Saint of the Week – Lin Zhao Agatha

This weeks saint is Agatha Lin (or Lin Zhao Agatha).

For this weeks saint we’re going to a side of our Christian family that I don’t think we hear about often.  The Church in China has always met with a lot of resistance and suspicion, even to this day.  So, I think it’s good to get a glimpse at to the work of some of our often forgotten Christian brothers and sisters.

Today I wanted to focus on Saint Agatha Lin who is remembered by Christians around the world on January 28th.

Agatha was born into a Catholic family in 1817.  She was very familiar with the difficulty of being a Christian in China as her father was twice arrested and tortured for being a Christian.  She would eventually become a school teacher but was also imprisoned for her faith in 1857.  Not only was she asked to renounce her Christianity but she was also mocked for her virginity.  When she refused to give up her faith and also voiced support for other imprisoned Christians, she was beheaded on January 28, 1858.

I pray that Agatha Lin would inspire us to remember the history of Christians all over the world.  I pray that we would remember the work of the everyday believers, especially the women in our lives.  I pray that Agatha Lin’s sacrifice would inspire us to greater faith and to stand up for our voiceless and imprisoned brothers and sisters.

More Information:
Martyrs of China – PDF
Catholic Online – Saint Agatha Lin

Why Nothing is as Plain as it Seems

Every time I hear the phrase “plain reading of Scripture” or “Scripture plainly teaches” I honestly twitch a little inside.

Before I get too far though, I wanted to acknowledge that Rachel Held Evans beat me to this idea in her recent blog post, “The Bible was ‘clear’…”  She gave certain examples of how Scripture had been used in the past to defend segregation, slavery, banning interracial marriage, denying women the right to vote and even rejecting a heliocentric (earth revolves around the sun) concept of the solar system.  To the last point, she makes an interesting observation:

But to accept Galileo’s thesis, our 17th century forbearers would have had to reject 1600 years of traditional Christian interpretations of passages like Psalm 93:1, Ecclesiastes 1:5, and Joshua 10:12-14.

1600 years of tradition had been wiped out by an upstart with a telescope.  A plain reading of Scripture would have told us that his findings must have been patently false.  But, a plain reading of the stars seemed to demonstrate otherwise.

Nothing is as plain as it seems.

I was also recently turned to an interesting section of Scripture that only seems to hammer this point home even more.  That point being that sometimes Scripture is not as plain as we wish it was.

Don’t answer fools according to their folly, or you will become like them yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will deem themselves wise.
Proverbs 26:4-5 (CEB)

So…which is it?  Should we not answer fools according to their folly…or should we?  Are we to resist their folly so that we do not become like them, or do we answer them so that they might realize their folly?  Proverbs was supposed to be a straightforward book of wisdom…but color me confused here.

Nothing is as plain as it seems…indeed.

I think when it comes to a “plain” reading of scripture, we would do well to douse ourselves with large buckets of humility first.  Let’s be honest on two key things everyone does when it comes to scripture (thanks to Scot McKnight in his book The Blue Parakeet for this).

  1. Everyone interprets Scripture
  2. Those who try and understand Scripture…probably love Scripture.

So, before we start demeaning and calling down heresy on people who seem to disagree with our “plain” reading of scripture, let’s all settle down and approach the conversations with a bit of humility.  The Bible is full of similar situations.  Just read the first few chapters in Acts as the fledgling church was working out what to do with all the Gentiles that wanted to join up.  Peter needed a vision from God and Paul had to defend his missionary work to the Gentiles at every turn.  Where we stand, hindsight is 20/20 and we take their decisions for granted.  But many stood up to defend that a “plain” reading of scripture would require Gentile converts to follow the Laws of Moses.  The Jerusalem Council was convened to decide the matters and they issued a wise decree.

“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God.”
Acts 15:19 (CEB)

We’re not convincing anyone to turn to God when we get combative and defensive about our “plain” readings of Scripture.  Sure we want to be true to the Bible and what it teaches, but the Bible is also replete with examples of people who fully believed they knew what the Bible taught and were quickly informed otherwise.  Often the strongest judgments and reprimands in Scripture was reserved for those who used Scripture for their own benefit and at the expense of others.

Cover to cover, the message of the Bible is freedom and salvation.  Any attempts to make a “plain” reading something akin to bondage, slavery or captivity has missed the point of Scripture entirely.  As the Jerusalem Council concluded, we should not “create problems” for those who desire to turn to God.  Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden is light and we should endeavor to make others burdens lighter as well.  Our “plain” readings should be understood as just that….

Ours.

