Categories
Religious

Success in the Spiritual Life

“Train yourself for a holy life! While physical training has some value, training in holy living is useful for everything. It has promise for this life now and the life to come.”

1 Timothy 4:7b, 8 (Common English Bible)

Thoreau said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams…he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”i Advancement in a chosen direction is intentional movement, not simply a longing or a dream. One is aspirational; the other is a determined pursuit. One person may aspire to learn the Italian language; another enrolls in language class. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, “Have I determined a pathway for realizing my dreams? Am I now pursuing that path?” Success, says Thoreau, belongs to those who begin to move in the direction that is right for them. That is when things start to go our way.

In this letter to Timothy, Paul uses an athletic metaphor to describe, “Advancing confidently in the direction of a holy life.” He urges the reader to “Train yourself,” that is, to advance intentionally and confidently in the direction for living as Christ. The Greek word Paul uses for “train” is the word from which we get “gymnasium.” It would be odd for anyone to go to a gym simply to watch others train. Gyms have value, not as “observation posts” for people who dream of better health, but as an “action center” for advancing toward better health. When Paul speaks about training in holy living, he is talking about activities that engage us – activities that make a demand upon us.

It is good for us to reassess our priorities from time to time. Often we speak of our aspirations: an aspiration to learn a musical instrument, an aspiration to travel, or an aspiration to return to school. Yet, without “advancing confidently in the direction of our dreams,” they remain aspirations. Absent is a commitment and plan to advance toward them. Someone once observed that our priorities are transparent for the world to see – they see our priorities in what we do each day. The mature person understands that what is important receives time, energy, and intentionality. If consistently arriving to work on time is important for job security, we arrive to work on time. 

Thomas Long writes that if the holy life is our aim, we go to the theological gym to do curls, crunches, and run laps to train, not to run a marathon but in order to be people of love.ii Naturally, observes Tom Long, it does not take much training to love the lovable. However, when Christ calls us to love those who are difficult to love – or to love our enemies – then, that takes practice. That takes time in the theological gym. “Train yourself for a holy life!” writes Paul. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said that the supreme goal of men and women is to fulfil themselves – to honor their unique calling in life. The apostle Paul is asking that we now honor our baptismal vows – to become like Christ.

Joy,

____________________

i Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1981), 326.

ii Thomas G. Long, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 131.

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Religious

Throwing Away Self-Pity

“Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion!”

Isaiah 52:1a (Common English Bible)

Captivity for Israel has ended. God has defeated the powers of Babylon and has authorized Israel to depart and head for home to Jerusalem. A new day, with a strong future, now rises for God’s people. “Awake, awake!” is God’s double imperative to Israel. “Put on your strength, Zion!” The call sounds strangely familiar. “Up and Adam! Let’s get going!” is the more common usage today. These, or similar, words have been uttered by most parents summoning their children awake from their sleep. The image of sleepy children, resisting the call to leave the comfort of a warm bed, is sharp and crisp. The parent can wake the child with a shout, can summon the child from the bed, but it must be the child’s own strength that moves them from slumber to a fresh engagement with a new day.

God’s present difficulty is that Israel doesn’t want to get out of bed. During their captivity in Babylon, Israel has become dulled, inattentive, hopeless, and grief-stricken.i Israel has been humiliated by Babylon and has spiraled into such despair and self-pity that they no longer want to live. No longer did life offer a driving purpose, only a memory of brighter days. Absent was a radiant hope, only a fading dream. A captivating vision has fled from their sight. What remained was a history. “Awake, awake!” is God’s response to Israel’s self-pity. “Put on your strength, Zion!” God is reminding Israel that there is still strength in the people and is here urging them to summon that strength and toss-off that negative attitude that has consumed them.

Psychotherapist and author, Amy Morin writes that feeling sorry for yourself is self-destructive.ii Though we all experience pain and sorrow in life, dwelling on your sorrow and misfortune can consume you until it eventually changes your thoughts and behaviors. Morin contends that any of us can choose to take control. “Even when you can’t alter your circumstances, you can alter your attitude.”iii This is the clear declaration of God to Israel; the clear call to shake off their indulgence in self-pity, claim the strength that remains in them, and move positively forward toward the future God has prepared for them. God’s strength comes alongside our own. It does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.

After Victor Hugo was exiled from his beloved France, he spent 18 years in the Channel Islands. Hugo once described this exile from the nation he loved as worse than death. Each afternoon, at sunset, Victor Hugo would climb to a cliff overlooking a small harbor and look longingly out over the water toward France. Legend tells us that each day, following his meditations, Hugo would pick up a pebble and throw it into the sea. One day the children who developed an affection for him asked why he threw a stone in the sea each day. “Not stones, children, not stones. I am throwing my self-pity into the sea.” Little wonder that during those 18 years of struggle, Victor Hugo gave the world his best and most profound work of literature.

Joy,

_________________________

i Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 136.

ii Amy Morin, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. (New York: William Morrow, 2014) 20.

iii Morin, 18.

Categories
Religious

A Life Full of Meaning

“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will show you how to fish for people.”

Mark 1:17 (Common English Bible)

Norman Vincent Peale said, “To find life full of meaning, live a bigger and better life.” Joseph R. Sizoo spoke of a man who said to him, “I am not interested in the endurance of life but in an enduring life.” Jim Rohn wrote, “Consider others’ interest as important as your own. Much of the world suffers simply because people consider only their own interest.” I like best the way Michael Brown expresses the route to a life full of meaning, “Find something bigger than you to live for. Be like Abraham who was so busy tending the needs of his children, Israel, that he just didn’t have time to fret much about his own needs.” Multiple voices that all, essentially, share the same wisdom. A life focused only on your own wants and desires is the shortest route to an empty life.

These few words in Mark’s Gospel offer tremendous guidance to a full and satisfying life. First is an invitation to “follow.” To the one who is experiencing emptiness in their life, tossed from here to there by unseen forces, without direction or purpose, Jesus asks that their eye be focused on him. As sailors once navigated the seas by the North Star, Jesus asks that we navigate the complexities and uncertainties of life by an eye that pays attention to Jesus. Time reading the Bible, learning the teachings of Jesus, is never wasted time. Nor is this an exercise for the margins of time that may remain after a day of work. Learning of Jesus continually resets those values and priorities that propel us forward. We discern with greater clarity the important stuff of life. 

Second is the invitation to “learn.” In Judaism, rabbis often shared their wisdom with their followers. Formation of others was accomplished by teaching, modeling life built upon the teaching, and asking followers to do the same under the supervision of the instructor. This method of learning is more effective than instruction alone. During a vacation in Mexico my wife and I enrolled in a cooking class. The chef introduced the ingredients required for a particular Mexican dish, the kitchen instruments that would be required in the preparation, and then prepared the dish under our watch. Then the chef turned to us and asked that we now repeat what we saw. What was most satisfying is that Grace and I then enjoyed a lunch that we had prepared. Jesus says right here in Mark’s Gospel, “I will show you how.”        

It is then that these words reveal their “strangest secret” – a phrase I have borrowed from Earl Nightingale. The cooking class Grace and I took in Mexico was, without apology, for us. After all, we were on vacation. Yet, here Jesus identifies that our instruction, our formation, is for one purpose: the welfare of other people: “I will show you how to fish for people.” I call this the “strangest secret” because what remains unnoticed by many is that discipleship isn’t really about us. It is about others. Jesus is asking us to join him on the great adventure of populating God’s Kingdom with people who have lost their way in life. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah writes about God calling people to “catch” others in God’s net that they also may know God. A life lived for others is the secret of a life full of meaning.

