Mercy Street: A Review

Mercy Street

On January 17, 2016, PBS premiered their new Civil War Drama Mercy Street.  This program, Set in Richmond Virginia, tells the tales of medical professionals during the time of the American Civil War.  The setting of the hospital is a commandeered hotel that is being used by the Union Army to treat both Union, and Confederate wounded.

I liked the first episode and looked forward to the forthcoming episodes as the drama unfolds.  I say drama because that is exactly what it is, it is a drama, not a documentary, and there is a difference between the two that should be obvious.  As a drama, there is some artistic license that should be expected to make an interesting story so people will tune in each week. The initial response seems to be mixed with outrage to genuine pleasure; I think I fall somewhere in-between.

I am a living historian and as such I appreciate anything that gets people talking about history.  I have seen posts on the various Social Media outlets from fellow living historians complaining about the costumes and one “thread counter”* posted 10 minutes into the program that he could no longer watch because of the costumes.  Well, history has to be about more than just the costumes and if it is not then we have a very shallow and superficial view of history and that does a disservice to the actual people of history.  The people in the story, whether real of fictionalized, deserve far more than complaints about whether or not the uniform is correct or a lady would have worn this or that hat.

What this program is attempting to do is tell part of the Civil War story that is not usually discussed, and that is the story about the unsung heroes, many of them civilians, who at great risk to their lives, tended to the needs of those wounded on both sides of the conflict.  Viewers are given the opportunity to see firsthand, the thoughts of those involved and the internal struggles of Unionists treating the Confederate Soldiers and the constant reminders that as medical professionals they are to treat all patients regardless of the uniform they wear.

To those who dismiss programs such as these, for the reasons I mention above, I ask you to remember that what we do, present living history, is an attempt to start a conversation about the time frame that we portray, and I also remind you that any discussion about history is important so get down of your high horse and participate in the conversation.

I can appreciate any attempt to bring history into the lives of modern people who might otherwise not be interested, even if one person becomes interested because of programs such as this we should be grateful. In this day of revisionist history, we need to remind people that these events involved real people with real families and real struggles and they were not just people who dressed up for the weekend and camped out.

With all of that said I also can appreciate the need for historical accuracy and authenticity.  As a living historian, I strive to present myself as a person would have lived during the time frame that I portray but the “thread counters” almost kept me out of the hobby altogether.  Sure we strive to be as authentic as we can be, but the story should not be lost just because someone is not wearing the correct belt or they have on 21st-century glasses.  The story is the important part here.

So I recommend that you tune in on Sunday nights and watch Mercy Street and make up your mind about the program.

*A thread counter is exactly that someone who counts the number of threads in your “costume” to make sure it is authentic.  This will vary from people who give you the stink eye at an event to people who are outright rude to new and old people in the living history community.


The Gifts We Bring

A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12


The Christmas Season has come to a close and today we remember two events in the life of Jesus, the visit of the Three Wise Men and his Baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.  We will leave the Baptism for another day and turn our attention to the Wise Men.

What do we make of the visit of these three men?  The first thing that we have to understand is that we do not know how soon after the birth of Jesus the visit took place.  For artistic reasons we often see them, along with the shepherds, standing outside of the stable where Jesus was born.  The account from Scripture that we heard read this morning mentions a house, not a stable, and only mentions Mary as being there.  Not that it matters much to the story, but a little context is always a good thing.  You see we do not get an exact time line from Scripture, it is not a history book, but what we get should change our lives.

So we have these three men, some call them kings and some call them astrologers.  They come from the east, or literally from the rising of the sun.  Tradition and Tradition is not a bad thing, by the way; tradition tells us that they have come from Persia, Babylonia, and India.  Tradition also tells us their names, Melchior, the Persian; Caspar, or Gaspar the Indian; and Balthazar the Babylonian. Three men, from three different places, all meeting on a journey.

They come because they were in search of something and noticed a star, or as the Scripture has it, his star.  They first come to see King Herod; this is where the tradition comes from that they were kings as the first thing a king would do when entering another king’s territory is to pay him a visit.  They come to Herod and ask if he knows where this new baby might be. Herod calls the chief priests together and asks them where the Messiah will come from, and they tell him Bethlehem.  So he sends the men there and asks them to come back and tell him is this is so.

