Uncategorized

The Loss of Gentleness

The Modern Monastic Order Of Saint Simon of Cyrene

Isaiah prophesied that the Christ would not break crushed reeds or quench smoking flax (1). True to the forecast, Jesus was the personification of compassion.  Prostitutes, tax collectors, the mentally and physically ill, widows: they all found mercy in their encounters with the Lord.  He even prayed forgiveness for those who were killing Him (2).  Only the temple money changers felt the sting of His wrath (3).  Other than that, Jesus Christ was gentle in this world as there was a greater one that He would rule over.

Unfortunately, many of us have missed this characteristic of the Lord. Threats and violence are commonly used by individuals, groups, and nations to impose their will on others.  And where a physical attack does not happen, grudges and ill feelings are held against those whose ideas and ideals do not match our own.  Sadly, gentleness in the heart and mind can be…

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Great Dismal Swamp, Maroons, monasticism, Uncategorized

A Call to Renunciation and Watchfulness: Maroons & Monastics

In the fourth century, many Christians fled to the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East to escape worldly distractions and struggle against their temptations. Some were tired of the growing complacency that was creeping into the Church now that Christianity had become legal.  Others had little trust in government protection even though Emperor Constantine ended the persecutions.  Life in the desert was harsh and very simple.  But, the desert fathers and mothers found freedom in the wasteland.

Some were in the wastelands for only a short time. Yet, they carried the spirit of detatchment from worldly greed and power in the cities and towns they lived in.  Some noted bishops and priest gave liberally to the poor and maintained a rather Spartan existence.  In every generation there were those who imitated those original desert fathers.  Russia had it’s Northern Thebaid.  Other monks eked out a living on the wind-swept British Isles and the escarpments of Ethiopia.  Even in an old mining town north of San Francisco, a pair of believers wanted nothing more than to pray, read, and publish writings of ancient Christianity.

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Perhaps it was in the early 1700’s that a few enslaved Africans found a similar freedom in a wasteland. Native Americans were the first to reatreat to the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina as a refuge from the encroaching colonist.  Slave owners counted their “property” that ran away into the swamp as lost to the bears and snakes. European indentured servants, who were treated almost as bad as slaves, also found a home there.  Although full of valuable bald cypress trees, the land was deemed untameable by the colonial and national government.  The runaways, called maroons, had very harsh elements to deal with.  But, in overcoming the obstacles they found freedom.  There were thriving communities on both sides of the swamp.  Maroons would slip into “civilization” every now and then to get what they need or visit loved ones on the plantations.  But, they quickly made their way back to their wet wilderness where they were free and safe.

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In exploring Orthodox Christianity, American Christians of all backgrounds would do well to follow the example of our desert fathers, their followers and Maroon ancestors. As individuals and a community, we have sins to struggle against.  Yet, too often we get distracted by the pursuit of money, politics, and other worldly cares.  This is not to say we should not participate in society.  But, there is a great temptation to be so focused on the earthly kingdom that we forget there is one to come.  The virtues of patience, honesty, chastity, and others cannot be legislated and can be gained no matter who is in the White House or wins the NBA Finals.  Gaining the virtues cleanses our souls and gives us victory both now and later.  Renunciation of the world and keeping watch over our what we take into our hearts and minds is how we gain them.

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Shall we all physically move between Suffolk, Virginia and Elizabeth City, North Carolina? That would be impossible.  But, we can establish a sense of maroon like watchfulness in our lives little by little.  Making deliberate times for prayer, such as keeping the Hours brings us in God’s presence.  An icon corner in our homes can be as much of a refuge for our souls as the buttress of a bald cypress was for a runnaway slave.   Feeding on the spiritual wisdom of our monastic ancestors who renounced the world nourishes our souls.

The Psalmist declared that God prepares a table for him in the midst of his enemies (Psalm 22:5 LLX/23:5). The maroons still had to overcome bears, mosquitoes, and snakes.  Yet, God granted them freedom.  Satan and his minions will pester and threaten us in our quest for the Kingdom.  But, as  we practice spiritual watchfulness, there will be a refuge for us to thrive in.

Uncategorized, Westmoreland State Park

Westmoreland & the Path of Humility

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a diversity training session for my job at Westmoreland State Park. Visiting the Potomac River shoreline is a homecoming for me.  My family and I used to live in Sandy Point in a house owned by Joseph J. Roane, a prominent African-American of the county.  I attended Cople Elementary School for Kindergarten and first grade.  The park was a hop-skip-and-jump from where we lived.  So, my parents took us there frequently (my brother was born not long after we moved to the county).