Joy,

Categories
Religious

Happy People

“Therefore, get rid of all ill will and all deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

1 Peter 2:1-3 (Common English Bible)

Happy People, penned by songwriters, Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters and performed by Little Big Town, is a feel-good track that sparkles with uncommon wisdom about what it takes to be happy people: “Happy people don’t cheat. Happy people don’t lie. They don’t judge or hold a grudge. They don’t criticize. Happy people don’t hate. Happy people don’t steal.” These are the opening lyrics of a song that capture the sentiment of what’s going on in a world threatened with a deadly virus and torn by hurtful political rhetoric. As Fred Craddock, a widely popular preacher and thinker of the Christian faith, observes, “Christian growth involves, among other things, getting rid of those attitudes, ways of speaking, and behavior patterns that attack the central fabric of the community: mutual love.”[i]

As each one of us, approach a new day the one constant factor we all share is a decision: the feelings and attitudes that will shape our response to others. Implicit in these words from 1 Peter is an old life that was before knowing Christ and the new after our encounter with the Gospel. Whenever we face a situation, we now have a choice: the habitual response of ill will, deceit, pretense, envy, and slander that was the character of the old life or a response that is shaped by love. This moment of decision is one point of conflict we must negotiate between our old and our new life. A conscious decision is called for. Will we surrender to our old impulses, our normal response to other people, or will we choose the new way taught by, “the pure milk of the word”?

First Peter calls us to clean the slate of our lives – to face up to our old, destructive nature and wipe away specific attitudes and behavior that tear at the fabric of relationships with one another. Craddock wrote, “Malice, envy, and slander do not drop off like old clothes; these demons must be fought to the end.”[ii]  If they are not wiped away – by an intentional decision each day – these behaviors sour and spoil our lives and rob us of the happiness we desire. As Happy People reminds us in a lyric, “Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel.” A rich and rewarding life is the promise of the Gospel, a salvation from the decay brought by destructive speech and behavior. In Jesus Christ, we have “tasted” the promise of that salvation and know that it is good.

The refrain of Happy People announces, “If you wanna know the secret (of happiness). Can’t buy it, gotta make it. You ain’t ever gonna be it. By takin’ someone else’s away.” An excellent place to begin this “new life in Christ” is with any animosity that we may hold toward another. Letting go of that anger and hatred is like removing a heavy backpack after a long hike up a mountain. The initial relief is immediate and grows, measure by measure, over time. In truth, we may cause little hurt to another by our anger but we do serious harm to ourselves. It shows in our life, in our speech and our behavior. People see it. More, we experience it. It is depilating, often resulting in physical ailments. The closing lyric of Happy People is especially poignant, “Well life is short. And love is rare. And we all deserve to be happy while we’re here.”

Joy,


[i] Fred B. Craddock, First and Second Peter and Jude: Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) 35.

[ii] Craddock, 35.

Categories
Religious

Holy Moments

“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.”

Hebrews 12:1, 2 (Common English Bible)

Emerson wrote, “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”[i] Moments that are holy, moments filled with richness, and depth, and mystery are rare for many of us. Yet, they do come, however fleeting they may be. They strike us as a welcomed breeze that brushes our face on an otherwise hot and still day. At one moment, it is felt, and appreciated. The next, it is gone. The difficulty that often challenges any of us is that we live largely in the ordinary. The exceptional holy moment is dismissed for practical matters of meeting the present struggle of simply getting through the day.

The author of Hebrews urges a redirection of our natural impulse to be carried by whatever distracts us from completing the race that Christ has set before us – the race to know God and live richly that life God desires for us. Here in the twelfth chapter of Hebrews we are reminded of, “a great cloud of witness surrounding us.” That is our encouragement when the race becomes difficult. If we are honest, all races become difficult. Any athlete will acknowledge the multiple forces that pull against a resolve to train – to remain with any athletic endeavor that, in one moment, inspires our best effort. When that resolve becomes weak, nothing holds our eyes on the goal quite as well as family and friends who cheer us forward.

I am a runner. The boldness to declare that comes from multiple books and magazines on running. When I look in the mirror, I see considerably more trunk fat than others who run. I see in others lean bodies covering vast distances. I still have weight to lose and I only run two miles, five mornings a week. Yet, the literature I read each evening declares that I am a runner. A runner is not determined by a measure of fitness or the speed of the run or the distance that is covered. A runner is simply someone who runs regularly. So, I am a runner. But I am a distracted runner. Each morning I walk out the door I am creatively engaged with reasons not to run. That is why I subscribe to Runner’s World magazine and read books on running. They are my “great cloud of witnesses” that keeps me in the race.

