By Minister Judy Stack
[Published in the Gethsemane January Newsletter.]
By now you are all being inundated with ads for the new year. Ads that ask you to think about what kind of person you want to be in the new year—healthier, smarter, more successful, etc.—and promote their products as a way to become this.
Their message of “A new year, a new you!” is often very successful. Who doesn’t want to have a better life than they had last year? But these ads play on some of our deepest fears and insecurities, mainly the fear that we just aren’t good enough as we are. That who we are is flawed and needs to be fixed, and that we are mostly failing at that project.
I am certainly in favor of committing ourselves to making better choices in the year ahead, but what if those better choices didn’t require you to be a “new you” but just you?
The month of January in named for the Roman god Janus—a god with two faces, one that looked forward and one that looked back. January is a time for this looking back at the past year and looking forward to the year ahead. For assessing where we’ve been and where we want to go.
But I think that we sometimes think that the “where we want to go” will require us to become something we aren’t. This, I think, reveals a fundamental area where we don’t trust God. What if God has already put in you everything you need to be who God calls you to be? What if you aren’t lacking anything?
Now, all of us have certainly fallen short of being who God calls us to be in the past year. But what if you don’t need a new you to be that person, but your old you? A you so old, you maybe have never seen it. The you that you were meant to be, the you God originally created you to be.
One of my favorite Christian bands has a song with these lines:
Concentrating. I’m loving and hating myself again.
Impersonating the smallest shadow of my original self, again.
Most of us are, I think, like this singer barely managing to impersonate a shadow of the original self God made us to be. This is why many of us are so unhappy.
As we look forward to who we want to be in the year ahead, we need to keep thinking about who God originally made us to be—what our special innate gifts and passions are, what our natural strengths and insights are. If we don’t look back as well as forward (like Janus), we risk being pulled toward things we were never called to be, goals we were never made to attain.
Don’t let the noise and ads and expectations of the world around you set your goals for you. Ask God to help you see who you were made to be—the “old you,” the original, beautifully gifted person who already has all that you need inside you to do what you are called to do. That is a worthy goal for the year ahead!
By Minister Judy Stack
When I was young, the verse from the Beatitudes--"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"--captured my imagination an ended up shaping me in significant ways ever since.
When I was young, I took it as a sort of mystical promise: since one could not, under normal conditions, see God (or if you did, you would die), I took this as a promise that if I had a pure enough heart, I would get a mystical experience denied to most people. I wanted this.
As I got older and became both more suspicious of those youthful motives and also less convinced of the value of such a mystical experience, I took it to mean that those with a pure heart (that is whose who always acted from right motives and, to the best of their ability, did what was right) would "see God" in the sense of seeing God act on their behalf. God would "show up" for them. (Not much of an improvement really from the previous idea.)
Later, when I reject the idea of bargaining with God or getting things from God because you earned them (by a pure heart or whatever), I saw it as "those who are pure in heart will recognize the ways God is already all around them, the ways the Kingdom of God is coming in ways that most don't see." This is for sure an improvement, and it sounds very pious, but I'm not sure it's accurate to what Jesus meant.
So that's where I am now. I don't really know what this verse means. But it still sticks in my imagination in a way the other Beatitudes don't. It's still what I strive for every day, even though I'm old enough now to recognize that there are probably lots of times when my focus on a pure heart obscures my recognition of how grimy and self-serving and myopically deceived my heart is.
Still I can shake this vision, this goal. I don't know what it means to "see God"--I know it means something much more profound than just "I'll see God in heaven" or something--but it's still what I really want, even though I don't know what it is, and I want a pure heart. Maybe even just for its own sake. Because a pure heart would be worth having, no matter what you got for it. Maybe wanting a pure heart for its own sake is, a little bit, seeing God.
By Minister Judy Stack
“Maybe we should start a grief support group….”
“Which people in our community would that serve? Who is grieving a loss, do you think?”
“We’re all grieving.”
This conversation between Pastor Jeff and myself happened a few days before the death of John Wicklund, so it seems even more acutely true now than before. But even for those who are not as deeply affected by the loss of John, the truth remains: We are all grieving.
Grief is a tricky thing.
Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of marriage, the loss of a career, a broken relationship, a move away from a place you felt was home….each loss has a socially acceptable timetable for feeling and expressing pain. A time when everyone expects you to be sad and people are supportive.
But our actual grief doesn’t follow a predictable timeline. After the acceptable time of mourning, grief often flows under the surface, unseen by others who assume we are “over it,” its presence sometimes unrecognized even by us who grieve. It seems gone or dormant, only to bubble up at unexpected times and places, catching us off guard and reopening wounds with fresh pain—or even pain we didn’t dare to feel in the early days of our grief.
November begins with All Saints Day, a day when we remember and celebrate all those believers who have died. It is a day of commemoration and celebration, but it is also a day of mourning. A day when we intentionally excavate our buried grief, when we revisit all that is yet unhealed in our pain and anger and feelings of loss. We take off the band-aid. We look at the wound. We maybe even peel off the scab and let it bleed again, because wounds that aren’t allowed to bleed a bit are more prone to infection.
But of course our lives and the church calendar march on, and November does not linger forever in the pain of grief.
November ends—and the church calendar year ends—with “Christ the King Sunday.” This is the Sunday when we celebrate the fact that Christ has, in his resurrection, conquered all the powers of sin and death and that he will eventually return and reign on earth, bringing in the Kingdom of God fully. We celebrate that, while grief and pain and loss are all too poignant realities right now, they will not have the last word. Their power is broken.
The Apostle Paul comforts and encourages the believers in Corinth that Christ’s reign has begun and will be complete when “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” and all people are resurrected at Christ’ coming. Then, as the writer of Revelation says, God will dwell with us here on an earth cleansed from all that causes suffering, and God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
So, blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted. Whether you mourn an actual death of a loved one or suffer the pain of another kind of loss and grief, God will not leave you here forever. God’s love and compassion will win. God's love, not death and suffering, will reign eternally for us and for the world. This hope, this trust, this confidence in the power of God's love for us--and the dead and for the world--carries us forward into the new year and into that new reality.
By Minister Judy Stack
As a Bible scholar, one of the things I spent a lot of time thinking about and studying is how we tend to read and use the Bible and what ways of reading (and quoting) are faithful both to the kind of book the Bible is and faithful to the God we believe in.
A friend of mine, Emily, who is also a Bible scholar, posted this (here) about the Bible and suffering. How does the Bible serve as a spiritual resource and way for God's Spirit to comfort and encourage us when we face pain, difficulty, grief, loss, or fear? As she says,
"Pretty verses ripped from their context to be cross stitched and hung on walls or emblazoned across serene pictures to share on social media do not have the strength to carry one through the hard times....we must be careful to realize that the power is not in the words themselves because they are not some spell to be cast or ward to keep the demons at bay. They are powerful because of the One who spoke them."
Amen! While individual verses may have the power to remind of us great truths of scripture, it is the depth of the full story and richness of the larger text that will sustain our souls, like a meal sustains us better than a mini candy bar.
I hope you will be blessed by her reflection here and encouraged to drink deeply at the well of scripture!
It happened again. Someone I know was facing a problem, people threw Bible verses at her, promised to pray, and then sat back and waited to hear a good report.
By Francisco Herrera
Block parties are one of the many distinct things I love about the United States. Other parts of the world have similar outdoor celebrations, packing streets with food and music and people seeking a little bit of fun, but the American Block Party is truly different - mostly because they tend to be relatively informal get-togethers that aren't so much interested in drawing outside attention as they are having people in a neighborhood get to know each other.
One of my favorite passages and all of the Bible is in 2 Samuel - the famous, or infamous depending on who you ask, scene when David is celebrating with the people of Israel after the return of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:16-23). Seeing him get his groove on in such a way that the party is can see under his tunic really makes his wife, Michal, very angry, but he didn't care. And yeah maybe it's a little bit embarrassing, nobody wants to be one of those people with a compromising YouTube video of their party performance plastered on everyone's Facebook wall.
Yet David had a point, too. With the beginning of his reign, the people of Israel had won a major political and religious victory, and by returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem the Israelites had cast off what had been years of oppression by Philistine neighbors. And in such a situation, getting down and having a good time is not only expected, but even healing, even if David and company got a little bit loud and vulgar.
Thankfully, though, no one at any of the block parties got vulgar – but we all had a good time. And thanks to camera phones and Facebook Live, Gethsemane’s fans on social media had a chance to share in the joy.
Because first of all there was the food. And lots of it. Barbecue was the norm, especially grilled chicken (though this last weekend pork ribs from FireBox Deli certainly were welcome). Even nicer was watching these teams of grill chefs – mostly men – quietly size each other and their cooking skills up against one another – occasionally making playful jabs and taunts and giggling like children in a water balloon fight. Then there were all the folks helping to prepare sides – salads and curries and fruit – usually huddled in Gethsemane’s kitchen up-and-away from the grills and the smoke.
And the singing - oh my goodness, the singing! Minister Beverly certainly knows how to belt out all the old greats, and every time started off the marchers down Colfax with her gracious strut anyone within earshot couldn’t help but be moved and start along. Likewise when Minister Sims, one of the co-pastors at New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, filled in for Beverly one day when she had to take a day off, he strolled down that street singing as fully and as beautifully as anyone ever could - sharing the call and response hymns that saturated his life in his home state of Alabama.
Children also played an enormous part - though not always obviously so. The folks at The Camden Kids Day Care frequently gifted the smallest block party revelers with that magical magnet of childhood mischief - a bouncy house. And true to form the children came, from all over, and their running around added a lightness to the day. Other children played basketball, some threw a football back and forth, while others made games and merriment out of any little thing they found - my favorite being jumping over the aluminum ribs of Gethsemane’s revival tent roof frame as about a dozen grown-ups carefully disassembled it on the last day.
But of course the best part was the relationships. There were seven congregations that came and collaborated with Gethsemane Lutheran in some way or another. Pastor Aaron of Mount Calvary Lutheran Church came down three times in order to bake bread from a handmade brick oven, and their Holy Smoke grill team blessed everyone with amazing pulled pork. The beautiful souls of Nu Way Missionary Baptist Church - and their BBQ Grill wide and long enough to cook about 35 lb of chicken at a time - always made a welcome sight for the afternoons. Intertwine, an ELCA Mission start from Northeast Minneapolis, provided performers as well as sound equipment on half of the Saturdays. The good people of our mission partner, New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, and Bishop Divar Kemp were our constant companions and supporters in both the spiritual and practical parts of the events. Pastor Malachi brought the blessed partnership of North United Methodist Church. And of course, every single one of these churches brought their fair share of marchers and leaders as we moved purposefully but joyfully through sites of Lind-Bohanon's pain - praying and singing and weeping and begging God to transform us into repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets (Isaiah 51:12).
And being part of a community, in the first part of the summer of 2018, that was brought together as a consequence of tragic acts of violence and pain - it was fitting that six acts of love and community would be the unequivocal response. Six marches that brought music and prayer up and down the block. Six groups barbecuing and grilling, the scent of which permeated an entire neighborhood and welcomed everyone to a feast. Six distributions of food that attracted people from all over Minneapolis, not just our little corner in the north. Problems in the neighborhood may still remain, but for the time being resilience, love, and togetherness also remain, and it was Gethsemane’s great honor, and great pleasure, to be the vehicle for such a blessing. Such love.
Martin Luther said that God doesn’t need our works but our neighbors do – and with our neighbors we have been able to testify to the wonder-working power of the Gospel in a way that we had never been able to before. And for this, we can be thankful. For this, we have earned the right to sing and praise.
And so for this, can we get an amen?
