An original song from HUMC: “Here for You”

August 27, 2015

At a prayer and healing service we had last Sunday night at Hampton UMC, Matthew Chitwood and D.J. Carlisle debuted a song they wrote called “Here for You.” The song “Good, Good Father” is by the Housefires. Enjoy!


Sermon 08-16-15: “Heroic Love”

August 26, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In the thrilling conclusion of “Big Hero 6,” we see Hiro and Baymax put their lives on the line to save another. In fact, the movie says a lot about “heroic” Christ-like love and other biblical themes, including vocation, prayer, and spiritual warfare. 

Sermon Text: John 15:12-17

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

In the following sermon, I showed a series of four video clips from the movie Big Hero 6. I describe the clips in italics below.

bh601

In this first scene, Hiro, having used his advanced engineering skill to design a killer robot, is caught trying to hustle a mobster in a back-alley “bot-fighting” match. His brother, Tadashi, rescues him on a motorcycle before he gets injured. Tadashi takes Hiro to his engineering college to meet Tadashi’s mentor, Professor Callaghan, whom Hiro recognizes as a world-renown scientist. Hiro decides he wants to go to the college, which he refers to as “nerd school.” He tells Tadashi, “Thank you for not giving up on me.”

Last month, the U.S. women’s soccer team defeated Japan to win the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Surprisingly, there were six players on this world-championship team who, at one time or another, failed to make their youth soccer league teams. At the age of 12, for instance, Morgan Brian, the youngest player, didn’t make Florida’s Olympic Developmental team. She said, “I definitely cried. I was so upset, so embarrassed—I remember just feeling like I must be the worst player on my team.” Carli Lloyd, the star of the final game who scored three goals was cut from her under-21 national team.

Then there’s Meghan Klingenberg, the outside back who played a key role in the U.S. victory over Sweden. She keeps a yellowed letter of rejection from a youth national team taped to her mirror. “It will never come down,” she said. “People said, you’re never going to be able to do it… But that [letter] is my reminder that you can persevere against the world.”

What about you? Do you believe you can “persevere against the world”? Or do you think you’ll never amount to much?

Read the rest of this entry »


“Freedom from the dread of dying”

August 26, 2015

odenI’m afraid of dying. As a Christian, I feel slightly guilty in saying this. But it’s true. I am not yet at the place where the apostle Paul was, in Philippians, when he could look forward to death: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

I am unimpressed, therefore, when I hear atheist apologists, as I often do, accuse us Christians of being weak-minded—that our faith is a psychological crutch to help us cope with the harsh reality of death.

Oh, please! I find the materialistic alternative—that our existence ends in death—much easier to believe! In other words, without examining the evidence, without reasoning it through—relying on gut feeling alone—I find it harder to believe in heaven and future resurrection.

What about you?

I hope and expect, God willing, that this fear of death will diminish over time, that God will give me the grace to deal with my own death when I need it. In the meantime, I take comfort in reading credible testimonies of Christians who have near-death experiences. In saying this, I’m well aware that near-death experiences are controversial—and I’m skeptical of many of them, too.

But I do believe that in some cases, at least, God gives people a spiritual experience when they are close to death, which bolsters their faith when they recover. For them, these experiences are a gift of grace.

One such testimony comes from theologian Thomas Oden, which he describes in his recent memoir, A Change of Heart. He had open-heart surgery back in the ’80s. There were complications after completing the bypass, so the doctors needed to go back in for a second, emergency procedure. He nearly died.

I regained partial consciousness in between those two surgeries and could hear the voices in the operating room and was conscious enough to realize that a serious medical emergency was occurring. During that unforeseen waking moment, I had the clear impression that I had already died. Unexplainably I felt an unexpected sense of relief, joy and entry into a distinctly new world where a bright light was radiating into my soul.

