Archive for May, 2011

Of course the world’s not ending tomorrow, but not so fast…

May 20, 2011

I'm not laughing about this family's story. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

Like fellow blogger Fred Clark, I find this hysteria among a very small number of American Christians about the end of the world—and the very large media firestorm having fun at their expense—too sad and depressing to laugh about. I like what Fred said:

Fortunately, Camping [the self-styled theologian who is predicting the world’s end tomorrow] is not as widely influential as LaHaye, so we’re talking about only thousands of followers, not millions. But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair.

These people who are setting themselves up for this kind of existential disappointment are are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. The family profiled in this New York Times article (whose snarky headline doesn’t match the more evenhanded tone of the article) hardly seems like a bunch of lunatics. Nevertheless, I profoundly disagree with their theology and outlook.

Of course the end of the world isn’t happening tomorrow. Or maybe I should qualify it by saying that, even if it were happening tomorrow, it wouldn’t be because some guy has calculated the date from scripture. It can’t be found there. We can know this in part because, among many other warnings in scripture, Jesus teaches us that when the end of this present age comes, it will come unexpectedly (Matthew 24:42-51). Jesus said explicitly that he didn’t know, and he didn’t tell his own apostles. If anyone presumes to know today, therefore, he or she will surely be wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon for 05-15-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 3: So I Send You”

May 19, 2011

Sermon Text: John 20:19-29

The sermon was preceded by this video in honor of graduating seniors.

The following is my original manuscript.

When I was 17, my sister Susan got married. She’s seven years older than I am. She went to college at Georgia State when it was still only a commuter school, before it had dorms, and so she had lived at home for 23 years of her life. For 18 years, she had lived in the house I grew up in. For all of my life, Susan’s bedroom had been down the hall from me. The week she got married and went on her honeymoon, I went into her room and “borrowed” her stereo speakers—because her speakers were much better than mine. I guess a part of me hoped that I would inherit her stereo now that she was moving out. Maybe she was leaving it for me! Regardless, I enjoyed listening to her speakers during this week that she was gone.

When she came back from her honeymoon to pack up her last few things before moving to Memphis, where her husband was in medical school, she was furious with me for taking her speakers. I mean, strangely upset, yelling at me. Why would I think I could go in her room and borrow her speakers? They weren’t mine; they were hers. How rude!

I didn’t understand it. My sister wasn’t an ungenerous person. This wasn’t like her at all.

I’m no psychologist, but looking back on that incident, I’m pretty sure that she wasn’t really upset about the speakers. Don’t you think? She’s remained happily married to this day, but I think at the time she was grieving that her home for 18 years of her life was no longer her home—that her cozy, comfortable bedroom, her safe place of refuge, her sanctuary, was no longer her room. For all of her life, she had lived with our parents, and most of her life she had been able to call this place home, and now it was no longer her home. She no longer belonged here. Her life had changed dramatically. My taking her speakers just sort of reinforced that fact.

Likewise, in today’s scripture, these disciples are facing change—big time! More than they could begin to imagine! Their lives had already been turned upside down a couple of days earlier by Jesus’ death on the cross. They had hardly gotten over the shock and fear of seeing their resurrected Lord. And now Jesus was telling them something that was nothing less than jaw-dropping: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Read the rest of this entry »

Pray where you are

May 19, 2011

While running yesterday, I finally listened to the Lost Dogs’ second album, Little Red Riding Hood. This song jumped out at me. The homemade video is only mediocre—as these things tend to be—but the song is great.

Another good response to that Hawking interview

May 18, 2011

One reader named James Petticrew at Roger Olson’s blog responds to Monday’s Stephen Hawking interview in a very sensible way:

It some times amuses me and at other times frustrates me that the media in the UK treat Hawkings as the national equivalent of Mr Data on Star Trek the Next Generation. He is hyper intelligent scientist and so must have the answer to all questions. I have listened to him on several interviews and he goes beyond anything I can comprehend when he talks about physics but when it comes to his answers to philosophical questions his answers are not heavy weight at all.

It says a great deal about our news editors that they choose to ask him questions like these, don’t remember the last time they asked Rowan Williams a question on advanced physics!

For readers on this side of the Atlantic who may not know, Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England—and not to mention a world-renowned theologian and writer.

Someone else’s thoughts on that Hawking interview

May 17, 2011

Roger Olson says it very well in this post, and not just because his words echo mine

First, how does being a physicist make Hawking an expert on metaphysical questions?  This seems another classical case (like Carl Sagan in Cosmos) of a scientist dabbling in philosophy outside the boundaries of his realm of expertise.  IN PRINCIPLE physics cannot prove or disprove life after death or heaven or hell or God or any such realities.  I am ashamed of journalists who fall for this stuff.

Second, perhaps Hawking doesn’t want to believe in life after death because he’s unsure of his eternal destiny.  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.

This reminds me of some questions put to PARADE magazine colunnist Marilyn vos Savant (I can’t believe that’s her real name!) a few years ago.  Apparently people think because she has a very high IQ she knows the meaning of life.  Someone wrote to ask her what gives a life meaning and purpose.  Her response?  A life is purposeful that produces more than it consumes.  Now how does having a high IQ qualify one to speak authoritatively on such subjects?

