Formations 01.21.2018: Unexpected News

Our story this week begins as one ends. Naaman, mighty warrior that he was, filled his house with wealth and servants taken from raids in Israel. And yet, despite this resolved story of victory, success, and stability, he still suffered from leprosy.

Connections 01.21.2018: A Second Time

Mr. James Boggs died a few weeks ago. He was my Little League Baseball coach. He taught me many lessons; one in particular has stayed with me through the almost half-century that has passed since those days. I was at bat. I don’t remember all the details, but I know that we had at least one runner on base.

Formations 01.14.2018: Pagan Is as Pagan Does

Members of one damselfish species identify their enemies through facial patterns that can only be seen in ultraviolet light. In 2010, Ulrike Siebeck of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia found that Ambon damselfish could tell their own species from another just by interpreting these markings, which are invisible to the human eye.

Formations 01.07.2018: The Suffering Servant

Lately I’ve been reading about Bartolomé de las Casas. A sixteenth-century Dominican friar, Las Casas is best remembered for his protests against the dominant forms of Spanish colonial and evangelical activity—the wars of the conquest and the encomienda system.

Connections 01.07.2018: God’s Words, Our Words

The first words God speaks in the first words of the Bible are creative ones: “Let there be light.” “And,” the narrator reports, “there was light.” God speaks. Something happens. And so it goes through all the days of creation.

Formations 12.31.2017: Christ(mas) Has Come!

On the Christian calendar—as opposed to the secular calendar by which stores began decking their halls shortly after Halloween—the Christmas season began on December 25th and will end twelve days later on January 5.

Connections 12.31.2017: Jesus and the Elderly

I turned forty this year, and I’m grateful to be able to say that I still have one living set of grandparents. My father’s parents, known to me as Mom and Pop, are age eighty-three and ninety-three. They’ve been a huge part of my life since my birth.

Formations 12.24.2017: A Song of Joy and Sorrow

Because I live a few blocks from a hospital, ambulance sirens, and the occasional helicopter, form one pitch in that harmony of creation I hear. For what they signal—coming help and immediate danger—these sounds are above all interruptions demanding drivers to make way.

Connections 12.24.2017: When the Lord Is With You

If you ever hear an angel say, “The Lord is with you,” how should you respond? Let me suggest, “Uh oh!” In Mary’s case, the angel’s statement “The Lord is with you” meant “The Lord has a really difficult task for you.”

Connections 12.17.2017: The Light of Christ

At this time of year, we marvel at the beauty of Christmas lights. Our family enjoys getting a special treat and riding through our town, admiring neighborhood light displays while we listen to Christmas music. We love to decorate our own house as well.

Connections 12.10.2017: What Would John the Baptist Say?

The other morning I got out of bed before my wife did. When she came into the den a few minutes later, she found me eating my oatmeal and watching the CBS Morning News. The first thing she said was, “Good morning!” The second thing she said was, “Has there been another one yet today?”

Formations 12.03.2017: The Lights of Christmas

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is the lights. We deck our houses with tiny electric lights. We drape lights on Christmas trees. We go to services on Christmas Eve where the light of dozens of handheld candles bathes the sanctuary in a warm, amber glow.

Connections 12.03.2017: Wake Up!

In the Gospels, I identify much more with the disciples than with the people who are in awe of Jesus, scared of him, or threatened by him. The disciples, like me, are comfortable with Jesus. They feel secure enough in him to question his ideas, criticize his actions, and even fall asleep when he wants them to stay alert.

Formations 11.26.2017: Innocence, Guilt, and Technicalities

The first time I heard Les Misérables, I was fifteen or sixteen. My mother had picked me up from school. Somewhere between learning it was her favorite musical and the grocery store, I asked her what it was all about. She began with the bishop.

Connections 11.26.2017: Past, Future, and Present

I have a longstanding affection for time travel stories. I think it goes back to the television show The Time Tunnel (1966-67). Its tales of two scientists lost in time and popping up in one historical event or another each week fascinated eight-year-old me.

Formations 11.19.2017: Faith and Violence

Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great and a nephew of Herod Antipas. The book of Acts remembers him mainly as a persecutor of the early church. Somewhat like the Apostle Paul, this king’s zeal for the law was apparently what drove him to persecute the church.

Connections 11.19.2017: Deborah, a Good Leader

Bible stories about female leaders are rare. And I’ve been in churches whose ministers have attempted to explain away female leadership with excuses like these: “When God can’t find a good man, God has to use a woman.” “Notice that the woman isn’t ruling over men. She’s instructing other women or taking care of children.

Formations 11.12.2017: What We Stand For

Alexander Hamilton, at least as played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, asks Aaron Burr early in their relationship, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” This tension between principle and calculated ambition defines Hamilton and Burr’s relationship through the remainder of Hamilton.

Formations 11.05.2017: Monument to Ivan the Terrible Erected

A bronze statue has been erected in Moscow to one of the most brutal rulers in Russian history. The monument is the first of its kind in the Russian capital and only the second in the entire country. The statue was first placed in the city of Alexandrov, where the locals protested.

Connections 11.05.2017: Standing on Dry Ground

I love the Bible’s epic stories: creation, the fall, the flood, the tower of Babel, the crossings of the sea, the march around Jericho, Daniel in the lion’s den, and others. These stories describe life-altering events in the lives of God’s people, pointing to the hand of God at work in each element of the tale.

Connections 10.29.2017: Sharing Ourselves

Shon Hopwood is from a small town in Nebraska. He is also a convicted felon who served eleven years in a federal penitentiary for bank robbery. He was arrested in July 1998 after participating in five robberies over the previous ten months. After being convicted, he went to prison in May 1999.

Formations 10.22.2017: Morality and Conformity

A new study from the Karolinska Institute in Solna, Sweden, has demonstrated what many of us already know intuitively: that our view of what is morally right or wrong is shaped by how widespread a particular behavior is. These findings come from a combination of behavioral experiments, mathematical models, and computer simulations.

Connections 10.22.2017: Steadfastness of Hope

To me, it’s one of the most beautiful words in the English language. Its French, Spanish, and Italian forms are beautiful too: esperer, esperanza, speranza. Hope means much more to me than wishful thinking or unmet desires. It is a lifeline keeping me afloat in a world that is often disappointing and frightening.

Formations 10.15.2017: No Longer

In 2015, John Legend and Common’s song “Glory,” written for the movie Selma, won an Oscar for the best original song. That same year, I worked for Passport camps, an ecumenical youth camp, and every night this was one of many songs that helped us to prepare for worship. As I read this week’s passage and tried to start making sense of Paul’s vision of belonging and freedom in Christ, this song returned to me.

Connections 10.15.2017: Joy on Tuesday

We’d pack into the Children’s Department Assembly Room like sardines in a can and, if it was summertime, our skin would be about as slick. The girls wore their best dresses and frilly white socks. The boys wore their best shirts and non-frilly white socks. We were a pony-tailed, crew-cut, snaggle-toothed mess of early and prepubescent childhood.

Formations 10.08.2017: Dance with the One that Brought You

After recounting his dealings with Peter and the other Jerusalem leaders in chapter 2, Paul launches into the main topic of his letter: “doing the works of the Law” versus “believing what you heard” (3:2). Which of these, Paul asks, is the basis for the blessings God has poured out on us?

Formations 10.01.2017: Freedom Resisted

As Paul introduces his letter to the Galatians, he speaks of “another gospel” preached in their community. It is, he says, “not really another gospel” but an attempt “to change the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). Paul quickly and assuredly rejects this other gospel so as to preserve the one that “delivered us [set us free,” NRSV] from this present evil age” (v. 4).

Connections 10.01.2017: Your Bootstraps, God’s Boots

I teach a couple of classes at a state college near my home. The courses are designed to help freshmen successfully transition from high school to college. One of the recurring themes of the courses is the necessity of accepting responsibility. “You are responsible for your life,” I find myself saying repeatedly.

Formations 09.24.2017: Japanese General’s Gift Launches a Career in Science

John S. Blunt was a U.S. Navy Seabee during World War II. Serving in both the European and Pacific theaters, he acquired a number of trophies. Among them was a high-quality Japanese microscope. He had saved a Japanese general’s life by providing him with antibiotics from the American base’s medical dispensary.

Connections 09.24.2017: Somewhere between Heaven and Earth

David is feeling pretty good about God in Psalm 145. Unlike in other psalms, there’s no word about vengeance or swords or wrath. David spends the entire psalm, even through verse 21, proclaiming God’s wonder and nearness and faithfulness. What led him to write this psalm amid all the others so full of lament, fear, anger, and revenge?

Connections 09.17.2017: The View from Below

God is with us. Christ is present in us. These are, the Bible assures us, facts. But such talk can go to our heads. After all, if God is with us, shouldn’t we be able to look down on other people? And if Christ is present in us, shouldn’t we be able to pass judgment on folks?

Formations 09.10.2017: Americans Step Up Their Giving

Hurricane Harvey made its first landfall on the evening of August 25 near Rockport, Texas. It was the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in the US since Charley in 2004. Three days later, FEMA Administrator Brock Long estimated that 30,000 people may need shelter, and as many as 450,000 may qualify for federal flood victim assistance.

Connections 09.10.2017: Praise…and Vengeance

Psalm 149 begins with joy, exuberance, music, praise. It sounds like the best kind of worship service, when everyone’s singing in unison—or glorious harmony—and all are feeling good and right before God. It’s how we want things to be when we go to church with our fellow believers.

Formations 09.03.2017: To Share the World

In Judson Mitcham’s Oblique Lexicon, the entry, “Gift,” begins with a globe given to two brothers who never asked for it. For most of the entry, Mitcham describes one brother laying on his bed and tossing the globe up and down, hoping that a mountain chain might kiss the ceiling.

Connections 09.03.2017: Participation Trophies

Sometimes kids get participation trophies. You know—if you’re on the team, you get a trophy. If you come in last, you still get a trophy. Why? Because you participated. The practice is controversial among some adults who argue that we shouldn’t teach our children that they’ll be rewarded for “only” participating.

Formations 08.27.2017: Honor to Whom Honor Is Due

Let me tell you about Miss Margaret. When I was a seminary student, I was also the pastor of a mission church that met in a trailer park in LaGrange, Kentucky. We literally met in a mobile home that the local Baptist association purchased for us and set up on the site. I think our high attendance record was thirty.

Connections 08.27.2017: What about Me?

I write to you today after yet another harrowing time in our nation—a time when any progress we have made in race relations takes a few giant steps backwards. Once again we are reminded that the loud voices of a relatively small group are occasionally more powerful than the quiet voices of the many.

Formations 08.20.2017: Return Blessing for Evil

I have my parents’ bibles from when they were children, and they are more or less what you would expect—King James, leather bound, once gilded, and marked with standard features of childhood bibles. A blue sticker in the front flap of my mother’s bible shows Jesus’ name written in green block letters and arranged as a fish.

Connections 08.20.2017: Trajectory

The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “The Lord saves.” The most famous biblical Joshua led the Hebrews to occupy the promised land, which wasn’t easy since people lived there. So it’s more accurate to say that Joshua led the Hebrews to conquer the land.

Formations 08.13.2017: Persecuted Christian Seeks Asylum

What does it take to be “persecuted” around here? That’s the question that will soon be before the United States Supreme Court as Chinese Christian Ting Xue’s appeal of a Circuit Court decision moves forward. The former factory worker fled China after his arrest for attending illegal house-church gatherings in his native country.

Connections 08.13.2017: To Be Bold…

Surrounded by adoring, needy crowds, Jesus is bold enough to tell them enough is enough; it’s time for them to go home and move forward with their lives. He needs to recharge on his own with the Lord. I love many things about this brief story.

Formations 08.06.2017: An Eternal Perspective

Josh Ritter began The Animal Years by singing these words: “Peter said to Paul, ‘you know all those words we wrote are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go.’” Ritter weaves a story together about these two characters, and in it, Peter, or at least this Peter, struggles to hold to the his proclamations of faith.

Connections 08.06.2017: Knee-Jerk Compassion

This Sunday’s lesson focuses on the fact that we sometimes have inadequate resources to meet the great need before us. It asks us to honestly face and confess our inadequacy so we can be open to God’s provision. It calls us to trust that God will use our meager resources to help meet people’s needs.

Formations 07.30.2017: Life-giving Water

In the previous lesson, Judah’s restoration was described using the metaphor of the life-giving breath of God. Here, it is described as a river of water that flows from God’s presence. Where before, God’s presence had departed because of the people’s sins, now God has returned to a rebuilt temple with life-giving power.

Connections 07.30.2017: God Permits

The almost-comical family dysfunction continues in the story of Jacob’s dealings with his uncle Laban. As a woman in the twenty-first century, I sometimes try to add layers of modern interpretations to Bible stories. Let’s face it, if the incident in our text happened today, it would go differently.

Formations 07.23.2017: Looking at the Valley

In November 2015, at the Old Salem Cemetery near Uvalda, Georgia, Emory students uncovered a grave that had been lost for nearly 67 years. These students were in Montgomery County as part of Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. This project seeks to use journalistic and historical methods to investigate and understand either unpunished or unsolved murders that were racially motivated.

Connections 07.23.2017: This Place

I saw the sign in a restaurant in a small Kentucky town: “There’s no place near this place like this place, so this must be the place.” If you wanted a decent meal in that area, it was indeed the place. Most of the time when I was in that town (and in that restaurant), I really didn’t want to be there.

Formations 07.16.2017: Jerusalem’s Collapse

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He first gained fame for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), in which he traced the geographic, environmental, and biological factors that led to the rise of Western civilization.