The three men set out on their journey, but why did they come what drew them?  They were seekers in search of something that they did not understand.  They saw a sign and were interested to find out what it all meant, and so they set off on a pilgrimage to find the answer.  Not unlike what we are doing in our spiritual life, we are searching for meaning and for clarity and so we set off on a pilgrimage to find the answers.

So they follow the star and when it stops they find Jesus.  They enter the house and find Jesus with his mother.  Tradition tells us that two years has passed since his birth.  They enter the house and kneel before him to pay him homage.  For a king to kneel before anyone is an extraordinary thing, and the writer of the Gospel points this out, so we understand the gravity of the situation.  This is not just another baby; even pagans recognize him as the Messiah.

They present the child with gifts, gold frankincense and myrrh. These gifts have a practical meaning, but they also have a spiritual meaning to them.  Gold is obvious it is valuable and, once again, tradition tells us that Mary and Joseph used this to finance their time spent in Egypt.  Frankincense is a perfume and would be used, well as a perfume, and myrrh was used in the burial ritual.

But they also have a spiritual meaning for us; gold is the symbol of kingship.  Again we see these visitors recognizing Jesus as a king. Frankincense was the symbol of a deity or a god, and the myrrh was a symbol of death.  So in these gifts, we see the Gospel story being told.  Jesus is the Messiah or a king, but he is also God, and he will be crucified and die.

Another interesting fact is that these men represented all ages and races.  We turn again to tradition. Caspar was the oldest and hailed from Tarsus the “Land of Merchants” located in present day Turkey.  He is depicted in art as an old man with a white beard and convention tells us that he would be about 60.  Next in line Melchior, who came from Arabia and was considered middle aged and would be about 40.  The youngest was Balthazar and is origins are a cause for disagreement.  He is usually depicted as black and, therefore, would have come from Africa perhaps Ethiopia, and he was thought to be about 20 and is therefore not depicted with a beard.

Why does this matter?  Because they came from the ends of the earth, old and young, shepherds and kings, to worship the Messiah.  What they all came is a search of something, and they all brought gifts to honor him, and so the question we have to ask ourselves today is what gifts do we bring?

All of us have various gifts that have been given to us from God for our use but also for the use in the Kingdom of God.  Do we thank God for the gifts that we have?  Are we using those gifts for the furtherance of the Kingdom here on earth?  What are we using them for?  Are we giving all we have to the king or are we holding back a little just in case?  Do we trust him, and by that I mean do we trust him, to know us better than we know ourselves?  These are all questions we need to be asking ourselves not just today but every day.

I recently saw a picture; it was a stick figure drawing, of a person standing before Jesus, you could tell it was Jesus because he has long hair.  The person was holding a heart in his hand, and the caption read this is all I have, and the response from Jesus was it is all I need.  In the end, that is all he needs your willing heart.

We have to be ready, like the Wise Men, to set off on a journey and follow the star wherever it leads us.  It may lead us outside of our comfort zone, and it may lead us to think about things in a new way, but we have to be willing to take that first step.  The Wise Men had an idea; they had an inkling inside them that there was something special at the end of their journey, and they were not let down.  Tradition tells us that they were pagans, but tradition also tells us that they left changed in some way and that they eventually converted, and that is what we have to do.  We need to leave here changed in some way, even if it is just a little.

Let’s Pray:

By your Spirit, Almighty God, Grant us Love for others, Joy in serving you, Peace in disagreement, Patience in suffering, Kindness toward all people, Goodness in evil times, Faithfulness in temptation, Gentleness in the face of opposition, Self-control in all things. Then strengthen us for ministry in your name.  Amen.

Church Trends in 2016

Church Trends

Church leaders need to be in tune to trends that will shape the future of society and eventually shape the future of the church.  I know the argument that the church should be influencing society, and that is great, but if no one is coming to church or listening to your message you will not be an influencer.

