Category: Reflections/ Messages (Page 1 of 13)

Church Outside

Church Under the Oaks

Now that certain restrictions have been lifted for the coronavirus pandemic, our church is going to meet outside. The song (for those old enough to remember) below indicates some of the sentiment our congregation may feel. Although there may not be a dale (“an open river valley in a hilly area”) nearby, or even a vale (“a valley”) of note, we do have the wind, sun, trees, grass, and leaves. There are also sticks, stones, pollen, birds and insects and we may also see occasional birds, snakes, spiders, and foxes, indicating some “wildwood” may be nearby. 

The word wildwood may be familiar to some from a song that Dr William S. Pitts wrote in 1857. It is entitled “Come, come to the church in the wildwood,” and has several verses. Here are the first two and the refrain: 

There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To listen to the clear ringing bells
Its tones so sweetly are calling
Oh come to the church in the vale.

(Oh, come, come, come, come)
Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.

The song reminds me of my own early church experiences. There were two churches in my rural farming community in Pennsylvania, nestled among the Allegheny mountains, but neither were in the “wildwood.” Many such churches had a cemetery “nestled” nearby, with gravestones marking the remains of former villagers. The churches were also invariably painted white, not brown, but they were “little,” with the average congregation of about 30 or 40, “swelling” to 60 or more at Christmas and Easter.

We did do some things outside, like Sunday School picnics and baptisms—but not in the winter—and our services were always inside. The weather was often unpredictable and disagreeable, not like Texas where, except for the occasional tornado and summer sun, it is safe to meet outside.

Of course, “safety” is the issue these days, with COVID-19 germs potentially lurking behind every face mask and cashier’s plexiglass separator. Meeting outside and following the six-foot separation will hopefully keep any nasty microbes at bay.

Older people (you know who you are) and those with “predisposing medical issues” will need to be especially careful, so the church under the oaks will need a restraining area for them, much like a “holding pen.” No hugging or handshakes, but a thumbs up or (perhaps) elbow bumps will be allowed. Singing will be difficult and muffled if people wear masks, but music may take on a new dimension, much like the ringing of a broken church bell, off in a distant vale.

Be aware: when we meet outside, there could be signs from the heavens: a hawk or vulture circling an area may mark a “dead” church, but a male cardinal could show that the church is “on fire” with red-like (not redneck) zeal.

The last verse of the “wildwood” song is more sobering:

There, close by the side of that loved one

‘Neath the tree where the wild flowers bloom

When farewell hymns shall be chanted

shall rest by her side in the tomb

If thin in terms of theology, the farewell is poetic and sentimental, allowing reflection and medication. That is appropriate in our outside service as well. 

Karl and Joice Franklin
Longing for the Outside

Independence and July 4th

On June 11, 1776 the signing of “A declaration by representatives of the United States of American in general congress” took place. The rallying cry had been “Taxation without representation,” meaning freedom from Great Britain. The final draft of the declaration was signed on July 4th 1776, and the first celebration took place a year later in Philadelphia. Independence Day was declared a national holiday in 1870.

We know a little about how that might have felt because on September 16, 1975 when Papua New Guinea received its status as an independent nation, we were there. We took part in celebrations because Australia was no longer the colonial power (under United Nations authority) governing the country. The mother country had done its best but now it was up to the new infant.

Expectations and aspirations ran high for the new nation: books were published, songs were written, the new Prime Minister and other leaders declared great things for the nation. After all, it was a “Christian nation,” with most of the population declaring themselves as “Christian.” However, 45 years later it is an adult nation and there are widespread problems, despite the country’s economic “success.” Although political corruption, tribal warfare, lack of health and educational care for rural areas, and so on, are not uncommon, there is also a high degree of potential for the country. This is due to outstanding Christian men and women leaders—many mission educated, as well as pastors and their churches.

We should not be surprised that problems have arisen. Although the U.S. has had 260 years to get things “right,” there is political corruption, warfare, lack of health care for many, and education obstacles as well. Nevertheless, concerned citizens and churches continue to work for justice and equality. In other words, “Independence” is a two-edged sword: it can bring “freedom” and opportunity, but it can also result in widespread disenchantment and chaos.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I thought of July 4th as a holiday, with parades, picnics, baseball double-headers, hotdogs and fireworks. The history of the event was marginal in my thinking. I am probably not alone and doubt if many of us think very deeply about the event, although anyone who has had military experience should be more conscious of the cost of maintaining “independence.”

