Archive for October, 2011

A challenging thought experiment

October 28, 2011

As I’ve written before, the philosophy of Peter Singer grosses me out. A new article in Commonweal describes Singer’s new openness to engage with Christian ethicists who profoundly disagree with him—and suggests that maybe there are some points of agreement after all. I have no idea, and that’s not really what interests me about this article.

What interests me is Singer’s “shallow pond” thought experiment, which the article describes briefly. My question is, How should a Christian answer this thought experiment? Or… Can we answer it in a way that wouldn’t require a dramatic change in our lifestyle? Just think about it.

Singer’s famous “shallow pond” thought experiment is in some ways similar, both in form and purpose, to the parable of the Good Samaritan. (In the thought experiment, Singer asks the reader what he or she would think if someone decided not to rescue a drowning child because it would require them to ruin a pair of expensive shoes. If you think that is terribly selfish, then, says Singer, you should also find it terribly selfish for people to buy those expensive shoes in the first place when they could instead send the money they’re spending on the shoes to an international relief organization.)

Sermon for 10-23-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 6: Vineyard Workers”

October 26, 2011

Today’s sermon continues our 10-part series on Jesus’ parables from Matthew’s gospel. Our scripture is Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. More than anything, today’s sermon challenges our attitude.

“Do you want to be miserable in life?” I ask. “Spend your time comparing yourself to others. I promise you this: You’ll never measure up… You’ll never make enough money. You’ll never have as nice a house as you want. Your children will never be as successful as you want them to be. You’ll never drive as nice a car as you want. You’ll never be popular enough. You’ll never be pretty enough. You’ll never be appreciated enough. You’ll never get the recognition that you believe your work deserves. You’ll also resent God a little for ‘blessing’ others more than you.”

Our cure for this bad attitude is gratitude. Through Jesus Christ, God has given us everything we need to be truly happy. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 20:1-16

The following is my original manuscript.

Parents know that almost the first complete sentence a child learns to say is “That’s not fair!” When a child begins saying it, they have only the vaguest idea of what fairness means. To a very young child, “That’s not fair” usually translates “I don’t like that!” But children somehow know, almost instinctively, that appealing to justice is a powerful rhetorical weapon. “I want a cookie,” the child says. “No, it’s too close to supper. You’ll spoil your appetite.” “That’s not fair.” Well, it’s not really a question of fairness, now, is it?

Pretty soon, however, children do begin to learn the meaning of fairness, especially if they have brothers or sisters. They become hypersensitive to any perceived slight. Older siblings resent that younger siblings have less responsibility than they do when it comes to chores around the house. You ask a child with a younger brother or sister to clean up his mess. In my experience, the next three words out of the child’s mouth will be “but what about…?” Fill in the name of their younger brother or sister. Younger siblings, meanwhile, resent that older siblings have a later bedtime or are able to watch more grown-up TV shows or movies. “That’s not fair!” Read the rest of this entry »

Hundreds of messages tell us daily: “You don’t have enough!”

October 26, 2011

Yum? From a Burger King commercial in 1976.

Last Sunday, in my sermon based on Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard Workers from Matthew 20:1-16, I talked about the destructive way in which we compare ourselves to other people. I said:

If you spend your life comparing yourself to others, I promise you this: You’ll never measure up. You’ll never know peace. You’ll never be satisfied. For example, if you spend your life comparing yourself to other people, you’ll never make enough money. You’ll never have as nice a house as you want. Your children will never be as successful as you want them to be. You’ll never drive as nice a car as you want. You’ll never be popular enough. You’ll never be pretty enough. You’ll never be appreciated enough. You’ll never get the recognition that you believe your work deserves.

Oh… And, by the way, if you spend your life comparing yourself to other people, you’ll never be “blessed by God” enough. And you’ll resent God a little because he’ll seem to bless other people more than you. And it’s not because God actually does bless other people more than you—but it will seem that way.

Our problem isn’t with God. Through Christ, God has given us everything that we need to be truly happy. Whether we see it that way or not depends on us. How can we be grateful for what we have instead of envious of what we don’t have.

Our challenge is made many times harder because of where we live. In his book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Reflections on Money, Sex & Power, Richard Foster writes that we’re bombarded by hundreds (or was it thousands?) of advertising and marketing messages each day. He encourages us to disrespect these messages by laughing at them.

Regardless, without God’s grace to stay focused on our goal, we are hopelessly overmatched. Think about it: Our economy depends, in large part, on convincing us that we don’t have enough; that we don’t measure up; that we need this object, service, person, or food item to be truly fulfilled. It would be laughable if it weren’t so spiritually deadly to us.

Honestly… Just yesterday, I heard a fast-food radio commercial promoting some pile of hot garbage that a restaurant chain wants us to buy. This product had no redeeming nutritional value. Its production represents the worst aspects of industrial agriculture. It does nothing but feed our unhealthy attachment to food and contribute to the problem of obesity.

To make matters worse, its main selling point is that this food will make us so full that we can’t finish it! In the commercial, the voice actor “eating” the food is struggling to finish it. He has to coach himself: “You can do this!”

How is hearing this message good for us? How does this commercial not promote the sin of gluttony? Why doesn’t Focus on the Family, for instance, which gets so easily offended by so many things in our culture, not get worked up about the sinfulness of ads like these?

Be that as it may, Roger Olson explores a possible Christian response to sinful marketing in this post. You don’t have to agree with him to appreciate that he’s raising the issue.

By the way, I understand my own complicity here: I’m as addicted to things as the next guy. The first step is to admit you have a problem, right?

Here’s a fast-food ad from my childhood.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

October 25, 2011

I don’t even disagree with this piece written by Oprah’s favorite guru, Deepak Chopra, on science and faith. Chopra appeals to the pervasiveness of human spiritual experience as evidence for God that scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins must simply dismiss out of hand.

There is something to be said for this argument. A lot, actually.

Somewhere in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gleefully argues that believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is no less rational than believing in the God of the Bible. You can neither prove nor disprove either of them, after all. (The New Atheists make arguments like this frequently.) The fact is, however, that billions of people don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whereas billions (around two, I think) profess to believe in the God of the Bible, and many more believe in a god who looks much more like the God of the Bible than the FSM, if you know what I mean.

Maybe there is something beyond the time, space, and matter by which scientific inquiry is bounded, which has given substance to the shape and character of a being that so many people have called “God”? (In my view, of course, God has done much more than this.)

Regardless, religious faith is a kind of knowledge you can’t really “know” without experiencing it or practicing it. This requires an open mind. David Hart picks up on this in a too-brief aside from Atheist Delusions. Of New Atheist Daniel Dennett, he writes:

It would make no sense, really, to suggest that he, say, run off to Mt. Athos to explore (by practicing) the Eastern Christian hesychastic tradition, or that he reconsider whether the testimony of so many disciplined minds over the centuries regarding encounters with supernatural reality are prima facie worthless simply because they cannot be examined in the way one might examine an animal zygote, or that he immerse himself with somewhat more than a superficial resolve in the classical philosophical arguments of religious traditions (concerning which Breaking the Spell demonstrates the he possess practically no knowledge whatsoever, despite his philosophical training). In all likelihood, these would be impossibilities for someone of his temperament and basic vision of things; he could not do them with a good will or unclouded mind, and so they would have little power to unsettle him.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 20.

Protestantism then and now

October 24, 2011

"My conscience is captive to the Word of God"

If your eyes haven’t glazed over by reading this post’s headline, you might be interested in Notre Dame professor (and evangelical Protestant) Mark Noll’s post about the upcoming (in 2017) 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We in America hear all the time about the decline of either Protestantism or Christianity in general. (If not for Latin American immigration, the Catholic Church in the U.S. would also be in steep decline.)

Please note, however, that this decline is a phenomenon of Western industrialized countries of Europe and North America. In world terms, Protestant forms of Christianity are growing rapidly.

A century ago, roughly three-fifths of the world’s identifiable Protestants lived in Europe, with another third in the United States. Today, almost three-fourths of identifiable Protestants live outside of Europe and the United States. More Anglicans go to church regularly in each of Nigeria and Uganda than in Britain and America (as Episcopalians) combined. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar all have Lutheran denominations as large as the biggest Lutheran denominations in the United States. There are far more identifiable Pentecostals in Brazil than in the United States. Among the countries with the most rapid recent Protestant expansion have been Armenia, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Nepal and — most significantly—China. As observant students have noticed, the recent expansion of non-western Protestant churches has been driven much less by missionaries from Europe and America than by local believers establishing local movements in response to local needs.

What about those of us in the West? I’m reminded of something that Henri Nouwen wrote many years ago: He foresaw a day when a great reversal would take place, and the global South would convert the global North.

Maybe it’s already happening.

After all, even our hopelessly mainline United Methodist Church is experiencing rapid growth from the parts of our church that are in Africa, Asia, and South America. Representatives from these parts of the world have an increasingly louder voice at our church’s quadrennial General Conference. May they teach us how to be Christians (and Methodists) again!

I’ve written a little about Protestantism here, here, and here.

Attacking the “modern cult of atheism”

October 22, 2011

In the overheated prose of the Telegraph (a UK paper), the Archbishop of Canterbury “launched a fierce attack” this week on “the modern cult of atheism.” All I can say is, I hope so!

Dr Williams described Prof Dawkins as a “lively and attractive writer” but said his arguments were not fully engaging with religion.

He suggested that Prof Dawkins, the author of the best-selling The God Delusion and a leading Darwinist, was a good scientist but a poor philosopher.

“Our culture is one that deeply praises science, so we assume because someone is a good scientist, they must be a good philosopher,” he said in a lecture at Swansea University.

Can God “retract our pardon”? Wesley thought so

October 21, 2011

Statue at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia

In last Sunday’s sermon, while discussing the very difficult Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, I put up a slide that drew a couple of questions from the congregation. The slide said that as Methodists we believe that it’s possible to lose our salvation, but that God always stands ready to forgive us and reconcile us back to himself.

A couple further comments: I realize it’s a bit optimistic to talk about “what Methodists believe,” because we often don’t know, in general, what we believe. We’re not a “confessional” church. The Wesleyan movement never defined itself in opposition to other Christian bodies. Wesley was himself a happy Anglican, for the most part. His problem with church was not orthodoxy but orthopraxy—how we live out our faith. He took for granted that we Methodists would stand squarely within the realm of orthodox Christianity as expressed by the Church of England.

Because of this legacy, we Methodists are known to be more laid-back, theologically, than many other parts of the universal Church. But this is not to say that theology isn’t important, or that we don’t have distinctive Wesleyan theological emphases.

One of these emphases is that we can fall from grace, even after we experience justification (forgiveness for sins) and rebirth (an inward spiritual change that enables us to live the Christian life). Salvation is a process that isn’t complete until the other side of death and resurrection, when we arrive safely in God’s kingdom. This is the point at which we are fully and finally saved. We may properly speak of “being saved” as a past event—because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection in the past—but, theologically, our salvation always points to a future event.

With this in mind, we Wesleyan Christians believe that through faith we “get on the bus,” which is surely headed to salvation, but we may choose through sin and unbelief to get off at any time. We are that free, Wesley believed.

We Methodists, in other words, don’t believe in a doctrine that’s often called “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I wish we could believe in it, but not at the expense of being faithful to our best understanding of scripture. When we consider Jesus’ words in this parable, and especially Matthew 18:35, not to mention many other passages of scripture, the burden of proof, I would argue, lies with those Christians who believe in it.

Obviously, Wesley’s view was controversial among evangelical Protestants of his day. He sounds a polemical note in his commentary on v. 35:

And shall we still say, but when we are once freely and fully forgiven, our pardon can never be retracted? Verily, verily, I say unto you, So likewise will my heavenly Father do to you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

As I told a friend who struggled with the issue of eternal security versus falling from grace: It shouldn’t make much difference. It’s a good idea, even if we believe in the doctrine, to live as if we don’t! Right?

The beautiful line drawings of Annie Vallotton

October 20, 2011

The work of artist Annie Vallotton. This must be an awkward verse for those Christians who say the Bible must always be interpreted "literally."

Happiness comes in Amazon boxes! I bought a few books and decided I needed, at long last, the Good News Bible, also called Today’s English Version—now usually referred to as the Good News Translation (GNT) to communicate that it’s an actual translation, not a paraphrase.

These were scattered all over the youth department when I was growing up.

It originally came packaged as “The Good News for Modern Man,” with several newspaper mastheads printed on it—for a “ripped from today’s headlines” feel. The publisher’s effort to make the Bible sound “relevant” and contemporary in its day seems hopelessly quaint today. (For one thing, no one uses the word “man” to refer to both men and women anymore.) I’m sure there’s a lesson there for those of us who plan and lead contemporary worship!

The GNB, while no longer popular amidst the glut of contemporary English translations and paraphrases crowding the shelves, is still a well regarded translation that has been widely embraced among Protestants of all stripes and Catholics. But I mostly wanted it for its famously beautiful line art, by Swiss artist Annie Vallotton. I read somewhere that she’s the most widely published artist in history, simply because of the popularity of the GNB back in the ’70s.

Vallotton’s work is a treasure, and I’m glad that even recent editions of the GNB continue to include it. These drawings have aged very well!

Finding God where most of us live

October 20, 2011

The Celtic cross on my Anglican rosary.

In my sermon on Sunday, I referred to a “favorite theologian” who wrote that the problem with most of us pastors is that we go about our work as if God doesn’t exist. (That theologian was—surprise, surprise—Stanley Hauerwas, and I read it recently in his memoir, Hannah’s Child.) I felt convicted when I read it. After all, when it comes to seeking God’s will, I’ve always been more of a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of guy. I make a decision, then I pray. No, that’s not right… I make a decision, then—when something goes horribly wrong—I pray.

I wondered aloud in my sermon what it would be like if I weren’t like this. For example, as a pastor, I serve on many church committees. We always open committee meetings with prayer, of course. I am often asked to lead. How often do I pray as if prayer is a formality? As if prayer were something we have to do before we get down to the real business at hand?

But suppose prayer is the real business at hand?

A book I’m currently reading, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, by George Hunter III, gives voice to my longing for a better way of praying. He does so first by describing the way in which Celtic monastic communities lived out their Christian lives. They perceived life at three levels. The bottom level “deals with the features in life that our senses can directly apprehend. At this level, people learn to plant a crop, to clean a fish, to fix a water pump, to build a house, and to do a thousand other things.”1

The top level deals with the big and ultimate questions of life (which all religions answer)—for example, what happens to us after we die?

But there’s a middle level, too. This is where most of life takes place. The middle level deals with issues that affect us in the near future.

To be specific, the mother whose son faces a court trial, the laid-off father who cannot make the mortgage payment, the teen who experiences new hormones surging within him, and the woman who still struggles with the memory that a parent loved her sibling more are primarily driven at this middle level. Of these three dimensions—past, present, and near future—concerns about the near future hound many people much of the time.

Most of the problems of life, Hunter says, lie at this level, yet Western Christianity mostly ignores it. “Western Christian leaders usually focus on the ‘ultimate’ issues, as they define them, to the exclusion of the lesser issues; indeed, they often consider middle issues as beneath what they were educated and ordained to address!” In general, people go to church so they can go to heaven. For most other concerns in life, they seek answers elsewhere.

Isn’t Hunter mostly right? God and Christianity are for the Big Questions of life. Since we spend the vast majority of our lives dealing with lesser concerns, we don’t leave much room for God or faith. We have bills to pay, after all. Religion is all well and good in its place, but time’s a-wasting. Let’s get on with it.

Celtic Christianity, by contrast,

addressed life as a whole and may have addressed the middle level as specifically, comprehensively, and powerfully as any Christian movement ever has. A folk Christianity of, by, and for the people developed. It helped common people live and cope as Christians day by day in the face of poverty, enemies, evil forces, nature’s uncertainties, and frequent threats from many quarters.2

The way it did this, Hunter says, was mostly through short prayers and rituals for “directing their hearts, moment by moment, setting by setting.” The Celtic Christians learned prayers “to accompany getting up in the morning, dressing, starting the morning fire, bathing or washing clothes or dishes,… and going to bed at night.”

Here is a beautiful ancient Celtic prayer, for example, for starting the morning fire:

I will kindle my fire this morning
In presence of the holy angels of heaven,
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all,
To the brave, to the knave, to the thrall.3

Isn’t that great? Imagine reminding yourself through continual prayer throughout the day that you are not alone: God is with you. God is loving you. God is helping you. Of course, we’re supposed to know that already as Christians—and maybe we do, intellectually. But this practice of prayer drives the point home.

Hunter refers to a book called Celtic Blessings: Prayers for Everyday Life, by an Anglican priest named Ray Simpson. Simpson has apparently written Celtic-style prayers and blessings for our contemporary world. I’ll let you know how it is. I ordered it off Amazon.com yesterday.

1. George G. Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, 10th anniv. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 19-20.

2. Ibid., 20-21.

3. Ibid., 22.

Sermon for 10-16-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 5: The Unforgiving Servant”

October 18, 2011

Today’s sermon explores the connection between being forgiven by God and “paying it forward” by forgiving others. Failing to forgive is a deadly spiritual cancer. The sermon deals head-on with the punchline of the parable in Matthew 18:35: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” As I said in the sermon, if Jesus’ words here don’t put us on the hot seat, we’re probably not hearing it properly!

What does it mean to forgive “from your heart”? What happens when forgiveness doesn’t come easily? What’s the solution to the problem of forgiveness?

Sadly, no video this week. I updated my iPhone to iOS 5, which inadvertently deleted the video of the sermon. 😦

Stained glass depicting the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. From Scots' Church, Melbroune. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sermon Text: Matthew 18:21-35

If you’re a fan of college football like me, you’ve probably heard about coaches being on the “hot seat.” It’s a constant topic of conversation among college football fans. Mark Richt, UGA’s coach, was on the hot seat when Georgia lost to Boise State and South Carolina at the beginning of the season, but he’s won every game since then so that hot seat has cooled off considerably—much to the chagrin of us Tech fans, that’s for sure! 

I suspect many of you—in today’s economy, in today’s job market—have felt on the hot seat. If you’re in commission sales with a quota to meet, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat if you’re not selling enough. If your job is in danger of being outsourced, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. If you’re unemployed and can’t find a job that will pay the mortgage, you might feel like you’re on the hot seat, If you own your own business, trying to make ends meet for you and your family in a tight economy with a lot of competition, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. If you’re in high school, trying to keep your grades up to qualify for the Hope scholarship or get into a better college, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. If you’re in college, trying to maintain your grades in order to keep your scholarship or get into a good grad school, you may feel like you’re on the hot seat. Read the rest of this entry »