Brent White says universe run by large, invisible Commodore 64

May 16, 2011

I wish I had one of these! I still have my Vic-20 in the attic, though.

This headline is only slightly sillier than this one. Suppose I were a world-renowned expert on something. What would qualify me to speak authoritatively on something far outside of my area of expertise?

I read an article on the nature of genius somewhere (the New Yorker, maybe?), where I found this thought oddly comforting: Albert Einstein, the modern paragon of genius, was as dumb as anyone else when it came to things outside of the realm of physics.

How does this not apply to Stephen Hawking?

This morning’s Vinebranch video for graduating seniors

May 15, 2011

This morning we showed the following video as a tribute to the Class of 2011. I asked various adult youth group leaders to give advice to graduating seniors as they begin this next phase of their lives.

About that weird stuff in “John’s Pentecost” from John 20

May 14, 2011

No spoiler alert necessary. None of the following will appear in my Vinebranch sermon tomorrow. It’s too technical, too lengthy, and maybe a little boring for a sermon (as opposed to a Bible study). Needless to say, I find it all terribly interesting. Maybe you will too. It’s about the same passage of scripture I’ll be preaching on: John 20:19-29.

The scripture includes an intriguing image in John 20:22: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” What does it mean to be “breathed on” by Jesus?

This scripture continues the New Creation imagery that I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here). These words intentionally recall those words found back in Genesis Chapter 2, describing how God “breathed into the nostrils” of that first human being the “breath of life” (Gen 2:7). This breath that Jesus breathed into the disciples was the breath of new life. This was nothing less than the beginning of God’s new world, God’s new creation, and these disciples are being re-created. Jesus is sending his friends into the world to announce the good news of this new creation, which is beginning right now, in the here and now, and will be completed on the other side of our future resurrection.

This passage is sometimes called “John’s Pentecost,” because in John’s gospel, Jesus gives this group of disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit before his ascension—just as he does in Acts 2 after his ascension, while Jews are gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost.

The passage also includes the controversial verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What on earth does that mean? This has been a source of division in the Western church between Catholics and Protestants. Over the centuries, Catholics began interpreting this verse to mean that Jesus gave his apostles (and by extension their successors, ordained elders) a special role in forgiving sins—thus the Catholic sacrament of penance. Read the rest of this entry »

I love you, Billy

May 13, 2011

"But Billy, you're the man/ Who don't use sleight of hand/ Ain't wearing no disguise"

Blessings and prayers go out to Billy Graham. We got word yesterday that the 92-year-old evangelist has been hospitalized for pneumonia. Sounds like he’s recovering nicely, but still… He’s 92!

I’ve never met him, never been to one of his Crusades, never even spent much time watching him preach on TV. But when I listen to him speak, read him in interviews, or read about him, he never fails to win me over with his authenticity. He is someone in whom what you see is what you get. As the song says, he “ain’t wearing no disguise.”

At the height of the televangelist scandals of the ’80s, Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Graham’s good friend Johnny Cash, who said, “Billy wears $75 J.C. Penney suits, and he has the receipts to prove it.” That quote always stuck with me.

I’m re-posting this song from last year. It’s by a first-generation Christian rock band called the Swirling Eddies.

I don’t know about those other guys
There’s somethin’ in the back of their eyes
But Billy, you’re the man
Who don’t use sleight of hand
Ain’t wearin’ no disguise
I love you, Billy

I love the simple things you say
And you never seem to get in the way
No one is quite like you
Compassionate and true
“Just as I am,” I say
I love you, Billy

But we don’t love each other enough to have an actual “fight”!

May 11, 2011

You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. I believe it. That’s why family fights are often the ugliest and most vicious fights of all. “You always hurt the one you love,” and all that.

I thought of this when a clergy friend on Facebook pointed me to this article in the New York Times about the mainline Presbyterian church’s decision this week to permit the ordination of gay clergy who are in committed, monogamous relationships. In other words, contrary to the United Methodist Church’s position, if you’re gay and you want to be ordained, you don’t have to be celibate.

In a parenthetical aside, the article says, “The largest mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is still fighting over the issue.”

My clergy friend said that that sentence doesn’t shine a flattering light on the UMC. Actually, that sentence gives our church more credit than it deserves. If only we were fighting about it! I would love to see that fight—both sides fully engaged in making an actual argument, honoring our primary emphasis on scripture, while also marshaling tradition, reason, and experience. That would be awesome! More importantly, that would be a fully Christian way to move forward on this issue.

I disliked the retired Methodist bishops’ statement earlier this year because it failed to put forth an argument other than “We’re losing members and doesn’t discriminating against homosexuals feel wrong?”—which isn’t an argument. It would have been wise for these retired bishops to convene a meeting with clergy and theologians on both sides of the issue—including those retired bishops who disagree with them—and actually discuss these areas of disagreement. Wesley would call this “Christian conferencing.”

And even if it looked like “fighting” to the outside world, it would be far more loving than tossing a verbal grenade over the ramparts and ducking. That’s mostly all we ever do when it comes to this issue.