Archive for December, 2011

Let me be a religious columnist for a major newspaper!

December 31, 2011

Let’s say you’re a well-known columnist for one of the two or three most influential newspapers in the country. Say you’ve studied the principles of good journalism  at some point in your life. Say your column is entitled “On Faith,” which according to its subtitle is a “conversation on religion and politics.”

You don’t have to be a religious believer to do your job well. But aren’t you obliged to know something about the religion about which you’re conversing? If so, how could you possibly write the following paragraph without citing even a single fan who “seriously” believes it?

There are a lot of fans out there who believe that Tim Tebow may be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I’m serious.

It could be that Sally Quinn is “serious” that some fans believe, in a figurative way, that Tim Tebow is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—which is another way of saying that some fans think that Tim Tebow is doing remarkable things on the football field. Or does she imagine that the people wearing Tebow’s jersey with “Jesus” on back really believe that he’s Jesus?

That can’t be it, but then why bother writing a column about it at all? How is it interesting or newsworthy that many Denver Broncos fans like Tim Tebow? In other breaking news, water is wet.

No, she even called some of her Bible scholar friends and asked them what they thought about it. She must believe that some people literally believe that Tebow is Jesus, but who? Where? How many? Certainly not “a lot,” right?

Still, since there are always people who believe nutty things, I wouldn’t be surprised if a tiny subset of them believe that Tebow is Jesus. It still wouldn’t be worthy of a column, but they could be out there. If so, Quinn doesn’t bother to find them. Would that be too much like work?

The entire column is space-filling drivel. I assume the Washington Post pays Sally Quinn to write this column. So my question is: Can I have her job? I can do it on the side. As far as I can tell, it is the easiest job in America.

Nice insight about the magi from the Right Reverend

December 30, 2011

I’m preaching Matthew 2:1-12, the traditional Epiphany gospel text, this Sunday, which is Epiphany Sunday. This will be the fifth and final part of our “Journey to Bethlehem” series.

In his Matthew for Everyone commentary, N.T. Wright describes the ways in which the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, including the story of the magi, points to the end of the gospel:

There is another way as well in which this story points ahead to the climax of the gospel. Jesus will finally come face to face with the representative of the world’s greatest king—Pilate, Caesar’s subordinate. Pilate will have rather different gifts to give him, though he, too, is warned by a dream not to do anything to him (27.19). His soldiers are the first Gentiles since the Magi to call Jesus ‘king of the Jews’ (27.29), but the crown they give him is made of thorns, and his throne is a cross. At that moment, instead of a bright star, there will be an unearthly darkness (27.45), out of which we shall hear a single Gentile voice: yes, he really was God’s son (27.54).

Listen to the whole story, Matthew is saying. Think about what it meant for Jesus to be the true king of the Jews. And then—come to him, by whatever route you can, and with the best gifts you can find.

N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 12.

Who wants to be “laid aside” for God?

December 29, 2011

Statue at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia

We have a beautiful liturgy for the new year, called the Covenant Renewal or Watch Night service, in our United Methodist Book of Worship. I’ve never been part of a Methodist church that observed it (frankly, it would be a tough sell against our culture’s traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations), but we often include a prayer from the service on or around New Year’s. It’s the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. Wesley didn’t write it, but he adapted it for this service. He’s become closely associated with it:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

As you can see, there’s a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty, which might make us uncomfortable. What would it mean, after all, for us to “have nothing” or to be “laid aside” or “brought low” for God? Do you really want to find out? If these things happened to us, we might be tempted to imagine that God were punishing us or that God didn’t care for us. Not so, this prayer says.

It also challenges us to resist the temptation to imagine God as some fretful grandfatherly figure, who may not like what’s going on in the world but isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it. It assumes that what God wants will not be frustrated by human sin or naturally occurring events.

We place our lives at God’s disposal, trust that we’ll be O.K. one way or another, and learn to say, “So be it.”

This is a hard prayer to pray, but it seems exactly right to me. May God teach us to pray it and live in this year ahead.

Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, but…

December 27, 2011

I should qualify that heading by saying there’s about a 1 in 365 chance he was born on December 25.

Still, as you probably know, that the church chose December 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth wasn’t arbitrary. Under the old Julian calendar, it marked the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. For the next six months following the winter solstice, each day will be marked by progressively more daylight.

Some Christians are bothered by the fact that Christmas falls on (or near) what was traditionally a pagan holiday. Ancient people celebrated the solstice because it meant “the end of gloom and darkness and the victory of the sun and the light over darkness.”1 As Adam Hamilton points out, however, the solstice is a fitting symbol of Christmas:

Many believe that when Christians in the fourth century settled on a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they chose the date not because it was a pagan holiday, but because the heavens themselves declared at this time the truth of the gospel. The winter solstice represented astronomically what John’s Gspel proclaimed was happening spiritually in the birth of Jesus Christ. Just as darkness was defeated by light, so in Jesus, God’s light would defeat the darkness of sin and death.

This meaning is captured in John’s telling of the story. John doesn’t mention angels or shepherds or wise men; he speaks only of light and life and the defeat of darkness. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with  God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).2

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 126.

2. Ibid., 127.

Christmas Day sermon

December 26, 2011

"What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John 1:3b-5. (Courtesy of NASA's Hubble telescope.)

I preached the following sermon yesterday for our Christmas Day service at AFUMC. Enjoy!

Audio of the sermon is found here.

Sermon Text: John 1:1-14

My children would like you to know that they are attending this worship service under protest. Maybe some of your kids are as well? I don’t blame them. I would have felt the same way when I was their age. When I was a child, my pastor used to take his watch off when he got up to preach. He would place it on the pulpit, face up, so he would know how he was doing on time—and know if he were in danger of running past noon. One Christmas, I said, “Mom, Dad, I know the perfect Christmas gift for the preacher. We need to get him a new watch! His is obviously broken.”

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I know a few of you were excited to have received a special gift of a new iPhone 4s from Santa. I have an older iPhone, but I’ve talked to friends who have them and I’ve read about it. One of the really cool features is Siri. Do you know Siri? It, or should I say “she,” is a “virtual assistant” built into the phone. She recognizes your voice. You press the button and talk to her, and she talks back. You can practically carry on a conversation. This would have been the perfect gift for me when I was in high school! Just think: a girl would talk to me! Siri can answer many useful questions: “What’s the weather like?” “Where’s the nearest Mexican restaurant?” “What’s the capitol of North Dakota?”

Some of her answers are creative and playful. For example, if you ask Siri, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if woodchuck could chuck wood?” here are a few of her answers: “A woodchuck would chuck as much as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.” Another: “It depends on whether you’re talking about African or European woodchucks.” Still another: “42 cords of wood, to be exact. Everyone knows that.”

But there are limitations. Ask her, for example, “What’s the meaning of life?” and she has been heard to say: “I find it odd that you would ask this of an inanimate object.” Even an inanimate object like Siri seems to understand that words are no substitute for a real live person. And when John tells us in today’s scripture that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he is getting to the heart of what Christmas is all about. At Christmas we celebrate that the Word, who is God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ Jesus, came to us in the flesh. Read the rest of this entry »

Merry Christmas from Vinebranch

December 25, 2011

Stephanie Newton and the Vinebranch band share beautiful a cappella Christmas carols.

Last Sunday, the Vinebranch band sang Christmas carols before the service. Here are some high quality mp3s of their performance.

Away In a Manger

The First Noel

Silent Night

And here’s an iPhone movie of the same performance. Enjoy!

Inspiring Facebook posts, Part 4

December 24, 2011

Here is my friend Kevin’s Facebook post, with which I strongly agree. But I’m curious: what do you think? [Click to expand.]

Christmas prayer

December 24, 2011

This beautiful angel was printed on a Christmas card I received this year. Who painted her? I love her ambiguous expression.

The following is my pastoral prayer from our Christmas Eve services.

Almighty God, our light shining in the darkness: we give you our thanks and praise that the light of your love came into the world in the person of your Son Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Through your Son you created everything that is, seen and unseen; through your Son you gave us life; and through your Son you gave eternal life to all who would believe in him. This is good news. Indeed, this is “good news of great joy,” the best news of all.

For those of us who have grown so familiar with this news that it begins to sound like old news, stir within our hearts a renewed sense of wonder. Astonish us with the gift of your love. Kindle hearts that have grown cold. Help us to feel within our innermost being these “good tidings of great joy,” that unto us is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

Humble us, like those shepherds abiding in the field. We have nothing to offer you; we possess nothing that you need; we have no gift to give you that pays you back for the gift that you give us. We are poor beggars standing in need of your mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And yet, you brought your good news to us; you invited us to celebrate your coming; you made a way for us to become your children.

Receive now the gift of our gratitude. Enable us to share this news with others through word and deed, that the whole world may experience this good news for themselves and be transformed by it. We pray this in the name of the one whose coming we celebrate and who taught us to pray in this way, saying: Our Father…

The Word of God is Jesus

December 22, 2011

Christians often fight with one another about the Bible—especially the nature of its authority. And, by all means, the Bible is worth fighting about! It is and should be our primary source of authority to guide Christian doctrine and living. Moreover, when we read the Bible rightly, the Holy Spirit himself meets us in the reading and enables an encounter with the divine. Reading the Bible is potentially nothing less than a supernatural event.

So when we argue about what scripture is, what it means, and why it matters, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The following excerpt from one of C.S. Lewis’s letters hardly settles all disputes, but it does offer a necessary but little emphasized perspective: The Word of God is literally Jesus Christ. The Bible is the Word of God in a figurative but powerful sense: it points us to the Word who is Jesus.

This excerpt is used in The C.S. Lewis Bible as a reflection on John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e., for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chose by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

C.S. Lewis in “And the Word Was God,” The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1188.

We would still need Jesus

December 21, 2011

For theology geeks only: Have you noticed how mainline Protestant commentaries sometimes sound as if the project of Christianity were to make the whole world like Sweden, minus—one hopes—all the atheism?

These commentators (I’m referring at the moment to Feasting on the Word, but pick your poison) refer to “justice” so often that they rob the word of meaning. Besides, assuming it were possible to make the world as “just” as they want, we would still have a problem with sin. We would still need Jesus!

Pity those poor shepherds abiding in the field! I mean, sure, they found Jesus and all, but they remained poor, homeless, and outcast.