Antithesis of Consumerism and Cynicism

This life has been given to you for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

The Christmas shopping season is upon us.  It used to be that merchants would, at least, wait until our Thanksgiving meals have been well digested and football fans had plenty of time to cheer or curse the results of the big game.  Alas, the infamous “black Friday” begins Thursday night.  It was one thing when a local restaurant or tavern would offer a holiday meal to weary travelers who were delayed from reaching their intended destination.  I suppose mall food courts will offer turkey steak and cheese hoagies to shoppers awaiting “door buster specials.”

Yet, it is not enough to bemoan how Christmas has become an overly commercial farce.  Cynicism is also a toxic mentality which destroys the joy and hope that we should have during this (and any other) time of the year.  Unmet expectations of special gifts under the tree, losing beloved relatives and friends, employment and finances taking turns for the worse; such things can easily lead people into a slippery slope of depression as real life does not always mirror the seasonal Hallmark Channel specials.

View from Humpback Rock (© John Gresham)

The words of St. Isaac the Syrian have become my mantra for these days leading into Christmas.  While I have done nothing to justify arrest and imprisonment, I am mindful of my imperfect actions, words, and (the source of these things) thoughts.  The fact that the Lord has not destroyed me in my wickedness is proof of his love and desire that I should change my ways.  Thus, repentance should be a part of everything I do from eating breakfast, performing task at home and work, even enjoying a quick game of mahjong.  One need not live in sackcloth and ashes.  But, to be careful of the thoughts harbored has a positive effect on words spoken and things done.

It is more difficult to shop until you drop knowing that one’s highest aim is a change of self.  Nor can one wallow in self-pity if they focus on developing a greater spiritual self.  We seek out greater principles of life instead.  This is where things are created and discoveries are made.  New bonds of interaction are forged and hope continues in spite of disappointments and disasters.  It is this higher awareness that cannot be found in fat men sliding down chimneys or washing away one’s misery in spirits.  It is found only when one pursues a life of spirit.

Give thoughtful gifts to the people you love.  Refuse to be swept up in the excesses of commercial marketing.  Seeking the higher point of our existence keeps us safe from this seasons toxicity and allows us a fullness of life that goes beyond January first.

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Faith and Outdoor Images

I am sorry I haven’t had a chance to write anything here since December.  January is very busy for me.  My chief ranger and I have been getting our activities calendar together and I have been working on park promotions, the state blog, and other stuff.  Then, there is the church with my normal pastoral duties, assisting with our planning committee, and new responsibilities as the Pamunkey Baptist Association Moderator.  I will take the time to have an adventure and post about it soon.

Reflective Presence of the Other

But, I have been blogging for myself.  In fact, I have been rather consistent with this for over a month.  The Modern Monastic Order of Saint-Simon of Cyrene (http://stsimonsorder.wordpress.com/) is a marriage of my passions.  Each week, I post one of my images.  The post is a summary of my sermons.  I usually make the post on Sunday mornings and upload my latest on the Facebook page for my church.  I have been getting some good feedback from many who have seen the entries.

I write under the name of my Second Life avatar, Cyprian Bluemood.  Cyprian is a priest of no particular Christian denomination.  I send him to a variety of churches (mostly orthodox) for prayer and music clubs.  The idea of a monastic order came when the monastery he was a member of shut down.  I believe om real life, we need more people devoting themselves to quiet prayer.  I spend an hour in worship each morning, take an “Emmaus Walk” for 30 minutes after work, and use the Book Of Common Prayer for my nightly prayers.  Perhaps after my term as PBA Moderator, I will turn this modern monastic order into a real life ministry.  But, for now, the blog will do.

Bethel Alone

As for the Baystride Images Journal, don’t worry.  I will have some things up soon.  I may do a sunset excursion next Sunday.  I have been given a green light to hit False Cape next month.  So, I am far from done with this blog.  But, until then, feel free to read and comment on my more sacred side.

VA Union University: God’s Gift To Humanity

Coburn Hall/Dr. Alix B. James Chapel

As a proud Virginia State University Alum, I used to laugh at the lyrics of Virginia Union’s Alma Mater.  “You are God’s gift to humanity?”  Get Real!  Oh, their basketball program was great.  Almost every African-American preacher was educated there.  And there were some good brothers from the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha.  But, other than that, VUU was that school on Lombardy Street.  State had my major, a campus completely separate from nearby cities, solid academic programs, a fine band and (okay, I wasn’t always the most devout Christian) the finest cheerleaders.  As far as we Trojans were concerned, the Panthers were of little.

