Juneteenth

I value that Juneteenth is getting a lot more broader attention these days. It’s a really important day in American history, not so much this particular day (which was when the Emancipation Proclamation became applied in Texas) but as part of a long process of freedom for slaves. In many ways it is like the Declaration of Independence, which wasn’t signed all on one day, but we pick a day to honor what it set in motion.

For about 30 years, any time I’ve been asked about my favorite movie, I have immediately responded with Glory.  Don’t believe me? The soundtrack was the first CD I ever owned (before I even had a CD player) and the VHS tape was likewise the first I owned, and that was when videotapes were priced for rental, so it cost quite a bit (a gift I deeply wanted and got for a holiday).

That movie hit me in so many ways and came at a time in my life when I was seriously into Civil War history.  If you don’t know it, it’s a movie about the first regular army Black regiment in the Civil War. It stars Matthew Broderick, but the key role really is played by Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor. 

I liked it then and now because it was such a good portrayal of the Civil War, maybe still among the best, and also because it entered into the complexity of the experiences of the time, both among whites and blacks, who all came to the field of battle with vastly different journeys.

It shows how there was mixed motives for the war but also how deeply the abolitionist movement was behind all that happened.

It also shows the complexity of responses within that movement, with some advocating for equal treatment and others committed to a paternalism.

I think especially of the contrasting scene where the Massachusetts 54th is sent to support another Union regiment in the South which was made up of freed slaves, which they called contraband. Both regiments were ‘free’ but the 54th expressed a dignity and commitment by the soldiers and the officers together.

It isn’t an easy movie to watch, especially in contemporary climate where likely much of the raw treatment shown wouldn’t be allowed. Though it really is tamed down compared to what life was like for far too many.

I’ve since learned that I have family on both sides who fought on both sides of this war, so it’s a story that deeply intersects my own heritage in deeply thought provoking ways.

What I really loved about it then was the message of hope within the struggle, the message of perseverance, of fighting for a cause even when there are enemies both on the outside and the inside.  It digs into the deep trauma and emotions such trauma continue in and yet has this inspiring message of working together within patterns of injustice that lead to movements of hope.

The message of Juneteenth brings this all back, and so we’re likely watching this movie again this evening.  It’s not an easy story, and the deeply troubling message is how the moment of freedom and possibility that came out of the Civil War eventually, far too quickly, devolved into cowardly treatment of former slaves and blacks all over the country.  It also points to how violence may solve an immediate problem but there’s a need for deeper transformation too, which Glory also gets into.

Humanity and human history are complex, and we rightly critique the ways sin distorts, co-opts, and then controls our society in systemic and personal ways. But in the midst of this there are glimpses of liberation and people of all kinds of backgrounds who fight for that liberation.

Even if the battles aren’t always one, there’s such a need to honor those moments where freedom broke through and to find renewed hope for the moments we encounter in our age.

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The Hope of Pentecost

Today we celebrate Pentecost, which is a day that people from many nations heard words of hope to share together in a new experience of humanity. This is not a hope the world offers or a hope the world can pull off on its own. The world offers only more reasons to divide and rage.

The miracle is not the tongues, but the possibility there’s a new way that languages, races, nations, cultures are no longer reasons to hate but become ways of hope and sharing. Too often even the church has used language of peace to inflict chaos and spread more chaos widely.

Today is the day we remember there is a way of unity because of diversity and a way of deep peace that overcomes injustices and promises wholeness as individuals and as a community. But it is also a day we remember the world cannot and will not do it on their own. I have little hope people will do better. I have hope the Spirit can and does bring the Kingdom among us even now.

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Considering the Cross

The cross is everywhere in our culture.  The legacy of many centuries of Christendom, where it was a marker of faith, then became a marker of culture, ethnicity, power.  A symbol of rejection and punishment becomes the marker of acceptability.  That which Paul once called “A scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” is a topic awash in Christianese, the insider language that has spiritual sounding phrases that often are unintelligible to those outside of Christianity and often bereft of real meaning for those inside.

The cross has become fashion, first for buildings then for people.  We are scandalized when people find it a scandal. We declare fools those who find it foolish.  It has become a prop for us in religious and culture wars.

Still a source of meaning for those who seek salvation, it has been co-opted by others for their own purposes that differ than those of Christ.

Our familiarity with it as a topic in Christian theology is good, it is one of the central themes that mark an Evangelical faith. Yet, our familiarity with it also is bad, as we play into the cultural assumptions that linger from Christian domination. Talk about the cross, scandalously, has become glib. Which is likely a big reason why we in the West are in a post-Christian context.

The glib ubiquity has inoculated many of those who grew up near the church or in it.  They think they know the Gospel, and the gospel they encountered had no power.

Peter was afraid during the trial and crucifixion, so he denied Jesus.  He experienced the confrontations of power and didn’t trust Jesus would be the victor.

