Author Archives: Laurie Brock

Hands to Work, Hearts to God

This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for the Second Week of Easter, Acts 4:23 through 6:15. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here

We get a glimpse of the common life of the early Christians regarding property in this week’s reading of Acts. We read, “…and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” The consequence of this community ownership is found a few verses later – that there was not a needy person among them.

One of the most well-presevered Shaker settlements in America, Pleasant Hill, is not far from my home. From 1805 to 1910, the third largest Shaker community resided on thousands of acres in Kentucky.  At Pleasant Hill, dozens of buildings, including Shaker residences, the worship space, and Shaker workplaces, have been beautifully preserved and are opened for modern-day pilgrims to wander and rest.

Carved staircase at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Photo credit: Laurie Brock

The Shakers were a religious group founded by an Englishwoman, Ann Lee (known as Mother Ann among Shakers). In 1774, she and eight others came to America to share the good news of their expression of Christianity, called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. Because of their vibrant and ecstatic dances in their worship they were called (disparagingly) shaking Quakers, which eventually became Shakers.

When I first visited Pleasant Hill, I knew the thing about Shakers that most know  – that they were celibate. But on my many visits to Pleasant Hill, from hearing the stories from the guides to reading their letters and notes from a century of life together, I’ve learned they were much more. Some of their ways are still strange to me, but in other ways, they inspire me.

Yes, they were celibate and did not marry. But that is a small part of their story. They practiced economic, social, and spiritual equality for all members, seventy-five years before Congress and the President emancipated slaves and one hundred and fifty years before women could vote. They lived as equals, as brothers and sisters in one large family of God where all property was held in common. They rotated labor and ministry, so one person may work for a while in the kitchen (and both women and men did kitchen work), then move to the fields for planting and harvesting (again, women and men), then lead worship (and yes, women and men). They worked fewer hours than the average laborer of the day, and had substantially longer life expectancies. Most Shakers were literate, as education was a manifestation of faith. New members of their community were included women with young children who had been widowed, deposited by men who no longer wanted them, or escaping abuse; slaves longing for freedom; those who were inspired by this expression of Christianity, and those who simply wanted a home.

During particularly brutal winters, documents of Shaker Village inform us of those who came to be known as “Winter Shakers,” those people who, because of many reasons, did not have enough food or adequate shelter to survive winter and appeared at Shaker Village, saying they wanted to become Shakers. These people were welcomed, likely in the same manner our churches today welcome people who express an interest in being new members. They were incorporated into the life of the community, given shelter, clothed and fed spiritually and physically. They were part of the community…for a few months. When spring came, these new Shakers left, ready to plant their own crops or venture again into the world to secure their fate.

But winter would come again, and the cycle would repeat. Many times the same people returned.

And what did the Shakers do?

They welcomed them. Again. And again. And again.

For the Shakers, their community, their food, their worship, and their welcome were not their property – all these things belonged to God, and these things, especially the property, were material things devoted to God’s plan, not to be withheld in greed, but shared in love. The Shakers did not believe their property, their community, or their love should be hoarded, but shared willingly. They lived the words of one of their quotes still seen around Pleasant Hill – hands to work and hearts to God.

The Shakers and their life, the very way they expressed the Christian belief that all we have is God’s, to be used for God’s purpose, inspires me.

Too often, though, we forget that we are merely stewards for God, not owners. Our hands to work become only mechanisms for our own prosperity and success, finding our hearts turned to worldly things. That, however, is not in line with our Christian faith, and the account in Acts reminds us of this (as well as many of Jesus’ teaching, but we’re in Acts at the moment). We are responsible for how we use the gifts God has entrusted to us, how we allocate them, and one day we will be called to account for our lavishness or our greed.

Raphael, The Death of Ananias (1515)

This part of Acts also contains the contrasting and unsettling accounts of Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira. Barnabas sold a field that belonged to him and gave the money to the followers of Jesus for use for the well-being of the community. Ananias and Sapphira sold some land, too. They, however, kept part of the money for themselves and lied about the whole financial transaction to Peter.

They both die.

This narrative is a reminder and a warning (albeit extreme) about our responsibility for the choices we make regarding our property and the consequences of our choices. The writer of Acts isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with withholding funds of your own. S/he is saying that to do so as a Christian, to make choices guided by greed, by a sole desire to enrich ourselves by deceiving others (especially those we have promised to love and serve), and by withholding what is dedicated to God’s purpose, will have significant consequences.

I wonder if the writer of Acts might be asking us to consider how allowing withholding what is dedicated to God’s purpose, whether that be finances or our own gifts, will lead to our spiritual deaths? The question is uncomfortable and unsettling for us to consider, especially in our own culture that preaches self-reliance, what’s mine is mine, and the one with the most toys wins.

The Shakers did not, according to popular belief, die out. There are still a few, still living in a communal setting, in Maine.  The decline of their faith and its particular expression came as a result of the mixture of the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, among other things. They asked their members truly to be part of a common life. I suspect that led to their decline, as well. After all, working for the good of all instead of enriching one’s own bank accounts is quite contrary to the gospel of the United States. And other Christian faiths didn’t focus on community or equality as the Shakers did.

When I wander the paths of Pleasant Hill, my own feet tracing the steps of women leaders of the faith who kneaded bread, taught people to read, yoked oxen, and lead prayers centuries ago, I feel their witness asking me to consider well the words of Acts telling of the early followers of Jesus who shared, who saw each piece of property, each word they spoke, each breath they took, as something that was devoted to God’s purpose of love. They ask me how I am generous with what I own, both property and my spiritual gifts. And they ask me how I am stingy.

Hands are to work, for our own well-being, for the well-being of those we love, and for the well-being of those we don’t love. Our hearts are to God, for guiding us as we share the wealth of our lives, our churches, and our communities for the love of all people.

 

This week, read and re-read the portion of Acts, reflecting on the following, either as personal time of devotion or as part of a prayer group or Bible study group. Journal your answers, comment on them in the comment section of this post, or share and discuss them with your study group.

  1. What about the idea of living in community is appealing to you? What is unsettling?
  2. While this reflection doesn’t focus on the latter part of chapter 5 (where Gamaliel states that if this plan is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God’s, it will not be overthrown), how does this serve to legitimate the new Jesus movement preached by the apostles? In what ways has the Jesus movement been successful? Is this success by human standards or by God’s standards?
  3. We also encounter stories of the apostles’ imprisonment and persecution because they continue to preach the Good News. A frequent refrain in our modern culture is that Christians are still persecuted for their faith. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not? What, to you, does being persecuted for one’s faith look like today?
  4. The Shakers are only one of many expressions of Christianity that have and continue to exist in America. Are there any with which you are familiar? What about their practices and expression of Christianity do you find inspiring? With what do you disagree?
  5. How do you embody the phrase, “Hands to work, hearts to God” in your daily life?

 

 

You Will Be My Witnesses

This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for Easter Week, Acts 1:1 – 4:22. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here

The Acts of the Apostles, also called Acts, is companion book to the Gospel of Luke. While tradition holds Luke the Physician authored both, neither the Gospel of Luke nor the Acts of the Apostles names the writers. We can, however, tell from the style of the written Greek that both volumes were written by the same author. Acts, like all the books of the New Testament, was written in Koine (Common) Greek, which means every English version we read is a translation.

Papyrus 8 – Papyri of the Acts of the Apostles (4th century) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Wikicommons public domain.

Like Luke, Acts opens with a reference to Theophilus, who may have been an individual person. Theophilus translates into lover of God, so some scholars note that both volumes are actually addressed to any person who is a lover of God and, by extension, a follower of Christ. Acts was circulating among early Christian communities by the early 2nd century, and most scholars put the date of its authorship between 80-90 CE, although dating written documents in the New Testament is more art than science.

What was going on in Jerusalem as Luke and Acts were written? The Temple had been destroyed, a final blow by the Romans to end the Siege of Jerusalem, the Pharisees had become the dominant form of Judaism, and both Jews and Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. This was a time of political/religious unrest. For an expansive view on the history of Jerusalem from its ancient founding to the modern era, Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Montefiore is a worth-while read.

The history of Acts reminds us that Acts, like all books of the Bible, were birthed out of times and places, and knowing the history of time and place invites us not to collapse the almost 2000 years from the place of the writing of Acts into our modern era. Acts was not written in a time of religious freedom, nor was it written in a culture of separation of the religious and political. War and violence were commonplace, and the Christian community was varied and diverse. The population of towns and cities was significantly smaller. People of places like Nazareth really did know everybody. There was no Book of Common Prayer, New Testament (the collection of books and letters we call the New Testament didn’t become official until the 4th century), or established common practice of Christian communities across the Roman Empire. As we read Acts, we are all invited to reflect on what this story tells us about the very early community of followers of Jesus in their time and culture and how it informs and guides our modern faith.

Acts opens with Christ’s Ascension. The Resurrected Jesus has been with his disciples and friends. He tells them they will receive the Holy Spirit and gives them their instructions – You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Jesus ascends, and the account has allusions to the Transfiguration account in Luke. The writings of Luke and Acts refer back to themselves frequently, so as you read Acts, you may begin to notice patterns and references back of previous events. The disciples, together with certain women, devote themselves to prayer, choose an apostle to replace Judas so there are 12, and receive the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2 is the textual basis for our Feast of Pentecost. Reading it closely, even outloud, is a worthwhile endeavor. Notice a few things as you read. First, who are the “all” in verse one? Many images show only the 12 apostles, but others argue it refers to the 120 Peter addresses earlier in Acts. What difference does that make, if any?

A direct consequence of receiving the Holy Spirit is Peter’s address to the crowd, the beginning of the Christian witness that Jesus directed at his Ascension. Peter is not filled with wine, but the Holy Spirit. For comparison, read Luke 4:1. Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit, and a consequence of that at his baptism is being led into the wilderness. Perhaps the disciples are being led into a different wilderness with its own temptations (see, that reference back again…).

And those who hear Peter’s Spirit-inspired speech? How do they respond? We read, “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.” Here, in Acts, we modern Christians see the early church’s fundamental responses to an affirmation of belief that Jesus is Lord and Messiah: repenting of one’s sins, being forgiven for those sins, being baptized in the name of Jesus, and receiving the Holy Spirit. We then read about qualities of the first Christian communities, that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.

As we begin our celebration of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we as followers of Jesus are now called to respond to the Good News that Christ is alive. He has conquered death, and we who have died with him also rise with him into Eternal Life. A core way we experience this belief is through our baptism. Many of us may have participated in baptisms at the Great Vigil of Easter. We who are baptized, like the first followers, are changed because of our baptism. We, like the first followers, are charged to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.

This week, read and re-read this portion of Acts, reflecting on the following, either as personal time of devotion or as part of a prayer group or Bible study group. Journal your answers, comment on them in the comment section of this post, or share and discuss them with your study group.

  1. What do you know about Jerusalem and the surrounding area in the time of Jesus and the century that followed? How might those historical and cultural differences change or nuance your understanding of the Gospels and the book of Acts? Note: there are many quality resources about the Ancient Near East on the internet. The Frontline documentary and its supporting sources for From Jesus to Christ (available here)  is an excellent source for in-depth study.
  2. How do you interpret Jesus’ directive as he ascends? What is the “power” of the Holy Spirit and what does Jesus mean by being his witnesses? 
  3. How do you explain the Holy Spirit and how have you experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life and in your faith community?
  4. Read the account in Acts 2:37-47 again, telling of the first converts and the qualities of their faith community. Now read the Service of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer (page 299 and following). Where do you see similarities? Where do you see differences?
  5. Considering the qualities of the first community of faith in Acts, how are these qualities present in your own church? How are they present in your communities, your family, work, or social organizations, for example?

 

What Happened?

 

My mother has a habit of falling asleep soon after the start of a movie airing on tv. She sleeps as the movie plays. Then, about 30 minutes from the ending, she wakes up, sometimes asking, “What happened?”

Granted, some movies can be summed up in one or two sentences. For example, the plot lines of many action movies like The Fast and the Furious and their 834 sequels, a favorite genre of my late step-father, can be summed up fairly concisely. Someone did something, the good guys chased the bad guys, after many explosions and much witty banter, the movie ended with one or two threads open for a sequel, depending on the box office success.

But explaining a movie that is filled with silence, symbolism, ancient wisdom in the stories of our faith, and holy acts bound together by sacrament in one minute or less?

Well, that’s a bit more challenging, if not impossible.

You don’t sum it up in a few words. You experience it. You feel it in your soul. You let the words find you.

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, the most profound week of the Christian year. We engage ourselves in the journey of Jesus’ last days – his ministry, his betrayal, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.

We are with Jesus, which is why we, too, journey with Jesus from life to death to eternal life through the span of these holy day. We gather with Jesus and his disciples on Maundy Thursday. We try to stay awake with Christ in the Garden as the solemnity of the Last Supper wanes into the starkness of Good Friday. We call for his crucifixion on Good Friday.  And we wait, tired, grief-stricken, and wearied in the darkness of Holy Saturday.

And then, perhaps as we are ready to explain what happened, that death won, that our own human ability to celebrate someone and quickly crucify them when they fail the meet our expectation won, that love has died on the cross, our words are interrupted by the sheer silence of the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection as we hear the beautiful words as we light the New Fire, “Dear friends in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer.”

Wait. What? There’s more to the story? Can there be? But…he DIED!”

And the voice of God sings to us, “Oh, there’s always more to the story.”

Because the story is never truly complete. As Christians, we are constantly engaged in the timeless story of God’s love for us. We learn more about the past. We realize more about our present, and we are inspired to strive more toward a future of love, grace, and mercy.

We might be tempted to celebrate the miracle of Easter as if Easter Sunday is the end of the story.

It is not; it is simply a moment where we can catch our breath before the next chapters.

This year, Fifty Days of Fabulous will be part of the Good Book Club as we explore the next part of our story, the Acts of the Apostles. Each Monday, we’ll share a reflection about the upcoming weekly readings of the Acts of the Apostles based on the Good Book Club readings (click on the Readings tab for a list), then later during the week, we’ll post a video link for prayer, reflection, or discussion.

These posts can be used for personal devotion. They can also be used for church Bible studies, Sunday School classes, or prayer groups.

Because what happened is still happening. God is are still writing the holy story of love’s victory. And God is asking us to add our words.

 

 

 

 

Go!

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Go therefore and make disciples.

Jesus’ final words in Matthew are words of action. Go, make, and baptize. Teach and remember.

He’s taught us how to love, without expectation of recompense, without limits. He’s given us examples of how to forgive, of how to feed the hungry and heal the broken. His words in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke are at the same time comforting and disturbing, much like our Lord himself.

He also reminds us we don’t have to go, make, baptize, teach, and remember alone. Jesus is with us always and…AND…we do all this in community.

We forget the salvation of the world does not rest entirely on our our shoulders. We alone don’t have to interpret Holy Scripture or have all the exact prayers. We are part of a huge community of believers, saints past, present, and yet to come. We are part of the communion of saints.

A priest mentor once explained the communion of saints to me, saying when he felt empty and dry of faith and prayed prayers that seemed flat and dim and filled with doubt, that was okay. Because somewhere in the world, someone overflowed with drenching faith that was particularly alive in her prayers. And the time would come when the roles switched.

We are supported and sustained by each other. My doubt is balanced by another’s deep faith. Again, the entirely of Christian faith does not depend on me. It is held together by Christ in a loving community of us.

I give thanks for this communion of saints, this rag-tag group of faithful Christians who go forth and teach, baptize, and remember. I give special thanks for the saints at Forward Movement who do this.

Forward Movement provides spiritual resources that teach and remember. Some are online, like Fifty Days of Fabulous, and free to whoever takes the time to click on a link. Others, like Lent Madness, provide fun ways to learn more about our fellow neighbors in this communion of saints. Their flagship publication, Forward Day by Day, is available to those in prisons, hospitals, in the military, and in our churches. It also has devotions available online. They publish books, pamphlets, and digital resources for communities of faith. The words they curate and collect, the reflections of the teachings of Christ and the experiences of the saints they nurture, are shared with the particular focus of reinvigorating the life of the church.

Forward Movement provides a way for us to follow Jesus’ charge to go into the world and make disciples. It does so, in part, through donations. If you’ve enjoyed Fifty Days of Fabulous, if you would like to support the many ways Forward Movement provides spiritual reflections to those who need to be drenched by the Word of God, and if you would like to support this particular way the Church goes therefore into the world, please consider making a donation.

Thank you to all who joined us for Fifty Days of Fabulous. Thank you for your comments, for your shares on social media, and for your support. May we courageously go therefore and make disciples. May we be disciples, and may we model the movement of love.

Amen. Alleluia!

If you would like to support the ministry of Forward Movement, you can click here to make a secure online donation. Thank you for your support!

 

The Light of Christ and the Flame of the Holy Spirit

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

Fifty days ago many of us gathered in a darkened place. Maybe outside in a church garden. Maybe the parking lot. Maybe the entrance lobby of the church. We gathered in that space between the end of Lent and Holy Week and the beginning of Easter.

The celebrant gathered us with words and prayer, reminding us on this most holy night, our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, and as a symbol of this new life, we kindled and blessed the New Fire.

The celebrant struck flint together to produce a spark, or maybe lit a match, or perhaps pushed a button on a nifty automatic lighter. And then kissed the raw material of wood or rock salt doused with alcohol or shavings or whatever kindling we holy people use with this flame, and the Light of Christ roared back into fullness.

