Formations 04.29.2018: The Traveled Gospel

The other night I washed dishes while listening to a Tift Merritt concert. After the silverware but before the plates, I dried my hands to check the YouTube description. It included the standard information—record label, band members, and producer.

Formations 04.22.2018: The Ultimate Teammate

Football great David Humm recently passed away at the age of 65 from multiple sclerosis. His former college coach, John L. Smith of the University of Nebraska, remembers him as both a gentleman and the ultimate teammate. According to Smith, Humm “saw what the game was all about, and the game was all about being a good teammate.”

Formations 04.15.2018: Acts of Encouragement

The most triumphant moment of the musical Dear Evan Hansen might come after Evan starts a club to remember Connor Murphy, a classmate who had recently killed himself. In the Connor Project’s first assembly, Evan imagines a community of encouragement.

Formations 04.08.2018: Building Community by Giving Gifts

The Buy Nothing Project is a Facebook-based organization that promotes local gift economies. In a gift economy, no money is exchanged, but people offer goods and services with the expectation that others in the community will do the same.

Formations 04.01.2018: Signs and Wonders

The sign told the Vestavia Hills Lutheran Church, “you are now entering the mission field.” And so it proclaimed that the nations began in my neighborhood at the top of the mountain where Shades Crest Road crossed US-31. Four blocks from the house I grew up in, that sign bent from use was posted cattycorner to the whitewashed-concrete replica of Sybil Temple.

Formations 03.25.2018: Breaking the Rules

During Britain’s heat wave last summer, teenage boys at Isca Academy in Exeter staged a protest against their school dress code, which forbade the wearing of shorts. This protest took the form of them coming to school in skirts they had borrowed from their sisters or girlfriends.

Formations 03.18.2018: An Inheritance of Eternal Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about inheritance lately, particularly the people who remain to sort through what’s left behind. And it seems that while this work permits us to remember joy and laughter and tenderness, it requires us to acknowledge that some things, including life and its relationships, get broken.

Formations 03.11.2018: Mayor Chooses Students over Derelict House

After nearly eighteen months, an abandoned, fire-damaged house in Salt Lake City is slated to be demolished after Mayor Jackie Biskupski overruled city planners and landmarks commissioners to approve the permit.

Formations 03.04.2018: Jesus Shows Compassion

My granddad died well before I was born. What I have of him has been given secondhand—ties and desk ornaments, pictures and stories. Among the easily believed and even the photographed, some stories are harder to accept. One of these is a healing story.

Formations 02.25.2018: Let Us Go to Him

The writer of Hebrews was tricky. One Greek word he uses over and over translates to “draw near” or “approach.” In the Greek Old Testament, to “approach” God was something priests did. It was the common term for worship, entering the defined sacred space of the temple in order to offer a sacrifice.

Formations 02.18.2018: Run the Race

For the writer of Hebrews, rest best describes the promise given to Abraham and subsequent generations. So the vision for Israelite society in the promised land rested in sabbath. Likewise, Christian communities would be guided by a commitment to rest. But this writer also understood that the promise did not come into fullness immediately.

Formations 02.11.2018: Old School

Today’s passage lies at the intersection of rest and discipleship. Ironically, rest is something that disciples have to strive for. It isn’t automatic, anymore than it was automatic for the wilderness generation that refused to listen to God’s voice.

Formations 02.04.2018: Living in Tensions

It’s not uncommon that I steal books from my grandfather’s coffee table. He goes ahead and tells me to take what I want, so it isn’t really stealing. Over the years, he has made sure to send me home with books that have been meaningful for him.

Formations 01.28.2018: Come and See!

When we think of evangelism, the verbs that usually come to mind are “go and tell.” That is certainly the approach we see in verses such as Mark 4:19 and Matthew 28:19. When I was in college, our Baptist Student Union leaders often encouraged us students to take the Great Commission seriously.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Formations 12.17.2017: Robert Mugabe’s Legacy

On November 21, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president of Zimbabwe after thirty-seven years of rule. Following his country’s transition from British colonial rule (when it was called Rhodesia), Mugabe oversaw heavy investment in the nation’s social services.

Formations 12.10.2017: Improvising on a Common Theme

The first standard I ever learned was the Sonny Rollins composition “Oleo.” As a drummer, this didn’t require much more than learning to sing the melody. But my friends, who played trombone and guitar, really had to know it. To solo, they had to understand how every note fit, or didn’t fit, into each chord.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Formations 10.29.2017: Call and Response

It’s a simple record with only voices and a few percussion instruments that begins when Jenkins gives the group of children accompanying her these instructions: Many of you, I’m sure, have played the game follow the leader. Well, you can play the same kind of game in song and sound. Here’s how we play it.

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.

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.

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).

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.

Formations 09.17.2017: Sowing and Reaping

Responding to an agricultural crisis, Paul uses an agricultural image to show how the Corinthians might respond to the famine in Jerusalem. He says those who sow little will reap little while those who sow generously will reap generously (v. 6).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Formations 07.09.2017: Ezekiel’s Silence

John Cage’s three movement composition “4’ 33”” begins the moment the pianist sits down and closes the lid. After three sections, each one adding up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the performance is over. No notes are played, but to say that no music is up to debate.

Formations 07.02.2017: Excessive Politeness Can Be Deadly

A recent study in Seattle has concluded that “overly polite” 911 operators are partly to blame for slower police response times and, ultimately, loss of life for some callers. The report, released in November of last year, found the operations of Seattle’s 911 call center “potentially dangerous.”

Speak, LORD. Your Servant Is Listening

One day, I sat in the recliner in our cracker-box house and waited for God to speak. I was a seminary student, desperately seeking direction for my life, and I needed to hear from God. I had some big decisions to make, and I wanted to make sure I was doing God’s will.

Formations 06.25.2017: A Little Child Will Lead

Margaret Wise Brown transformed children’s literature by bringing new educational theories from the Bank Street School into her stories. She held that children, unlike adults whose understanding of the world made it uninteresting, experienced the world as strange and mysterious.

Formations 06.18.2017: Everybody Has a Sermon

From 1993 until 2004, CBS News ran a feature called “Everybody Has a Story.” Someone would throw a dart at a map of the US. Then correspondent Steve Hartman would go visit the place where it stuck, pick a name at random from the local phone book, and do a story on the person he found (assuming they were willing, of course).

Formations 06.11.2017: A Crack in the Road

On the record Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood tells a story about a man driving the Savannah Highway in North Alabama. Above an environment built with an acoustic guitar droning over two chords, a drum set playing everybody’s first rock and roll groove, a pedal steel whining, and a few voices falling and rising over one syllable, Hood speaks plainly about the road.