By Francisco Herrera, Theologian-in-Residence
The McDonald's off of Lyndale and 45th Avenue North has become a regular stopping point for me since beginning my time at Gethsemane in July. I've had a soft spot for the fast food chain since a market research gig had me running around three McDonald's locations in a major Metropolitan City several years ago. I enjoyed the friendliness of the staff, who were eager to include me in their games and camaraderie. I was also rather impressed about how each of these locations fostered a great deal of community activity. The general manager of one location practically gushed about how they raised $10,000 that summer for his daughter's Elementary School - monies used to go towards the purchasing of a state-of-the-art computer system and teachers to train the children the vital art of computer programming. And as you would find in any diner or cafe in the United States, each location also had a regular morning delegation of older men and women sitting and sipping coffee, munching on biscuits, and sharing stories of the neighborhood and their family and friends.
The McDonald's here in Lind-Bohanon was certainly no different. Sitting at my little table, bouncing between the rigors of my PhD studies, writing, and passing out flyers to promote Gethsemane’s block parties, I had a great deal of time to both talk with the restaurant patrons as well as overhear many conversations.
The folks chatted about what you’d usually expect of patrons in any cafe or breakfast nook—retired men and women passing laughter and gripes back and forth. Another morning I witnessed a young man receiving interview advice from an older friend. One particularly memorable chat I had happened with a retired police officer about two weeks after Thurmond Blevins killing, as he spoke calmly and quietly about the corruption of some of the neighborhood police departments.
But on one particularly quiet morning, as I was engrossed in some writing I was doing, I chanced to hear one of the older ladies and the restaurant exclaim, "Oh, but I'm Lutheran, and things like that are very important to us!"
This was no surprise. We are in Minneapolis after all, and Lutherans are as common as purple shirts on Sundays. But all the same, this was the first time I heard someone in the neighborhood mention being Lutheran with such honest immediacy, so I kept a sneaky ear open.
Pretty quickly though, I began to wish I hadn't.
"I mean I learned in church the importance of having a two-parent family, a mother and a father. And I just don't see how it is that a man and a man or a woman and a woman get married and have a family."
At that point, I started to listen more intently - trying to ask myself, as well as God, if it would be appropriate for me to chime in.
"I have friends who are homosexual. For instance, I have people I work with who are, and they're good colleagues and I love working with them. But since the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin, I just don't see how anyone can think that gay people getting married, let alone having children, can ever be okay. It just seems so wrong."
Making matters a little worse, the friend sharing breakfast with her at this table was quietly humming and nodding in agreement the entire time.
As a public theologian, and as someone who understands his prophetic role in the church, in moments like this I know I have to do something, but often times the chief emotions I tangle with are fear and anxiety. Do I really want to get into this? Do I really have the energy to engage a perfect stranger in a controversial conversation—one that (in a McDonald's on a Friday morning) is not likely to end well for either of us?
But while sifting through this usual sand of shifting emotions, the woman was visited by a friend, who from his accent was clearly an immigrant.
"Hey Lucy!" so her name was Lucy. "How are you doing today?" And Lucy dutifully recounted her work week, family, etc... but she soon brought up the previous topic again.
"So, me and Linda were talking, and I was wondering what you thought about homosexuals having a family and raising children?" Her voice had the pleasant air of someone anticipating agreement.
"I think it's a great idea. Especially if they can adopt children too."
"But, but..." Lucy's face opened wide as she prepared her defense. "But, that kinda thing is disgusting. A sin. Those aren't the things you learn in church."
"Well, there are many things that I learned in church back home," (I listened keenly for where 'home' was, but no luck) "about gay people, about women, and black people. But for me it's simple. If you love God, and God loves you, then you love everyone else, too."
"But we have to tell them, we have to tell them what they're doing is wrong. They're going to hell, and what about their children, too?"
"That doesn't make any sense to me," the first hint of exasperation peeking through his words, but still spoken with warm animation. "You are more worried about whether or not loving people go to hell but not at all about God's judgement for people who kill innocent people?"