In our era, people deny Jesus because they don’t see the reason for the bother.  The cosmic confrontation has been reduced to a personal preference: Which ice cream flavor is your favorite? What is your favorite sports team? What religion do you follow?

The cross has been co-opted and we in the church have let it, even encouraged it, wanting to use Jesus for our own ends, to support our own priority and power and influence.  We’ve become the sorts of people who put Jesus on the cross, wanting to be wise to the culture and gain approval from the religious.

This week, let us consider the cross in a fresh way.  Think about what it meant as an act, as an experience. Think about what it means in your life, how we encounter hardship, or struggle, or temptation.  Think of the cross in social terms: who did Jesus include? Think in terms of strategy: how did God go about saving the world?

The cross is a confrontation, a strike against our patterns of social and intellectual assumptions.  The cross is a salvation, a salvation for our inner state of existential sinfulness, and a salvation from our external state of social divisions and manipulations.

Atonement is the doctrine of this salvation, being restored to at-one-ment with God and with others, love begetting love. The cross is the act-speech of atonement that declares God’s radical love for the cosmos, sending the Son to die, gathering all those who have been condemned to death, and inviting them to be reborn.

We become new, losing the strongholds and hangups of spiritual, social, and psychological dysfunction as we find our identity in the scandalous and foolish wisdom of God.

This wisdom transcends human wisdom and attempts to find meaning in our ego’s limited perspective.  Because of this the cross is an invitation to let go. It is a confrontation, drawing a line between the way of God and the ways of the systems of this world. The latter promise meaning and value and life, but it is only the way of God that can fulfill such promises.

What promises are we indulging that run counter to the cross?

What promises are we pushing against because we are afraid of the cross or dismissive of it?

Who are we crucifying in the name of an insufficient theology of the cross?

How have we co-opted the cross for our purposes?

What is the meaning of the cross in our present society and how can we reinstill a sense of its scandal and foolishness so that it has the confronting power once more?

That is the topic of this week.  If it’s not challenging or difficult, even to those of us who are familiar with it, then we’re not getting into the depths of what it means and what it calls for.  Ecce homo. Ecce deus. 

Read: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 22; Isaiah 53; Matthew 26-27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-31


In my seminary courses, I provide a weekly reflection on each topic of study, a way to get students thinking not only about the content but also the implications of it in their life and how it relates to their context. This week in my theology course, we’re talking about the crucifixion.

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Dear Lord of Light

Read: Psalm 97

Dear Lord of Light, when the shadows surround me, and all becomes dark I begin to wonder where to go, who to be. I lose a sense of direction.

The old lights have gone dim, and don’t offer me a way.

They have gone out, and in my impatience, I am rustled by despair. You have not grown dim, and in this new day, this new month, may we see your fire burn brightly anew.

May you lead us and may we be faithful.

May your fire burn away our sins and wastes, so that we may press forward to new pastures, to feasting and celebrating your ever-renewing goodness, dancing with hope around your promise, with you now and into eternity.

Amen.

This year, Fuller employees have been invited to write prayers to share with the community, each taking a week or two. This is my week, and I’ll be posting the prayers I wrote for each day.  The pictures are from my morning walk each day.  This post was also inspired in theme by the ancient Irish festival of Beltane.  

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Dear Lord of Truth

Read: Psalm 25

Dear Lord of Truth, you have called us into fullness of life and shown us the way of wisdom.  This is the way of your kingdom, one that enters into this world, into every system and every community.

Your Spirit awakens us and enlightens us to be people of truth, not giving into the temptation to hide behind dishonesty or depend on deception.

May we have courage today and this week to be such people of truth in every part of our lives, to be willing to call out sins in our selves and in our communities as well as be willing to speak the truth of your love and hope to those who are bombarded by the lies of the chaotic world.

This isn’t our truth, this is the truth your Spirit speaks. So, may we discern not only what is true but also how to speak and show truth so that your presence is magnified in each of our settings.

Give us the humility to be open to hearing truth and give us patience when truth seems discarded. In you we put our trust.

Amen.

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Dear Lord of Peace

Read: Psalm 104

Dear Lord of Peace, you have made a place for us.

This can be hard to remember when instead of feeling peace, we feel the chaos all around. Everything seems unsettled, our jobs, our health. We wonder when we can again do any of the things we used to take for granted.

You have not forgotten us and you are not aloof.  Rather than be caught up in the frenzy, may we sit at the table you have prepared and sit a spell in your presence, listening and laughing and relaxing.

Ease our tension, calm our hearts, direct our wayward thoughts that want to always hurry here and there.

May we be in the moment, present with you and present with those in our lives, whether we are with them physically or whether we are gathering together through technology.

However we gather, may your Spirit ever remind us that you are gathering with us, and that you truly love us.

Amen.

This year, Fuller employees have been invited to write prayers to share with the community, each taking a week or two. This is my week, and I’ll be posting the prayers I wrote for each day.  The pictures are from my morning walk each day.  