I had to swallow a little bit of my orange & blue pride as I prepared for ministry at VUU.  And not yet earning my Master of Divinity (I did complete my Church Ministry Certificate through their Evans-Smith Leadership Training Program), I still found myself having to sing the Alma Mater with those lyrics.  I would go home and quickly repent by singing “Hail State.” But, the history of Virginia Union University give a special meaning to the words.

During the antebellum period, slaves about to be sold to the deep south were held at the Lumpkin’s Jail in Richmond.  Virginia had become the leading slave breeding and market state for the large cotton plantations.  Families were broken up as human beings  who had been in the state for 100 years or more were considered no better than horses or cattle.  The jail was a house of some of the greatest tears and sorrows in world history.

Dr. Angelo Chatmon Dean of the Chapel

After the Civil War, the American Baptist sought to create a school of higher education for freedmen.  Lumpkin’s Jail was given to a black woman as an inheritance. In the cells where men were beaten and women were raped, people were studying science, Latin, mathematics, and other subjects.  The place of violent horrors became the hallowed halls of learning.  Redemption of a dehumanized population, to take a place of evil (it was known as the Devil’s Half-Acre) and turn it into a house of virtue is a blessing that can only come from the Lord.  Every college and university has a prideful history.  Few have one as compelling as Virginia Union.

“Panther Pride” may not have been too evident as VUU football team was crushed by Va State in a cold, rainy Petersburg homecoming game.  But, for the alumni and friends who know the roots of the burgundy and silver, we cannot help but to be glad that God gave us such a special gift.

Hurricane Irene: Picking Up The Pieces

 

Ranger Scott Pearson with a downed Tree

 

 

Weekend plans ruined.  Days without electric power.  Trees down everywhere.  Sadly, a relative was killed.  These are just some of the results of Hurricane Irene’s visit.  Even though it wasn’t the category three monster that we all feared, it was more than enough to make us realize how fragile our day-to-day living can be.

Park Manager & Chief Ranger making plans

Plans were made and events were advertised for fun-filled Saturdays at York River State Park from the end of August up to the first of October.  I was especially looking forward to Labor Day weekend with a kid’s fishing tourney and fossil hike.  Our observance of Estuaries Day was to be on the 17th of September as not to conflict with the Virginia State and James City County Fairs.  But, without electric power to run our toilet pumps, we had to cancel.  Even if service is restored by the 10th, there are still other factors which will delay any major events at the park until October.  We did a great job of clearing trees and debris from the trails and parking lots.  Special thanks to Ben and Brett from Sky Meadows State Park for coming down to help us.

Homecoming Sunday and Revival Services at Trinity Baptist Church also had to be postponed.  This is a very special time of worship in southern black churches where friends and family return to the communities that reared them for spirit filled preaching and singing.  Of course, food is a major draw in these events (and we got some sisters who can “throw down” making deserts).  Instead of waiting to reschedule the services, I took time to revive myself.  I confess, my prayer life was slacking a bit from my normal morning discipline of stretching, reading, and writing my personal journal of faith.  While I am certain the men and woman of God that were to preach for us could have stirred up something in me to get back on track, I am glad the Holy Spirit cannot be hindered by high winds or downed trees or power lines.

The late Pernell and Jackie

I will miss my cousin Pernell Washington.  He and his wife Jackie were inseparable and were fun to talk to at the family reunions, church functions, and just bumping into one another at the store.  He was trying to help someone remove a tree from the road around midnight when Irene struck.  Authorities couldn’t get to him until the next day because of the wind and rain.  One of our rangers, Maurice Suggs, is a stickler when it comes to safety.  After reading what happened to Pernell, I didn’t mind wearing a helmet as I assisted with tree removal.

We tend to expect things to go well for us without interruptions of our conveniences.  But, Irene (and the earthquake that started in Mineral, VA) ought to remind us that our existence can come to an end at any time.  This is not to say we shouldn’t have goals and try to achieve them.  But, we should calmly assemble proper material and spiritual back-up in life when things go awry.  Take advantage of rest time, communicate with those around you, meet and work with a neighbor; do these things take electric current?  No, just a willingness to store and maintain them as one would a generator or propane grill.  Use them from time to time before harsh weather strikes to build familiarity and skill.

Hampton: More Than A Conference

Hampton University Chapel Tower

I became a Born Again Christian and was called to preach the Gospel while a student at King William High School.  My calling was incubated and answered at Virginia State University.  I followed the tradition of African-American Baptist and prepared for ministry at Virginia Union University.  Each school has played an important role in my learning how to practice my faith in society.  I thank God for putting me in those places.  But there is one school which host the event that inspires and challenges me as a person and pastor; The Hampton University Minister’s Conference.

A mentor taught me that we preachers are working on Sunday Mornings.  We don’t get a chance to fully and freely worship when we are in the pulpit.  Hampton is the place for preachers to worship.  I have been blessed to hear some of the greatest orators of the Gospel from the long time role models to the emerging standard bearers.  Being able to come into the Lord’s presence with thousands of my brothers and sisters with no other duty but to worship is a breath of fresh air.  We breathe so much out of ourselves Sunday after Sunday and with our weekly task of church, home, and (for the bi-vocational) secular labor.  Here for one week, the Holy Spirit breathes back into us.

The Minister’s Conference at Hampton Institute was organized almost 100 years ago to help equip and educate negro ministers who lacked time and money to attend a seminary.  My finances and the cost of completing a Master of Divinity from an accredited school of religion these days can’t seem to meet eye to eye.  So, the lectures at the conference have been a godsend to me.  Some of the most thought-provoking scholars in the world have taken stage at Hampton to open our minds to a variety of topics and ideas.  Here, seminary professors sit on the same level as those who have just been licensed to preach.  Thus, we find ourselves encouraging each other.

The Omega Psi Phi Fraternity declares that “Friendship is essential to the soul.”  This motto is true in the lives of ministers.  Our hearts are gladdened when we are reunited with former classmates, professors, mentors, and others we have met along life’s journey.  New friends are made as well.  When we are wise, we allow a few of these bonds to go beyond invitations to one another’s pulpits.  But, we also share some of our joys and pains with one another.  With the blessing of modern technology, it is easier for us to maintain those contacts that have grown to more meaningful unions.

Conference President Bishop Claude Alexander with Conference Preacher Dr. Gina Stewart

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he left a charge to his disciples to go out into the world.  That same charge extends to us in the final service of the week if not earlier.  I and others have found the Holy Spirit giving us new challenges and visions in our personal lives and in ministry.  We don’t expect things to be perfect when we go back to our various homes.  But, we have a greater expectation of what is possible through the will of God.  We go forward with that expectation knowing with inspired hearts, enlightened minds, and nourished souls that through him, all things are possible.

Along with the move of God I felt at Douthat State Park ( see “Zeitgiested at Douthat”) I will begin a new ministry revolving around Christians who love the outdoors.  The inaugural event will take place this September.  I am not certain if this will be an official outreach program of my church or if this is to be something separate.  But, I will pray and work to see what this will become.

 

Cold Mountain: My First Backpacking Adventure

Leaving on the Old Hotel Trail

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 according to the map I had).  I had brain enough to print off another set of directions before I left West Point and followed them until I got to the parking lot at Hog Camp Gap where the Appalachian Trail intersected Route 48.  I called myself waiting on the group when, little did I know, they had waited and then left me.  Figuring I had already come so far, I refused to call it quits.  I packed up my gear and took the AT up Cold Mountain.

Summit View

Up is an understatement!  In another previous post, I described how I got my butt kicked underestimating the difference between flat and mountain hiking when I went up Humpback Rock.  I should have died on the AT trying to reach the summit with that heavy backpack!  Some of the pain went away as I gazed all around at a fantastic panoramic view and enjoyed meeting a nice family out for a quick day hike.  If I were allowed, I would have stayed right there and captured amazing sunset and sunrise images.  But, I really wanted to get to the Cow Camp Shelter before sundown.  It was a steep decent down the mountain.  the trail seemed a lot more narrow and had these hair pin switch backs.  There is no way in the world I would have made that trip in the dark.

