And Then Penn State Lost to Temple…

Last Saturday the Penn State football team did something that has not happened since 1941 – they lost a game to Temple.  Temple?  Really?

I did not watch it, we took the kids to visit my dad and is wife at a campground they were staying at.  Hiking around the woods with the little ones was much more fun than watching that game.

But I checked Twitter and was surprised to see Penn State lose.  Of course, people were shocked.  People were angry.  Other, non-Penn State people thought it was funny.

What very few people mentioned, when talking about Penn State, was that same night the women’s volleyball team began their national title defense.  The women’s volleyball team is a juggernaut; their title last year was their seventh and a few years ago they had a 109 game winning streak.

Of course, the audience for women’s volleyball is quite small.  Football dominates our culture.  College football is basically a minor league for the NFL and the only thing most people know about most universities is in relation to their football teams.  So if a friend of mine from seminary out in Illinois, or a pastor friend who grew up in Columbus, or any local person who just has an irrational hatred for Penn State, gives me a hard time for the loss to Temple, my bringing up our excellence in women’s volleyball does not score me many points.  But as a Penn State alum, I am proud of those ladies and their successes in the name of our school.

I imagine we’re all like this when we think about our roots, where we have come from.  We are all proud of things in ways that outsiders do not care about and may even laugh at.  When I was in Detroit over the summer with a group of students we got a tour from a lifelong resident of the city.  According to her the best pizza place, donut place AND coffee place are all in Detroit.  Her pride for her city was clear, even if we outsiders did not see it.

I attended Penn State for four years then, a few years later, returned to lead the Christian ministry at the Berks campus.  I’ve been hanging around here, talking to students, for a decade now.  That means that fourteen years of my life (2/5) has been spent focusing on Penn State campuses.  Holy cow!

When I think of Penn State then, my first thought does not go to Beaver Stadium and football.  My thoughts go to the students I’ve gotten to know over the years.

 

I think of students who led worship for the first time at CSF and now lead regularly at churches.

I think of students who met at CSF and went on to get married.

I think of students who made faith commitments for the first time, or renewed their commitment as the faith of their parents truly became theirs.

I think of groups of Penn State students traveling throughout the country to bring blessing to places destroyed by hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

I think of playing games and praying, of eating and arguing, of laughing and encouraging.

So yeah, going to a football game is a fun way to spend a Saturday in the fall.  But it is a tiny part of what is going on at Penn State.  Much more is going on on our campus, on all campuses.  The Holy Spirit is working, and will continue to work, not just on this campus but all over the country.  What the football teams do may make the headlines, but what really matters happens every day where there are no cameras and little glamour, but the most long-term affects.

 

Explaining College Ministry to a Four Year Old

11951486_10153969197071564_3944124659357816490_o“Daddy, why are you giving bags to the students?”

We were driving home from campus earlier tonight when Junia asked me this question.  Last Friday we had gone to a church to help put items into care packages for the PSU Berks students.  Junia excelled at this, marching through the assembly line and filling each bag with soda, ramen, granola bars, crackers, markers and tablets.  Then today she went with me as we transported hundreds of these gift bags from the drop site (another church) to campus.  In the midst of large men carrying anywhere from four to ten bags at once, Junia consistently carried her two, making sure to work hard and do her part.

Unfortunately it was getting late for her, so I took her home before we actually got to hand them out.  Then she asked me why we do it.  As I thought about how to answer, anticipating other questions she might ask, I realized how difficult it is to explain these sorts of things to a child.

“Well sweetheart, Daddy works with the college students, you know that right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, my job is to help the students learn more about Jesus and God.  We want the students to know that God loves them so one way we do this is giving them a bag of free goodies.”

“How does giving them a bag show them that?”

“Well, you know how when you love someone you sometimes give them a present, like at Christmas?  One way we show we care about other people is by giving them presents.  So we give them gift bags to show them we care about them and to help them know God cares about them and loves them.  Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

“And you know what, when you go to college it is probably the first time you have lived away from home.  A lot of the students have lived with their mommies and daddies their whole lives.  Moving away from home can be scary, some of the students may be missing their families and friends.  We want to make them feel welcome at Penn State Berks, to help them know people out there care for them.  What do you think of that?”

“I think its nice!”

So there you go.  That’s why we do it, reduced to a way a four year old can understand.

