75% Off

The Light of the World (Manchester Art Gallery)
The Light of the World (Manchester Art Gallery) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week I stepped into a local pharmacy which also stands in as a consumer- culture-consumed-with-consumables portal.  I was there to pick up a prescription and as I left, I noticed that there were some Santas sitting in chairs with large tags on them that said, “75% off.”  I wondered, is that the mark-up on these products then during season?

If your spirituality is pegged to a season like a Winter cold or Spring allergy then by all means, get yourself to a nunnery.  Well, that’s Hamlet.  You at least might consider that a spirituality marked up by 75% in season just might not be worth very much when the day arrives that you need something long-lasting and dependable in season and out.

 This is not to say that Christianity (or Judaism) is unaware of seasons.  Read Ecclesiastes chapter three.  Wise is the person who knows what season they reside in.  The sense of time in the bible that speaks to seasons, as in when the harvest is ready to be harvested, is replete throughout the scriptures.  The sense of a Santa on sale for 75% is similar to the prophetic annunciation that life is like the grass of a field.  It withers. Generations come and go.

 I stopped in a local café and ordered up a “skinny peppermint mocha” since I know the time is rapidly approaching when these won’t be served. The café will move onto other “seasonal merchandise.”  It’s okay to enjoy such seasons.  But for your life, for the journey into the sacred and holy, the season of God’s love that knows no end, that rock of Christ upon which the Church is built, that dear reader, is a far better thing.

 This coming Sunday is the first Sunday of 2014.  It is, however, thousands of Sundays recurring through millennia ever to remind us that Christ is the Light of the world.  Bring your little light into the sanctuary.  I’ll bring mine. Others will bring theirs and we shall begin this year illuminated and full of the joy of God’s everlasting kingdom.  Grace and Peace to you and all whom you love. ~PSTR

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New Year, Old Year

This is apparently the actual ball which will ...The consumer-culture-hallmark-moment-next-cyle-in-the-market world of which you and I are a part moves rapidly from one event to the next.   That includes any birth of a Prince of Peace in a backwater town like Bethlehem or Nazareth.  But if you are wise, you will resist the inclination to move too fast from the epiphany of the Christ child to a pagan celebration of a “new year.”  By new, I assume it is meant another journey ’round the sun is beginning in a few days.  Get ready.  Put your seat belt on. The earth moves beneath our feet and yet, the new year will look amazing like the old year within a matter of hours.  If I could afford it, I’d rent a blimp over Times Square with a neon sign that would blink the words from Ecclesiastes 1:9

THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN

Depressing, eh?  Party pooper, jaded religious nut… Interesting how the self-described nihilists find New Year’s something to celebrate and in turn accuse those who find nothing new in the recycling of the recycled as somehow negative.  Rich irony there.  There are wars and rumors of wars without end.  Your country is preparing for these even as the lighted ball descends.  The current congress locked in absolute partisan gridlock, fueled by ideologies that would make a Maoist blush, is prepared for more of the same.  By the way, how are you treating the least among you?  the hungry? the naked? the imprisoned? the elderly? the orphan? the widow? the poor? the different?  You live in a nation that prefers to spend money on weapons than on the weak and the ill.  Happy old year.  It is sotted and wrecked before the ball falls and the new numbers are lit up. 2014. A digit’s difference and a dime’s worth of difference.

Here is a paradox for you:  by spending time on the ancient truths resident within Holy Scripture; by pondering the mystery of God-in-Christ; by assembling together in worship within the lighted sanctuary of God’s peace; we will be made new.  The bible is not completely oblivious to the new.  Isaiah preached, “Behold, I will do something new…” [43:19].  Jesus proclaims, “Behold, I make all things new” [Rev. 21:5].  May the Grace of God revealed in the Holy Child, the Prince of Peace, even Jesus the Christ, renew you and transform you in this year and the next and forevermore.  The world awaits persons who are truly dedicated to repairing the world, not ruining it.  Ready. Set. Let’s go. Into another year of months, armed with the Love of God.

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If It Quacks: Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, Hate Speech and Love

English: A rubber duck. Français : Un canard e...The television show, “Duck Dynasty,” is unfamiliar to me. I do not subscribe to cable tv. So I am unfamiliar with the show’s premise and neither had I ever heard of its “patriarch.”  But I am more than familiar with the hate speech that Phil Robertson spewed forth concerning “homosexuals.”  Nothing he said is new to me. Indeed his vituperative comments are of the coarsest kind.  He appears to be a hack for hatred. I have met individuals like him and on occasion, even asked them to leave my office.  You would stand a better chance reasoning with a squirrel about why it insists on eating the seed in the bird-feeder than pointing out the obvious to a squirrelly muse of hatred who deludedly believes he is the patriarch of anything beyond the compound of his barbed wire ideology. In this case, efficient use of words coincides with a sufficient response:  your hate speech is shameful and has nothing in common with Christ.

There are some who, like the current governor of Louisiana and the former governor of Alaska, take such sufficient response as an attack on free speech, thereby revealing two things of importance in regard to their grasp of such issues.  They reveal first that they are clueless about free speech.  Phil the Patriarch said what he pleased and unlike other bigots, got lots of media coverage, for having said it.  But your freedom to spew hate speech does not oblige the rest of us to refrain from calling a duck a duck.  This is where the twin governors are misguided.  They believe a denunciation of hate speech is a denial of free speech when in fact, that denunciation is also free speech!  No one is saying you can’t say these vile things. We’re just pointing out how vile and bigoted that speech is and further, that it should not be rewarded with a tv show and the adulation of anyone, much less politicians who were presumably elected to protect the civil rights of all their people.  Which brings me to the second thing the governors revealed about themselves. They rushed to defend, not free speech, but hate speech.  See my remarks above with regard to reasoning with squirrels.  They rushed to defend hate speech, not free speech. The difference tells you all you need to know about their “core” values.  Now this segues nicely into the final issue I wish to freely speak to:  “biblical” religion or “biblical” values.

 One of the most astonishing (and trite) strategies for denouncing an entire race of people is to say the bible tells you to do it.  Apparently, Phil Robertson’s family asserted he is a “biblical” man. Again, let’s work for both an efficient and sufficient response.  There is no such thing as “biblical.” The reason there is not is that the bible is made up of sixty-six books over a bout 1500 years.  To use this term, biblical, is to suggest the bible speaks in one voice on all matters. It doesn’t.  Just for fun, try reading some passages about pork while you’re chomping on some bacon.  What these folks do is to naively assert (and at the same time, reveal how misguided they have been by clergy too afraid to challenge cultural constructs) that their bible is to be read a certain way. What does Patriarch Phil think of women voting, governing, speaking their minds, holding down jobs? what does he think of slavery?  concubines?  Sorry, but you just don’t get to use the bible as a weapon against people and ask the rest of us to pretend you don’t know what you’re doing.  When you go to the bible, measure its narratives and especially its “values” by the Christ. Hey, Phil, do this: read First Corinthians chapter 13.  It is very possible that you’ve only read it or heard it read at weddings. It is not about weddings. It is about God’s self-revelation as Love in Christ. Read it and then repent. Because Phil, the duck dynasty sounds like an awful, clanging cymbal.  Let me put it another way: you’re a quack when it comes to interpreting the message of Christ. Hate speech will one day end. But faith, hope and love—these will endure and yes, Patriarch, the greatest of these is Love.  

~Pastor Michael Bledsoe, Ph.D.

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‘Tis The Season

English: A bauble on a Christmas tree.

There is a lot of nonsensical chatter amongst Christians (and others who seem obliged to instruct a religion on how they should and should not celebrate their holy day) about Christmas.  It is as though there are five hundred persons in a train terminal having six hundred different conversations. “Keep Christ in Christmas.” “Having a tree is pagan.” “Christmas is just a pagan holiday the Christians took over.”  “Kids should not be told there is a Santa.”  “Pass the eggnog.”

 Okay, I made that last one up but somewhere someone is asking for eggnog. We know this.  Here’s my pastoral suggestion for us as we make our final descent into Bethlehem.  Find a quiet place where you can retreat for as long as it takes you to say a simple prayer.

That is my advice. That’s it? Well, that’s it in a nutshell. Whether you walk into a beautiful church—and in Washington DC, you have a remarkable choice of places to retreat—or simply find a museum and stand before a work of stunning beauty or sit beside a window of light with all the electronics and noise turned off, sip the silence like a goblet of wine and say a prayer. Say a prayer preferably of thanks (no prayers for toys or favors).  You could begin it this way: “The Word became flesh.  Thank you.  Fill me with this mystery, Lord God.”  But really, any simple prayer said in the sanctuary of solitude set aside from the noise and banging pots and pans of a consumer culture hollow but not anywhere near hallowed, might deliver you into a golden moment or hour of bright awareness that God is Love and you are the recipient of a great Love in Christ.

