Archive for March, 2011

“Yes, but…” The challenge of short-term mission trips

March 31, 2011

Stephy’s back with her satirical and often depressing blog, “Stuff Christian Culture Likes.” (She’s been offline for a while as she’s changed blog services.) Her first post out of the gate bugs me, probably because she’s not altogether wrong, even though I wish she were. By all means, sinful pride is always a danger, as Jesus warns, whenever we try to do something good: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

And, yes, short-term mission trips are to some extent self-serving. Churches in the U.S. could take that same $30,000 or so (average cost of a mission trip, according to the Wall Street Journal) and spend it more efficiently by contracting out the labor and materials—to build that school or home or latrine or well—in whatever community the missionaries would otherwise go.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, these trips must necessarily be as much about the missionaries as the people to whom they’re ministering. There’s no way around that. As affluent Americans living in relative first-world luxury, it’s sobering and often traumatic to see the way the other two-thirds (or more) of the world live. If we have a human soul, there’s no way we can go on one of these trips and not be deeply affected—and, I hope, for the better. And we naturally want to tell that story when we get back—even by showing slide shows of the trip.

By all means, if all we do is go on these trips and ignore the “least among us” back home, then we’re doing something wrong. But why would it have to be that way? Why would it have to be either a trip to Paraguay or doing something for the poor here? It’s not that way in our church. In fact, in my (limited) experience, these trips sensitize us to the needs of people living in our communities. They inspire greater compassion and service when we return home. If it takes a short-term mission trip to do that, so be it.

Besides, the dangers of self-righteousness still apply, whether we’re serving in the third-world or the soup kitchen down the highway. Churches can be equally smug and exploitative about the work they do locally. We’re not “saving the world” either way. That’s Jesus’ business. We’re bearing witness to Christ’s love, and—I hope—being faithful to his call.

Still, thanks for the thought-provoking piece and welcome back, Ms. Drury. Your blog rules.

Luther’s wedding metaphor for atonement

March 31, 2011

As I continue to think through the meaning of atonement, specifically the way in which Christ’s death on the cross was “in our place”—a substitution for us—this wedding metaphor from Luther, quoted in Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity, is helpful to me:

Luther employed a wedding metaphor to speak of substitution: “For it behooves Him, if He is a bridegroom, to take upon Himself the things which are His bride’s, and to bestow upon her the things that are His. For if He Gives her His body and His very self, how shall He not give her all that is His? And if He takes the body of the bride, how shall He not take all that is hers?… He by the wedding-ring of faith shares in the sins, death and pains of hell which are His brides’s, nay, makes them His own, and acts as if they were His own, and as if He Himself had sinned” (Luther, Christian Liberty, WML 2:320).

Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 420.

Happy Birthday, Jimmy!

March 30, 2011

According to this appreciative take on the King James Version’s 400th anniversary, the original printing of the translation had a rather unfortunate error: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Yikes! I had never heard that before!

And while the KJV gave us so many words and phrases that have become indelibly imprinted on our consciousness, did you know it also contains this phrase? In multiple places! Can you even say that in church?

My favorite KJV-related story is this one. Is it a coincidence?

And where would we be without a Jack Chick tract warning us of the mortal dangers of non-KJV Bibles. Like I’ve always said, if the King James is good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me!

Is it possible—and this is a frightening thought—that Jack Chick is the most widely published cartoonist ever? The more recent tracts, like the one above, appear to have been ghost-drawn.

A possible Golgotha

March 29, 2011

As I’m reading and preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Matthew 27:45-49, including Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m reminded of “Gordon’s Calvary,” a rocky hill we saw in Jerusalem on our recent trip.

Gordon’s Calvary is a proposed site for Jesus’ crucifixion, named after the British army officer who discovered it in the late-19th century. It’s just outside the walls of old Jerusalem; it was a known Roman execution site along a busy road (so passersby would be reminded what would happen to them if they crossed Rome); and—well—it does look a little bit like a skull. (Remember that Golgotha means “the place of the skull,” as in Matthew 27:33.)

The British did some excavating and found a nearby tomb and garden—hence this site is known today as the “Garden Tomb.” It’s a popular (and beautiful) place of pilgrimage, especially for us Protestants left cold by the extreme iconographical orgy that is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Regardless whether Gordon’s Calvary is the place (no one knows for sure where Jesus was crucified and buried), you can actually see the proposed place of crucifixion and tomb. The Holy Sepulchre is completely covered up by a church. (What is with that ancient Christian impulse to put a church on top of everything?)

The tomb itself, which I’ll discuss closer to Good Friday, is a nice illustration of the type of tomb described in scripture as Jesus’ tomb.

