mercy

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Yeah, I probably sound like a broken record on this topic.  But, the more I follow Orthodox Christian prayer, the more I am overwhelmed at how the request for mercy is more essential than any other petition that we may offer.  Looking at the Morning prayer in the Orthodox Study Bible, in the opening trisagion, mercy is asked for seven times.  It is repeated another six times in the intercessory prayers and four times in the benediction.  In the evening prayers, mercy is asked for a total of twenty-two times.  So, if one were to pray these (an Orthodox Christian should pray at least in the morning and at night), one would pray for mercy thirty-nine times.  Include variations of the word and various orders and fellowship disciplines, it is asked for even more.

Untitled (© John Gresham)

This is not to say that we Protestants don’t ask for it.  But, there are some serious flaws in our prayers that we ought to correct.  Let me point out this one, that we believe we don’t have to use any sort of written prayers.  While it is true that the Holy Spirit does act in and on our individual souls, it is also a unifying force.  We see this in Acts 2 where the disciples are all together on one accord.  And what puts us together on one accord more so than prayer?  The prayers of Orthodoxy have been around for 2000 years.  The early church fathers came together and deemed mercy to the greatest of all petitions we can offer.  So, the church handed down the tradition that all Christians should be united in this basic plea to God.  We are to offer up our personal request according to our needs, give thanksgivings according to our joys, and offer up all other prayers according to our walk with the Lord.  But, whoever and where ever we are on life’s journey, we are all united by our need for God to show us unmerited kindness as we all have missed the mark of living in holiness.  We all stand in the need of mercy more than anything else.  Thus, it should be the forefront, center, and conclusion of all of our prayers.

And this is not to say that Orthodox Christians are perfect.  But, what has the fractured and individualistic nature of our prayers given to us?  Look at the number of denominations and (so-called) non-denominations we have.  Do we have unity of heart and mind among us?  Among African-American Baptist alone we went from one national body to four major ones and an untold number of spin-off fellowships headed by men, and some women, who’s only purpose in leaving the parent body was to become the HNIC (Head Negro In Charge).  As our denomination recognizes no hierarchical authority, the trend of such spin-offs will only continue based on egotistical preachers who would rather follow popular trends of gratification than academic scholarship and living in spiritual discipline.  With this fractured spirit among “one” denomination of one ethnic group, our prayers are then reduced to individualistic exercises of self-importance rather than anything done in the spirit of unity.

Perhaps I am being harsh.  Maybe I should concern myself with my own faith and stop looking at what other folks are doing.  But, I dare anyone to look at your morning and evening prayers and analyze your words.  What is the thing you ask God for more than anything else?  Is that petition a universal need of everyone?  Does that petition bring you to total humility to God’s will?

Our slave ancestors and Jim Crow survivors of all denominations did hold one prayer in common.  Lord, have mercy.  If we choose not to go back to the prayers of our ancient Christian forefathers, at least we should go back to the roots of our faith in America.  At least let our denominational heads agree that every Christian should make this common plea the central focus of daily prayer and develop a common text that underscores it’s importance.  In these times, we all need God’s mercy more than anything else.  It only makes sense that we have written prayers that unites us in this petition.

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.

 

Today’s Sermon: Let Jesus In Your House

I want to thank Sub-Deacon Paul Abernathy for bringing up this text in one of his talks at the Ancient Christianity Afro-American Conference.  If this guy were a Baptist, he would be a pastor somewhere.  Well educated, articulate, young; yeah, this brother would be a star among preaching circuits and revival services.  But, a sub-deacon?  Perhaps we should learn from such humility.

LET JESUS IN YOUR HOUSE

Matthew 8:14-15

(antithesis) Why should we let Jesus into our house when the Centurion in Matt. 8:5-13 didn’t?

(thesis) As following disciples, rather than passer-by strangers, we should seek the Lord’s presence in our innermost selves.

(relevant question)  What are the advantages of such a presence in our lives?

(points)

  • Christ blesses the goodness that we already have (Peter’s mother in law in his home v. 14)
  • Christ sees and ministers to our relatively insignificant ailments (she had a fever and he touched her hand v.14, 15)
  • Touched by Christ, we are empowered to serve others whomever they are (she served them v.15)

(conclusion)  Don’t settle for a great passing faith.  Build your life in the presence of Jesus Christ.

Answers

A friend and sister in Christ gave surveys to the pastors of the Pamunkey Baptist Association.  Here are my answers.

On The Path (© John Gresham)

Pastor John Robert Gresham, Jr. – Trinity Baptist Church

Q:  What would you want your congregation to know about you?

A:  That I am a devout seeker of God’s will.  This seeking has led me to seriously study Orthodox Christianity.  I admire the history, spirituality, and tradition of the ancient faith and have incorporated many of its practices in my daily walk.  Orthodoxy has a lot to offer us and I share what I can in line with the Baptist faith.  Other than that, I love my congregation dearly and feel embarrassingly blessed to serve them on Sundays and everyday.

Why did you choose to be the pastor of the church?

I don’t think I had a choice.  God called me and Trinity’s pastoral search committee asked me not to go anywhere else.  I was hijacked (lol)!  But, I have always known of the faith and love at Trinity when Rev. James Carter was there.  I grew up in Baptist Liberty and often worshiped and worked with members of Trinity in PBA and BGC events.  So, I had a good idea of the congregation I would inherit (if it were God’s will).  When Rev. Carter retired, there was nothing negative about his legacy and service.  Good leadership was already  in place.  All I had (and still have) to do is serve and serve well to be accepted as the pastor.

What is one of the advantages of being the pastor?

“Ah-Ha” moments that result in changed lives.  When a person takes hold of something that I said in a sermon, lesson, or even a cook-out, and grows from it.  Sometimes they happen as soon the word is preached.  Sometimes they take longer.  But, to God’s glory, they happen.  In the meantime, I have to find joy in just planting and watering seeds.  The ultimate harvest belongs to God, not myself.

What is one of the disadvantages of being the pastor?

That’s an odd question.  As Christians on a whole, we are supposed to count all things as a joy.  I hate making mistakes.  I do struggle with procrastination.  It hurts to see the results of such failures.  But, with spiritual discipline, these things can be overcome as all things work out toward the glory of God.

Why is the Holy Spirit so important to the body of Christ?

Another odd question.  The Holy Spirit is, in the words of the early church fathers, “the Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified” (Nicene Creed).  No Holy Spirit = no Trinity = no Christianity.  The Spirit comes to us from the Father to us and reminds us of the ways of the Son.

If you were the “PBA Preacher for the Month” and all churches gathered in your sanctuary –  what would you preach about?

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me”  (Matthew 16:24).  I fear that too many people today turn to Jesus to get stuff.  True discipleship means giving stuff up and taking up suffering for the sake of something better.  He is that something better.

How do you explain “The Trinity” to your congregation?

The baptism of Jesus is probably the best.  “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove alighting upon Him.  And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”  (Matthew 3:16, 17).

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Teach children how they should live, and they will remember it all their life.”  How is this being done in your church?

Other than our regular Sunday School program, I give a very brief children’s sermon 3 out of 4 Sundays (I don’t do it youth (2nd) Sunday as I try to make the sermon oriented to them).  My children’s sermons are stories I make up based on the main sermon.  The kids feel included in the “grown up” service and it is a good prelude to the message.

Can you tell about an experience of God’s presence showing up in your congregation that was very powerful and overwhelming?

It shows up in all of our services in one form or another.  One time that truly moved me was a few years back when a friend of one of our members was shot in a hunting accident.  A few of the members called me and asked if we could have a special prayer service to ask God to heal him.  I don’t remember a lot of shouting and all.  But, the flow of compassion and concern for this young man who wasn’t a part of our flock was wonderful.  Days later, he was released from the hospital.  Our compassionate prayers were answered as we wished.  It was a bit foolish of me not to keep such prayer services going.

What is more important in your life than you?

The spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on earth through love, truth, and spirit.

Write the word that comes to mind when you see these words.  (Feel free to answer as many as you like)

Pressure –  life in general                            Personal Sacrifice – self-discipline

Rejection –    preserver                                       Loneliness – maintain hope

Popularity –  fickle                                                Pride – dangerous

Disqualification – restoration                            Jealousy – unnecessary

Faithful –  discipleship                                         Inspirational –  Holy Spirit

Trustworthy –   truth                                           Approachable –  Jesus Christ

Forgiving –     merciful                                          Self-discipline – lifestyle

Decision Maker –  wise                                       Qualified – God decides

Successful Leader –   by who’s standard?        Motivator – self through love

Assuming Responsibility –   difficult but necessary      Follower – disciple

Are there any final words you would like to share with me?

