How do we come to change our mind—is it fear of the wrath to come, or hope for a smoothed-out road?
Sunday, December 9, 2018
The writer of Luke begins chapter 3 with the socioreligious pecking order, juxtaposing a laundry list of the Powers That Be against one Voice heard in the wilderness, and another beginning to cry out. Change is in the air. Things that seem solid and unmovable, those mountains and valleys, those principalities and powers, are about to lose their footing.
“Come, be washed with water and change your mind,” John says — or maybe it’s “have your mind changed.” Either way, metanoia, the repentance that is the reason for the dip in the river, is the first kind of change to come, before the earth-shattering ones. It is the turnaround, the shift in mindset, the “on second thought” that gets things started toward salvation.
The science of changing minds is complicated. We humans change our minds constantly — about what we want for dinner, whether to walk or drive, how much to spend. But we are also creatures of habit, and laziness can hold more sway than novelty. A deluge of facts will rarely shift our thinking, but a well-told story can transform our vision. Fear can motivate us not to do things, like leap from the high dive, but hope is a better motivator to inspire action. We’re most resistant to changing our minds if it means going against what’s socially valuable to us, like the people and communities we love.*
In an era where many of us are wondering how to change the minds of those on the other side of the aisle or the other half of the country, I want to know how John brought people to metanoia, to change their minds. Was it fear of the wrath to come, or hope for a smoothed-out road?
Or maybe more important than how is the notion that the first step toward salvation is an open mind, one still pliable enough to be changed. Though mountains and valleys and emperors and rulers seem set in stone, change is afoot. May it begin with us, turning around again to see the one with no coat, and allowing saving love and tender mercy to open us anew.
* For more of the science of how we change our minds:
Rev. Aimee Moiso
SFTS MDiv 2006
In the mountains of Honduras, two congregations embody and proclaim the transformative power of God’s love.
Saturday, December 8, 2018
The Harvest of God’s Love
Pastor Juan Rodas, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Honduras, loves to tell the story of how two remote churches, El Horno and El Sute, joined the denomination. The communities of these churches are at the top of a mountain in the department of Comayagua, Honduras (see photo below). They are so remote, so small, and so economically poor that the utilities that built electric transmission lines overhead, crossing the mountaintop, didn’t bother to connect the communities to the lines. Most people in the communities are of indigenous Lenca descent and are farmers, of coffee, mostly, and of corn, beans, and other staples. There are roads, but not good ones, so most people walk, or if they’re well-off, ride mules or horses. It’s a five-hour walk to the nearest paved road.
When Pastor Juan began visiting, another denomination’s missionaries had evangelized in the area a few years earlier and established one small church in El Sute and then another in El Horno. The young, small churches were going strong, but they were hoping for more connection and were seeking to join a larger denomination. Pastor Juan and his colleagues had visited several times to assess the viability of the tiny communities joining the Presbyterian denomination. At a meeting of the denomination’s board, they had decided that the communities were, sadly, too remote and would stretch the small denomination too thinly. At the time there were only about 20 congregations nationwide. The denomination’s leaders couldn’t imagine committing to the pastoral presence needed in such a remote place.
Pastor Juan and his father-in-law, Pastor Edin Samayoa, arrived in El Horno after walking five or six hours, with the intention of informing the congregations’ leadership of the decision. Some church elders sat and had coffee with the pastors and related the story of how their churches came to be. The missionaries who came to evangelize years prior had been from a larger denomination. They had spent the time they needed to preach the gospel in the towns, but when it came time for the churches to become independent, the missionaries left, saying they couldn’t join the larger denomination because the communities “no son rentables.” In English: The communities weren’t profitable. They wouldn’t be worth the investment of time and effort of a larger denomination. El Horno and El Sute were drains on the resources of the missionaries.
When Pastor Juan tells this story, he nearly always has tears in his eyes. He says that he changed his mind on the spot and couldn’t see his way to telling the dedicated Christians of El Sute and El Horno that they weren’t worth his time. Pastors Edin and Juan returned to the leadership of the denomination with the news that they had two new congregations. “What? I thought we decided the opposite!” they protested.
God’s call to us is not one of economy or feasibility, Pastor Juan says. God’s call to us is one of abundant and merciful love. We are called not to the places in the world that are profitable, but to the places in the world where there is need of love.
I love the affection that Paul shows for the church in Philippi; it reminds me of Pastor Juan’s affection for El Horno and El Sute. “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” How telling that the harvest he speaks of is not of financial or demographic increase but of righteousness, glory, and praise.
After 10 or 15 years, the churches of El Sute and El Horno are shining examples of community cooperation and unity. They are represented in the denomination’s leadership. They have collaborated with U.S. Presbyterians to install solar panels and water purification systems in their communities. The students they send to the denomination’s theological education programs are the most dedicated and studious. The presence of the churches has helped encourage investment in coffee and food production rather than in illegal drugs. Family unity and cohesion has increased.
El Horno and El Sute are examples of the transformative power of God’s love.
Rev. Dori Kay Hjalmarson
Presbyterian Church (USA) Mission Co-Worker, Honduras
SFTS MDiv 2015
What if you awoke tomorrow with only what you had thanked God for today?