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I arrived at Westmoreland about an hour early so I could visit the Park Manager, my former boss Russell Johnson, and sneak in a hike.  Big Meadow Trail is a favorite of park guest as it leads to the Fossil Beach section where the occasional Megaladon shark tooth can be found.  I like everything about the trail as it straddles a ridge above a small stream.  As the hiker descends from the hill, the stream becomes tidal in a marsh choked with tall grasses.  Arriving at the beach, two high cliffs can be seen both up and down river.  With icicles on the washed up trees on the shoreline, digging for fossils was completely out of the question.  I did get a few good landscapes images and some much-needed exercise.  So, the hike was well worth it.

I don’t think I can go into much detail about the training. But, it seemed that everything I learned related to the topic of my talk at the West Point Ministers Association’s MLK Day service, radical humility.  A major part of my job as a Ranger is to welcome and treat park guests and fellow employees with dignity and respect.  By doing so, we promote a friendly atmosphere and experience for everyone.  Dignity and respect for others is rooted deeply in one being humble to all.  The great humility of Jesus Christ, as described in Philippians chapter 2, brought the hope of salvation to all who were lost.  His humility led to the horrific death on the cross.  But, it also gave Him the Name above all names.

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Unfortunately, it is easy to lose sight of the need for humility as it is so easy to embrace pride. Of course, it can be a good thing to love one’s country, ethnicity, organization, and religion.  All good things can be, and are often, wasted when we put such earthly boundaries above the expansive mercy that the Lord has called us to emulate.  The Jewish scholar Saul of Tarsus was sent through the northern Mediterranean to share the Gospel taking all sorts of attacks and difficulties as a humble sojourner whose true home is not of this world.  It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul has been so greatly honored with some of his letters making up so much of the New Testament.  Bishop Basil of Cappadocia was a leading teacher of Christianity in the fourth century and applied the monastic life of compassion and community to the general body of believers.  He taught the virtues of simple living by example; taking only what he needed and giving the rest to those in need.  The Church calls him, “the Great.”  And how humble was Macarius the Great of the Desert Fathers?  Despite all who came to him for advice, the monk began his morning prayers with:

Oh God, cleanse me, a sinner, for I have never done anything good in thy sight. Deliver me from the evil one, and may thy will be in me, that I may open my unworthy mouth without condemnation …

There is no greatness without humility. Paul went beyond ethnic boundaries and received beatings.  Basil gave up the pursuit and maintaining of personal wealth to help others live better.  Macarius didn’t let his world renown holiness go to his head.  This narrow path walked by these great men leads to the only kingdom Jesus spoke up for, the kingdom of heaven.  We serve the God who opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5 & Proverbs 3:34).  Let’s walk likewise.

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Cumberland Marsh, Uncategorized

Cumberland Marsh & My Need for a Fundamental

Cumberland Marsh Natural Area Preserve is one of those very rare places where the American beech trees haven’t been scarred by a love-stricken vandal’s pocket knife.  Holt’s Creek is a broad hidden waterway inside of the marsh that flows into a thoroughfare that creates  a wetland island in the Pamunkey River.  Once in the woods from the trail, hikers are treated to a series of small, non-tidal streams.  Eventually, the trail comes to a striking view of Holt’s from a high bluff.  In the late fall and winter, one can even catch a slight glimpse of the greater river that combines with the Mattaponi to form the York.  There are no steep ravines to navigate; the terrain is flat.  But, the distance from even secondary road traffic makes Cumberland Marsh an excellent hike.

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I have to confess, there was one ulterior motive for hiking Cumberland.  Rick’s Country Cafe has a pulled pork barbecue sandwich that is worthy of a pit master’s cook-out.  Taking advantage of the eating area, I treated myself to lunch and a word from The Lives of the Desert Fathers:

“Those who are going to inherit the Kingdom of heaven must not be dispondent about their salvation, … but the just will rejoice … We who have been considered worthey of so great of hope, how shall we rejoice without ceasing?” (1)

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Again I confess.  More than once, I let the distractions of financial struggles, dealing with my wife’s recent hospitalizations, and the toxicity of our political divide keep me from a fundamental lesson of from Jesus Christ.  My joy does not come from this kingdom, but in the one to come:

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.  (2)

These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.  (3)