We begin and end Easter with flame, with fire. The New Fire from the Easter Vigil appears again, new and wild, flickering and burning, as the fire of the Holy Spirit. The disciples, we read, were huddling in the Upper Room, probably fearful and unsettled. They were seemingly alone – again – without the physical manifestation of Jesus to guide them, to inspire them, to comfort them, and to challenge them.

They didn’t have much spiritual kindling left, I suppose, after the upheavals of all that had been Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. He’s gone forever, they likely thought.

Until it changed. Easter Day proved them wrong.

Alleluia! He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

So for 40 days, they shared life with Jesus again, almost as it had been, but not quite. Maybe they thought, as many of us do when trauma has unsettled us, uprooted us, and drained us, they had found newness that would never change.

Until it changed. Jesus ascended to God. The disciples experienced loss and change. Again.

I imagine their spiritual tanks were low. Some may have remembered his words and been steady in the faith, but others likely had faith that felt brittle. Their fuel for ministry flat. Maybe this was all a big mistake, some of them likely thought. This is too hard, too unsteady, others may have voiced. We’ve been left alone again.

Until it changed.

Pentecost mosaic (mid 12th century) in Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Italy

The Holy Spirit burst into their lives, found fuel in their souls, and burned within them and above them and moved their feet to go forth into the world. We read they began to speak in other languages, to prophesy, to dream dreams, to share the Gospel, and to change the world.

The New Fire of God found them. The New Fire of God finds us.

God’s fire of the Holy Spirit inspires us and enlivens us. We may be steadily faithful in the word of God. We may be filled with doubt. We may feel empty of any kindling in our lives. We may not even think we have enough life in our souls to burn at all.

We may gather in the darkness of our lives, of life. We are surrounded by what is constant tragedy, a world bent on repaying hate with hate instead of loving one another, and a society so drenched with the tears of grief and pain no fire could ever be lit.

And yet…

On this day, we remember that God leans into our lives and hovers over our piles of life, love and mess and all of it, and strikes the flints of love and grace together. Or lights a match from the eternal dreams of God, or perhaps pushes a button on a nifty automatic lighter of thousands of years of prayer and hope.

And then God kisses the raw material of our selves and souls, our faith and doubt, our grief and hope, our very lives, and the Light of Christ roars back into fullness in a new way.

The Holy Spirit’s flame rests on us, burning from the graceful generosity of God, and inspires us to go into the world in love and service.

Will we we walk boldly into God’s future, guided by this roaring flame of the Spirit?

Pregnant with God’s Possibilities

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)

Today is the Feast Day of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We remember the joyful moment between Mary and Elizabeth, both pregnant with sons who would come into the world preaching love and upsetting the standard order of things. Icons and images of this moment show two women, embracing. Mary, we read in Luke, has encountered the Archangel Gabriel who has announced God would like to collaborate with her to birth Jesus into the world. Of course, she immediately goes with haste to see Elizabeth to share this news. God is also collaborating with Elizabeth to bring John the Baptist into the world.

The Babe John leaps in the womb upon hearing Mary’s greeting. Elizabeth greets Mary, saying, “Blessed are you among women.” And Mary replies with her hymn, the Magnificat.

This day, filled with the love and joy of two women, pregnant with God’s possibilities, seems to be in opposition to Jesus’ teachings on the great sorrow people can expect when they strive for popularity among all people.

Mary’s hymn reminds us otherwise. She sings of God who is faithful to God’s children, of God who lifts up the lowly and scatters the strong in their conceit, of God who fills the hungry with good things and sends away the rich empty.

She in her hymn and Jesus in his teachings remind us of God who is unimpressed by wealth, showy gestures, and the number of Twitter followers.

God is in love with us because we are God’s, and blesses us not because we have earned God’s love, but because God waits for us to leap with joy at the sound of love verbalized in the voices, songs, and lives of others. God loves the parts of us hungry for food and love, outcast from the popular table and from our own sense of worth, and vulnerable among a world obsessed with power.

Woe to us all when we forget to meet the voice of God with joy because we are more concerned with what the voices of others say about us. Woe to us when we forget to collaborate with God to birth love into the world because we collaborate with those who would oppress and belittle children of God. Woe to us when we choose to visit with the rich, full, and powerful instead of going in haste to be with those who remind us of our own fragility and vulnerability.

May our souls magnify the Lord. May our spirits rejoice in God our Savior. And may we leap with joy at our own lowliness, the beloved of God.