I was bathed in a glorious world of light—stunning, radiant light of a different sort than I had ever seen. The light seemed to be not the light from the operating room ceiling but from somewhere far beyond. I was surprised that I was not at all afraid. After the second surgery, when I woke up I realized that I had not died…

The deeper discovery for me was the lasting realization that I was not afraid of dying. This is not a report of a near-death experience but rather an imagined death experience. After that I felt a freedom from the dread of dying that has offered inexpressible comfort to me in the ensuing years. At my lowest point physically I underwent a peace experience spiritually. It was as real as anything I have ever experienced.[1]

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 182.


“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

August 24, 2015
Colbert-Report-Bart-Ehrman-Stephen-Colbert

Bart Ehrman and Stephen Colbert

As a longtime Letterman fan, I was pleased with CBS’s selection of Stephen Colbert to succeed him. First, Colbert has been one of the sharpest wits on TV—original and fearless. He’s also proven to be a first-rate interviewer. Colbert will ensure that in the area of interviews, at least, there will be continuity between his show and Letterman’s old show—at a time when other late-night comedy shows, such as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, seemingly deemphasize them.

Second, I’ve appreciated that Colbert, a Catholic, has never hidden or downplayed his Christian faith. What other TV personality, on Ash Wednesday, appears on air with ashes on his forehead? I also appreciate that he makes skeptics like Bart Ehrman squirm.

Sgt. Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."

Sgt. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In yesterday morning’s sermon, I used clips from the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph to illustrate biblical truths. In one clip, for example, we learn that video game character Sgt. Calhoun was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

I then described Colbert’s recent interview in GQ magazine, in which he talked about his own “tragic backstory”: losing his father and his two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”

While we may prefer to speak of the “disciplines of God,” rather than the “punishments,” the fact remains—and scripture loudly affirms—that God uses our tragic backstories for good, to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be.

If this weren’t the case, how do we make sense of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Recently, however, I analyzed a sermon by a fellow United Methodist pastor who obviously would disagree.

What do you think? Do you agree with Stephen Colbert? Does God turn our “tragic backstories” into gifts?


Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? ;-)

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?


Kathie Lee Gifford and the power of personal testimony

August 18, 2015

kathie_lee

By now, many of you have seen this clip of Kathie Lee Gifford talking about her late husband, Frank, and the strength they received from their Christian faith. I’ve rarely seen a major celebrity speak as forthrightly—and explicitly—about her relationship with Jesus:

[Frank would] want you to know that he died in complete peace. He knew every sin he’d ever committed was forgiven. He had the hope that he’d be with the Lord and that we’d some day be with him as well. That is the foundation of the Christian faith: forgiveness, grace, and hope. And those of you who are hurting today, or feel hopeless, it might be the answer for you. In fact I know it’s the answer for you.

Amen.

I confess that having never watched a moment of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and having mostly known of her from the Kristen Wiig parodies on Saturday Night Live, I’m surprised and deeply moved. She doesn’t strike a false note here.

And as someone who makes his living in part by speaking in public, I admire her eloquence and composure—especially speaking extemporaneously.

Notice she begins her words with Job’s insight in the face of profound personal loss: In context, he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I’m reminded with shame how I resisted this doctrine of God’s sovereignty, even as recently as a few years ago. Now, like Kathie Lee, I find it immensely comforting.


Is God’s love “unconditional”?

August 17, 2015

odenI’m reading Thomas Oden’s theological memoir A Change of Heart, and I did a double-take when I stumbled across the following passage. Oden describes how, in the ’60s, he spent time integrating the psychotherapeutic ideas of Carl Rogers with his own “demythothologized” version of Christian theology (which he has long since renounced). Here, he describes how successful his efforts were—unfortunately:

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.

Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.

In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.

I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.[1]

While I haven’t preached God’s “unconditional love”-without-qualification in some time, I’ve taken for granted that it still expressed some truth about God’s love for us. But why? The concept isn’t found in scripture. Yet, since my formative years in Southern Baptist youth group, I’ve heard that God loves us unconditionally.

As a first-generation MTV viewer, I’m sure I was even influenced by this 1983 video by Donna Summer and Musical Youth!

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 89-90.


Sermon 08-09-15: “Finding Nemo and Finding Peace”

August 13, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

Jesus tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Yet if there’s one command of Jesus that we often disregard without a second thought, surely it’s this one! In this first installment of our “Disney Summer Drive-In 2015” series, I use the movie Finding Nemo to explore this theme: How does Jesus set us free from worry?

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:25-34

[To listen on the go, download an MP3 by right-clicking here.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript. During the sermon itself, I showed four two-minute movie clips. I describe each clip below in italics. 

Finding Nemo begins with a young married couple, a clownfish named Marlin and his wife Coral. They’ve just moved into a new home on the Great Barrier Reef and started a family. They’re waiting for about a hundred eggs to hatch. They’re happy. Their dreams are about to come true. Then tragedy strikes: Marlin and his family are attacked by a barracuda. The only survivors are Marlin and one tiny egg.

In the first clip, Marlin holds the one remaining egg in his fins and says, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” Then we see Nemo getting ready for school the first day. Nemo is enthusiastic for this new adventure. His father, meanwhile, is cautious and fearful. He reminds Nemo how dangerous the ocean is.

scene 1

We have a cat named Peanut. He’s a large cat—some might even accuse him of being fat. I prefer “big-boned.” But inasmuch as he is fat, it’s because he’s trained us to stop whatever we’re in the middle of, to go upstairs, and to fill his food bowl. Right away!

My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn't worry about much.

My cat, Peanut, obviously doesn’t worry about much.

He’s very manipulative about it, too: When the food bowl is empty, you see, that’s when he becomes most affectionate—constantly rubbing up against our legs, purring loudly, jumping in our laps, meowing. He’s learned that if he just acts like he loves and cares for us, we’ll give him what he wants. Read the rest of this entry »


Lewis: God allows us to be “afflicted” out of necessity

August 13, 2015

My devotional Bible reading this morning included Psalm 62, which includes words such as these: “He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.” The C.S. Lewis Bible, from which I was reading, included this excerpt from a letter Lewis wrote to a Benedictine monk in 1938.

I have been in considerable trouble over the present danger of war. Twice in one life—and then to find how little I have grown in fortitude despite my conversion. It has done me a lot of good by making me realise how much of my happiness secretly depended on the tacit assumption of at least tolerable conditions for the body: and I see more clearly, I think, the necessity (if one may so put it) which God is under of allowing us to be afflicted—so few of us will really rest all on Him if He leaves us any other support.[1]

I’m not currently afraid of war, but I have something equivalent: a fear that has knocked all other supports out from under me, forcing me to depend on God alone for the answer. Mercifully, this happens from time to time. It’s never the path I would choose, but now that I’m in this place, it’s a good place to be. Thank you, God.

1. C.S. Lewis, “My Refuge Is in God” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 614.


Do the four gospels reflect ideological “development”?

August 11, 2015

In the world of mainline Protestant seminary education, we take for granted the following “facts”: Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most “historical.” Since the understanding of Jesus as God developed over time, Mark portrays Jesus as more human and less divine than the other gospels. Matthew and Luke, written later, use Mark as a source for their own gospels, while also relying on a source they have in common, called “Q.” Inconveniently, this source—again, a taken-for-granted fact for us victims of mainline Protestant education—has managed to vanish without a trace.

While Matthew and Luke have access to other sources, unique to their respective gospels, neither is interested in telling a straightforward history. Rather, each has an ideological agenda to suit their particular audience. They freely change the historical data and invent stories and sayings of Jesus to suit this ideology.

John, meanwhile, written much later than the other three, portrays Jesus as nearly a superhero. It is by far the least historical.

And of course, none of the gospels was written by its attributed author; none is based on apostolic sources.