By the time I got back to campus from dropping her off, the students were already handing them out.  As it is every year, it was a wonderful time.  Many students expressed gratitude and joy at receiving these bags, some were even shocked to get something for free.  Our prayer of course is that these bags remind the students that lots of people out there care about them and beyond that, that God cares for them.

Why Does God Favor Certain People? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

I have heard this question posed many ways over the years.  Most recently I was having a, mostly friendly, discussion with an old friend on Facebook.  He was voicing many problems he has with Christianity.  One of them is that God seems favor white people.  I corrected him as far as pointing out that the majority of people in scripture were not “white” as the action centers on Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  For centuries after the Bible most Christians were located in this region, the idea of Christianity as a white religion came much later.

But beyond that, I knew what he was really getting at.  Why did God only reveal himself to the Jews?  What about people living in Australia or South America?  Its a good question.  I have a few thoughts that may point us towards an answer:

1. God’s special revelation to Israel/Jews did not mean they were God’s favorite – in actuality their election was for the benefit of the world.

When God called, or chose, Abraham in Genesis 12 the text says that “all nations on earth will be blessed through you.”  We see right away that God’s choosing of Abraham was not solely for his benefit, but with the hopes that the blessings would overflow to all people.  This hope was repeated to Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites.  Israel was actually warned against thinking their relationship to God meant they were God’s favorites and when they rebelled against God they faced the same punishment others faced.  Just one example, in Deuteronomy 9:4 God reminds them that they are not being given the land because of their own righteousness, they did not earn this gift.

Perhaps we may question God’s method, how God worked to bring blessing and salvation to the whole world.  Could there have been another way that might have worked better?  I doubt it, but I think that question is better focused since from the beginning of the scripture story we see that God does indeed care to be in relationship with the whole world.

2. Though other cultures did not receive special revelation, it does not mean God was absent

God was never absent from other cultures and anyone who desired to know the Truth was actually pursuing God.  We see glimpses of this in the scripture story as “outsiders” like Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth and Namaan (2 Kings 5) are seen to be welcomed into relationship with God.  The important thing in all those cases is that God accepts them based on their limited knowledge.  In other words, God accepts them for who they are.  They probably had a lot of wrong or false beliefs about God, but their desire to know God was most important.

There is a great verse in Amos 9:7 – “”Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”  Here we see God reminding the Israelites that he has also worked among other peoples too.

Further, many of the early Christians believed that God was present in Greek cultures just as in Hebrew ones.  The Hebrews were prepared for the Gospel with the Law of Moses and the Greeks, they said, were prepared for the gospel of Jesus through Greek philosophy of Socrates and Plato.  The principle here is that wherever people find Truth they are finding God.

3. Those who “never heard” are not automatically doomed

I have been asked this question probably every year – what about those who never heard about Jesus?  Are they automatically sent to hell forever?  My answer – no.

The assumption of this question is that those who never heard were never able to believe in or accept Jesus.  They never said the right words or performed the right actions.  I am not going to say that these things are unimportant, but the danger in such assumption is we reduce a relationship with God to making sure we say the magic words perfectly.  God is not going to condemn people for not dotting their I’s or forgetting to cross their T’s.

In Hebrews 11 the author discusses people who had great faith prior to the coming of Jesus.  In the middle of the chapter we read: “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.”  I think this passage helps.  These people, prior to Jesus, never were able to confess and believe “in Jesus.”  Yet they had a hope based on the limited knowledge they had.  I think we can apply this same idea to those who never heard.  

To put it most simply – we can trust that God is fair.  No one will be condemned for lack of knowledge.  God knows people’s hearts and what they desire.  God knows what people would choose if given greater knowledge.  In the end, we need to focus on what we know of God, on who God is revealed in Jesus, and I think we are on solid ground saying no one will suffer for all eternity because the message did not get to them clearly enough.

4. God desires a relationship with all people

Finally, and I am sure there is much more I can say, but I am a firm believer that the God revealed in Jesus truly is a God of Love.  God is so much better then we often imagine.  And God desires a relationship with all people.  When God visited this planet in the person of Jesus, not even death stopped him from accomplishing his mission.  I doubt, based on that, the geography of where Jesus’ followers are currently located will slow God’s Spirit down from accomplishing his.

