Losing a Savior and Gaining a Future

During this Holy Week, as we prepare for Easter, nothing is the same as before. We can not prepare to gathering in one building for Easter services, or plan Easter dinner with extended family. But we can still celebrate. It may take digging a little deeper this year to search for the blessings, but they are still there. Please take a few minutes to listen to the podcast and challenge yourself to look at the Easter story in a new way.

Scripture Reading: John 18:28-38

Book recommendation: “The Last Week”

https://www.cokesbury.com/9780060872601-The-Last-Week?cid=6663109565&aid=79443367579&keyword=895352700411%3A%3Apla-895352700411&kid=895352700411&gclid=Cj0KCQjwybD0BRDyARIsACyS8msfCg2i0srr7yhAf-jUzfNdtZjUomZuT2J1iSjqoIkwHzTYehMbj6IaAhLlEALw_wcB

Discussion Questions:

  • Theologians assert that this exchange between Jesus and Pilate is a profound statement about non-violence. (It helps to know that other men claimed to be the Messiah and usually tried to prove it through efforts to overthrow the Roman government through violence.) What do you think?
  • Much ink has been spilled over verse 38, in which Pilate asks, “What is truth?” What do you imagine he was thinking when he asked that question?
  • The story of Good Friday raises some tough questions for us as Christians.
    • Do you believe that it was impossible for God to forgive humanity without the death of a sinless person? Why might that story have made sense to Jewish communities? Is it harder for us to understand now?
    • What is atonement theology? Is that the only way to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • The Easter story is central to the Christian faith, and it is not uncommon for Christians to assert that belief in a bodily resurrection is “the” non-negotiable element of being Christian. At the same time, many young people wrestle with the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. What do you think about it?
  • Are there other ways of understanding resurrection that might be equally valid?

Podcast:

We’re All In This Together

Hello! It has been a while since I have just written a blog without a podcast. I will have our weekly devotional/Bible study out tomorrow. But for today, I thought I would just sit and write for a minute, and be honest…and maybe not so practical?!

This sucks. (There is no better way to say it, and if my mother was alive, she would probably allow me to say that, even though at 16, she’d correct me.) But it does! It is tough for everyone right now, but being a parent is especially rough. You are being asked to home school, while trying to work from home. There are those who may not even be working right now because your place of business is shut down, or you are worried about losing your job. Maybe you are part of the population who can’t work from home, still have a job, but no childcare. As parents, we are all anxious. We are living through a situation for which we are not prepared. The closest thing to this in my memory is 911, but even that is different. Then we did go out, we did gather to support each other, we just didn’t fly…for only four days! Our churches saw a huge surge of people gathering for worship, and we made it through…together.

But here we are, sitting in our homes, or going to work, then straight home. No church, no school, no concerts, no games, no practice…even no toilet paper! I want to remind you we are still in this together. Stay calm, especially for our children

I am a mom of an 18 year old who is a senior in high school and a Marine who just turned 21. It has impacted us. We are consoling our senior who is grieving the thoughts of the possibility no graduation or prom, and also the last weeks of school with all of her classmates and beloved teachers. And supporting our Marine from afar who is stuck at his current base, as his schooling is over, and he unable to travel to his Permanent Duty Station.

But, I keep reminding them, and I will remind all of you. Find the blessings. Look for the good. We get to sit down as a family every night and have dinner TOGETHER. My husband isn’t gone, traveling for work. We can watch movies, play games, do whatever we want because no one is running out the door to practice or a meeting. We are right here, TOGETHER. What a blessing!

And on the days you can’t find a blessing…be one! I just saw a friend post that her son is out of the country on military deployment, and while he is very safe, his is worried for his young family who is quarantined on base. So, this friend asked for people to send letters. I’ve also seen suggestions to send letters, or have children draw pictures to send to those in nursing homes. Do it! Maybe you can show support to the first responders in your community. Or just simply pick up the phone and make a phone call to someone who lives alone. Praise God this is happening at a time where FaceTime exists! How wonderful to see faces of loved ones that we can not visit right now.

