Archive for October, 2010

Sermon for 10-24-10: “Keeping the Promise, Act 2: Presence”

October 31, 2010

Sermon Text: Acts 20:7-12

(Please Note: No video this week. Sermon videos will return on November 7.)

Last week we began focusing on stewardship and the five promises we United Methodists make to support this church through—what are they?—our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Last week we talked about our prayers for and with the church. This week we talk about “presence,” which means the promise that we make to be at church. You’ve heard the expression, “Showing up is half the battle.” Maybe that’s not quite true, but according to our membership vows “showing up” in church on Sunday for worship and at other times is at least 20 percent of the battle!

Sometimes just “showing up” is easier said than done. Has this ever happened to you on Sunday morning? The alarm goes off—early—and you roll over and tell your spouse, “We were out late last night. I think I’m just going to sleep in this morning.” And your spouse whispers, “You can’t do that.” And then you say, “You know, honey, between work and running the kids to ballgames and running errands, I haven’t had a chance to sleep in a long time. I’m going to skip this once.” And your spouse whispers, “You can’t do that.” Finally, you say, “But, you don’t understand, between church committee meetings and Bible studies and Wednesday night activities and Fall Fest, I’ve been at church so much recently. I think I’m just going to sleep in.” And your spouse says loudly this time, “You’re the pastor! You can’t do that!” Read the rest of this entry »

Buying yet another Bible

October 29, 2010

An illustration by Swiss artist Annie Vallotton, whose work graces the margins of the Good News Bible

I’ve complained to friends about a couple of my favorite bands or musicians—namely you and you—who, every four or five years, try to convince me to repurchase albums and CDs I’ve repurchased a couple of times already. In other words, they try to sell me the same thing over and over again. It’s ingenious, really. They promise me “newly remastered” or “remixed” sound. Usually this just means everything is louder. If it’s more than that, heaven knows I can’t afford the audio equipment to discern the difference.

In the case of my very favorite artist, his record label is now telling me that stereo—which, please recall, was supposed to be an improvement over mono in the first place (and they used to even charge more for it)—isn’t very good after all. If you really want to experience the best possible sound, buy the new mono versions of his albums.

The joys of capitalism, I guess. If they don’t sell us this stuff, the terrorists win, right?

Anyway, the same thing, I believe, goes on in the marketing of Bibles. I have a dozen of them, at least—including three study Bibles of the same translation (NRSV). Even though I don’t even read the ones I have as often as I should, there are now three more to add to my list. (I visited the Cokesbury bookstore today.) They are, in order of consumerist lust-worthiness: Read the rest of this entry »

Faithfulness to our calling

October 28, 2010

I’m at Simpsonwood Retreat Center this week for a conference on “church planting” and church revitalization. So far, I’ve learned a few interesting things, including how to access a free online resource that offers exhaustive demographic information on local populations for all churches within the North Georgia Conference. A friend of mine led a discussion about her experience starting an innovative storefront church in an affluent Atlanta area that offers high-church liturgy mixed with a jazz brunch. Her words inspired me to reflect more seriously on what successful evangelism looks like in our culture.

What bothers me, however, is the continued emphasis on having a “vision” for one’s church, and implementing the vision through various leadership principles that have been lifted from any number of corporate best-sellers and then “christianized.” Even if the principles themselves are good (and many are, if a little common-sensical), they feel kind of shallow. It doesn’t help that the conference’s theme verse (Proverbs 29:18, from the KJV: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”) is better translated, “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).

I can only imagine how different the conference would seem if they substituted the word “prophecy” for “vision” in all of these talks. You might think we’d become Pentecostals!

If you want to get theological, a conference like this is in danger of a kind of Pelagianism that overemphasizes what we pastors need to do in order to be successful—never mind that we’re only successful as the Holy Spirit does through us and our congregations. (We could actually stand to be a little more charismatic in that regard… I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the Holy Spirit all week.) Instead of focusing almost exclusively on what we pastors must do, why not also focus on what we pastors must be?

I know enough about what’s in my own heart to imagine that most of my fellow clergy struggle with some of the basics. Here are some of them: Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Praying and developing habits of disciplined Christian living. Loving the people Jesus has put under our care. Being responsive to the Holy Spirit. Being faithful to our calling. Being humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers. Being free from anxiety. Not taking ourselves too seriously.

When I shared some of these thoughts with a conference speaker, he said, “I assume I’m talking to a group of clergy who already get that. Are you saying I should have offered an altar call?”

He was joking. I think.

The point is, I’m all for disciple-making. I feel convicted that I have more work to do in the area of evangelism and in leading my congregation in that area. But disciple-making is a two-way street. Even as we make disciples, let’s not forget that we ourselves must continually be made into disciples. Unless we’ve already “gone onto perfection” (and I don’t know anyone who has), we’re all works in progress.

I don’t know how many clergy are in the North Georgia Conference. Many hundreds, at least. Can you imagine all of those women and men on their knees every morning in prayer, reading scripture, seeking God’s guidance and direction, trying their best to discern God’s will and be obedient to Jesus?

I bet that would make as positive an impact for the kingdom as any 22-step plan!

Regardless, we need to trust in the Lord, knowing that, ultimately, the only true measure of success is Christ saying to us on the Last Day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Theologically troubling Facebook statuses

October 26, 2010

What do you make of this Facebook status? (Click to expand.) It was posted by an acquaintance who’s in ministry.

