poor in spirit

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.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (Second Tuesday): Something Special From The Ordinary

When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), …

John 2:9

(This is a part of my Bible Study series “A Pursuit of the Spirit of Christ)

A Stream (© John Gresham)

Though we can see it as an embarrassment, to run out of wine at a wedding party was no major catastrophe.  Miscalculations and over-indulgences are typical factors of life.  Having special vessels or other objects set aside for religious ceremonies is nothing new either.  Nothing lives without water.  And when the good wine is gone, the prudent will stop drinking while the foolish will drink the worst of the beverage.  Jesus came to save our souls.  Rescuing wedding receptions from disaster by misusing holy things with a common element so people can keep drinking doesn’t seem to fit his mission.  “Woman, what does your concern have to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”

The woman who brings this problem to Jesus is his mother, Mary.  Despite his words, the Son heeds the intercession of his mother as written in the law of his culture.  As he is Holy, he uses the jars of purification to house the miracle.  The material for the miracle is water no different from for drinking for sustenance.  But, because Jesus gives directions to the servants and they follow them, what was ordinary has now become extraordinary.  Not only does the ordinary become extraordinary for the sake of it’s making.  This best wine is given when there was no hope for anything better.  When guest would have either exercised prudence or wallowed in drunkenness.  And it was the obedient servants who were the active participants in this change.

Yes, we should have others to pray for us as we seek Jesus for ourselves.  Our Lord is merciful in our times of miscalculations and over-indulgences.  He can use the best and the base of what we are to enliven us in ways that are unexpected.  Something greater can be made from us that will give new hope and direction to those around us.  All we have to do is obey his uncomplicated directions.

 

The Flaw of Faith Alone: (Part one) Lack Of Evidence

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James 2:26

Flight with Two Wings (© John Gresham)

This is the first of 3 sermons I will preach about our need for good works to show that we have faith in God.  My next sermon will come from Matthew 25:31-46 and the final from Acts 2:42-47.  I am grateful for the lectures on “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” from Father Andrew Stephen Damick for inspiring me to preach on this topic.  I pray that I  will correct myself by the grace of the Holy Spirit and lead others to correction as well.

THE FLAW OF FAITH ALONE:  (PART ONE) LACK OF EVIDENCE

James 2:14-26

(Introduction)  The Protestant Reformation leaders were right in pointing out the abuses of Medieval Catholicism, including the sale of indulgences and stressing works as a means to salvation.

(antithesis) In many of our doctrines, we ignore the point that good works are necessary as they are evidence that we have faith in Jesus Christ.  As a result of our lack of this sound evidence, we run around looking for false ones.

(thesis) We must commit ourselves to good works as well as having our faith secured by believing in the Gospel.

(relevant question)  Why are good works important?

(points)

  • evidence of compassion (vv. 15-17)
  • evidence of distinction (vv. 18-20)
  • evidence of awareness of God’s will (vv.21-26)

(conclusion)

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Saturday): His Peace

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

John 14:27

Parrot Island Sunrise (© John Gresham)

I imagined the disciples were troubled in their hearts and minds.  They knew that Jesus would be violently taken away from them.  They heard their Lord predict their coming cowardice, even that of the most outspoken of them.  And if the enemies would dare come after and have victory over the Master, what hope was there for the servants?  Yes, Jesus did tell them that he would rise again.  But, in times of imminent danger and suffering, words of eventual victory are hard to hear.

In his wisdom and mercy, the Lord left his disciples with the gift of His peace.  A peace that is His light that overcomes the world’s darkness.  In John’s account of the Gospel, we don’t find Jesus expressing anguish and resolve in Gethsemane.  He tells of a Lord who calmly goes forth to meet his fate.  Before doing so, he gives the gift of this peace to his weak and fearful close friends.  He gives something of great value to those who can least afford it.  He gives His rock in the midst of a storm while he is about to go through his own storm so they could overcome theirs.

The peace of Jesus Christ is here for us today.  The ability to face hardship with an overcoming sense of calm is available to all who follow and rely on him.  Just as John, the Theotokos, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene found strength to remain at the cross; so can we find strength to withstand the heartbreaking sorrows of life.  Just as He endured his brutal and torturous death, we can also go through hell on earth.  His peace makes this possible.  His peace has no price tag and is offered to all who follow and believe.

Accept the gift.

 

A Diary of the Apostles Fast (First Thursday): Do I Have To?

‘ But,  I want to do this.’

