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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Unnamed Saints


“But his disciples took him by night and lowered him in a basket 
through an opening in the city wall.”
Acts 9:25 (Common English Bible)

               On March 4th, 1921, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Today, that monument is known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb – fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become Tomb Guards. Out of respect for the interred, the sentinels command silence at the tomb from the thousands who visit each year. Inscribed on the Western panel: Here Rest In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.

               The Apostle Paul is the greatest evangelist of the early Christian Church and author of nearly two-thirds of the New Testament. Soon following his conversion to that faith he once sought to extinguish from the religious landscape, the Jews and their leaders at Damascus sought to silence him. In fact, Acts narrates that “the Jews hatched a plot to kill Saul (Paul’s former name)” and, “They were keeping watch at the city gates around the clock so they could assassinate him.” Paul escaped by the heroic act of unnamed disciples who, “took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the city wall.”

               Not one of the disciples who aided in Paul’s escape is named. Their identity remains unknown. Yet, each one played an important part in the history of the Apostle Paul, without whom, Paul’s great work might have never been completed. Paul would go forward from that glorious night to cover thousands of miles by sea and by land preaching the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Churches would be planted and life after life would be changed by his message of hope and eternal life available in the name of Jesus. Through the robust ministry of the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit gave birth to a movement that would change the world. Yet, without the loyalty and devotion and courage of a few unnamed disciples one particular night, Paul would have perished at the hands of his enemies in Damascus.

               Our nation remains grateful to the tremendous leadership of great leaders such as General Patton, General Eisenhower, and General MacArthur. The Christian Church continues to build upon the work of the Apostle Paul that is without parallel. But it is true in our nation’s history and the history of the church that who they were and what they contributed would have never been realized had it not been for the loyalty, devotion, and courage of the unknown soldiers and unnamed saints who risked their lives, and in many case laid down their lives for something they believed in. We all depend upon one another. We all need each other. And nothing becomes strong without the strength of the many.

Joy,

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Don't Complain!


The following is a repeat from Dr. Hood’s Meditation from August 2017.

“The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. ‘
Who are we? Your complaints aren’t against us but against the Lord.’”
Exodus 16:2, 8b (Common English Bible)

Lowell Russell, formerly Executive Secretary and Director of the National Presbyterian Church and Center, Washington, D.C., once shared a lesson he learned from an attorney – a series of propositions that the attorney had written down on paper and kept with him at all times. There were three: “Never tell anyone how much you have to do. Never speak of your problems, your difficulties. Never talk about your disappointments.” In other words, he was saying to himself, “Don’t complain!”i

My friend and mentor, Arthur Caliandro, who followed Norman Vincent Peale as the senior pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, once shared with me his conviction that every pastor would be wise to preach on forgiveness at least three times a year. Caliandro believed that the single greatest obstacle to obtaining full Christian maturity was our difficulty with forgiveness. Any failure to forgive results in a weight that must be carried – by both the injured and the one who caused the injury. For Caliandro, the greatest burden was carried by the one who failed to forgive. Over time, the accumulation of “transgressions” that remain unforgiven results in stagnation of our spiritual growth. Christian growth isn’t possible without the extravagant practice of forgiveness as Christ forgives us.

Perhaps my friend is correct. Yet, I contend that another hindrance to our growth as Christians is our propensity to complain. Here, in the Book of Exodus, the whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. Food was scarce, the days in the desert were hot and the journey through the desert seemed as though it would never end. Life back in Egypt as slaves seemed to present a better quality of life than a trek through the desert! So, the whole Israelite community complained.

Moses and Aaron’s response seems to suggest the uselessness of negative thinking and speaking. Yes, the days in the desert were difficult. Discouragement is to be expected. But time and energy “moaning and groaning” provided no relief. So Moses and Aaron deflected the complaints; redirected the complaints made against them to God. It was the exercise of extraordinary leadership. That is because it forced upon the Israelite people the absolute necessity to pay attention to God, to “make their complaint” before God and then “to listen” for how God would respond. It is then that Moses and Aaron fulfilled their primary call to spiritual leadership – beginning the conversation between God’s people and God. That is where spiritual growth occurs.

