Archive for May, 2011

Sermon for 05-29-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 5: Simon Son of John”

May 31, 2011

Here is the fifth part of our sermon series on the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Today’s scripture, John 21:15-25, deals with Jesus’ gentle confrontation with Peter on the beach and his three-times-repeated question, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

More than anything, this sermon is about overcoming guilt—the destructive kind of guilt that lingers long after we’ve confessed our sin and repented. Or the guilt that relates to other failures and shortcomings.

Sermon Text: John 21:15-25 

The following is my original manuscript.

Atlanta Braves pitcher Craig Kimbrel has a difficult job. Kimbrel is the closer for the Atlanta Braves. This means that it’s his job to come into the game in the ninth inning when the Braves are winning—but not winning by too much—and get the last few outs without letting the other team score. Easier said than done, I’m sure. When the closer comes in to close out the game, it’s almost as if the starting pitcher and any other pitchers in the game are telling him, “For the past eight innings, we’ve done everything that we need to do to in order to win this game. The rest is up to you. Don’t blow it!” Literally… when the closer fails to close out the game, we say that he “blew the save.”

I don’t know how anyone can stand up to that kind of pressure! But that’s why he gets paid millions of dollars, I guess. Kimbrel is new to the job. He’s succeeding a legendary closer named Billy Wagner, one of the best ever, who retired last year. And Kimbrel’s off to a rocky start. Recently, he blew two saves in a row, and many Braves fans were wondering if manager Fredi Gonzalez was going to replace him, at least temporarily, with another relief pitcher. I heard former Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone on the radio say that that would be a terrible idea; it would ruin Kimbrel; completely destroy his confidence. The best thing Gonzalez could do is to not give up on him. Put him right back into that high-pressure situation the next time the game was on the line—and be confident that he would succeed this time. And that exactly what Gonzalez did. Read the rest of this entry »

Memorial Day prayer

May 30, 2011

The following is my pastoral prayer from yesterday.

Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being, we give you our thanks and praise for the gifts that you graciously bestow upon us: this gift of life, which you sustain at every moment through the breath of your Spirit, this beautiful creation, this family of faith, and this gift of abundant and eternal life made available through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus. We thank you that through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too can look forward with confidence to our own future resurrection. Because you are so gracious to us, enable us, in return, to live lives marked by gratitude. Enable us to give graciously to others, following Christ’s example of love. Enable us not to think less of ourselves, but to think of ourselves less often, as we learn to put the lives of others ahead of our own.

On this Memorial Day weekend we honor the men and women in uniform who have done that to the fullest extent, placing our lives ahead of their own lives. We hold them in our hearts today. For their example of courage, selflessness, and love we give you thanks. Protect the men and women in uniform today whose lives are on the line, until their work becomes unnecessary—when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and we shall study war no more.

Bless the pastors and staff of this church, as we lead your flock. Empower all of us who are your children to be your ministers and ambassadors. Heal the sick in our congregation. Help us always to remember the poor. We pray this in the name of the One who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Writing sermons

May 27, 2011

Rembrandt's "St. Paul in Prison," 1627.

I just posted on the social networks that writing sermons is like untangling a large knot each week. And it does feel like that much of the time. Never sure at first how to tackle it; never sure which loose end to pull; never sure if you’re following a useful lead. But I’m not complaining! Preaching for me is the best part of an already pretty terrific job, and it always repays the time put into it. I’m continually amazed that God gives me something (relatively) new to say each week.

But sermon-writing is more than problem-solving. It’s prayer. It’s spending fifteen to twenty hours a week talking with God. When we pray, we don’t always get a warm, reassuring feeling of God’s presence. We don’t always get that intuition that God is speaking to us. At least I don’t. Sometimes I do… But rarely more powerfully than today.

Thank you, Jesus, for your faithfulness!

Pictures from the Sea of Galilee

May 26, 2011

Here are some images of the Sea of Galilee (called the Sea of Tiberias in John 21) to go along with the sermons from last week and this week. I took these on my recent trip to the Holy Land. Please note that the young fisherman casting his net below, like the seven disciples in the first few verses of John 21, was unsuccessful.

Sermon for 05-22-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 4: ‘It Is the Lord'”

May 26, 2011

A painting depicting the miraculous catch of fish in John 21

The following sermon touches on issues concerning the end of the world that I covered in more detail in a blog post from last week. See this post for more information about the classic Christian understanding of the Second Coming.

Sermon Text: John 21:1-14

The following is my original manuscript.

So I guess we’ve all been “left behind,” huh? I’m not surprised to see that some of you still here, but… I’m just kidding. I have to laugh to keep from crying. I’m referring, of course, to a prediction by a self-styled prophet in Oakland that the end of the world was supposed to start yesterday, and we believers were going to be “raptured” into heaven. Dr. Martin referred to this prediction in his weekly eNews article. He said, “You are fair game for every Bible thumping huckster on the radio yakking about the end of time if you have not invested time in study and conversation about the Bible.” This would-be prophet’s end-of-the-world prediction, like every other end-of-the-world prediction over the past two millennia, didn’t pan out. Some of us never learn, I guess, that when Jesus said the end was coming at an “unexpected hour,” he meant it would be unexpected.

Now, let’s be clear: The Second Coming of Christ is a doctrine that is faithful to both the Bible and orthodox Christian thought. This is what we refer to in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Jesus will come again at the end of history as we know it to judge humanity and establish God’s kingdom in all its fullness. How that all happens and what it will look like when it does—we don’t know. But we believe it will happen. Read the rest of this entry »

“The way of nature and the way of grace…”

May 25, 2011

I’ve fallen in love with a movie trailer. I’m serious. I’m fighting back tears. I haven’t seen the movie yet, called The Tree of Life. It opens this Friday in New York and L.A., and Atlanta a week later. But I’m mesmerized by this trailer, and by what I’ve read about the film. Over scenes of cosmic creation and human birth, a woman’s voice says, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

You had me at grace!

The writer and director is Terrence Malick, and the film won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes this year. Of course, from what I read in the New York Times, its debut there was decidedly mixed. Some members of the audience booed loudly. In other words, it’s probably awesome!

Here’s an excerpt from Roger Ebert’s review. While I don’t share his theological outlook on the efficacy of prayer, I want what he says about this movie to be true.

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

I didn’t stumble upon this film on my own. I had never heard of Terrence Malick before reading about him in an article by one of my favorite theologians, David Bentley Hart. I watched The Thin Red Line on Netflix over the weekend.

“Of course we’re afraid of reality! Who isn’t?”

May 25, 2011

What a relief to have Paul back from sabbatical! It’s about time!

Paul, a scientist himself in his former life, weighs in on Stephen Hawking’s interview from last week, in which he said that the afterlife is a “fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark.” He discusses the temptation to psychoanalyze Hawking with the same broad strokes with which Hawking psychoanalyzes all religious believers. Here’s my favorite part:

Christians are often mocked for being afraid of reality. Of course we’re afraid of reality; who isn’t? All the reasonable people like Hawking? I can’t buy that. I think Jesus was pretty much unafraid, but he still sweat blood. And maybe Buddha was unafraid, but I don’t know enough about him to speculate.

So yes, fear motivates people. But saying “that’s what religion is” is just silly. I might as well say, “science is merely a manifestation of humanity’s crazed desire to control everything.” There’s truth there, and it would serve some people (not me) nicely if it were so. But it just isn’t. It’s really easy to write people off, but it doesn’t help anyone.

Roger Olsen, a theology professor at Baylor, whose blog entry on the subject I reflected on last week, dipped his little toe in the deep end of psychoanalysis with this comment.

Projection theory works both ways (as Hans Kueng has so well demonstrated in Does God Exist?).  Atheists project the emptiness of their own lives into the sky, believing God does not exist because, if he did, they might be in real trouble.

I wouldn’t have put it quite so starkly, but heaven knows that popular atheists accuse believers of projecting all the time. If projection is a real thing—and I’m sure it is—why wouldn’t it work both ways?

For Dylan’s 70th birthday

May 24, 2011

Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. No one, I imagine, outside of my wife and immediate family has had a greater impact on my life.

My first exposure to Bob Dylan’s music was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in first-grade music class in 1976 or ’77. I remember knowing, even at that young age, who Dylan was—that he was a popular and important singer. (The mid-’70s were his commercial peak, so his name was out there a lot.) The song spoke to me in a way that “Froggy Went a-Courtin'” and “Erie Canal” and whatever else we were singing didn’t. I remember it made me feel sad, which probably for the first time in my life also made me feel good. Isn’t that the nature of great art?

But I didn’t catch up with Dylan again until around 1981. One of our low-powered UHF stations showed re-runs of Saturday Night Live. I saw Dylan’s controversial 1979 appearance—his only one to date—in which he performed three songs from his then-new gospel album Slow Train Coming. As a good Baptist boy, I appreciated that he was singing songs about Jesus—and it was kind of weird and cool that he was doing it so far away from the friendly confines of church—but I honestly couldn’t get past his voice. I thought he was nothing less than the worst singer I had ever heard. So raw, so unpolished, so unsuitable for network TV.

The irony was that within four years, I would come to regard him as the best singer I’d ever heard, an opinion I maintain to this day. And, no, I’m not talking about his voice at this very moment. Between the 22 years of non-stop touring and who-knows-how-many-cigarettes, there isn’t much of it left. But he is 70 years old, for heaven’s sake! He has nothing to prove. Besides, even now—I’m thinking of last year’s performance of “The Times They Are A-Changin” at the White House—his voice, which often gets lost these days in large concert halls, can still summon that old power and authority.

And I’d still rather listen to Dylan croak out a tune than to anyone else sing at their auto-tuned prettiest—which is why his album of Christmas standards from a couple of years ago is my favorite of the genre.

But outsiders have always complained about Dylan’s voice, even when he was in his youthful prime in the mid-’60s, making the greatest records and writing the greatest songs of all time. His voice is an acquired taste, I suppose. Like coffee. Which, come to think of it, I also hated the first time I had it and is now my favorite beverage.

But I don’t abide people who patronizingly tell me that they think he’s a “great songwriter” but they can’t stand his singing. The key to “getting” Dylan is understanding that he is, first and foremost, a great singer. He writes songs that are faithful to his voice, which is why his performances of his songs are usually the definitive ones.

Regardless, what finally sealed my fate when it came to Dylan was getting Dylan’s career-spanning boxed set, Biograph, for Christmas in 1985. The first song from this collection that grabbed me by the throat and shook me was “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” It was on Side 2 of the box’s first record—that side devoted to his early protest era. That was it. I was hooked.

What resonated with me about Dylan back then and continues to do so is this: If you remain faithful to your own voice—if you can risk being that authentic and honest—then you have a voice that’s worth hearing. Dylan has remained fearlessly true to his, literally and figuratively.

By doing so, Dylan gave me the courage to find my own voice. Perhaps other people wouldn’t need an artist to do that for them, but for whatever reason—self-confidence was never my strong suit—I did.

One legacy of this is that I have the courage to stand in front of people each week and, well… mostly talk for a living. “Fearing not that I’d become my enemy/ In the instant that I preach,” I guess. 😉

Thank you and God bless you, Bob.

“I’m not a scientist,” but if I were, I could answer every important question

May 23, 2011

When I read this stuff, I want to shout, "You cannot be serious!"

This blog post by the so-called “humanist chaplain” at Harvard University (is it too much to hope that there’s a Methodist chaplain there, too?), which attempts to defend Stephen Hawking’s musings on religion and philosophy in a controversial interview last week, is so shallow and unreflective, it hardly deserves mention. But it bugs me, so let me briefly call attention to a couple of things.

The author, an atheist, describes a conversation he had with a believer in a bar who asked him the following: “OK, but tell me this, Mr. Atheist: Where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” He wrote:

I answered: “Well, I’m not a scientist,” a line I often offer with a chuckle when I’m confronted with a question I don’t know the answer to, “but to be honest, that question doesn’t matter all that much to me. I’m not especially interested in how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?”

“I’m not a scientist, but…”

I call foul! I strongly disagree with the premise of his answer, but it accurately reflects our modern cultural bias toward “science” as the source of all knowledge. Science at best can only provide a partial answer to the question of “where we came from” and “how we got here.”

What bugs me is, Why doesn’t the author realize this?

I’m sure that if he thought he were qualified to give a scientific answer, he would talk about evolutionary processes, which is fine as far as it goes. But you still haven’t answered the most interesting part of the question “How did we get here?”

I used to say that science answers the “how” questions and religion answers the “why,” but that’s still giving too much credit to science. How did the conditions exist in the first place such that there was a big bang, etc. (I’m not a scientist either, so “big bang, etc.” is shorthand for that part of the answer that is scientific.) How was there something in the first place? Where did that come from? How was there an environment in which conditions existed to cause the evolutionary processes that the author undoubtedly would credit in his answer?

Seriously! Do these questions never cross the author’s mind? Not just this guy… Last year, Hawking himself speculated that the force of gravity (or something) is sufficient to account for the conditions necessary for the beginning of the universe—as if that answers the question! Why would such a force (or anything else) exist in the first place? Why something and not nothing? Unless the scientifically minded atheist answers this basic question of existence, he hasn’t answered the most important how or why questions. Philosophically, the scientific atheist is guilty of a category mistake.

Oh well… Enough of my banging my head against the wall on that particular issue. I hear and read popular atheists today constantly falling into this trap, and no one in the media calls them on it. Why are we so dumb? (Here’s an article from the New York Times last year that irritated me for the same reason.)

Anyway, the piece goes from bad to worse when the author, referring to the Hawking interview, writes,

But in my mind, the most pivotal moment of Hawking’s interview is also the easiest to overlook. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sentence, Hawking offered an imperative call to action:

So here we are. What should we do?We should seek the greatest value of our action.

Given that we are here, what will we do? What is the greatest value of our action? I’m not a scientist, but I believe the answer is as simple as seeking to understand the diverse people who are here with us, and working together to advance equality and justice for all.

“Value”? What does value possibly mean to a philosophical materialist like Hawking or this blogger that isn’t hopelessly relative? What one values, according to their way of understanding the world, is nothing more than a personal preference, like my saying that I value dark chocolate because it tastes good to me. “Value” is nothing more than a meaningless accident. Yet, on the basis of this meaningless accident, atheists can become as sanctimonious as any religious person.

And what about the blogger’s “simple” answer about working together for these concepts called “equality” and “justice”? He cannot be serious! Where does he get that from? If science has all the answers, as he believes, the burden is on him to show that working for equality and justice is scientifically justified.

Prayer for Relay for Life

May 21, 2011

I’m a volunteer police chaplain for the Alpharetta Police. In that role, I was asked to offer a prayer for last night’s Alpharetta Relay for Life walk. Relay for Life is organized by the American Cancer Society to raise money for cancer research. This was the prayer I prayed:

Merciful God, in whom we live and move and have our being, we give you our thanks and praise for the gift of life that you give each of us. Every heartbeat, every breath we take, every moment of life we enjoy is an ongoing, gracious gift from you. Help us to live not with a sense of entitlement but with a sense of your graciousness, never taking for granted this good gift of life, but instead using it to love, serve, comfort, heal, and encourage others. May all the money raised here today be used to that good end. Bless these many volunteers. Keep them strong, healthy, and well-hydrated as they walk for others.

Bless those cancer survivors who are with us this evening, whose own battle against this terrible disease inspires us. Give them continued health. Even as we celebrate their victories, our hearts are heavy as we remember loved ones who didn’t win that fight. Comfort, encourage, and strengthen everyone who grieves this day. Give us the faith to see that in you death, suffering, and evil do not have the last word. Love has the last word. For the sake of this love we are here. For the sake of this love we will walk. And for the sake of this love we will work—until this disease can no longer claim another victim. With hearts overflowing with love, we humbly pray. Amen.