The Trump travel ban or the Gospel

Today the Supreme Court in the case of Trump v. Hawaii upheld Executive Order 13780, frequently called the “Trump travel ban” or the “Muslim ban.” The 5-4 decision was based on whether or not the President has the power to enact the Order. “We express no view on the soundness of the policy,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the decision. The decision is not based on the fundamental American principles of freedom of religion, justice for all or openness to all who “yearn to breathe free.”

It is also not based on a moral or Biblical analysis. The US Supreme Court is not the place for such analysis, but this article is. Here are four Bible verses and a short reflection on each for the moral analysis that this moment requires:

From God alone comes my salvation. (Psalm 62:1)

Peace, safety and security are God’s gifts to humanity. To reject what God has given is to reject God.

The NH Council of Churches wrote in their Joint Statement on Immigration that recommend “reforms in our national immigration policy which uphold the God-given dignity of every person.” This recommendation is not made out of partisan rejection of others’ policies.

Instead it affirms that by trusting the goodness of others, we have placed our faith in God. As the Bible says, a nation which affirms God and God’s gifts to humanity is indeed “happy” and “blessed” (Psalm 33:12).

Besides God there is no savior. (Isaiah 43:11)

The Court-upheld travel ban is a rejection of God. It is a false gospel (Galatians 1:7). The travel ban substitutes faith and trust with fear and anti-Muslim animus.

The ban’s foundation is a lie. The ban promises safety but it can never deliver. Even the Department of Homeland Security “found insufficient evidence that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s travel ban pose a terror threat” (source).

Instead here in New Hampshire, I know a Muslim man whose family could not attend his daughter’s wedding due to the ban. Another person tells me of an Iranian-born sales director prevented from a routine business trip.

Rather than delivering security, the upheld ban has injured families and has injured our economy. Rather than finding the peace and safety that come from God, the ban replaces God’s offer with unfounded fears and a lies.

Because the Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), this moment is a God-given opportunity to confess and repent.

Repent and believe in the good news. (Mark 1:15)

The message of Jesus was an offer of salvation for all people. He called people to end their reliance on themselves, their power and their own good works for security and salvation. Jesus asked people to repent from that path and to trust in him and his goodness for peace and safety.

In order for Jesus’ promise to be good news, it must be good news for all people. Good news cannot discriminate based on national origin. Good news cannot rely on anti-Muslim animus. Good news cannot separate families.

 

While I remain disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the President’s travel ban, I hope that Churches remain faithful to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus, which substitutes fear with faith, our efforts with God’s gift and the way of death with what is truly Good News.

Easter Message 2018

(Painting: Easter Morning, James B. Janknegt, 1992)

And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:14)

Thank you, pastors. Thank you, lay leaders. Thank you, congregations and denominations.

The week from Palm Sunday through Good Friday to Easter Sunday is the most intense week of the year for the local church. You prepare extra sermons, services, music, bulletin and more as we celebrate the center of Christian faith, the death of Jesus on the cross and his empty tomb three days later. Amidst all the work you are doing now, I remind you: it matters. This work is not done in vain.

First of all, it is not in vain because the work you do tells a story that is true. Without that reality of Good Friday and Easter morning, it is so much busy-work. Because of that reality, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” gives power and meaning to the work you are doing now (Romans 8:11).

Second of all, it is not in vain because of the fruit it bears in people’s lives. As the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches, I see the fruit that comes from faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Everywhere I go, I meet Christians of many denominations and congregations who show up to bear fruit. Let me offer you a few examples:

By faith, we believe that we can repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire. Our faith believes that the cross of Jesus was God’s “never again” to capital punishment. And so, Christians shared that faith powerfully during the hearing on SB593 in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

By faith, we believe that we can eliminate fear immigrants. Our faith believes that the cross of Jesus took down the wall of sin between us and God, so no walls should separate us here and now. And so, Christians share that faith powerfully when they come together for Prayer Vigils for Immigrant Justice or participate in the Immigrant Solidarity Network.

There’s so much more fruit that your congregations and your people bear. Active Shooter response trainings reduce fear and increase safety while giving no room to violence. Christians are uniting across long-standing barriers to serve the individuals and families harmed by the opioid crisis.

From my perspective, each Christian bearing fruit in these areas comes from one of our local churches. The work you do in the next week matters. Proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus is not done in vain. Keep the faith: the world’s salvation depends on it.

Gratefully,

Rev. Jason Wells
Executive Director

Responding to Parkland, Florida school shooting

After I led this morning’s prayer with the NH Senate, I saw this bumper sticker as I drove back to my office: “The Wages of Sin is Death” (Romans 6:28). How sobering to see on the morning following the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Just yesterday many of our denominations celebrated Ash Wednesday, where the clear call is. “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15), that is, to change our hearts, minds and lives around the truth that there is a better and more excellent way of life.

Still in the spirit of Ash Wednesday, I believe the gospel that there is not only life after death but also redemption after sin. What would it look like if we as a nation repented of:

  • The sin of sloth, meant as our legislative inaction,
  • The sin of greed, meant as taking of bribes from those who urge unfettered access to weapons of mass killing,
  • The sin of wrath, meant as turning to violence rather than to faith-based, nonviolent means of conflict resolution,
  • The sin of pride, meant as valuing of some lives or one life over the lives of the many murdered students and teachers.

It is true that the wages of sin is death. The path from death to life remains as the New Testament always had it: repentance from sin and faith in Jesus, who offers “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) and “the life that truly is life” (1 Timothy 6:19). At least for today, I can offer the three actions below as a few ways in which the NH Council of Churches can support individuals and churches in this path of discipleship.

Peace and all good,

Rev. Jason Wells, Executive Director

 

1. Register for the next Active Shooter Response Training. In December over 200 people attended this workshop offered by Blue-U at Heritage Baptist Church in Nashua. Click here to register via EventBrite for:

Saturday, April 7, 2018, 10:00am-12:00noon
Grace Episcopal Church, 106 Lowell Street, Manchester, NH 03101

These events are designed specifically for active-shooter events in churches. However, the more people who participate in these, the more ready we will be in any environment, such as a school, hospital or workplace.

2. Read and share our 2013 Joint Statement on Gun Violence:

In light of the on-going tragedy of mass gun shootings our faith commends us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).  We believe that every human being is created in the image of our Creator God (Genesis 1:26) and is therefore entitled to live in community free of the fear of gun violence and gun death.  Scripture calls us to “beat our swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4, Joel 3:10); our faith teaches us that our ultimate safety and freedom lies in God.  It is therefore idolatrous to imagine that guns, especially semi-automatic and automatic weapons, will protect us from harm.

3. Read and share a statement from Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the New England United Methodist Conference:

During this season of Lent, we are reminded to turn away from sin and toward God’s love. May we do all that we can to renounce wickedness, reject evil and repent of our own individual and collective sin.

Scenes from Jan. 15 MLK events

Monday, January 15 was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and New Hampshire and her churches sure did celebrate! Below are a few scenes from the day.

After his work on the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King focused on starting a Poor People’s Campaign to address the intersecting evils of poverty, racism and an economy based on war-making. Today the New Poor People’s Campaign aims to renew King’s work and you can join the work! Click this link or text MORAL to 90975 to show your support! Leaders in New Hampshire will connect you to local events and state-wide action opportunities.

 

Executive Director Rev. Jason Wells participates in a Fight for $15 event in Concord.
A packed house at the Manchester YWCA for City Year’s day of celebration, workshops and community service.
Rev. Eric Jackson of Brookside Congregational Church (UCC) in Manchester offered a message entitled “Team Work Makes the Dream Work.”
Bishop Rob Hirschfeld (Episcopal) offers a prayer of invocation at St. George Greek Orthodox Church for the 36th annual MLK celebration in Manchester.
Rev. Mariama White-Hammond of Bethel AME Church in Boston offers her talk “Where We Stand Now.”
Congratulations to Russell and former state representative Jackie Weatherspoon on your award at yesterday’s Martin Luther King Jr Coalition event in Manchester.

 

Testimony on HB628 (family and medical leave insurance)

Testimony on HB 628, relative to a family and medical leave insurance program
to the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).

As the Executive Director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches, I have heard from many pastors and families of many denominations across the Granite State. While this is not an official position of any denomination or of the Council, hearing testimony from them about the impact of HB628 is important.

They echo to me what others will testify to you today: that HB628 will contribute to the peace and prosperity, security and stability of New Hampshire families. Why is this important to our Christian churches and indeed to all faith communities? I have heard testimony from families and pastors in three broad categories:

First, it is the Biblical and natural role of parents to educate their children and to pass on their faith and values (Exodus 12:26, Deuteronomy 6:3, Psalm 78:4). When families experience the kind of peace and stability that HB628 brings, then they can engage this role with greater dedication.

Second, when families of all kinds are free from anxiety and worry about leave time or the well-being of those they love, they can grow spiritually and participate fully in their churches and faith communities. The familiar concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs expresses that our basic material needs must first be met in order to achieve spiritual health and well-being.

Finally, when families prosper in the ways in which HB628 provides, then their engagement in their churches and faith communities leads to the use of free time and free funds for charitable giving and volunteer engagement. Supporting families in this way unlocks individuals to be giving, to be generous and to be more kind in their local communities.

Please support HB628, for when we work for the “peace and prosperity” of others, we find that all across New Hampshire will benefit. Thank you.

Jan. 3: Reflection and prayer before the NH Senate

When John XXIII became pope in 1958, one of his jobs was to govern the world-wide Catholic Church. Daily he heard stories of troubles all around the world: priests and nuns killed in Africa. The plight of war and poverty. Refugees who needed help. And on and on.

The problems seemed endless. One temptation is to think that being given a role of power means that you can save every thing, every one and every situation.

When the sky seemed to be falling, Pope John had a prayer every night, “I’ve done my best I could in your service this day, O Lord. I’m going to bed. It’s your church. You take care of it!”

This prayer isn’t indifference to problems. Nor is it abdication of responsibility. It is however a recognition that although we can do some things, we are not capable of doing every thing. It also challenges us to remember that when we cannot do everything, we should not be kept from doing something.

But recognizing these human limitations, let us turn in prayer to the infinite One:

Almighty God, we give over to you our selves and those whom we serve to your kind care-giving. Help us to see that the world is not as bad as we worry it is. Help us to see that the world is not as good as we imagine it is. Help us to do what we can, but not more. For we are all your people and this is your world. Take care of us, loving God. Amen.

Episcopal Church of the Messiah, North Woodstock

Featured image: Rev. Teresa Gocha and Fred Chisholm welcome me to Episcopal Church of the Messiah.

On Sunday, December 10, I took the invitation to preach and to celebrate Holy Communion at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in North Woodstock. I arrived ahead of their 9:00am service and met with Rev. Teresa Gocha, who was preparing for worship, and Fred Chisholm, who is preparing for ordained ministry.

I preached on the figure of John the Baptist who said, “I am the voice” (John 1:23), but it is Jesus who is “the Word who became flesh” (John 1:14). I shared stories about how the NH Council of Churches helps local churches come together, especially to serve people fearing deportation. Just as John the Baptist had a mission to be a Voice for God’s Word, so we continue that ministry of communicating stories of salvation and redemption:

“God’s best microphone is Christ, and
Christ’s best microphone is the Church, and
the Church is all of you” (Archbishop Oscar Romero).

Would you like the NH Council of Churches to visit or to preach at your local congregation? Please send an invitation via email or a phone call and we will find a Sunday to join you!

Church of the Messiah, North Woodstock
Church of the Messiah, North Woodstock is next door to the Woodstock Inn & Brewery. Quite a sight in the fresh snow!
The church is quiet and ready for the people to arrive.
During the reading of Isaiah 40, a worshiper’s dog (named “Moose”) wandered up to me looking for ear-scritches.
After worship, the congregation moves to the back of the church to fellowship in the form of coffee and cookies.
A sight seen around the corner from the church on my ride home.