I don’t remember what exactly he said about it in his massive tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, and my copy is not handy, but N.T. Wright reads great historical significance into the fact that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb (in which Jesus’ body was placed) did not become a shrine for the earliest Christians (which is why we don’t know where it is). According to Wright, it speaks to their strong belief that the body wasn’t there! It’s interesting, in other words, that it had no significance to them.

Sermon for 03-27-11: “Seven Last Words, Part 3”

March 29, 2011

Sermon Text: John 19:26-27

[Please note: The video may take several seconds to load before it begins playing.]

The following is my original manuscript.

Our senior pastor, Dr. Don Martin, has two college-aged boys. One of his sons had spring break last week asked him if he wanted to take a few days off work, and go fishing with him in Florida during spring break. I assume that Don’s son could have gone to Panama City Beach with his buddies—or wherever else the college kids go these days. I assume he could have been off chasing girls somewhere. Instead, he asked his old man to go fishing with him. And Don is telling us about this in staff meeting, and he’s beaming with pride and love and joy. His son asked him to go fishing with him! So naturally Don is boring us with pictures and videos of the two of them fishing at Lake Seminole in Florida.

But I don’t blame Don for being so proud and so happy about this! What a relief! See, here is the reward for all that hard work. All the time and tears and money and energy invested in a child’s life, and here’s some evidence that it worked! But let’s face it: parenting can also be, at times, the most frustrating and thankless job we can ever have. Can I get an Amen? You kids are tough! We parents can’t imagine going into it how difficult you kids are going to be—which is a good thing because if weren’t so dumb and naive going into it, we would use birth control all the time! Fortunately, God doesn’t let us know all that in advance! I’m kidding, of course… Read the rest of this entry »

Ehrman, the Bible, and authority

March 28, 2011

I’m sure Bart Ehrman is an accomplished New Testament scholar, but as he surely knows by now, writing for a mass audience that knows little about the Bible pays much better. A few years ago, he became an honorary New Atheist, known to many as that New Testament scholar who has studied the stuff and knows it’s all bunk. I heard Christopher Hitchens say something to that effect on more than one occasion. Ehrman writes books dealing with issues in Bible criticism that any first-year seminarian knows about, but packages them as if he’s discovered something new and shocking. His tone is if only people knew the truth, then they wouldn’t bother being Christian.

This time, he’s taking on those letters in the New Testament whose authorship is in dispute. He writes, for example,

Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere — except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book… Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong.

From Ehrman’s point of view, if one of Paul’s companions or students wrote the so-called disputed letters of Paul (which are: 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) in Paul’s name, they were not simply honoring their friend and carrying forward Pauline ideas in a way that Paul himself would endorse or authorize, they were instead a bunch of lying liars.  Read the rest of this entry »

“If you find a place like that, I’ll go there, too”

March 28, 2011

When I was a freshman in college in 1988, I discovered Keith Green by way of a compilation from Sparrow Records called The Ministry Years, Vol. 1: 1977-1979. It formed—alongside Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home—the soundtrack for that particular year of my life. Lest you think that Dylan and Green shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence, please note that Dylan himself, in the throes of his recent conversion to Christianity, played harmonica on a Green song called “Pledge My Head to Heaven.”

In fact, according to a new book by Michael Gilmour entitled The Gospel According to Bob Dylan, a scholarly analysis of religion in Dylan’s music, Dylan and Keith and Melody Green struck up a friendship. To the surprise of the Greens themselves, Dylan even asked them, over dinner one night, to review and assess the lyrical content of the songs that would make up Dylan’s soon-to-be-released gospel album, Slow Train Coming.

Regardless, song for song, Ministry Years, Vol. 1 would have to rank as one of the best albums in my entire music collection. I’ve complained elsewhere that the music of early Christian rock—mostly long out of print and unknown even to Christians who listen to CCM today—is in danger of being lost to history. This is a real shame.

One philosophical difference between Christian rock then and Christian rock today, as you might sense from the video below, is that the songs weren’t simply preaching to the choir. They were often directed to non-churchgoers and spoke to broader social concerns, especially compared to the happy-clappy Christian music of today. In a way, early Christian rock is a form of protest music, spiritually akin to folk-rock of ’60s or even punk in the ’70s.

If you don’t know anything about the music, you may as well start with Ministry Years. There is also a Vol. 2, which covers Green from ’80 through ’82, the year he died in a plane crash, but that collection left me cold. I haven’t heard it in years, so I can’t say exactly why. I remember that, musically, it was much softer, more ballad-heavy. Its themes were more generic, its tone preachier. Still, I think I was mostly disappointed that it didn’t measure up to Vol. 1—but what album could?

The following is one of my favorite Green songs. Yes, there is a strong vocal and musical resemblance to Elton John. (This was the ’70s after all, and Green was a piano player.) And, no, I’m not commenting on the aesthetic quality of the video itself. Just listen to the song! (Stupid copyright laws! EMI won’t let us watch the video outside of YouTube. Click on the video below, and you’ll be directed to it—or just click here.)

Here’s my favorite verse:

Oh, I came running when I got the news that you were crying
Oh, my friend has life been so unkind to you?
You say you want to find a place where people are not lying
If you find a place like that, I’ll go there, too!

“Purchasing our redemption”

March 25, 2011

Whether or to what extent I agree with this philosopher’s ultimate (and deeply pessimistic) conclusions shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is a very funny and thought-provoking video (who is the artist?) about the shallow and self-serving nature of consumerism. I do love the art. It would be fun to preach with an artist simultaneously illustrating ideas on a nearby whiteboard. Hey! Can anyone out there do that?

Since I’m always stealing ideas from Kevin, read his post first. Then read the Slate article about present-day efforts to help Japan. Then read about the same problem from the opposite political perspective, an oldie but goodie about Live Aid from the very funny P.J. O’Rourke, here. (Sorry, it’s only an excerpt, but I hope you get the idea. You have to buy his book Give War a Chance to read the whole thing.)

The point is that there is often something very self-serving and even unwittingly harmful about what we do on behalf of others. It’s the nature of sin and evil. Isn’t this why Jesus warns that when we give alms, we don’t let one hand know what the other is doing? We so easily glorify and deceive ourselves.

As I said a few years ago after a short-term mission trip to Mexico (relating this Wall Street Journal article to my own experience): We shouldn’t imagine that by building homes in Mexico, or any other third-world nation, we’re helping to “solve” a problem, without also realizing that we’re part of the problem. In spite of this, I strongly believe that we should go and build! Even if these trips are “mostly about us,” they probably need to be. We need to change, even as we make a small but important difference in the lives of the people to whom we seek to minister.

No Methodist pastor was fired for agreeing with Rob Bell

March 25, 2011

My Facebook homepage was in a twitter (Ha! Notice what I did there?) this morning because of an online report about a pastor who was, according to the article, fired because he spoke up on Facebook in support of Rob Bell’s not-even-universalist-but-what-if-it-were new book Love Wins.

Here’s the lede:

DURHAM, N.C. — When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

This is nonsense. I’m not surprised that the reporter got it wrong. Reporters usually get religion- and church-related stories wrong. But shame on my fellow Methodist clergy who believe it. At the very least, it means they didn’t pay attention (at all) in United Methodist polity class in seminary.

Granted, I slept through much of the class myself, but let’s be very, very clear: A local church cannot fire a United Methodist pastor. This is so fundamental to Methodist polity it almost can’t be emphasized enough. It’s one of the great strengths of our church, because in theory it gives pastors great freedom and security to proclaim the gospel with boldness.

If Rev. Holtz preached or taught something that his local congregation couldn’t abide, the local church, by means of the SPR, could recommend that the bishop send them a new pastor. If the bishop agrees, Holtz would be appointed somewhere else. He wouldn’t and couldn’t lose his job unless he were brought up on charges before the conference, tried, and found guilty of some serious violation of our Book of Discipline. The Executive Session (the clergy) of the Annual Conference would then have to approve the dismissal.

There’s probably more to the process than that, but to find out I would have to actually get out of my chair, walk over to my bookshelf, get my Book of Discipline out, and look it up.

The point is this: What Rev. Holtz says that he said is not a fireable offense by any stretch—but even if it were, he couldn’t be fired in the manner reported. This is a non-story. Who knows what actually happened, but he’s not being martyred by the church for boldly standing up for his convictions—even if he wants to portray it that way. Say what you will about us Methodists, we are sticklers for following the rules, and the rules come from our Discipline.

This part of the story is obviously true:

Gray Southern, United Methodist district superintendent for the part of North Carolina that includes Henderson, declined to discuss Holtz’s departure in detail, but said there was more to it than the online post about Rob Bell’s book.

Sermon for 03-20-11: “Seven Last Words, Part 2”

March 24, 2011

Sermon Text: Luke 23:39-43

Click here to watch the video in Vimeo.

The following is my original manuscript.

Recently, while preparing for a funeral, I noticed a beautiful prayer in our United Methodist Book of Worship. One of its petitions is: “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.” I love that image. If nothing else, a funeral ought to remind us that we are going to die. It ought to enable us to stare, at least briefly, into the face of death, and say, “One day, that’s going to be me. With that prospect looming on my horizon, how will I then live?”

The season of Lent, likewise, should be a time when we ask similar questions. What does the pastor say during Ash Wednesday when she imposes ashes on one’s forehead: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” My friend Paul was blogging about the devastating earthquake in Japan and the ongoing challenge of containing the threat of meltdown at these nuclear reactors. His title for this particular blog post was, “At the risk of pointing out the obvious, we are dust.” Read the rest of this entry »