matter if we are the greatest of saints or worst of sinners

(relevant question)  How does the average person take up the path of discipleship, following Jesus?

(points)

  • rely on reliable sources (v. 35, 36, 44)
  • put aside preconceived notions and see for yourself based on those sources (v.37-39, 46)
  • spend time with Jesus where He is (v. 39, 2:1)

(conclusion) We need no special skill nor dramatic conversion story to follow Jesus.  Just a desire and to be diligent to walk with him.