We can talk about, share and discuss those readings with other believers in humility and grace.  Hopefully we can come to an agreement or we may leave with differing opinions.  Either way, we have talked about and discussed Scripture.  As believers we have gathered together to discuss God’s Word and have probably benefited from the discussion. Maybe we will learn that somebody has a better telescope than we do.

What do you think?  How plain is Scripture to you?  Is there some value in debate and ambiguity in Scripture?  Can a 4000 year old document really be as plain as we sometimes wish it was?

Prayer for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saint of the Week – Francis de Sales

I thought it might be fun to highlight a Saint of the Week every week.  I think it can be very helpful to hear the stories of the faithful who have come before us.  We stand in a very long running stream and we can hopefully learn from where our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers in the faith have already been.  These posts will generally be brief and will typically be pulled from the great resources provided by Mission St. Clare.

This week’s saint is Francis de Sales.

Christians around the world remember the life of Francis de Sales this week on January 24th.

Francis was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1593 and would be appointed the Roman Catholic bishop of Geneva, Switzerland in 1602.  Geneva might be familiar to you as the home base for John Calvin’s version of the Reformation.  Since Francis de Sales was considered quite a persuasive speaker, he was placed as bishop in this Reformation stronghold to try and persuade the reformers to rejoin the Catholic church.  What was unique about Francis’ methods was that they were not extreme.  He chose instead to speak with love rather than anger or hate towards those who had left the Catholic church.

“He who preaches with love, preaches effectively.”
Francis de Sales

While some were persuaded to rejoin the Catholic church, of course others were not.  However, what seemed consistent was everyone’s respect of Francis because of his attitude of love and service towards the community.  He also wrote a lot about prayer and encouraged everyone to faithfully seek the presence of God in their lives.  His book, The Introduction to the Devout Life, remains quite popular.

My prayer is that Francis de Sales may inspire us to consistently speak to others with love, even when we we may disagree with them.  I pray that we may work to persuade others more with our actions of love than our persuasive words.  Also, may our conversations then draw others towards a greater understanding of the presence of God in their lives.

More Information on Francis de Sales:
Wikipedia – Francis de Sales
NewAdvent – St. Francis de Sales

Some Thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day

mlkihaveadreamgogoToday is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day, the day in the United States.  A day in which we are encouraged to remember the civil rights work of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  I’d like to offer a few thoughts today, but before I do, a disclaimer of sorts.

I am a white American.  I am not an African American and have not felt the sting of racism or segregation.  I was born in the 80’s, far removed from the heated civil rights movement.  I really have no personal context to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the violence and bigotry he stood up against.  However, I am indebted to his work and the America he helped create that I now enjoy.  One of the great things about the work and words of Dr. King is that they continue to ring an inspiring tone well after his death and beyond even the time and purpose they served.

With that out of the way, I want to highlight a section from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech.  If you have not had the immense pleasure to listen to the speech, please take a moment and click the link to listen.  As with any great speech, the words were meant to be heard and not just read.  I will wait while you go and listen, otherwise the lines I would like to focus on are:

“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

I think these words stuck out to me because I recently watched Lee Daniels: The Butler.  There is a scene in that film in which a group of students are preparing themselves for the famous lunch counter sit-ins.  To prepare they simulate sitting at the counter and have another student push, pull and scream hateful words at them.  One white student, amongst the predominantly African American group, would not scream the word “nigger” in the simulation because he knows it to be a hateful, demeaning word.  The organizer of the simulation encourages him to shout it because it will happen, it is a real word used to inflict real pain and they must know how to resist everything that will be thrown at them.  I felt bad for the kid, but was encouraged that he was there and was allowed to be there because he believed in the fight for civil rights.  He was not excluded from the fight because he was white, he was included because he shared a common vision.  This illustrates quite well the idea from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech that, “we cannot walk alone.”  The issues they were fighting for were not distinctly African American issues, they were issues of human rights and values.  All cultures and backgrounds needed to be represented in the fight for civil rights in America because it was everyone’s fight.  Leaving one group out would not help their goal, it would indeed undermine it.  As Dr. Martin Luther King very keenly identified, every American’s destiny was tied up together in this fight.

As a Church we would do well to honor the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  It is too easy and tempting in the Church to divide things up as “Us vs. Them”.  To understand things as those who are in and those who are out.  To identify some as fighting the good fight and others as misguided.  We can align ourselves so strongly to our beliefs, doctrines, denominations, worship styles and causes that we alienate ourselves from those who may see things differently. We may even go so far as to alienate ourselves from those who may look differently, further confirming Dr. King’s observation that, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”

I pray that we can hear the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and remember that, “We cannot walk alone.”