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Just as I was writing down the quote from Abba Apollo in my walking journal, a friend from my high school walks in to the cafe for a bite to eat.  He coaches youth sports and confided in me that one of the most difficult things to do is to teach the fundamentals of a game because pre- and early teens think they know what they are doing.  If I am not aware of the way I present myself as a citizen of the eternal kingdom, there is no difference between me and the hard-headed middle school kids my friend has to deal with.  Each day I have to remind myself of the source of Christian joy and exhibit it.  Even when things get rough, keeping my mind on this fundamental will help me be the salt that doesn’t loose it’s flavor and the light that shines before all men.  (4)

 

  1. Norman Russell (Translation), Lives of the Desert Fathers, pg. 35
  2. John 14:27
  3. John 16:33
  4. Matthew 5:13-16
First Day Hike, Uncategorized, Virginia State Parks, York River State Park

First Day Hike: Starting Off the New Year

There are few things better than to start the New Year off with a (pardon the pun) step in the right direction.  I have had the pleasure of leading the First Day Hike at York River State Park for eight of the ten years I’ve worked here.  When the program first began, only eight hikers joined me on a quick walk along Beaver and Woodstock Pond Trails.  Over the years, participation has grown.  The better the weather, the more people participate in what has become a tradition in the Virginia State Parks.

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Looking at the lower photo, it is easy to get put off by such a crowd if your’e looking for a quiet and healing walk in the woods.  But, I find that hiking in groups does have some advantages.  First of them is that it can be a good intro to outdoor activity for newbies.  Beginners at anything may feel that they are all alone and stepping out with the wolves.  With a group of like minded people, there is nothing to fear even if you’ve never been on a trail before.

This leads to a second advantage of group hikes; meeting people.  I enjoy making new acquaintances and friends and helping them discover the beauty of the outdoors.  There is a Canadian family who came to one of my Spring Break events five years ago that return every year to participate in a new program I am offering.  I’ve met an elderly fraternity brother from another state who shared some circles of friends with me.  Mentioning that some Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6th revealed a Serbian lady in our group on year who grew up in that tradition.

It is when we interact with each other that we pick up tip to enjoy our time outside even more.  Someone may be looking for the perfect sea-side excursion and wind up chatting with a recent visitor to False Cape State Park.  Another person may have brought her camera and shows off some fantastic images of Canvasbacks to some kids who like ducks.  A couple of guys might talk about the gear they use when camping.  I have seen a few friendships and new hobbies born from group hikes.

The serenity of  a solo, or hike with one or two companions is something that I greatly enjoy.  But, I advise anyone not to shun a group hike.

 

Chickahominy River, Fr. Seraphim Rose, Gospel of Matthew, gratification, Hiking, York River

Delayed Gratification

From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priest and scribes and be killed and be raised on the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”  But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!  You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”

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“Do you want your reward now, or in heaven?” “In heaven, of course,” Gleb would reply.  “But, can’t I have a little of it now?”  At this Eugene would only shake his head, “It’s now or then.  Take your pick.”

Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, pg. 383

On my morning and evening walks at York River State Park, I like to park my car near the Contact Station and take Backbone Trail into the woods away from the river. Then, I loop back to the Visitor Center by hiking the Beaver and Woodstock Pond Trails.  I begin my journey going down and up a small ravine with a small stream.  But when I turn the corner just past the Mattaponi Trail head down the hill, I am greeted with a broad piece of York River shoreline as I make the final stretch to my desk.  West Point’s paper mill and Eltham Bridge can be seen upstream.  In the other direction is the Gloucester County bank with historic Wererrocomico, Almondsville, and Capahosic.  My favorite waterfowl, canvasback ducks, are in season.  So, I’m really loving the rewarding view.

Treating myself to this broad vista is an inspiring way to start and end the workday at the park. But before the treat, I tread a narrow trail with a mere trickle that disappears and comes back into view among a canopy of hardwoods that block the sun.  Nothing blocks the sky and waters at the end of my journey.

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Being God, Our Lord could have come into the world as a full grown man with total dominance over us all. He could have immediately imposed the kingdom of heaven on us all without breaking one bead of sweat, much less a drop of His own blood.  But for our salvation, Jesus showed solidarity with mankind by coming into the world in the same way we did and receiving total glory by His death, burial and resurrection.  While humanly preferring an easier and painless route, He committed himself to obedience to the Father (1).  Because of this, Jesus was given the name above every name (2).

The delayed gratification of Jesus is a stark contrast to that of Adam and Eve. Despite having all that they wanted in Eden, the serpent tempted them into believing they could be like God without obedience and patience.  By taking the easy way of enlightenment apart from the source of all things, they found themselves vulnerable and fearful of being exposed to God and each other (3).

