God

Snake Handling, Stigmata and Testing God

Snake handler W. R. Tinker standing beside sign for his 1948 revival meeting. (Photo by Francis Miller/Time Life/Getty Images.

A recent piece on the Huffington Post's Religion page described the death of Pastor Mark Wolford, a Christian minister known for handling venomous snakes during his worship services to demonstrate the power of his faith. The stunt went south, however, after he was bitten on the thigh during worship and died at a hospital not long after.

The practice, though rare, is employed in a handful of Christian congregations in response to a literal interpretation of verses 17 and 18 in the 16th chapter of Mark:

And these signs will follow those who believe. In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

There are several dangers this story raises, not the least of which, of course, is death by venomous snake bite. Such communities require public displays of faith that are meant to test the resolve of the faithful. And such practices are not restricted to backwoods protestant churches; some Catholics (and others) are enamored with the phenomenon on stigmata, where people exhibit physical signs of crucifixion, such as wounds on their hands or feet.

There’s the more obvious danger of putting someone in harm’s way by expecting them to perform a dangerous act to prove their faith. But there’s also the undercurrent of religious one-upsmanship, wherein folks are forever striving to be more daring, graphic or otherwise attention-grabbing. In addition to the potential physical danger, there’s the risk of pressing people to be deceptive in their faith practices, simply to enjoy the validation or admiration they seek, and which is held in such high esteem in these particular circles.

Deliver Us From Smugness

Condescending peacock. Image by E J Davies/Getty.

Condescending peacock. Image by E J Davies/Getty.

Ah, the life of the church. So many arguments, so little time.

The list of subjects about which the saints disagree is seemingly endless, encompassing both the profound and the woefully mundane.

The ordination of women. The proper role of religion in politics. Climate change. Homosexuality and same-sex unions. Pre-, Post-, or A-millennialism. Biblical translation.  Gender pronouns for God. How best to aid the poorest of the poor. How best to support the sanctity of marriage. Hell. Heaven. Baptism. Which brand of fair-trade coffee to serve in the fellowship hall. The use of “trespass/es” or “debts/debtors” in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Whether to use wafers, pita, home-baked organic wheat, gluten-free or bagels at the communion table. What color to paint the narthex.

It should come as no surprise to most Christians that the world outside the church looking in sees it rife with conflict, bickering, arguments and castigation — of the “unbeliever” and fellow believers alike.

Frankly, it also should come as no surprise to the rest of the world that the church — by virtue of being a community of humans — naturally would have such disagreements and discord.

Unexpected Hope: The Vocation of the Church

Photo by hxdbzxy / Shutterstock.

Photo by hxdbzxy / Shutterstock.

I feel very honored to be invited by this class to give this commencement address, and I asked about the make-up of your class. Most of you, I am told, are going right into the church, or are already there— to ordained ministry and other missions of the church.

So I want to speak directly to you about the vocation of the church in the world. Let me start with a baseball story. I have been a little league baseball coach for both my sons' teams over many years. And I’ve learned that baseball teaches us “lessons of life.”

Just a few weeks ago, our 9-year-old's team was down 5-0, and we had already lost our opening couple of games. It didn’t look good. But all of a sudden, our bats and our team came alive; and all the practice and preparation we had done suddenly showed itself. Best of all, our rally started in the bottom half of the order with our weakest hitters. Two kids got on with walks and our least experienced player went up to the plate. With international parents, Stefan had never played baseball before and you can tell he doesn’t have a clue. But somehow he hit the ball; it went into the outfield. Our first two runs scored and he ended up on second base. Being from a British Commonwealth culture, he began to walk over to the short stop and second baseman and shake their hands! “Stefan,” I shouted, “You have to stay on the base!” “Oh,” he said, “I’ve never been here before.”

Mom: Prayer, Pure Sweetness and No Nudity Involved

Cupcake image by Pinkcandy / Shutterstock.

Cupcake image by Pinkcandy / Shutterstock.

Growing up, I didn’t think my mother liked me; I know she loved me, but she didn’t know how to handle me. Mom was quiet and melancholy; I was brash and angry. Melancholy and anger were the mechanisms we each used to cope with the family’s dysfunction. But we had little in common. Well, except for the dysfunction.

But I did know my mother loved me. She said she worried about me, she wanted me to be happy; she wanted me to know Jesus. And she prayed for me every day. Every morning as I got ready for school, I passed the den and caught a glimpse of her reading her Bible and praying.

Maybe she wasn’t close to me, but I saw with whom she was close: God. Over time I saw what that friendship did to her. It made her good and kind, even in the face of disappointment and sorrow.

