Let There Be Peace on Earth

You’ve probably heard the popular Christmas song that starts like this: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…” The song makes no mention of Christmas, but it is most often sung this time of year when our minds are looking for peace, our hearts our longing for peace, and our bodies are aching for peace. This is when we remember the angels proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all…” (Luke 2:14).

While you may have heard sung by Vince Gill (among many others), it was actually written in 1955 by Jill Jackson, who said she wrote it after finding the “life-saving joy of God’s peace and unconditional love.” She was apparently suicidal before she wrote the song, and before God’s peace broke through to her. The song is powerful because it leads us to long for the true peace that God brings, and it also personalizes that peace. The song reminds us what is readily apparent: the only way we can have peace in our world is to start with peace in our selves.

But the problem is we’re constantly at war, both within and without. If I’m supposed to be a peace-maker, what good will I be doing if my personal anxiety is off the charts? If I’m supposed to “let it begin with me,” I better get my own act together (suddenly I’m anxious about messing up this whole peace-making gig). Maybe exercise will help, or a long walk in the woods, or a little something to take the edge off. Maybe prayer, meditation, or talking it out. Maybe helping others, or just tuning it all out. Maybe then I’ll be at peace enough with myself to have a shot at bringing peace to at least one other person? But then the kids are at each other’s throats again, and I’m flying off the handle again, and we’re back to square one.

I wonder if the shepherds thought about this kind of thing. After all, times may change, but people are still people. Shepherds in those days were considered filthy, thieving, low-lifes, which would probably lead to a mindset of me-against-the-world. Not exactly “Kumbaya” around the campfire while the sheep peacefully doze off. Maybe the shepherds could relate to the war within and without. Maybe they were dying for peace too.

And suddenly the sky exploded with terrifying light. A mysterious creature from another world appeared without warning, with the glory of God all around him, proclaiming joy, glory and peace. I’m guessing the sheep either died on the spot from fright, or fled for their lives, but the shepherds had more important matters now. The angels declared the good news of joy and peace: a gift from heaven to earth, “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).

Notice that the shepherds didn’t respond by singing “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” No, first they received the word of peace that was given to them by God. They received it, and they believed it. They didn’t need to sing “Let there be peace on earth” because it was already here, in the form of Baby Jesus. And they didn’t need to sing “and let it begin with me” but rather: “and it has begun with Him!” They received it, they believed it, and they ran and saw the Prince of Peace with their own eyes. Whether they were looking for it or not, they became recipients and messengers of peace from that day forward: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” (Luke 2:20)

The peace that they longed for, and that we all long for, had finally come, and he came as a baby. God’s plan for peace on earth is not to instantly wipe out all war and anxiety (if he did that, we’d all be instantly gone!). God’s plan for peace on earth is to enter into our sin and mess (messier than even a stable) and take it upon himself, ultimately on the cross. When we receive his gift of forgiveness by faith, we have eternal peace with God, and then we too can become agents of God’s peace. God’s plan for peace on earth began with Jesus, so we can have peace with God, peace with others, and even peace within ourselves. That’s how peace on earth is happening even now.

I don’t know about you, but I can already feel my anxiety calming, knowing that peace on earth doesn’t depend all on me. If you belong to the Prince of Peace, you too can receive and make peace on earth, because it has begun with Jesus.

Homeless Hearts

Image result for homelessSome of my friends happen to be homeless. Perhaps you’ve seen them, or folks in similar situations, around town. I just met some folks who are finally emerging from a life of addiction. They are thankful for the local shelter and the Turning Point, but finding a long-term home seems nearly impossible, which undermines their stability and ability to find a better life. But they keep striving.

Although troubling, to say the least, physical homelessness is relatively rare and often temporary. Spiritual homelessness, however, seems to be rampant and long-lasting, and no less troubling. Most of us, in my experience, have little or no healthy connection to a spiritual home. Our bodies may be clothed, fed, and sheltered, but our souls are not. We may experience temporary human love in our homes, but our experience of God’s eternal love is minimal. I am sure we all know the longing to connect with others, to know and be known, to be safe and supported, for the place where we can be our true selves: the longing for home.

Very few of us would choose to be physically homeless, but I did meet a fellow recently who described himself as a homeless veteran who travels from town to town. While his external appearance was a bit rough, he seemed happy and healthy. After sharing a cup of coffee together, I found him to be one of the most fascinating and enjoyable people I’ve ever met, and one of the most spiritually healthy and grounded. He may not have had some of the security, safety, and comforts that I think I have, but I could tell he had true faith, hope, and love, which are gifts from God himself. What he lacked in a physical home he made up for spiritually.

Most of us are just the opposite, myself included. If my immediate physical needs are taken care of, I tend to think I’m all set, and too often ignore my deeper, eternal needs. Multiplied out for a lifetime, I’m lulled and lured into spiritual homelessness. A nice pot of chili fills me up on a cold rainy day, but ultimately only masks my spiritual hunger. Meanwhile, Jesus says: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). A refreshing beverage may take the edge off after mowing the lawn, but ultimately only masks my spiritual thirst. But Jesus says: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). A warm bed and a toasty wood stove provides the physical rest I need after a long, cold day, but really only masks my need for spiritual rest. Again, Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). A place to call home here in town may satisfy a lot of my earthly needs, but it can’t fulfill my true need: to find my forever home in God himself.

Jesus said in John 14: “In my Father’s house are many rooms…I go and prepare a place for you.” A paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:11 says it like this: “Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it.” And a very loose paraphrase of St. Augustine might go like this: “My heart is homeless until it finds its home in God.” Though on our own we are spiritually homeless, God has provided our eternal home with him, and the way into that home is Jesus himself who said, “I am the door.” And right after Jesus promised to go prepare a place for his followers, he told us how to get there: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

We come home to God only through Jesus, but we don’t come alone. None of us can make it far alone, so we have each other: fellow pilgrims for the journey in our local church families. So whether your local church home is Methodist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, Alliance, Baptist, Presbyterian or whatever, if you hear God calling you, let’s head toward home arm in arm. Together we follow Jesus: celebrating, enjoying, and serving God with our whole hearts. Together we love our neighbors and serve our community with the power of God’s Spirit. Together we enjoy the support, security, and encouragement our spiritual home on earth as we look forward to our eternal home together with God.

Perhaps you’ve never been physically homeless, but there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself feeling spiritually homeless. Hear the gentle invitation of the old hymn chorus: “Come home, come home; You who are weary come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling; Calling, O sinner, come home.”

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, who invites you and yours to join us on the journey home.

The Knight and the Princess

What do you think of when you hear the word “gospel”? Perhaps you think of a type of music, like the once-famous song “Turn Your Radio On” (I’ll give you a minute to YouTube that one. Check out Roy Acuff’s version). Or maybe you think of a zealous street preacher, televangelist, or someone like Billy Graham. Or maybe you happen to know that the first books of the New Testament are known as the “gospels.” But really it is much simpler than all that. The word “gospel” simply means “good news.”

What is the gospel? Christians believe that the gospel is this: the knight has come to slay the dragon and rescue the princess. You’ll have to forgive me for borrowing the language of the old fairy tales, but then again many of the great stories through the ages involve the hero rescuing the helpless from great harm. So please hear me out as I channel the imagination of my kids, who loved knights and dragons. Yet this is not child’s play. I am convinced that this is the very meaning of life.

So when I say Christians believe that the knight has come to slay the dragon and rescue the princess, here is what I mean. The dragon is all the evil in this world. Evil that we see on the evening news. Evil down the street. Evil in our homes. Evil on our lips and in our hearts. Evil now pervades the world, which God made good. We call this evil “sin” which results in spiritual, and physical death.

The princess is the helpless, hopeless, yet beloved people that are surrounded on every side, within and without, by the forces of evil. We can’t rescue ourselves. We are caught in, and take part in, evil. We are in fact as good as dead. We need a rescuer.

The knight of course is God himself. The one true God who made the universe and everything in it, came down to earth as Jesus, to conquer evil, to defeat sin and death, and rescue his people and give them true life. How did Jesus defeat evil? By the most unexpected way possible. He took on all the evil in the world, and died a sacrificial death on a cross. For 3 long days it appeared that the dragon had won. But then he was raised to life, and has defeated the power of death for his beloved people. He has slayed the dragon to rescue his people, and offers us true life and true joy.

So how do you become a part of his people? How do you become a Christian? According to Jesus, it requires just two steps: First, turn from the evil that pervades not only this world, but your own heart and life. Jesus says “repent.” Second, turn to Jesus, listen to him speak through the Bible, trust that He is indeed the one true God of the universe, that he did indeed rescue you from sin, and he is indeed worth praising and worshiping, and he is indeed worth giving your very life. Jesus says “believe.” Repent and believe.

Jesus Christ, our good knight, came to slay the dragon of sin, death and evil, to rescue all who will repent and believe in him. That’s the gospel.

A well-known Bible verse says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Repent and believe in Jesus today, and receive eternal life now and forever. This is the good news of the gospel. This is the story of the Bible. This is the story of Christianity. This can be your story too.

Do you hear God calling you? Do you believe the gospel of Jesus but aren’t sure what to do next? As one who was once in the firm and deadly grip of the dragon, it would be my joy to introduce (or reintroduce) you to Jesus, the only one who can truly rescue.

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington. As one of your community pastors, I would be very happy to listen and pray with you any time.

The Blind Leading the Blind

I don’t know how many Bible stories you’ve heard, but do you think you could name someone in the Bible who had great faith, abundant courage, and truly followed God? Perhaps you’d think of Abraham, Moses, or David. Maybe the Apostles, Mary, or Jesus himself? All of these would be true, but I like the obscure stories and characters, since I’m an obscure person from an obscure corner of the world too.

Did you know there’s a Bart in the Bible? His story is briefly told in Mark 10:46-52. Of course the most famous Bart these days is probably the Springfield kid with oddly yellow skin, spiked hair, and a donut-loving dad. The Bart from the Bible is really named is Bartimaeus, but that’s awfully hard to spell and write, so I hope he doesn’t mind I’m going with Bart.

Bart was a blind beggar. He was literally sidelined and marginalized, begging by the side of the road in a time and place that had little or no help for those on hard times. But the funny thing about Blind Bart is that he could see better than most, because he had spiritual sight when almost everyone around him was spiritually blind. He was truly the blind leading the blind.

One day Jesus was coming through Bart’s town, and it was a big ruckus. I don’t know if the visually impaired in ancient times hung out together, but Bart must have heard about Jesus somehow. After all, Jesus had a habit of healing blind folks. It is clear that when Bart found out who Jesus was and what he could do, he believed. When he figured out Jesus was coming by, he didn’t hesitate, throwing decorum to the wind, screaming at the top of his lungs: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Imagine the scene if your favorite politician was solemnly parading through Bennington with a great crowd, and as they approached the Four Corners, a panhandler started screaming at the top of his lungs: “Have mercy on me!” If you were in the crowd, you’d probably do what they did to this crazy blind guy–you’d probably tell him to shut up. Repeatedly. Someone might even rough him up a bit, or call the police over. We simply don’t have time for obnoxious low-lifes.

But Jesus stopped in his tracks: he has all the time in the world for so-called low-lifes. When everyone around Bart was shouting him down, getting in his way instead of helping him out, his courageous and persistent faith in Jesus prevailed. Of course the crowd flips quicker than you can say “spiritually blind,” suddenly encouraging Bart: “Take heart. Get up. He’s calling you.”

When they come face-to-face, Jesus asks Bart a profound yet simple question: “What do you want me to do for you?” It may seem painfully obvious what Bart wants, but Jesus asks anyway, showing him the respect perhaps no one else has. Besides, Jesus just recently asked this exact same question to James and John, two of his closest followers, and they botched it, requesting power and control for themselves, like the spiritually blind men they were (at the time). Instead of asking for his own glory, Bart simply asks for his sight back. He just wants to be who God made him to be. And of course Jesus does what God does: he gives sight to the blind. This man now has 20/20 vision both spiritually and physically: he can see Jesus with both the eyes of his heart and his body.