Pastor Carey Nieuwhof writes a blog with an emphasis on Church Leadership, and in his most recent entry he tackles the 5 Disruptive Church Trends that will Influence 2016. The first trend he tackles is the issue of social media and the church.  In the article Pastor Carey notes that the online presence of the church will be an advance and not just a supplement or a replacement to the church.  I have to agree and pastors need to learn to use social media much better than we currently do.  If you are not using social media for outreach and evangelism you are missing a great opportunity.

Here is a little bit of the rest of this wonderful essay:

There’s little doubt culture is changing rapidly.

The question is, are you ready as a church leader?

As I shared in my new book, Lasting Impact (you can download the first chapter for free here), if the change inside the church isn’t equal to or greater than the change outside our walls, irrelevance is inevitable.

While that thought can be somewhat depressing, think of the flip side.

History belongs to the innovators. It belongs to the leaders who dared to dream, to try things no one else was trying, to experiment, to push the boundaries of what everyone else believed was possible.

Read the Rest Here

Pastors and Historical Research

fact check

I will admit it; I love social media, and I think it is an excellent tool for evangelism and understanding.  However, one of the biggest problems with social media is the ability to post whatever we want and then, just because we know the person who posted it, believes it and then shares it.  I have fallen victim to this myself and have shared items without checking them only to have to take them down after the fact.

As we move along in the political season, and more and more information will be posted online, it is important for everyone, but especially pastors, to verify the information that they are posting. Pastors are community leaders and as such we have a tremendous responsibility to provide factual information.  My new rule of thumb is if I do not have time to verify I should not post it.

With all of this in mind, historian John Fea pointed readers of his blog to a recent essay about the importance of reliable historical research and offered some tips.  Here is a little bit of the article:

A friend of mine was preparing his sermon. We happened to be at the same social function, and so he casually asked me what I knew about medieval illuminations (i.e. fireworks). To be honest, I didn’t know much. From my years of teaching world history I knew that gunpowder and fireworks had originated in Asia and spread rather slowly (along trade routes and through military ventures) to Europe. Hence European fireworks are really an early modern/modern phenomenon.

My friend’s question, however, was fairly specific: when was the earliest use of fireworks for a royal event in England? This was beyond my general knowledge.

I wasn’t worried. I knew I could quickly find the answer. So I did, and told my friend what he needed the next day (late fifteenth century, for those of you interested).

I am a professional historian. But the methods I employed to help my friend are not monopolized by my profession. Most of the tools pastors need for basic yet reliable historical research are readily available in our digital age. So, for those of you who like to “do-it-yourself”, here is a quick guide to becoming (at least for the basic stuff) your own personal historian.

Read the Rest Here

In the Beginning

A Sermon on John 1:1-18



The beginning of John’s Gospel is of such importance and of such depth of meaning that we must study it almost verse by verse. It is John’s great thought that Jesus is none other than God’s creative and life-giving and light-giving word, that Jesus is the Power of God which created the world and the reason of God which sustains the world come to earth in human and bodily form.

John was the beloved Apostle and the only one who died a natural death.  He was the last of the living apostles and wrote his gospel and his letters while in exile.  But the thing about John that I find the most interesting is he was the one sitting next to Jesus at the last supper.

In the famous painting of the last supper, we see a figure leaning against Jesus with his head on his chest he ear pressed against him, that figure is John, and he is listening to the heartbeat of God!  John writes his gospel from a very intimate position; he listened to God’s heartbeat.  John’s gospel is a different gospel, and that is one of the reasons it stands alone.

Here at the beginning of his Gospel, John says three things about the word; which is to say that he says three things about Jesus.

The word was already there and at the very beginning of things. John is taking us back to the very first verse we read in Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1.) What John is saying is this – the word is not one of the created things; the word was there before creation. The word is not part of the world that came into being in time; the word is part of eternity and was there with God before time and the world began. John was thinking of what is known as the pre-existence of Christ.

This idea of a pre-existence of Christ can be tough to grasp. But it does mean one very simple, very practical, and a tremendous thing. If the word was with God before time began, if God’s word is part of the eternal scheme of things, it means that God was always like Jesus.

Sometimes we tend to think of God as stern and avenging, and we tend to think that something Jesus did changed God’s anger into love and altered his attitude towards humanity. The whole of the New Testament tell us, and in this passage from John especially that God has always been like Jesus. What Jesus did was to open a window in time that we might see the eternal and unchanging love of God.