As an adult I tried to get closer to Mom by sharing the things that mattered to me. The first attempt didn’t go so well. I gave her a copy of my MFA thesis screenplay, which was a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family. She never read it.

“I just don’t get it,” she flustered.  I think she didn’t understand screenplay formatting.

I Have Met The Stranger, and He Is Me

To believe is easy. You can fill stadiums with people wanting to believe, either to solidify what they already think or to grasp hold of something because they feel cast adrift and lost at sea.

To doubt, to interrogate your fear, to really question what you believe, that’s difficult. It’s difficult because we want to protect ourselves from doubt and unknowing. Indeed when we encounter somebody who is different from us, our first experience is often to see them as monstrous, as having beliefs and practices which are alien and stranger and historical and contingent. When we encounter them we either want to consume them, make them part of our social body, or we want to vomit them and get rid of them. Or perhaps we want to have some sort of interfaith dialogue where we can talk about where we agree.

Tearing Down the Thin Veil: 20 Years After the Rodney King Riots

HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images

A rioter breaks a glass door of the Criminal Courts building, downtown Los Angeles, 29 April 1992. HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend, if you can believe it, marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial that acquitted four police officers of any wrong doing. Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the beating that King took as he was being arrested.

Maybe some of us are old enough to remember the violence that followed. Fifty people died in the riots.

Why do we bother to honor such memories? Why do we hold them up? St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic, writes of a temporal veil that separates us from God. It's an unavoidable separation, he said, that every creature encounters.

We live in time. God does not. He also said, however, that by grace that veil can be torn, time and memory collapsing in upon one another and we are no longer separate from God.

President Obama to Young Evangelicals: 'God’s Hand is Moving through His People'

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama greets visitors at the basketball court during the 134th annual Easter Egg Roll. /BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

In a video address Tuesday, President Obama told hundreds of young evangelical Christian leaders gathered at the Q Conference in Washington, D.C., that they had a partner in the White House in their humanitarian and social justice efforts.

Faith is Certain and Endless

Sunrise over New York City. Image via Wiki Commons (http://bit.ly/HRlswn).

Sunrise over New York City. Image via Wiki Commons (http://bit.ly/HRlswn).

I know that the sun will rise tomorrow.

With all of the scientific facts and astronomical data we are blessed with today, I can expect to wake up tomorrow and see rays of light shining through my window.

There is also no debating time. Our clocks, both digital and internal, continue to tick onward no matter the circumstances. These are inexorable certainties in life. However, these proven facts of our existence are limited. They are not the whole story.

There are things in life we neither can physically see nor explain, and yet we choose to believe anyway.

When our little siblings place their fallen teeth underneath their pillows, hoping to see a winged fairy deliver gifts in return, they are relying entirely on an unproven belief. When students choose universities to attend, they do not know what the outcomes of their decisions will be, nor can they predetermine their futures after school. But they continue to grow and experiment with life anyway.

Even the wisest of theologians and clergy have very few answers to the questions pertaining to God’s existence that enter our minds on a daily basis. All of these situations represent something many of us hold onto so dearly: Faith.

These Dry Bones

It had been more than a week since the doctors had moved me into the ICU, and more than a week since I had tasted anything liquid.

My tongue was dry and felt like leather. At night, I would watch the machines around me blink. The IV bags hung next my bed and scattered the light across sterile white walls.

I tried not to cry when I could no longer control my bowels. I lay there in my own filth waiting for a nurse to rescue me.

I came into the world unable even to clean myself and now it seemed I would leave it in the same state.

Finally the nurse arrived to help me.

“I’m thirsty,” I told her. “May I have an ice cube?”

She said no.

“Please? My mouth is so dry. Just an ice cube,” I begged.

“No.”

Oxygen tubes inserted into my nostrils had rubbed my nose raw. I pulled them out.

I felt relief. I watched the numbers drop on the LCD screen. An alarm sounded.

I tried to put the tubes back when the nurse ran in.

“Mr. King, you need the oxygen,” she chided, skillfully replacing al the tubes and checking all the machines and medicines that flanked my hospital bed — all the things that were keeping me alive.

Poverty 101: A Poem

"Bogota Boy." Photo by David Feltkamp/Wylio.

"Bogota Boy." Photo by David Feltkamp/Wylio.

A note from the poet: Two years ago, our church opened its doors and began serving meals to our community. The immense and overwhelming feelings I felt scared me and so I penned them in this poem. Working with the poor among us has been eye-opening and has really pushed me to re-evaluate my thinking and life, for which I am immensely grateful.

~ The Rev. Dr. Martha FrizLanger

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