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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Little Giovanni

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood's son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

"There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither slave nor free;
nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Galatians 3:28 (Common English Bible)

Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone was born into a life of splendor, ease, and refinement.  The son of a rich silk merchant and a French noblewoman, little Giovanni had an easy and lavish a life one could want in twelfth century Italy.  While peasants toiled in the fields for their daily bread, Giovanni feasted with the best of high society; while workers suffered and died in poverty, he threw away money on fine clothes and fast living.  When his town declared war on a nearby neighbor, he joined up as a night, thirsty for glory.  The result was catastrophic - his unit was butchered and he was captured and imprisoned for a year while his captors negotiated his ransom.  But was Giovanni phased?  Hardly.  After he was freed the call for knights went out for the Fourth Crusade, and one again he found himself riding off to battle, this time with a new horse and a suit of armor decorated with gold.

But Giovanni never made it to the Holy Land.  In fact, he scarcely made it further than a day's ride from his home.  That first night he had a strange dream in which God commanded him to return home.  From that day forward an odd transformation began in Giovanni's life.  He began to pray regularly and intensely.  He came to cherish the presence of the poor, sick, and ugly, rejecting the companionship of the rich, healthy, and beautiful.  Finally, he was caught by his father taking fabric from his hope to sell for money to help repair a nearby church.  Accusing him of theft, he dragged Giovanni in front of the local bishop to publicly shame him and force him to return the money.  It was the decisive moment in Giovanni's life - he must choose between the church of his savior or the world of his father's finances.

His choice has been remembered throughout the history of Christendom: he stripped naked before his father and renounced the world.  That was the day Giovanni the wealthy troubadour became Francis the impoverished preacher, and within a few decades young Francis from Assisi would become one of the most significant leaders in church history, being canonized as Saint Francis a mere two years after his death.  Few people have shaped the world quite like Saint Francis; he reinvigorated the largest religion in the world has ever known with a renewed call towards charity and social justice for the poor and disenfranchised.  And, crucially, it all began with a deliberate abnegation of his wealth, his power, and his privilege.  To aid the poor, it wasn't enough to donate time or money - he needed to become like them and live like them.

This passage from the third chapter of Galatians is one of the most beloved theological statements in the New Testament.  But beyond its promise of equality for all people in God's Kingdom is subtler implication that many choose to ignore: in the leveling of all peoples before the Almighty the powerful must abandon their power.  What good are riches of the ancient Greeks when they share a kingdom with impoverished Jews?  What good is the political power of slaveholders when they live side by side in  eternity with the people they held as slaves?  And what good are the privileges of patriarchy in a promised land where women are equal?  If we are to live as living witnesses of the Gospel, we must help realize these truths in the world right now, and for many of us that requires an honest evaluation of the power and wealth we have in life.  And perhaps some of us might do well to do as young Giovanni did all those centuries ago.


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Christ's Own Denial

“Jesus replied, ‘My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.’”
John 18:36 (Common English Bible)

              This is a remarkable passage of scripture! Captured here is Jesus’ own denial; Jesus’ denial of sovereign territory, “My kingdom isn’t from here.” From inside the governor’s house, a center of power for a defined territory, Jesus disclaims royal territory. Certainly, Jesus’ denial is on the geographical level, his royal authority lies elsewhere. This confuses Pilate. For Pilate – and for us – sovereignty implies a specific place, such as the British Empire. That empire has clearly defined borders, though the contours have changed over history. Christ denies any claim to this kind of power or rule. Incredibly, Christ seems to be placing his credibility on the line.

              Many are well familiar with Peter’s denial. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter denies three times ever knowing the man, Jesus. Yet, that same night, Jesus is also making a denial. The difference between Peter’s denial and Jesus’ own denial is not subtle. Peter’s denial is about self-preservation; Peter fears arrest if he is honest about his relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ denial is something much deeper than self-preservation. Jesus is pointing from the physical world to the spiritual. The exchange between Pilate and Jesus becomes a struggle between political power and spiritual power. Political power exerts its influence on people’s outward behavior. Spiritual power changes people from the inside.