Thomas gave a great description of what Christian discipleship is about in John 11:16, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  To follow Jesus means being willing to put a lot of things about us at risk.  No, it  means putting ourselves at risk.  Our dreams, goals, ideals, perceptions, preconceived ideas, traditions, and even our lives are to be placed as unimportant in comparison to being in the presence of God.  Sometimes this risk leads to an obvious happy ending (as in the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus).  Sometimes the happiness is indirect and leads to a greater glory (as in the case of the stoning of Stephen with Saul consenting in Acts 7:55-60).  Nevertheless, the risk must be taken.  I pray for the courage to take it.

A Need To Return

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:13, 14

Sunrise through Darkness (© John Gresham)

Before they ever heard of the Jesus Prayer or could read anything in English, the slaves in America cried out, moaned, and sang the most profound of all Negro Spirituals:

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Oh Lord, have mercy

Have mercy Lord, have mercy Lord on me

It was the song of the whipping post, sexual assault, auction block, and tobacco field.  They didn’t know why they were going through such a horror.  The way the slave masters taught about God was wrong. The slaves had sense enough to know that somewhere there was a God of mercy.   If they sought Him with their whole lives in the midst of their anguish, He would answer them.  This Negro Spiritual continued through the days of Jim Crow.  With growing aspirations in the face of burning crosses and segregating signs, the prayer was still prominent on our lips as it came from the depths of our experience.  The youngest child memorized it quicker than the alphabet.  Seasoned saints remembered it if they forgot everything else.

Those dreadful days of our fathers and great grandmothers will not rise again, Praise the Lord!  And yet as we have moved from slave cabin to share cropper shack to nice house to the White House, we have lost a part of the prayer.  No, all of the words are still there.  But the depth and meaning of the prayer, I fear, has been lost in the complacency of progress and the antics of our modern worship.

Are these words even mentioned in our churches anymore?  And if so, how much weight do we put on them?  Are these words spoken in our prayer closets?  Wait, do we even go into our prayer closets and expose ourselves to the merciful God as we were once exposed to unmerciful racist?  And if this simple song/prayer way good enough for the ancestors who endured the absolute worst conditions, isn’t it good enough for we who live in a far better world?

Listening to a lecture from Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy, he challenged a conference of mostly Afro-American Orthodox believers to live their faith with the same tenacity of the early church fathers such as Saints Anthony, Athanasius, and Moses.  For we who are not Orthodox Christians, we can certainly look at the prayer lives of those who were in bondage and second class citizenship and imitate them.  Pray from the depths of spirit and sufferings, not simply for the stuff of this world.  Pray in deep humility, and not as if we deserve anything.  In the words of our Lord, “This man went down to his house justified … he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Let us return to the prayer life of those who were before us.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Tuesday): Cyprian and Nicodemus

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, …

John 3:1, 2

The Path (© John Gresham)

Before I began to seriously consider Orthodoxy, I was drawn to St. Cyprian of Carthage.  First of all, I thought the name sounded cool and I was proud of the fact that he was an African.  I have an icon of him (I printed from an online image) beside the computer in my study at home as a reminder to avoid pornography websites.  I began to watch websites that talked about how horribly the women are treated in the industry and have no desire to indulge in it again.  I never prayed to the icon (as Orthodox and Catholics are falsely accused of).  Nor did I even think to venerate him, unless naming my Second Life avatar after him and living as an Orthodox monk was a way of paying him deep respect and admiration.  The icon was there when the Holy Spirit freed me from that sinful desire.  Thus, I consider Cyprian as one in the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1, 2) that interceded for me.

As I have become increasingly diligent about the ancient faith, I am seeing myself in the light of another in that cloud whose walk with Jesus is a forerunner of mine.  Nicodemus was a well-trained religious authority.  He had status and clout among the Jewish hierarchy and as long as he towed the party line, all would be well with him.  But, he met this man who had kicked over the money tables, did a number of signs, gave a strange answer of his authority, and didn’t set up a clique to rival the Jews right then and there.  Instead of dismissing the rabble-rouser, this Pharisee and Priest saw that he must have been sent by God, asked questions, and listened.  He would later be rebuked by his colleagues for suggesting that the Galilean be fairly investigated before being completely denounced.  At the burial of the Crucified One, he brought one hundred pounds of aloes and myrrh.  In some Christian and Jewish traditions, Nicodemus was martyred for accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

I am a Baptist among Baptist.  My certification of studies comes from one of the most respected African-American seminaries.  I have pastored for 15 years and serve as a Moderator of a local association.  I now serve on a state-wide commission for evangelism.  If I play by the rules and work my contacts in high places (and finish my M.Div.), my star could rise in the Baptist faith.