Jesus sends him on his way, but Bart has one more thing to show us about faith: he chooses to follow Jesus, all the way to the cross. Not only does he see Jesus for who he truly is (now both spiritually and physically), and not only does he have great faith in Jesus, but he does what we are all called to do: he follows Jesus. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly confident Bart literally followed Jesus all the way up to Jerusalem, and with his new eyes truly saw the depth and breadth of God’s love. He must have seen Jesus die on the cross, and even better, he must have seen Jesus resurrected in glory and power.

You and I can’t see Jesus right now because we are blinded by our own spiritual darkness. But Jesus is willing and able to open our spiritual eyes. That’s why he has come to town. All we have to do is follow Bart’s lead and cry out: “Jesus, have mercy on me!” Jesus always responds to our cries, stops in his tracks, calls us by name, and asks: “What do you want me to do for you?” Again, let’s follow Bart’s lead, and tell Jesus: “I just want to see you.”

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, where you are welcome to come sing with us: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.”

Believing: Achieving or Receiving?

I don’t remember a whole lot about being born, do you? I don’t think anything was posted on Facebook, at least. We have a few pictures, but cameras in the 70s weren’t the same as they are today. I do remember that I was born 3 weeks late, so I’ve never, ever been small for my age. Yet I must say, despite my overly-large head, I was pretty cute. And pretty helpless. Besides cuteness–and let’s face it: not all of us get this gift in equal measure–a baby’s defining characteristic is sheer helplessness. From my observations (and I was there when each of our 4 bundles-of-joy arrived) a baby’s resume is limited to: cuteness, eating (and associated bodily functions), and crying. Babies are not high-achievers, but needy receivers.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). He said this kind of thing more than once, by the way, as similar sayings are recorded not once but twice in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (that’s 6 times, if you’re keeping score). Whenever something is repeated multiple times in the Bible, we’d better pay close attention.

Jesus’ teaching on receiving the kingdom like a child is immediately followed by a rich guy who apparently missed Jesus’ point entirely (see Mark 10:13-31). It is easy to be distracted by the man’s excitement, since he runs up to Jesus, kneels, and asks him about eternal life. A careful reader might notice this is the first person in the gospel of Mark to ask Jesus THE big question. But take a look at how he asks: “…what must I DO to inherit eternal life?” This man, although apparently eager to follow Jesus, starts off on the wrong foot. Jesus just said “receive… like a child” and the man asks “what must I do?”

Little children can only receive, yet this poor man can only wonder what he can achieve. That’s a little like me buying my kid an awesome bike for her birthday, and then she turns around and asks me how much she owes me for it. Gifts by their very nature cannot be earned or achieved, they can only be received, and so it is with God’s gift of Jesus and his kingdom: we can’t earn it, we can only receive it like a tiny child.

God knows that we try to achieve what we can only receive, and he loves us anyway. In the middle of Jesus interacting with the rich man it says Jesus looked intently at him and he loved him, and then he lowers the boom: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). With deep love, Jesus calls on the man to let go of the one thing that is holding him back: his money. His wealth taught him that he must achieve to get ahead and stay ahead, so that’s how he approached Jesus: what can I DO to earn my way into your kingdom? But that’s not the way of Jesus, who calls us to ask: how do I receive you and your kingdom?

Maybe for us the issue isn’t money (although we are living in the most affluent culture in human history, so it might be), but the question behind all the issues is the same: what do I need to let go, so I can receive God? Pride, self-reliance, independence, self-sufficiency, achievement–it has many names and faces: “I’m a pretty good person…I’m doing my best…I’ll make my own way…I don’t really need saving…I’m doing fine, thanks.” When we say these things–and we all do one way or another–Jesus looks at us intently and loves us. He calls us to let go of what keeps us from receiving him, and lovingly says: “Come, follow me.” Will you?

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington (601 Main Street), which gladly welcomes all to come hear the call of true spirituality: the call to follow Jesus.

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.”