              One Easter morning a couple spoke to me following the first service. They said they had lived only a few blocks from the church for years and had never worshipped with us before that morning. They continued by sharing that though they had not worshipped before they were always grateful that the church was here. Politely and carefully, I asked, “Why?” “Why were they grateful that the church was here?” Their answer, “Each day the church reminds us that there is something more.” They promised to return and then proceeded to walk down the street – presumably to their home. Spiritual power is about something more than the eye can see, “My kingdom isn’t from here.”

              Jesus’ denial is all about lifting our eyes above political alliances, carefully defined and defended borders, and self-preservation. Jesus wants, “something more” for each of us. Political power bends a people to the will of the state. Spiritual power molds and shapes a people to the wholeness God once fashioned at creation, but lost through rebellion and estrangement from God. Jesus confrontation with our political systems, in the form of Pilate, suggests that his kingship not only challenges the political state, it judges and calls into question the ability of the state to provide the life God desires for us. It would appear in the crucifixion of Jesus that Pilate won, that the political systems of the day have the upper hand. Nevertheless, the resurrection remains only a few days away.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

200 Robes

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood's son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16, New International Version (NIV)

One night after playing a show at the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland, a white man came up to black blues musician Daryl Davis and complimented his playing. Such compliments weren’t unusual for Davis—the man had led an industrious and illustrious career playing alongside some of the greatest blues artists of all time. (You don’t play backup for Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King without developing some serious chops.) However, it was the white man’s next compliment that caught him completely off-guard. Shaking Davis’ hand, the man said: “You know this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” Taken somewhat aback, Davis asked him where he thought Lewis had learned to play piano like that in the first place. The white man smiled and answered that Lewis had invented the style himself. Davis—who had actually known and played with Lewis—knew quite differently: he, along with the other white pioneers of rock music like Elvis Presley, had learned their playing from blues, rockabilly, and boogie-woogie. You know, Davis said, black music. 

Their conversation continued on into the night, Davis politely yet firmly correcting the white man’s faulty musical knowledge. Abruptly, the man paused and said: “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?” For the second time that night, Davis was caught off-guard. How could that conceivably be possible? When he asked him why, the man responded: “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” Davis’ response wasn’t to scream or run away, but to laugh. This was Maryland, for crying out loud, not the Deep South in the 1950s. But the man pulled out his wallet and drew out his Klan membership card, proving without a doubt that this oblivious lover of black music was indeed a faithful member of the Invisible Empire. Davis stopped laughing. But before he could react, the Klansman told him that he wanted him to call his number whenever he was in town so he could hear him play. And that gave Davis an idea.

What happened next is the stuff of legend, something so improbable, so seemingly contrived that it defies belief: Davis started going out of his way to befriend Klansmen. He’d find and strike up dialogues with them, interrogating their White Supremacist beliefs. How could you hate me, he’d frequently ask, when you know nothing about me? More often than not Davis learned that their hatred came from misconceptions about black people planted during their youth. But by forcing them to confront a black man who went against every prejudice they’d been brainwashed into believing, their racism crumbled. His methods were startlingly effective. Davis didn’t just befriend numerous Klansmen, he single-handedly convinced over 200 of them to leave the Klan, including Roger Kelly, the Imperial Wizard for the State of Maryland. Davis became such good friends with Kelly that not only did he leave the Klan, he asked Davis to be his daughter’s godfather. His former KKK robe now hangs in Davis’ closet alongside the 200 other robes of all the former Klansmen he’s saved.

Davis has been explicit about the role his Christian faith has played in his decision to engage Klansmen on a human level, and indeed his life is a living testament to the highest aspirations of the church and the teachings of Jesus. But make no mistake, he converted nobody by simply loving them enough. His road was a difficult and sometimes dangerous one that took him not only into the heart of institutionalized racism but Christian hypocrisy. Despite their abhorrent teachings, the Klan has always fancied itself a Christian organization (as long as said Christians weren’t Catholic). So it’s almost certain that some of the 200 Klansmen Davis befriended thought of themselves as good and faithful Christians who saw no contradictions between their racism and the Gospel. Here is where we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians that Christians must teach and admonish each other. Note those words: “teach and admonish” not “love and ignore.” Sometimes our brothers and sisters in Christ need to be called out and corrected when their lives are in direct, violent contradiction with the Gospel. But notice the rest of the verse; we must do it by including them in our lives, in our churches, in our worship, not by rejecting and excluding them. We must teach and admonish like an old blues artist telling a Klansmen that, no, Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t invent black music. But also like Davis, we must teach and admonish through love.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Fast Food Religion

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University
Look! I’m standing at the door and knocking. If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to be with them, and will have dinner with them, and they will have dinner with me.
Revelation 3:20 (Common English Bible)

We live in a world of fast food religion. In the breathless hustle and bustle of modern life, we all too often find ourselves without the time, without the means, or without the energy to devote ourselves fully to belief, so we settle for bite-sized servings of faith, prepackaged, precooked, pre-delivered. Difficult concepts and truths get chopped, frozen, and flash-fried into simple aphorisms and decontextualized verses to give ourselves a warm, fuzzy feeling of comfort. Consider Revelation 3:20, a favorite of fast food religion, one that promises that Jesus is at the door to our lives knocking, waiting for us to let him in. Go to any store that sells religious tchotchkes and you’ll inevitably find a refrigerator magnet or painting referencing this verse, usually featuring a barefoot, white-robed Jesus expectantly knocking on a literal door, eager to be let inside. The message is simple: Jesus is always there, waiting to be let into our lives if only we’d listen. And yes, Jesus is always at the door of our lives, knocking to be let inside. But much like a fast food cheeseburger, slightly cold and greasy, it only provides so much nutrition, and one certainly can’t sustain a healthy diet eating it every day. The truth, the deeper meaning, is much more complicated and difficult. But much like a proper home-cooked meal, prepared with love and careful attention, the results are worth the effort.

The key to understanding this verse is its larger context within the book of Revelation. To most, the last book of the Bible is a wellspring of apocalyptic visions and awe-full imagery—multi-headed dragons and multi-colored horsemen wreaking havoc on a doomed world of unrepentant sinners. But the book itself was actually a letter written to the “Seven Churches of Asia” located in modern day Turkey that made up much of early Christendom. As such, the first several chapters of Revelation are highly specific messages admonishing and encouraging them. Revelation 3:20 is part of the larger message to the church in Laodicea, the easternmost of the seven and also one of the wealthiest, an ancient banking hub and manufacturer of medicinal eye salve and a luxurious black wool used for expensive black clothing. Such was their wealth that within the span of a few decades they managed to completely rebuild their city not once but twice following a series of deadly earthquakes—and all without imperial aid. And what does John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, say to this city of wealth and luxury? “You don’t realize that you are miserable, pathetic, poor, blind, and naked.” (Revelation 3:17 CEB)

Take a closer look at 3:20, specifically what John writes after the over-digested bit about God knocking at their door. I will come in and have dinner with them, he writes, and they will have dinner with me. Biblical scholars believe that John wasn’t being metaphorical here but literal—the meal is the sacrament of communion, and Christ is asking to be let in to share it. All this begs the question: how were the Laodiceans eating? The answer, again according to biblical scholars, was probably at the tables of their Roman neighbors, feasting on the sacred meat sacrificed to pagan gods, the consumption of which ensured upward financial mobility and consolidated class status. The Laodiceans church may have been Christians, but they were lukewarm ones who compromised their faith with foreign rituals to increase and protect their wealth.

Suddenly Revelation 3:20 doesn’t fit the mold of fast food religion anymore. It’s no pithy reminder of God’s omnipotence, but a call to reject the world of its sinful trappings and to embrace the true community of Christ. Turn away from the meat of the Romans and partake of the bread of Christ, it commands; drink from the living water promised to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John from which none ever thirst again. To sit at this table, to eat of this meal is to set oneself apart from the world and all its alluring trappings. It’s a difficult order, particularly for those accustomed to luxury and easy living. But it’s a necessary one. Only then can the banquet—home-cooked and piping hot—truly begin.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Copper Kettle Christians

“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor.”
Luke 21:25-27 (Common English Bible)

            When Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address, he added two words that were not in the address as originally written. Written on the pages before him were the words, “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom…” However, when Lincoln actually delivered that line, what he spoke was, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” Those two words have now become a rich part of our national vocabulary. However, when Lincoln added those two words, unplanned and freely, it was unusual. What Lincoln sought to do is declare his deep and abiding conviction that the destinies of all people and their governments, including this one, are not beyond the reach and activity of God. It is precisely this conviction that Luke’s Gospel declares. When the unusual appears in the sky and upon the earth it will not be a phenomenon apart from God. It will be an intentional act of God, God “coming on a cloud with power and great splendor.”

            Occasionally, there emerges a fascination and speculation of when the end of the world is drawing near. Some will make observations that seem to suggest that the end is imminent. Luke’s Gospel is not critical of such contemplation of the end – Jesus himself engaging in such contemplation. However, Jesus’ contemplation is not for the sake of marking a date on the calendar. Its purpose is for sanctifying the present moment. Rather than concern for a specific date when the world will end, this teaching has to do with discipleship, what it means to follow Christ both in our behavior and in relationship with others. The “Human One” is returning to earth. Life will not go on forever, day after day, year after year, without some conclusion. All of history is moving toward an end. That knowledge is for positively influencing the decisions made today, decisions of the manner in which we live.

            A significant shift of thought appears at the thirty-sixth verse, “Stay alert at all times.” What does that look like in the lives of disciples today? What spiritual practices or disciplines are available that will keep our eyes focused upon God’s presence and work today? This is a call to intentional activity, not a passive waiting for the end. Here is a summons that we live purposefully, deriving our strength for living faithfully from the exercise of prayer. Spiritual disciplines, such as worshipping regularly, praying daily, learning and applying God’s word, participating in a ministry, and giving financially to the work of the church are means by which we begin to imitate Jesus. They are the means by which we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit in such a manner that we see the image of God increase in our heart. Simply, such spiritual disciplines are how we take responsibility for our own growth, how we honor Christ’s call to “Stay alert.”

            Richard Gribble tells a helpful story of a woman who made a discovery quite accidentally in her basement. One day she noticed some forgotten potatoes had sprouted in the darkest corner of the room. At first, she could not figure out how they had received any light to grow. Then she noticed that she had hung a copper kettle from a rafter near the cellar window. She kept the kettle so brightly polished that it reflected the rays of the sun from the small window onto the potatoes. She would later say to a friend that when she saw that reflection, and the growth that it nurtured, she realized that she can be a “copper kettle Christian” – she can catch the rays of the Son of God and reflect his light to some dark corner of life. This teaching of Jesus announces that in that last day, each of us will “stand before the Human One.” Perhaps there is no better preparation for that future day than learning to reflect his light in the present.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Life Unnoticed

“One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury.’”
Mark 12:42, 43 (Common English Bible)

              Tom Tewell once shared with me that the deepest brokenness experienced by the homeless is that they go unnoticed. The desire that others see them and acknowledge them, the longing that others acknowledge them as people who share this earth with them, is deeper than the hunger of an empty stomach or the fear for personal safety. Every person longs for a sense of value, for love, and for recognition. The homeless are no different. Nor are the homeless alone in this struggle. People who are older and single, those who struggle with addiction, and the under-resourced all experience the fear of remaining unnoticed. We do not live in the most compassionate of times, and such people join the great shuffle – where our communities move them out of sight and mind. Our full and frantic lives may be partly to blame. We simply do not have the time or emotional energy to acknowledge these people and be available to them.

              Here, in Mark’s Gospel, there are two stories at play, each unfolding simultaneously. The legal experts comprise that cast for the first narrative, a poor widow in a solo performance for the second narrative. In the first story, the legal experts go to considerable effort that others see them for their devotion and sacrifice. In the second story, a widow has probably abandoned any hope that anyone will ever notice her again. There is no attempt by this woman to ensure that people see her. She simply makes her gift to the temple treasury from an impulse of faith, an impulse that discloses her quiet gratitude and trust in God. Jesus notices both, the legal experts and the woman. Yet, what is remarkable in this text is that those who desired an audience received Jesus’ displeasure. The one who did not seek any notice is held-up by Jesus as an honorable example of authentic discipleship.

              The poor widow is invisible – that is, invisible to everyone except Jesus. Moreover, what Jesus sees is that the woman is contributing – however small – to a cause that is larger than her own life. There are “invisible” people in our communities who feel unattractive, have little to offer anyone, and are lonely. The despair that they experience makes moving through each day unbearable. Each invisible person in our orbit presents an opportunity to share the companionship and compassion of Christ. An invitation to dinner, to family celebrations, and even acknowledging their birthdays, proclaims that they are people with dignity and worth. We are the children of a God who notices and protects the unnoticed, and therefore, we are to be agents of Gods’ protecting and providing grace. Additionally, we are to recall that the woman’s gift reminds us that each person has something to contribute to the work of the church.

              Perhaps the deepest impact any church can have on a community is to invest in the lives of persons who may go unnoticed where we live. There is a story in Jewish tradition of a rabbi who was so holy that the rumor developed that on Sabbath afternoons he ascended into heaven to personally commune with God. The rumor grew from the observation that this rabbi simply seemed to disappear from sight in the local community until the end of day. Several boys decided to follow, in secret, the rabbi. Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, they saw the rabbi go into the homes of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. He cooked meals, cleaned homes, and read scripture to the lonely. The next day the people inquired of the boys; did the rabbi really ascend into heaven? The boys answered, “No. He went much higher.”


Thursday, February 13, 2020

Be Glad In the Lord Always

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood's son, 
Nathanael Hood, M.A., New York University

"Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:4-7 (Common English Bible)

Chorus class was always my favorite part of Vacation Bible School growing up outside of Dallas. Fingers sticky from lollipops and popsicles, arms bruised from roughhousing and Red Rover, we’d sit there in the small choir room sucking in sweet lungfuls of air-conditioning as the Texas sun baked the brown grass and cracked pavement outside. We’d sing as well as any group of sun-dazed kiddies could, sometimes accompanied by a white-haired elder on the piano, sometimes by a cassette tape of a children’s choir tunelessly warbling and shouting their way through song after song. Some I remember fondly, like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” which my missionary mother taught us to sing in English, Portuguese, and Tshiluba. Some I remember rather less than fondly: “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart” always grated on me; its descending verses always made me feel strangely tired and drowsy.

But one of our favorites—and one we’d always sing when we’d inevitably get dragged out before the congregation the Sunday morning after VBS ended—was “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” With its simply, repetitive lyrics and incessantly catchy melody, it became a standard part of our repertoire, especially after one of those white-haired elders figured out you could punctuate the verses with claps.

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” *Clap clap*

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” *Clap clap*

The parents always loved that. And we did too. (Any excuse to raise an unholy ruckus in the sanctuary, I suppose.) The hymn is a direct quotation of Philippians 4:4, a standard and popular passage for lectionaries, particularly during Advent. With its simple and forceful declaration to celebrate in the nearness and power of God, it’s exactly the kind of easy reassurance and encouragement that makes up the lifeblood of mainline Christianity. Don’t think too hard about the world or one’s suffering. Rejoice! Be thankful! Show gratitude! Clap clap!

Of course, the text's context was considerably less cheery. Philippians was one of the many letters Paul wrote while imprisoned by the Romans, and the church itself in Philippi was perhaps faring little better. Settled largely by Roman veterans of military campaigns waged by Mark Antony and Octavian following the assassination of Julius Caesar, this wealthy settlement in northeast Greece was a nerve center of Rome's civic religion, revering nearly thirty-five deities. Unlike Paul's earlier church plants, Philippi was largely comprised of pagans and gentiles, not Jews. It was the first Christian community in Europe, and the persecution they faced under the watchful eye of the Romans, the constant danger of betrayal and fear, must have been incredible.

Yet Paul tells them not only to rejoice in the Lord, but to abandon their anxiousness. Understand, this was not an act of surrender but one of defiance. This was not a meek and meager apostle writing these words, but a prisoner who knew his execution and martyrdom were both likely and imminent. Notice carefully Paul’s wording: be “glad” in the Lord, not “happy” in the Lord. He isn’t telling the church at Philippi to ignore their persecution but to look beyond it to the Christ that surrounds and embraces them. The promise of Christ—the promise of the empty tomb—is of victory over death and triumph over fear, both from without and within. We trust in a God who hears our prayers and knows our suffering—what a blessing compared to the pagan gods of Rome with their insatiable appetites and capricious moods! We may not know what the future holds, Paul writes, but we do know who holds the future. Clap clap!