mercy

Where “Favor” Falls Short

Favor is a popular term in modern Christianity.  We hear it in songs and sermons.  We share it in inspirational social media post.  I used to be that weird country preacher that refused to jump on board every bandwagon of “relevant” ministry.  Now that I am Orthodox, I would rather ride a Greyhound bus from New York to LA than the wave of any popular catchwords or phrases.  In my Wednesday morning reading, I couldn’t help but to see how the pursuit of “favor” from God falls woefully short of seeking His mercy.

Out of sheer curiosity, I broke out my Strong’s Bible Concordance and found that the term “favor” appears a whopping six times in the New Testament.  Luke used the term in his version of the Gospel to describe how John the Baptist and Jesus grew up.  He used it four times to describe the relationship between the early Christians and those around them in Acts.    Not once does Jesus, Paul, nor any other epistle write describe favor as something worthy of being obtained or necessary to live as a Christian.  It is something good to have as it does give peace in mind and a sense of security.  But, “favor” is not the mark of the Christian according to the One whom we follow:

If any man would come after Me, let him humble himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.

“But what about the Old Testament?  Surely God wants us to have favor in the Old Testament.”  Here the term is used about 56 times.   In several places, the favor comes from an earthly king and not God.  Also, the wise Solomon suggest that favor can be misused as well.  Furthermore, I find this rationale most disturbing as the revelation of our salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church, is not found in the Old Testament.  To try to use a term in the Old Testament as superior to the way it is used in the Gospels is an abuse of the scriptures and a denial of the significance of Incarnate God.  If this is your line of thought, for your own spiritual health, you should consider changing it.

In comparison, “mercy” is the greater goal both in the usage of the term and significance in Christian life.  This word appears 58 times in the New Testament (about 200 times in the OT).  For those who consider the “favor” to be a blessing, please consider the Beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Having a house that people say you can’t afford, a job that you don’t have the education for, or some other form of “ain’t fair favor” does not cross the lips of  Jesus as being a blessing.  Having compassion to those who are broken, confused, disturbed, lost, rebellious, … ; this is the one who is blessed.  We all fall into one of these conditions from time to time.  Sometimes we fall into multiple conditions at the same time.  Jesus teaches here what He repeats as the “Golden Rule” of this great sermon:

Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

When challenged about eating with tax collectors and other sinners in the house of Matthew, Jesus offers this rebuke from the prophet Hosea:

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To follow Jesus is to desire everything He desires.  If He never mentions “favor” but clearly defines “mercy” as what He wants from us, why should we listen to preachers and singers and read books and social media post about a barely mentioned term instead of this requirement that appears in the New Testament some 9 times more often?  To mention “favor” in worship and fail to call upon Christ for “mercy,” or to call upon the former more often than the later is spiritual malpractice.  Such doctrine and teaching is producing Christians who are in the faith for what Jesus can give them in this world rather than how we are to prepare ourselves for the next.  If and when such believers fail to get the “favor” they seek, they wander from ministry to ministry seeking it.  They tend to blame themselves for not being a part of the right man or woman of God as the reason for not receiving their breakthrough.  They will patiently wait for what they want and in not getting it, they will put some sort of spin on why they don’t have it (“It isn’t my season yet).  Or, they eventually give up on Christianity all together.  The differences between such a false concept of our faith and an Islamic terrorist is that the Muslim does his job more quickly and only kills the body.  The empty pursuit of favor is killing souls and creating walking dead Christians.

Don’t take my word for it.  Get your concordance and look up “favor” and “mercy.”  See which one is used most often and why.  Favor from God  is not a bad thing to have.  But, don’t sell your walk with Jesus short.  As I heard from a priest last weekend, “You cannot be a Christian without mercy.”

 

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Jouney Into Great Lent (Day Three): Lesson Too Soon Forgotten

Trying not to be judgemental and upset about the terrible things that happen in this world is nearly impossible, at least for me.  The Stubenville rape case and the pornographic society that gave birth to it makes me angry.  I know too many rape survivors.  I have read the horrible stats of how often it happens.  And the abusive nature of today’s porn only makes things worse.  I ranted a little bit on my Facebook page and was about to go ballistic on this blog.  But, a friend put me in check.  Then, I opened Philippians 2:14-16 and was further convicted:

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, sot that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.

I am reminded of my wife’s Grandfather, Rev. Carter Wicks, constantly telling people, “don’t worry and don’t hurry.”  My grandparents, Joe and Dinah  Gresham, likewise had a steady and quiet faith about them.  I know things would make them angry and upset from time to time.  But, they never let it seem to get the best of them.  They were too busy aiming their lives to a better world than this one. 

Yesterday and this morning, I prayed the words of St Ephraim the Syrian.  Apparently, I forgot what I prayed.  How sorry I am for my forgetfulness.  It is only the third day.  I will build my memory in my heart and soul as well as mind. 

http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/holyfathers/st._anthony_the_great_humility_as_the_gateway_to_theology

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.

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: 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.

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.

 

 

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