Scripture

Onleilove Alston 02-19-2014
Photo by Onleilove Alston

Black Madonna at Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Photo by Onleilove Alston

“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” -Psalm 68:31

The Bible is a multicultural book. This statement may sound controversial but archeology, history, and the text prove it to be true. In 2013 this controversy played out in the media when viewers of The Bible miniseries were upset that Samson was played by a black man. A second controversy occurred when a Fox News broadcaster confidently declared that Santa Claus and Jesus were white, yet when people researched original depictions of Saint Nicolas, they found pictures of a dark brown man. It appears that our faith has been distorted. As we celebrate Black History Month and prepare for Lent, how can uncovering the black presence in the Bible aid us in mourning against the sin of racism? One of the effects of racism is the whitewashing of history and sadly this has taken place even in our biblical studies.

The Roman Catacombs show biblical scenes painted by first- and second-century persecuted Christians, and their paintings clearly show people of color. What would Roman Christians gain from painting these characters black? What did these early Christians know and accept that seems unbelievable today?

Eric Barreto 02-17-2014
Spectator medal at Sochi 2014 Olympic games, Iurii Osadchi / Shutterstock.com

Spectator medal at Sochi 2014 Olympic games, Iurii Osadchi / Shutterstock.com

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Seriously, Jesus? Have you even met some of us? Have you seen the depths of our jealousies, the breadth of our greed? Have you noticed how insatiable our egos are? How deeply insecure we all are?

Perfect?

You cannot mean what you seem to mean.

What then do we do with this seemingly impossible call? For many of us, this is one of those passages in the Bible we seek to explain away. Jesus can’t possibly mean what he says here. We reckon that he must be calling us merely to aspire to perfection. Or we conclude that in calling us to perfection, we realize how very far we are from it and thus lean on God’s grace. But certainly, absolutely, without a doubt, Jesus cannot be calling us to be perfect like God is perfect.

Right?

Stephen Mattson 02-16-2014
Man highlighting Scripture, James Steidl / Shutterstock.com

Man highlighting Scripture, James Steidl / Shutterstock.com

As Christians, we’ve been taught to follow the commands written in the Bible, but it’s easy to pick and choose which verses we want to follow, and we tailor ‘holiness’ according to our particular comforts and cultural preferences.

For example, there are hundreds of verses, stories, and illustrations in the Bible that talk about giving abundantly to the poor, being absurdly generous with our resources, and not idolizing money, and yet we have a tendency to focus on the few verses that mention being ‘good stewards’ of our money (Prov. 10:4-5; 13:22).

1 Tim. 5:8 says: But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Phew! This verse is all we need. It provides an opportunity for us to succumb to society’s expectations under the false pretense of being righteous — it’s a Biblical escape clause.

We search for these texts and treat them like precious treasures because they accommodate our lifestyle and help us rationalize our action (or inaction) — but we often rip them out of the larger context and disregard God’s greater intention.

Much of Jesus’s ministry centers on reconciling relationships, forgiving — and loving — enemies (Matt: 5:43-48), empathizing with those who we don’t normally understand (Philippians 2:3-4, John 8:1-11; Matt. 19:14; John 4) and loving others (John 13:34; 1 John 4:19-21). It’s hard to deny these truths, but when reality hits and we encounter those we dislike, we rely on verses that warn against bad company (1 Cor. 15:33; Prov. 13:20; Psalm 1:1) and spending time with evildoers. It’s easier to fall back on these verses than it is to recognize the ones calling us to wholeheartedly love others.

Couple praying at mealtime, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

Couple praying at mealtime, Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

Praying out loud had almost become a telltale sign of who was a true Christian and who wasn’t. To this day, I’m not sure (with levity) that you can get served in some parts of Dallas or Grand Rapids if you don’t pray before your meal.

I’ve been pondering this practice for a couple of years now, ever since Tim Tebow’s rise to fame. After touchdowns, he would get down on one knee, bow his head and pray. That gave way to a national phenomenon, “Tebowing,” defined as “to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”

Some Christians cheered Tebow for his Tebowing — a bold, fearless demonstration of his faith before millions. He was not ashamed of Jesus. No siree!

On the flip side, some wonder why Peyton Manning doesn’t get with the program, since he also claims to be a Christian. But the superstar Super Bowl quarterback doesn’t feel the need to display his piety. What’s up with that?

Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey Networks

A Hard Word to Hear This Winter (Isaiah 58: 1 – 9a). Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey Networks

This has been a hard winter — from Minnesota to Alabama. It’s been a very hard winter for Tanya and Red and Jamie and Andre and Adrian and Mercy. They are my neighbors here in New York City. It’s not that the heat was shut off in their apartments because they didn’t pay their bills. They have no apartments. Since last fall, they have made their beds on the steps of Riverside Church, under the scaffolding at Union Seminary and on the benches near Grant’s Tomb.

“Will you be warm enough tonight?” I asked Tanya. “Oh, we’ll be plenty warm,” she said as she showed me their outdoor bedroom: the first layer was carpeting, then stacks of blankets for padding and many more blankets for covers. “Once you’re in here,” said Red, “it’s too hot to keep your jacket on.” I was grateful to hear that because, well, then I wouldn’t feel so terrible going inside my warm apartment.

Micah Bales 01-30-2014
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

We were together receiving the State of the Communion of the Kingdom of God. Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

Tuesday was a big day here in Washington, D.C. The president of the United States addressed both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court, laying out his State of the Union. In this annual speech, the President lays out his vision of where the country is at, and where we are headed. With great pomp and circumstance, the Commander-in-Chief delivers a message for the whole nation.

Tuesday night was a big moment for my community, too. The D.C. small group of Friends of Jesus gathered for our first small group meeting of 2014. We caught up with one another after many weeks apart. We experienced the story of Acts 2 in the form of a bibliodrama that we acted out together. We shared a time of deep worship and prayer.

Lynn R. Huber 01-13-2014
Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

Pope Francis in a Popemobile on Easter. Philip Chidell/Shutterstock

As the New Year brings reflection over the past year, we have heard much about Pope Francis and the ways he has surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The suddenness of his predecessor’s resignation this past spring, the fact that he is the first Pope from the Americas, and his apparent commitment to his namesake St. Francis’ concern for the poor and displaced all contribute to the sense that this Pope embodies the unexpected.

Especially indicative of the way this Argentinian, who for a short time was a nightclub bouncer, has surprised people is being named “Person of the Year” by The Advocate, a popular U.S. magazine devoted to gay and lesbian rights, culture, politics, and entertainment. Although he did not (nor will he, likely) reverse the Church’s stance on gay marriage, this accolade was given to the Bishop of Rome based upon his apparent change in tone about gays and lesbians, reportedly having said to reporters, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about the issue. Clearly, this humble response has endeared the Pontiff to many who have been excluded from the fold, yet still yearn for hints of acceptance.

The period of Epiphany is a time in which the identity of the Divine’s chosen is revealed and often this identity entails some element of surprise. In the same vein, this week’s Old Testament text, Isaiah 49:1-7, highlights the unforeseen nature of the servant who restores Israel.

Anna Hall 01-08-2014
J.Simunek/Shutterstock

A common myth regarding raising minimum wage is that it's bad for the economy. J.Simunek/Shutterstock

It’s a new year, and Congress is back in session.

One of the top issues expected to be debated in 2014 is a hike to the federal minimum wage. 13 states have instituted wage increases. President Obama has supported raising the minimum wage throughout his presidency. Most recently, he shared his approval of new legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin and George Miller (D-Calif.) that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10, up from it’s current $7.25. 

Critics of the Harkin/Miller bill are quick to decry any wage increase. The usual arguments are trotted out to combat progressive pay for low-wage earners. Here are five commonly perpetuated myths about minimum wage. Hopefully, their exploration will shed a more accurate light on this contested issue.

Why some of us love Jesus and don't like Paul.

Dr. Coleman Baker 12-23-2013
lazlo/Shutterstock

Soldiers from all eras have faced difficult moral dilemmas. lazlo/Shutterstock

As we move into the Sundays following Christmas and begin to anticipate Epiphany, we face the terror of the coming week’s Gospel reading, the Massacre (or Slaughter) of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod’s murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top.

Herod’s brutality is legendary. Most of what we know comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus. Matthew records that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and “he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). While scholars debate whether this event is historical or not, it is certainly consistent with what we learn about Herod from Josephus.

Angela Kissel 12-09-2013

Photo illustration by Ken Davis

Her pastor told her it was 'against scripture' for females to preach.

Juliet Vedral 11-20-2013
Photo courtesy of Beth Moore

Sure Beth Moore might have big hair and use church-ladyisms, but she knows Jesus. Photo courtesy of Beth Moore

I think what turned me off the most was the hair. It was just so ... big. And the scrappy “don’t mess with Texas” vibe. And the fact that evangelical moms all over the country were fans. As a third generation New Yorker, cynicism and snark have been bred into me, along with an affinity for black clothing and pretentious coffee. So it has surprised everyone — including me — that I have spent the past year going through (and recommending) Beth Moore studies.