We are all in this together.  The Church may look divided, splintered and divisive.  Truthfully, this may be our biggest problem.  However, we must be reminded that if Jesus is the true head of the Church we are still parts of the same body.  And, as parts of the same body we cannot walk alone.  We should not distrust those from a different denomination who want to join in our service or community projects.  We should welcome everyone who wants to join in the work of the Kingdom.  I pray we can join together with everyone who has heard the call of God on their lives and want “sit in” at the counter of brokenness, evil, depression, segregation, violence, terror, pain, suffering, hunger, and chaos and quietly proclaim a new way of living.

Martin Luther King also quotes Isaiah 40 verses 4 & 5 in his I Have a Dream Speech.  That verse says:

Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.
Isaiah 40:4-5 (CEB)

The key idea here is that “all humanity will see it together.”  Not some, not a chosen few, not a special group…but all humanity.  We cannot walk alone because God’s desire is that we all walk together to see his glory.  As Dr. King welcomed the whites who stood alongside African Americans in the fight for civil rights, may we also welcome those we might be tempted to distrust in the continuing work of God’s Kingdom.

Prayer for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Ignoring the Burning Bush in the Room

I was sitting in a room with a bunch of ministry friends at the UNCO West 2013 conference.  In a discussion facilitated by the wonderful Shannon Meacham we gathered to talk about and brainstorm ways that worship could be more creative and meaningful.  We bandied about all sorts of ideas.  We discussed formal dress over casual dress.  We discussed how to involve hymns, modern praise, various instruments, congregational involvement, the theology behind our worship styles and everything in between.  Then, my good friend Tripp Hudgins started talking about an interaction he had with a member of his church.  They were talking about worship when the member dropped what I would respectfully consider a worship “grenade”.  According to Tripp, this member said:

“There’s a burning bush in our service and we don’t even know it.”

I wrote that little nugget down in my notebook.  I put a few asterisks around it and double underlined it.  If I had a red pen available I probably would have drawn a big circle around it or if I was feeling a little artistic may have drawn some flames.  This little sentence has buried itself deep between my ears and will not let go.  It stuck with me because I know that I will often miss the “burning bush” in a service.  For a refresher, lets look at the book of Exodus where this image of a burning bush shows up.

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, “Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.”
When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Moses said, “I’m here.”
Exodus 3:1-4 (CEB)

In the story, Moses is out tending his father-in-laws sheep when he comes across a bush that was on fire but was not burning up.  Seeing the bush, Moses is drawn to it and decides to go check “this amazing sight” out.  Once he gets close, the voice of the Lord calls out to Moses from the bush and Moses responds accordingly.  Moses had a choice to investigate the burning bush or dismiss it as an exception.

How often do we and miss, or refuse to see the glory of God burning in our midst?

Like I said before, I know I have done this a lot.  I have been in a few church services where I’ve silently critiqued the pastor or worship song choice.  I have also spent an inordinate amount of time looking at the stage setup, sound system, musical instruments and dress code of everyone on stage. Sometimes I have spent a whole service looking at anything and everything but the “burning bush.”  Sometimes I spend more time questioning the theological soundness of a sermon than actually trying to grasp what the pastor is trying to get across.

I have missed the “burning bush”.  And in missing the “burning bush” I have not taken the risk to come closer and actually hear the voice of God. This is so easy to do in our Western/American culture where we often go to churches looking for specific “goods’ and “services” rather than relationships and God.  We often look for good children and youth programs, a decent sounding worship band, people who dress the way we think we should dress in Church and a pastor who is engaging and charismatic (but not too challenging).  When we are not able to find those things we may just walk out the door and find a replacement church that we feel can meet our needs.

We walk out the door, past a burning bush, having never actually taken the time to draw near, investigate and listen.

The burning bush definitely did not fit Moses expectations of a bush that was burning. There was a fire, but the bush was not consumed. How often do we dismiss something because we expect or desire certain results?  We might look at a sanctuary and decide that it is not oriented to our exceptions so we walk out.  We might listen to a pastor and decide he did not preach in the way we like so we check out.  We might see that the church reads from a Bible translation that we are not used to so we speak out.

What if…what if we stopped disregarding the exceptions to our expectations and took the time to investigate? What if we opened ourselves up to be surprised in a church service? What if we did not come to church to be comforted and confirmed, but we came to be amazed and challenged?  What if we came expecting to find a burning bush in our midst?

A bush that burns, but is not consumed.  A flame that speaks the words of God.  Words that call out to us when we draw near.  Then, once we’ve drawn near we may begin to hear God’s voice and hear his desires for his people.

Hear God’s desire to save his people.

Hear God’s anguish for his people.

Hear God’s love for his people.

Hear God’s challenge for us to free his people.

There’s a burning bush here.  Do you see it?