Joy,
____________________
iLowell Russell, “The Hard Rut of Complaining,” Best Sermons, Volume X. (New York: Trident Press, 1968), 79.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

What Is Good


The following is a repeat from Dr. Hood’s Meditation from April 2017.

“Only God is my rock and my salvation – my stronghold! – I won’t be shaken anymore.”
Psalm 62:2 (Common English Bible)

Captured in these few words is a powerful witness to abundant progress in our spiritual life: “Only God is my rock and salvation – my stronghold! – I won’t be shaken anymore.” The author of these words is contemplating difficult circumstances on the horizon. A storm is building in his personal life and a whirlwind is gathering strength and raging. Shortly, the author will be caught in the blast – in the very center of violence that is determined to destroy him. Yet, what is heard in these words is a faith that has moved from painful wobbling in a time of trouble to an experience of being unshakable; of standing strong in the work of the Lord: “I won’t be shaken anymore.”

A mood of fear and uncertainty is transformed. Present now is a voice of a more vital trust, and the suggestion of spiritual maturity. Where once he would have been shaken by the assault that was drawing near, he is now not overwhelmed. An unshaken confidence of a matured faith now occupies his heart and soul. What changed? He provides the answer – he has found a sturdy footing in the promises of God, “my stronghold.” A trembling spirit that is placed into regular communion with God is settled; the timid fluttering of a heart is quieted. This is the calmness which comes from sharing in the strength of God; a strength that derives from intentional attention to relationship building with God.

When we nurture our own faith by attention to God’s word and regular prayer, our relationship to God is deepened. In direct proportion to that deepening relationship we discover that fears are scattered and worries, once prolific, are diminished. Lives are no longer lived in small and frightened circles where the soul grows faint and timid. Attention to God, even in the ordinary moments of life, expands the chambers of our souls and our breath becomes deeper. Uncertainties of life become increasingly rare and our slipping feet are steadied upon a certain and firm foundation – “only God is my rock.”

Here is the great secret of progress in our spiritual life – attentive and regular communion with God. Our own strength for meeting the trying and challenging circumstances of life is insufficient. Alone we will always be defeated. But we are not alone. These words from the Psalms are an invitation to put on the same strength and confidence of a life that cleaves to God. By God’s strengthening fellowship we will face all the hostile forces of this world with ordered lives – lives which demonstrate to others the beauty of God’s peace.

Joy,

Friday, July 20, 2018

Living With Tension

The following is a repeat of Dr. Hood's meditation from September 2017.

“Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. 
Each day has enough trouble of its own."
Matthew 6:34 (Common English Bible)

     A more promising title for this meditation might be: Living Without Tension. Yet, that is a promise that is neither realistic nor supported by the Bible. Mark’s Gospel declares that on the night of Jesus’ arrest, Jesus “began to feel despair and was anxious” (Mark 14:33). Amanda Enayati, writing for Success magazine asserts, “The greatest myth is that stress-free living exists at all. In reality the only time you are truly stress-free is when you are dead.”i Yet, here in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mountain, he seems to suggest that we have the capacity to “stop worrying.”

     Except, Jesus doesn’t say that. Jesus teaches that we are to “stop worrying about tomorrow.” There is a considerable difference. It is unlikely that any one of us can simply shut-off any concern or worry. What Jesus offers is the possibility of limiting our worry to one day at a time. As Jesus points out, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

     What has been observed over and over again by psychologists is that women and men become tired, run-down and discouraged not by the challenges that confront them today. What drains our energy is our frightened concern over what waits for us on the horizon – what we have to do tomorrow, and the day after that. This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare for tomorrow. It simply means that we don’t work ourselves up into an anxious knot and fever of apprehension worrying about tomorrow. Today, teaches Jesus, is enough to be concerned about.