An attack on one faith hurts all people of faith

On Tuesday, December 5, Mitt Romney was attacked for the practice of his Mormon faith. Steve Bannon said, “You hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam.”

As always, there’s more to the story including a background feud over political endorsements. I mean now to take up only the fact that this was an attack on someone’s faith. (Please note: the Latter-Day Saints Church is not a member of the NH Council of Churches.)

To summarize the two thoughts below:

  1. In general, an attack on the faith of one person opens up people of all faiths for attack.
  2. This particular attack says that Mitt Romney should have given the State greater obedience than he did to God.

First, attacks on people for their religious faith are common in the United States. There are many stories of immigrants who were attacked by anti-Catholics. This includes my Polish immigrant ancestors, but is familiar to many in New Hampshire who heard family stories about “Irish Need Not Apply” signs and similar attacks.

Closer to us in memory are anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks, which sadly boil over into physical attacks.

An attack on someone for the practice of Mormon faith may seem easy to ignore or to minimize. However, all Christians know that “when one suffers, all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

As is the case in human sin, an insult to one aspect of faith makes the next insult easier to speak. One insult ignored makes the next, stronger attack also easier to ignore. If we ignore and insult on a religion that we don’t identify with (as Christians have little understanding of LDS faith and practice), we make space for future insults on faiths that will hit closer to home.

When we reject such insults and attacks, the following will happen:

  • We create a culture of tolerance and respect for religious difference.
  • We stop future, more serious attacks.
  • We stop the attacks against a remote ally from coming closer to our own faith.
  • We create relationships of mutual support so that others will come to our aid when we are the victims, suggested by  the much-quoted Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller.

Second, consider the content of the insult rather than the fact of it. The accusation was that Mitt Romney “hid behind his religion” by pursuing missionary service instead of military service in Vietnam.

This insult says, in effect, that personal conscience and religious practice should have taken a back seat for the service of the State. This insult is not only an attack on faith identification in general, but on particular religious practices.

Many of our member denominations have peace traditions within them. They offer conscientious objector status. They offer periods of missionary service or Peace Corps-style service-learning programs, such as Assisi House here in Tilton, NH. They offer forms of intentional religious community like monasteries or convents where people dedicate themselves fully to following God.In the United States, we have heard much talk of religious freedom. That is, that the government cannot require any person to act contrary to their religious beliefs. If this principle holds for business owners, it must hold equally true for the individual who seeks, even for a time, to dedicate their lives to the service of God.This insult says that there was a calling from the state to war that trumped personal religious calling. It attacks not just a person, but also the affirmations of the Theological Declaration of Barmen. This Christian statement relies on significant Bible passages such as John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” This is to say that, for the Christian, there is no calling or claim on our lives, even from the State, which comes ahead of Jesus. For the basic principle of the Golden Rule, we support and defend also non-Christians and Christian denominations different from our own when they are attacked. Because of these two reasons, I recognize this insult for all that it represents and reject it as an attack on freedom of religious practice, a founding American principle.

 

 

 

 

First Sunday of Advent: Keep awake!

Image: William Hogarth, The Sleeping Congregation, 1736.

From Mark 13:24-37:

Jesus said, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. … Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.

In the weeks before Christmas, many churches proclaim Bible readings on the themes of darkness and light, of wakeness and sleepness. Jesus calls his followers to awakeness, to alertness, to attention to the world around them. But many people outside the church know that frequently our churches are “resting places.” That is, they are places to remain spiritually asleep: to seek shelter from the difficulties of the world, to pretend they aren’t there and to replace the hardness of life with sweet stories and dreams.

In the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

In this season, Jesus cannot call us to “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” for Jesus call us to wake up from our slumber. So frequently the Bible says that God “opens our eyes” to see and understand. Our hymns sing of Jesus who comes to us as a light. In the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “a light turned on awakens and of course annoys a sleeper.”

Are your eyes open? What do you see? What bothers and annoys you about what you see? What does God want you to see? And, having seen, how is God calling you to change and to act in the light of what you see?

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:14-17