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.

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Inoculated Against Jesus

Among young parents in certain circles, the debate continues to rage: to immunize or not to immunize? It goes something like this: should little Johnny get his shots, which will inoculate him against various diseases, or should we opt out of the shots, because the immunizations can cause all sorts of problems. I’ll stay out of this debate in this space, but in the spirit of full disclosure, we just got a puppy, who of course is the cutest creature yet created, and Toby is getting his shots.

I came across one of the saddest stories in the Bible the other day, and it made me wonder if it is possible to be inoculated against Jesus. The brief account is found in Mark 6:1-6, where Jesus, after gaining quite a following, pays a visit to his hometown of Nazareth. He’s not going for a quick visit to see Mom and get some laundry done; he’s going to do what he does now that he’s left the carpenter life behind: to preach the gospel, heal the sick and drive out demons.

It all starts out pretty well, as many gather to hear him teach, but the people can’t quite get over the fact that they knew him. When he was a baby, they used to change his diapers. When he was a kid, they’d help him up after he skinned his knee. When he was an adolescent, they celebrated his coming-of-age. As an adult, they employed him to repair their roofs. They were all there at Joseph’s funeral. So here’s Jesus sweeping into town with his entourage (who won’t stop talking about the amazing miracles he’s done), but isn’t he the kid we used to make fun of? They are scandalized. They are offended, because they have been innoculated against the real Jesus.

As you probably know, immunizations are a fascinating bit of medical science (disclaimer: I’m no scientist, but I usually paid attention in school). As far as I remember, they inject you with a weakened virus, so your body’s immune system can fight it off easily enough, so when the real-deal virus is encountered, it will be ready to go, and all will be well.

Spiritually speaking, the people from Nazareth were inoculated against Jesus. They got a “weak” version of Jesus (or at least they thought they did). They got used to their idea of Jesus. Their Jesus was safe. Familiar. So when the real-deal Jesus comes along, they fought him off. The real Jesus didn’t fit into their preconceived notions of Jesus, and it was spiritually deadly for them. One of the saddest, and even most surprising, verses in the Bible finishes the story: “Jesus could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” (Mark 6:5-6)

The result of this amazing unbelief is unnerving. In the stories immediately preceding this one, we see Jesus calming a deadly storm, casting out a legion of demons, healing someone chronically ill (without even knowing!), and finally raising a girl from the dead (just in case you’re a little too familiar with Bible stories, can you picture what it would be like having your child die from pneumonia and then having her come back to life again?). Jesus clearly has power over creation, the spiritual realm, health, and even life and death. So it is shocking that the people’s unbelief could hinder Jesus’ power.

And yet we experience that all the time too. Jesus still has amazing power, but so often, even those of us who believe in him, are inoculated against Jesus. We may believe, but we’re spiritually weak. Like the folks from Nazareth, we have an incomplete version of Jesus in our minds and hearts. A weak Jesus. A twisted Jesus. There’s way too many false-Jesuses running around out there (and in here).

See if any of these versions of “Jesus” sound familiar: Tiny Baby Jesus (he’s cute, but never left the manger), Santa Claus Jesus (here to give you whatever you want, as long as you’re “good”), Vending Machine Jesus (you give him something, you get something back), Blond Hair, Blue Eyed Jesus (sanitized and Westernized for your protection), TV Preacher Jesus (with blindingly-white teeth, feel-good preaching, and always asking for money), Mean Schoolteacher Jesus (ready to whack you with a ruler at any moment), Hippie Jesus (everything’s cool, man), Hipster Jesus (nothing’s cool, man), Gun-toting Jesus (here to protect you from the Romans, Russians, and whoever else you don’t like), Crucifix Jesus (still on the cross, waiting for you to do enough good deeds so he can come down), Leave-it-to-Beaver Jesus (complete with white picket fence), or even Your Local Religious Professional Jesus (heaven help us all!).