But, I saw this faith that gave the world the first confession of Jesus and compiled the Bible.  This faith that never considered skin color to be a badge of racial supremacy nor inferiority from the time they were first called Christians.  This faith that gives guidelines in pursuing a spiritual life and becomes a way of life.  I am observing Orthodoxy the same way Nicodemus observed Jesus.  The more I see, listen, and understand; the more I accept it.  Because of my position, I cannot follow the faith right now.  There will come a time of conversion.  I pray that when that day comes, that I will have the courage to do it, even if it means martyrdom.

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Third Monday): Better Diet and Prayer Life

New Day (© John Gresham)

No, I have not been perfect in this fast.  I didn’t read every ingredient of every product I consumed to make sure there was no oil or dairy in it.  Potato chips are a special weakness of mine as well.  I will make sure I am more strict with myself on the Wednesday and Friday fast until the Dormition in August.

Other than that, taking up this fast has been very good for me.  As far as food is concerned, my palate has been opened up to a whole new world of possibilities.  I would have never dreamed of being satisfied with grilled vegetables and tofu.  But, the barbecue master Steven Raichlen is absolutely correct; “Anything that taste good baked, boiled, steamed, or fried will taste better grilled.”  While fish is to be avoided, shellfish are permitted.  A fast that allows for crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters can’t be that hard.  And a vegetable based diet came out a bit cheaper than my normal meat based fare.  I don’t know if I have lost any weight.  But, my body feels very good.

Spiritually, the fast has been equally good if not better.  It used to be that I would try to maintain morning and evening prayers on my own.  The prayers I use in the Orthodox Study Bible, the Jordanville Prayer Book, and the St Phillip’s Prayer Discipline website are like helping hands in my journey of faith.  One central theme I have noticed in Orthodox prayer is the seeking of mercy.  I don’t hear that as often in many of our Protestant prayers.  Thanksgiving, praises, supplications; all good things and prayed in all of Christendom.  But, without mercy from God, what good are the other things we pray for and about?  The constant seeking of divine mercy is what keeps us humble and reliant on God’s grace rather than our own power, intellect, and wealth.

So, I have learned to feed my body better stuff.  I have also learned to nourish my prayer life with what is truly needed.  Fr. Steven Freeman has a great article about the Apostles Fast and a very interesting blog as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

 

The Flaw of Faith Alone (Part Two): Lack Of Support

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

A blessed Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  If you haven’t read it, please refer back to my first post on this topic.  Faith Alone gives us freedom from the legalistic Judaism that the Apostles had to preach against and from the Catholic abuses of the Dark Ages in Europe.  But, with freedom comes responsibility.  If we are irresponsible with our freedom of faith, we will be enslaved by our passions, complacency, and even our virtues.  Let us be responsible with our faith in Christ Jesus so that we may grow in spirit and in truth.

Continue To The Light (© John Gresham)

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE (Part Two):  LACK OF SUPPORT

(Introduction) The purpose of Faith Alone was to counter the Medieval Catholic sale of indulgences requiring people to give “X” amount of contributions to particular causes or do other questionable acts for the sake of salvation.  It was a doctrine of freedom from abusive priest, bishops, and other hierarchical clergy.

(Antithesis)  We too often use Faith Alone as an excuse from participating in actions and doctrines handed down through the scriptures and early church to help us build and strengthen our faith.  Our typical excuse is, “The Lord Knows My Heart.”

(Thesis)  Faith Alone cannot stand alone.  Without proper support, faith becomes a hollow shell ready to collapse.

(Relevant Question)  What else does faith need to be fulfilling, enduring, and growing?

(Points)

  • Sound Doctrine, not doctrine that sounds good
  • Christ-centered fellowship, not celebrities and fans
  • Prayer life, not lip service

(Conclusion)  Continue daily and steadfastly

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Friday): Reality Check

Then David took his staff in his hand, and chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook.  He put them in a shepherd’s bag to store away, and in his hand was his sling.  He then approached the Philistine.

