The Plain and Simple Gospel

The following meditation is from Doug Hood’s upcoming book, Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, vol. 2.

“‘Come, follow me,’ he said, ‘and I’ll show you how to fish for people.'”

Matthew 4:19 (Common English Bible)

We are all living a deeply entangled, complex life. As complexity increases, so does our exhaustion. We run faster, master complex planning calendars that were designed to make life less cumbersome, and come to the end of many days feeling that we have been defeated. Present is a growing nostalgia for a simpler world – a desire for a plainer, clearer path forward. This general desire includes the spiritual realm. The hope is that the church would provide a rediscovery of God, a reclaiming of God’s strength for daily living, and direction for a larger purpose for which we may attach our lives. Unfortunately, what many find are cumbersome requirements for membership and multiple invitations to serve on committees that multiple our exhaustion. With church participation we discover that there are now more oars in the water that requires our attention.

How can we return to a simpler time? Jesus is instructive. Notice that Jesus does not invite people to register for a six-week member class. Jesus does not make committee assignments. Jesus does not examine doctrinal purity or demand conformity to creedal statements. Jesus quite simply asks that we follow him. To follow Jesus is to share life with Jesus in the fullest sense: to go where he goes, to listen to what he taught, and to participate in practices and disciplines that were important to him. An invitation to follow is the suggestion that there is something of value to be found. Naturally, to accept such an invitation begins with an acknowledgement that the present life isn’t working anymore. Unless we really believe that another approach to life is required, we will continue trying to make the present one work.

The one other thing that Jesus asks is a posture of humility, a desire to learn, and willingness to participate in Jesus’ work: “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” All the work of Jesus is about one thing – looking for those who have wandered far from God and bringing them back home to the Father. As with any great work, there are multiple functions that must be accomplished. None of us are asked – or equipped – to do them all. Some of us are to be teachers, some will show hospitality, and others will be administrators, caregivers, and evangelists. Others will provide care and comfort to the broken. The various jobs to be done are many. But one goal remains: “to fish for people” that they may return to God. Jesus will show us the way.

None of this suggests that boards and committees are without value to Jesus. Leadership boards must be populated with those who have demonstrated the capacity to respond to the promptings of God, to show people where Jesus is moving and call them to follow. Committees provide a responsible means for organizing a great work force for accomplishing all that Jesus seeks to do in a particular community. But, in this over complicated world, the church must not add unnecessary complexity to the simple call of Jesus to follow him and to participate with him in his grand redemptive purposes: a cup of cold water to the thirsty, a helping hand on the roadside, an encouraging word softly spoken. There are will within our reach. Nor are we called to carry the whole world on our backs. Our chief function is to point to the one who does, Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel, plain and simple.



Once Upon a Time in Denmark …

The following meditation is written by Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Philippians 3:7, 8(NRSV)

There once was a man from Denmark who told a story about a mighty king. The king, said the Dane, was the mightiest in the world. No other prince or leader, knight or peasant dared oppose his will. He clothed his body with rich jewels and lavish robes, and whenever he toured his kingdom he rode in a royal carriage with an armed escort. The king wanted for nothing—no earthly good or luxury escaped him. Yet the king, the Dane explained, was lonely. Then one day, he fell in love. But not with a queen or princess of a faraway kingdom. Not a rich merchant or skilled artist. The king fell in love with a poor maiden from an even poorer village.

Now, the king knew he could have anything he wanted. There were none with his wealth, none with his power, none with his strength in battle or conflict. Yet his love left him paralyzed with uncertainty. If he arrived in her village with his rich jewels, his lavish robes, his royal carriage and armed escort, the maiden would surely accept his hand. But would it be for love or fear? Would she spend her life resenting or hating him for giving her no choice? What if she only agreed to marry him because she wanted his wealth, his power, his palace? Yes, the Dane sighed, he could never truly know her love if he came to her as a king. So this threw off his finery and abandoned his entourage. He clothed himself in rags and went to her village alone. It was there, as a powerless, penniless beggar, that he managed to woo the maiden and win her heart.

Cherish Christ

This story was told hundreds of years ago by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a man whose name tends to glaze over the eyes of laypeople who know nothing about him other than his notoriety as a Philosopher with a capital “P.” But Kierkegaard was one of the oddest philosophers of his age, a gloomy, death-obsessed man who juxtaposed the increasing secularization of Europe’s intelligentsia with a fervent yet unusual faith. He passionately loved Jesus yet passionately detested organized religion, particularly the Danish church of his day and age. In the above parable of “The King and the Maiden” he provides a bold explanation for one of the central scandals of Christianity: God’s choosing to be born human and live and die as one. For Kierkegaard, it was only by approaching humanity as a “beggar” that God could truly win its love and devotion. If God had demanded fealty of all creation—not just God’s covenant people the Jews—as a conquering king, it would require fearful surrender instead of joyful acceptance. Only by exercising free will could humanity establish a relationship with God that truly mattered.