How did it happen? Well, I moved from my hometown of New York City to Washington, D.C., and while I was exploring various employment opportunities, I had a lot of free time. The wife of the former associate pastor at the church I’d started attending invited me to join a “women’s Bible study” that met on Friday mornings. They were doing a Beth Moore study called Breaking Free. It seemed fishy to me — who are the only women who have free time on Friday mornings? Moms. And Beth Moore?  I had spent six years attending and four years on staff at a church in New York that got super famous because of its own rockstar, hyper-intellectual, and somewhat post-modern teaching. We prided ourselves on not being ... well, like Beth Moore.

Still, I was trying to be open to life in my new city so ...

I walked into the group a couple of minutes late wearing gold sequin pumps, skinny jeans, and a red leather jacket — what I would normally wear to bum around town in my old life. I could not  have been more out of place amidst the yoga pants and baby blankets. But I met some of the most awesome women I’ve known in D.C. and more importantly — I met Beth.

Henry Brinton 11-18-2013
littleny / Shutterstock

Macy's has caused a Thanksgiving stir by opening stores on the holiday. littleny / Shutterstock

Macy's decided to open its doors to shoppers on Thanksgiving Day at 8:00 p.m. Time magazine reports that people are denouncing the move as “greedy, misguided, and unfair to the employees being forced to work on a day traditionally reserved for family.”So how is Thanksgiving doing? Is it deceased, or has its death been greatly exaggerated?

The apostle Paul must have wondered about this when he wrote his letter to the Colossians, a group of Christians living along a main roadway in Asia Minor — what is now modern Turkey. They were pulled between the values of their faith and the values of their culture, much as we are today. Paul warned them, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

These words ring true today, don’t they? We know the philosophy of trying to spend ourselves out of economic troubles. The empty deceit of a sales pitch. The human tradition of making the holidays an orgy of consumption. The elemental spirits of the universe that lure us away from Jesus Christ.

Paul asked the Colossians, and he asks us, “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (2:20). It’s a good question, one that we should ask ourselves on Thanksgiving Day, and every day.

Billy Honor 11-11-2013
GWImages / Shutterstock

Nearly 1 in 7 homeless adults are veterans. GWImages / Shutterstock

There is a popular African proverb that says, when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. This proverb highlights the reality that too often while nations and powerful entities fight amongst themselves, the common people of the land suffer the most. It is a historical truth that those who make the decision to wage wars (military, legislative, or otherwise) often have the least to lose. Sure, they may lose their prestige, position, or power, but in the end their essential well-being and access to basic necessities are maintained.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of many of those who are the instruments and casualties of war and political conflict.

Veterans: America’s Suffering Grass    

In the United States, a large number of veterans who fought in wars at the command of the political elite have returned home from the battlefield to a life of impoverishment and fickle social services. 

Rev. Dr. Guy Nave 11-11-2013
Kjetil Kolbjornsrud / Shutterstock

A close-up of a christian woman reading the Bible. Kjetil Kolbjornsrud / Shutterstock

When I was a Ph.D. candidate in Yale University’s New Testament program, I had the honor of preaching at an ordination service for a classmate who was being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Following the service, a number of my classmates asked me why I wanted to spend four-seven years working on a Ph.D. in New Testament when I clearly had a "gift" for preaching. I responded that it was actually my academic study of the Bible coupled with my life experiences that illumined and enlivened my preaching.

I did not grow up reading the Bible. I was almost 19 years old and a U.S. Army soldier stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany when I purchased my first Bible. A series of life-changing events led to me "accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior." A few months after purchasing my first Bible, I attended a revival service at a local church. I returned to post that evening describing the service to fellow soldiers, who, along with myself, comprised a group self-identified as the "Soul Patrol." We were African-American Christians who strongly believed in the necessity of Christian evangelization.

Anna Hall 11-04-2013
Photo courtesy of Half in Ten

The report tracks the nation’s progress toward cutting poverty in half over the next decade. Photo courtesy of Half in Ten

Last week, Half in Ten released its third annual report on its commitment to and efforts toward U.S. poverty reduction. The Half in Ten Campaign is a joint project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Coalition on Human Needs, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human rights, with a mission to build political and public will to cut the nation’s poverty rate in half in 10 years. 

In her remarks, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, stressed the need to move the conversation in Washington away from implementing austerity measures that ultimately harm the poor.

