Archive for November, 2010

Athletes and PDF (public displays of faith)

November 30, 2010

I have mixed feelings about athletes and PDF (public displays of faith). When a football star catches a touchdown pass and drops to a knee or points heavenward with his forefinger, at best it’s a statement of humility—a way of deflecting praise and adoration to the One who gave us our amazing bodies and athletic prowess to begin with. I get that.

(And as I’ve noted in a sermon, I greatly approve of the recent trend of opposing players gathering at midfield after games for prayer.)

But an athlete’s PDF can also communicate something more theologically troubling: “God has blessed me—me personally—by enabling me to catch this touchdown pass.” If so, this raises the following questions: Is God a [fill-in-your-favorite-sports-team] fan? Why does God care who wins a football game? Is God playing favorites? After all, for every receiver who makes a catch, there’s a defender who failed to stop him from making a catch. Why didn’t God bless that guy? And if God caused the receiver’s catch, the defender couldn’t do anything about it anyway. Are we not free to use the gifts God gives us to play a game (for which I strongly believe we should be thankful) without divine intervention?

With these questions in mind, let’s give some credit to Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver Steve Johnson, who dropped a game-winning pass yesterday versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was devastated after the drop and apologized to his teammates. But he posted the following candid prayer on his Twitter feed:

I praise you 24/7!!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I’ll never forget this!!! Ever!!! Thx tho

I would happily offer Johnson pastoral counseling to talk him down from his theological ledge, but at least he’s being consistent: If God is responsible for all those potentially game-winning catches, then God is responsible for this game-losing drop. Right?

Still, praying in anger to God is better than not praying at all. God can take it. And I suspect Johnson’s faith will recover.

“What am I thankful for? Everything.”

November 28, 2010

I might have to reflect on this briefly in tomorrow’s sermon, but I really, really like an old friend’s Facebook status, which he posted on Thanksgiving. It makes a lot of sense to me. Does it to you? (Click here or on graphic to enlarge.)

Last Sunday’s Thanksgiving message

November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! I preached this sermon, entitled “Gratitude,” last Sunday, November 21. The scripture is Luke 17:11-19

Do any of you know any celebrities or famous people? The closest I’ve come to knowing a celebrity is that when I was a kid, we had a family friend named Rick Rhoden who was a two-time All-Star pitcher in the Major Leagues. In the mid-’70s he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Back then, you may recall, for some weird reason, the Braves were in the National League West division with the Dodgers, so they played the Dodgers a lot. When the Dodgers would come to town, Rick would leave tickets for us at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium will-call booth.

One time, we were meeting him for dinner after a game, and we waited for him to come up from the locker room. As he walked toward us, a crowd of teenagers shouted at him, “Mr. Rhoden, Mr. Rhoden, please give us an autograph. Please, Mr. Rhoden! Please, we’re your biggest fans. Please, Mr. Rhoden!” We’re trying to have a conversation with our friend, and they’re shouting at him. It was a little rude, you know? I thought to myself, “That’s so humiliating. I would never embarrass myself like that for an autograph. Show some class!” But their willingness to sacrifice their dignity demonstrated how badly these kids wanted this thing from him. Read the rest of this entry »

Three for Thanksgiving

November 25, 2010

On the “Weekend Update” segment of this past weekend’s Saturday Night Love, cast member Jay Pharaoh (who’s African-American) lamented the lack of Thanksgiving songs for black people. Update anchor Seth Meyers, somehow forgetting about “We Gather Together,” said that white people don’t have Thanksgiving songs, either. Pharaoh said, “Sure you do,” and sang, “Thank you for being a friend…” Myers interrupted: “You mean the Golden Girls theme?”

Meyers is too young to know that “Thank You For Being a Friend” was a pop hit in 1978 by singer-songwriter Andrew Gold long before it was a TV theme song, but that’s not the point. The point is that there aren’t many songs (outside of the church hymnal, I mean) about being thankful.

Here are three great songs that make the cut in my book. (What would be on your list?)

“Days,” like so many Ray Davies-penned Kinks songs from the ’60s, is wistful, bittersweet, and wise beyond years. I chose a later performance of the song because it sounds more authentic coming from an older, more world-weary singer who knows from whence he speaks. Read the rest of this entry »

Cooperating with God

November 24, 2010

Many Protestant Christians, especially of a Lutheran or conservative Reformed persuasion, become deeply uncomfortable when talking about virtue—at least virtue as something that human beings foster or participate in. They don’t want to give human beings credit for doing anything that smacks of “works righteousness.” When it comes to sanctification—that spiritual transformation that takes place after we experience justification and new birth—the Holy Spirit does everything. It’s all grace.

No one, not even the most hard-line Calvinist, behaves as if they believe this: Everyone knows that we tend to become more Christlike as we spend time in prayer, worship, Bible study, etc. And when it comes to performing these spiritual disciplines, our free will certainly seems to come into play. But if it’s our free will, then how is it also God? An extreme Reformed position (I’m not talking here about mainline Presbyterians) denies free will entirely. We may think it’s our will, they say, but it’s really God causing us to do these things. We don’t really choose.

This denial of free will offends the Methodist in me. But I’m also sensitive to charges that we Methodists place too much emphasis on what we do as opposed to what God does. Lutherans and Calvinists might say that we Methodists tend toward semi-Pelagianism. [Pelagianism was a fifth-century heresy combated (not very effectively) by Augustine that emphasized human participation in the process of salvation.]

I’ve always told nervous, Reformed-minded parishioners that it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. And if we can’t make sense of how that’s possible, it’s only because we’re time-bound and limited, and God isn’t. (I read an essay by contemporary Reformed theologian Kathryn Tanner on Providence, which dealt with these issues. She makes that same point that I make. Not that I quite grasped all that she was arguing. If I did, I’m sure my head would explode!)

In N.T. Wright’s book on sanctification, After You Believe, he tackles this question head on throughout the book. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter on the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23.

Christian virtue, including the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit, is both the gift of God and the result of the person of faith making conscious decisions to cultivate this way of life and those habits of heart and mind. In technical language, these things are both “infused” and “acquired,” though the way we “acquire” them is itself, in that same language, “infused.” We are here, as so often in theology, at the borders of language, because we are trying to talk at the same time about “something God does” and “something humans do” as if God were simply another character like ourselves, as though (in other words) the interplay of God’s work and our work could be imagined on the model of two people collaborating on a project. There are mysteries here that we do not need to explore further at this point. It is sufficient to note that the varieties of spiritual fruit Paul names, like the Christian virtues, remain both the work of the Spirit and the result of conscious choice and work on the part of the person concerned.

Thank you, Tom, as always, for saying something better than I can. It’s nice to know that my struggle to explain cooperating with God is the result of standing at the “borders of language.” I like that!

N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 197.

Advent-Christmas preaching schedule

November 24, 2010

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we prepare our hearts to celebrate the arrival of Jesus Christ at Christmas. This Sunday, we start at the beginning of the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel: Zechariah meeting an angel in the temple. Our scripture is Luke 1:5-23.

The remaining schedule of sermon topics during Advent and the Sunday after Christmas is as follows (click to enlarge):

What are you thankful for?

November 24, 2010

Here’s a video about gratitude that we showed last Sunday in Vinebranch. Enjoy!

“True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In”: A review

November 23, 2010

"True Story" will help many Christians better understand and articulate the Christian faith.

A couple weeks ago, I preached on witnessing. One of the promises we make as members of the United Methodist Church is to serve Christ through our witness. This fifth part of our membership vow was only added a couple of years ago at General Conference—likely the result of justifiable concerns by the more evangelical wing of the church that we’ve placed too much weight on service as a means of witnessing.

Of course we bear witness to the love of Christ when we love, serve, and do any work for God’s kingdom. In fact, our actions are the most important way in which we witness. At some point, however, we have to say in whose Name we do all this good work, right?

As I mentioned previously, I’m sure the prospect of sharing our faith with words makes many people uncomfortable—in part because we don’t know what to say, and in part because “witnessing” has been done so poorly by so many over the years, the whole concept has been tarnished. As I discussed in my sermon, we don’t want to shove our faith down anyone’s throat. We don’t want to disrespect people of other faiths. And we don’t want to come on self-righteously. Read the rest of this entry »

Learning to live in God

November 20, 2010

As I reflect on the meaning of Thanksgiving—which I’ll be talking about in tomorrow’s sermon—I think of this great Van Morrison song. (Click the play button, and then click, “Watch on YouTube.”)

You brought it to my attention, that everything was made in God.
Down through centuries of great writings and paintings,
Everything was in God.
Seen through architecture of great cathedrals,
Down through the history of time,
Is and was in the beginning and evermore shall ever be.
When will I ever learn to live in God,
When will I ever learn?
He gives me everything I need and more,
When will I ever learn?

Surely a part of what it means to live a life of gratitude is learning to see the God in whom we live and move and have our being in everything. Some people are better at that than I am. I’m working on it.

“Now that you’re here, be here”

November 19, 2010

A month ago, I, along with every other clergy person in the North Georgia Conference, had to take part in something called the “Bishop’s Day Apart” at the Simpsonwood retreat center. Bishop Watson plays host to these short retreats each year. The theme of this year’s gathering was clergy “self-care.” The United Methodist Church wants us clergy to take better care of ourselves—emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I’m sure this emphasis on self-care comes in the wake of published studies that show that clergy suffer obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than the overall population.

Most of us weren’t excited about spending a couple of days away from our churches or places of ministry in order to focus on self-care. In his opening remarks, the bishop likely sensed the mood of the room when he said, “I know that you are here today…” He paused. “Because I told you to be here.” Everyone laughed. “But now that you’re here, be here.”

“Now that you’re here, be here.” I like that. Ancient wisdom from a large number of religious traditions teaches us to be present in the moment, not to be distracted but to focus on the task at hand. Jesus captures a sense of this in the Sermon on the Mount when he gives us these challenging words: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).

Now a recent study suggests that this ancient wisdom is exactly right: People are happier when they devote their full attention to what they’re doing at the moment. Daydreaming and mind-wandering is not merely a symptom but a cause of unhappiness. Distressingly, according the study, our minds wander about 47 percent of the time. One of the researchers, Dr. Daniel Gilbert, said, “I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there.” Read the rest of this entry »