I Kingdoms 17:20 (Orthodox Study Bible)

I Samuel  17:40 (Western Bibles)

Onward Wall (© John Gresham)

One of the great pitfalls of preaching is that we want to sound like someone else who is very popular.  In my recent e-mail exchanges with Archbishop Puhalo, I am reminded of lessons learned from the AME Bishop Adam Richardson about Prophetic Sermon Preparation.  I am called to preach with my own voice, the one God  gave me.  I have always admired the wisdom and sermonic pace of Gardner C. Taylor.  Other than him and perhaps one or two other “old school” preachers, I don’t try to follow anyone’s style.  Even with those giants of the pulpit, I am well aware of my limitations.  I lack all of their education.  I have tried from time to time, but, I cannot “whoop” (the expressive pattern of repetition and tone usually found in African-American preaching).  So, I tend to study the text that I am going to preach from for a couple of days, create an outline similar to the one described in my last post, and proceed to write a manuscript.

Call and Response worship is a hallmark of the Black American Church.  We preachers expect to hear some “Amens” during the sermon.  The problem is when we focus too much getting a response from the congregation and not enough on the content of our messages.  We wind up preaching stuff that is only meant to draw responses, or bury our good messages with an overabundance of response begging, especially toward the end of the sermon.  I confess, I like to hear some responses as much as the next preacher.  But, my task is to declare the Gospel without stroking the needs of my ego.

On Good Friday, seven ministers of the Pamunkey Baptist Association gave seven minute sermons on the seven final words of our Lord as he was being crucified.  My contribution to the service went over well enough.  It was brief (even shorter than my allotted time), insightful, and did get a response though not the loudest nor most enthusiastic.  But, this was a service and not a competition.  If I simply apply myself to crafting a good message under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I need not concern myself with time limits nor responses.  The advice I got from my former campus minister, Rev. Adrian Arnold, will be my guide for the pulpit, “Always be genuine in your faith.”

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Wednesday): The Mind

For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

Romans 8:6

My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

How many clichés and quotes are there that teach that a man will wind up where his mind is?  My late grandfather-in-law and mentor, Rev. Carter Wicks, used to say that “A Man Is His Mind.”  If his and other similar words are true, I think it pays for us to do more than periodical reality checks.  We need daily monitoring and adjusting.  Because there are so many strong temptations to keep us thinking about the things of the world rather than the things of God.  This is not to say that we should all become strict monastics and leave everything we have to live in a cave the rest of our lives for the sake of prayer and contemplation.  But, unless prayer throughout the day becomes a part of our lives, we risk our faith eroding into spiritual uselessness.

I am not simply talking about the obvious sins that hold us down such as lust, anger, hate, greed, and the like.  Anything that separates us from the love of God and love for our fellow-man is carnal.  Take politics (and throw it in a cesspool where it belongs), conservatism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin of our need for earthly government.  We will all take a different stance from one another for various reasons.  But, in order for a coin to have any value, it has to have both a head and tail.  Both sides must work in cooperation with each other.  Due to the presence of wealth and winner-take-all power hyped up by the likes of Fox and MSNBC, we have harsher polarizing arguments than constructive agreements.

What saddens me is that Christianity is buying into this earthly coin and the argument that we must staunchly defend one side or the other.  As people of this nation, of course we will have opinions of which direction this nation should take.  But, we who have been given the Gospel of God’s redeeming love should never give into vilifying those whose political opinions do not match our own.  If anything, we should be a mediating force between (no, above) the right and left and seek Godly solutions to our national, state, and local problems.  As Martin Luther King Jr noted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” rather than being a thermostat that controls the temperature in a house, the church has become a thermometer that only measures and reflects the temperature.  And when we spend more time reflecting our chosen sides rather than seek after something of far greater value, we make ourselves useless (and sometimes harmful) to the Gospel.

So, to my brothers and sisters to the left and right, I make this suggestion.  For every minute you spend watching Fox News or MSNBC, spend a minute and a half in honest and sincere contemplative prayer.  For every moment listening to Beck or Maddow, spend a moment and a half in self-reflection in light of the Lord who created and loves both equally.  Most of us who are in our 40’s have, perhaps, another 30 to 40 years to call ourselves Americans.  Where we go after that depends on where we have put our minds.  If we have set our minds on earthly divisiveness and strife based on one side or the other of a political coin that will eventually be destroyed, that is where we can expect to spend eternity.  If we have set our minds on seeking spiritual purity and loving others, we will be in that place of eternal wholeness.