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.

 

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.

Hiking, Newport News, Noland Trail, scheduled hikes, Teen SOYO, Uncategorized, urban hiking

Noland Trail: The Good of Urban Hiking

Some hiking enthusiast turn their noses up to city parks.  They are not in wilderness areas, or even a rural county.  Except for somewhere like Pittsburgh or San Francisco (I guess), there are no significant elevation changes.  Urban and nature are two terms that do not seem to match very well.

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To those hiking snobs out there can continue to act that way about the City of Newport News that has two very good parks with great trails.  Yesterday, I took my Teen Society Of Young Orthodox (Teen SOYO) for a day outdoors at the Mariner’s Museum Park and the Noland Trail.  Firstly, the park is tucked neatly away from the main thoroughfares of I-64, Jefferson, and Warwick Avenues.  This area of the city is fairly quiet with Christopher Newport University, Riverside Hospital, and the Virginia Living Museum not far away.  In case of foul weather, the Mariner’s Museum is a fantastic place to visit.  It was raining off and on for most of the day.  Two of boys are Boy Scouts.  There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing.  We had rain jackets; the hike was on.

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It was well worth the almost 5 mile loop (we took the short cut as I was a little pressed for time).  The bridges and overlooks offered serene vistas of Lake Maury.  The foliage was not in full peak.  But, evidence of the coming autumn color was all around us.  There were great blue heron active as well as Canada geese.  The Lion Bridge made for a great contrast between the quiet lake and a white-capped James River.  Naturalist that I pretend to be, I found the stand of juvenile long leaf pines to be very interesting.

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The hike was more of a bonding hike for this motley crew of teens.  Of the half that live in Chesapeake, two are priest kids who play basketball with one of the Greek Orthodox Churches in Tidewater.  Another plays saxophone in the marching band.  A pair of brothers from the peninsula include our president and Eagle Scout with his lady friend.  His brother is following his footsteps and has published a book of poetry.  I could have easily bombarded them with my outdoor educator’s volume of knowledge.  Taking and reading “Prayers by the Lake” every quarter mile would have been another option of overkill.  Instead, I let them enjoy the trail and themselves; sharing a few things about nature and prayer.

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No, the weather was not what I wanted it to be.  The last time I took a walk with someone was with Mother Katherine Weston, a Serbian Orthodox Nun from Indianapolis.  We had great weather.  But, we walked along a 4-lane road to a very small trail in from of a school in Columbia SC.  Conditions of the natural world are not always the picture perfect as a hike on the Appalachian Trail or Back Bay & False Cape.  What matters most is that you step out and, when possible, have someone to walk with.  The same can be said for prayer, in a way.  Make the step and you will always find someone walking with you.

Uncategorized

Cold Mountain: My First Backpacking Adventure

A classic story of my love for hiking

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I had always done day trips.  I had imagined an overnight excursion somewhere like False Cape or kayaking to camp one of the barrier islands on the Eastern Shore.  But, a mountain hike and camping trip?  What the heck.  It would earn me a little “street cred” among my co-workers around the state.  The Chesapeake Bay Sierra Club had a trip to go along with a class I attended a month or two ago.  The group seemed friendly and the leaders knowledgeable.  So, everything would go like clockwork.  Right?

Anyone who knows me or read my last entry knows that nothing goes like clockwork for me.  I was lollygagging in Charlottesville waiting to buy a map from Blue Ridge Mountain Sports.  Then, I wasted more time looking for a Route 51 off of Route 60 (directions given to me by an online map and seemed to be the best way…

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Arsenius, Fr. Seraphim Rose, Hiking, monasticism, Uncategorized

Church, Home, & Trail: A Trinity

As a devout Christian, I attend worship services every Sunday and mid-week when possible.  Sadly, some believers have begun to shun church membership thinking that it is better not to be surrounded with others who may be hypocritical sinners.  Not going to church because it is full of flawed people is like not going to the gym because it has too many out of shape people.  We are all struggling with faults and failures.  A good church is a hospital for sick souls.  I know my spiritual illnesses.  So, I get my medication every week from God with my brothers and sisters who love me, and I them.

Taking spiritual medicine only at church on Sunday is no different than following doctor’s orders only in the hospital.  Real healing and growth comes from being consistent in nearness to God every day.  So, I keep a daily rule consisting of prayers, scripture, and the writings of early Christians.  I confess that I am better at keeping this in the mornings than evenings.  But, having a standard regimen is very helpful to be repentant, avoid pitfalls, and feel the love of God and others.

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I have found that spending time in nature works in concert with my time in church and home.  The building and portion of my house where I worship are all man-made.  The tiny stream and mighty river that greet me every workday morning were not made by contractors.  Even though the trails were created by hard working staff and volunteers, no one makes trees and shrubs.  The outdoors is its own cathedral.

Sometimes we Christians forget our heritage in the outdoors. But, our places away from the hassle and hustle of the cities and towns have been quite inspirational.  The prophet Elijah fled to Mount Horeb to Jezebel’s persecution (1 Kings 19:1-18).  Our Lord taught thousands of seekers in a lonely place and fed them with a few fish and loaves of bread (Mark 6:30-43).  Arsenius left the imperial comfort and status of Rome to live silently in the desert.  In our times, Seraphim Rose found it far more beneficial to live in prayer and writing in the Platina, California forest than in San Francisco.

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Do we all need to become monks and nuns?  That is the calling of only a few of us.  Do we all have to take major hikes to remote places?  Health, time, urbanization, and other issues place limits on where we can go and for how long.  But, don’t let these things be excuses to not go anywhere and do anything.  Take a pocket New Testament on a city park bench a couple of free mornings.  Use your prayer beads and ropes while walking in a suburban green space after work every now and then.  Do what is in your tradition right where you are.

Your practice of faith outdoors need not be elaborate.  The earth is God’s footstool.  Footstools are not centerpieces of our furniture.  But, they do add comfort to the weary.  And sometimes that little bit of rest they provide is what we need for healing and becoming closer to the One who gives rest.