All posts by Glen Herrington-Hall

Tragedy and Hope in Charleston

Last week we witnessed yet another massacre in our beloved United States of America. A massacre is a hard issue for a pastor to discuss in any circumstance. But when one occurs inside a church, during a Bible study, it’s beyond words. Nevertheless, it’s an issue we must talk about. What happened in Charleston, South Carolina last week exposed two of the most sensitive and volatile issues in this country once again: race and guns. And for that reason, it should be a serious wake-up call for all of us.

First, we need to ask: how does a white man born in the 1990s in the United States of America develop this kind of racial hatred? Regardless of what we may discover about the alleged shooter’s mental health, we can’t let this discussion be primarily about him. We need to focus on the big picture.

Tragically, the kind of terrorism we witnessed last Wednesday at Emmanuel AME Church is not new in our country. Forty-one years ago this month, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother was gunned down inside Ebenezer Baptist Church while sitting at the organ playing the Lord’s Prayer. In 1963, white supremacist terrorists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. And as we’ve seen over the past year, we’re not living in a “colorblind” society. Continuing that mantra is only going to prolong the agony and denial. So let’s face it: we need to have a serious conversation about race in this country.

And despite the overwhelming power and shooting authority of the gun lobby in our government, we also need to have a serious and civil conversation about gun violence that is based on facts, not ideology.

The glimmer of hope amidst the tragedy of course, was the unshakeable Christian faith embodied by the victims’ family members when the alleged shooter appeared in court on Friday. That they could both weep in grief and forgive this young man at the same time embodies the radical, scandalous essence of Christian faith.

The scandal of the cross of Jesus Christ after all, is that the cross is the place where God becomes the victim of brutality and violence and hate. The place where God becomes the victim of the racism and church massacres. The place where God bears the wounds and the pain and the sin of the world within Godself – all for our salvation.

And because of that, as the people at Emmanuel AME know so well, the cross is also the place of God’s deepest love for us. It’s the place where God heals and comforts, loves and forgives. It’s the place where God meets the world’s suffering and pain and sin with nothing less than God’s own self. And for that reason, the cross is also the place of our deepest and most abiding hope — hope that calls us to confront head-on the difficult issues we need to talk about in order to heal the wounds in all of us.

 

Trinitarian Musings…

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, which has been observed the week after Pentecost for about the past 1000 years. What’s it about?

At the very heart of Christian faith is our unique understanding of God: the Trinity. Yet, most of the time we don’t think or talk about the Trinity because it seems abstract and speculative. That’s unfortunate because in reality, the Trinity is not abstract at all; it’s a practical doctrine for Christian spiritual life.

The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. And the formal doctrine of the Trinity did not come into being until the fourth century. However, the “ingredients” of the Trinity are woven throughout Scripture.

Put simply, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the very nature of God is to communicate Godself to the world. In other words, “who God is” corresponds to “what God does.” And in asking about God, we always have to begin with “what God does.” And what God does is to create, redeem and sustain the world. In other words, we don’t start thinking about “who God is” in a random way, as if God might be an old man in the sky or a “force” in the universe or a set of ethical principals. Rather, we begin with how God has chosen to reveal Godself in and through the testimony of Scripture.

But from a practical standpoint, how is the Trinity important? Well, because if God is only “out there,” beyond our daily reality, that means God is only for Godself.   And if that’s the case, God is of little help or hope for humanity. But the Trinity teaches us that God is not only “out there” but also “in here,” that God is not only God for Godself, but also God for us:

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.” UCC Statement of Faith, Article 4.

The best way to imagine and internalize this is not through church creeds or philosophy though, but through the biblical stories. If the Bible is about one thing, from start to finish, it’s about God’s deep commitment to and engagement with the world. God is not simply separate from the world, not simply “other.” In Christ, God also becomes incarnate in a broken, sinful world in order to bring forgiveness and justice, healing and wholeness – or in traditional language — salvation.