We still have not quite learned from the failure of our ancient parents. In the 1960’s, many of the counter-culture tried using LSD and other drugs to open their minds the greater perception.  Our consumer culture encourages us to spend money we don’t have on items that will make our lives better.  Sadly, even among Christians there is a strange idea that we can gain blessings and good feelings from God without any effort.  It is true that we did not and cannot earn salvation.  However, Jesus clearly declares the price to pay in claiming His name: “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (4)  Unless we are willing to delay gratifying ourselves in life, we cannot know the grace that He provides.

Does this mean we sell all that we have and become monks and nuns? God may be calling more of us to monasticism than we realize.  But, not all of us are called to be such spiritual athletes.  The NFL has its great quarterbacks.  No one needs to be in a stadium to throw a football to a friend.  What is necessary is to take the time to do it, grip the ball correctly, aim as you throw, and make adjustments as you get it right.

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In developing the virtue of delayed gratification we can start by saving something we really want until later. In time, we may put off enjoying whatever it is a little longer.  We may put off enjoying something else we want in the same manner.  This is why we Orthodox Christians fast most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year and during special seasons such as the Nativity and Great Lent.  When we enjoy special meals, in particular Christmas and Easter (the feast of the Nativity and Pascha), we do so with very grateful hearts knowing the significance of what we have arrived to.  My parents, both Baptist Deacons, make it a habit not to purchase anything special they want for themselves from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day as this is the season to give to others.  From such practices in and outside of our Christian traditions, we can add another means or two of self-denial.  Always seek guidance from the Holy Spirit and advice from a wise spiritual father or mother.

  1. Philippians 2:8
  2. Philippians 2:9
  3. Genesis 3:1-10
  4. Matthew 16:24
Diaconate, Uncategorized, unscheduled hikes, York River

The Diaconate & River

The Colonial Parkway between I-64 and Yorktown has always been one of my favorite places in the state. As a kid, my family would drive from Richmond to my Uncle Bill and Aunt Edith’s house in Gloucester for weekends of crabbing, fishing, and swimming.  Brenda and I spent a day of our honeymoon with a great drive and picnic.  Even today, I can’t help but admire the York River on a rough and windy afternoon.  Looking up-river from Indian Fields Creek, I am awestruck that such a body of water comes from a couple of smaller rivers that can be wadded across at the King William and Caroline County borders.

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I hadn’t planned and plotted this time in nature. It just seemed like a good place to enjoy in route to my church, St Basil the Great Orthodox in Hampton, to practice my role as a deacon during the Divine Liturgy.  My ordination to the Holy Diaconate will be Sunday, December 9th at the Hierarchal Divine Liturgy led by Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Archdiocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic.

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Like a tiny spring fed stream, my start in the Orthodox faith didn’t seem like much. I had inquired about it simply to add to my prayer life and was curious about the African saints.  Like the Atlantic, I have found myself in an incredibly deep ocean of Christian love, spirituality, and wisdom.  Leaving a secure African-American pastorate of 17 years to become a layman in a predominately white congregation was more than unheard of.  Martin Luther King Jr. bemoaned the fact that 11 o’clock Sunday Morning was the most segregated hour in America.  It seems to me that Orthodox Christianity with its ancient roots and other-worldly perspective and worship is the best place for that barrier to be broken down.

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I didn’t expect my pastoral credentials would immediately transfer from the Baptist denomination. As a layman, I immersed myself in the life of my parish; a motley crew of first and second generation eastern Europeans, Ethiopians, and Catholic and Protestant converts in a jurisdiction based in Syria.  I learned Byzantine Chant, devoured the wisdom of the desert fathers, found out that incense and icons were wonderful elements of public and private worship and expressions of faith.  As well as my personal prayer rule and study, completing the St. Stephen’s Certificate course with the Antiochian House of Studies has grounded me in the doctrine and prepared me for this chapter of my life.

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The essential faith that learned in the black church remained intact as I came into Orthodoxy. Constantly crying out, “Lord, has mercy?”  That was learned in the tobacco fields and whipping post.  The joy in the midst of great sorrow experienced under the Romans and communist is the same as what we dealt with during slavery and Jim Crow.  The power of the Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist is what I love most when I think of my grandfather, Deacon Joseph Gresham, carefully cutting the bread and filling up the glasses every first Sunday of the month.  Prayer as a necessity of Christian life and serious study of the scriptures was instilled in me by my parents, grandparents, and other elders who raised me.   It was a bit painful to leave my former congregation and church experience.  But, because of the way I was raised, I flowed right into Orthodoxy.  And now, the flow continues as I become a part of the clergy.

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So, my journey in Christ continues to flow like the river I love. I can’t stop here.  There is more to do and a greater destination to reach.