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Dear Lord of Hope

Read: Psalm 107

Dear Lord of Hope, thank you. From the depths of my being, thank you.  For the people in my life, thank you. For the opportunities you have given me, thank you.

For rescuing me from problems in the past, thank you. For being present in the challenges of the present, thank you.

Santa Rosa Island rocky shore

Hope in you isn’t naïve. It’s not a sad yearning for some dream world.

Hope in you is powerful because of the works you have done, the invitation you give to press on even when our faith stumbles and our courage falters.

We press on not in our strength, but because you have shown how faithful you are.

We cling to you now in this season where we don’t know how to plan and are caught in struggles that seem too deep to bear.

May we remember your ways, and may we press on to take hold of that for which you have taken hold of us.

Amen.

This year, Fuller employees have been invited to write prayers to share with the community, each taking a week or two. This is my week, and I’ll be posting the prayers I wrote for each day. 

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Dear Lord of Creation

Read: Psalm 33

Goose by the duck pond in Natomas

Dear Lord of Creation, you who made all and rule over all, you gather together the whole universe in infinite complexity, a wondrous dance that invites both our deeper study and continued delight.

In a world that often dulls our sense of wonder and stirs our anxieties, you offer something more to us, stirring our being and forming us into becoming all you have made us to be.

Help us to see your beauty today and this week. Guide us in helping others to see what you are doing. Help us to hear the songs you are singing and the poetry you are writing today and this week.

Guide us in helping others to hear your voice.  You have made all things. And you are with us. Amazing!  Amen.

This year, Fuller employees have been invited to write prayers to share with the community, each taking a week or two. This is my week, and I’ll be posting the prayers I wrote for each day. 

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Thinking about Easter at Home

My wife, Amy, is the worship leader at our small Wesleyan church, and so we’re figuring out along with many of you and so many others what Easter looks like when we’re not able to meet in person.  This is usually the key event of church life, and now… well, it still is. Just different.

We can’t depend on conventions, habits, even many traditions.   That’s the challenge, but also an opportunity.  I think about the first Easter, when Jesus walked out the tomb. There wasn’t a crowd.   Jesus walked out that tomb even still.   He met Mary in the garden. Then he visited with others, on the road, in their houses, all kinds of places.

Christianity doesn’t depend on a specific place, though such can be handy. It doesn’t depend on specific rites, though these can be wonderful experiences of God’s grace and guidance.  Christianity is true because Jesus walked out of the tomb, and invites us into a new life with God, together with all those all over the world, throughout time, who share this communion.

Rarely before has the church been so separated in even the smallest scales, yet we’re still in unity, celebrating that the Spirit who gives us life, is with us wherever we are at, whoever we are with, and that Easter is a celebration that God is the God of life, hope, and transformation.

I think about all this and wonder how we can best encourage and inspire others to see Jesus for who he is. That was the challenge, as you know, for the earliest witnesses.  They saw Jesus, but they didn’t see Jesus. He didn’t wait for them, he rose from the dead and went to them, invited them, chatted with them, blessed them.

We may not celebrate the resurrection in our church buildings this year, but we will be able to meet Jesus, to walk with him, to listen to him, to trust that the Spirit is doing a wonderful thing even as the world around us struggles with panic.

We are invited toget to know God better and better, so that in our callings we can teach, preach, share in words and in our actions the life the Christ gives to us, wherever we are at.

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Hope for the nations starts in local (online?) communities

One of my projects these days is helping in the development of online training for Bible Translators all over the world. I sent an email to a group of beta testers this morning, and one reply had this tagline: *We believe the Bible is for everyone, so we are working towards the day when everyone can access the Bible in the language and medium of their choice.”

As I ask in my preaching, how many is everyone? All the people. Sometimes we are slow to take advantage of technology because it is hard or difficult to learn.

But I am amazed how many people can be reached with the Gospel in our day and age.

How many who are stuck at home or feeling outcast or isolated can read a Bible, attend a service, or otherwise find themselves part of a shared community of hope this day.

Many will feel loss at not having a physical community to attend. But the Spirit is not limited to a place or a time. The Spirit invites us to join together, across space and across time, in a community of saints, inviting others into a way of hope.

Today is a day of possibility. Today is a day of exploration. If you are curious about church, or need a word of hope, try one of the many churches that are going online. If the thought of attending church has made you uncomfortable, or if you are simply curious what churches are like and what they talk about, feel free to join one of the many churches that are online this morning.

The media landscape has emphasized megachurches and publicity-frenzied media pastors. Today, the small churches, communities all over the world, are sharing their services.

Take some time. Have a look.

Here’s the service for my church, starting at 10am (pacific time). Amy Oden will be leading in some songs!

www.TheRiverChurch.net/live

Feel free to join us there, or find another church in your community or one that sounds interesting. Take advantage of this opportunity!

Oh, and here’s more on that online training project I’m working with: https://www.digitaltraininglibrary.org/

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