“But if God is in the world, why is there so much suffering?” Good question. The Bible gives no simple answer for the question of suffering. What the Bible does give however, is the testimony that God does not micromanage the world like a puppeteer. Instead, God creates the world and gives us freedom to be who we are. God is committed to working in and through what God has created. And God will not abandon the world. Rather, God has chosen to save the world in this odd way that doesn’t make sense to our rational minds: God enters the suffering and sin of the world and takes that suffering and sin into Godself. That is the “foolishness of the cross” that Paul speaks of (1 Cor. 1:18-15).

The resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, points to the final verdict on sin, suffering and death – God wins! Yet, as Scripture also testifies, this is an “already, but not yet” verdict. God’s future has invaded the present, yet the world still struggles in sin, suffering and death.

So, part of Christian spiritual life is living out of this “God wins” verdict – the resurrection. But another part of it is recognizing that God is incarnate within a suffering world. The reality of Jesus shows us that God is always about the work of forgiveness, healing and wholeness. Yet the cross teaches us that God is also hidden within the world’s suffering. So if we want to meet God, one sure way to do that is to be about the work of healing and wholeness amidst the pain and suffering of the world – whether in our own lives, the life of others or in the groaning of creation itself (Rom. 8:22).

One of my mentors often said that Christian spiritual life is about “leaning into the pain” of the world. What he meant was that because God is hidden in the cross of Jesus Christ (suffering), when we encounter the suffering of the world we also meet Jesus Christ himself (Matt. 25:31-46).

The world, in many ways, may seem to be pretty messed up. Your life, no matter what will at times be confusing and uncertain, if not outright hard.  But the way we find and make peace with God is the same way God finds us and makes peace with us: through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UCC Learning Sessions: A Summary

As part of the New Beginnings process, the “Understanding” FOCUS group suggested the congregation do some study to deepen awareness of what it means to be a congregation within the United Church of Christ. So far we’ve had two sessions: UCC Theology and History, and the UCC and social issues. Below are a few of the main points from each session.

Session 1, UCC Theology and History

The United Church of Christ is part of the mainstream of the universal, historic Christian Church.

The United Church of Christ is composed of different Protestant theological traditions, primarily those stemming from the Reformed tradition.

The United Church of Christ is an ecumenical tradition.

Creeds are considered testimonies of faith, not tests of faith

All the traditions, which make up the UCC have emphasized Christian life & practice over statements of belief.

“In essentials, unity in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity”

Session 2, UCC and social issues

The UCC, along with every other church within the mainstream of Christianity is deeply involved in social and political issues. Why?

Bible:              God is involved in history, humanity is made in the                                           image of God and God is definitively revealed in Jesus                                 Christ

Theology:     God’s purposes are salvific, that is God is for the world                                   (Jn. 3:16)

Ethics:           God calls us to act justly and in-line with God’s purposes                              for creation.

Tradition:    The church lives in the world & for the world. It has been                            involved in politics and social justice issues since its                                       inception.

It’s important to note that there is no “official UCC position” on any social issue.  Each local church of the UCC is autonomous — we live together in  covenant.  The General Synod of the church “speaks to, but not for” local churches.

Justice Issues:

Justice and just social relations are a central and primary theme of scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

Jesus embodies justice in his life and work. A central theme of the gospel is that his disciples follow him on this path. See Matt. 7:24-27, Mk. 8:34, Lk. 9:1-2, Jn. 15:8.

Jesus describes the final judgment in terms of whether we respond to the poor and oppressed in a just manner. See Matt. 25:31-46 & Lk. 16:19-31.

Most importantly:  Christian faith is not a choice between justice issues and personal faith in Jesus Christ – it must always include both. Efforts to create a dichotomy between the two should always be rejected. See Matt. 7:21-23.

Still Speaking God

“Still Speaking” refers to a UCC identity & evangelism campaign.

“Still Speaking” grows out of the Bible’s redundant claim that “Indeed the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sward.” (Heb. 4:12)

“Still Speaking” also grows out of our Reformed theological tradition. Reformed and always reforming in light of God’s Word was the rallying cry of the Reformation, particularly that branch associated with Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.

