The Trick, and the Treat: To Keep Giving and Receiving

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I've had the privilege of participating in a church’s Trunk-or-Treat program for kids in a low-income neighborhood in Cincinnati. Folks bring their cars and vans to the church’s parking lot and decorate them. They hand out candy to the kids, who come dressed in their costumes. There’s food and hot chocolate and books, all for free.

One regular attendee is a little boy who has no legs, so his mom pushes him around the parking lot in a wheelchair. He loves to dress like a ninja and if you ask why, he’ll go on and on about how much he loves ninjas and his costume. And how much he loves Halloween.

The kids make the route around the parking lot a few times with their bags open, getting another piece of candy and a little bit of love at each stop. Everyone enjoys the giving and the getting.

Maybe that’s what I love most about Halloween.

The God We Follow

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Jesus is the fullness of God in bodily form. Too often this point is missed. Not only do Christians overlook Jesus’ hermeneutics, but so too do we miss just how merciful he is. It seems as if his mercy is tempered by our presupposed understanding of God’s wrath and vengeance. A "theology of the cross," as Martin Luther introduced us to, is rarely considered by many of us in the West. That is tragic.

So what do I say to those who hold to a theology that includes violence?

Start everything with Jesus. Read your Bible with Jesus. Approach the Father in the same way Jesus did — as Abba. Stop "searching the scriptures" prior to coming to Jesus. He is our model in all things — in how we engage the world with grace and mercy and compassion, and in how we read our Bibles.

Jonah At Sea

Illustration by Rick Stromoski

THE MORE I READ the story of Jonah nestled among the serious Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, the more fantastic and hilarious it gets. Everything is turned upside-down.

Jonah’s story follows Amos, who rips into rich people who “lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches.” It precedes Micah, whose Lord calls us “to do justice and to love kindness.” But Jonah spends his energy running away from Yahweh. In fact, Jonah is never even called a prophet in the book that bears his name. His interests and concerns are completely different from the Deity who has called him. Only entombment inside a “great fish” will drive his bedraggled, stinking self to the city that needs to repent. Even so, Jonah will perceive his surprising success as an utter failure.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Most Hebrew prophetic books are collections of oracles unmoored to narrative, but Jonah’s tale has a setting, characters, and a plot! If you didn’t learn this in children’s Sunday school, here are the bare bones of the action:

Yahweh tells a man named Jonah to go east to the city of Nineveh to cry out against its evil. But Jonah flees in the opposite direction on a ship traveling west. A huge storm blows in, so when Jonah says it’s his fault, the sailors reluctantly throw him overboard. The storm immediately stops. A “great fish” swallows Jonah for three days and nights. Then God makes the fish vomit Jonah out on dry land.

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July 2015
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Mercy Me

I STOLE MY brother’s pellet rifle when I was 6 because it was an upgrade from our old lever-action BB gun. I just wanted to hold it, to feel its heft.

I put a single pellet from a plastic tray in the chamber, the same way I had seen him do it, set the tray on the ground and cocked the gun with a click and a click. I pumped the forestock until the gun felt air-filled and lethal.

I wondered if it would hurt my shoulder. The kickback.

I leaned my head toward the barrel and closed one eye and leveled the gun at the thick canopy of a crab apple tree growing too close to the barn. The gun gave a swift exhale, and the pellet thwacked into the branches.

A second later, a red-breasted robin tumbled from the tree.

I could say I heard it thump to the ground, but that would be stretching my memory to the point of fictionalizing. I can’t remember if it made an audible sound when it hit. But I remember vividly, as clear as the buzz of this morning’s traffic, the sound of its wings swishing against the grass and forget-me-nots, and its desperate squawking, as if asking itself why its body was no longer listening to the commands of its mind, and why this sudden sharp pain in its center.

I was outside on a farm in upstate New York with a pellet gun I wasn’t supposed to touch. I had felled a bird without intention or purpose, without wanting to hurt anything. So I went to it, stood over its little fluttering body, and fumbled another pellet into the chamber, pressed the barrel to the bird, clamped my tear-filled eyes tightly closed, and pulled the trigger again.

Still, the scream, like the frantic ringing of some serrated bell. The wild flapping. The attempt to fly away from whatever invisible horror had pinned its body to the ground.

Another pellet, another pull of the trigger. And then another. And then another.

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Pope Francis Calls for Flexibility, Patience as He Opens Talks on Church Teaching

A Swiss Guard salutes Pope Francis. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service. Via RNS

Pope Francis on Thursday opened a major two-day meeting on the church’s approach to the complexities of modern family life, telling the world’s Catholic cardinals that the church needs a “pastoral” approach that is “intelligent, courageous, and full of love” and not focused on abstract arguments.

In brief introductory remarks released by the Vatican, Francis pushed the closed-door summit of about 150 cardinals to “deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.”

He asked that they do so “thoughtfully” and by keeping the focus on “the beauty of family and marriage” while at the same time showing that the church is ready to help spouses “amid so many difficulties.” Francis added the phrase “intelligent, courageous, and full of love” extemporaneously.

A New Hymn for Lamenting the Death Penalty for Christ the King

Jesus on the cross Photo: Lasalus/Shutterstock

Jesus on the cross Photo: Lasalus/Shutterstock

“Lord, when were you in prison?” we’ll ask of you one day;
And when did we go visit you, and listen well, and pray?
And when did we show mercy there (as we need mercy, too)?
As we love those in prison, Lord, we show our love to you!

When you taught love of neighbor, had you heard in your time
Of one who lay beside the road, a victim of a crime?
The neighbor that you said was good brought help and wholeness, too;
May we help those who hurt so much from crimes that others do.

Pope Francis Tells Atheists to ‘Obey Their Conscience’

Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”

Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.

The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.

'Break My Heart With What Breaks Yours'

High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5 percent of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every 12 people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.

The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best-known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I facilitated for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.

In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.