Scripture also reminds us over and over again to care for the least of those in society, including widows, orphans, and immigrants in our midst. We are called to be generous with what we have. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez echoed this truth at the Half in Ten meeting, urging that at this time, we need to “turn toward one another, not against one another.” 

Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

School shooting memorials at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

The plight of Job is one of the most familiar stories from the Hebrew Bible. Many of us know Job’s suffering and the tortuous advice of Job’s “comforters.” The experience of suffering is universal. In the midst of our suffering, we seek to understand, to process, to comprehend. For individuals of faith, events of radical suffering plunge us into a theological crisis. Where is God? Is God causing this to happen? Is God allowing this to happen? Why?

The crisis deepens when we realize that the suffering does not match our preconceptions of how the world should work. We seem to think that if we output positive vibes into the world, the world (or God) will reciprocate. That would be fair. That would be right. That would be just.

However, in the reality of human experience we recognize that great fortune sometimes falls on the underserving, while horrible events beat down the most innocent among us.

Perhaps this is why so many of us can relate to the book of Job. Here we have a character who does everything right. From the first verse, we know that Job is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). In fact, these characteristics draw God’s attention and praise.

Anna Hall 10-17-2013
Photo via WUSA9's Bruce Leshan on Twitter, @BruceLeshan

Photo via WUSA9's Bruce Leshan on Twitter, @BruceLeshan

When I began to read, I started by going through the Psalms. An elderly gentleman paused to listen, and then requested if I could read aloud his favorite, Psalm 91. As I read it, he also began to softly quote the verses by heart, praising God and saying “hallelujah” before thanking me and walking on.

Later, a local pastor from the District Church in Colombia Heights came to read. We met a couple visiting from Louisiana. The wife was a furloughed federal employee with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was interesting to hear her point of view working first-hand with immigrants in a deportation capacity. She said as a Christian, it is sometimes very difficult to find a balance between desiring to deport violent criminals, and also wanting to keep hardworking, law-abiding immigrant families together. She and her husband thanked all who were participating in the Faithful Filibuster for keeping Christ present during the government shutdown.

As the next speaker from Salvation Army was reading, several teens participating in a rally at the Supreme Court came to ask about what we were doing. After explaining the filibuster’s mission, a young boy thanked us, shook hands, and said “God bless you.”

Angela Kissel 10-14-2013
Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Angela Kissel reads Scripture at the #FaithfulFilibuster last week. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Setting an away email with no date of return was almost as odd as leaving work and not and knowing when I’d be back. This unexpected time off gave me the opportunity to do everything on my to-do list and spend ridiculous amounts of time at the dog park. Naturally, it also gave me time to catch up on reading and visiting with other furloughed friends. But this past Wednesday I was beginning to feel a bit hopeless about the whole situation.

Scrolling through Facebook I noticed Sojourners updates on its #FaithfulFilibuster and it truly made me ashamed of my hopelessness. I was ashamed because I forgot who was in charge. I was ashamed because I forgot where my hope lies. And I was ashamed because I was so wrapped up in my own struggles of furlough I forgot about the families that were already struggling and now also dealing with a loss of paychecks.

On Thursday I saw another update from Sojourners, and despite the rain, I felt compelled to go check it out. I expected to do nothing but observe and admire faith leaders stepping out to reclaim hope and speak for the millions of silenced voices in this country. However, when I arrived, something different happened. I was asked if I wanted to participate, handed a Bible, and stepped to the podium to read.

Yolanda Smith 10-07-2013
Medicine illustration, violetkaipa / Shutterstock.com

Medicine illustration, violetkaipa / Shutterstock.com

As people of faith, we sometimes don’t take time to prepare ourselves for what is ahead. With so many things vying for our time and attention, it is difficult to educate ourselves about all facets of critical matters. Even in our relationship with God, we gloss over important details that will guide us into a closer walk and become content with a distant half-hearted relationship. However, a casual walk with God is not one we should settle for. By delving into God’s Word, we are able to draw upon God’s wisdom for guidance and find a deeper relationship with God as we travel through this journey of life.

In a similar fashion, we cannot settle for casual knowledge of the Affordable Care Act, which is now upon us and “gives Americans unprecedented information about the health plan choices in their own communities.” The Kaiser Family Foundation reports in a recent poll that 51 percent of all Americans are still unsure about how the ACA will affect them. 42 percent of Americans thought that Congress had overturned the act or that the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional. And, many Americans worry that they will have to shell out more money due to the new health reform law. This uneasiness and misinformation certainly warrants a closer look as we journey through the multiple avenues of the Affordable Care Act.

 

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