For example, Rev. John Robinson’s admonition to the Pilgrims in the 1600s leaving for America. He said, “There is yet more light to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”

 

The Psalms: “An Anatomy of the Soul”

The Psalms are a treasure trove for the spiritual life of an individual or a community. In these 150 poems the full gamut of human experience is captured and given voice in the form of prayer. It’s all there: joy, despair, fear, anxiety, rejoicing, love, hate, sadness, grief, contentment and much more. The 16th century reformer John Calvin once referred to the psalms as an “anatomy of the soul,” and I think he’s dead on. No matter what you’re feeling, you can be sure to find it expressed in the Psalms.

The 23rd Psalm is among the most well known. Even folks who rarely go to church are familiar with it from funerals: “The Lord is my shepherd….” And a funeral is often the context in which we hear the 23rd Psalm. But what if we allow the 23rd Psalm to shape our entire worldview as individuals or a congregation? How would that contribute to the shape of our future?

The 23rd Psalm is about trust, gratitude and confidence in God’s provision. It’s not naïve however, recognizing that “dark valleys” and “enemies” are part of life. In fact, the claim of this Psalm is that it’s in the midst of such “dark valleys” that God’s presence and provision is most palpable. From the point of view of this Psalm, a future of hope therefore takes shape.

But can we really view the future from this point of view? Who can, in other words, truly say, “The Lord is my shepherd…?”

In 1919 a young pastor named Karl Barth preached on this Psalm in a tiny church in Safenwil, Switzerland. In the wake of World War I, Barth said none of us simply have the right to view the future from this perspective of this Psalm. I think that’s an instructive insight for our time.

For Barth, the harsh reality of the war had shattered naïve notions of human “progress” and exposed a gulf between humanity and God.   In his sermon, Barth says the repentance of an entire society stands between the 23rd Psalm and us. For Barth, the words of the 23rd Psalm belong only to those committed to a complete spiritual transformation. He put it this way:

“Do we not recognize that we would be lying to God if we said the words of the 23rd Psalm without becoming a person in renewal and transformation?”

The 23rd Psalm is no doubt a prayer of trust, gratitude and confidence in God’s future for one’s life – and for the life of the world. The question Barth wants to ask though is this: what kind of life does this Psalm call us to? What if, rather than hearing the Psalm only as reassurance and comfort we also hear it as “divine summons?” In other words, a call to work for the kind of world envisioned by the psalm.

 

 

The Freedom of the Resurrection

Easter people are those who live in the freedom of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is an event of freedom for us because it’s the assurance that death does not have the last word in the world. God does.

Yes, we live in an unjust world. Yes, there is suffering and death – pick a story from today’s newspaper. But a living faith in the reality of God’s victory over death means we don’t have to live in captivity to the powers of death in the world. Life can take a different shape.

Although we live in a world of suffering and death we’re freed from the power of death and freed for work and witness that leads to life. In other words, Christian freedom is not freedom from the world; it’s freedom for the world.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10b). What does “abundant life” look like to you? John 21, the text I preached on last Sunday, describes the third post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples. Abundance here is quite concrete. It’s a huge net full of fish, a meal together and an invitation that invites discernment in community: “….follow me.”

“Follow me” may be rather vague, and perhaps it is. But in light of the gospel stories and the reality of the cross and the empty tomb, we can be sure that “follow me” points us in certain directions: toward the wider world, toward the neighbor, toward those who suffer, toward community, and of course, toward God.

 

Engaging John’s Gospel

For the past few weeks our Sunday Gospel readings have been from John. Since we will continue to be in John throughout May, I thought I’d give you a few tips for reading John.

Matthew, Mark and Luke share many similarities. Granted, each is unique and has particular emphases, but generally, scholars recognize that the authors of these gospels drew from similar sources. While John also has some of the same stories and themes, it is quite unique. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re reading John for study or devotion.

1.  The first key to understanding John’s approach to the story of Jesus are the first 18 verses of the gospel. In John, Jesus is not simply one who speaks and acts for God. He is the Word incarnate: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (1:1, 14) If words are a way of communicating, John’s confession is that Jesus himself embodies God’s eternal Word in a singular way.

2.  The second key to understanding John is tucked away in chapter 20:30-31. There John states explicitly the purpose of the book: “…Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples…these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

Other key themes in John:

-Believing: belief / trust in John is for a specific purpose, “that you may have life…”

-Abiding: in John 15, Jesus gives us images of vines and branches to understand      what it means to “abide” in him as he “abides” in us.

