Repent and Believe- The Church’s Calling after Charlottesville

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

On August 12, 2017, our nation watched the horrific images being broadcast out of Charlottesville, Virginia. White supremacists from around the country gathered at a planned rally in which Neo-Nazis, White Nationalists, Ku Klux Klansmen, and others terrorized and attacked counter-protesters. They shouted racist slogans such as “Blood and soil” (which was directly lifted from 1930s Nazi propaganda), “White lives matter!”, “You will not replace us!”, and other hateful words. They attacked counter-protesters by throwing cement filled soda cans at them, beating them with their torches, and worse. One man intentionally ran his car into a crowd of counter protesters killing one young woman and injuring 19 others. A group of clergy were trapped in a church where they were praying for peace and justice as the White supremacists surrounded the house of worship and sought to attack anyone who left the building.

After seeing such brazen hate in Charlottesville, I am left wondering what the church can practically do. What are we called to do in the face of such blatant hatred? I am still working that out a bit, but I think the first recorded words of Jesus provide some guidance. We repent and we believe.

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The Cover Band of Christ

 

There are few cover songs that I like. When a musical artist plays their own rendition of another artist’s song, I often find that the result is flat. To me it often sounds like an artist is doing their best impression of the artist they are covering and they inevitably fall short every time. Did you know that the new wave band, Blondie, did a cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire? I was not very impressed. I am also not in love with Tom Jones’ cover of Prince’s Kiss.

There is one recent band that has been doing some pretty interesting and enjoyable cover songs. Mexrissey is an all-Mexican band that covers the music of the former Smith’s frontman, Morrissey. Mexrissey takes the melodramatic music of this British rocker and infuses their uniquely Mexican flavor to it. This is not yet another cover band inadequately trying to imitate another musician. They have made the music their own while preserving the core of the songs. All of the songs they perform have been translated into Spanish and the traditional rock instrumentation of guitar, bass guitar, drums, and voice now include horns and are performed in a mariachi inspired style.

I really like Mexrissey because they were able to hold onto the core of the Morrissey songs including the familiar melodies, but managed to make them truly their own. They perform those old Morrissey songs in a fresh and contextual way.

The church is called into a similar relationship with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, we have been entrusted with an old and timeless message. God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus Christ so that all who believe in him might have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it. (John 3:16-17). At its core, that Gospel message never changes. Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus still is able and desires to save the world from the power of sin and death. The church has been called to proclaim that in Christ, all those powers that seek to separate us from each other and the love of God have been defeated on the cross. That message is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. Continue reading

2016 Unity Walk: Defying Death

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The third annual Unity Walk will be held on May 1 this year.   An interfaith group of people from Trenton and throughout Mercer County (the United Mercer Interfaith Organization) have committed themselves to make a public witness to their hope in God’s desire for peace to reign throughout our city. We do this important work by traveling to all of the murder sites in our city over the past year and gathering to pray at those places. I would highly encourage you all to participate in this event to the best of your ability. As Christians we celebrate and worship a God who has conquered the power of sin and death through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the central practices of our faith is an active defiance against death. When we or others might be tempted to concede to death’s power saying it is an inevitable part of life, we who follow Christ say loudly, “No!” We do not believe that death is something that ultimately needs to be accepted or that it is finally a necessary part of life. We believe that “…Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

We hear a lot about heaven in popular culture (it seems like it is mentioned in every other romantic song on the radio) and we hear about resurrection often in church. Neither is necessarily a bad thing. I highly encourage folks to enjoy their “heavenly” relationships and resurrection is pretty much what we are all about in the church. I think, however, that we get so accustomed to the idea or what we are told should be our idea of the defeat of death, that we forget how powerfully defiant the very idea is. Death is the one thing in life of which we can be absolutely certain, but in the person of Jesus Christ we cannot even be sure of that. In fact, in our faith we say that we can be certain that death’s power is certainly defeated and obsolete. It is that boldness of faith that compels us to proclaim God’s life and love in the places that seem filled with the certainty of death and fear. In his work, On Councils and the Church, Martin Luther identifies seven external marks or indicators of the church. Perhaps most interestingly, Luther identifies the final mark as:

The Sacred Cross” and describes it as the church bearing, “…every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. … Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there.