If you’ve been immunized by these or the many other false-Jesuses out there, you’ll have a much harder time encountering and experiencing the amazing power and love of the real Jesus. You’ll have a much harder time trusting Jesus if you have a false belief of who he is. Thankfully the real Jesus is a healer, and can heal even our minds and hearts from being inoculated against him. You may be harboring one or more of these phony Jesuses (everybody does!). Perhaps it is time kick them out of town, and get a fresh start by encountering the real and true Jesus. Go to the source! Read all about him in the true stories of his life we find in the Bible. Get some help by coming alongside others who are striving to know and love the real Jesus. Pray my favorite prayer, which is borrowed from a random guy in the Bible who encountered Jesus: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Jesus continues to do powerful things here in Bennington. I pray that Jesus won’t be amazed at our unbelief, but many would be amazed at our great faith in our great God.

Bob Wiegers is the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, Vermont. His usual false-Jesus is probably Hippie Jesus. What’s yours?

Life as the Un-Dead

“Life is for the living. / Death is for the dead. / Let life be like music. / And death a note unsaid.” -Langston Hughes

Some of us are overly-fascinated with death, and some of us try to ignore it altogether. But, like taxes, it is a certainty (although I do know a guy who has apparently avoided taxes for a while, but I’m not so sure how that’s going to turn out). Oh, I can hear you from the other side of the page: “Come on now Pastor Bob, it is finally Spring, so can we talk about something a little more cheery than death?” A fine idea, dear reader, and I shall get there soon enough, but according to my weather app, it is currently 32 degrees out, and the lawn is still under a blanket of bright white, so we’ve got at least a little more winter to endure. Not to mention the fact that just this morning some of us said farewell to one of the dearest of souls you’ll meet.

Even with our cultural obsession with youth and physical beauty, the language of death pervades: “My car battery died…my phone died…the game is now in sudden-death…” And you can’t go to the movies or turn on a show without some sort of life-or-death struggle on full display (like Black Panther, or This Is Us, for just two examples). So, for as much as we’d like to avoid it, death is here to stay. Or is it?

Christianity is all about God’s free offer of eternal life, so I find it incredibly ironic that our favorite symbol is a means of grisly death: the cross. Many of us wear a tiny one around our necks. I carry a little one in my pocket most days. Just this morning we sang about “The Old Rugged Cross.” But can you imagine how horrified we would be if our neighbors or weirdo relatives centered their religion around an electric chair, a guillotine, or even a noose? “Oh, our dear sweet niece Sally, we’re so proud that you’ve passed this milestone in our faith, so we got you these lovely electric chair earrings. Look, they even light up!” The symbol we cling to isn’t far from that, except that it has been sanitized and gilded over the last 2,000 years.

So why would our eternal-life faith emphasize a grisly-death so much? Perhaps because death is baked into the nature of reality. Yet there are hints of hope everywhere. Have you ever noticed that nature itself goes in cycles of life, death, and resurrection? Summer, fall, winter, and spring. Daytime, evening, night, and sunrise. Full moon, waning, new moon, and back toward full. Plants thrive, fruit, drop seeds into the earth, wait in the darkness, and spring to new life. Or a tree falls and its nutrients are returned to the earth for the new growth to thrive. History repeats itself, as our families, communities, and institutions reflect the same cycle: growth, abundance, decline, death, and then a new start. Stories and legends of life, death and resurrection abound. The phoenix rises from the ashes. This is all well and good for the world around us, but it seems we’re stuck in the death part of the cycle. Will it ever end?

There is hope, but there’s only one catch: you’re going to need some help. In fact, you’re going to need a whole lot of help. Like many of us, I’ve sat in far too many waiting rooms and beside way too many hospital beds, dreading what the doctors might say next. I’ve been to a lot of funerals, and the dearly departed always stays dead. After a while you come to realize how helpless you are on your own. But help is always there. Some might call it a Higher Power. Some might call it Divine Intervention. But his real name is Jesus.

The day we call “Good Friday” was the beginning of the end of death itself. When Jesus (God himself in the flesh) died a grisly death on the cross, he died the ultimate death for us. Humanity can’t break the cycle of death on our own. In fact, we got ourselves into this mess, and continue to do so, when we turn from God, who is the author and source of life. We’re stuck in the cycle of death without hope for resurrection on our own. But God loved us so much that he sent his son Jesus to die the ultimate death, to break the cycle and bring us into resurrection life. Whoever receives this gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus is welcomed home into life as the un-dead. Our bodies may die, and we continue to experience life in a broken world. But those who trust in Jesus have a present and eternal hope, and have a new life to live now and forever. Our souls will live forever, and someday hopefully soon Jesus will return to bring resurrection life to all his people, and all of creation too.