We furloughed to the U.S. in July 1976 when our country was celebrating its bicentennial in a variety of ways, e.g., people in covered wagons re-enacting some of the journeys that settlers had taken. We didn’t consider it as conquest by dispossession—Native Americans, like African slaves, were simply a part of our American scenery and heritage. It was time to celebrate. 

However, consider what Frederick Douglass wrote: “Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’ To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” (From The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II. Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860.)

One 4th of July that I will never forget took place in Houston, Texas in 2013. We were there because Joice was undergoing treatment for cancer at the MD Anderson Proton Radiation Center. My cousin and her husband were visiting from Virginia so we went to see the Astros play baseball. At the conclusion, the roof was rolled back, and the fireworks began. It was spectacular, even if noisy and costly, and part of the baseball ticket—a bargain.

This 4th of July will be very different from any other we have ever had.  The state governments will save a lot of money which I imagine (with tongue in cheek) they will quickly and gladly disperse to needy citizens.

There may be social distancing, face masks, small groups, and parades—if any—may resemble a poorly attended church service or a political rally. We pray there will be no riots or shootings, but we cannot be sure, so individuals, families, and groups will take extra precautions.

There are also people and groups of people for whom July 4th will be no different than any other day: struggles for food and justice, lack of jobs, poor health care, and so on. If we are not in these categories but know people who are, it is our Christian duty and privilege to help them. We do not need to wave flags, set off firecrackers, wear long robes or pray on the street corners to be seen; rather, with humility and gratefulness, we need to help in any practical way that we can.

This could turn out to be the best 4th of July celebration that we have, with no missing fingers or limbs due to firecrackers, no riots or tearing down statues; instead, thankfulness that we trust in God with this conviction: “We may make our plans, but God has the last word” (Proverbs 16:1).

On a quiet Covid-19 
July 4th, 2020
Karl and Joice Franklin

Yeast Mustard Seed and a Feast

Two Small (but mighty) Parables of the Kingdom:

The Leaven (Luke 13:20-21) [Matthew 13:33]

The mustard seed (Luke 13:18-19) [Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32] {Thomas 20}

There is general acceptance, including the Jesus Seminar, that these are original stories by Jesus. The general themes are:

  1. Transformation: the leaven thoroughly transforms the dough
  2. Hiddenness: you can’t see the yeast hidden in the flour/dough
  3. Mysteriousness: difficult to explain exactly what happens
  4. Limited human capacity: it is not the woman who makes the dough grow
  5. Irresistibility: certainty that the dough will rise (assuming the yeast is good)
  6. All-embracing: it doesn’t stop until all the flour is leavened

Something extraordinary is happening: the kingdom is breaking in, shown by Jesus in his teaching and life. Something is happening now and the invitation to enter the kingdom is open to all people, although many people don’t know about it. God wants all people to be with him—in his kingdom. The process is not controlled by human action.

There is a small, insignificant beginning, but great final results. The kingdom is not imposed upon people, yet there is an irresistible power about it. As one writer has said “No matter what you do, the yeast works anyway” (Capon 1985:123). Jesus proclaims that the kingdom will definitely happen.

In these parables there are images of hope and the certainty of an invitation to enter God’s kingdom. God will bring about the desired results.

The Banquet/Feast (Luke 14:16-24) [Matthew 22:1-10]

Different groups op people: Jews and Gentiles

An urgent invitation to fellowship with God: God wants all people to fellowship with Him.

The people invited do now seem to grasp the splendor of the occasion. God does not want to force anyone to come—they separate themselves from God.

What about God’s threat? Is it a traditional Jewish rhetorical device of hyperbole? The invitation is declined because people are preoccupied with other things. The question of priorities is a key component of Jesus’s teachings.

What does it mean for God’s dining hall to be full? It is only full if all people take their places. It seems to also suggest that certain groups of people can be replaced by others.

Distinguish the logic of the images from the logic of the message. St Isaac of Nineveh (1995:171) wrote “Just because (the terms) wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He (actually) does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. We need to note that metaphorical figures are not God’s true nature. Fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth “suggest suffering and regret as well as the need for a painful process of transformation and purification.”

The exclusion from the banquet is self-inflicted, but is it permanent? Did Jesus say that religious authorities would not enter the Kingdom of God or only that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter first?

Translating the Parables

The nature of a story in other cultures: in Kewa there are two main genres: iti (legends) and remaa (stories). There are also sub-genres, for example “parables” (hidden talk) is an example of a story, but not one told by the ancestors.

Kissing

Kissing or Shaking Hands?

When we read a passage of scripture that has an injunction (a command or order) in it, we have to know the context of the passage: to whom it was written (and under what circumstances), as well as to determine the extent it is applicable to us now.

For example, following the KJV, there are four instances in the NT that ask Christians to greet or salute one another with “a holy kiss”: Romans 16;16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:13 and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Paul wrote each of them as an ending to his particular letters.

Are we therefore to conclude that members of every Christian church today should greet one another with a “holy kiss”? If not, on what basis do we decide that this was a cultural way of greeting and not a universal command for all churches?

First of all, we can examine other cultures of the world to see how people greet or say goodbye to one another? Do they kiss? If so, how do they do it (one cheek, both cheeks, lips?) and how well do they have to know one other in order to do it? And where do they do it—church meetings, social occasions, card games, etc.?

Secondly, we ask if there is any moral feature that accompanies the act: Suppose, for example, that a “holy kiss” is supposed to be cursory , i.e. hasty and in passing, and not dynamic, i.e. lively or forceful so that there are no moral ‘side-effects’. Can we judge the difference and decide what is a “holy kiss” and what seems to be more “unholy” or secular and profane? That seems pretty subjective and may be open to all sorts of arguments. But, as I show later with the names of some Western cultural kisses, not all are holy.

Thirdly, does a different action, such as “shaking hands” or “hugging” have the same social effect: a greeting between two people, but nothing more than that? In other words, does it matter—is a greeting of sufficient cause—to lead into doctrine? A doctrine arises out of discussion by church leaders, just as the Creeds arose out of the judgment and writing of the Church Fathers. And, if the matter of how greeting were performed became a doctrine rather than a “custom”, who would decide and how would they go about it? A council? A vote?

Some NT versions do not use “holy kiss”; instead we find: “ holy (consecrated) kiss (AMPC); warm greeting (CEV); “the special greeting of God’s people” (ERV); kiss of peace” (GNT), “hearty handshake” (Phillips); “shake hands warmly” (TLB); “holy embraces” (MSG); “kiss of holy love” (NLV); and “sacred kiss” (NLT). Most English versions, I might add, stick to “holy kiss”.

If we turn to the OT, we find 31 examples of kisses as greetings, beginning in Genesis 27:26, where, with his mother Rebekah’s help, Jacob tricks his father into believing that he is Esau and therefore deserving of Isaac’s blessing. So he goes near to his father who “kissed him…and blessed him.” Generally, in the OT the kiss is between relatives. However, in other instances, “kiss” is used in a metaphorical way : Job 31:27 where Job implores that he has not secretly “kissed his hand” or Psalm 85:10, where righteousness and peace “kiss” each other.

This short example is one of many that we find in the NT that raises similar questions about taking certain passages literally, instead of figuratively. In other words, when it comes to passages like a “holy kiss”, are we provided with guides or opinions, or with absolute rules? Either can be inspired.

Now, with the biblical mandate in mind, what does our U.S. culture say about kissing? On the web, I read about 20 different kinds. For example, think of the “Eskimo Kiss,” which is rubbing noses and moving back and forth at the same time. This is good in cold climates so that the lips don’t get stuck together.

Quite repulsive to some, on the other hand, is the “French Kiss,” which involves “plenty of tongue action.” Or, how about the “Single Lip Kiss,” where you suck and sandwich the lip of your lover between yours? Just hope she (or he) has not been eating spinach or garlic. And when people get so close to each that their eyelashes connect, that is the “Butterfly Kiss” and is said to signal “mad infatuation,” much like a butterfly landing on a flower.

The “Lipstick Kiss” is when the girl wants to leave a “mark” on the boy, especially if the boy may be interested in another girl.

Of course, kisses don’t have to be on the lips: other common ones are on the forehead, hand, earlobe, nose (watch out for snot), jaw, and the cheek. If one of the couple gives a “deep passionate kiss on the neck that includes “sucking and a bit of biting,” it is called the Vampire Kiss.

There are many kinds of “hugs” as well—one Internet site names 11, but we’ll leave that alone, except for the Grandma Hug, which squeezes you so tight your eyes pop out.

This little essay should remind you that not all kisses are holy ones—maybe it is better to shake hands!

 

Rules and Regulations

 

I have commented elsewhere on how the biblical directive of a “holy kiss” can be translated, as well as how the notion of a “kiss” in our culture is most often quite different.

It follows that when we read  scripture with an injunction (a command or order), we have to know the context of the passage: to whom it was written (and under what circumstances), as well as to determine the extent it is applicable to us in our own or some other culture.

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