Rita Madden from the podcast, “Fasting Is Medicine” 

The answer to the question is obvious.  No, I do not have to fast.  I am a Baptist.  Our doctrine and dogma does not teach a need to refrain from any food any time of the year.  Our radical reformed denominational position is that ritual fasting is a tradition of man that Jesus did not teach and, therefore, should be ignored as some Roman Catholic superstitious practice.  In my African-American heritage, our people were deprived and suffered much under slavery.  So, why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of eating what we want, when we want it, as often, and as much as we can?  No, I don’t have to fast.  According to doctrine and culture, “I ain’t got no business fasting.”

Wake Dawn (© John Gresham)

But, I want to fast.  First of all, Jesus did it and did not speak against the practice.  The only guideline he gave about fasting is that we don’t make a boastful show of it and act on fast days as any other day.  Read Matthew 4:1-11 and the corresponding stories in Mark and Luke.  As a result of his fast, Jesus was able to withstand the temptations Satan tried him with and God sent angels down to minister to him.  I ask, who doesn’t want the ability to withstand temptation and have God’s mercy on us?  While Jesus does not make his fast a requirement, the spiritual benefits of abstaining from food for a period of time does have positive benefits to our souls, when applied to faith and aided with prayer ( Matthew 17:19-21; see my previous article).  It makes sense to fast.

It makes sense to fast as prescribed by the Orthodox Church.  We Protestants may give up one or two things we shouldn’t indulge in for Lent.  For pregnant and nursing women and those whose diets are directed by a physician, such limited fasting makes sense.  But, for the rest of us, “giving something up for Lent” falls short of the point.  Refraining from food should produce a hunger and the hunger should drive us to prayer and reliance on the Father who adopted us as his children through his Only Begotten Son with the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Substituting huge portions of chicken for beef doesn’t do it.  The early church fathers were wise enough to see that we needed something to sustain us and suggested eating only simple foods such as vegetables, legumes, and bread.  We need some oil (fat) as well and a little fish for animal protein.  Rather than indulge in  vegan food substitution, they taught that we should stop eating while still hungry and never eat until we are full.

As I said in a previous post, the calendar of Orthodox fasting and feasting is just like hiking a trail.  When the Apostles Fast is over on the Feast of the Apostles.  After these major points, I continue to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of our Lord) until the next major point (the fast and feast of Mary).  And there are a couple of feast days thrown in the midst of those fast (the Nativity of John the Baptist in June and the Transfiguration in August).  The Christmas Fast (Nov. 15th thru Dec. 24th) will be tough to cope with because of Thanksgiving and those holiday food temptations.  But, there is the feast of St Nicholas  in early December and no weekday fast between Christmas and Epiphany.  Then, it is Lent and Easter again (with a couple of other feast and fast to observe).  It may seem like a lot to keep up with for most of us Protestants.  But, I think following such a cyclical pattern keeps me looking forward to God’s grace and mercy all year-long rather than waiting around for Christmas and Easter.

So, as one Orthodox mother told her neighbors, “But, I want to do this.”  Bishops and priest can’t judge their parishioners on whether or not they do it.  Surely, no officers in the Baptist church will threaten to remove my ordination for grilling some pork chops this evening.  This is a choice I made on my own free will.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Wednesday): How?

Because of your unbelief, for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.

Matthew 17:21,22

Moss, Stone, and Water (© John Gresham)

And here is the problem.  We are called to confront issues of darkness that cannot be overcome easily.  Our passions overcome us and those around us to a point when all seems out of control.  The quick cures that we learned when we began our walk with the Lord aren’t working.  Passages of scripture recited as if they were magic words don’t penetrate the heart of our struggles.  Imitations of what we see in televised ministries or read in popular devotionals are equally ineffective.  Lack of our expected timely results lead us to doubt and disbelief.  When these two impostors take root, nothing can be accomplished.

Overcoming the forces that throw us into fire and flood requires three elements; and without the first, the other two are meaningless exercises.  Faith the size of the insignificant mustard seed is the foundation of victory.  This sort of faith is not something that is easily held on to.  It takes far more attention to maintain a mustard seed in one’s hand than a coconut or even a pecan.  Faith requires watchfulness and discipline to hold on, especially when things are not easily obtained.  Indeed, if one is watchful and disciplined to hold on to hope, almost nothing can stand in his way.