Death itself has been defeated for us. This is what makes Good Friday so good, and Resurrection Sunday even better.

Bob Wiegers is the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, which is honored to host this year’s Bennington Community Good Friday Service on March 30 at 7pm at 601 Main Street. Many area churches will be participating, and all are welcome to join us.

 

Is Jesus Crazy?

As we head toward March, our grumbling about the cold, the rain, the ice, and the snow is growing like the piles of oily snow in the parking lots. Friends down South send pictures of things in bloom and rejoice with the start of Spring Training, while my backyard is a sheet of treacherous ice, which I carefully navigate to collect the eggs before they freeze. It seems that Vermont’s favorite winter activity is longing for it to end.

And yet every four years we get to take a little pride in being people of the ice and snow, as the Winter Olympics show the world just how awesomely we can ski, skate, and ride. According to VPR, we have 13 Vermonters at the Olympics, and 15 more with close ties. That’s easily the best athlete-per-capita ratio in the country. I haven’t yet met Shaftsbury’s Andy Newell or West Dover’s Kelly Clark, but watching them fly over the snow leaves me in awe, and makes me wonder just how they do it. There’s got to be raw God-given talent, innate drive, a ton of hard work, incredible skill, untold support and sacrifice, a certain level of genius, and, just maybe, a whole lot of crazy. To be elite, the best-of-the-best, in just about anything, you’ve got to straddle that line between genius and crazy, right? With all due respect and even awe, when I take a step back, it does seem a bit daft to dedicate my life to wildly spinning in circles 15 feet in the air over a huge trough of icy snow. That’s the glory of genius: it takes the insane and makes it into a thing of beauty.

When Jesus walked a warmer slice of earth roughly 2,000 years ago, lots of people thought he was insane (you knew I was getting to Jesus eventually, right?). Just as he was getting popular, healing lots of people and teaching vast crowds, those who were closest to him went to seize him, thinking he was out of his mind. After all, how could this kid who grew up down the lane be saying and doing these things? He must be crazy! His opponents accused him of being demon-possessed. How else could we explain the obviously supernatural works that are happening right before our eyes? He must be from the devil! Even his own mother and brothers tried to extract him. We’ve got to protect the family name! Jesus was having none of it though. (You can read the account for yourself in Mark 3:20-35).

(By the way, I’m sensitive to the fact that I’m using the words “crazy” and “insane” quite a bit here, and I do so somewhat hesitantly. Those who suffer from mental, emotional, and spiritual trials should not be simply labeled and tossed aside. Indeed, Jesus came to bring healing, and he still does, in many different ways. I know this first-hand.)

Was Jesus the classic misunderstood genius? Perhaps. But perhaps he came to redefine genius, sanity, and insanity. Jesus surely had talent, drive, hard work, skill, support, and sacrifice too, but when you consider his whole life and work, the word “genius” suddenly sounds insufficient. So maybe Jesus IS crazy, in a certain sense. In this insane world, maybe the truly sane one will seem crazy to us. In this world turned upside down with darkness, and even the demonic, maybe the one who is true light and has the true Holy Spirit will seem devilish to us.

Thankfully Jesus doesn’t leave us in our insanity and darkness. The very reason he came to earth was to make all things right again. The world had gone crazy and he came to make it good again. How did he do it? By living the only truly sane life and submitting himself to be killed by the crazies, so by his sacrifice we could be healed. The world was going to hell and he came to bring us back to heaven. How? By being defeated by evil on the cross. Yet that defeat was turned inside-out at the resurrection, and now evil is on its death bed and on its way out. The one they called insane is really the only truly sane one. The one they thought was the devil is really the one who came to deliver us from evil.

So as I sit and marvel at a perfectly executed Double McTwist 1260, I can say with confidence that I’ll never do anything like that. I’m far too old, unathletic, and uncoordinated for such adventures. I’m not nearly crazy enough to try that. So while I can make some guesses safely from my comfy chair, I’ll never really understand what it takes to be the best of the best, especially in snowboarding.

