Archive for June, 2011

Happy Father’s Day

June 19, 2011

No one puts the “fun” in dysfunctional families like Loudon Wainwright III. Here’s a poignant but not altogether depressing song about a father and his teenaged son.

When I was your age, I was a mess
On a bad day I still am, I guess
I think I know what you’re going through
Everything changes but nothing is new
And I know that I’m miserable
Can’t you see?
I just want you to be just like me
Boys grow up to be grown men
And then men change back into boys again
You’re starting up, and I’m winding down
Ain’t it big enough for us both in this town?
Say it’s big enough for us both in this town

Coffee makes me happy

June 17, 2011

This is the design on top of my latté this morning, courtesy of a barista at Royal Espresso Caffe in Athens. God’s blessings on people everywhere who do good work.

Sermon for 06-12-11: “Roman Road, Part 1: I Am Not Ashamed”

June 16, 2011

Our new summer sermon series in Vinebranch got off to a strong start, I think. Pay no attention to the title on the screen behind me: It’s “Roman Road,” not “Romans Road.” 

Sermon Text: Romans 1:16-17

The following is my original manuscript.

When I was in college the first time around, I had a history professor who was the son of Methodist missionary parents in China. As a result, he was born in China and spent much of his childhood there—before Mao’s revolution. Like a good preacher, he often drew upon this personal experience to illustrate points he wanted to make in his lecture. But here’s the rub: during each of the five or six times he mentioned growing up in China to missionary parents, he qualified it by saying: “My parents were medical missionaries; they weren’t there to convert people.” All of his students in the class understood what he meant: His parents’ life work was all about doing something useful—you know, offering modern Western medicine to an impoverished people. They weren’t there to convert anyone. After all, what good is that? How would that be useful?

By contrast, Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel”— like there’s something shameful about going to China simply to try to persuade people to believe in Jesus and find salvation from God—so we need to offer something, you know, more practical, more useful, than simply the gospel. Back in the 1960s, a Catholic missionary, Father Vincent Donovan, described being a part of a mission to East Africa, where a nomadic tribe known as the Masai lived. For over a hundred years, the Catholic church had operated a mission in East Africa, in an effort to convert the Masai people to Christianity. They offered western medicine and education and agricultural assistance to the Masai, but for a hundred years they had almost no converts to show for it.

Donovan got an idea: What if I simply went to the people directly, and asked to share the gospel message—you know, with words—instead of dressing it up with all this extra stuff, which the church was using almost like a bribe? He resolved to do just that, but he wrote in his memoir that there was a problem: he was so unaccustomed to actually putting the gospel into words, that he had to re-learn what exactly it was and why it mattered. And when he told the tribal elders that the reason the church was there in the first place was to share this gospel message, they said, “If that’s what you wanted to do, why didn’t you just say so?”

I am not ashamed of the gospel. Read the rest of this entry »

“I didn’t have a category for her”

June 16, 2011

I’ve never read a mass-market Christian bestseller. I missed The Shack, Crazy Love, and don’t get me started on the Left Behind books. But I had Blue Like Jazz lying around, and I’m away from home (in Athens at Annual Conference), which is a little like vacation. And you know how every book you read on vacation (like everything you watch on TV) is a little better than at home? So far that’s true with this book.

Donald Miller has a friend named Penny, who used to be an atheist. She describes to him her friendship with Nadine, a Christian.

The thing I love about Nadine was that I never felt like she was selling anything. She would talk about God as if she knew Him, as if she had talked to Him on the phone that day. She was never ashamed, which is the thing with some Christians I had encountered. They felt like they had to sell God, as if He were soap or a vacuum cleaner, and it’s like they really weren’t listening to me; they didn’t care, they just wanted me to buy their product. I came to realize that I had judged all Christians on the personalities of a few. That was frightening for me, too, because it had been so easy just to dismiss Christians as nuts, but here was Nadine. I didn’t have a category for her.

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 46.

“Only one receives the prize”

June 15, 2011

I’m at the North Georgia Annual Conference in Athens, my favorite church-related event of the year. Scratch that: one of my favorite events of the year. I hate UGA (says the two-time Georgia Tech graduate), but I love Athens. This morning I ran the NGAC-sponsored 5K, whose proceeds go to homeless ministries. This is me at the finish line. As Charlie Sheen might say, “Duh! Winning!(Of course, I was mostly racing Methodist clergy. So how hard is that?)

"Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it." 1 Corinthians 9:24

Yesterday’s Vinebranch video: VBS@AFUMC 2011

June 13, 2011

Last week, I had the privilege of teaching the Bible lessons (along with other volunteers) for our church’s Vacation Bible School. During the first lesson (to a group of kindergartners) on the first day of VBS, a wave of panic came over me, and I thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” I found the experience unexpectedly challenging. But it got better!

Over 500 kids participated and 200 people volunteered to help. Yesterday in Vinebranch, we showed this video—minus the delightful soundtrack—while many of the VBS kids sang songs that they learned. It will give you some idea of what the kids experienced last week.


The way of sin and death

June 13, 2011

Our new “Roman Road” sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans got off to a great start yesterday, in my opinion—not that I’m biased. I talked mostly about the thesis statement of Paul’s letter, Romans 1:16-17, but I also touched on v. 18 and God’s wrath. I said that in order for us to not be ashamed of the gospel, we have to understand why humanity needs it in the first place: human sin and God’s response to it (i.e., wrath or anger). You can read or watch my sermon later this week and decide for yourself, but I think I gave the congregation a helpful way of thinking about the meaning of God’s anger toward sin.

As I pointed out yesterday, contemporary American culture mostly doesn’t understand why God would be angry about sin. Here, N.T. Wright proves helpful to me again. I like the way this passage from his Paul for Everyone commentary (on Romans 1:28-32) points to the death-dealing way of all sin:

All this points to the critical statement: they know God’s decree, that those who do things like that are, literally, ‘worthy of death’. Don’t misunderstand. People suppose God’s laws are arbitrary. They imagine that God (if such a being exists, they might add) has invented a set of rules to amuse himself, and that he then enjoys the thought of punishing people if they don’t keep them… The ‘decrees’ of God are not that kind of thing at all. They are built into the fabric of creation itself. Evil behaviour is inherently destructive. It points, like a signpost, towards death. This is obvious in the case of murder and other violence; it should be almost as obvious in the case of gossip and slander, where someone’s reputation and life are pulled to pieces, often without any chance of redress. People who are self-important and boastful are effectively pushing themselves into space belonging to others, as though the others shouldn’t really exist. And so on. God has made the world in such a way that kindness, gentleness, generosity, humility—love in all its many forms—is life-giving, while evil in its many forms is deadly.

Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 26-27.

Sermon for 06-05-11: “Eyewitness News, Part 6: Who Are You, Lord?”

June 12, 2011

Sorry for the delay in posting this sermon. I had an incredibly busy week with Vacation Bible School in addition to everything else. Sorry there’s no video component this week. 😦 Technical difficulties… Battery died midway through! This sermon concludes our “Eyewitness News” series, but it paves the way nicely for our next series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Sermon Text: Acts 9:1-9; 1 Corinthians 15:3-11

Last year, my friend John and I met an old, mutual friend for dinner. His name is Charles. We hadn’t seen Charles in 15 years. Charles was always an interesting guy. In the mid-’80s he went to L.A. to appear on the game show Jeopardy. This was very exciting for us. To get ready for the show, I remember Charles constantly flipping through Trivial Pursuit cards. He didn’t win. In fact, he finished third, but that was cool because third-place prize included a CD player, which at the time was really something special! No one we knew had a CD player. Isn’t that funny? Anyway, when Charles’s father died unexpectedly, Charles inherited a lot of money. He went back to L.A., where he’s lived ever since. I’m not making this up: he later won a car on The Price Is Right.

Charles was interested in appearing on game shows, because game shows were a stepping stone toward doing that thing that Charles most wanted to do: which is, become an actor. Charles worked hard for years pursuing his dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood, which, as is so often the case, didn’t pan out. Since then Charles’s life has been characterized by flitting from one questionable business venture to another, never settling down, always trying to find that one thing that will make him rich and/or famous. Read the rest of this entry »

Praying (and preaching) from the heart

June 10, 2011

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

The problem with preaching a sermon series on Romans, as I am starting to do this Sunday, is that the preacher has to actually understand what Paul is getting at. Don’t laugh! I’m being completely serious! Have you read Romans recently? It’s dense and difficult, and we often have to suspend our disbelief that Paul is making one cohesive argument, rather than going off on a hundred different tangents. (I like N.T. Wright’s comparison of Romans to a great symphony: motifs appear and reappear, often in different keys and with counterpoints, etc. Wright is a classical musician; I am not.)

Of course we all have our favorite verses and passages from Romans. If you grew up Baptist in the Bible Belt, like me, you will no doubt be familiar with the “Romans Road to Salvation” (a quick Google search can’t determine whether it should be “Roman Road” or “Romans Road”), a collection of six or seven verses or scripture passages scattered throughout the book that purport to tell how one “gets saved.” And I’m not implying that those verses aren’t useful shorthand for explaining some part of the process of salvation, but they are incomplete and often beside Paul’s point.

Speaking of which, I’m carefully reading the New Interpreter’s commentary on Romans, which happens to be written by Wright—whom, as my regular blog reader(s) know(s), I already love. Nearly every section of his commentary includes words along these lines: “Of course, my exegesis goes against the traditional Reformed interpretation of these verses. The principle or doctrine behind this interpretation isn’t wrong—and Paul would no doubt agree with it—but is beside Paul’s main point here.” Something like that. No wonder Wright, an evangelical Anglican, has made some enemies among the hyper-Calvinists among us.

Be that as it may, I was reading Wright’s reflections on Romans 3:27-31. In it, he talks about some ways in which Paul’s discussion of “justification by faith apart from works” has been misappropriated by Enlightenment- and Romantic-influenced thinkers over the past two or three centuries, and how, as a result, this thinking has negatively influenced worship. One consequence, he writes, is a deeply Protestant suspicion of anything in worship that isn’t spontaneous—like, for example, scripted public prayer (not to mention liturgy in general). Against this prejudice, he writes:

There is of course great value in the stumbling prayer that comes from the heart as against the beautifully phrased prayer read from a book while the heart is busy elsewhere. But many, perhaps most, of the greatest spiritual guides would regard this as a quite false antithesis. Often somebody else’s words will act as lightning conductors, enabling one’s belief in, and sense of, God’s presence to go down to the very center of one’s being.

As I am a frequent pray-er of prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, I couldn’t agree more. More generally, I strongly reject the idea, as would Wright, that words that are thoroughly thought-through and written down before being spoken are somehow less “authentic,” less “from the heart,” than more spontaneous words.

This bias has infiltrated my profession. I write out a manuscript of my sermon each week (lucky for you, since I post it here). I put on paper exactly what I want to say. If, in rehearsing my sermon, I decide to say it another way, I literally make a change to my manuscript in my word-processing program of choice. I’ve been doing this for seven years (although I might not re-print it now, thanks to the recent gift of an iPad). Of course it helps that I know how to type well.

Writing a manuscript used to be the norm for preachers, but it’s currently unfashionable in homiletical circles. It’s gone the way of classic three-point expository sermons. (There’s nothing wrong with those, either.) To be clear, I’m not arguing the merits of preaching from a manuscript as opposed to an outline or with nothing at all. Whatever works for you, I say. But I strongly disagree with the premise—which I have heard some preacher acquaintances actually say out loud—that preaching from a manuscript makes you less “authentic” or “heartfelt” or “Spirit-filled” than you would be if you preached without it.

“Step away from the manuscript,” they say. “Be yourself.” Spare me! I pour my heart into my manuscript, and it reflects, as much as anyone might want it to, my true self. Of course this doesn’t mean that I never step away from it, deviate from it, be spontaneous, go down a different path while preaching it; it just means that at 10:59 a.m. on Sunday morning, after I have prayerfully and deliberately written and edited it, this is the sermon that I honestly believe that Holy Spirit is leading me to preach. If that wind, which blows where it will, is blowing in a different direction at 11:35, I’ll try my best to tack in that new direction.

What I hope critics of manuscript preaching are really saying is that they don’t like preachers who simply read a manuscript from the pulpit. Who does? Preaching from a manuscript, if you follow good rules of public speaking, shouldn’t mean that! Churchill and JFK, to take two prominent secular examples, used manuscripts, and they were effective communicators. Likewise, I hope these critics dislike those preachers without manuscripts who stumble around from one point to another, ramble off track, constantly repeat themselves, and speak in a drab, artless way. See what I mean? It goes both ways.

Every preacher, regardless of whether they use a manuscript or not, should prepare. And that preparation takes hours if it’s done right. Speaking of which, I have to get back to it!

† N.T. Wright in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 486.

“I am not ashamed of the gospel”

June 9, 2011

When I was in college the first time around, I had a history professor who was the son of Methodist missionary parents in China. Consequently, he was born in China and spent much of his childhood there—before Mao’s revolution. Like a good preacher, he drew upon this personal experience to illustrate points he wanted to make in his lecture.

During each of the five or six times he mentioned growing up in China to missionary parents, he immediately inserted this qualification: “My parents were medical missionaries, not proselytizing missionaries.” All of us students got his drift: His parents’ life work was all about doing something useful—offering modern Western medicine to an impoverished people. They weren’t there to convert anyone. After all, what good is that?

A couple of thoughts: I’m not in a position to comment on the fairness of this characterization of his parents’ work. The fact that they were Methodist missionaries implies—I hope—that regardless of their actual work in China, their motivation was explicitly religious and specifically Christian: they were so inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ that they wanted to share Christ’s love with others, using the gifts he gave them for medicine. I’m sure they felt called by God to do this work. If, in part because of their efforts, some Chinese people became Christians along the way… well, it seems likely that his parents wouldn’t have minded, you know? They might have even welcomed it.

Besides, what’s wrong with proselytizing? Not only is there nothing wrong with trying to persuade people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, there is everything right about it, no matter what our culture says. This is the heart of the church’s mission. (I would only qualify this by saying that “becoming disciples” is more of a lifelong process than a moment of decision. We’re always becoming!)

How do we go about this mission? Again, at the risk of pointing out the obvious: by sharing the gospel. And when I say “gospel,” I mean the plain, unvarnished gospel. In other words, we speak words and live lives that communicate what God has done for the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and describe how God’s saving work relates to our present situation.

The gospel, according to Paul in Romans 1:16-17, is “the power of God,” which is not just another way of saying that it’s a powerful message—the way Schindler’s List is a powerful message. And it’s not even saying that it’s the most powerful message, although it surely is. No, from Paul’s perspective, the gospel is power itself. It’s God’s power. And it’s enough. Or at least it ought to be.

I’m writing the words of this blog post to myself… For the next time I’m sweating over a sermon, searching for just the right words, trying too hard to be clever or funny or endearing. Just give them the gospel, Brent. It’s all you need!