5. God desires a relationship with you

I was going to end at four, but as I reread what I wrote I thought something more practical was in order.  It is important to take questions like this from the speculative to a more personal level.  We can spend all day ruminating over texts, trying to discern the fate of people in tiny villages on the other side of the world.

But in the end, the question facing us is what will we do with the person of Jesus?

Does God care about those people who have not yet heard?  Yes.

But God also cares about you, sitting right here talking with me.  We cannot do much, right now, about other hypothetical people but we can discuss you and I.  And the fact is, God loves and wants to be in relationship with both of us.

That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.

Question and Answer Night (Weekly Word)

Last night we had a question and answer night at our CSF meeting.  Full disclosure – I am writing this at 5 PM, two hours prior to the event beginning, though this post will not go up till Friday.  So I do not know for sure what questions will be discussed.  But I do know that this is always a fun night filled with lots of ideas and dialogue and debate.

It is one of the nights that reminds me why I love campus ministry so much.

On Fridays on this blog I tend to write what I call “Weekly Words”.  These posts are intended for the college students in CSF, thus for Christian students on a secular campus.  Often I basically summarize what we discussed the night before, in case anyone was absent and wants to catch up.  I am thinking that, with summer break quickly approaching, that it would be fun to dedicate each Friday to answering some of the questions from our Q and A nights.  Or even answering new questions that come in via Facebook or email.

I have always hesitated at the title “question and answer” night though, because it seems presumptuous of me to imply I can offer a quick and easy answer to questions that have stumped people and caused debate for centuries.  We have moved to calling the night a “Spirituality and Religion Discussion” though that is vague enough that people ask what it means and the response is: “ask questions and pastor Dave will answer them.”  That said, I am always very clear that I am offering my opinion.  For some questions I offer what I believe is a straight up and certain answer.  Other questions I offer a variety of possible answers and encourage the students to pick one.  It depends on the question.

All that to say, if you have a question about God, religion or whatever, I’d love for you to send it in to me.  You can reach me via email (campusminister_dave@yahoo.com) or on Twitter (dmlhershey).  Starting in a few weeks, I’ll throw out some answers.

It should be fun!

Reflections on a Decade of Short Term Mission trips

When I moved to University Park, the “main” campus of Penn State, for my junior year I got involved in Christian Student Fellowship (CSF).  Later that year I went on my first short term mission trip, rebuilding houses in North Carolina.  The next year we went to Miami and worked with Habbitat for Humanity.  Then I took three years off to attend seminary before returning to work, at Penn State Berks, as a campus pastor in 2005.  Every single spring break we take a mission trip and I just realized that this makes ten years in a row of trips for me as staff.

In the last year or so I’ve noticed some blogs and articles questioning short term mission trips, with others stepping up to defend them.  Many of the criticisms are valid, though they seem to be more focused on cross-cultural, oversees type trips a youth group might take over the summer.  We’ve done two such summer trips in my time at Berks, but most of our trips do not fit the stereotype of tourism masquerading as a mission trip.

At the same time, after ten years of trips I find myself reflecting.  Long graduated students, wonderful memories and fun stories keep coming to mind.  And I wonder, why do we do it?  Just because it is spring break and we do it every year?

1. We Go to Serve – We do not always have the most skilled group of students, but every year they work hard.  I remember mudding out houses in New Orleans months after Katrina in 2006, painting a house in Joplin in 2012, helping kids read in DC in 2013 and hanging drywall in  New York in 2014.  Some students were terrified of these tasks, whether reading to kids or working with power tools.  But they learned, with the help of great leaders.  After one week it may not appear much was done, but usually months after we are home I receive emails with pictures of completed houses, worked on by our group and many others.

2. We Go to Learn – Staying in the United States may not appear to be “cross-cultural”, but as we leave our comfort zone students are confronted with an often unfamiliar world.  I remember the shock of one girl in Miami in 2010 as she saw a homeless person eating out of the garbage.  Seeing images of hurricane destruction or homeless people on the news is one thing, seeing it up close is something else.  The way I see it, university is the time for students to get an education.  What CSF does on these trips is contributes to this education (I’ve asked Penn State for a kickback in this, they’ve never complied!).  The students return with a bigger vision of the world and their place in it.

3. We Go to Build Community – Every year when we return from the trip, our students are more close-knit then when they left.  It  makes me wish Spring Break was in October.  The relationships that form on this trip are the equivalent of months spent on campus.  Throw a bunch of college students together for  a week and they will grow closer.

