Wearing masks and loving neighbors

It’s July 4 and I’m inside.

What a strange place to be during our nation’s birthday celebration. But this year in Texas, we had a guest show up uninvited. His name? Mr. COVID-19 and he doesn’t mix well with others.

Our Governor just ordered Texans to wear masks when going out in public. (To show he wasn’t joking, he pushed the announcement to our cell phones, like an AMBER alert for missing children). In Houston, San Antonio, as well as in Austin (where I live), a recent surge in COVID hospitalizations means that intensive care units are at near capacity.

It’s difficult to say to what extent people are complying with the Governor’s order. My observations are only anecdotal. A quick trip for groceries to our North Austin Walmart yesterday would indicate that people are taking this pandemic seriously. I watched as parents in the parking lot put on their own mask then helped their young children adjust theirs. Waiting in the line outside the door, we stood 6 feet apart and shuffled slowly toward the entrance. We were Black, White, Latinx, and Asian, a multi-cultural crowd, and I heard no one griping as we waited for admission.

Good citizenship aside, you don’t need to look far in the Bible to find a reason for Christians to wear a mask. The Second Great Commandment from our Lord is relevant: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NIV). And since any of us can be a spreader of corona virus, even if we show no symptoms, our mask becomes a visible symbol of our consideration for others’ welfare. If Jesus were here, he’d have his mask on.

In practice, our Christian duty is sometimes elbowed aside by other considerations. There’s a libertarian streak in us Americans. We place a premium on self-expression and individualism. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” become a hit for a reason. Still, there are times when both our individual and collective interests are served by adhering to what experts advise. This is one of those times.

So here’s to a happy July 4th, from behind the mask. Let’s pray that this time next year, such measures will be unnecessary and we can get back to the group activities that make this day special.

Poverty of Spirit

Chale Atikonda

Dear readers:

Today we have a guest voice here on Theology in Overalls.

Chale Atikonda is a Master of Arts in Religion student and serving as Teacher’s Assistant at Africa Nazarene University in Kenya, Africa. He is an aspiring writer in the area of Theology. He is a Youth Pastor of Chiimba Church of the Nazarene and he is from Malawi, Africa.

His paper, entitled “Poverty of Spirit,” was edited by Eileen Qui.

__________________________________________________________

Matthew 5:3; Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν).

INTRODUCTION

There have been a good number of interpretations of what Jesus meant when He said that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. Some people believe that Jesus recommended physical poverty as a merit to enter into the eternal Kingdom of God. Others believe that Jesus meant one must suffer under the guidance of the Spirit, such as punishing the body by denying it food, sleep or good clothing, and in extreme cases, even punishing the body by beating it, causing bleeding wounds to make one poor in obedience to what they believe to be the leading of the Spirit of God. Before I embark on explaining what I believe Jesus meant when He called us to the poverty of the Spirit so that we are able to attain the Kingdom of God, let us begin from the original language in which this verse was written in.

GREEK UNDERSTANDING

GREEK LITERAL MEANING TRANSLATION
Μακάριοι blessed, happy Blessed
πτωχοὶ (of one who crouches and cowers) beggarly, poor are the poor
Πνεύματι wind, spirit in spirit,
αὐτῶν Self (emphatic), he, she, it (used for the third person) for theirs
Βασιλεία kingdom, sovereignty, royal power is the kingdom
οὐρανῶν Heaven Of heaven.

Although the Greek word πτωχοὶ basically means “poor”, this text appears many times in Hebrew scripture and the usage of its equivalent Hebrew word is broader than the Greek word. The Hebrew word עני” meaning “poor” describes a person who can do nothing on his/her own and is totally dependent on other people to provide all their needs. Ryan Shaw concurs by stating that “in Hebrew ‘poor’ reflects the humble and helpless putting their trust in God. The ‘poor’ admit Spiritual bankruptcy.”[1] In addition to this, the Bible hub comments, “Poverty in any shape helps to stir in man a sense of need, a disposition to consider himself as dependent….”[2] Therefore,  in the original language, the word “poor” describes someone who cannot do anything on his/her own and all needs must be provided by someone else. A good example can be a baby who always needs an adult to give them what they need and be at their service all the time. However, the difference from a baby is that the “poor,” as described in the original language, know that they are unable to do anything for themselves. Therefore, they must become attached to someone who has the ability to provide for their needs.

THEN WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?

In this verse, Jesus meant that the blessed are those who know that they cannot do anything on their own and therefore, recognize that they always need God to meet all their needs. The poor in spirit recognize their spiritual bankruptcy and are humble enough to completely submit themselves to a master who is rich in everything to provide for their needs. The logic behind this is that one cannot submit oneself as a poor person to a master/provider to provide for him/her without some form of worship or service to this master/provider. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun concurs, “Everyone worships someone or something…. Human beings cannot help but assign ultimate value and worth to someone or something. Of course that does not mean everyone worships God. One’s ultimate devotion can rest in money, success, a person, a garden, a creed, a cause so forth. Ultimately, what we are devoted to will shape our lives.”[3] That is why there are numerous people who worship their jobs and give their all in serving or working.  They work hard not because they love what they do or take pride in their work, but because they know that their job provides them with what they need. Without their jobs, they cannot get what they need and make ends meet. They are poor in the eyes of their job. Ryan Shaw argues in agreement that “Poverty of Spirit means I need God for everything. It is confidence in God, not natural circumstances or abilities.”[4] So Jesus meant that blessed are those who come to this state, see themselves weak and insufficient without God and they, therefore, join themselves to God with humbleness in living, service and worship. Such people qualify to attain the Kingdom of God.

Continue reading “Poverty of Spirit”

Listen well, love well

I sat across from a homeless man in a hospital room. For 45 minutes, he poured out his heart. My job? To be present with him, to silently witness his pain and frustration. At the end, we prayed together. He said he felt better, lighter. He thanked me for listening.

In nearly a year on the job as a hospital chaplain-in-training, here’s the greatest takeaway so far:

People need to be heard.

James 1:19 encourages us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). What does it mean to be “quick to listen”?

  • Listen to understand, not to respond. This can be the hardest part of listening. We start out well, but after a few seconds, we begin mentally planning out our response. That response usually begins with “Yes, but…” And suddenly we’ve become a sparring partner in a debate rather than an empathetic listener.
  • Listen deeply by asking clarifying questions. If something is unclear, a short question seeking clarity shows others that you’re present with them, that they’re being heard. “When you said ‘I’m so tired of it all,’ what did you mean?”
  • Listen to pray more specifically. Details matter. I know that I wasn’t listening closely if I ask a question and someone responds: “As I said earlier…” My question reveals that I had tuned out. On the other hand, when I close a patient visit with a prayer, I will often rehearse the detailed concerns they mentioned, bringing them specifically to God in prayer. One patient observed afterwards: “You didn’t miss a thing!” To listen well is to love well.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the past week, anger and frustration have boiled over on our streets. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” If there’s one thing that I can do to move the needle a fraction in the right direction, it’s listening – not to respond, not to debate, but to understand.

Please tell me your story. What are the everyday indignities and frustrations that you live with as an African-American, Latinx, Native American or other minority in the United States?

I’m listening.

___________

Image credits

  1. Ear: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Left_ear.JPG#file
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Nobel Foundation/Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King,_Jr..jpg

Of Mountains and Smog

They saw the Himilayas this morning –

The first time in 30 years, the old-timers say.

Tall, majestic, snow-capped,

Like plates of gold they shine in the sunlight.

People stayed home and so did the cars

That spew pollution.

We see things more clearly when the veil is removed.


As in nature, so at home, the smog has lifted,

The obscurity of relentless busy-ness,

The smoke-screen of bigger and better,

The noxious clouds of never-ending noise.

They have evaporated as we slow down,

As we huddle with loved ones too long neglected,

As we take a collective Pause.


Like the younger residents of Jalendhar,

We’ve woken and beheld for the first time

What is most beautiful –

The smile of a loved one,

The purr of a kitten,

The rhapsody of children clustered around a jig-saw puzzle,

The aroma of cookies in the oven.

For one breathtaking moment, we’ve seen the glorious mountains.

Can we ever again be resigned to the smog?

_______________

Image credit: The Himilayas, from weather.com

Lemonade

Note to the reader: This poem was inspired by an NBCNews.com story about how parents are managing to balance work and family life, all while living in COVID-19 lock-down at home.


He was hanging upside down

his belly button peeking out,

a gleeful smile on his face,

his Dad’s strong hands clasping his 4-year-old son’s ankles.

He was hanging upside down…

a familiar pose, one that evoked my own Dad doing the same with me and my brothers when we were little

or me having fun with my own 2 young sons.

He was hanging upside down…

no anxiety, no fear, no thought that his Dad might drop him on his head

concussion, contusion — These words have no place in a 4-year-old boy’s vocabulary

He was hanging upside down…

A father and son moment of joy, something normal, a reassuring reminder in this lemon of a time that some still know how to make lemonade


Image credit

Wikimedia commons, Arnold Gatilao from Oakland, CA, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Feelings in a pandemic

If I had titled this essay before August 2019, I would have chosen the title “Thoughts in a pandemic.” But I’m a hospital student chaplain this year, and “thoughts” seemed too cerebral. With the novel corona virus raging, it has stirred up emotions in me, feelings like fear, sadness, anxiety, dread, and disorientation.

When I get scared, portions of Scripture calm me. Isaiah 41:10 (NLT) assures:

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

Some Christians find comfort in the “God is in control” mantra. The problem with that statement is that with total control comes total responsibility. But I don’t hold God responsible for COVID-19 because that kind of a sadistic God doesn’t fit who Jesus is, and Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father (John 14:9). God is not the cause of this pandemic nor of the various sicknesses I see in patients I visit at the hospital. But what I do hold God responsible for is coming alongside us in the middle of our suffering, strengthening us, and helping us through. That’s the take-away from Isaiah 41. God is with us! The LORD will sustain us; God will help us in the middle of the storm.

Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. Are you afraid today? God is on your side. Inhale his love and compassion; exhale your anxiety. All will be well.

———————-

Image credit

Pablo Jarrín / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Jesus, boy refugee

This 18th century painting by Miguel Cabrera shows Jesus younger than he likely was when Joseph and Mary fled with him to Egypt.

We’re hearing the word refugee plenty these days. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a U.S. Presidential candidate, stirred up a backlash on Christmas Day when he described “divinity” coming to earth as a “refugee.”

Was Buttigieg’s label for the newborn Jesus accurate? No, because it was only about 24 months later that he was displaced from his home in Bethlehem, along with Joseph and Mary. But if Jesus didn’t arrive on earth as a refugee, his status quickly changed. Not born a refugee, he soon became one. Jesus was a boy refugee.

Here’s what the New Testament reveals. Luke’s Gospel portrays Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth in Galilee and journeying to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-4). At this point in the narrative, there is no indication that the couple were fleeing any kind of religious or political persecution. Rather, Caesar Augustus was conducting a census. The mechanism for gathering the data was for people to return to their ancestral home, which for Joseph, was the a tiny village near Jerusalem named Bethlehem. The rest of Luke 2 presents snippets of Jesus’ young life, including his parents presenting him at the Jerusalem Temple eight days after his birth (vv. 22-28), the family’s return to Nazareth (v. 39-40), and the story of twelve-year-old Jesus getting lost during the Festival of the Passover in Jerusalem (vv. 41-52).

But Luke isn’t the only Gospel that recounts the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and infancy. Matthew furnishes details that are lacking in Luke’s account. Forget the typical nativity scenes that show both shepherds and magi kneeling at the manger. The magi weren’t there. Matthew 2:1-12 recounts a journey for the magi that likely took many months. Finally, the star “stopped over the place where the child was” (2:10, NIV). The next verse (2:11) explicitly mentions the “house” where they found Mary and Jesus. It was there in the house that they worshiped Jesus and presented him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Here’s where the story takes a dark turn. King Herod, ever protective of his political power, had previously inquired of the magi regarding the timing of the star’s appearance, under the pretext of also wanting to worship the Messiah (Luke 2:3-8). When the magi were done worshiping, they obeyed a warning received in a dream and “returned to their country by another route” (2:12, NIV). Only when Herod realized that the magi weren’t coming back to him with details on the child’s location did the King take more drastic measures. He ordered the slaying of all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger (v. 16) based on the time when the star that led the magi westward had first appeared.

King Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger, indicating the approximate age of Jesus when his family escaped to Egypt. See Matt. 2:16

Now the legitimacy of applying the word “refugee” to the holy family comes into sharper focus. An angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream about Herod’s intentions, with the command to take Mary and Jesus and “escape to Egypt” (2:13, NIV; the HCSB uses the word “flee.”) Immediately, they “escaped” (HCSB) to Egypt by cover of darkness.

Having examined the evidence in Scripture as well as other historical documents, Joan Taylor observes:

We know that Jews fled from troubles in Judea of many kinds, in the third to first centuries B.C.E., and that Egypt was one of the places they went to as refugees. Josephus comments on the problematic revolutionaries (and their children) that fled there after the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 C.E.; Jewish War 7:407-419) but they were following a well-worn path.

Read the entire article for a convincing case that Jesus and his parents were refugees for a season. (See also the online version of the IVP New Testament Commentary, which in connection with the flight to Egypt describes Jesus’ family as “refugees.”) Only when Herod is dead and after two more dreams where the Lord warns Joseph does he make the decision to settle down in Nazareth of Galilee rather than back in his ancestral town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:19-23). The trio of refugees gradually transition back to the more normal everyday life of Jewish peasants.

Both Luke and Matthew hint that the refugee chapter of the holy family’s story informed Jesus’ later perception of himself during his 3 year nomadic ministry. When a scribe said he would follow Jesus, the Lord replied: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20, NRSV; see also Luke 9:58). Taylor affirms: “The legacy of being a refugee and a newcomer to a place far from home is something that I think informed Jesus’ teaching.”

Whatever the motivation might have been for Mayor Buttigieg’s original remarks or the critical responses to it, this much is clear: Jesus was a boy refugee for a time in Egypt with Joseph and Mary. Such is the plain reading of Matthew’s account.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Image credits

  1. La Huido a Egipto by Miguel Cabrera, at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Huida_a_Egipto_-_Miguel_Cabrera.jpg
  2. Slaughter of the Innocents, a painting inspired by Poussin; in the public domain, at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slaughter_of_the_Innocents_after_Poussin_-_Princeton_Univ_Art_Museum_INV34431.jpg

A life update

Dear readers:

You may have noticed that things have been quiet lately here at “Theology in Overalls.” Allow me to explain.

In early August, Amy and I returned from Africa following 23 years of missionary service with the Church of the Nazarene. For various reasons, it was time to move along, and I am now serving as a chaplaincy resident at a hospital in the Austin, Texas area. I’m continuing as on ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene (South Texas District), but in a role that differs significantly from that of a theological educator.

Nearly 1 million strong, Austin is a very diverse and growing city, part of the Austin-San Antonio-Houston “triangle” here in Texas that is drawing so many. Amy and I are urbanites, and enjoy city living and all the amenities it has to offer. On the church front, the Wesleyan understanding of the Gospel has yet to gain a strong foothold here in greater Austin. I believe that God will use our gifting in winsome ways in a location where many have yet to follow Christ or experience the reality of holiness of heart and life.

I’m not sure yet what the change of ministry assignments (from theological educator to chaplain) will mean for “Theology in Overalls.” Because of privacy laws, I will not be able to write about interactions with patients or others at the hospital. In 18 months or so, once I am established in a permanent health care chaplaincy position (the Lord willing), I am likely to have more time to post regularly. Meanwhile, I keep reading widely and will still need a way to process ideas or react to events in church and life, especially here in the U.S. Bear with me; the learning curve for health care chaplaincy is steep, and the emotional energy needed on a daily basis is high. Thank you for your prayers for us during this daunting but promising time.

Together,

Greg

Austin, Texas (USA)

8 Lessons from Solomon for the journey

Note to the reader

I preached this sermon at the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (L.T. Marangu campus) on Thursday, May 30.

Text: Ecclesiastes 7:1-12 (New Living Translation)

Prayer

Introduction

This year, our theme is “With Christ on the Way.” If we could step into a time machine and travel back and join Jesus on the dusty roads of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria, what would he teach us?

We know that Jesus loved the Scriptures. Often, he cited Deuteronomy. What we call the New Testament didn’t yet exist. For Jesus, the Scriptures were the 39 books of our Old Testament.

Today, I’d like to look at a passage from one of those books in Jesus’ Bible. Let’s take a look at Ecclesiastes 7:1-12. From this portion of the Jewish Wisdom Literature, we draw the title for this message: “Solomon’s 8 Lessons for the Journey.”

Lesson # 1 – Guard your reputation.

Verse 1 ends with a depressing statement: “The day of death is better than the day of birth” (1b, NIV). Here’s a good example of the Bible not requiring that we always have to be in a cheerful mood. The Bible is real; sometimes we’re just discouraged, and that’s O.K. With God’s help and the help of others, work through those tough times. Things do get better!

But what I’d like to focus on is the first half of the verse. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “A good reputation is better than fine perfume” (Ecc. 1:1a).

I’ve worn a white shirt before and spilled spaghetti sauce on it. It takes a lot of effort to get rid of the stain. I’ve had to learn the hard way that the best policy when it comes to white shirts and spaghetti sauce is to cover myself first with a towel or serviette.

And so it is with our reputation. Once it’s stained, it’s hard to get the stain out. We all need to think twice before we join in activities that will tarnish our reputation.

Lesson # 2 — Tough times have a way of refining us.

There’s a little ditty that I learned somewhere along the way:

Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you!

Verses 2-4 sound very much like that song. In v. 2, Solomon recommends funerals over parties. In v. 3, he ranks sorrow above laughter, then in v. 4, he compliments the person who thinks about death as being wise, while the fool thinks only about having a good time.