But there’s a different reading to this story, one that Kierkegaard perhaps didn’t intend. What if humanity—with all its egotism and excess, selfishness and pride—is the king and Christ the maiden? We certainly see this idea reflected in the story of Paul, a dogmatic Pharisee who abandoned his fundamentalist insistence on rules and regulations after an encounter with Jesus. After finding Christ, he cast off all his wealth and love of legalism for a closer, truer relationship with God. Everything he once held dear in his life he “regarded as rubbish” after his conversion, casting them off as Kierkegaard’s king did his wealth and finery to court his beloved maiden. So too must we all reassess and reevaluate what we cherish in our own lives. Is our quest for wealth and power keeping us from loving our neighbors as we do ourselves? Is our desire for material luxuries or sex preventing us from living the kind of simple, righteous lives Jesus called us to? Are we too busy living as kings to remember that we’ve been called to live as beloved children of the Almighty?



Not Waiting for Happiness

The following meditation is from Doug Hood’s upcoming book, Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, vol. 2

“I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:11-13 (Common English Bible)

Have you noticed how many people have delayed their happiness? They seem to believe that if they can achieve a little more success, acquire a little more wealth, or marry the right person then they will possess happiness. Happiness, they believe, is what follows effort, and time, and, perhaps, a little luck. It is as though happiness is somewhere out in front of everyone who is industrious enough to pursue it. Happiness is something to grasp, they believe, and their minds remain fixed upon it until they have taken ownership of it. Striving day upon day toward the possession of happiness, what they miss is that the secret of happiness is already present in the lives of those who long for it.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church provides the secret of happiness – as God’s people, we are to live in humility, looking out for others more than for ourselves. That is a great reversal of the commonly accepted formula for happiness. Essentially, Paul teaches that if we are always chasing after happiness, happiness always remains beyond our grasp. On the other hand, if we occupy ourselves with looking out for others, adding value to other people and promoting their welfare, happiness quietly joins God’s people and takes-up residence in them. Paul is urging God’s people to break free of the tiny little world of themselves and join the great enterprise of God’s work in the world.

Here, in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church, Paul further develops the secret to happiness. Having shared the secret of happiness, disclosed in the activity of Jesus who accepted humility to become like us, for the purposes of restoring us to God, Paul points to a mysterious strength that converges in our service to one another. That strength comes not from any person – or from the community of God’s people – but from the outside. It is God’s strength. There is far more going on when God’s people join with one another for the promotion of the welfare of others. The same Christ who became human to serve now empowers and enables God’s people in their service to one another.

Shortly following the death of his wife, J. R. Carmichael entered a nursing home. Yet, if you inquired about him, you learned that he is never in his room. It seems that each morning Mr. Carmichael would shower, dress, eat breakfast, and then move from one residential room to another. In each room, Mr. Carmichael spoke with the resident about their family, read the Bible to them, prayed with them, and told them that he loved them. Then it was off to the next room to do the same thing. Mr. Carmichael missed his wife every day but he never waited for happiness. Happiness found him, as he loved others deeply.



Leavening Faith

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood,

a seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary

And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?

It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”  Luke 13:20, 21 (English Standard Version)

For the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I lived in a part of Brooklyn near one of the worst viral hotspots in the entire country. Not too far from my apartment were hospitals that had to bring refrigerated trucks in to store the bodies of pandemic victims because they were literally running out of space to put them. The entire city shut down and was ordered to shelter in place. These were some of the hardest months of my life, not only because I knew I was risking it every time I went out for essentials like groceries and medicine, but because I found myself unemployed after barely a week of quarantine. With no job and nowhere to go other than my phone for distraction, time began to lose its meaning. Every day and every week was just like the one before. With no end in sight, my emotions began spinning out of control.

But then my roommate made a suggestion: let’s make a sourdough starter. To make one, all you need is flour and water. You soak some flour, let it sit somewhere stuffy overnight, add more flour and water the next day, and repeat the process until you have a richly sour and runny paste you can use as leaven to make bread with. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. Any number of things can wreck a starter: using the wrong amount of water or flour, exposing it to too much oxygen, exposing it to too little oxygen, letting it get too hot or too cold, not “feeding” it with fresh flour on schedule, and many more. The point is, making a starter required a level of attention and discipline that cut through the fog of my boredom and despair. It gave me a purpose to set my alarm every morning.

 One of the most controversial of Jesus’ parables is when he compares the Kingdom of God to yeast—or more accurately sourdough starter in the text’s original cultural context. In addition to being one of Jesus’ shortest parables, it’s also one of his most obscure. Scholars have spent millennia trying to parse out what exactly he meant. Some argue it means that a little faith can transform an individual life or whole community. Others suggest that we Christians are the yeast and we’re called to “leaven” the world around us. And still others point out that in typical fashion Jesus inverts something perceived as negative in ancient Israel—while crucial to baking, leaven was frequently viewed back then as something potentially putrid and rotten—into something positive that inherits the Kingdom.


But as someone who has now dabbled in amateur baking, I see this parable differently. Note that “three measures” of flour in ancient Israel would be roughly equivalent to forty to sixty pounds. Whoever this woman is, she’s preparing a feast. But before she can feed the masses, she must first make enough leaven, a process that must’ve taken literal weeks, if not months, of patient, diligent work. Our walk with God is no different. It too takes tireless commitment and effort for it to properly ferment into something we can use. Regular worship, Bible study, personal reflection…these are all tools we can use to work the flour of our faith into the living water of God (John 4:10). Only then, after the work has been done, can we find a faith we can use to leaven both ourselves and others. And the results, like my first sourdough loaf in Brooklyn, will be delicious.