4. We Go to Grow Closer to God – They do not just grow closer to each other, but to God.  We have Bible studies and prayer and such on campus year-round.  But it is different on these trips.  Maybe it is the daily rhythmn, maybe it is being away from distractions, but as students do private devotions each morning and have large group discussions at night, they experience God in new ways.

5. We Go as an Open Group – I am not sure how to word this one.  When I said above we build community, the obvious goal is not to create a Christian bubble.  That is why I mention this point – There is no requirement that one must be a Christian to attend.  This trip is open to, and has included, atheists and Muslims and others who are just unsure.  They go because they want to spend a week serving others, or maybe they just do not want to go home.  But we love when people who do not identify as Christians choose to come and work to help others alongside of us.  Again, it is in these situations that real life change (see 3 and 4 above) happens.

6. We Go to Have Fun – Every year the students have a blast.  I have fond memories of eating crawfish in the French Quarter (2008 I think it was), of the bus breaking down on the way to the Gulf Coast, of seeing many national monuments and some museums in NY and DC, of standing where three states touch just outside Joplin.  I remember games of Dutch Blitz and Catan, delicious filling meals and sparse, nearly unedible ones.  But the fun does not just happen in our spare time, it is fun working together.

7. We Go to Build Habits – Part of the function of campus ministry is to help students build good habits they will carry with them through life.  Spring break helps with this as students encounter great organizations doing fantastic work (Mennonite Disaster Service, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Center for Student Missions and more).  They may discover skills they can use on such trips in the future as part of a church, or even in their career.  Or, they may further build the habit of helping others so when their neighbor needs help hanging drywall or fixing a toilet, they have experience.

There are probably more reasons.  I know that the students do not return from these trips unchanged.  They are highlights of their college career that are both fun and a step in their discipleship to Jesus Christ.

So pray for us next week as we go on our trip to Crisfield, Maryland to help rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Weekly Word – Job’s Suffering, Dialogue and General Awesomeness

I love the book of Job.  It is forty-two chapters of brilliant dialogue around the problem of evil and suffering that never really provides any solid answers.  People argue and debate, lose their temper and scream at each other.  Its great!

I did not always like it.  I remember hearing people say, in regards to the problem of evil and suffering, to just read Job.  As a kid I read the first few chapters and last few chapters to get the gist, but I skipped the dialogue.  It was not until much later that I plodded through the whole thing and realized it did not offer the answers I wanted but instead gave space to ask questions.

I think people struggle with Job because we read, if we read, one or two chapters a day.  In this way it will take weeks to work through Job.  If you only read one chapter you will read a diatribe by one of Job’s friends one day and then Job’s response the next day.  But by the next day, you’ll forget what Job is responding to.  That is why I think the best way to get Job is to read it in big chunks.   If you can, read it all at once!

Last night at CSF we went through the entire book of Job, obviously not going deep into much of it since it is so long.  Here is an outline of the book:

  • Job 1:1-12 – Introduction
  • 1:13-22 – Satan’s First Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:1-10 – Satan’s Second Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:11- 13 – Job’s Friends Arrive
  • Chapters 3-27 – Dialogue between Job and his three friends arguing about why this has happened to Job – Dialogue continually escalates in anger of friends towards Job due to Job’s refusal to admit he deserved it
    • Job’s friends confident – they knew how God worked and that God did not punish those who did not deserve it, so Job must deserve it (rigid retribution theology)
    • Job agrees God works this way in theory – but Job insists he is sinless in this case and thus God is wrong and Job wants to plead his case
  • Job silences his friends (Zophar does not respond a third time like the others
  • Job 28 – An Ode To Wisdom
    • 28:28 – To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
  • Job 29-31 – Job’s Final Speech – His Defense
  • Job 32-37 – Elihu speaks to Job
    • Job has silenced the traditionalists, Elihu speaks for the younger generation, offering new solutions to old problems but fails to provide an answer just as the others failed.
    • Elihu’s speech on God’s greatness in chapter 37 does foreshadow God’s speech
  • Job 38-41 – God speaks and silences Job
  • 42:1-6 – Job repents, acknowledges he does not know God’s ways
  • 42:7-9 – God rebukes Job’s friends for not speaking right as Job has
  • 42:10-17 – God blesses Job

One of my favorite things about Job is how the story seems to question the sort of wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs, a fantastic work in its own right, tends to promise that hard workers succeed and lazy or evil people fail.  This is the sort of theology that both Job and his friends hold to.  Yet we know from real life that things do not always work out this way.  More than that, the fact that our Bible contains both Job and Proverbs tells us something important – being a wise person, a disciple of God, does not mean turning our brain off and blindly following a few commands.  Instead, God provides us wisdom teaching that will show us how to think and live in the situation we find ourselves in.

Since Job and his friends have this basic idea that God only punishes people who deserve it, they insist Job deserves it.  He must have some secret sin to confess!  Job, agreeing that God punishes those who deserve it, argues that God is unfair in this case for he does not deserve it.  Thus, Job wants to plead his case with God.  What we, the reader, know is that God is not the one who did this.  God has allowed it for sure, but has not done it.

Is there a difference between God doing something and allowing something to be done by someone else?

I think there is.  There is a big difference between pushing my daughter off her bike as she is learning to ride then in allowing her to fall as she learns.  Anyway, I drew a few general conclusions from Job’s story last night:

Job was WRONG in what he said about God (42:3, 6)

*God’s speech emphasizes the complexity of creation and God’s power over it – as finite beings we do not know much

*When we talk about God then we ought to be humble, realizing how much we do not know.

*When someone suffers and comes to us…we better not be like Job’s friends!

Job was more right in what he said about God than his friends were

*Even though Job was wrong, he was closer to being right even as he challenged and questioned God

*This shows me that God desires a real relationship and not just people who blindly follow accepted truths

 

God’s speech to Job is satisfying on one level but leaves us wanting more as God remains kind of distant from Job’s problems.

In Jesus the distant God of Job comes close and experiences our suffering

What Job wanted of God we get in Jesus.

Thoughts on the Most Horrific Story in the Bible (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we studied the story of a Levite and his concubine from Judges 19-21.  If it is not the most horrific story in the Bible, it is certainly top 5.  The concubine, a sort of second-tier, lesser wife, leaves the Levite and goes back home.  Older translations said the woman prostituted herself out, basically blaming the woman for much of what was about to happen.  Newer scholarship argues that the specific reason she leaves is unclear, leaving it as anger at the Levite.  When the rest of the story is taken into consideration and the Levite’s character is seen, we can see why she left him.

He goes after her and together they begin the journey back to his house.  They are forced to stay in the town of Gibeah for the night and are taken in by an elderly man.  The men of the town come to the house they are staying and, in echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, demand the Levite be sent out so they can rape him.  To make a long story short, he sends his concubine out to save himself.  The next morning, after she is viciously abused, he awakes and finds her laying on the outer doorstep.  Apparently he had no problem sleeping while she was raped.  The text leaves it vague as to whether she is dead or unconscious.

The Levite proceeds to cut her body into twelve pieces and send them out to the twelve tribes, calling for vengeance.  He tells his fellow Israelites what happened, putting himself in the best light.  A few battles follow, the tribe of Benjamin (it was a city of this tribe that committed the crime) is decimated.  The few remaining Benjaminite men have no wives and thus one of the 12 tribes of Israel will die out.  So the Israelites, fresh off decimating them, seek to find them wives.  They do this through further violence and rape.

Its all around awful.

As I prepared for this lesson, two thoughts stuck in my mind.  First is a church I often drive past that has a sign out front that says, “Jesus on every page!”  It sounds nice, but I don’t see Jesus on these pages.  Second is a few websites I came across that use this story as proof the Bible as a whole, and God if one exists, is evil.  The argument seems to be that since this is in the Bible, God is okay with it.

I think both of those are false starts.  Here are the lessons I drew from this story:

  1. The Bible is a Story About Humans and Does Not Hide Humanity’s Depravity – Within this not everything humans do is smiled upon by God.  In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean God approves of what happened.
  2. The Bible is Not Simply a “How-To” Manual For Life – Sometimes the Bible is difficult to understand.  We are obsessed with practical application but there does not seem to be much here.  I mean, it can be found – be hospitable, don’t abuse women.  But such lessons are not why this story is in scripture for such lessons could be taught in other ways that do not include horrific narratives.  The point is,the Bible is not always easy, despite what some Christians may say.
  3. The Bible is Not Unbiased – The point of this story – “everyone did what they saw fit because there was no king in Israel”.  That statement is repeated both before the story and at the very end. This shows that the reason Judges was written was to argue for why a king was needed.  Judges is propaganda explaining why we (Israel) need a king.  Yet if we turn the page and go into the books of Samuel and Kings we learn that once kings do show up, violence and evil continue to plague God’s people.  If the problem Judges sees is correct (everyone does as he sees fit), their cure is found to be inadequate (so we need a king).
  4. Ultimately then, this story points to the inadequacy of human systems and even kings – Reading this as a Christian, we do get to Jesus.  The answer is not a king, the answer is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who willingly steps outside, leaving his own safety behind, and gives himself into the hands of the mob to be abused and killed.  Jesus voluntarily takes on violence to say others.
  5. Where is the application then, if there is any?  Well, are we like the Levite, in seeking our own security first?  Or are we like Jesus, giving ourselves for others?  Jesus had the opportunity to harm a woman who was accused of sin but he saved her (John 8:2-11).   And ultimately, as I said above, he gave his life in our place.  This is our example.
  6. Do We Listen to the Voiceless Among us Today? Who is the nameless concubine in our culture today?  It is clear that rape and abuse continue to happen, both on our campus and in our churches.  May we speak in in support of those facing this.  Here are just two resources that are helpful: RAINN  and GRACE .

Weekly Word – Some Lessons from the Story of Ruth

Weekly Word is a weekly Friday devotional geared towards the college students at PSU Berks.  But hopefully anyone else who stumbles across it finds something helpful.

This semester on campus our theme for Thursday nights is The Bible You Never Knew: Secondary Characters Who Matter.  I am hoping to investigate the lives of some less known Bible characters, people who do not get a yearly mention in Sunday school growing up, like Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel.  Of course, who is a secondary character is a somewhat arbitrary choice.  This week we looked at Ruth, who has a whole book of the Bible dedicated to her story!  So why did I choose her as a “secondary character”?  In my experience, the stories of great women from the Bible such as Ruth tend to only show up in women’s Bible studies.  Everyone studies David and Moses, only women study Ruth and Esther.

Like I said, its somewhat arbitrary.  That said, I think the story of Ruth teaches us some amazing things.  I won’t go into the details of the story here, other then to note that it is important to grasp that Ruth was a Moabite living in Israel  The narrator refers to her as a Moabite quite often, not allowing us to forget her outsider status.  Moabites and Israelites did not get along in those days, there was a mutual animosity.  Living in Israel, Ruth would have not been trusted, she would have been seen as a questionable woman  In some ways, think of negative stereotypes that immigrants have today and you may begin to get the idea of how people thought of Ruth.

Not everyone looked down on her.  Boaz showed kindness to her which, to make a long story short, led to their marriage.  Ruth ended up giving birth to a son whose descendants included King David and Jesus.  So Ruth is rather important.

Here are four points I drew from the story with some questions I gave the students time to discuss last evening:

1. Be generous in ways that go above and beyond what is required.

Ruth would have been seen as “just an immigrant” or “just a Moabite” or “just a woman.” Who do you tend to look down on, to see as “just a _______”?

Who is someone in my life that I should make an extra effort to love and care for?

2. By walking in someone’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective we are able to be humble and sympathize

How would the way I talk about immigration (or really, anything) be different if I tried to put myself in someone else’s shoes for one day?

3. The love of God transcends all human made borders and boundaries.

Do I tend to think God favors people who think, act, talk and look like me? Am I open to loving the people Jesus loves?

4. The most unlikely person can be used by God to be the hero of the story.

With a college education, you are someone empowered to do great things. You will have opportunities others may not. What will you do to empower all the Ruths in this culture who are going to do great works for the kingdom of God?

Weekly Word – Jan 16 – Stories from the Margins

Weekly Word is a weekly Friday devotional geared towards the college students at PSU Berks.  But hopefully anyone else who stumbles across it finds something helpful.

When I watch movies, I am often intrigued by minor characters.  They show up on screen so briefly, perhaps making a major contribution to the story, and then disappear.  The primary example of this is Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captured Han Solo in the sci-fi/fantasy film Empire Strikes Back (I know, nerd alert!).  He appears on screen quite suddenly, says little, has an awesome spaceship, and disappears just as quickly.  We know little about his background and motivations, though we want to.  Of course, book authors and the prequel trilogy sought to shed more light on Boba Fett.  But part of his coolness is his mystery as a minor character.