Where are you struggling? Where are your blessings? Keep your chin up friends, we are all in this TOGETHER…and if you have kids my age (and maybe younger) these lyrics may be in your head now and are so fitting:

Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on lets have some fun
Together, were there for each other every time
Together together come on lets do this right

We’re all in this together
Once we know
That we are
We’re all stars
And we see that
We’re all in this together
And it shows
When we stand
Hand in hand
Make our dreams come true

Peace my friends! Stay healthy and calm.

***Image taken from Pinterest of Disney’s High School Musical

Ash Wednesday: Confession, Shame and Repentance

Today is a holiday in the church. One that not every Christian, especially protestants, observe. It may be one that seems a bit different, even a little odd. And even if we understand it, we may not know the history. This blog and podcast should help you as you reflect today, preparing for the Lenten season.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1-21

Teaching Points:

  • History of Ash Wednesday
    • The liturgical use of ashes originated in the Old Testament times.  Ashes symbolized mourning, mortality, and penance.  For instance, in the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus (or Xerxes, 485-464 BCE) of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1).  Job repented in sackcloth and ashes (Job 42:6).  Prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem, Daniel wrote, “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).  These Old Testament examples evidence both a recognized practice of using ashes and a common understanding of their symbolism.
    • The early Church continued the usage of ashes for the same symbolic reasons.  Tertullian (c. 160-220) prescribed that the penitent must “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.”  Eusebius (260-340), the famous early Church historian, recounted in his The History of the Church how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness.  Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.
    • In the Middle Ages (at least by the time of the eighth century), those who were about to die were laid on the ground on top of sackcloth sprinkled with ashes.  The priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”  After the sprinkling, the priest asked, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?”  To which the dying person replied, “I am content.”  In all of these examples, the symbolism of mourning, mortality, and penance is clear.
    • Eventually, the use of ashes was adapted to mark the beginning of Lent.  The ritual for the “Day of Ashes” is found in the earliest editions of the Gregorian Sacramentary which dates at least to the 8th century.  Since the Middle Ages, the Church has used ashes to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins.
  • Traditionally, the palm branches from Palm Sunday of the previous year are used to create the ashes.  This is intended to suggest that even the jubilant crowds on Palm Sunday were ultimately at least partly complicit in Jesus’ death. While the literal truth of that is questionable, the fact remains that even the most faithful Christian still sins and falls short.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1-21

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

   hallowed be your name.

   Your kingdom come.

   Your will be done,

     on earth as it is in heaven.

   Give us this day our daily bread.

   And forgive us our debts,

     as we also have forgiven our debtors.

   And do not bring us to the time of trial,

     but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Discussion Questions:

  • When you attend an Ash Wednesday service (or when you have in the past), what is the tone or mood of the service? What are some memorable moments in the Ash Wednesday liturgy?
  • Mourning, mortality and penance are not exactly concepts we discuss every day.
    • What do we make of this idea of mourning for our sins?
    • Is there value in remembering our own mortality from time to time?
    • What is the purpose of penance? Is that a helpful concept for us?
  • Many folks eliminate a food or habit during Lent. Others try to adopt a spiritual practice (or discipline) during that time. What is the purpose of that exercise? Why might we choose to make such a change during Lent?
  • In the Catholic tradition, confession is offered to a priest. In the book of James, it is suggested that we should confess our sins to one another. Many churches have a moment of confession in their service, and it is a part of the United Methodist communion liturgy. What is the purpose of confession, and does it help anything?
  • We generally think of shame as being a negative thing, but the idea of shame is sometimes associated with Ash Wednesday. Is that helpful? Is there a better way of naming it?
  • What is repentance? How does it relate to all these other things (confession, shame, penance, etc)?
  • How might this passage from Matthew help to orient us for the season of Lent?

Resources: “Heidegger and a Hippo” https://www.amazon.com/Heidegger-Hippo-Through-Those-Pearly/dp/0143118250/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?keywords=hitiger+and+a+hippo+walk+into+the+perly+gates&qid=1582732064&sr=8-1-fkmr0

The Gospel of Mark…the first written and the one with a interesting ending.

It is interesting to know that the four gospels were not written in the order they appear in the Bible. Mark is also an interesting book to look at, especially the last 10 verses that were added in the past century. Nonetheless, it is important that we approach this book like we have been reading the rest of the Bible in this series of blogs, as the truth. Searching for God to find His messages and how we fit into it even today.

Scripture Reading: Reading the entire gospel of Mark is great project! Or just Mark 3:1-12

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Mark was written in Greek for a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience.
  • Mark probably dates from around 66-70CE. This is right around when the second temple was destroyed, which may well explain why Jewish followers of Jesus (remember, they aren’t “Christian” yet) started actually writing down their stories and memories about Jesus. The temple was destroyed for ongoing Jewish revolt, and the people began to be more widely oppressed, so they wanted to make sure their stories were preserved.
  • We will discover as we go along that the authorship of the gospels is largely unknown and their names were assigned largely for traditional purposes. The author of Mark may have been someone named Mark (we don’t know), but it was certainly not one of the disciples or anyone famous to history. There has been some speculation (based on textual clues) that the young person who flees the garden on the night of Jesus’ arrest (see Mark 14:51-52) might have been the author himself, but this will never be known for sure.
  • There is almost universal agreement amongst scholars that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospel accounts somewhat later. Thus, we might see Mark as our most “raw” and early account of Jesus’ life. This makes reading the gospel of Mark a very interesting endeavor.
  • You might recall that we do not have a single manuscript of any of the gospels. Our earliest versions of Mark have the gospel ending at verse 16:8 with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Some manuscripts add a “short ending” (largely unknown), but the majority of later versions are the “long ending” (verses 9-20), which includes resurrection appearances.
  • The gospel of Mark has many unique attributes: for example, Jesus frequently asks those he has healed not to tell anyone who he is (see our reading for today). Also, the disciples are portrayed as rather idiotic in Mark’s gospel and almost always fail to understand who Jesus is and what he is doing. Mark also uses the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man” to describe Jesus, both of which would have been laden with meaning for early readers.

Discussion Questions:

  • Last week, we noted that Mark does not contain a birth narrative. It also does not contain a genealogy. It is likely that Mark had no problem with the idea that Jesus came from normal, human parentage and felt no need to connect him to the Davidic line to “prove” his significance. How do we feel about these things?
  • Mark portrays Jesus very much as a healer and miracle worker with supernatural powers. How do we make sense of this in our own time, when so many people are skeptical of miraculous events?
  • What do we make of the very short “original” ending to Mark?
  • Why do you suppose Mark has Jesus so often telling people to remain silent about him? There remains scholarly disagreement on this point, though there are several theories. What do you think?

Listen to Podcast:

Power, Money and Violence

Jesus talked much about power dynamics, money and violence, but yet those topics are not things we tend to discuss in church today. It’s interesting to look at 1st Century Palestine to see the similarities and difference of the time when Jesus walked the earth.

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-14 & John 1:1-14

Teaching Points:

  • As readers of the gospels, there is much we often overlook about the time in which these books were written. First century Palestine looked very little like the modern world, although we might stumble upon a few similarities. Bear in mind that both women and children were still considered property. Male children became “human” at a certain age when they passed into adulthood and were counted as citizens.
  • The entire New Testament must be understood as a Jewish writing. Jesus was born into a Jewish family and was, himself, Jewish. Even as the books of the New Testament were being written, after the life of Jesus, the authors were writing to the Jewish community to impress upon them the importance of Jesus. While there is plenty of talk about Jews and Gentiles, it would be quite some time (a couple hundred years) because Christianity would come to be understood as a religion separate from Judaism.
  • The temple in Jerusalem was the central (and “authentic”) place to worship. Jewish people were expected to travel to Jerusalem annually (or as often as possible) for Passover, and the Sadducees were the resident religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. However, since the Jewish people were scattered, there were also synagogues (sort of like local churches), led by Pharisees. Jesus appears in a number of synagogues but (at least in the synoptics) visits the temple in Jerusalem only at the end of his early ministry.
  • King Herod worked rather hard at ingratiating himself to the Jewish community. He married into a Jewish family. He restored and improved the second temple (can explain) in Jerusalem. However, he was a brutal leader who held none of the values that the Jewish people theoretically observed.
  • The Roman empire was in charge, and they had a comfortable collaboration with Jewish religious leaders. As long as Jewish people behaved themselves, so to speak, they were permitted to worship and carry on relatively unscathed. However, this was not the vision that Jewish people had for themselves. They desired to be, once again, a proud and independent nation, not a people subjugated and dominated by the Romans. At this time, there were many people who came along claiming to be “the Messiah.” They typically attempted a violent uprising against the Romans and this often resulted in considerable loss of life and a tightening of restrictions on the Jewish people. (See, for example, the Maccabean revolt.)