Hebrews encourages that we remain in the race that has been laid out in front of us – the race to know and live for God. And Hebrews urges that we reorganize our life, to throw off any “extra baggage” and “sin that trips us up” that hinders our run. Like an athlete, Hebrews ask that we get rid of all the extra weight of anything that creatively engages us not to spend time regularly with God – time alone in a quiet moment reading God’s word and listening. We begin by remembering – remembering a grandmother, or a father, or someone we deeply admire who ran the Christian race before us. They will be our cloud of witnesses that pushes us forward. Emerson said: “When a man lives with God, his voice shall be as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of the corn.”[ii]

Joy,


[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays & Lectures (New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1983), 385

[ii] Emerson, 309

Categories
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.

Categories
Religious

A Very Strange Town Square

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”

2 Corinthians 5:17, 18

Earlier this month I spent a few days vacationing in St. Augustine with my family. This may seem an odd choice for a vacation, but the older I get the more I feel myself drawn towards ancient things. It doesn’t get more ancient—at least in North America—than St. Augustine. Founded in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, it’s the oldest continuously-inhabited European city in America. Walking its streets was like traveling backwards and forwards in time through different eras and cultures. Of all its magnificent sites and attractions, none captivated me quite like the Plaza de la Constitución. When it was first built as the town center by the Spanish, royal decrees mandated that it be the literal center of the community’s religious, government, and commercial functions. As such, it’s bordered by the stately Governor’s House, the nearly two-hundred-year-old Trinity Episcopal Church, and the breathtaking Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, home to the oldest Christian congregation in the contiguous United States. And then, in the center of the plaza, there’s a small open air pavilion. It’s easy to miss, particularly in the shadow of the churches. But none should. For this is the old slave market.

The city and people of St. Augustine don’t like to talk about the slave market. In a place where every other manhole cover seems to have a historical marker, it’s conspicuously missing one. None of the travel brochures we read mentioned it, and neither did any of our tour guides. It is, perhaps understandably, absent from the city’s official tourism website. Of all the historical sites we visited there, it was the only one I didn’t walk through. I was afraid it would scorch my feet. I remember not feeling sadness at the site of it, but anger. Not just the righteous anger one would expect at such a site, but indignant anger towards the two churches—one Catholic, one Protestant—who for centuries looked upon it without blinking. I was reminded of the story of Saint Telemachus, a fourth century monk who was martyred after literally throwing himself between two gladiators in a Roman amphitheater to stop their fighting. Every day the members of those churches didn’t do likewise and throw themselves at the slave market to destroy it, they failed in their sacred duties as Christians.

It makes one wonder how they as churches—and we as a larger nation of Americans—are supposed to move forward with the egalitarian promises and demands of our Christian faith after so many years of racial injustice and with so much left to be done. The Apostle Paul was likewise confronted with a congregation with generations of violent racial baggage in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Corinth was a Greek city that over a century earlier had been sacked, destroyed, and rebuilt by the Romans. In the time of Paul, its fledgling Christian community would’ve contained Roman colonizers, Greek descendants of the conquest, and local Jews who had likewise been subjugated by Rome. Crucially, Paul doesn’t ignore the strife. Instead, he labels them “old things” that have been replaced by “new things” as part of God’s “ministry of reconciliation.” What was this reconciliation? We’re not sure. Frustratingly, the biblical narrative of the Corinthian church ends with this epistle.

But St. Augustine’s narrative—indeed, our country’s narrative—continues. I have no doubt that in the years since the end of slavery both the Basilica and Trinity Episcopal have confessed and repented of their church’s inactivity while the market was active. But that reconciliation takes more than just forgiveness, it takes rebirth. I mentioned earlier that there is no historical marker for the slave market in the Plaza. But there is one celebrating a very different moment in the city’s history: the St. Augustine movement in the 1960s when Christian Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. marched and fought there for their people’s freedom. King and his fellow “Foot Soldiers”—some black, some white—re-sanctified that Plaza with blood and bravery, and it was more powerful a witness of God’s ministry of reconciliation in this world than any church apology ever could be. So must we all struggle, together as one, towards God’s final reconciliation.

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