-Spirit: the Spirit plays a much bigger role in John than in the other gospels. In John  Jesus gives the Holy Spirit by breathing on the disciples after his resurrection. In John the Spirit accompanies (14:16) teaches and reminds (14:26), testifies (15:26),  and guides believers (16:13).

What are the themes you notice?

On Prayer

As part of the congregation’s New Beginning process, we’re revitalizing the FCC Prayer Chain.  As part of that we had a good conversation on prayer last week. Drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Life Together” we talked about why it’s important for members of a congregation to pray for each other.

Bonhoeffer writes:

“A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that the “happy discovery” of the Christian who intercedes on behalf of others is also one’s own spiritual growth and inner transformation. May it be so for you as well.

How would Christ rule the world?

sheep and goatSunday’s focus scripture text from the gospel according to Matthew 25: 31-46 challenges us to think about the so-called ‘final judgment.’ Matthew has been ramping up the anxiety about what will happen if people don’t follow the ways of Jesus – getting left out of God’s party, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal punishment. It seems to me that some people need more motivation that others. As children we were told not to throw the ball in the house. It would take more than two hands to count the broken windows despite this rule. Do you need to be threatened with punishment or dire consequences in order to behave properly? Is a simple reminder enough? Jesus has been teaching throughout the gospel that God seeks and saves the lost, defends the widow and the fatherless, welcomes strangers, puts right the wrongdoings of others, cares like a “mother hen,” lifts people up on “eagles wings,” holds tenderly in the “palm of the hand,” and is a shepherd who loves the sheep and knows each one by name. So how do you reconcile this Jesus with Mathew’s view of the final judgment?
Join us for more of this conversation on Sunday at 9:30 a.m. Then stay and eat with us at our annual Thanksgiving potluck!

Weekly prayer: Joy-making, shepherding God, your love, goodness, mercy and grace are constantly before us. May we know you so well that we implicitly trust you, and un-selfconsciously live to your glory and praise. Amen.

Expectant Choices

chosing directionSunday’s focus scripture text from the gospel according to Matthew 25:14-30 tells the parable of the talents. The talent is an ancient unit of money which equates to about 15 years of average wages. This vast amount of money stresses both the immense trust placed in the slaves and their enormous responsibility for the landowner’s wealth.
The landowner is away for a long time and returns unannounced and unexpectedly to settle matters. The first two slaves, who have each doubled what had been entrusted to them, are generously praised and entrusted with even more. The focus falls on the third slave who returns what he has been entrusted with, no more, no less. Though he is rebuked by the landowner, maybe this slave is the actual hero. He stood up to a demanding boss who encouraged his employees to increase his wealth by making loans or investments that charged exorbitant interest rates. Burying the funds kept them from being used for such corrupt purposes. By refusing to take action that would have oppressed others and shamed the business practices of the owner, the third slave embraces God’s reign of justice and equity. What do you think?
Join us for more of this conversation on Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

Weekly Prayer: It is so easy, God, to become complacent and comfortable, at ease in the social and political environment, adapting and adopting the behaviors and priorities of the world. Help us trust in your mercy that we might infiltrate the world with your ways. Help us do all we can, and be all we are able to be, expecting your presence among us and the fullness of your realm on Earth. Amen.

How do we keep faith?

faith essentialsHave you ever noticed that some people talk about faith like a constantly renewable commodity? Is faith like gasoline where we can refill our tanks every Sunday morning or by picking up our Bibles? In Sunday’s focus scripture from the gospel according to Matthew 25: 1-13, we hear the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Weddings were a big deal in the ancient world and the party went on for days. For the small sect of Christian Jews in Matthew’s time, being prepared, or having enough lamp oil, was a reminder to keep living out their faith in Jesus. They believed that Jesus would return any time [the 2nd coming] and to be prepared with enough oil or adequate and sustaining faith, meant to wisely live their lives expressing the activity of God. Join us for more of this conversation on Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

Weekly Prayer: God of all time and this time, when I’m tired of waiting for your realm to be here, kindle the flame of faith into action. Remind me of the life-giving choice that justice, mercy and hope bring into life today. Amen.