 As for all that other stuff—from chestnuts roasting on an open fire to bells both silver and jingling—hey, I’m all for that. And here is why:  I have been lost without a recognizable marker anywhere that could get me back on the road, headed in the right direction. This season—apart from the mystery of the Word became flesh—is a landmark.  Every year your journey stops by this marker called Christmas. For those who are not religious, it is a winter holiday. Fine by me. Really.  Because the way this works—the way tradition and family and music and art and feast become intertwined—is that our mundane lives poured out over 365 days of routine and habit suddenly find a marker that helps us put so much into perspective.  Like, “I am on a journey.”  “I have been here before and now can find my way.”  Human beings have much to mourn, much to grieve about, and much to repent of. But in this season, we turn our hearts and minds to family, friends, stories and songs, decorations and festive activities in a combined, if not coordinated, effort to celebrate with hope our species:  human beings within whom abide deep reservoirs of altruism and even heroism.  That is worth the trip. And it is a landmark on your journey that can, with God’s grace, send you forth into another year smelling of pine and purpose and sated with eggnog. 

Merry Christmas, everyone.  ~Pastor Bledsoe

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Farewell, Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is among us no more…

English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gaute...and yet, his life and his contributions to the world and in particular to the suffering people of South Africa for whom he gave his life, remain with us forever.  In sorrow for his passing, we lift up our hearts in prayer for South Africa.  We also pray for our own comfort, for he changed all of us.  In joy for the life he lived so sacrificially, we lift up our hearts to God and give thanks.

Dr. John N. Jonsson, my supervising professor for the PhD, was a native of South Africa. He fought against apartheid.  I remember him too as I thank God for Mr. Mandela.  John provides this vivid translation of the prophet Micah’s urgent declaration to us (6:8);

So you call yourself a human being, well then you know what God wants you to do–Do what is right. Be kind. Walk humbly with your God.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela embodied the prophet’s urgent call to justice.

Rest in peace, Madiba.

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Christmas Music: Worship and Adoration

ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH

Christmas Ornament

The Riverside Choir and Musicians present a musical gift of songs, devotedly offered on Sunday, December 15th in our 10 a.m.  worship hour.

 Please join us for this special service and support those who have rehearsed and worked so hard to add their music to the heavenly chorus.

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HOW BEST DO WE CELEBRATE THE LORD’S BIRTH? A Shift in Mission Direction

A SHIFT IN MISSION DIRECTION

Angel 013
Angel 013 (Photo credit: Juliett-Foxtrott)

There is a calm at the center of the consumer storm called Christmas Shopping in our culture and it is to be found here: in authentic worship in the sanctuary within the communal, covenantal bonds of faith. That is the first point I wish to make with you as I explain a shift in our programming for this season. How best do we celebrate the Lord’s birth?

First, we rededicate ourselves to being in the worshipping community and adding our voice, our prayers, our affirmation of one another and our collective affirmation by God through Christ

No doubt you are familiar with the Gospel of Luke’s beautiful rendering of our Lord’s birth wherein Angels sing to shepherds. So one of the opportunities offered you this year within that context of worship is a musical presentation by our choir and musicians on December 15th. They have been hard at work and will re-present the Angel songs of two thousand years ago, calling us to adoration. I hope you will mark this date.

A second way we have celebrated over the years has been through mission action. Mission is a Latin word used to translate the Greek word in the New Testament for ‘sent.’ We are sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world. Thus, we have for well over a decade provided toys and an article of clothing to deserving families. Initially part of the Angel Tree project that provided a gift to a child of an incarcerated parent, this program over the years has morphed into following several families. In some cases these children have grown up now. But overall, I and the Chairperson of Deacons have become concerned that the program has of late perpetuated the consumer side of Christmas by stoking a materialistic view of Christmas and by pushing our congregants into the madness of “Christmas Shopping.” But more importantly in evaluating our efforts, we believe this year our efforts for celebrating the meaning of Christmas would best be accomplished by empowering agencies with whom we are already involved (Martha’s Table and S.O.M.E. So Others Might Eat) that feed the hungry and clothe the poor.

This year we will transition from the “angel tree” shopping-for-a-toy and instead, ask you–each of you–to contribute what you would have spent buying such toys to our Shepherd’s Purse offerings taken on Dec. 1st and 8th. The offering on Dec 1st will be given to Martha’s Table and on the 8th the offering will be given to S.O.M.E.

At a time when food stamps have been cut and the poor are bearing enormous hardships, it simply seems to us that feeding and clothing “the least of these” better fulfills our mission and the spirit of the Christ who, as you know, was born in poverty. Let us rise to this occasion and give generously and mercifully on our communion Sundays in December. ~PSTR

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Helping the Philippines

Typhoon Nida 18 may 2004 0450Z

Super typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippine islands last weekend with devastating force. The Philippine Red Cross estimates that at least 1,200 people were killed by the storm. That number could grow as officials make their way to remote areas made nearly inaccessible by Haiyan.

In response to this disaster, $10,000 in emergency relief funds is being sent from One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) and American Baptist Churches, USA,  to help victims of this massive typhoon.

Donations designated to “OGHS Philippines Relief” can be made by visiting www.abc-usa.org and clicking “Give Online” at the top right of the page. In the “Comments” section, type “OGHS Philippines Relief.”