     What are we to do? All that Jesus had to say about living is fixed firmly on belief and trust in God. God is in our future – we are not left to it alone. The night of Jesus’ arrest was filled with tension and worry. But do not fail to notice what Jesus does with it all. Jesus prays. Jesus claims the presence and concern of a living God that restored his energy and brought healing. What Jesus asks is that we do the same. Do our best today and leave the rest to God. This is a truth that we can accept because it comes from Christ. It is first and last the secret of victorious living.
           
Joy,

___________________


iAmanda Enayati, “Dissection Stress.” Success.  December 2015, pages 48-51.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Get Out of the Boat


The following meditation is written by 
Rev. Catherine Renken, Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, Kennesaw, Georgia

“Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, ‘You man of weak faith!  
Why did you begin to have doubts?’"
Matthew 14:31 (Common English Bible)

Picture this: The winds are howling, and the waves are crashing over the boat, tossing it to and fro. The disciples are drenched, exhausted, and scared. They have been fighting to keep their vessel upright all night. They are trained fishermen, so storms at sea are nothing new. But this storm is a monster. Then one of the men looks up and sees a figure walking toward them on top of the raging waters. Their fear rises to a whole new level. The ghost tells them not to be afraid, but those words do little to calm their nerves. Peter wants to verify the ghost is Jesus, so he proposes that the ghost empower him to walk on water also. The ghost agrees, and Peter steps out of the boat and begins to take steps on the waves. I imagine him wide-eyed and laughing with excitement. Then, the absurdity of what he is doing seems to hit him. Noticing the storm again, his fear returns. Peter begins to sink, and he cries out for help. Jesus reaches out, grabs Peter’s hand, and helps him back into the boat saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

What do you think Jesus meant? Most people have read this as a criticism of Peter’s faith. They hear chastisement in Jesus’ voice for Peter’s doubt in God. Imagining the scene like this, we can see Peter flinching in shame as Jesus shakes his head in disapproval. Is this how you picture God talking to you? Calling out your weaknesses and failures? Disappointed in you for not being good enough?

Look again at what Jesus said to Peter. Jesus didn’t ask, “Why did you jump out of the boat?” or “What made you think you could walk on water?” Jesus said, “Whatever made you think you couldn’t?” Jesus wasn’t criticizing Peter’s fear and lack of faith. He wasn’t shaming Peter’s overzealous plan to participate in the miracle of walking on water. He wasn’t mad or disappointed in Peter for losing faith and sinking. He was reminding Peter that nothing is impossible with God. With the Lord by our side, we can do anything. He was encouraging him to continue to take chances on God.

The world around us will always be stormy. The waves will always loom. The winds will always try to blow us down. There will always be things to fear and worry about. We can choose to be like the 11 disciples who played it safe, kept their mouths shut, and stayed in the boat. Or, we can follow Peter and bravely take a leap of faith. We can’t walk on water unless we get out of the boat. 

One day, we’ll be before Jesus, and he’s not going to shame us by asking “What made you think you could walk on water?” He’s going to take our hand and ask why we ever doubted we could.

Joy,

Thursday, July 5, 2018

What Love Requires


The following is a repeat of Dr. Hood's Meditation from November 2016.

“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.”
Matthew 5:13 (Common English Bible)

     In his biography of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, James Traub unfolds the life of a man who was plainspoken, simple in his wants, and a person of deep Christian faith. Adams lived according to principles he considered self-evident and never seemed hesitant to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of those principles. He was only nine years old when the United States was birthed as a nation. As he grew and matured, Adams became imbued with the conviction that the United States was the greatest experiment in government the world had ever known. So complete was his identification with that government, Adams never flinched at either the prospect of death or the, “wreckage of his career, so long as he believed that service to the nation required it.”i

     When Jesus declares, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is not extending to us a compliment, though that is how this comment has become commonly used. What Jesus seeks are people who so identify with the purposes of God that they are prepared to sacrifice anything – including their lives – if service to God’s divine purposes required it. Jesus does not hold back or seek to soften his message; Jesus is warning us that following him comes with the costly expectation that we will be “all in.” Here, in his Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus lays down a challenge. The challenge is to adopt the conviction of John Quincy Adams that does not flinch at the call to be used by God to further the purposes of God’s kingdom.

     This is where Jesus’ message becomes hard. Within each of us are forces that strive for self-preservation. But, if we are not prepared to lose ourselves for advancing God’s work in the world, Jesus is clear, we are “good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.” Essentially, Jesus announces that if we fail to be driven by the same convictions that drove John Quincy Adams, then the reason for our existence in Jesus’ ministry to the world ceases. We are as useless to Jesus as the dust under our soles. That message was deeply disturbing to some. Little wonder why people left Jesus in droves. What he taught was too demanding.

      No one makes a financial investment if they are not deeply committed to seeing that investment grow. The same is true of relationships. Meaningful relationships are demanding. If there is absent any conviction of long-term value, or a commitment to the well-being of the other, a relational investment isn’t made. Yet, right here in this teaching, Jesus seeks an investment from us. For everyone who accepts his invitation, the investment will be costly. That is why our faith and love for Jesus is crucial. Unless it is nurtured regularly, the cost of what Jesus asks may seem too high. But for those who pay attention to Jesus, they will see that we are called to be “the salt of the earth” because Jesus was first, salt for us – even giving his own life on a cross because our life required it of him.

Joy,
____________________
iJames Traub, John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (New York: Basic Books, 2016), xi.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The God We Don't Forget

The following is a Meditation written by Doug Hood's son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
Matthew 16:24-25 (Common English Bible)

Of all Jesus’ disciples—save perhaps Judas Iscariot—it is Peter Simon, that lowly fisherman, who comes across to us from the pages of history as the most fully realized and most fully human. The Gospels paint him as a man of great, seismic contradictions: confident enough in his faith to leap upon the waters of Galilee yet doubtful enough to sink below them; brave enough to attack the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, yet frightened enough to deny Christ three times in the high priest’s courtyard. In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, we see yet another demonstration of Peter’s conflicted faithfulness. Upon reaching Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say the Human One is?” Eleven of them mutter noncommittally, but Peter leaps in: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Many forget that when Jesus first began his ministry, he hid his lineage as the Son of God from his followers, instead presenting himself as a rabbi preaching radical reform of Jewish tradition in the face of Roman imperialism. It was here, in this moment, that a fisherman’s faith revealed Jesus’ true identity to the world.

In response, Jesus praises Peter and declares him the rock upon which he will build his church. But pay very close attention to what happens next, particularly to the language used in the Common English Bible translation. After Jesus explains his mission to suffer and die at the hand of their Roman oppressors, Peter “took hold” of him, “scolds” him, and “began to correct him.” Certainly Jesus, the promised Messiah, would tear down the Romans, reunite the Twelve Tribes, and restore the Davidic monarchy to power once and for all. Yet Jesus savagely scolds him with one of the most cutting rebukes in scripture: “Get behind me, Satan.”

But just as Jesus condemns he comforts, immediately informing Peter and the rest of the disciples that his is not the way of meek surrender, but the path to everlasting life. Again, pay close attention to the language: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” [Emphasis mine] We find three demands—one of self-denial, one of self-sacrifice, and one of self-submission. First, we must reject all our preconceptions about who God is or what God wants. Second, we must humble ourselves before him in front of the whole world. And third, we must follow in his footsteps, not in the footsteps we proscribe for him.

Peter’s mistake wasn’t his lack of faith, rather its willfully misguided application. Unable to envision a Messiah who didn’t avenge and conquer, he literally tried to seize and bully God incarnated in flesh. And how often have we seen the same thing happen today? It seems we can’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper without hearing or reading somebody screeching about what God wants or what God needs. God has become a cudgel with which to assault political adversaries, a club to self-righteously attack those who don’t fall into the proper ideological or moral line. In these troubling, divisive times, we must look to the words of the Gospel of Matthew: to find one’s life, one must lose it. Just as Peter was rebuked, so we must rebuke ourselves and humbly follow.


Joy,