For the record, I don’t think we need to feel guilty about having a good time. Proverbs 17:22 says that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (NASB) and Ecclesiastes 3:4 insists that there is a time to laugh. It’s always a danger for Christians to take themselves too seriously. Laughter isn’t a sin.

So what is Solomon getting at? He’s reminding his readers that God allows death and sorrow as a means to strengthenus. Tough times have a way of refining us.

Poet Robert Browning Hamilton wrote a poem entitled “Along the Way.” Here’s what Browning observed about sorrow:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,

She chattered all the way;

But left me none the wiser,

For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,

And ne’er a word said she;

But oh, the things I learned from her

When Sorrow walked with me!

(cited by Stephen J. Bennett, Ecclesiastes/Lamentations: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill Press, 2010), 123.

Lesson # 3 — Accept a critique given in love, but beware of fawning.

A third lesson appears in verses 5-6: “It is better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool! Indeed, a fool’s laughter is quickly gone, like thorns crackling in a fire. This also is meaningless.”

I looked up the word “fawning.” The Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as “displaying exaggerated flattery or affection; obsequious.”

And sometimes that comes in the form of laughter. You tell a joke, and this is the person who laughs longer than anyone else, and you wonder why. Finally, you realize that there’s some kind of a hidden agenda. It’s not that you’re so funny, it’s that they’re for some reason trying to get on your good side.

But there is a kind of criticism that is healthy. It’s a critique given from someone because they have your best interest in-mind. Solomon calls this being criticized by a wise person.

I can think of times when I was growing up that my parents offered words of critique. They saw something in my character that they knew was not healthy and that would limit my own success in-life. It was love that motivated them to speak up.

It can be painful to hear those kinds of words, but if we listen and take them to-heart, God can use them to refine us.

The Queen of Sheba visits Solomon.
Continue reading “8 Lessons from Solomon for the journey”

A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion

Environmental_day_specialAbortion legislation is coming fast-and-furious in the U.S. setting.  Multiple state legislatures  have been emboldened to pass restrictions, since the compositon of the U.S. Supreme seems to have recently shifted in a conservative direction, calling into question whether the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, will be overturned. At such a time, it’s helpful to review what our Nazarene Manual (2017-2021) has to say about abortion.

[Note: For those not part of the denomination, a bit of context is in order. Every four years, the Church of the Nazarene around the world sends delegates to a General Assembly. At the GA, decisions are made that govern the church. These decisions are codified in the Manual, the current version being for 2017-2021. The Manual also contains statements on social issues.]

Here’s the relevant section, from Manual 30.1, under the larger heading of “The Sanctity of Human Life”:

30.1. Induced Abortion. The Church of the Nazarene affirms the sanctity of human life as established by God the Creator and believes that such sanctity extends to the child not yet born. Life is a gift from God. All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in His image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported, and protected. From the moment of conception, a child is a human being with all of the developing characteristics of human life, and this life is dependent on the mother for its continued development. Therefore, we believe that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. We oppose induced abortion by any means, when used for either personal convenience or population control. We oppose laws that allow abortion. Realizing that there are rare, but real medical conditions wherein the mother or the unborn child, or both, could not survive the pregnancy, termination of the pregnancy should only be made after sound medical and Christian counseling.

Responsible opposition to abortion requires our commitment to the initiation and support of programs designed to provide care for mothers and children. The crisis of an unwanted pregnancy calls for the community of believers (represented only by those for whom knowledge of the crisis is appropriate) to provide a context of love, prayer, and counsel. In such instances, support can take the form of counseling centers, homes for expectant mothers, and the creation or utilization of Christian adoption services.

The Church of the Nazarene recognizes that consideration of abortion as a means of ending an unwanted pregnancy often occurs because Christian standards of sexual responsibility have been ignored. Therefore the church calls for persons to practice the ethic of the New Testament as it bears upon human sexuality and to deal with the issue of abortion by placing it within the larger framework of biblical principles that provide guidance for moral decision making.

(Genesis 2:7, 9:6; Exodus 20:13; 21:12-16, 22-25; Leviticus 18:21; Job 31:15; Psalms 22:9; 139:3-16; Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15, 23-25, 36-45; Acts 17:25; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:16; 7:1ff.; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)

The Church of the Nazarene also recognizes that many have been affected by the tragedy of abortion. Each local congregation and individual believer is urged to offer the message of forgiveness by God for each person who has experienced abortion. Our local congregations are to be communities of redemption and hope to all who suffer physical, emotional, and spiritual pain as a result of the willful termination of a pregnancy.

(Romans 3:22-24; Galatians 6:1)

Continue reading “A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion”