Archive for January, 2012

How to read a troubling text from the Old Testament

January 31, 2012

So far, I am loving John Goldingay’s For Everyone commentary on the Old Testament. I just finished reading another disturbing episode from the Book of Judges, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:30-40. In exchange for military success against the Ammonites, Jepthah promises God that he will offer as a burnt offering “whoever comes out of my house to greet me” when he returns from battle. Naturally, he’s shocked to see his daughter, his only child, come out to greet him “with tambourine and dancing.” After a two-month reprieve, he kills his daughter.

Why does Jephthah make this vow? Why can’t he retract it? Why does he imagine that such a burnt offering would be acceptable to Yahweh when Yahweh has prohibited human sacrifice? Why does his daughter go along with it so easily? It’s senseless beyond belief. To make matters worse, the text itself offers no commentary on Jephthah’s actions. There is no judgment for or against it.

Again… why?

Of this troubling text, Goldingay writes:

Whereas modern readers can be appalled that he Old Testament tells stories like this, it is actually part of its greatness that it does so. It is not a book that provides us with a way of escaping the reality of how the world is but one that rubs our noses in the reality of how the world is. Its lack of explicit moral judgments (“Jephthah did evil in the eyes of the Lord”) focuses our attention on the story itself and the horror of its implications concerning the stupidity of Jephthah and the suffering of a girl. That might have the capacity to make a difference to our lives and to our concern about men like that and our concern for their victims.

This is exactly right. If there were an explicit moral judgment, it would distance us from the horror of Jephthah’s action. We say, “Yes, that’s horrifying,” shrug our shoulders, and move on. The text forces us to work through it ourselves—to spend more time than we’d prefer getting inside Jephthah’s head and feeling this unnamed daughter’s despair.

A couple of years ago, I made the same point (not remembering how it might apply to scripture) in a favorable review of the Jason Reitman film Up in the Air. If you recall, George Clooney plays a hired-gun consultant who fires people for a living. Clooney’s character briefly pursues deeper meaning in his life before abandoning the project by the end of the movie. There I wrote:

The movie catches up with characters we’ve seen earlier who were fired by Bingham. They’re still out of work, but each of them describes how their loved ones—spouses, children, and friends—give their lives meaning and strength.

This is an unnecessarily heavy-handed touch. Are the filmmakers afraid that by robbing us of the happy ending we want and expect, they approve of Bingham’s pessimistic outlook? Do they feel as if they need to tell us, “We really believe in love after all”? The movie is in too deep for such glibness. In other words, because the film has told its story so convincingly, the audience feels genuinely unsettled. A sop to sentimentality at the end won’t cut it. The film challenges us to see the world through Bingham’s eyes and wonder if he isn’t onto something.

John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 130.

Does God give and take away?

January 30, 2012

Dr. Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, is currently writing a profoundly beautiful series of Christian meditations on the unexpected death of his 32-year-old daughter. He is a Wesleyan Christian, so we should not be surprised when he writes the following:

The first point that was immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my baby. God is not the author of evil. God does not terminate sweet children’s lives with pulmonary embolisms. Pulmonary embolisms are a result of human fallenness and the bent nature of this world.

One of the primary reasons I am not a Calvinist and do not believe in such predestinings from the hand of God is (1) because I find it impossible to believe that I am more merciful or compassionate than God. Also, (2) the Biblical portrait of God is that God is pure light and holy love; in him there is no darkness, nothing other than light and love. (3) The words “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” from the lips of Job, are not good theology. They’re bad theology. According to Job 1, it was not God, but the Devil who took away Job’s children, health and wealth. God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of where his calamity came from and what God’s will actually was for his life — which was for good, and not for harm.

I say a hearty Amen to nearly all of this. I have blogged in the past about the horrible theology expressed in the aphorism, “Everything happens for a reason.” It absolutely doesn’t. God doesn’t cause evil, nor does he require evil (as many Calvinists argue) in order for his good purposes to be accomplished. What we ought to loudly affirm, as Dr. Witherington does, is the promise of Romans 8:28, that no evil can overwhelm God’s goodness or God’s ability to bring good out of it.

Still, I’m not quite satisfied with this reflection. It feels too easy. It doesn’t do justice to the biblical portrait of God’s sovereignty—a concept that, while much abused by our Calvinist friends, is still one that we Wesleyan Christians affirm. (Wesley often attributed natural disasters and illnesses to God’s direct interventions!)

Obviously Witherington can’t adequately cope with the problem of theodicy in a few paragraphs (and I’m sure he deals with these issues more thoroughly elsewhere), but I wish he weren’t so quick to let God off the hook. In a recent sermon, I described a parishioner I counseled with who got a life-threatening diagnosis. I asked him where he saw God in all of this, and he said, “Well, I don’t believe that God gave me this disease.” And of course that’s good theology for the reasons described by Witherington.

But I wondered aloud if my parishioner wanted to say, “God didn’t give me this disease… but he certainly didn’t prevent me from having it, either.” If he had said that, what choice would I have except to say another Amen?

The sad fact of living in this sinful and fallen world is that God often doesn’t prevent bad things from happening.

And yet we believe that God answers prayers, right? We believe that God has the power to intervene in our lives. And we say “thank you” when God answers our prayers. Granted, the problem of suffering would be easier if we didn’t; if we were Deists who believed that a hands-off God bore no responsibility for the outcomes of our lives. But we’re not. We make petitions to God, and we await God’s actions.

“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” may not be great theology, but how different is it—in a painful moment of grief—from “the Lord gives and the Lord willingly allows things to be taken away”? My point is, I’d rather pray for God to prevent evil and be disappointed (a healthy emotion—read the Psalms) than to pray as if God had no power to stop it.

What do you think? Even in Vinebranch we sing that praise chorus, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” which includes a reference to Job: “You give and take away.” Should we not sing it?

There is no evangelism without words

January 27, 2012

As some of you know, I’ve felt convicted for several months that I’m not doing enough in the area of evangelism. I’m not doing enough personal evangelism, and I’m not providing enough leadership in that area to my congregation. I repent! I want to change. But the truth is I don’t know how to do it. Not very well, at least.

So I’m reading books. A few that I’ve read so far have been deeply theological. I speak that language, so I appreciate this emphasis. By all means, let’s understand what evangelism is and why we bother with it. But I finish these books thinking, “O.K., so tell me how to do it.” This has happened a few times. These books float about five feet off the ground. They’re vague. They talk about “hospitality” and “community” and “mission.”

You know what they mostly don’t talk about? Opening your mouth and letting words come out. When to do it. How to do it. What to say. For many of these authors, words are a last resort. And you’ve only earned the right to use them on someone after you’ve helped him move a piano up a flight of stairs. You have to become his best friend first. (I’m only exaggerating a little.) “Relationship, relationship, relationship,” these authors say. God knows how Philip converted the Ethiopian eunuch. He only just met the guy!

I am increasingly convinced that no evangelism takes place without words. We’re kidding ourselves if we think otherwise. Do we need to look at the decline of mainline Protestantism as proof?

God bless the man who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” (It’s usually attributed to St. Francis, but he probably didn’t say it.) So comforting, so reassuring, so wrong.

I get that our words mean nothing if they’re not spoken with integrity, and actions speak louder, etc. But there is no gospel without words. There is no evangelism without words. Or if there is, it’s so exceptional it’s not even worth mentioning. We’re not doing evangelism right if we don’t, at some point, explain what the gospel of Jesus Christ is or why it matters to us. I’m sure this is really obvious to many of you, but for some reason I didn’t get it. I don’t think I’m alone.

Someone who is helping me get it is Robert Tuttle. I’m reading his book Can We Talk? Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World. He challenges his readers to pray every morning this prayer: “God, make me sensitive to my opportunities for ministry.” He says that it will open doors for us to share our faith. Ministry is obviously much more than witnessing with words, but he wants us to pray for opportunities to use words in order to help people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Here’s an example of how not to do it. I belong to a civic organization outside of church. We had our monthly meeting tonight. I was a little bored (don’t tell anyone!) and grumpy because my entree was too salty. I made only a perfunctory effort to be sociable. I introduced myself to a few people I didn’t know. But I didn’t try hard.

And you know what thought didn’t cross my mind even once? “What if these people haven’t yet experienced the good news of Jesus Christ? What can I do to find out where they are spiritually? How can I help them understand the gospel?” And I’m supposedly a full-time minister! What’s my problem?

Anyway… You get my point. This is what I’m working on right now.

Robert G. Tuttle Jr., Can We Talk? Sharing Your Faith in a Pre-Christian World (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 73.

Sermon for 01-22-12: “In Good Faith, Part 3: Doing God’s Will”

January 26, 2012

Our sermon series on the challenges to faithful living, “In Good Faith,” continues this week by looking at Gideon, no one’s favorite Bible hero. If the future of Israel rested on the shoulders of this weak and waffling man, then Israel was in trouble. The good news, as the scripture makes clear, is that the success of Gideon’s mission didn’t depend on him; it depended on God.

In the same way, our success—in life, in ministry, in mission—depends not on us, but on God. As I say in this sermon, God gives each one us the power to “be the miracle that this world needs.”

How is God calling you to be that miracle?

Sermon Text: Judges 6:1-27, 33-40

The following is my original manuscript.

I’m not trying to shamelessly pander to high school students in the congregation when I say that I dislike the SAT. Do any of you dislike the SAT? At least I dislike the SAT that was around when I had to take it—I know they’ve reconfigured it a few times since then, and I’m sure it’s better than it used to be. But the premise behind the original SAT was that it was a way of testing not what a student has learned in school, but what a student is capable of learning. Thus the original name of the SAT was the Scholastic Aptitude Test. A test for “aptitude” is supposed to measure one’s natural ability. And if it measured natural ability, then it wasn’t a test you could do anything to prepare for. At least that was the propaganda.

That was what my teachers told me when I was a junior in high school. You can’t study for it, so all you should do is just get a good night’s sleep before the exam. And because I was a little lazy and didn’t want to study for the SAT, I liked that idea!

No one told me at the time about a man named Stanley Kaplan. He started a tutoring business in the 1930s. He first heard of the SAT in 1948, and he was too dumb to know that there was a test that you couldn’t study for. He didn’t believe it. And he made a nice living proving my high school teachers and the creators of the SAT wrong. Of course you can study for the SAT in order to improve your score!

My point is that as much as we might want to, it’s hard to measure something called “aptitude”; it’s hard to measure one’s natural ability; it’s hard to measure potential. But if you could measure aptitude, natural ability, and potential as they relate to doing God’s will, accomplishing something for God’s kingdom—a spiritual SAT, if you will—then this very unlikely Bible hero named Gideon would score very low on such a test. When you compare him to Bible heroes like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, David, Esther, and Daniel—well, he really doesn’t seem to have much going for him at all.

Read the rest of this entry »

“To privilege dead stones over living faith”

January 25, 2012

A modern church sits atop the traditional site of Peter's house in Capernaum. You can see the ruins through this glass floor.

One complaint about my otherwise AMAZING trip to the Holy Land last year was that the holy places are mostly covered up by churches. For example, you can’t see the cave in which, according to ancient tradition, Jesus was born because there’s a church on top of it. In his fictionalized travelogue to the Holy Land, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground, Professor Bruce Fisk shares my frustration but offers this eloquent rejoinder:

As I approached Peter’s house, I was initially annoyed by the modern memorial that, since 1990, has brooded over the ruins like a protective griffon over its nest. It made the ruins harder to see, which made no sense to me. But then I watched a pair of nuns ascend the stairs and disappear inside, which made me realize my attitude was painfully Protestant. Why was I eager to skip over centuries of Christian worship and memory, ready to clear away the layers, inclined to privilege dead stones over living faith? I was nothing if not one more in a long stream of pilgrims, each one on a quest for the grace it takes to remain faithful.

Bruce N. Fisk, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus: Reading the Gospels on the Ground (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 143.

Do you pray for healing when it’s the common cold?

January 24, 2012

One point I didn’t have time to make in my sermon about Gideon on Sunday is related to prayer. Say what you will about Gideon’s cowardice, he was fearless about asking God for what he wanted. He asks God for three signs, and God throws in a fourth for free.

Gideon was bolder about prayer than I am. For example, I’m nursing a terrible cold right now. It came on last Thursday. Maybe I’m a wimp when it comes to being sick, but it’s really dragged me down. I don’t like not feeling like myself. I want to feel better. I’m tired of waiting.

Here’s the thing: not once during these past few days have I prayed that God would heal me of this cold. I assume that when I get a cold, the virus must run its course, and God isn’t going to do anything to stop it. But who knows? I still should have prayed about it. Maybe God would at least heal me of my terrible attitude!

