Archive for July, 2011

“Remember your baptism and be thankful”

July 29, 2011

Bishop Watson led us in reaffirming our baptism at the Jordan River in February

Scot McKnight, an Anabaptist writer and thinker, is writing about baptism over on his blog. Anabaptists (think Mennonite and Amish, for example) practice believer’s baptism. During the Protestant Reformation, Catholics and Protestants, who could agree on seemingly little else, too often agreed with one another that Anabaptists should be killed as heretics—in part for re-baptizing adult Christians who were baptized as infants.

McKnight is reviewing a book on Anabaptist theology, and he wonders if there isn’t a movement within traditions that practice infant baptism (like our own Methodist tradition) to reconsider the wisdom of the practice. In the comments section of that post, I wrote the following:

United Methodist pastor here… In my tradition, there is little room for “revisiting the question” of baptism. Infant baptism is not some merely acceptable but less desirable option. As clergy, we counsel and encourage parents to have their infants baptized, even when parents would choose to wait. Of course, some parents still hold out, in which case their children are normally baptized at confirmation. (For believers’ baptism, we are indifferent as to mode.)

I’m not complaining. I happen to agree with our church’s understanding of the sacrament. And I can’t imagine that Catholics, for example, are less strident on the issue, right?

Regardless, one recent development in my denomination—which may in part be a response to living in our post-Christian age—is an emphasis on the reaffirmation of baptism liturgy. We must continually affirm the promises we made (or are made on our behalf) at baptism, and this liturgy gives us the opportunity to do that. If you haven’t seen the liturgy, it looks and sounds a lot like the baptism liturgy. Instead of re-baptizing, however, we use the water in other symbolic ways and say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

I often counsel with people who want to be re-baptized, especially after a powerful experience of spiritual growth. They want to acknowledge publicly what has happened in their hearts. I believe strongly that reaffirmation of baptism is a beautiful way of accomplishing that, and we pastors should regularly make it available to people.

I ♥ the Vinebranch Band

July 27, 2011

There’s something special about a rock trio—bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rush, the Police, Hüsker Dü, and Sleater-Kinney. They are the bare minimum necessary to get the job done, so they can’t afford to waste any notes. They practically have to be tighter, louder, and edgier.

While Stephanie Newton and the other members of the Vinebranch Band were leading worship in AFUMC’s traditional services on July 10, this trio led by Gary Wilder performed that same duty in Vinebranch. (The scheduled acoustic guitarist called in sick.) As you can see, they rocked!

Our many talented musician volunteers in Vinebranch are an embarrassment of riches. Thanks to all for helping to make this service so special.

“Boogity, boogity, boogity”

July 26, 2011

Once again, your humble blogger is unafraid to take on the controversial issues of the day—including, this time, this Baptist pastor’s prayer before a recent NASCAR event.

I realize it’s not exactly the Book of Common Prayer, but I like it! First, he’s alluding to a popular movie that he and everyone in the crowd have seen and enjoyed. They clearly got the reference. (This should defend him from accusations that he has a big ego.) It’s O.K. to laugh, the prayer seems to suggest, because laughter, too—like all the other good things the prayer affirms—is a gift from God. He qualifies his words by saying, “You said, ‘In all things give thanks’…” Rev. Nelms shows the crowd that he believes it.

The prayer is a reminder that God is right there in the midst of something as seemingly trivial (to me) as a NASCAR race, which of course is true. That’s a good and helpful reminder—a pretty good sermon in itself. And it’s only about a minute long!

(By the way, there’s nothing inherently sacred about the word “Amen,” either. It’s a word of affirmation—”so be it.” In this context, even “boogity, boogity, boogity” can be heard as the same kind of affirmation.)

Years ago, I pastored a small church located in middle Georgia, right off of I-75. Once or twice a year, parishioners warned me, attendance would be down in worship because of “the races”—NASCAR events happening in either Daytona or Atlanta. Truthfully, I kind of resented it. I wanted to get on my high horse about people missing church for something silly like a race. “Where are their priorities?” I wondered… As if God were locked up inside the walls of church on Sunday morning!

I tend to like things that break down the artificial barrier between “the sacred” and “the secular,” including this prayer.

Sermon for 07-24-11: “Roman Road, Part 7: The Law of Sin”

July 26, 2011

Sermon Text: Romans 7:14-25a

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

So I went on a cruise last week. Have you ever been on a cruise? Did you like it? What was your favorite part? I went on the cruise with Lisa’s family—her father-in-law paid for most of it. I don’t know if it’s something that I would do on my own. But I asked people before I left to tell me what they liked about the cruise, and to a person, everyone said that they liked the food… Specifically, they liked the fact that they could eat as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted, and without paying extra for it. Right? Can’t decide between the shrimp cocktail appetizer and the crab cakes? Now you don’t have to decide! Get both! The waiter just brings it to you! No questions asked. Can’t decide between the warm chocolate lava cake and the cheesecake? There’s no deciding… Get both!

And that’s only in the dining room! On the Lido deck—all day long—you can eat as many cheeseburgers and chicken fingers and nachos and french fries and have as many servings of soft-serve ice cream as you want! And there are also these nice people who walk around with these trays of umbrella drinks—you know what I’m talking about? And, let’s face it, men… I’m speaking to us guys now. We always secretly want to drink the umbrella drinks that our wives order, because they taste like Hawaiian Punch, and Hawaiian Punch is really good, even though we wouldn’t be caught drinking it now. But it’s really not cool for guys to drink the drinks with umbrellas in them. Except when you’re on the Love Boat—you know? Then all bets are off. So these umbrella drinks are great, and they’re like 5,000 calories a piece—and that’s in addition to the chicken fingers and cheeseburgers and french fries and soft-serve ice cream that you just ate as a mid-afternoon snack…

“It’s O.K.,” we tell ourselves,I’m going to go walk it off on the ‘olympic track’ track’ on the upper deck.” Yeah, right! You could be walking from here to Alaska and back and you would not have burned off the calories you consumed just at lunch! But you tell yourself you’re going to work out, and maybe you do the first day. But by the second or third day, you know, exercise time interferes with nap time or bingo on the Promenade deck… Or maybe that’s just me? Read the rest of this entry »

“Boy Scout Totem Poles” by Michael Hester

July 25, 2011

Mike sang harmony with me on "I Am a Pilgrim."

I had the pleasure of attending last night’s Summer Concert Series at Martha Brown United Methodist Church in East Atlanta. My friend Michael Hester performed along with many of his musical friends, including his band, The Split Levels. Yours truly also did a few things.

Here is an all-too-rare performance of a beautiful original song by Mike called “Boy Scout Totem Poles.” It’s a childhood reminiscence. I love this song, and whenever I see Mike perform live, I loudly request it. He rarely obliges. I’m happy to have this document of the performance. I bet you’ll enjoy it, too.

Inspiring Facebook posts, Part 2

July 23, 2011

From my friend Mike (click to enlarge):

I responded with a quote from Rowan Williams, which I find to be profoundly true and (therefore) deeply Christian:

“God’s act in creating the world is gratuitous, so everything comes to me as a gift. God simply wills that there shall be joy for something other than himself. That is the lifeblood of what I believe.”

Once again, Dr. Ehrman… So what?

July 22, 2011

Bart Ehrman, an evangelical Christian-turned-atheist, is a popular figure among New Atheists. Not that he shares many of their sympathies. His apostasy was apparently heartfelt and painful. It resulted, he says, from his inability to reconcile the God of Christianity with the reality of evil and suffering in the world. In other words, he’s disappointed that God doesn’t exist. He likes the idea of God and would love to believe in him if only he could.

The New Atheists adore Ehrman because they can use him, even indirectly, to bolster their own lame arguments against God, Christianity, etc. “Maybe we don’t know much about this stuff that we’ve made such a handsome sum of money railing against, but this guy surely does (it’s his life’s work, after all), and he agrees with us that it’s a bunch of baloney!” They’re trading on his credibility.

Not that Ehrman seems to mind very much. Over at the Huffington Post, where he keeps a blog, he presents himself as that fearless New Testament scholar who can afford to speak the truth about the Bible—because, unlike all those Christian Bible scholars, he doesn’t have to actually believe any of it. (I honestly think this is a fair characterization, but tell me if you think I’m wrong.)

Regardless, his latest post is a variation on a recurring theme: “Did you know—especially you Christians—that the New Testament didn’t fall out of the sky on golden plates? That it wasn’t dictated and assembled by God himself? That human beings wrote these books and letters and, over a long period of time, the church discerned what did and did not belong there? Can you believe it?”

Well, yes… So what?

Does Dr. Ehrman know that the four earliest gospels that we know of are the four that we have in our New Testament—all written relatively closely together in time, and completed before the end of the first century? That the apocryphal gospels he refers to came long after these four? That these apocryphal gospels were never even close to becoming a part of the New Testament that we have today?

Of course Ehrman knows all this. But saying so wouldn’t fit his narrative.

Who were “some of Jesus’ followers” who believed in these non-canonical stories? Not the apostles who actually knew Jesus, whose own words were corroborated by other eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. Not their successors in the early church, who read and ultimately agreed that the four canonical gospels are the only ones that belong in the Bible.

I’m sure that some of Jesus’ followers, then as now, believed all sorts of crazy or wrongheaded things about Jesus. Again, so what? This is in part why Christ gave us the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, to help us sort these things out.

Either we believe that God guided the process that gave us our New Testament or we don’t. But if we do, then there’s nothing in Ehrman’s words to shock or surprise us.

Sermon for 07-10-11: “Roman Road, Part 5: Peace With God”

July 22, 2011

The Gulf of Mexico at sundown. Taken a couple of days ago from the upper deck of the cruise ship I was on.

I’m back from my cruise vacation. Thanks to my awesome friends Nancy, Geoff, and Paul for filling in for me in my absence.

Have you ever been on a cruise? It’s like the Golden Corral combined with Disney World—if Disney World’s only ride were the spinning tea cups. And the lines were longer. I meant to post this sermon before I left, but wi-fi at the Holiday Inn Express was down, and wi-fi on the boat was prohibitively expensive. So here goes…

This sermon is Part 5 of our Vinebranch series, “Roman Road,” which takes us through Paul’s letter to the Romans. In today’s scripture, Romans 5:1-8, Paul talks about the end result of God’s atoning work of Jesus Christ through the cross: Justification (God’s verdict of “not guilty” directed toward us sinners through faith) and peace with God. And “peace with God” isn’t simply a “peaceful, easy feeling.” It’s solid and permanent like a peace treaty.

We also talk about what it means to “boast in our sufferings,” and how God uses hard times to make us better people. (Sadly, my best illustration at the end gets cut off because of a technical problem. You can read it in the manuscript that follows the video.)

The following is my original manuscript.

So, did anything interesting happen in the news last week? I got back from vacation, and everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, everything I turned on and watched or read or listened to, people were talking about the verdict. I thought I had been living under a rock, because I actually had no idea what they were talking about at first. In a highly publicized trial, a young woman named Casey Anthony, who certainly seems to be guilty of murdering her child, was found “not guilty,” and as a result she avoided the death penalty.

People who followed the trial closely told me this was the most shocking “not guilty” verdict since the O.J. trial. And I’m sure it was. For those of you who followed the trial, think of the shock and surprise you felt when you heard the verdict. Read the rest of this entry »

H.I. McDonnough receives the promise

July 20, 2011

This is the third in a short series of guest posts. Today’s author, Paul Wallace, is a freelance writer. A professor of physics and astronomy at Berry College from 1998 through 2008, Paul received his MDiv from Emory’s Candler School of Theology in May. He lives in Decatur, GA with his wife and three children. Paul blogs at

A flower, you are. Just a little desert flower. Nick Cage as Herbert I. McDonnough getting nabbed — again — for raiding his local Short Stop Mart — again. As he stands for his mug he comes face-to-face for the first time with Ed, the woman of his dreams

Hope lives where normality gives out.

One of my favorite funny movies is Raising Arizona. In it, a hapless H.I. McDonnough, small-time compulsive crook, falls in love with and marries Ed (short for Edwina, played by the indefatigable Holly Hunter), a twice-decorated police officer who works the mugshot camera at the county lockup in Tempe, Arizona. But trouble starts when Ed’s insides are found to be, according to H.I., “a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Science couldn’t help them, although it had worked wonders for Nathan Arizona, a local furniture magnate who, with his wife Florence, had quintuplets — five blond baby boys — on their hands.

So H.I. and Ed devise a plan that would be “the solution to all our problems and the answer to all of our prayers”: drive up to the Arizona mansion under cover of night and steal one of the quints. After all, as Ed insists, “they’ve got more than they can handle.” H.I. pulls off the heist. With that, the circus begins. And at the end of a rollicking tale involving our protagonist, Ed, Junior, two escaped cons, a very scary biker dude, a pack of insane dogs, and a box of Huggies, the haggard couple returns the unflappable Nathan Junior to the very crib from which he had been lifted.

Distraught, childless, and hopeless, H.I. and Ed decide they should break up their marriage. But a gentle and understanding Nathan Arizona encourages them to sleep on it. So they do. And that night H.I. has a dream. It is a dream of the future, a dream of children, a dream of a good land. His description of the dream closes the movie in this way.

But still I dreamed on, further into the future than I’d ever dreamed before. And this was cloudier, because it was years, years away. But I saw an old couple bein’ visited by their children and all their grandchildren too. The old couple weren’t screwed up, and neither were their kids or their grandkids. And I don’t know. You tell me. This whole dream. Was it wishful thinkin’? Was I just fleein’ reality, like I know I’m liable to do? But me and Ed, we can be good too. And it seemed real. It seemed like us. And it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all the children are happy and beloved.

I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.

What a fantastic movie.

The book of Genesis tells the story of another man who, thanks to the facts of biology, could not have children. Abraham and his wife Sarah were too old. Yet God gave Abraham a vision of the future and in that vision Abraham found great hope.

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” [The Lord] brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

– Genesis 15.1-2a, 5-6

So I find myself lining up H.I. McDonnough and Abraham. What a brilliant pair. On one hand, H.I.: a solid-gold screwup if ever there was one. Unable to control his impulses to commit petty crimes, willing to steal children to make his wife happy, unable to keep his job at the local plant drilling holes in sheet metal. On the other hand, Abraham: paragon of virtue. The model of faith for hundreds of generations, the father of a nation, the man through whom God chooses to redeem the whole earth.

You already know the truth, though: They are the same man, they are anyone and everyone who ever had a dream that defied reason. H.I., in addition to being a world-class goof, is a model of goodness and faithful love. And Abraham, in addition to being an icon of faith, certainly drove his poor family up a tree with his aloofness, his silences, and his irrational behavior. We are all mixed bags, is my point.

And we are mixed bags who live in a world circumscribed by the possibilities — and impossibilities — described by natural science. The oddness of quantum mechanics notwithstanding, the world that we live in is pretty well contained by predictable laws and absolute limits. You can’t do this, but you can do that. You can’t fly by flapping your arms, but you can build a 747. You can get pregnant like this, but not like that. Etcetera. In a similar way we are bound by our societies. If you do this, you will lose your friends. If you do that, you will not. If you walk up the Mount of the Lord to sacrifice your only son, you will not be very popular when you get back home, no matter how the killing comes down. But if you play nice and push that voice down hard, everyone will smile and nod approvingly: he’s such a good family man. Etcetera.

So we are mixed bags who hear voices, who have visions, who dream dreams. Voices, visions, and dreams that won’t let us go. And we want to pay attention to them, we want to see the visions made real, we want to believe in them — even if we don’t understand them — and act in the world accordingly. Yet we fear the way the world will respond. The world of rules and hard limits. The world that pushes back. What a strange combination: We, so unknown, so mixed-up; we, goofs and saints simultaneously. The world, so set in its ways, almost mechanical in its responses.

Can Abraham and Sarah have a child? Biology says no; it would break all the rules of science. Their friends and family say no. It would be unseemly and more than a little creepy. But that voice, Abraham says to himself, it seemed so real.

Can H.I. and Ed have a child? No and no. Same story: nice vision, but no soap. But that dream, H.I. says to himself, it seemed like us.

This is not a commencement speech. I will never say that anyone can be anything they want to be. There are limits in this world. There are limits to each of us. What I am saying is, I believe in the power of Christian hope. That hope sits at the very still point of faith. That hope whispers, You can be made new. That hope assures us that our fleeting glimpses of Canaan are reliable, despite the inflexibility and resistance of the world. That hope speaks to us in the words of the world’s biggest goof, H.I. McDonnough: We can be good too.

May you act on your hope today, now, without fear.

One Book, Many Voices

July 19, 2011

This is the second in a short series of guest posts. Today’s author, Geoff McElroy, is a United Methodist Minister and has served as pastor for churches in Madison, Rome, and Atlanta, GA. Currently, he is about to begin his second year of PhD work at the University of Texas-Austin in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, and his research interests focus on Semitic linguistics, gender in the Hebrew Bible, and the reception and interpretation of biblical texts and stories. He also serves at University UMC in Austin as the Young Adult Ministries Assistant.

The Bible is a diverse book.

It was written in various stages, in various times and places, by various people, and even in various languages (three: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). It has been used and embraced and pored over by diverse communities; it has been interpreted, taught, sung, dramatized, painted by a variety of scholars and artists.

As a biblical scholar, I wrestle with these texts in a variety of ways. I read it as literature, and sometimes as a text that gives a glimpse back into history and at ancient cultures. This past year at the University of Texas, I began learning how to read it linguistically, mining it for data about the development of the Hebrew language, and as such, the development of the Semitic language family.

The ways the Bible is encountered is a diverse as the people who have engaged it over time.

More and more, my view of the Bible has been shifting from a monolithic, single entity and into something more spread-out. What I mean by that is that the Bible speaks about very little with a single voice; instead, what we have is (I believe) is more dialogue than it is monologue about God, faith, and what it means to try and live the journey.

My favorite (and most simple) example of this is the three wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs generally dispenses its wisdom in very short sentences, kind of like an ancient precursor to Twitter. But it operates within a specific worldview: if you do good, good happens to you because you are giving towards and orderly society. If you disrupt that order by doing bad, bad things will come to you.

Job and Ecclesiastes, whether or not they know Proverbs as an actual book at the time they are written, are engaging exactly this kind of thinking and coming away with very different answers. In fact, the worldview or Proverbs appears in Job on the lips of Job’s companions only for Job to shoot them down time and again, appealing that he has done nothing to deserve the suffering he is enduring. In other words, for the book of Job, bad stuff happens even to good people.

Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, goes one step further in its response. It says again and again that everything is “vanity” (or maybe “emptiness”) and that the same fate befalls both the righteous and the wicked and that there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, all we have really is to be happy and enjoy ourselves while we live (Ecc 3:12). Good stuff and bad stuff happen, and in the view of Ecclesiastes, there is no real rhyme or reason to it.

These books and their worldviews exist side-by-side within the canons of both Judaism and Christianity. I am not aware of any attempt to get rid of one or another because they clash with the others. Instead, I think they provide a very powerful model to think about how we interpret our experiences of life, faith, and God.

My experience of God is different than yours, just as yours is different than the person who sits in the pew or seat next to you on Sunday morning, just as theirs is different than a someone who attends a church across town, or who goes to a Catholic church somewhere in South America, or who attends an Anglican service in London, or who is a Palestinian Christian in the midst of all the fighting and tension in the Middle East.

The Bible is diverse; it is diverse in the times and places that it reflects, and more importantly it is diverse in the voices of those who produced these documents and in their own experiences of God.

The early church made a curious decision somewhere down the line. They chose to have more than one Gospel. They could have chosen Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John as THE Gospel of the New Testament, but they chose not to do that. Some people tried to harmonize the four into kind of a Super!Gospel, but that was resisted as well. Instead, it chose four distinct, diverse voices about who Jesus was and what he meant.

The Bible is in many ways a conversation between ideologies, concepts, worldviews that span across centuries as Israelite, Jew, and Christian struggle concerning life with God. And by bringing these texts together, communities of faith over the centuries have continued the conversation, adding their own voices in a variety of ways.

Diversity does not demand an “everything goes” mentality. This diversity makes it hard to engage at times, I admit. There are times I wish it would just give me a simple, straight-forward answer, and most of the time I come away with more questions.

What diversity does demand, however, is the ability to dialogue, to share, to be in conversation with each other. Which is why more and more I am finding social media to be a fascinating place to watch theology and faith take place, for in that space we can have conversation with voices that 20 years ago we might never get to hear or experience.

Just like other mediums like art, dance, theatre, film, etc. have engaged biblical texts and themes and invited others to engage them in new ways, I am excited to see the new possibilities that a broader, more connected world might bring about.

I love this book, which is why I have dedicated my life to studying it. And part of my fascination is the fact that it has continued to inspire and confront and push and prod on the hearts and imaginations of diverse people in diverse ways. That is the beauty of the book, and I think its why we keep going back, and why it is able to keep speaking down through the centuries: it is inviting us to take part in the journey, in the conversation, to add our own voice as we read, as we study, as we learn and grow.

Let’s join the conversation, and through each other’s voices, may we once again hear the voice of God.“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).