Discussion Questions:

  • How was Jesus different from other so-called “Messiahs” who had come before? What were the people expecting? Does this help us understand anything about how they responded to him?
  • Talk about the notion of the Roman Empire and its values. What do we make of the fact that Jewish religious leaders had quite a good arrangement going with the Romans while everyday people found it to be oppressive and something from which they wished to be “freed.” Does this remind us of anything in our own time?
  • The US has often been called the new Roman Empire. What does we make of that?
  • We do not typically think about the issue of violence when we talk about Jesus and the gospels. But much of the difference between his ministry and the prevailing will of the Romans had to do with the exercise (or non-use) of violence. Where are we with the issue of violence today?
  • Our scripture readings today are from the beginning of the two gospels that do NOT have birth narratives. How do the authors of Mark and John introduce Jesus? What do they want us to understand about him?

Resources:

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/Jesus%20A%20Revolutionary%20Biography.htm

God and Empire

https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/God%20&%20Empire.htm

Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

Jesus for President

https://thesimpleway.myshopify.com/search?x=0&y=0&q=shane+claiborne

Beating guns video: http://www.shaneclaiborne.com/videos

Youth Annual Conference

https://www.eocumc.com/yac/

When There Aren’t Any Words

Talking to young people about life and legends and leaving a legacy.

Yesterday the world lost a legend. Kobe Bryant was a legend on the basketball court as well as in his daily life. We are shocked. I was on the phone with my son when he said I think Kobe died in a helicopter accident. I said, “Are you sure? It’s probably a hoax.” But unfortunately, a quick Google search confirmed the tragedy. Shocked.

I’m sure we are all asking the questions. Why? Why would God take him when he was so young? Take his daughter? Take the other parents and children in the helicopter as well? Good people gone so quickly. It doesn’t seem fair. So what do you say?

The honest answer…I…don’t…know. There is just no answer. It’s a question we ask every time we lose someone. And, we are not God. However, we know that God is good, and that there is more to our lives than this world. We must find the positive in everything that happens. When we are focused on finding good, we begin to heal. Somehow we need to cling to the idea that our lives have a purpose. We must celebrate the lives of those around us, taking advantage of every moment and being present with the people we care about the most.

When talking about losing a legend, like Kobe, it’s helpful to talk about legacy with young people. What is the legacy that Kobe will leave behind? What are his accomplishments that the world will always remember? What kind of things can we do on a regular basis in our own lives that help us to leave our own legacy? When we experience loss, it is often a time for us to readjust our own priorities.

No matter if you live or work with young people, make sure you are having the conversation. It is through discourse that we are able to process our emotions. Give teens and young adults the opportunity to express what they are feeling. Allow them safe places to ask the hard questions. And be OK with not having all the answers. Sometimes we just don’t understand, and don’t have the words to make it better.

Praying for Bryant family and for the families of those who were with him.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not depend on your own understanding,” ~Proverbs 3:5

Diving into the Gospels

We will spend the next couple of weeks looking at the gospels and the beginning of the New Testament or Christian Testament.

General Background:

  • Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at the gospels and the life/ministry of Jesus. It is important to understand that these are not the earliest or most raw accounts we have of Jesus’ life. In fact, Paul was our earliest New Testament writer and the most likely person to have actually met Jesus.
    • The gospels appear first because of their narrative structure, and they were given priority as the most thorough accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
    • They are not in chronological order themselves. Mark was the earliest gospel, probably written sometime around 66-70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written somewhat later and almost certainly had the gospel of Mark available to them as they were writing their accounts (thus the many similarities and overlapping stories). The gospel of John was the last to be written, roughly around the turn of the first century and has relatively little in common with the other three in terms of content.
    • Matthew, Mark and Luke are the Synoptic gospels, each giving narrative account (“synopsis”) of Jesus’ life. John is quite different and does not take the same narrative approach.
  • It’s important to understand that no one was taking notes or making recordings as Jesus taught, healed, and traveled among the people. In that day, it was common for stories to be passed down by oral tradition and the stories of Jesus were no exception. Bear in mind that the literacy rate at this time in history was roughly zero, and everyday folks did not have access to paper, writing utensils or books. The bibles (Old Testament) in existence at that time would have been incomplete, meticulously copied on scrolls, and guarded carefully at the temple or synagogue to be read by an educated religious teacher.
  • All of the gospel accounts have come to scholars in fragments. We do not have a single, complete version of any of the gospels. Rather, fragments have been found over many years that have enabled scholars to piece together their best possible effort at a complete rendering of each book. There are many textual variants and differences between the various fragments, so biblical scholars do their very best to sort out copy errors (we can explain this) and determine which variations date to the earliest possible manuscript of each text.

General Talking Point(s):

  • Each gospel has a particular author, context, target audience and intent. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus a little differently, with a unique voice and with special things the author wishes us to understand about Jesus.
  • Often, it’s a waste of our energy to get very hung up on particular words or phrases because many have been subject to translation decisions and may even be one of several textual variants. Instead, we are wise to look at the “big picture” that each gospel paints about Jesus and to read each story for its “more-than-literal” meaning.

Podcast 16 – Birth Narratives & the Epiphany

Scripture Readings: Luke 2:1-20 & Matthew 1:18-2:12

Teaching Points:

  • Only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) contain a birth narrative.
  • We tend to roll these two stories into one rather implausible narrative for our Christmas pageants and nativities, but we lose much of the significance of each story by doing so. Matthew is all about honor and establishing Jesus as the new Moses/king of the Jews. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is humble and is here for the humble, telling us a story in which shepherds are the first recipients of the good news.
  • These two gospels each contain a genealogy of Jesus, and they do not agree with each other. These genealogies are also part of the story, meant to establish Jesus’ lineage and tell readers something about his importance and place in history. They do not need to be understood literally or subjected to vain attempts to make them agree.
  • On Epiphany (often observed on the first Sunday in January), we essentially tell Matthew’s version of the story, in which wise persons from the East see a star in the sky and follow it to Jesus, bringing expensive gifts to honor him. These wise men travel right past King Herod (the real king at that time) to seek out Jesus, a story meant to establish Jesus as the king the people actually needed.
  • There are a number of elements of the birth narratives that are miraculous in nature, and some of these things have become stumbling blocks for contemporary readers. A good example is the notion of the virgin birth. In the interest of allowing folks to be fully informed, we must acknowledge that many powerful leaders at this time had virgin births attributed to them. It was written into the stories of kings and powerful people to establish their “special-ness” and give them an almost supernatural importance. We have to wrestle with whether the idea of the immaculate conception of Jesus was literally true or was a story told after his lifetime to establish his “special-ness” and tremendous importance to the people.
  • There are other elements of the birth narrative of Jesus that are questionable in their historicity. Though good records were kept at the time, there is no evidence that a census took place like the one described in Luke. It may have simply been a way to explain how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem instead of his hometown of Nazareth. There is no evidence that King Herod actually killed all the young boys under a certain age, an event that would undoubtedly have been recorded. In all likelihood, King Herod was unaware of Jesus’ birth. The story serves as a way for Matthew to tell us that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in direct opposition to the kings and kingdoms of this world.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why have people combined all of the gospel material and attempted to make a single narrative about Jesus’ birth and early life? What do we lose by reading the stories this way?
  • If we take a look at Luke’s birth narrative, what does the author really want us to understand about Jesus? What about the author of Matthew? Are there truths that really hit home if we read each story on its own?
  • We just celebrated Epiphany, which means to “reveal,” and is the day we tell the story of the wise men. What are some of the truths Matthew wishes to convey with this story? What are some of the perceptions about the wise men that we have come to believe that are not in the gospels?
  • How does it feel to hear that some of the elements of our Christmas stories may not be literally (or factually) true? Does that really matter in terms of what we can learn about Jesus?
  • Why do you suppose Mark and John did not include birth narratives? Instead of supposing that they just forgot or didn’t care, what does the omission tell us about their understanding of Jesus?

Podcast: