Archive for August, 2011

New feature in Vinebranch bulletin

August 17, 2011

This Sunday, you’ll notice a new feature on back of our Vinebranch bulletin: a QR code that links your smartphone to Vinebranch-related content. It will look something like this:

Give it a try now. You need a free QR app, which you can download on any smartphone. Open the app. Point your phone at the QR code, and, voila! Instant cool-ness.

The QR code on back of the bulletin will direct you to web content, but these codes can also give you a text message. What does the code above say?

About that controversial word “predestination”

August 16, 2011

In my sermon on Sunday, I didn’t say anything about predestination, a word that shows up in Romans 8:29-30. These verses are a Calvinist proof-text. I’m not a Calvinist, as everyone knows (John Wesley was no fan of Calvinism). And I’m not going to resolve the issue of the meaning of the word in this post. (Next week’s sermon over Romans 9 might afford me an opportunity to say something about it from the pulpit.)

Here are a few quick thoughts: Whatever Paul means by this word, he means as a word of assurance. He certainly isn’t telling the Roman Christians that some of them are saved and some of them are damned, and there isn’t anything they can do about it! Since he’s been laying out the means by which all humanity now becomes part of God’s covenant people, he likely intends to reassure Gentile Christians, especially, that their adoption into God’s family was a part of God’s plan all along.

After all, as we know from Paul’s argument so far, God didn’t send the Torah to his covenant people only to  find—to God’s surprise—that Israel failed to live up to it. The sending of God’s Son didn’t represent a change of plan. Rather, God intended to use the Torah to highlight sin and, through the cross, gather it up in one place in order that Israel’s Messiah (and humanity’s representative) could destroy its power once and for all.

And because of what God accomplished through the cross (whose victory was made manifest in the resurrection), everyone on earth now has the opportunity to share in God’s victory and become a part of God’s family.

Wow! That’s a hasty and inadequate summary of Romans so far, but you get the point. Whatever Paul is talking about, it shouldn’t be read through the lens of 16th-century Protestant theology, no matter how much Paul’s words here made their contribution to it; it should be read in the context of Paul’s argument about the Messiah and God’s covenant with Israel.

I vote that we make Bishop Wright an honorary Methodist. We're children of the Anglican tradition, you know?

Regardless, the most troubling aspect of predestination to most Methodists is the idea that God forces God’s will on some people—as if being “elected” by God were all God’s choice and humanity has no say in the matter. How does this leave room for personal responsibility? I like (surprise, surprise) N.T. Wright’s words on the subject:

Is Paul after all a determinist, believing in a blind plan that determines everything, so that human freedom, responsibility, obedience, and love itself are after all a sham? ¶ One can easily imagine Paul’s own reaction… “Certainly not!”… What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important.1

This is not to deny, Wright says, the “mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage.” But it does deny the “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa” [emphasis mine].

Does this sound familiar? The deterministic view of conservative Calvinism represents the same two-dimensional thinking that characterizes contemporary discussions of evolution and the origin of the cosmos. As I’ve written about on plenty of occasions, people on both sides of the science-faith divide seem to agree with one another that either evolutionary processes explain how we got here or God explains how we got here, but not both. This is a false dichotomy: it’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Just as God’s action in Creation doesn’t compete with the physical laws of  the universe, so God’s will doesn’t compete with human will. As Wright says,

God’s actions and human actions are not, as it were, on the same plane… Woe betide theology if discussion of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from one by adding to the other.2

Thank you again, Tom.

1. N.T. Wright in “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 603.

2. Ibid.

Sermon for 08-14-11: “Roman Road, Part 10: If God Is For Us”

August 16, 2011

Our sermon series, “Roman Road,” continues with Part 10. In this sermon, we turn our attention to Romans 8:26-39, including Paul’s beautiful crescendo to the symphony he’s been composing up to this point: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hear this good news: If you are a child of God through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, nothing can separate you from God’s love!

Sermon Text: Romans 8:26-39

The following is my original manuscript.

Lisa, my wife, gave birth to our middle child on the living room floor of our house in Tucker almost ten years ago. Some people plan to give birth at home, with a midwife—and doing so is a trendy thing these days. When you plan to have a home birth, however, that means that you want to give birth at home; Lisa was, by contrast, an unwilling participant. But she gave birth at home in spite of what she wanted because her husband was out of town on an “emergency” business trip in Florida, and was not home to drive her to the hospital in the middle of the night. Can you believe he did that? No wonder she divorced that guy! Just kidding, just kidding! I am that guy! As it’s so easy to see in hindsight, I should not have gone out of town so close to Lisa’s due date.

Lisa’s mother showed up to drive her to the hospital, but by the time she got there it was apparent that Lisa wasn’t going to make it. So her mom called 9-1-1. The first responders were about eight or nine of Tucker’s Bravest—firefighters—and they were hugging the far wall, as far away as they could get from Lisa. Because they wanted nothing to do with birthin’ no babies. They reassured Lisa that the paramedics would be there shortly. And they were. When the paramedics arrived, Lisa’s first question was, “Do you have any drugs?”—because she really, really wanted an epidural at that point. And the paramedics, who barely arrived just in time to catch Townshend as he came shooting out, said, “Oh, no… It’s much too late for that!” So Lisa gave birth without the benefit of drugs—on our living room floor! And for that, she certainly deserved mother-of-the-year for 2001. And of course every year since then!

We want to avoid pain and suffering, which is why we Americans tend to worship at the altar of modern medicine. There’s a magic pill, we imagine, for every problem these days. Have you watched some of these prescription-drug commercials on TV? Side effects may include dizziness, constipation, and death. Consult your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. I’m not against medicine and prescription drugs, but no pill can change the basic fact that pain and suffering are a part of life.
Read the rest of this entry »

Pray where you are

August 16, 2011

The amazing Vinebranch Band from this past Sunday, preaching a message through song that I need to hear again and again: Pray anywhere and everywhere. What’s stopping you?

This song is originally from the Lost Dogs’ album Little Red Riding Hood.

Cool new Facebook feature

August 13, 2011

… but also kind of depressing. It goes to prove that I am a person of great faith.

As we approach another season, “Go Jackets, anyway!”

Marriage and monogamy in the Christian Century

August 13, 2011

A while back, I was deeply critical of the New York Times’s feature-length story on Dan Savage and “nonmonogamy” (Apple’s new autocorrect feature insists on trying to correct the word, but this is how the Times spelled it). In Savage’s defense, I conceded that “everything Savage says isn’t terrible.” I’m still unwilling to go much further than that faint praise.

By contrast, this week’s Christian Century article on the same subject (I guess they read my blog?) goes a bit further. I realize now that I overlooked another positive aspect of Savage’s advice on sex and marriage, which this article points out: his emphasis on forgiveness.

To a correspondent whose spouse lapsed in a way that fell far short of adultery, Savage offers this: “A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.”

In this pithy sentence, one can easily see that a large part of Savage’s appeal is a candor that’s missing from so much public discourse, especially in the church: “The frankness and realism with which he handles such questions provide a sharp contrast to the tepid affirmations and bashful silences that characterize much mainline preaching and thinking on sex.”

“Mainline preaching and thinking” on sex? I wasn’t aware such a thing existed, as cozy as we mainliners tend to be with whatever Glee has to say on the subject. We outsource preaching and thinking on sex. Nevertheless, I preached a two-parter last year on love and marriage in which I talked as candidly as a “family-friendly” sermon allows, and not a single person in the congregation got the vapors. But many people expressed relief that I was talking about it. Unless or until the church talks about it more, is Dan Savage the best we can get?

Fittingly, the Christian Century article ends with this affirmation of actual monogamy, which I couldn’t have said better:

In this sense, monogamy does not consist of refraining from sex outside marriage any more than true worship consists of avoiding idols. Instead, undivided sexual intimacy is a sign or sacrament of a full and altruistic unity that touches every aspect of domestic life. This unity may be adulterated in countless ways short of sexual intercourse, from casual neglect to the dreaded Facebook affair. Most marriages experience such diminishment. Yet most marriages also offer opportunities for sanctification—for a heroic ethic of life together that not only manages the human disaster and perceives its true depths but also calls us to transcend it in the name of hope.

On personal intercessory prayer

August 11, 2011

About 25 years ago, I read an interview with Ray Charles in which he was asked about his faith in God. He was a believer, he said, but he didn’t think we should go to God with every little problem, “every time we stub our toe.” I’ve never met anyone, to my knowledge, who did pray to God when they stubbed their toe, although many—myself included—have used his name vainly when this happens. (What might an appropriate prayer upon stubbing one’s toe sound like? “Oh, God, please don’t let me curse”?)

Still, I get his point: We shouldn’t bother God with the small details of our lives. God has bigger things with which to concern himself, and our problems don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

But I don’t buy it. This objection to prayer is another way of saying that God is really too big for our small problems—the President of the United States, after all, shouldn’t be bothered to fix a pothole on your street.

But in saying God is too big for our problems, we’re really saying that God is too small for our problems. We’re reducing God down to our size—or at least down to a larger, more powerful, more perfect version of ourselves. And if that’s the case, then whatever attention God gives to us and our small problems is attention diverted from other, more pressing matters in the universe.

This is terrible theology, of course, but Ray Charles was hardly alone in buying into it. God is, in fact, “big enough”1 to care about even our smallest problems. Because God is something other than what we are, this means, among other things, that God is able to be closer to us than we are to ourselves—closer than our own thoughts, closer than our heartbeats. Whether we pray about it or not, God already knows when we stub our toes. And it’s no sweat for God to be concerned about it.

Another, more pious-sounding objection to praying for the “small stuff” of our lives is that we are being selfish. On this point, N.T. Wright says something very helpful in his commentary on Romans 8:18-30.

Intercession for the world that is groaning in travail is not, then, an optional extra for the Christian. Within this, intercession for the parts of one’s own life that are in trouble cannot be discounted either. There is a false humility about some protests against such intercession, discounting it as trivial or self-centered. To the contrary: the groanings of each individual, caught between redemption accomplished in Christ and redemption still awaited (8:23), are all part of the groaning of creation. As long as one does not imagine that the world, and the love of God, revolve around one’s own life and concerns—as long, in other words, as one is a mature and adult child of God and not still a spiritual baby—one’s own concerns have their proper place, and can indeed be the starting-point for awareness of, and hence prayer about, the wider groanings of the whole cosmos. Just because we must not be self-centered, that does not mean we should ignore the self and its concerns. If we are God’s beloved children, our small as well as our great concerns matter.2


1. Since words like “big” and “small” only apply to things, and God is not a thing, to say that God is “big enough” only makes sense in a figurative way. Thus the scare quotes. Language will always necessarily reduce a transcendent God down to our size. But, apart from the groanings of the Holy Spirit, language is about all we’ve got.

2. N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 607.

Vinebranch service project video

August 11, 2011

We painted the blue part around the gym. We also painted two principals' offices.

Last Saturday, August 6, 11 adults, two teenagers, and nine kids participated in our first ever Vinebranch service project. We painted a gym and two offices at nearby Manning Oaks Elementary. Here’s a video that my daughter, Elisa, made, documenting the event. Enjoy!

Sermon for 08-07-11: “Roman Road, Part 9: We Are Debtors”

August 10, 2011

Our sermon series, “Roman Road,” continues with Part 9, in which we turn our attention to Paul’s words in Romans 8:12-25. Up to this point in Romans, we’ve learned that we have forgiveness through Christ. We’ve learned that we have no condemnation in Christ. All of this is good news. But in today’s text, Paul gives us the best news of all: We are children of God, heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ. We are part of God’s family.

For all these reasons, Paul says, we are debtors. But the debt we owe is gratitude. Gratitude ought to shape the way we live. Everything we do in life should spring from it.

Sermon Text: Romans 8:12-25

The following is my original manuscript.

As if Romans were ripped from today’s headlines, Paul writes in Romans 8:12: “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors.” And we Americans, who just spent a few weeks watching the President and Congress wrangle over the “debt ceiling,” are like, “No kidding!” I feel like comedian Jim Gaffigan, who tweeted last week: “Now that the debt ceiling issue is over, I wonder what the next national crisis I don’t understand will be.”

Well, I do understand enough to know that being deeply in debt means trouble. Paul compares being in debt to slavery, and it’s easy to imagine how that’s true. If we are deeply in debt, it’s as if the person or bank or institution to whom we’re in debt owns us, or at least owns a large piece of us. We get our paycheck and think, “O.K., before I can spend money on anything else, I know that I need to send this big chunk of my paycheck to Bank of America.” And Bank of America won’t be very forgiving if I try to explain to them that I just lost my job or that my child’s tuition came due or that I incurred some unexpected medical expenses last month. Read the rest of this entry »

Warning: if you run for president, people will know how much you give to church!

August 10, 2011

I feel sorry for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He is flirting with a bid to run for president, and, predictably, the press has gotten hold of his tax returns. His rate of charitable giving—which includes church-giving—is one-half of one percent over ten years. That’s pretty anemic, especially for someone who has been outspoken about his Christian faith.

First, a word of grace. While I don’t like hypocrisy, I like sanctimoniousness even less. Often, we direct phony outrage at public citizens for sins that private citizens commit with impunity. The truth is that there are plenty of freeloaders—or close to it—filling our church pews all over the country. And Rick Perry, we now know, is one of them. But keep in mind that the average rate of church-giving among churchgoers is around two percent of income.

I don’t like this at all. I tithe, which means I give 10 percent of my income to church. I tell prospective church members that the church wants and expects its members to tithe—or, should that prove too difficult right now, to take a step of faith in the direction of a tithe. And to have a plan for getting there. As I’ve said in plenty of sermons, we don’t tithe because God needs the money; we tithe because we need to give.

When you think about it, giving money is perhaps the most tangible expression of faith: Will I trust God enough to take care of me if I sacrifice this 10 percent of my income? Or was Jesus wrong when he asked us to consider the lilies and to seek first God’s kingdom? I don’t understand how most Christians in America have so easily divorced their financial giving from the strength or sincerity of their faith. Do they not think that one is strongly related to the other?

So, if you are a Christian, don’t risk embarrassing yourself. You might want to run for office some day. Be on the safe side: tithe.