Chesapeake Bay Sierra Club Hikers

I got to the shelter and sadly didn’t find the group.  But, I did run across some dudes who offered me advice and conversation.  I did see a piece of racist graffiti on the other side of the Blue Ridge.   Among hikers, I have yet to meet anyone who has been unfriendly.  There are all sorts of jerks in everywhere you go in life.   But, I follow the example of my father who became a communications technician with AT&T long before there were racial hiring quotas:  Be respectful of yourself and others.  Be sincere about what you want to do and people will work with you no matter what they might think of you.  I thank God for everyone I met and greeted along the way.

A Stream Of Living Water

I set up camp near the shelter and spent the night under the stars with my Bible.  The ghost of my grandfather-in-law, Rev. Carter Wicks, was already on my mind as I was in Charlottesville to say goodbye to my grandmother-in-law.  With the waters of Little Cove Creek, I couldn’t ignore the spiritual presence of the place.  Romans 8:12-17 reminded me to live according to the spirit and not the flesh.  If I could strive this hard on a hike in the natural world, how much more must I strive for the Kingdom.  While I would have enjoyed the company of the Sierra Club hikers, I believe God intended for me to be alone on this trip.

Wild Strawberry

I had the brilliant idea that if I took the Old Hotel Trail back to the parking lot, I wouldn’t have to go uphill again.  That was not my best thought!  Another hard climb awaited me.  Little did I know I would run into some friendly and familiar faces.  “Hey John.  We didn’t think you were coming.”  We chatted a bit about my failed sense of timing.  But, I was congratulated for going through with the hike alone.  I didn’t learn to hike by a compass yet.  But, I do know how to follow a well-marked trail and map.
Aside from packing way too heavy (Chris warned me not to bring my Pentax K200D.  Did I listen?  Of course not!), I thought this whole experience was absolutely wonderful.  almost everywhere I looked there was something worth seeing and enjoying!  Clouds were drifting effortlessly past the mountains.  Wild strawberries and other flowers were in bloom.  Along the Old Hotel Trail, there seemed to be running water around every other bend.  I am glad I had sense enough to take the little Kodak Easyshare C143 so I could get a few good shots in without taking out my “Brick” (I love my camera, but it is as solid and heavy as a brick).  The trip is everything that it was advertised to be.  But, I don’t recommend that rookies go solo.  Yeah, I did it.  But, the Lord protects babies and fools.  Since I haven’t worn a diaper since Lyndon Johnson was President, I know where I stand.

Cloud on the Mountain

The Beach in Winter

Windmill Point Dawn

On the surface, visiting a beach north of the Carolinas this time of year is not the smartest thing in the world to do.  High temperatures are in the 40’s at best.  Most mornings, the 20’s.  And don’t let there be any wind blowing.  There are no trees nor buildings around to help protect from the wind chill.  One morning at work, I joked seeing ice on the York River that it was cold enough for a muskrat to wear an overcoat! 

Tundra Swans in Flight

This is a great time for birders, explorers, photographers, and others looking for solitude to enjoy time at a beach.  The migratory species are here.  Canada geese and tundra swans are winter regulars and offer great viewing and photo opportunities.  Depending on where you go, the geese aren’t too people shy and can be photographed with a fairly wide lens.    If your budget allows, a 400mm lens or stronger can put you in the action without much effort.  Those of us of more modest means can still rely on careful and patient stalking to create fine images.  Dunlin and other sandpipers are also numerous and are great subjects to shoot.  Tread carefully and you can almost reach out and grab one.

This is the best time of the year for sunrise photography.  Sunrise is as late as 7:15 to 7:30 AM.  No need to wake up and be on location by 5 o’clock.  Either get the sleep, or be there early to determine how you want to shoot the seascapes and set up your tripod.  The added possibilities of flying migratory birds at sunrise is an added incentive for beach photography. Get up and dress for the weather.  Summertime sunrises come earlier.

Dawn on the Beach

A Wee Bit Chilly

Solitude is a great reason to be here with or without a camera.  My first beach hike of the year was on the first day of the year.  I had Bethel Beach almost all to myself.  I did meet a birder and a couple who were picking up litter.  The next week, it was off to Windmill Point, Hughletts, and Dameron where I was completely alone.  The time spent in reflection of the past year and anticipation for what is to come was far more valuable due to the seclusion in the wide open shorelines of the Chesapeake.  Temperature and were the walls that kept the busy world out of my enlarged closet of prayer.
Keep up with the activities of the Virginia State Parks as well as my other work on the Virginia State Parks Blog.  May peace be granted to you and yours this 2011.