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Worship services now on YouTube

CAT-TV is our local public access TV channel (and our next-door neighbor too!). They broadcast recordings of our worship services on Comcast Channel 15 (click for the schedule). They also post the videos on their YouTube channel:

(Please note: for privacy concerns, our time for sharing prayer requests is removed from the recording)

We also have a YouTube playlist of just the sermons available here:

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Cat Poster Theology

catposterbelieve.jpgI’m only a little embarrassed to admit to you that one of my favorite movies is The Lego Movie from way back in 2014. There’s too many reasons to list why I like it so much, but perhaps the best reason is its many witty lines and subtle cultural commentary. So whenever I come across someone or something that encourages me to “Just Believe!” or “Believe in Yourself!” I always think of these lines from the movie: “…the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster but it’s true.” I’m tempted to get a cat poster just like the one in the movie, where a cat is jumping (or falling?) and it simply says BELIEVE! across the top. We all just got to believe a bit more, right?

My favorite part of the Bible that talks about belief comes from a desperate dad who is pleading with Jesus to heal his son (you can read it at Mark 9:14-29). This guy, whose name we’re not given, knows enough about Jesus to give him a shot, but things don’t start off well. First he tries to get some of the disciples to heal his boy, but they unfortunately fail (Jesus is up on a mountain at the time).

To make things worse, the Scribes get in the mix. These were the experts in religious law whose favorite hobby seemed to be giving Jesus and the disciples a hard time. They apparently turn the failure of Jesus’ disciples to heal this suffering boy into an opportunity to start a theological argument. If I’m this dad, I’m getting discouraged, frustrated, and angry. My only son has suffered his whole life, and I heard these guys can help, so I’ve come all this way, only to be faced with failure, frustration, and fighting.

Then, finally, Jesus shows up. He comes down the mountain fresh off a supernatural encounter with the ancient prophets Elijah and Moses, and the voice of God the Father ringing: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7). So the man brings his own broken and beloved son to the Beloved Son of God, begging for help. As Jesus interacts with the man, we get a window into his desperation, and his doubts, as he says, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus, never one to miss an opportunity, immediately challenges the man’s doubt: “‘If you can’?! All things are possible for one who believes.” The man, with a refreshing burst of honesty, replies: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

And there you have my favorite prayer: “I believe; help my unbelief.” Or, perhaps you could paraphrase it: “I trust you Jesus, as much as I’m able, but I have my doubts. Help me overcome my unbelief!” I can’t count how many times I’ve prayed this prayer or something like it. I hope I’m not the only one who trusts God at least a little, but finds all this other junk mixed in. “Yes God, I know you’re good, and I know you’re trustworthy, but I’m not so sure if you can help this…” You fill in the blank: this disease, this depression, this death in the family, this anger, this broken relationship, this addiction, this loneliness, this anxiety, this dead-end job, this whatever. Do you have any “if you can”s? Can you bring your “if you can” to God and say, with this dear man, “Help my unbelief!”

In the story, there is no further delay after the man’s pronouncement of faith-and-doubt: Jesus heals the boy. Somehow, amazingly, the key to accessing the untold power and love of God is found in faith. Call it belief, faith, or trust if you’d like, but the point isn’t the strength or frailty of our faith, but the strength of the one we’re trusting in: Jesus himself. Apparently we don’t need a pure, high-test, super-strong faith to come to Jesus. We only need a little, even if it is frail, even if it is mixed with doubt.

The cat posters of the world command us to believe in ourselves or to just generally “Believe!” There is much to be said for healthy self-worth and self-esteem. But trusting primarily in yourself is a different matter. If I trust in myself more than anyone else, I won’t get very far. I will never get beyond my own skin, never get to the heights I was meant to reach. But if I can humble myself enough to come to Jesus, even with my cocktail of faith and doubt, God’s amazing grace, power, and love through Jesus will open wide. Pray it with me, my friends: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Bob Wiegers has lots of pets, but no cats. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, whose faith in Jesus, while mixed with doubts, continues to grow, by God’s grace. All are welcome to join us on the journey.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Last Friday the good folks at Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services did our community a great service by hosting the “Bridges Out of Poverty” workshop. What follows is one guy’s reflections on the day. Full disclosure: I grew up as a generic white middle-class suburban kid. Stability was rampant. We never had a ton of money, but we never really did without. I’ve since flirted with the federal poverty line and received my share of help, but so might anyone who works for a non-profit and has a large family.

Money is only one factor of poverty. “Bridges” defines poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” including: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships, and “knowledge of hidden rules.”  Deep down we know that we can be rich in money, but poor in faith, hope, and love, and worse off than the “needy.”

The workshop was essentially cross-cultural training for people like me, who have mostly-middle-class experience and values. Like many, if not all, in the room, I long to be a blessing to my community, to my neighbors, and to whoever God sends my way, but I often don’t know how to relate to those who “aren’t like me.”  Do I just give up and stick with my own tribe? Tempting, but Jesus has a much broader definition of who my neighbor really is (which is the lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan, found in the Bible at Luke 10:25).

One of the goals of the workshop was to give me a “new lens” to see the world through, especially the world of those experiencing generations of poverty. Like the inevitable results from an overdue visit the eye doctor, it was time to have my lens adjusted. For example, I learned that “every action takes five-to-seven times longer to complete” for someone lacking resources. At first glance this seems absurd. But take the example of laundry: some of us spend just minutes doing a load of laundry (load it up, and do something else while it runs), but others need to take hours (pack up the kids, walk to the laundromat, and wait). Some of us spend a couple hours a week getting groceries (piling it all in the van), and some of us spend a couple hours every two days (you can only carry so many bags). The list goes on. The takeaway from this lens adjustment? Patience, understanding, empathy.