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Faith, Questions, Knowledge

Where do you keep your faith?  Is it in your heart?  Is it in your mind?  That is, is faith something you feel or is it an intellectual assent to some list of beliefs? 

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry, by Jean-Baptis...
Triumph of Faith over Idolatry, by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (French, 1646–1713). Church of the Gesù, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Or maybe faith is something not kept within any chamber of your life. Perhaps it is more a gift bestowed on you by a power greater than yourself.  Or maybe it is something you earn, like a grade in a course or a gold watch for reliable service rendered.  Is faith something you have anything to do with?  “Have more faith,” someone might say.  But if faith is bestowed on me then how can I have more of it?  If faith is simply something I earn, a merit badge, then I can see how I might have more faith by earning more merit. Works?  Grace? What is this we call faith?

 Do those who claim they do not believe thereby assert at one and the same time that they believe in something? They at least believe in the rationality of their statement of unbelief but it seems as arbitrary as anyone’s assertion of faith.  I don’t believe sounds a whole lot like I believe in unbelief. 

 Is faith communal?  I can read a novel by myself, a novel populated by characters and configured by plot.  Is faith simply individual and narrated by myself?  Or am I read into the narrative of faith?  Aren’t current pop ideas of individuality simply the most craven renderings of conformity?  Look at me! I’m like everyone else tweeting, texting, posting—an instagram moment of individuality conformed to instagrams everywhere. How can I know me if I am a mere island in a chain of islands cut off from any community of self-reflection?

Intelligo me intelligere wrote Augustine. I understand that I understand.  What mystery is this but the deepest?

 I do not know what your exposure to religion has been, but as I grew up in a naïve fundamentalist setting, my exposure was to religion as answer.  We didn’t ask questions.  And if we dared to ask we were simply and swiftly pressed back into line and told to accept without question whatever it was that was being asserted by the church.  At Riverside, we have tried to nurture a place of quest where we get to ask questions and reflect deeply about who we are.  We do not reject answers, of course. That would be naïve or stupid.  But neither do we accept answers simply because some authority has said it is so.  We will come to an authentic religious life, an authentic personhood, when we dare to ask questions and find a way to live within and through those questions. 

 Come join us. Bring your life. Bring your heart and your mind. Bring your questions and let’s journey together a while in a communal celebration of lives lived authentically before God and within a world that is more often than not translucent and too often, dark. Or as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” [1Cor.13:12]

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Preoccupied With The Past?

English: Coat of arms of Franciscan Order in H...
English: Coat of arms of Franciscan Order in Howard University School of Divinity. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I’ve been reading deeply into Martin Luther’s life, Charlemagne’s history and Reformation history.  I teach the introductory course to Church History at Howard University School of Divinity so one might assume this is to be expected of me.  Over the last two years I’ve read histories on Pentecostalism, President Garfield, Churchill, the holy war for Constantinople which fell to Islam in 1453, Crusades, histories on Venice and Constantinople, a biography of Zwingli, three volumes on the Civil War by Shelby Foote and as you know I like to visit Civil War battlefields.  I’m apparently preoccupied with the past.

This digging into the past is not confined to professors of history. If you go to a therapist, you’re going to spend some time digging into your own personal history.  And given today’s technology, many netizens spend a good deal of time googling their friends and their enemies.  What does this all mean?

One obvious thing it means is, you and I cannot dig into the future. The future does not exist.  As for therapy and personality development, the assumption is that past behavior is a predictor of future behavior.   We dig into the past because there is so much of it there to be found and excavated.  Individual memory and collective memory is critical for self-awareness and communal awareness.  We have carved onto the Lord’s Table, as does nearly every other Baptist church, the words of Christ, REMEMBER ME.  I hesitate to reduce this to a bumper sticker but for clarity’s sake, let’s just admit to the wonder that by remembering we are re-membered. We are put together. And if a person doesn’t take the time to connect themselves to the past? Interestingly enough, they are doomed to repeat it and their NOW is endangered.  I don’t see how you can live fully in the NOW without reference to the past.

That said, you can’t live in the past.  It is one thing to reference it, it is quite another to give up on living right now and hankering after days gone by. Dylan sang it this way, if you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.  Augustine (see my previous blog on time) knew the present is always leaning to nonexistence.  Your NOW is about to become past, so act now. Live right now.  Live toward your destiny in Christ.

The signs are all around us with trees turned red, yellow and orange: we have passed a time boundary called a season.  Wise is the person who knows what season they live in.  Wise are they who know that seasons pass.  May Jesus Christ who stepped into our time, dwelt within the tick-tock existence of our mortal lives, grant you everlasting peace.  ~Pastor Bledsoe

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