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Religious

Thanksgiving Day in Bonaire

“After giving thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.’”

1 Corinthians 11:24 (Common English Bible)

This year my wife, Grace, and I will celebrate Thanksgiving Day on the Caribbean Island of Bonaire. Our thirty-fourth Thanksgiving together, this one will be different. Most of our celebrations of this holiday have been with family – our children, our parents, or our siblings. Some years ago, our children and Grace’s mother celebrated Thanksgiving with us in New York City, kicking the day off with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. During our twelve years in Bucks County, a number of celebrations we shared with another family in that church, each year alternating homes for the meal. Since moving to Florida, several celebrations were with a family of this congregation, breaking from meal preparation in the home to celebrate over a sumptuous buffet provided by the former Marriot of Delray Beach. Guests around the table may have varied through the years. However, there were always guests.

This year, neither of our children are able to make the trip to Florida. Our daughter, Rachael, has now made her home in Seattle, Washington and our son, Nathanael, will be preparing final papers for the fall semester at Princeton Theological Seminary. My brother, Wayne, and his wife, Nancy, have now retired from their ministry in Florida and have moved to Tennessee and Grace’s siblings will be out of the country. The church family we shared several meals with at Marriott have moved on and Grace and I have buried both of our parents. This year Grace and I will be alone for Thanksgiving Day. It is a familiar story. Each year brings change to every one of us – and our families. Since the beginning of this pandemic, it seems the speed of change has only accelerated. Disorientation is the result, often accompanied with some level of grief.

This year’s celebration with be a significant departure from our first thirty-three together – a holiday that always included either family or friends at the table. Therefore, Grace and I will celebrate Thanksgiving Day in Bonaire. It is a decision to embrace what is inevitable in all of our lives – change, and to make an imaginative use of that change. Most of us have little control over our future. Change is a reliable companion that shares life with all of us. What we do have is the ability take charge of that change, to make creative use of it in a manner that creates blessings. Without purposely choosing how we will adapt to change, the consequence that results may produce sadness and grief that is difficult to navigate. Inevitable change in the seasons of life may produce a deeper, richer experience than we ever thought possible or it can diminish life. The choice belongs to every one of us.

Therefore, this year, Grace and I are going to Bonaire. Moreover, I have purchased a fruitcake. Not any fruitcake. As many people, I usually do not care for fruitcake. However, for decades I have delighted in the fruitcake from Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. It has become a Thanksgiving Day tradition and it is hard to imagine Thanksgiving without it. I will take this fruitcake to Bonaire and, only there, remove it from its packaging and enjoy it. This year, Thanksgiving Day will be a significant departure from previous celebrations. That is why this fruitcake is so important. In the midst of inevitable change, I need to remember – to remember the journey that now takes me to Bonaire. This fruitcake will connect me meaningfully to the richness of the past as I experience the present moment and anticipate the Thanksgivings that lie in the future. “After giving thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this to remember me.’”

Joy,

Categories
Religious

The Disciple’s Rest

“ ‘Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves.’ ”

Matthew 11:28, 29 (Common English Bible)

There is a saying among pastors that in every congregation a third of the people are in a crisis, a third of the people are coming out of a crisis, and a third of the people are about to go into a crisis. If you are not in a crisis, chances are, there is something out in front of you heading your way. Anxiety and uncertainty seems to mark the countenance of many people today. Everywhere there is evidence of a certain strain – exhaustion from struggling to carry more than one person can reasonably bear. Attempting to face challenges that are beyond our strength, people move with fear, the wrinkle of worry etched deeply in their face. Absent are the rest, the assurance, and the strength available in the person of Jesus Christ.

We require the stimulus of a companionship with Jesus – the restful realization of God’s presence and care for us. Such rest is offered here by Jesus, “Come to me…I will give you rest.” This rest is always a gift. It is not earned. This rest comes as the fruit of a relationship. It is not from our labor. It is an immediate gift but its value is continuously experienced as we probe deeply into the riches of the relationship with Jesus. Much as falling in love, there are continually rich discoveries that are uncovered and realized as the relationship grows deeper, is explored, and cherished. The invitation to, “Come to me” prepares for, and actually leads to, the second part of the invitation, “Learn from me.’

Presbyterian pastor, author, and teacher, Eugene Peterson once declared that if you are too busy to read, you are to busy. Similarly, if we are too busy to spend time each day with God, to read the Bible and devotional literature, to “learn of Jesus,” then we are too busy. Each day is then powered by our own strength, which, eventually, becomes exhausted. Writers cannot write from exhaustion. Musicians perform poorly without adequate rest. Those who fight experience defeat without the replenishment received from time off on the battlefield. Woven into the fabric of God’s good creation is the “seventh day” that is for rest and simply knowing God. Jesus asks that we learn from him that the gift of rest might be fully experienced.

Instead of living with aimlessness and exhaustion as though we were on our own, Jesus invites us to a sure and restful intimacy with him. A person who comes to Jesus and spends time in that relationship – learning from Jesus – discovers someone whose strength and force is tremendous! Such people move through the darkest storms of life with apparent ease. But it is the ease that is linked with the infinite – the very God who created all there is. Such people possess spiritual energy rather than manifest symptoms of panic. They recognize the wealth and power of allies in God and face the difficulties of life with restful assurance. “Come to me” invites Jesus, and we will be distinguished from the world. We will have rest.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

Tearing the Church Apart

After a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home. So many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. Jesus was speaking the word to them. Some people arrived, and four of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed. They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, they lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven!’ ”

Mark 2:1-5

When I first arrived as a student in Princeton Seminary, one of the first buildings I visited was Miller Chapel, the school’s communal worship space used for daily services and seminary events. Fronted by six beautiful Doric columns, the chapel is a jewel of early nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture. Generations of students and teachers have prayed and worshipped together within its walls, and despite being surrounded by colonial-era monuments and battlefields, few buildings in the Princeton area truly exude the same weight of history. Standing there, I was struck by its sacredness and beauty—it is a holy, beautiful space, worthy of admiration and preservation. Then I imagined it being torn to the ground. 

Horrific to imagine, isn’t it? Yet we see something not too different happening in the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Of all the Bible’s healing miracles, this story of Jesus healing the paralytic is one of the most cherished in part because it’s one of the most dramatic. It reads almost like a proto-heist movie: four friends come together, sneak on top of the building where Jesus is preaching, break inside, and lower their paralyzed friend down to Jesus not unlike Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. It’s also dramatic because this was one of the only times in Mark where Jesus publicly reveals himself as the Son of God. For most of Mark, Jesus tells those he heals to tell no one of his power, but here he heals the paralytic and declares his sins forgiven in front of a massive crowd. Dramatic, indeed. 

But there’s a detail in this story that’s lost on modern audiences: the paralytic’s four friends essentially destroyed the house Jesus was in. First century Palestinian roofs were two feet thick and contained layers of timber, tree branches, and dirt. This is what the paralytic’s four friends dug through—and the original Greek text confirms that they didn’t remove the roof, they didn’t lift the roof, they dug through the roof. By the end, the house’s insides would’ve been covered with debris. Additionally, first century Christians would’ve drawn parallels between this house hosting a rabbi and the secret house churches they were forced to hide in while under Roman occupation. This house was a church. And for whatever reason, these men were denied entry. Jesus had established a reputation in Galilee by then as a healer, and his audience knew he could heal the paralytic—they knew that by letting him through he could get his life back. But shockingly, they didn’t. For whatever reason, these five men didn’t belong in that congregation. They were kept outside, away from the Messiah, away from the healing grace of God. And what was Jesus’ reaction to these outsiders fighting back and destroying his “church?” He saw their faith, and he found it good. 

If there’s something in this text that we as Christians should take away that we traditionally haven’t, it’s that God blesses those who disrupt the church with their faith. God blesses outsiders who demand inclusion with God’s people and scream “I am here!” And who are these people? Who has the church traditionally closed the door on? Immigrants and refugees? The disfigured and the homeless? Yes, all these and more. Maybe it would be better if we smashed every chapel and church, every pulpit and sanctuary that denies the unwanted, that rebukes the sinner, that ignores the helpless. As Mark 2 reveals, it’s only when such churches—such roofs—are destroyed that the true Gospel of Christ can be revealed. Only then will God see us—all of us—and say “Your sins are forgiven—now take your mat and walk.” 

The above meditation was written by Dr. Doug Hood’s son, Nathanael Hood, a second year student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Categories
Religious

Love Me Anyway

“While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.”

Romans 5:6 (Common English Bible)

Love Me Anyway is a tender piano ballad that contemplates the limits of love. Written by pop music artist, Pink, with Nashville songwriters Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas, the song captures the longing and hopefulness that the love between two people is not conditional – not vulnerable to behavior or circumstances that may threaten the fidelity of the relationship. As the traditional marriage vow asks, “will you stick around in good times and bad?” Country artist, Chris Stapleton plays a supporting role to Pink’s lead vocals, the song centered on the latter questioning her lover’s commitment in their romance. Poignantly, the lead voice questions if he could still love her even if she “broke his heart?”

The ability of this song to pierce every heart is located in the refrain, “Could you love me anyway?” It is the question of the ages. A question that is common to every human heart. Each heart longs to love and receive love. The fear that love can be lost disrupts a sense of well-being, perhaps even crippling the ability to be fully human with all of our capacity for folly and blunders. Insecurity in our love with another diminishes a life’s ability to flourish, “Even if you see my scars. Even if I break your heart. If we’re a million miles apart. Do you think you’d walk away?” That is our fear. If we are not careful, if we misstep, our love will walk away.

This sounds a good deal like our relationship with God. We try our hardest to make ourselves right with God. We fear God’s disappointment with us. However, we are weak, says the apostle Paul. We stumble, obedience fails, and we long to know if God could love us anyway. For an answer, Paul points to the cross of Jesus Christ: “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.” This is God’s answer to our anxiety. In good times and bad, God sticks around for us. Moreover, when our lives break into a million pieces, God gathers each broken piece upon a cross and restores life for us.

Pink and Chris Stapleton have provided a gift with their song, Love Me Anyway. Clearly and beautifully this songs articulates the restlessness of every human heart. Anyone in the helping profession acknowledges that healing begins with naming our fear. Our deepest fear is that love may be taken away from us – taken away if we mess-up in life. That is precisely the difficulty. We are human. It is beyond our ability to live without an occasional blemish; a misspoken word, a hurtful act, to become lost in selfishness. The song asks, “Could you pick up the pieces of me? Could you? Could you still love me?” Here, in his letter to the Roman Church, Paul answers. Look! God’s answer hangs upon a cross. With all of our ungodliness, God loves us anyway.

Joy,

The above meditation is from Dr. Doug Hood’s new book, Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, Volume 2, now available at your favorite electronic book seller or from the church office.