I began to wonder if his exasperation with this woman's God talk was connected to what happened in his country, not to mention how seriously he turned the discussion. They went back and forth like this for about 2 minutes. She emphatic in her worry for the eternal souls of gay parents and their children, him warm but adamant that not only were her concerns misplaced, but that she was flat-out wrong.
I don't know if you have ever had one of those moments where God answered a prayer that you didn't have the words to make, just nameless feelings or general dread, but I have. And this morning was one of those times.
Burnout among progressive Christians is a very real thing. The world is so laden with problems and hypocrisy—things in which the church is often complicit—that sometimes it feels like voices for justice never have a moment to rest. Being only my second time lazing away the morning over a stack of hotcakes, with lots of butter, I was simply enjoying the infantile delight of my breakfast and the happy chit chat of the patrons. The lady’s homophobic rant, however, sent me crashing to Earth and reminded me of my role.
But I didn't really want to do it. I really didn't. I didn't want to have to intrude and engage her in conversation, and maybe even rebuke. I just wanted to eat my pancakes and sing a quiet song to myself.
In my first post, I talked about how Luther said that God works through means—that God doesn't work only by independent miracle or monumental acts like the parting of the Red Sea or manna from heaven. God is just as likely to work through a clay jar that never runs out of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7), a wash in a river that cures leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-13), even a loaf of bread that only seems to get bigger the more you break it into pieces (Matthew 14: 13-21).
In the days since, I've often wondered how much that conversation stuck with Lucy—if she continued to chew on those words and maybe have a change of heart later? Did she go talk to her pastor and get taught the "right way" again? And what about her friend? Would the subject come up again the next time they meet? Did the conversation make him think about his home country in ways that were either joyful or saddening?
But either way, I was glad for the opportunity to hear the interchange. It felt like relief. Sheer, pure, marvelous relief.
However the story of those two breakfast acquaintances may have played out, God had my back that morning when I wasn’t sure how to react and provided someone to give a message of love and equity when I wasn't ready or able to give it.
Just as Jesus came and was crucified for the sake of giving me a love that I will never be able fully understand, nor accept without his help.
By Francisco Herrera
There's really something pretty unbelievable about the fact that you can stick a couple of seeds in the ground, and after a few weeks the seeds turn into food. It truly is an under-appreciated miracle that some trees in this world have little balls of nutrient, brightly-colored sweetness hanging from them, sweetness that is only as far away as a gentle tug and a greedy bite. Flowers, leaves and vines, water and soil - it's no wonder that the writers of Genesis pattern their image of Heaven after a lush garden.
But as we know, the instant you put one up you know there's work to follow. You have to weed and till the soil, make sure that your plants have enough water, spend time in the sun sweating and getting bit by little beasties. Any and every Garden ultimately thrives as much by human as nature's whim, and the way a gardener wrangles these two forces together is what makes such an endeavor so meaningful - of course to say nothing of the way God's grace is so vividly demonstrated in the earth's bounty. And looking upon a lush, fragrant garden, I think you can catch something of the sweet perfume in God's nose as they looked upon the Earth on the seventh day.
But Genesis teaches us a sinister lesson, too: lush and fragrant gardens are as much a magnet for evil and death as they are for innocence and life. This is something that particularly stuck in my mind as I strolled through the Bohanan Park on my way to the Lind Community garden two weeks ago – thinking about the way that evil had invaded this quiet space, as well. Because when a man running from police drives his vehicle through a swing-set seriously wounding three young children in the process, you can’t help to think the entire space – all of its stories, all of its laughter and fun – is somehow tainted. And though the man who did this thing was quickly apprehended and is awaiting trial, the community still mourns, still grieves.
And parents who once were thankful for the park, now are fearful of having their children come to it.