God has not changed; it is humanities knowledge of God that has changed, and it was Jesus who gave us the ability to begin to change how we looked at and thought about God not only in our lives but the world. Humanity could only grasp and understand God’s nature and his ways in part. It was only when Jesus came that they saw fully and completely what God has always been like.

John goes on to say that the word was with God. What does John mean by this? What John is saying is that there has always been the closest connection between the word and God. Let’s put it in a simpler way – there has always been the most intimate relationship between Jesus and God. That means no one can tell us what God is like, what God’s will is for us, what God’s love and heart and mind are like except Jesus.

If we want to know what someone really thinks and feels about something or someone, we do not go to a person who is simply an acquaintance of them, to someone who has only known them for a short period; we go to someone that we know to be an intimate friend of them because we know that they will be able to interpret the mind and heart of the person for us.

John is saying something similar here about Jesus. He is saying that Jesus has always been with God. John is saying that Jesus is so intimate with God that God has no secrets from him; and that, therefore, Jesus is the one person in all the universe who can reveal to us what God is like and how God feels towards us.

Finally, and I have saved the most technical part for last, John says that the Word was God. It is difficult and technical because it involves a little Greek to understand fully what John is trying to say here. Greek, in which John wrote, had a different way of saying things from the way we use them in English. Hang with me now. When Greek uses a noun, it almost always uses the definite article with it. The Greek for God is Theos, and the definite article is ho. When Greek speaks about God it does not simply say Theos; it says ho Theos. Now when Greek does not use the definite article with the noun that noun becomes much more like an adjective. John did not say that the word was ho theos; that would have been to say that the word was identical with God. He said the word was theos which means that the word WAS, or we might say, of the very same character and quality and essence and being as God. When John says that the Word was God he was not saying that Jesus was identical to God; he was saying that Jesus was so perfectly the same as God in mind, in heart, in being that in him we perfectly see what God is like.

So at the beginning of his gospel John lays it down that in Jesus, and in him alone, there is entirely revealed to humanity all that God always was and always will be, and all that he feels and desires for humanity.

If you want to know God, we have to know Jesus, and we know Jesus by studying and following his word and example in our lives each and every day.

Let us pray:

O Word made Flesh, You have come into our midst as light and wisdom, desiring to be known to us in our lives and to be found in the world around us. Open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to recognize you where you dwell—in our midst—Challenging, heartening, lighting the way to truth, peace, justice.

Tips for Cultivating A Habit of Reading Scripture

Reading the Bible

As we begin the New Year we tend to make all sorts of resolutions that we stick with for a few weeks and then abandon them.  This year why not adopt the habit of daily Scripture reading.  There are many aids to make this easy to include having the Scripture emailed to you each day.

I came across this essay, 6 Tips to Cultivating the Practice of Reading Scripture and it is a good place to start.  Each new thing that we do requires preparation to Scripture reading is no different.  Here is a taste of the essay.

When Jesus criticizes two disciples on the Emmaus Road for their failure to believe what the prophets had spoken, the problem was not their inability to hear the prophets or take them seriously. Jesus asked, “Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26, CEB). “Of course it was necessary!” we might say. But the question remains, which prophets actually document this necessity? “Isaiah 53,” we might respond, but we would then need to acknowledge that we can say this only because we have learned to read in just this way. After all, Isaiah 53 never mentions the Messiah, and Jesus’ contemporaries were unaccustomed to thinking of Isaiah’s Servant as a suffering Messiah.

The problem faced by Jesus’ disciples was their lack of the cognitive categories required for making sense of the Scriptures in this way. They needed more than a commonsense reading of a biblical text. That Isaiah spoke of Jesus was something they had to learn. Accordingly, Luke records: “Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures . . .” (Luke 24:27, CEB).

Read the rest here


Year in Review 2015 #1

TheYear in Review

Drum Roll Please!

The #1 read essay on the blog was a post titled Freedom and Responsibility.  I wrote this in January of 2015 shortly after the shooting at the Magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in France.  This essay points to the larger issue of how we are to deal with the freedoms that we have and that is with responsibility.

Freedom and Responsibility