The church has been entrusted with incredible good news. All sin has been forgiven, God’s mercy reigns, and Christ defeated death so that we might inherit eternal life. Many of us are keenly and personally aware of the joy that such Good News brings. Knowing the power of the Good News of God’s unconditional love we as the church are blessed with the opportunity to enter into places where there are “…all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh…” Such places certainly include the murder sites in our city. We travel to those places to witness the steadfast love of God that perseveres even in the midst of fear and violence and the grace of God that destroys the power of death itself.

D&D and the Church

Dungeons and Dragons and The Church

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I have a nerdy confession to make. Are you ready? OK. I play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) regularly. Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest. Not only do I play, but I run most of the games my group plays. I am the Dungeon Master (DM) or the Game Master (GM).

I know that when some people think of Dungeons and Dragons they think of sweaty kids with zero social skills and a very loose grasp on reality. Some people even believe that D&D players like to dress up in wizard hats and carry foam swords. This has not been the case, at least in my experience. People of all ages play D&D, players fit no stereotypes that I have seen as far as social awkwardness goes, and I have never been to a game where players wore wizard hats and/or carried foam swords.

I love playing D&D. It is fun. My favorite aspect of the game is that you get to control the story. As a player or a GM, you are engaging in a cooperative story-telling adventure. You do not get that same experience in books, movies, or even video games. The world is expansive and the only thing that can limit it is your imagination. I have played games with a gnome with a pet crocodile, a sorcerer who loved dancing more than magic, and a barbarian whose weapon of choice was a shovel. I have fought dragon zombies, I have charmed powerful diplomats, and unveiled the true identities of a vampire acting troupe.

I also love D&D for the fun character/player dynamics that come up in play. We really need every character in order to make the game run well. Lord of the Rings is usually lifted up as a point of inspiration for the creation of D&D and we can note that the characters are all so diverse. Wizards, humans, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and more are necessary to the story of Lord of the Rings. The same is true in D&D. No game would be successful if a party consisted of only one type of character. Five wizards may be very impressive as they hurl fireballs and cast lightning bolts, but pit them against a feat of strength or a locked door that needs to be picked, and they are out of luck. A good D&D game needs a variety of character types in order to be successful. The same can be said for the faithfulness of the body of Christ. The apostle Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…” (1 Cor. 12:12). He goes on to talk about how no one body part is more important than another. You cannot have just one part of the body in the body of Christ, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Cor. 12:17). We need the body of Christ to be as diverse as our own bodies and as a D&D party. We can rejoice that God has blessed us with such diversity within the body of Christ.

I love the church for many of the same reasons I love Dungeons and Dragons. God has given us an opportunity to dream dreams and seek out visions (Acts 2:17-18). We have God on our side, the one who created the heavens and the earth, who is alpha and omega, and who is beginning and end. With God on our side we are only limited by what we can imagine. That is what I love about Saint Bart. We are blessed with so many diverse people who are not afraid to dream big. Without a God-given holy imagination, no one would have dreamed up the Clothes Closet, hosting the Share Food Program, the Women’s Group, Craft Group, worship in the park, a dynamic VBS program, Feast of Faith, and much more! I truly believe that those visions were gifts from God and that God is not done providing visions and dreams to God’s church.

Lent is traditionally a time of preparation and deep reflection for the church. I invite you this Lenten season, to take time in prayer and conversation to dream of what God might be calling you to do- as an individual and as the people of Saint Bart. We have all been given unique gifts and talents and God calls us to joyfully share the Good News of Jesus Christ through these gifts and talents. God has been faithful to God’s people throughout the ages and God has promised to be faithful today.

God’s Mystery Basket

chopped basketI really like the reality cooking show/contest, Chopped. In this television program, four chefs from around the country compete to make the most delicious and creative dishes as determined by a panel of celebrity chefs. The quirk to the show is that the contestants must use all four food items included in the “mystery basket.” Sometimes the items are familiar and reasonable like smoked pork chops or radishes. Sometimes the items are unfamiliar or less commonly used like quail eggs or celeriac. Sometimes the items are just plain cruel like jellybeans in the appetizer round or used coffee grounds in the entrée round.

I know, I know, it is very silly, but chances are if you have seen this show you know how intriguing it can all be. I like to imagine being a contestant myself. Maybe one day they will have a special clergy competition… I can dream, right? Anyway, I love to imagine that I am a part of the competition. I get a little bit smug when I see some of the ingredients. Pork ribs, dandelion greens, vegemite, and gummy worms? Hah! That’s mere child’s play. I could make delicious, but certainly unconventional pork fried rice. It is probably just as fun when I get completely stumped. Marrow bones, cheese curls, spam, and caviar? Nope, now I am stumped. With baskets like that I am glued to the TV wondering, “What the heck are they going to do with that?” Some of the chefs fall flat with the especially odd baskets, but others seem to make something delicious out of the seemingly not delicious combination of items they were stuck with.

The church is a lot like Chopped. God has given us many gifts, passions, languages, and resources to proclaim God’s unconditional love to the world. Sometimes we might have just the right combination for ministry and it is very obvious. Good organizer, beautiful singing voice, great cook, and welcoming personality? Got it. We could put together an open mic night with dinner and the money we make could go to Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. But there are other times when we might not be sure how our gifts fit in. We all have those skills and gifts that are on par with receiving cheese curls in your mystery basket. But our chef is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit can do some pretty amazing things… even with cheese curls.

We saw the incredible ability of the Holy Spirit to bring together all kinds of unharmonious ingredients into a beautifully composed dish. At the church’s first Pentecost we saw people gathered together who spoke many languages who were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…” (Acts 2:9-11). Each of these very different peoples were able to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in their own language. Each “ingredient” was highlighted, but together they composed a beautiful dish.

This is no less true today. God the Holy Spirit is still gathering the many different people of the world with their many different gifts and serving the Gospel of God’s unconditional love to the entire world. As we are called to participate in the ministry of Christ sharing God’s love with the world, let’s ask ourselves with great wonder and excitement, “What is in God’s mystery basket now?”

Good Courage

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One of my favorite prayers is this sending prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 304)

I shared my love of that prayer with a friend once and she said, “Oooo. Good courage. I like that.”

I like that too and have been thinking about what makes good courage so “good.”

As we journey into the season of Lent, we intentionally reflect on the “ventures of which we cannot see the ending” and the “perils unknown” and the fact that God is present with us throughout that journey. During Lent, some people abstain from a joy such as food, drink, Facebook, or TV and others take on a practice to focus their self on God such as more regular prayer, Bible study, or community service. The purpose of these disciplines, I think, is that by the Holy Spirit’s work, we might more fully see that God is the source of all goodness and that God’s love continues to support us wherever we go. What leads us through the challenges of our lives is not food, drink, money, Facebook, or TV, but it is the grace and lovingkindness of God. Continue reading

Hope and Hopelessness

Yesterday marked the 2nd anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, CT. The following is a reflection originally posted at eisenblogosphere.tumblr.com on December 19, 2012.

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In the hours after the elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT, I watched as bloggers and friends on Facebook added their thoughts, frustrations, and prayers one after another. Some posted prayers for healing and comfort. Some admitted that they had no words to say in the face of such tragedy. Some saw this event as a call to action.

Their messages addressed a few different ills of our society.

“We need better gun control.”

“We need better mental health treatments.”

“We need better security in public places.”

I hear that. I respect that call to action. I agree with the stances of most of what my friends and colleagues had said. Guns get out too easily, no civilian has a pressing need for a handgun with a 40-round clip, and we as a society need to care better for our most vulnerable. Those things do need to change.

But part of me feels like giving up on our own solutions.

A man a few years younger than I opened fire at children. I don’t know if there is a greater destruction of innocence. “Babies,” is what a friend of mine said, “They’re babies…”

Something broke in the gunman.

Or something broke him.

Something in this world broke him. Maybe it was in his genes. Maybe it was some hurt another person inflicted on him. Maybe it was something we can’t comprehend. But something broke him like countless others before him who have been broken. Then, he broke those adults and those children. Continue reading