But say what you like about a park, or a garden - there is always a special kind of spirit that moves some person or some group to make all that effort and shed all of that sweat to create them, gardens and parks, because that Spirit moved a group of people to struggle hard to make a little bit of peace and health in the middle of a wilderness. And by doing so every park and garden does more than provide food, flowers, swings and friendship – they are also curiously stubborn bulwarks against any and every kind of instability and fear. Gardens give life. Parks attract activity. And both provide health and movement and purpose. And most importantly, planting a garden or building a park anywhere makes it plain that you plan on sticking around. And the same magic that inspires the creation of such places, that moves people to do an intimate dance between humanity and Mother Nature, this same magic is also a potent warning to the forces of evil.
Life is here. People are here. We have come to stay. God has come to stay, and the devil has to go to outrageous lengths in order to do anything about it.
And yes, it is a truly terrifying thing to see the forces of evil dig into public spaces like this.
Sabotaging agriculture is one of the soundest ways to humiliate any enemy (what's the point of fighting if you have no food to feed your family?). That's why ancient armies mastered such techniques as sowing salt in grain fields to permanently impede any future plant growth. Since time out of mind corrupt leaders will regularly terrify poor masses of folk by haranguing farm workers or flat out torching fields and orchards ready for harvest – filling both empty wallets and empty stomachs with dread.
Parks, too, are often under evil’s eye. The often times they’re used as an easy open space for criminal activity – a place to catch a victim unawares, a place to sell illegal wears. Oppressive governments, too, also love keeping parks under surveillance. It is dangerous whenever too many people come together some place, some place just to enjoy being outside, to laugh and remind themselves of their humanity: the uprising in Tahrir Square that brought down Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak, the Anderplatz Demonstrations that heralded the fall of European Communism and the reunification of Germany.
But despite even the thickest pressure and fear, people invariably return to parks and gardens - out of sheer need as much as hopeful defiance - and thus the spirit of God marches on. God planting and tending, the people reaping and enjoying, playing and dance, Satan sowing weeds and salt every chance he can – even murdering the workers who make such vineyards of life and abundance possible.
But I take comfort, forever, that the Devil gets a serious spook out of a flower, giggling children, a peach pit, grown-ups whispering jokes over a beer, a summer tomato. It shows just how fragile and pathetic he is – how fragile and pathetic any tyrant is. And what’s more? These living, sprouting, earth-born, ripening tools of evil’s destruction are sweet to the taste – to God as much as us.
And may the people say amen.
By Minister Judy Stack
What are you afraid of?
On our last Prayer Walk, there was a point where we passed a yard in which there was a puppy tied up in a fenced yard. It was noon, the sun was beating down, there was no shade, and puppy—though ecstatic to see us—was panting heavily and seemed to have no water available. One of our women found an empty container in the gutter, went into the yard, and filled the container with water from her bottle for the grateful puppy.
Another in our group expressed fear. What would happen if the owner was angry that she had gone into the yard? The water-giver was calm—fearlessly full of peace—about what she felt called to do to care for this creature of God’s.
I was reminded of the verse from Paul’s letter to Timothy: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and a disciplined mind” (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
The gift that Paul is talking about specifically in that passage is the gift of the Spirit that allows Timothy (and us) to be led into what God is calling us to. This is a gift. But when God’s Spirit calls us into a way of serving and obedience to God, there is always the potential for fear.
It is in those times that we need to remember what kind of Spirit God has given us!
First of all….One that loves! The woman who gave water to the puppy was moved by love. When we are moved by genuine, loving, compassionate concern for others and God’s world, we are being moved by God’s Spirit!
Second, it is a Spirit that has power! When God calls us, God also enables us. God, through the Spirit empowers our work. We don’t depend on ourselves, but on God’s power at work within us.
Third, it is a Spirit that has a “disciplined mind.” Why do we need a disciplined mind?
Because whenever God’s Spirit moves us to act in love and power, there will be the temptation to become fearful. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of injury or pain or loss if we do what we know God’s Spirit is prompting us to do. We have to discipline our minds to say no to fear and yes to God’s ability to work through us.
I think about the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:23-33). Peter at first is full of faith and begins walking out to Jesus on the water. But “when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and began to sink.” Peter began well, but he did not discipline his mind, and let fear creep in. But he did the right thing: he cried out “Jesus save me!” When fear comes at us—fear of the future, fear of suffering, fear of loneliness, fear of death—we cry out for God to fill us again with the power and love of the Holy Spirit!
1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” None of us are yet completely perfect in love, but the more we are filled with love, the less room there is for fear. Love pushes fear out! And then God’s Spirit moves powerfully.
So what are you afraid of today?
“Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). And what will be the result? “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
By Francisco Herrera
The best part about engaging in random, public Bible reading sessions is that it is impossible to guess how the patrons will react - like the night that I dared to take my butt and my Book into the happy haunts of the Camden Tavern (4601 Lyndale Ave. N, 55412) to savor some of their excellent chicken wings.
Here are some responses:
"You're not going to be preaching the Gospel in here tonight, are you?"
This question was particularly memorable. Admittedly, though, the bouncer who asked it did so not because he didn't want me to talk about Jesus that night, rather out of his fear that I was a preacher coming to his establishment to get drunk.
"Don't you think it's sacrilegious to bring the Holy Book into such a place as this?" - said to me by a particularly insistent bar patron, convinced that I wouldn't make the Rapture, who then went on to show himself to be an utter ass to the staff and a creep to the women as the evening wore on.
Towards the end of that night, I'd gotten a surprise phone call from a deeply missed friend, and it taking it ran into the parking lot outside, leaving everything on the bar counter - including my cash and driver's license. Another patron soon rushed out seeking me, a pastor herself. "You can't be doing things like that around here, brother. Your Book will be fine, folks here don't care about the Bible, but these things?" she playfully rebuked, instantly a new friend, handing me back my Bible with all the sensitive items tucked inside.
We then paused over a cigarette and laughter and shared our love for Jesus and our sometimes frustrations with those among whom Jesus has called us to serve.
I first got into this practice when I lived in Geneva Switzerland, back in the early 2000s. My best friend of those years, Markus, was a hard man to pin down, so I usually visit him at one of his bar gigs around the city. But since he was quite popular with patrons - half-Sierra Leonese half-German and so beautiful it made you cry, an exciting conversationalist, tall, svelte, locked, and with a full-body tattoo - I would bring a large study Bible to occupy myself with God's Word while he occupied himself with pouring libations and spinning the gold of his charisma into rent money.
And some of those first reactions my Bible evoked in the barflies...!
"F-k you and f-k that book and f-k your religion - you're trying to enforce yourself on everyone here!"
The French guy who said this did so in French and it sounded prettier in the original than in my translation. So there was that.
"But no! No, Francisco - not YOU!!" - from my acquaintance Mariama, from Bulgaria, whose feelings towards US Christians were forever marred by post-9/11 US foreign policy and George W. Bush (and to be honest, could you blame her?).
"Yeah. The Holy Book. No thanks (this woman, also an acquaintance, had emigrated to Europe from black America some years before). Too many of my people back home think that prayer and supplication will cure everything. Can't go back to that. Nope. Almost killed me."
Yet, invariably, these critical voices - even angry voices - would come and sit and chat with me - posing questions about whether or not something they'd heard or been taught was really in the Bible, unpacking powerful memories and feelings evoked by the stories of the ten plagues or the birth of Jesus, the bitter draft of their suspicion hinting at earlier days of awe and wonder. These were the first times that I would witness Scripture's eternal, inescapable gravity - reeling in any and all who came near it, be they friend or foe or fickle - and navigating this mix of human and holy outpourings was my first school in evangelism.
Luther believed that this 'pull' exerted by the Bible was a consequence of it being God's "living Word" - not only a description of Jesus Christ himself (as per John 1) but also as a way to describe the ever-surprising way that reading and wrestling with the Bible's many stories directly invokes the Holy Spirit to interrupt our lives. And when she does - illuminating us, guiding us, inspiring our minds and our spirits - our Bible studies not only increase our practical knowledge of what the Bible says but also bring us into more intimate and more powerful relationship with God's self.
And Luther wasn't kidding. It was heartening to see the way these people's eyes would light up - how scowls would gradually become thoughtful frowns, even grins - as the Spirit and the text enwrapped their souls in a delicate dance.
So why am I writing about all of this? Simple.
Because I think you should try it.
Try taking your Bible to work with you one day and crack it open while on your lunch break.
If you're in transit at an airport, bus station, or train station - let alone on a plane, bus, or train - open it to the Book of Acts and see if God might use you in your travels as they used Paul.
Some of the general public’s responses to you and your Book may be a bit rough, as many of those I listed above, but trust me: there will be happy responses, too.
Like the first Bible study I organized with my now-friend Steven, who was at first a bit reluctant to chat that because he hadn't read the text (and was a little afraid of getting it "wrong"), but how his eyes lit up as soon as we started reading Philemon and talking about it.
"He told Philemon to call an escaped slave his brother? Dude! That's heavy!"
You will also find people like my Swiss friend, Claire, who stumbled upon me during one of my normal bar-Bible-study moments, "O mon dieu - I can't tell you how good it makes me feel to see somewhere here reading a Bible. I'm often ashamed of letting people know I'm a Christian because so many think it's stupid."
Sometimes folks will even see the Book and come at you singing - hoping to kindle a memory or a feeling through yet another round of an old hymn, or talking about their days at Bible camp, vacation Bible school, or the like.
But most importantly, the magnetism that the Spirit gives to the Bible itself, just SHOWING others that you have one of the best ice breakers you can ever imagine. It always attracts attention, always poses and inspires questions. When inquiring God about how they might move in a community, this simple act of carrying a Bible with you in public and opening it whenever you sit down will help you figure out those things VERY quickly.
And to tap into this power, this excitement - all you have to do is start carrying the Good Book with you and pull it out from time-to-time. That's it. And then just sit back and let the Spirit do the work.
It really is that easy. Can I get an amen for that?
By Minister Judy Stack
Have you ever dreamed of something? Have you ever imagined something very dear, and then thought about what it would be like if it was actually coming true for you? Maybe it’s a job you always wanted. Perhaps you hoped for many years to have children. Or dreamed about the time when you could retire or be able travel or be free to pursue some things you love.
What if it actually happened!?! What if your dreams came true?
We often talk about how difficult it is to deal with disappointment, but have you ever had to face the prospect of God blessing you in a way you barely hoped to dream of? How would this overturn your world? Have you ever thought, “God, I know this is what I wanted, but now that it’s here, I’m terrified!”
Beyond that even: What if God, in fact, wanted to give us MORE than we were asking for?
On Sunday, Pastor Jeff preached about the story from John where Jesus said to those he had recently miraculously fed, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill” (6:26). As Pastor noted, what’s going on here is not that people want something too miraculous from Jesus but actually that they want too little. They want only enough Jesus to meet their obvious physical needs. Just enough to get by. They don’t want to be disturbed or confronted or challenged. They want an easy Jesus. They don’t want to be swept up into the whirlwind of the coming of the kingdom of God that Jesus’ signs herald.
This made me think of what Paul says to the early Christian community in Ephesus. He is telling them about what he prays for them. He makes some bold requests of God! He prays four things:
But then he goes on to say, “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations” (Eph. 3:20-21). While we may think Paul’s expecting a lot, Paul is saying, “Even my vision is too small! God’s vision for you is even bigger than what I just prayed! It is beyond what we could ask or imagine.”
This is what Jesus was saying too. God wants to do more in you and through you, by the power of God’s spirit, than you are prepared for. More even than you may think you want! Because change is scary; it takes courage—whether it is a dream coming true or those places in us and through us where God’s spirit starts to work and the Kingdom starts to come. And we are “filled with all the fullness of God.”
Jesus and Paul invite us to dream and pray and ask and imagine bigger! Big enough to scare us. Because God is able and wants to do “exceeding abundantly above all we can ask or imagine.” And in that we will experience “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”