And yet I long for greatness. I long for sanity in the midst of a crazy world. I long for true light in the spiritual darkness. I long to belong. Don’t you? Do you hear his voice when Jesus, misunderstood and even opposed by those supposedly closest to him, opens his arms and says to the riff-raff, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34-35) What a promise, made by the God of the universe, come to be with us as a human called Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only truly sane one in this insane world, and he has come to make all things right. He’s the only true spiritual light in these spiritually dark times, and he’s come to light the way. Like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ most famous story, we too are called to come to our senses. Jesus is welcoming into his family all who will repent, believe, and follow him. That’s the glory, and genius, of Jesus: he takes the insane and makes us into works of beauty.

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Good old Bill Shakespeare asked a pretty good question a while ago: “What’s in a name?” I didn’t think about names much until I was faced with the daunting task of naming a child. As we considered what to name our first child, I finally realized that I myself was named after not just one, but both of my parents. I am slow on the uptake at times, but even I could tell that my dad (Bob) and I (Bobby) had the same first name. (By the way, you’re only allowed to call me Bobby if you knew me before high school. Or if you bribe me with chocolate). But I never did realize that my middle name (John) is the boy version of my mom’s name (Jane). I was nearly 30 when I finally realized that I bear the names of both of my parents, and somehow that was a big part in setting me free to be who I really am.

All of us bear multiple names. Not only our given names and family names, but also place names and work names.  For some reason our society doesn’t put much stock in names, but I’m starting to realize there is wisdom and power in paying attention to my names.  I’m realizing “Bob” doesn’t quite tell my whole story (not to mention the fact that it can mean a haircut, or fishing tackle, or a sponge with square pants). Like many of us, I’m an American, a Vermonter, and a Benningtonian. I’m proud to bear the names of the places I love. I’m also, to varying degrees, a New Jerseyite, Floridian, and Tennessean, and a wee bit of Mainer (I spent some time in Massachusetts too, but couldn’t quite take that name on myself. Sorry Mass friends. Go Pats!) I’m also a Husband, Father, Son, Brother, and Friend, and I’m glad my identity is wrapped up in my relationships. And I’ve been Barista, Editor, Computer Programmer, and now Pastor. These vocational names shape who I am and what I do, but they don’t quite put a name on my core identity. Throw in Musician, Animal-lover, and Photographer, and we’re getting closer to naming who I really am.

As a committed follower of Jesus, I bear the name of Christian. This is, in fact, my primary identity, and I am very glad for it. But here’s the thing that’s been bugging me lately: have you noticed that the name of “Christian” can mean many different things? Perhaps you’re familiar with some of these possible meanings of the name Christian: someone whose parents were Christian; someone who was once baptized, or confirmed, or married; someone who tries to live by the 10 Commandments and/or Golden Rule; someone who is an American; someone who is an adherent to a certain flavor of politics or philosophy. For whatever reason, the name Christian has become muddled and confused. So let’s borrow a quote from a favorite movie: “You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It may be too late, but I’d like to go back the beginning of the name “Christian,” and reclaim what it really means. It originally meant “belonging to Christ” or, if you don’t mind, someone on Team Jesus. So I’m not a Christian because my parents are. I’m not a Christian because I was baptized when I was a baby. I’m not a Christian because I went to a Christian school. I’m not a Christian because I try to be a good person. I’m not a Christian because I’m an American. I’m not a Christian because I go to church. Every last one of these things happens to be true, but none of them is what makes me a Christian.

What makes me, and perhaps you, a Christian is far less complicated than all that. I’m a Christian simply because I belong to Jesus Christ. Not because I don’t kick the dog or cuss (much), but rather because he has graciously forgiven me and given me a new start. Not because I try to do good, but rather because Jesus is making me good by his love and grace. Not because I’ve done or said certain religious things, but rather because Jesus has given me a relationship with himself. Not because the country I live in, but rather because God has welcomed me into his heavenly kingdom. Not because the family I come from, but rather because Jesus has adopted me into his eternal family. Not because I’m doing my best to live a good life, but because God has raised me from spiritual death into new life.