As you go through the story of scripture there is a Hall of Fame of sorts when it comes to characters.  Some characters get a lot of time for their story.  These men, and mostly are men, are the main characters in the story – Abraham, Moses, David, Joshua, Daniel.  If you’ve been around the church for any amount of time you are probably familiar with their stories.

What about the characters in scripture who are not quite as well known?  People who live  on the margins, either the margins of their time or the margins of our understanding?  People like Ruth, a poor immigrant woman from an enemy country?  Or like Micah and Habakkuk, prophets whose tiny books are dwarfed and often lost in the hazy end of the Hebrew Bible?

This semester our Thursday studies at CSF will focus on such people.  We will see what lessons their stories and writings can teach us.  Beyond that, we will see how they point us to Jesus.

Who is your favorite minor character in a movie?

Who is your favorite minor character in scripture?

Unity and Diversity (Listening to the Saints)

I am writing a series of posts as devotionals for my college students this summer.  Many of these have been inspired by Pascal’s Pensees, but I am also reading portions of the early church fathers.  This post is inspired by Clement of Rome.

There is debate in scholarly circles, but in general all the books that ended up in the New Testament were completed by 100 AD.  But it is not like Christians stopped writing!  Other Christian writings exist, some from right around this time.  One of the earliest of these comes from Clement of Rome.  If you are Roman Catholic, he is considered to be the fourth pope.  The tradition says he was ordained into ministry by Peter himself, the disciple of Jesus (and first pope).  He was bishop of Rome from about 92-99 AD.  For a point of reference, the traditional dating of Revelation is during this time.

Clement has left us one writing, a Letter to the Church in Corinth.  I personally find this fascinating because I always want to know what happens next.  When I watch a movie or read a book, I wonder what happened next.  We read about Corinth in the Bible, Paul wrote 2 letters to them (1 and 2 Corinthians).  From these letters we see a church that is very divided, with everyone having their own favorite teacher.  There were divisions between rich and poor, some people seemed to look the other way in the face of blatant sexual sins (a man sleeping with his stepmother).  Well, what happened next?

Forty years later, based on Clement’s letter, the church in Corinth still has issues:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?19 Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?” Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how21 He said, “Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continueth

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, pp. 17–18). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

The church is very divided today, we have a myriad of denominations – Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Methodists and Mennonites, Catholics and Calvinists and so on.  This is not ideal.  Yet if we think there was once a time when the followers of Jesus lived in idyllic unity, we are wrong.  There were divisions practically right from the beginning.  It took a few years for enough church hierarchy and government to build up enough for them to actually kick each other out (you have to have a formal institution to excommunicate people from).  Before this, in the days of more informal groupings, people just didn’t get along and gossiped and caused all sorts of problems.

So why do I share this text with you in the middle of the summer?  Well, one reason I have loved working on campus is somehow we manage to overcome these divisions.  We get Christians from all sorts of backgrounds here and you manage to worship and serve others together.  You have discussions about your beliefs, but we have not had a schism over them.  In this I like to think campus ministry is a model for the wider church, showing that we can disagree and still be united.

The second reason is that I think this is one of the bigger questions skeptics have today.  How can I know which church to join if you’re all divided?  If you have the truth why can’t you get along?  Having some sort of answer to those questions is important.  More important is being able to model unity on campus is one of the best answers we can give.

Third, we need to realize we are all different and that is okay.  Christian faith is all about unity in diversity (you could talk about the Trinity here, three in one, but that might get a little heady).   God loves and welcomes all people in Jesus.  You do not need to give up your cultural or even your complete personal identity to be a Christian.  Lamin Sanneh is a well-known African theologian and he found this to be one of the most unique things of Christianity.  Other religions are tied to a culture, so to convert is to learn specific cultural forms.  Christianity, on the other hand, affirms all cultural forms.  We don’t demand you learn a special language, we translate the Bible into your language.

But this is hard.  We want to think we have it all figured out and everyone should be like us – our style of worship, music and so on.  The challenge is recognizing our differences while focusing on what unites us – Jesus Christ.  We all come to God on the same terms – faith in Jesus:

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 13). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

May we find beauty in our differences and be unified in Jesus.

Let our whole body, then, be preserved in, Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect unto the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He hath given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another.13 Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence

Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 15). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.