As you can guess, I now reject all of these highly speculative articles of faith. I’m happy to grant that Mark is the earliest gospel, but the truth is, as N.T. Wright points out, we don’t know for sure when the gospels were written—besides which, they were likely based on oral traditions that long predated them. (But even the consensus of critical scholarship now grants that John’s gospel was written within the first century; this wasn’t the case 50 years ago.) Also, there’s nothing at stake in believing that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark as a source, except… If they merely “copied” Mark, as so many critical scholars believe, why did they copy Mark so poorly?

I’m not talking about alleged changes they make to suit their agendas; I’m talking about differences in minor details that serve no ideological purpose—for example, did the four friends lower the paralytic through a thatched roof or tiled roof? Most neutral observers would say, I think, that these differences in details would be evidence of historians working with some degree of independence, relying on different sources or eyewitnesses.

All that to say, you can hear all the biases and clichés of mainline critical scholarship on full display in a recent two-part debate (here and here) on the Unbelievable? podcast between the famously agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist Tim McGrew, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University.

McGrew’s wife, Lydia, herself a fierce apologist, has written lengthy responses to both debates on her personal blog. Earlier this year, however, she wrote this post debunking the “development” trajectory in the four gospels’ Passion narratives. Before offering her own evidence, she challenges her readers to pick up their Bibles and see for themselves if they discern this progression from “more human” to “more divine.” She concludes:

I submit that we need to get over, well over, and forever over, the entire picture of the gospel writers as “making Jesus say” things he never said, portraying different “Jesuses” in a literary fashion, and “developing” Jesus for their own agendas. That is not the way the evidence points. It is a mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. If anyone tells you that Jesus “develops” in the gospels, let your antennae twitch good and hard. Then, if you are interested, go and see for yourself that it isn’t so.

A mere construct of airy and unsubstantiated literary critical approaches. Love it!

It reminded me of a blog post that theologian Andrew Wilson wrote last year about another Unbelievable? debate, this time between two self-identified evangelicals, Peter Enns and David Instone-Brewer. Enns was defending a more critical approach to reading and interpreting the gospels. During the debate, Enns said the following:

I can see, for example, in the context of the Caesar-cult, that it makes perfect sense for Luke to have the Magi come, it makes perfect sense for me to have that there, because Jesus is the true king of the world. Or, you know, a virgin birth. Or, for Matthew, shepherds, right? For a God to come to the lowly, the unexpected, which supports (in my opinion) Matthew’s theology, which is summarised in the Sermon on the Mount: God is doing the unexpected … So could I see them making this up? Absolutely. It doesn’t mean they made it up, but I can see it, in terms of an ideology.

Notice any problem with Enns’s statement? Wilson did.

My concern here is not primarily with the obvious blunder, namely that it is Matthew (not Luke) who describes the coming of the Magi, and that it is Luke (not Matthew) who describes the visit of the shepherds; everyone makes mistakes. Nor is it with the fact that Enns says this in a discussion in which he stresses his credentials as a biblical scholar; even biblical scholars make mistakes, and it may well be that he kicked himself for this one after the programme. Nor is it with the idea that the evangelists deliberately selected and arranged their material to suit their agendas; that I take as axiomatic. Rather, it is the fact that even though Enns has got the details absolutely upside-down, he is still able to posit an “ideology” that could account for the Gospel writers “making this up.” He is so persuaded that the Bible is full of invented stories, written to support existing ideologies, that he sees them even when they don’t exist. (Richard Dawkins, interestingly, makes exactly the same point, with exactly the same error, in The God Delusion.)

The fact is, you can argue almost anything to be an ideological invention if you adopt this approach. Matthew made up X because God is doing the unexpected. Luke made up Y because of the Caesar-cult. John made up Z because, well, John. Once the rot sets in, no text is safe, no matter how innocent, and no ideologically-driven explanation is beyond plausibility, no matter how preposterous. As such, the only ideologically-driven invention here – though, as I say, I’m certain it is a genuine mistake – is that of Peter Enns, not Matthew or Luke.

In other words, once you buy into the hypothesis that the gospel writers were ideologically driven, this hypothesis is unfalsifiable.


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