Our Lord suggest that there are times that faith needs the practical assistance of prayer and fasting.  We must be in constant communication with God to exorcise our demons and those of others.  We must practice tangible control of our own desires before we can successfully overcome the intangible wickedness that fights against us.  With these two tools forged with the one necessary element, we cannot be overtaken in sin nor swallowed up in the despairing situations around us.  Even when we stumble, we are able to rise again in repentance and not fall as easily nor deeply as before.  With this sure-footed walk with the Savior, we can reach down and help others come on the journey with us.  Have faith above all.  In faith, pray and fast.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Roots of Discipleship

The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus

John 1:37

Vewing the Valley (© John Gresham)

Two of John’s disciples heard their teacher proclaim the presence of the Greater One.  Rather than stay with the one who had led them, they sought the One he constantly refered to.  Following Jesus, they went to the place where he stayed.  No crowds were present, just the two men spending time with the Lord.

What good is it for the roots to simply rely on moisture from the drops of rain and dew dripping from the leaves when there is a greater source of water?  Do roots do any good staying in a ball when there is fertile ground to find firm establishment?  Such roots do nothing productive for the tree and are only fit to rot so that new roots can find the nourishment to go forward as the predecessors should have.

Too often the faithful put their faith in the preacher and not the One that is (and MUST BE) proclaimed.  Even when the preacher speaks truth, there is a tendency to uplift the human rather than seek out the greater truth of the divine.  This is the realm of “Sunday Christians.”  They stay in the root ball of the weekly worship without penetrating the rich soil of the Divine Savior nor drinking from the ever flowing fountain of His Spirit.  Perhaps others will learn from their erroneous existence and seek something better.

Let us not make such an error.  Sermons from even the best pastors are mere drops of water from leaves.  Take the drops, but search out the Spirit of Truth that cleanses and restores us.  Grow deeper in solitude and only another or two spending time in God’s presence.  When discipleship takes the path of such a root, it attracts others to come and grow.

Holy Ghost Headquarters

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

Acts 2:1

I remember in college how charismatic Christians took on an air of superiority toward others because they “spoke in tongues” as evidence that they had the Holy Spirit.  I knew that I was baptized according to the formula written in Matthew 28:19, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and that I was “Born Again” (John 3:3) in high school as I came to know Jesus for myself.  I pray that this Pentecost (Western Christians observed it last week) we will understand how we come to receive the Spirit of God and not focus so much on our doctrinal rituals and manifestations.

 

Beauty of New Life

HOLY GHOST HEADQUARTERS

Acts 2:1

(Introduction) We tend to describe some churches as “Holy Ghost headquarters” because of their energetic style of worship

(Antithesis) If Paul is right about our bodies being the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 6:19), style of worship has nothing to do with whether or not the Spirit of God is with us

(Thesis) To receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we must be prepared in our practice of faith

(Relevant Question) How do we prepare to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit

(Points)

  • Obedience The disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus told them (Acts 1:4)
  • Patience They stayed there for 50 days after Passover (Leviticus 23:16, Acts 2:1)
  • Unity They were all together in place and purpose (Acts 2:1)

(Conclusion) A properly prepared church receives power to persuade others to come into the Kingdom of God.

A Pursuit Of The Spirit Of Christ: Consistent Testimony

… Behold the Lamb of God!

John 1:36

A Mattaponi Dawn (© John Gresham)

There is something to be said for consistency.  That what is spoken one day is the same as the days before and for days to come.  A true testimony does not change.  But, it remains the same.

One day, the religious leadership approached John the Baptist asking if he were the Christ or one of the prophets.  He denied claims to both.  He quoted the words of Isaiah and pointed that the great Messiah was yet to come with a greater baptism.  But John did not claim any position that was not his, even though he could have claimed the lesser of the two.  John kept to the task of baptism for the remission of sins in humble obedience to God.

The next day, John identified and proclaimed the one he spoke of the day and days before.  “Behold the Lamb of God!”  John was a good man and, rightfully, drew a crowd of the faithful.  But, the Lamb of God was (is) the perfect offering without blemish or spot.  The true first-born.  This Lamb would go down and rise again, thus able to take away the sins of the world.  He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power that shows he is the Son of God.  As in the day before, John didn’t speak of his greatness.  He bore witness to something greater.

And still the next day, John makes the same proclamation as he sees Jesus.  John has two of his disciples standing with him and made no gesture nor spoke in protest as they left him to follow the One he spoke of.  The baptizer has seen the one who offers the greater baptism.  The precursor has laid down the path as prophesied.  With the Lamb present, John understood that he his position had to decrease.  There was no point of his disciples following him any longer as there was a greater one for them to follow.

A false witness changes as it sees opportunity for gain, the need to conceal inconvenient truth, and threats to its status.  The true witness always points to something greater.  Gain and status are temporal.  Truth is never stopped.  It is best to understand our role in God’s will and let him have his way.  Our consistent testimony let’s him work through us for his glory.

Amen