Christians are named Christians because we belong to Jesus, and so we follow him. Not perfectly of course, and too often not even very well. But we continue onward and upward, because he gives us the faith to respond to him when he says, “Repent, believe in the gospel, and follow me.” (see Mark 1:14-18) We are named after the one who loves us best and names us his Beloved.

So, again, what’s in a name? Everything. What’s in your name?

Bob Wiegers was named Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Bennington VT a couple years ago, and continues to strive to live into that name.

 

No Perfect People Allowed

What do you think of when you see a church building on the street corner or up on a hill? Perhaps it’s just part of the scenery of our beautiful state. You probably have a mental image of a tall white steeple with a vibrantly dappled mountain in the background, surrounded by a quaint village (and if so, I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of Stowe Community Church, which is surely the most-photographed and post-carded church building out there). Or maybe you’re thinking of a swooping white fence outside a beautiful old building, which borders a maple-bedecked lane and an historic cemetery (which of course is found here in Old Bennington, and may be a close second to the one in Stowe). Our church buildings are indeed a significant part of our history and culture.

Our particular church building has the appearance of a large brick and stone fortress, if not a castle (I’ve heard people refer to it as Camelot).  By the way, I’ve often wondered why the Baptists usually built with brick, and the Congregationalists usually built with clapboard. Is this some sort of strange origin of the Three Little Pigs story? Which makes me wonder about hay bale church buildings, but I digress. This building was built in 1878, and you could tell that whoever put this together was not messing around: soaring spires, intricate stained glass windows, and stadium seating long before it was cool. The architecture inside rivals that of the outside. It also conveniently located across the street from not just one, but two high-quality pizza shops (Baptists are also known for eating, of course).

Yet I still wonder what you’re thinking when you come across a “house of worship.” Perhaps pleasant memories of holiday services with family. Or the thrill and joy of your wedding day. Maybe the sadness of that especially painful funeral. Or the warm satisfaction in knowing that this is your spiritual home. Perhaps simple indifference, or maybe a tip of the hat for the community services housed there. Perhaps guilt, anger, or indignation.

I am incredibly thankful for the amazing gift of a fabulous church building, which helps further our mission in so many ways. A beautiful church building certainly enhances our worship as we gather together. But my biggest problem with an awesome church building is that it may give the impression that we have our act together. I’m not originally from around here, so when I pulled up to this building for the very first time, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty. I remember thinking, “There’s no possible way that I belong here.” As it turns out, architecture can deceive. I was dead wrong. I very much belong here, and thankfully I’m not alone.

I’m tempted to put a big sign over the door of the church building that says “No Perfect People Allowed.” I need remember that on the outside we may appear impressive and strong, but on the inside we are broken and tender. As a Christian church, we are followers of Jesus, and Jesus saved his harshest words for the people who thought they had their act together. The sad irony is that if you think you’ve got your act together on your own, you most certainly don’t. That’s why often the biggest step of spiritual growth is admitting you need help — help from God himself. Our spiritual strength begins by admitting our human weakness, which God has come to help and heal. We only move forward by the strange and often stumbling two-step of coming to the end of ourselves and falling forward into God’s arms.

So, sure, enjoy the beautiful architecture of your local church buildings. Yes, come get your kale at the Winter Farmer’s Market here in our hall (1st and 3rd Saturdays). Bring your friends and family to our next spaghetti dinner (February 10!). And if you’re affected by addiction (and who isn’t in some way?), please join us for our next Mercy Street gathering here on January 31. Or even join us for a worship service if you feel so led. Everyone is always welcome (except the Perfect People, of course).

But don’t let the building itself lie to you. We don’t have our spiritual act together on our own. We’re broken people being put back together by God himself, who is making us more than we could have imagined. True strength is found in weakness, which Jesus demonstrated by his death on the cross. We’re certainly not perfect, not even close, but we’re perfectly loved by God, and called together to follow him. So perhaps my “No Perfect People Allowed” sign will need an important footnote: “*except Jesus.”

Bob Wiegers is the imperfect pastor at First Baptist Church of Bennington: