Sympathy for the devil? No, Ms. Held Evans, just for Mark Driscoll

July 31, 2014

I don’t have the book in front of me, and if I did, I probably couldn’t find the quote. But about 25 years ago I read something by St. Francis de Sales in which he warned against judging others. He said something like this: we cannot say for certain that anyone is a thief, liar, or adulterer just because they’ve stolen, lied, or committed adultery in the past. Why? Because we are unable to look into their hearts at this moment and see what’s going on. Only God can. When we judge, however, we presume to have this God-like ability.

We must always, de Sales says, give our fellow sinners the benefit of the doubt that they’ve changed.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily apply this principle to the criminal justice system or our national defense policy, I think it’s a good principle for our personal lives. Indeed, I think it gets to the heart of Jesus’ words against judging.

With this in mind, you can imagine what I think of this week’s popular blog post by Rachel Held Evans entitled “Inside Mark Driscoll’s disturbed mind.”

How does Held Evans know not simply that Driscoll can be a boorish jerk at times, or that he believes things with which she strenuously disagrees—but that he has an “ugly heart,” that he has a “disturbed” and “troubled mind,” and that he “needs counseling”? Because of some recently unearthed comments that he posted pseudonymously to his church website 14 years ago.

Fourteen years ago.

By all means, at 31, he was old enough to know better, to be smarter—heck, to be a better human being! But is it fair to judge the man today based on what he said or did 14 years ago? Suppose that 14 years ago (or five years ago, or last year, or last month) someone secretly filmed or taped you at your worst. How would you look? What conclusions would people reach about you as a person right now? And would those conclusions be fair?

Driscoll has recently apologized for some of the very things that Held Evans doesn’t like about him. Is it impossible to believe that the Holy Spirit can actually change someone’s heart?

It’s hard to miss the irony when this same Rachel Held Evans complained in a post just two days earlier about her own critics, asking, “What do you do when religious people respond to your questions by calling you names? By mocking you? By casting you out?”

Held Evans doesn’t get many dissenters in the comments section of any of her posts, but she got at least one very smart one—a theologian and apologist from New Zealand whom I read named Glenn Peoples. He wrote:

I say this with not the least bit of hope that it will do any good, and I’d like to be wrong.

You say that there’s no excuse to be had because of “youth,” because he wasn’t even a youth. Fair enough. And yet, the very reason this needs to be pointed out is because you are aware that this was some time ago now, and you know that Mark – even though you evidently do not like him or what he says – no longer says things. He has “grown up,” even if you think he should have known better even then.

You say “I’m as sick as everyone else of talking about this guy.” But the truth is that you’ve spent many words criticising him. However, until now you’ve been criticising him for the person he is – or at very least the person you take him to be – now. Why then do you need, now, to give coverage to this gold nugget, this scoop that someone has uncovered, this smoking gun of how much worse Mark was years ago? Is it because you think he has regressed to that old self?

How is this not just a Christianised version of the British tabloid? yes, Mark has been a jerk and confirmed some male stereotypes in the process. There’s a certain stereotype about girls and gossip too.

Ponder the reactions you are now getting. One woman has said, in effect, that she has been concerned about mark for some time, but now she has seen THIS! As though this represents how bad he has gotten. But it doesn’t, does it?

I’ve criticised Mark in the past and have no problem with those who do. But this? This does not help your own reputation any more than it helps Mark’s.

Keep it juicy, RHE. Apparently it’s the thing now.


A homily for church council: “Stepping Out on Faith”

July 30, 2014
jesus_walking_on_water

Aivazovsky’s “Jesus Walks on Water” (1888). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I offered this homily at Hampton UMC’s church council meeting on July 29, 2014.

Homily Text: Matthew 14:22-33

I was ten years old in the summer of 1980. That was the summer I dove off my first high dive. I don’t know how high it was. While it seemed at the time like about a hundred feet off the ground, it was probably more like 25 or 30 feet. I know it seemed terrifyingly high when I was ten. But I conquered my fear, walked across that very narrow diving board and took the plunge. But if you lived through the ’70s, you’ll appreciate that I didn’t just take the plunge, I took the “Nestea plunge,” meaning I landed in the water flat on my back! Sure, it hurt a lot, but did I care? No way! I did it again and again and again.

See, I possessed a kind of fearlessness when I was a kid that I sometimes miss as an adult. For example, I went snow-skiing for the first time when I was ten, and my goal, when going down the mountain, was to go as straight and fast as possible. Forget about the ski instructor who told us that we’re supposed to slalom down the hill. I wanted to fly! So I looked for snow banks to ski over, in order to be lifted off the ground; I wanted to go airborne. And I did. And it was exhilarating

By contrast, on the two occasions when I’ve gone skiing as an adult, my goal was to go as slow as possible—to avoid all potential hazards and dangers. I’m now too busy worrying about merely staying alive, and not breaking my neck, not tearing my ACL, that it’s hard for me to actually enjoy skiing. In fact, the only pleasure I get from skiing is the sense of relief I feel when I’ve reached the bottom of the mountain and realize I’m still in one piece!

So I don’t really go for those kinds of thrills anymore. Besides, just living life offers plenty of excitement, plenty of danger, plenty of risk, without adding to it, thank you very much. Read the rest of this entry »


We need to emphasize conversion among young people in our churches

July 29, 2014

Following up on two recent posts—this one and this one—I link to this excellent article on the challenge we face in youth ministry. This author says we are missing the point if we fail to emphasize conversion among our youth more than our youth being “good kids” who are active in church. We may hope that there’s a positive correlation between those two things, but conversion doesn’t happen by accident. The mere fact that so many kids drop out of church when they go to college indicates that it often doesn’t happen at all.

To put it as bluntly as possible, our kids—even kids who are active in our church youth groups—need to be saved.

We need to stop talking about “good kids.” We need to stop being pleased with attendance at youth group and fun retreats. We need to start getting on our knees and praying that the Holy Spirit will do miraculous saving work in the hearts of our students as the Word of God speaks to them. In short, we need to get back to a focus on conversion. How many of us are preaching to “unconverted evangelicals”? Youth pastors, we need to preach, teach, and talk—all the while praying fervently for the miraculous work of regeneration to occur in the hearts and souls of our students by the power of the Holy Spirit! When that happens—when the “old goes” and the “new comes”—it will not be iffy. We will not be dealing with a group of “nominal Christians.” We will be ready to teach, disciple, and equip a generation of future church leaders—“new creations”!—who are hungry to know and speak God’s Word. It is converted students who go on to love Jesus and serve the church.

Of course, the only thing worse that “preaching to ‘unconverted evangelicals'” is preaching to unconverted Mainline Protestants!

It grates against our church culture to emphasize conversion. Again, this is why I take issue with a moderate evangelical like Scot McKnight telling his moderate-to-progressive evangelical readership that they’re wrong to emphasize “personal salvation.” I’ve seen the alternative up close, and it’s not working!

We Mainlines offer confirmation, which I strongly support. In theory, confirmation should lead to conversion in many cases. But we should offer confirmation while still emphasizing the necessity of conversion.

The problem is that conversion, unlike confirmation, isn’t something that we do; it’s something that the Holy Spirit does. But it’s something for which we the church and we parents have some important responsibilities, as the author points out.

Are we taking these responsibilities seriously enough?


Sermon 07-20-14: “Disney Summer Drive-In, Part 3: Toy Story”

July 28, 2014

Disney Summer Drive-In Image

We disciples of Jesus Christ can be confident that God loves us, that God never gives up on us, and that God can bring hope to hopeless situations. Our confidence springs from the fact that there is much more to reality than meets the eye. This sermon illustrates these themes using clips from the movie Toy Story.

Sermon Text: 2 Kings 6:8-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[Show Clip #1 about the toys’ fear of rejection by Andy.]

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 3.05.51 PM

Recently, my boys and I have enjoyed throwing the Frisbee around. We haven’t had a real Frisbee… just a cheap knock-off with an insurance agent’s name on it. Well, I say cheap knock-off… The truth is, we’ve been playing with this Frisbee for a while, and we all thought that it was perfectly fine. Until… Until I saw on Amazon last week, the Cadillac of Frisbees: the Discraft Ultra-Star Ultimate 175-Gram SportDisc, made in the U.S.A. Eight dollars on Amazon. I ordered it because I will be joining my family at the beach after church today, and we’re going to throw the Frisbee there.

So I was excited to tell my son Townshend about the Discraft Ultra-Star Ultimate 175-Gram SportDisc. And I showed him the picture on Amazon, and he was like, “That’s awesome, Dad. What color did you get?” I said, “Black.” He said, “That’s cool… Oh, hey, look at this bright, multi-colored one. That one is beast!” And he was right: the bright multi-colored one was beast. And it was the one I was going to order originally, but it was $4 more, and I couldn’t justify it. But now that Townshend pointed out how awesome it looked, I immediately felt buyer’s remorse. Ugh! I went online to change my order but it was too late!

So now we’re stuck with the stupid, boring black Frisbee! [Sigh.] Read the rest of this entry »


The real reason the church isn’t reaching the Millennials

July 25, 2014

In this YouTube video from 1897, Mr. Thompson and his local vicar complain about the church’s inability to reach young people.

VICAR: Say, Mr. Thompson, do you remember how you’ve spent countless hours in the past month taking your children to the local cricket games but haven’t spent more than five minutes in the past decade praying with your children or reading the Bible to them or talking with them about Jesus?

MR. THOMPSON: Yes.

VICAR: Well, perhaps the reason your children are dreadfully uninterested in the church is because you’ve never given them any indication that the church is worth their interest.

MR. THOMPSON: Pish-posh!

VICAR: Yes, you’re right, positively poppycock! I can’t believe I suggested it. Surely another reason must be to blame for the mass apostasy of modern youth.

MR. THOMPSON: Say, Vicar, do you recall how in the last year of your sermons you’ve devoted 2,832 minutes to chiding us for not loving the Lord as much as he desires and spent a mere five minutes to telling us that God loves us so much that he gave us the forgiving blood of Jesus?

VICAR: Oh, yes, I’m quite proud of that ratio!

MR. THOMPSON: Well, perhaps the reason our youth don’t come to hear you preach the gospel is because you never actually preach the gospel.

VICAR: Balderdash!

MR. THOMPSON: Yes, flimmity-flammity-flim-flam of the first degree! Can’t believe the thought even crossed my mind. Therefore only one option remains to explain the pestilential spiritual indifference of our youth.

VICAR: You mean…?

MR. THOMPSON: Yes, Vicar, this is clearly the first generation in the history of the world that is incapable of believing the gospel unless it is presented to them within the context of the day’s popular secular music.

VICAR: Great sausage pudding, Mr. Thompson, I believe you’re correct!

This video comes to us by way of the Lutheran Satire channel.


Have we really misunderstood the gospel?

July 24, 2014

A clergy friend of mine is reading Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. My friend says that McKnight argues that we evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel in at least one important way: we overemphasize individual salvation through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection at the expense of the rest of the gospel, including most of the red-letter words of Jesus.

While I haven’t read this particular book by McKnight, I’ve been a daily reader of McKnight’s blog for the past five years, and I’m well familiar with his criticism of what he calls the “soterian gospel,” a gospel centered mostly on individual salvation rather than a more robust kingdom-centered approach.

Nevertheless, as I told my friend, I believe that McKnight overstates his case—in precisely the same way that N.T. Wright overstates his case about popular talk of “heaven” versus resurrection, what Wright often calls “life after life after death.” Even in the Billy Graham sermon from 1962 that I posted on my blog last week, Graham emphasizes “heaven” as an embodied existence. He says explicitly that heaven doesn’t mean the end of our world, but the beginning of a renewed world. In other words, while Graham doesn’t use the word “resurrection” to describe our lives on the other side of death or the Second Coming, the doctrine is there beneath the surface.

My point is, all of us preachers have shorthand ways of referring to deep theological truths—and there’s nothing wrong with that! What’s the alternative? My 25-minute sermons would be 45 minutes if I had to explain all the nuances of every theological statement I make. I have opportunities on this blog and in Bible studies to go deeper, which I do.

My friend goes on to say that McKnight must be onto something because, after all, Jesus proclaimed the gospel (Mark 1:15) at the beginning of his ministry. What was he proclaiming? Given what Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us, not his atoning death and resurrection.

And that’s true, although to press the point too far is to argue from silence. We know for sure that Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection in all four Gospels, and his closest disciples misunderstand him. Whatever Jesus did or didn’t say about these subjects early in his ministry would have been lost on the multitudes.

Still, I concede that Jesus was mostly proclaiming humanity’s need for repentance in response to God’s kingdom, which had drawn near to us in him, Jesus. He was proclaiming, from Isaiah, release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. And more than anything, he was proclaiming that through him God’s forgiveness was available to all.

Do faithful Christian preachers somehow contradict any of this message even as they emphasize Christ’s atoning death and resurrection?

Of course not! Indeed, everything Jesus said in his gospel looks ahead to and is made possible by his atoning death and resurrection. See Jesus’ many statements in John’s Gospel about his coming “hour,” or, in several places, when he speaks of being “lifted up.” (For example, John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”)

Surely no one would argue that John’s Gospel gets Jesus’ message of good news wrong!

As for the emphasis on “personal salvation,” how could we not emphasize its personal nature when the stakes for us, individually, are so high? Doesn’t it mean the difference between heaven and hell? Even in the Gospels, Jesus is constantly calling individuals to repentance and salvation. Our decision to appropriate this good news in our life is the most important decision any of us can make in life—and continue to make throughout life.

Am I missing something? Thoughts?


Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and the “Jesus tea-strainer” in action

July 22, 2014

Years ago, when the New Atheists were still a cultural force to be reckoned with, I watched a debate on YouTube between an atheist—I can’t remember who—and a Christian apologist. They reached the point in the debate at which the Christian apologist said, quite correctly, that apart from God, objective morality can’t exist. At this point the atheist loudly protested, pointing to the many places in scripture in which God commands or condones what he believed to be immoral actions.

(As usual, the atheist misunderstood the apologist’s point: for the sake of this argument, it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t considered “moral”; apart from a transcendent law-giver, the indignant atheist has no moral high horse to saddle up. He’s using God as an objection to God.)

Then the atheist took an interesting turn: with derision, he said that Jesus himself was a horrifying moral teacher by today’s standards: he pointed specifically to Jesus’ many references to hell, and his apparent comfort at the thought of God’s consigning people to it.

To say the least, I could take issue with every characterization and generalization that the atheist made. But in his small defense, he gets closer to the truth regarding one aspect of Jesus’ teaching—his words about judgment, hell, and wrath—than many theological progressives.

Take, for instance, this Rob Bell interview with one liberal theologian, Richard Rohr. In talking about the “incarnational” aspect of the Bible, by which Rohr means to say the Bible is riddled with mistakes, he says:

This is how God trusts incarnation. God allows us to see God and uses that as his word. It’s through us. Therefore the text itself is three steps forward and two steps back. It gets it, it loses it, it get it it loses it…My Jesus hermeneutic is like this: Jesus never quotes Joshua and Judges. Most of Joshua and Judges are two steps backward books. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the Bible, I’m fine with that, there’s a lot in my life that’s two steps backwards. The text mirrors human development and growth and understanding.

“Jesus never quote Joshua and Judges.” Therefore what? Jesus knows that they’re… wrong? Aside from arguing from silence, this is a bizarre “Jesus hermeneutic.” It is, in fact, an example of what theologian Andrew Wilson calls the “Jesus tea-strainer” (which I referred to a couple of weeks ago).

Here’s Wilson (my emphasis in bold):

I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve’s presentation was his continual reference to “the Jesus lens”. In his view, the Bible should be read through “the Jesus lens”, that is to say, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.

He goes on to cite several examples of Jesus speaking about final judgment and hell.

I see the “Jesus tea-strainer” hermeneutic at work all the time. While I didn’t use the phrase, it was near the heart of my criticism of Jason Micheli in my guest post on his blog last week.

The rest of Bell’s interview is a disaster. Rohr (a Franciscan) says that we Protestants completely misunderstand the atonement. He says that it’s “actually heresy” to say that Jesus is God. Actually it isn’t.


C.S. Lewis on resisting temptation

July 17, 2014

350_C.S.Lewis.348A clergy friend on Facebook yesterday linked approvingly to this article on the United Methodist Reporter website (an independent Methodist news service, I’m relieved to report), whose author is saying, in so many words, “Can’t we just stop arguing about sex and get on with doing the Lord’s work?” I wanted to say, “As if!” As if one thing isn’t related to the other! As if failing to be faithful in our sex lives won’t have negative repercussions in other areas of our lives and ministries!

Or maybe I’m “debating trifles,” as the author says. Maybe I’m a “sex-obsessed moral scold.”

Good grief! At least the writer isn’t Methodist—he’s an Episcopal priest.

No matter where we stand in relation to our church’s doctrine on human sexuality, can’t we at least agree that sin is a very big deal? Whatever sin is, it’s something that we need to resist first of all, and something which—for the sake of our souls—we need to confess to and repent of when we fall into it.

So long as we have life and breath, we know there’s grace and mercy available for us. But making sure that we understand what sin is is never a trifling matter!

All that to say, I love this excerpt from C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity, which was included in the C.S. Lewis Bible in relation to Paul’s words about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-18. He’s encouraging us to work hard to practice the Christian virtues, what we Methodists like to call the “means of grace.”

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He as the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.[†]

C.S. Lewis in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1339.


Sermon 07-13-14: “Disney Summer Drive-In, Part 2: The Lion King”

July 17, 2014

Disney Summer Drive-In Image

Using video clips from Disney’s “Lion King,” this sermon tackles subjects including spiritual warfare, answering God’s call, and being conformed to image of Christ.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

[Show Clip #1. Mufasa confronts his brother, Scar, about his absence from Sima's presentation ceremony. Scar warns him not to "turn his back" on him. Scar tempts Simba to go to the elephant graveyard.]

lk01

It’s easy to see, I hope, that Scar is a lot like Satan.

In today’s scripture, Paul writes about Satan and his evil spiritual forces: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Now why does Paul say we “do not wrestle against flesh and blood”? Because if you read the Book of Acts and read Paul’s letters, you’ll see that he wrestles constantly against “flesh and blood”: he wrestles against civic and religious authorities who have him arrested and beaten repeatedly, stoned one time and left for dead; he wrestles against others—even people in the church—who slander him and try to ruin his ministry; he wrestles against the Roman Empire, and ultimately Caesar himself will order his execution because of his faithfulness to Christ. My point is, these are flesh-and-blood people who seem to cause Paul all this trouble, yet he says that his struggle and our struggle isn’t against people at all—it’s really against the evil spiritual forces of Satan and his fellow demons. Read the rest of this entry »


He isn’t wrong about everything

July 16, 2014

He’s a Dylan fan, after all.

Still, Jason Micheli is a popular United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve strenuously disagreed over the past couple of years. He was kind enough to ask me to write a guest post for him while he’s away on a mission trip. He published it today with this title:

micheli_post

I love it!

Anyway, I encourage you to read it.


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