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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.

Categories
Religious

When Anger is a Virtue

“He (Moses) looked around to make sure no one else was there.

Then he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

Exodus 2:12 (Common English Bible)

“Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts,

he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”

Mark 3:5 (Common English Bible)

Moses was born during a time of great darkness. A new king was seated in Egypt and he feared the growing strength of the Jewish people. They were a minority people in Egypt and their growing number unsettled the king. So the king resolved to “deal with them.” As a result, the Egyptians organized their military to harass the Jewish people and force them into slave labor. But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread. Pharaoh’s contempt for the Jewish people grew until he looked upon them with disgust and dread. More had to be done to hold this growing, minority population in check. The first chapter of Exodus details the evil that was unleashed by the king: young children would be separated from their parents and the male children would be thrown into the Nile River and drowned.

Born to Jewish parents, Moses was numbered among those who would suffer the cruelty of Pharaoh’s unsteady and fearful leadership. When his mother saw that Moses was “healthy and beautiful” she hid him from the Egyptian authorities for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she placed her son in a reed basket, sealed it, and placed the child among the reeds at the riverbank. Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the river, found the child, and, moved with compassion, resolved to raise the child as her own. Raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses lived a life of ease and privilege in the royal court. Yet, as maturity came on, Moses began to be angry. Perhaps he fought against the anger, this disturbing indignation at the intolerable injustice he saw day after day propagated against the Jewish people – his people! Nonetheless, anger took possession of Moses.

Pay close attention to the developing narrative here in Exodus – it is when Moses found something to be angry at that he found God. Perhaps Moses’ anger was foolish. It did explode in such grand fashion that he killed the solider that was beating a Hebrew slave. Yet, Moses could no longer watch something so unbearably wrong and not take action. We might imagine the consequences to a pastor today for speaking the truth to power. Moses knew immediately that his response might not have been wise. He sought to cover it up. But intrinsic to this story is that Moses’ anger unleashed the beginning of the real Moses – the Moses portrayed on the silver screen and proclaimed from the pulpit. A quiet Moses would have made little difference, would not have been remembered. Soon, following this explosion of anger, Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments that have shaken generations. As Henry Emerson Fosdick writes, “His indignation against evil got him somewhere.”1

Each generation presents some incarnation of injustice and evil. Occasionally it is hard to see God when the suffering of the present age presses so profoundly upon our consciousness. Well, perhaps if we permit the present injustice to arouse our indignation we will see God. We will experience God’s nudge to quit our moral apathy, untether our passion for fairness and justice, and in our own response experience something of the holy ground that Moses stood on. When our Lord, Jesus Christ saw a deed of mercy being withheld by some misplaced ceremonial allegiance, he looked around with anger and took action to correct an injustice. Jesus teaches us by his response that, in the face of evil or injustice, we are not Christian if we are not angry. Martin Luther once wrote that it is when he is angry that he preaches well and prays better.

Joy,

The above meditation was taken from Dr. Doug Hood’s new book, Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ, volume 2, coming to your favorite online book seller this month.

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Religious

A Call to Prayer

“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”

Mark 1:35 (Common English Bible)

My grandmother kept a large, white, faux leather cover Bible prominently in her home – usually on a coffee table, though she would occasionally move it about her home as though it was a traveling exhibit. Embossed into the cover was a full color picture of Jesus kneeling by a great rock in the wilderness. Each time my eyes fell upon that Bible I felt as though it was a call to prayer. The face of Jesus was not anxious, not desperate as my own on those occasions I did pray. His face portrayed a confidence, a radiance one has in the company of loved ones who care deeply about us.  Absent was worry, or doubt, or any trace of anxiety that threaten to consume. Yes, a call to prayer was evident in this picture of Jesus. However, that call made me uncomfortable – uncomfortable because I would experience a lack of spiritual power. With the disciples, I heard my own heart say, “Lord, teach us to pray like that.”

In this scripture, Jesus had just finished a hard, demanding day. Another day of similar demands stretched before him. How could Jesus be ready for it? Mark’s Gospel gives us the answer and with it an important insight to Jesus’ power, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” Jesus was intentional with prayer. Jesus wove into the fabric of each day a time to be alone with God. Jesus regarded this time a vital part of the human experience, however one may attempt to define or understand prayer. Prayer was an opportunity to link his life with the purposes of God and cultivate a friendship with God. This friendship produced the confidence that Jesus would not face any of life’s demands alone. That would be the source of Jesus’ spiritual power.

My lack of spiritual power as a child was from an inadequate view of prayer. I had reduced prayer to those occasions when I would ask God for a favor or for help with a difficulty. Consequently, days without prayer would pass – I simply did not have any request to make of God. Yet, as I matured, I continued to pay attention to that picture on my grandmother’s Bible, that picture of Jesus at prayer. It grew upon my consciousness that prayer is the same as time spent with a friend or loved one. I may not have anything to ask of my friend but I did enjoy their company. I felt valued by them, loved by them, strengthen because of their friendship. The same happens with prayer. A strong hand upon the shoulder, a confidence to face each day swelling within. Power comes as we find ourselves surrounded by God’s love, and guidance, and strength.   

With this refreshing surge of power that flows from regular time in prayer it is very strange then that we should be content with so little prayer. The weakest, most fearful individual can experience greater strength by the regular rhythm of prayer each day. As this passage of scripture demonstrates, prayer each day for Jesus was as ordinary as enjoying a meal. Jesus prayed often. Jesus prayed for himself and for others. Jesus prayed when he faced a crisis and Jesus prayed simply to be alone with God. Jesus urged his disciples to pray and Jesus taught prayer by example. What the disciples discovered is that regular prayer did not only sustain Jesus’ ministry, it gave direction. Immediately after Jesus rose from prayer this particular morning, Jesus knew what he must do that day. He was not to return to the previous day’s work. Jesus was to head in the other direction. God had new work for him there.         

Joy,

Categories
Religious

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.

 Joy,