Another: life in poverty is generally one of constant “survival-mode.” I’ve had a few rounds of survival-mode, mostly due to health crises, but to be in survival-mode as a constant way of life is exhausting to even consider. This leads to constantly living-in-the-moment, and each aspect of life is under stress yet interconnected. Baby gets sick? If you have little help, you may lose your job, and the web comes unraveled. The surprising take-away from this lens adjustment: a life of survival-mode leads to being motivated by relationships. Whether your relationships are good or bad, when it all hits the fan, they’re all you’ve got. Aunt Betty needs my last $400 to make her rent? No hesitation. She, or someone else, will get me next time.

While I doubt many of us would sign up for the grind of constant survival-mode, something about being motivated by relationship caught my attention, especially when I contrast relationship-motivation with middle-class achievement-motivation. How many of us on our deathbeds are going to savor our achievements over our relationships? Relationship is essential. Achievement is optional. We often think of those “stuck in poverty” need to be “lifted up” to join the middle-class (the achievement class), where birth-rates are lower, paychecks are higher, but misery-rates are about the same.

Your high-achieving neighbor may have access to all the resources she needs, but is her soul stable? Your dirt-poor neighbor may have little, but is his spirit content? Jesus himself was materially poor, but spiritually rich. Is it not possible to thrive as a human being no matter our circumstances? I think Jesus would say “Yes” because he lived, died, and rose again so anyone who has life-transforming faith in him can be brought out of spiritual poverty, and forever be blessed by God. Does this means following Jesus will bring you out of material poverty? No, but being set free from guilt, shame, and fear, and being adopted into a loving spiritual family is priceless and life-changing.

So we as a community can do much to overcome the barriers to resources, and help more of our neighbors thrive. I earnestly hope we can continue to do so, but without the unspoken drive to make others look and act more like us. I earnestly hope we remember what Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Dancing with the czars

Lewd dancing. Political power run amok. Intrigue and betrayal. Accusations of adultery and even hints of incest. Drunken boasts and promises. And the one good guy in the story loses his head. Sounds like this is “ripped from the headlines” or at least an HBO-worthy series, right? Last I heard the most popular show on TV is Game of Thrones, which this story seems to have a lot in common with (except the dragons). But no, this grisly (and true) tale is told in the Bible. Then it must be in the Old Testament, when things were barbaric and all bets were off, right? Well no, this story is told, not once, but three times in the Gospels in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mark, the story is found right in the middle of Jesus’ preaching and miracles (see for yourself in Mark 6:14-29).

In case you don’t have a Bible handy, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version (or trailer, for you kids): John the Baptist preached directly against King Herod’s adultery (the true king of Israel would never do such a thing). The king somehow still likes John, but his new (illegitimate) wife definitely doesn’t, so John gets thrown in prison. The king has a party, and his new step daughter is the featured entertainment. She probably wasn’t doing the chicken dance, because all these powerful men at the party went crazy for her. Undoubtedly the king was more than a little tipsy when, as a reward for her performance, Herod promised her “up to half my kingdom” (which is the kind of boast people did in those days). She consulted with her mom, who had her order up John the Baptist’s head on a platter, which she indeed received and passed on to her loving mother. Thus ends one of the grossest and weirdest stories you’ll find in the scriptures (and there’s quite a few).

This story is in the Bible, so we’re free to do any and all of that kind of stuff, right? Well, no, but I’m glad you asked, so we can clear this kind of confusion up. Ask a simple question: “Is this description or prescription?” Or: is this story a cautionary tale, or something to emulate? Is vs. Ought? Once that’s cleared up (sometimes it is obvious, sometimes not), keep going and ask: “Why is this story here?”

One of the reasons for this story is to show what happens when you follow Jesus. Make no mistake: the world and its values (power, lust, lies, murder) are often directly opposed to Jesus’ kingdom and his values (service, love, truth, life). If we stand up for Jesus’ values against those with worldly power, we just might pay the price. This should come as no surprise, because another reason for this story is to foreshadow what’s coming for Jesus himself: a grisly death at the hands of those in power. So be very careful if a politician or preacher is promising you power, prominence, or prosperity. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

There was a well-known German pastor and scholar who opposed the Nazi regime. He was hanged for his part in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler (part of which was retold in the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie). His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he did and said a lot that is worth pondering (I’m happy to lend you a recent biography), and his most famous words are appropriate here: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

When the “good guys” run into the buzz-saw of the “bad guys,” the good guys often lose. As one of my favorite movies puts it: “So, Lone Starr, now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.” (Dark Helmet, Spaceballs) John the Baptist’s story ends with a thud: his people come and give him a proper burial. End of story. At least that is the end of this story, but thankfully not the end of The Story.

Ultimately Herod is dethroned and exiled after a failed attempt for more power. But keep reading Jesus’ story, and you’ll see his true power continues, and strengthens even after death, because he is resurrected in power and love. John’s story was key in Jesus’ story, and even though he paid the ultimate price, he was given the ultimate reward. Herod had many chances to hear God’s story, but he was too busy writing his own. His ending was final. John’s story as part of Jesus’ story continues to this day, because for Jesus, death is the new beginning.

You too, my neighbors and friends, are invited into The Story, into Jesus’ story, where life triumphs over death, power is in serving, and the end is the beginning.