Do we believe that God loves us “in spite of” who we are? I can’t relate to this. I get his point: We’re sinners, and God forgives us through the atoning work of Christ, by all means. But Jesus teaches us that God is like a loving Father. (See this parable, for example.) Even more, we know from this verse that Jesus, who primarily spoke Aramaic, used the Aramaic word “Abba” when praying to his Father. Abba is a very informal word for father, better translated “Daddy” or “Papa.” (Notice it even sounds like papa.)

That being the case, how can we imagine that God our Father loves us in spite of who we are? Is that how we human parents love our children? Is God our heavenly Father less loving than we human parents?

No way! I’m a father of three who loves his children mostly for who they are! I can’t help it. They’re mostly wonderful. They’re pretty close to perfect for me—even though each has a unique personality, different from one another’s and different from mine. I’m not saying they are perfect or that they don’t drive me crazy sometimes, but I’m hopelessly proud of them and madly in love with them.

How can I not love them for who they are?

Over summer vacation this year, my precocious 10-year-old daughter overheard my only half-serious complaint about how much more difficult vacations are with kids than they used to be. She said, “Dad, don’t you sometimes wish you never had kids?” I looked her in the eyes and said, in a sharp tone, “What are you talking about? You children are the greatest thing that ever happened to me!” And that’s exactly how I feel. No joking around about that for even a moment.

How can God not love us for who we are? He created us this way—each as a unique and precious creation. That we are sinners doesn’t change that, does it?

“Make us love what you command”: Prayer for the day

October 25, 2010

From the Book of Common Prayer (Proper 25):

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Open Communion is a matter of “biblical and Christian obedience”

October 22, 2010

So says New Testament scholar and Anglican clergyman N.T. Wright in his book For All God’s Worth. Open Communion is what Methodists, Anglicans, and some other denominations practice when they invite all Christians, regardless of denominational or confessional stripe, to come to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion. He writes:

The differences between us, as twentieth-century Christians, all too often reflect cultural, philosophical and tribal divides, rather than anything that should keep us apart from full and glad eucharistic fellowship. I believe the church should recognize, as a matter of biblical and Christian obedience, that it is time to put the horse back before the cart, and that we are far, far more likely to reach doctrinal agreement between our different churches if we do so within the context of that common meal which belongs equally to us all because it is the meal of the Lord whom we all worship. Intercommunion, in other words, is not something we should regard as the prize to be gained at the end of the ecumenical road; it is the very paving of the road itself. If we wonder why we haven’t been travelling very fast down the road of late, maybe it’s because, without the proper paving, we’ve got stuck in the mud.

N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 109-10.

About us Meth-heads

October 21, 2010

Not long ago, a young church member asked me specific questions for a school assignment about our Wesleyan tradition, and how we Methodists differ from some other Christian traditions and denominations. He found my answers helpful, and maybe you will, too. (You may also find my discussion of Protestantism and Catholicism, part 1 and part 2, interesting.)

“1. Some Protestant churches don’t celebrate Lent. Does the Methodist church? If so, for how many days do you celebrate it?”

Just to be clear, our church is part of the United Methodist Church (UMC), which is the largest Methodist church in America (and the world). What I’m going to say about the UMC is generally true of any Methodist denomination.

The UMC, along with most of the universal Christian church, observes Lent. It’s a season of spiritual preparation for Easter, which emphasizes penitence (repenting from sin). It lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays). Read the rest of this entry »

“Secular” music

October 20, 2010

This is what passed for hip Christian rock when I was 15.

Yes! As someone who witnessed a close friend in church youth group throwing away his vinyl after a retreat (including, alongside a bunch of hair metal crap, a copy of Abbey Road!), I can relate, if only indirectly. I never succumbed to the temptation myself.

But I never heard the word “secular” until I became active in youth group.

Sermon for 10-17-10: “Keeping the Promise, Part 1: Prayers”

October 19, 2010

Sermon Text: Acts 12:1-17

Please Note: After pressing the play button, video may take several seconds to load before starting.

The following is the original manuscript.

Stewardship season is upon us. “Stewardship” is a classic churchy type word that usually means giving money to support church—and come November 13, the church will be asking you and me to commit to give money for this next year. Stewardship is all about giving, but it’s much more than giving money. In fact, if you’re a member of this or any other United Methodist church, you made a promise to when you joined the church. And this promise gets to the heart of what stewardship really means: We promised to “faithfully participate” in the church’s ministries through “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.” Read the rest of this entry »

Atheism again?

October 17, 2010

Four of my last eight posts have related to the topic. Sorry! This will be my last one for a while (fingers crossed).

Today I wrote the following in response to an atheist commenter way back over here. This is my last comment on that particular thread. The commenter kept making a mistake that’s very common for proponents of scientism. Be on the lookout for it the next time you see that friendly celebrity atheist on TV telling you why there’s no God. It is this: If science can identify a naturalistic cause for something, then God is not also involved.

He argues, for example, that since love is “grounded in biochemical processes,” love has no objectively real or deeper meaning. That simply doesn’t follow unless your metaphysical belief rules out anything other than that knowledge at which the scientific method can arrive. It is reductionist thinking in the extreme.

The physiological “ground” of love may be “biochemical processes,” but this says nothing at all about other possible grounds for love. It’s all so simplistic.

John Cleese tackles this very subject in a funny video I linked to at the end. Read the rest of this entry »