Friday, December 7, 2018
A Meditation on a Roadside Church Sign
I love roadside church signs. One of my favorites, spotted in Savannah, GA, read: “Don’t give up hope. Even Moses was a basket case.” One in Natchez, MS, gave me a good chuckle: “God loves you and you’re His favorite.”
Yep, folks in the South know their church signs. Living here in Marin County, we don’t get much opportunity to spot the clever ones, but Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church in Mill Valley, CA, does a great job with something new every week. Recently, I had to stop and really ponder (and that’s the point, right?) when I saw “What if you awoke tomorrow with only what you thanked God for today?” on their sign.
It’s a message that’s been haunting me since I saw it in mid-November. They had put it up just after the Paradise and Woolsey fires broke out, when we in Marin County were inhaling the remains of people’s homes and neighborhoods from behind our N95 respiratory masks—when we were looking around our houses, mentally making lists of what we’d grab in case of emergency and putting ourselves in the shoes of those who had lost everything: What if we awoke tomorrow with nothing but what we had thanked God for today?
As someone who is mildly superstitious and slightly anxious, I started making that list. What had I recently thanked God for? What bargains had I made? Was I treating God like some heavenly Santa Claus who would deliver my wishes as long as I was a very good girl?
I ran back the mental audio of my recent prayers. I had thanked God for my mom, who is endlessly supportive and truly my best friend. I recently thanked God for the improving health of my dad, and I had thanked God for my wonderful pets and loving partner – for my warm home, the breathtaking beauty of Marin County, and the work that I am doing here at SFTS, for the students and alumni that I have the opportunity to work with and watch do great things in our world.
It’s hard, when so many are suffering and it seems every day there is more news of horror and sadness, to continue being grateful for what we have and to praise God for God’s glory and grace.
But I find that when I do, I find peace. I find hope. And I feel God’s presence when I visualize all that I am grateful for: my dog’s sweet face, my cats’ purrs, my partner’s loving embrace, my mother’s kindness, our beautiful Mount Tamalpais overlooking this incredible campus full of people who are going to change the world.
What if you awoke tomorrow with only what you had thanked God for today?
SFTS Director of Alumni Relations
How can we find a word of saving love and tender mercy in a Scripture that is about judgment?
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Struggling with the Text
I struggled with this text. On the surface it seems fairly innocuous, but under the surface lies a violent text.
“God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…” Silver has a melting point of over 1700° F. The word translated as “fuller” is related to the Assyrian word for “trample.” So, my challenge has been, “How do I write a devotion about God’s saving love and tender mercy when this text is about judgment?”
Short answer: I don’t really know.
Immediately preceding this text, the prophet says, “You have wearied the Lord with your words…saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he delights in them’ or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’” The prophet is pointing out hypocrisy, people who claim they want justice, but participate in evil and oppressive systems.
Such an observation hits close to home for me. I am tired of seeing more and more of my trans sisters of color murdered, misgendered, and ignored. I am sick of seeing police gun down unarmed Black men. I am broken from watching so many families and friends work through the overdose of a loved one.
Yet, despite all of my lament, I am still part of the problem. I participate in a society that oppresses and kills. I benefit from systems of racism. I am a citizen of an imperialist nation. My educational privilege gives me the tendency to make moral judgments on those I disagree with. I sit with my desire for good obscured by my participation in evil. Silver riddled with impurities.
Malachi depicts an enduring God who stays with us, even in our hypocrisy. The text tells us that despite God’s weariness, God is faithful. God will keep the covenant even when we don’t. Instead of regarding us as blemished and discarding us, God regards us as whole and pure, and does the work to save us.
SFTS MDiv Senior
Advent and apocalypse remind us that our healing draws near.
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
“The World in a Grain of Sand”
We can think of Biblical time as linear: beginning, middle, end. But time is also the eternal present of divine creativity in which birth and death, morning and apocalypse constantly cycle around each other.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. – William Blake
Blake’s poem depicts the world from this perspective, that is, from the perspective of the kingdom of God. In this eternal present, every being is precious and beloved. Harm to the least creature results in misery and destruction: “a robin red-breast in a cage, puts all of heaven in a rage…” This is the prophetic point of view, which Abraham Heschel associates with the “divine pathos.” The prophet is the one who is naked to the Beloved’s devotion to humanity and to Their grief and anger when lives count as nothing. A caged bird seems a trivial thing, and yet from the divine perspective, any cruelty or untruth is an outrage, a disaster.
The Beloved, embodied in Jesus, describes this eternal present as it unfolds in history: confused nations, people fainting from fear, the shaking of the heavens. The outrages of the 1stand 21stcenturies are like world-endings. Scripture speaks to us in our despair, frustration, and terror. But the Beloved reminds us that this is the moment when They draw near, our healing draws near: eucatastrophe surprises us when catastrophe was all we could imagine. As doom approaches, be alert, pray. We might add: dance, be kind to one another, light candles when darkness encroaches. Catastrophe is always at hand, but the Beloved is nearer yet. The gospel is joy. Apocalypse reminds us it is already in the palm of our hand.
Dr. Wendy Farley
SFTS Professor of Christian Spirituality
and Rice Family Chair in Spirituality