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
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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.

 

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.”

Matthew 16:21-23

“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

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.

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.

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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Wahrani: Pursuing Purity and Light

“Separated from the virginity of the soul and the light of the heart, the mind is the shadow of the Son of God and the reverse of Wisdom.” Saint Nikolai Velimirovich Prayers by the Lake LXIII

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In preparation for today’s hike on the Wahrani Nature Trail, I figured I’d find a prayer I could keep in mind along the way. The word of the modern Serbian sage Nikolai Velimirovich seems to have a finger on what is wrong with our society.  Our minds are detached from what brings life.

Our Lord was pure as was His Mother and Forerunner.   But, that purity meant more than just not having sexual contact.  Christ and the saints did not put their minds to toxifying their souls.  Even those holy people, known and unknown, pursued a path of purity practicing repentance when they fell rather than make and live in excuses for sins.  They understood that if the mind was put on the right path, the rest of their being would follow.  Christ and the apostles encouraged disciples to walk in light and live as children of light.  No matter how many times one fell short, the standard of brightness from righteous living was to guide the heart of all believers.

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Satan tempted man with the idea that they could be like God even though they were unable to make things exist from nothing. Had the minds of Adam and Eve been on their deep virginity and light from God, they may have known better than to fall for such a false promise.  They were not watchful over their wonderful gifts and exchanged them for the corruption that robbed them of immortality.

We have not learned from their story. We do not pursue purity and light.  Instead, we use our minds to concoct all sorts of excuses for chasing after power and indulging in desires.  As we apply the name of Jesus to our distortions rather than be remorseful and repent.  By doing this, we prove ourselves to be as rotten as the rest of the world we have given into; criticizing the specks in each other’s eyes without removing the beams in our own.

Oh Lord, let me not contribute to the problem. Keep my mind away from self-justification.  Obedience to You grants life, not the empty words of a snake.  Direct me in the ways of  purity and light that I may walk in your ways and fully repent when I stumble.

Your Home in Nature

Too often, when people think about spending time in the great outdoors, they think of one of the well known national parks such as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.  Others will daydream of an African safari or a Patagonia journey.  For those who are lucky enough to live near or afford to go to such places on a regular basis, enjoy your blessing to the fullest.

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The rest of us need not feel cursed.  The Psalter teach that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness there of” (Psalms 24:1).  Wherever there is a place that God owns, we can find his presence there.  This point is also made in the first of the Trisagion prayers, “Oh Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth who are in all places and fills all things.”  While the Appalachians or Denali are places of great majesty, the presence of the holy can be found in one’s municipal park and back yard.

The Stanford University Study comparing a walk in a natural versus urbanized area didn’t take place in extreme, far-flung locations.  One subject walked in a wooded lot near the campus while the other strolled along a busy thoroughfare also near the school.  Also, the person in the natural area was not engaged in rock climbing, white-water kayaking, or some other extreme activity.  She was taking a walk.  A road trip and camping excursion to the upper Missouri River sounds terrific.  But, to make a home in the natural world, it is impractical unnecessary.

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Start with where you are and where you can go most often.  The frequency and amount of time spent is up to you.  Urban gardens may not offer miles of hiking.  But, they are useful to sit and collect one’s thoughts and say a prayer.  When you have found that special local place, make it yours .  Take a few photos as the seasons change.  Keep a journal dedicated to your place to jot down thoughts, poems, or even try a sketch or two.  Get involved with a group that beautifies and protects it.

Your outdoor healing place may never be listed as one of the 7 wonders of the world.  It doesn’t matter.  As long as you walk away from it better than you were when you walked into it, nothing else matters.

First Hike: Wahrani Nature Trail

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You’d think I’d start inviting people to hike and pray where I work.  York River State Park is an excellent place to explore and seek peace in mind.  I will take this ministry there soon in some way or another.

But, I want to begin at a good little trail in my back yard.  Wahrani is just below West Point in New Kent.  It used to be the nature trail for the Chesapeake Corporation.  According to Hiking Upwards, the origin of the name is a little interesting.  I like the ravines and am a sucker for little non-tidal streams.  The nearly 3.5 miles do not have the most impressive views.  But, this is a good place for locals to walk, pray, and feel free to ask a question or two about Orthodox Christianity and how I came to the faith.

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No, I will not hold a gun to anyone’s head and expect a conversion.  Hey, if you want to bring your Bible, devotional booklet, prayer book, or whatever from your particular denomination and faith tradition, go ahead.  I am only inviting people to walk and pray in the natural world.  If interested, call or send an e-mail.

 

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.