Or maybe there’s no “at least”… Maybe my attitude—including my lack of patience and lack of faith—is the main thing that needs to be healed. If I were healed of that, maybe the cold would take care of itself.

Telling your story

January 23, 2012

"I Am Second" is an online collection of personal testimonies of faith.

In an anecdote from my sermon yesterday, I told the congregation that I grew up in a Christian tradition (Southern Baptist) that emphasized the power of the personal testimony. Growing up, it was a common feature of youth camps, retreats, and Sunday night worship services. A testimony is a Christian’s story of what God has done and is doing in their life.

Even in our Methodist tradition, testimonies play an important role. For the eight years during which I sought ordination as a United Methodist clergy, I frequently had to tell (and write about) the story of how I became a Christian, what it’s meant to me, and how I knew God was calling me into pastoral ministry. We didn’t call it either a testimony or story, mind you—why use those words when a more pretentious seminary word like “narrative” is available?

Over time, I learned to tell my story in such a way that its sharp edges were smoothed over. It became more cohesive but also more stylized. My call into pastoral ministry did not unfold as neatly as I described in my account of it. This is no surprise: living life, as opposed to talking about living life, is always much more ambiguous.

But here’s the important point: my testimony is true, regardless whether a journalist or historian would describe it just this way. I believe in the power of testimonies.

With that in mind, you can imagine how pleased I was to find this website, “I Am Second” (there’s also now a book version). “I Am Second” is an online collection of personal testimonies from people (Americans only?) from different walks of life.

Aside from the distractingly modish way in which these testimonies are filmed, I like it. Like most people, I’m more curious about famous people’s testimonies. Aside from some star athletes, the celebrities are mostly B-listers, but that’s O.K. (On what planet does Michael W. Smith qualify as a rock star? The guy from Korn, sure, but why not Alice Cooper?)

One final thought: I watch Survivor. Last season featured a few outspoken Christians on the show. I appreciated their faith and witness. One of them—if you watched the show, you’ll know who I’m talking about—seemed annoying, if not like a mental case. (This is “reality TV,” which means, ironically, that what you see does not reflect reality very well; he may be completely normal in real life.) He talked about Jesus. A lot. Even as he acted, act times, like a jerk. My daughter complained that he wasn’t making us Christians look very good.

I got where she’s coming from, but I disagreed. I said, “Yes, but just think of what this person would be like if he didn’t have Jesus in his life!”

And that’s how we should view a person’s testimony—not so much who they are now, but who they are in relation to who they used to be.

God doesn’t only call heroes

January 20, 2012

One more bloggish thought before I get back to writing, or thinking about writing, my sermon. I read this profoundly good blog post over on Rachel Held Evans’s blog (written by guest blogger Margot Starbuck—what an awesome name! Is that real?). Starbuck describes a few heroic friends and/or saints who have dedicated a large portion of their lives to serving the poor. They are, as you’ll see from the following excerpt, unlike her (bolded words are from the original post).

I hope you see how terribly convenient all of this is for me. If “loving the poor” is something that only red-caped superheroes do—because they’re retired, or because they’re young and single and kid-free, or because they get paid a teeny tiny salary to do it—then I’m off the hook.  (Because I’m unprofessional, old, married, mothering and decidedly not retired, that’s why.)  If I make engaging with a world in need a really big thing, then it’s kind of like I’m no longer responsible for it.  Which really works for me.

On the other hand, if engaging with a world in need were to be a very small thing—like learning more about the bagboy who tirelessly bags my groceries every week, or shamelessly begging for a baby shower invite to celebrate my favorite waitress at my favorite restaurant, or stopping to help the teen whose car is broken down by the side of the road—then I’d become responsible for it.

My main reason for reflecting on it here is because I see a connection to this Sunday’s scripture and sermon. I’m sure that my sermon will include words about “answering God’s call,” just as Gideon answered the call. As a recently ordained pastor, I’ve been forced to think and write a lot about answering God’s call. The United Methodist Church is intensely interested in the subject when it evaluates candidates for ordination.

But the church also believes that everyone is called by God to Christian service, whether we’re clergy or laypeople. Answering God’s call, therefore, isn’t just for the chosen few. God doesn’t simply call big and important people to do big and important things. If that were so—as Starbuck says—that would be very convenient for most of us. Most of us would be off the hook. As she writes, “If I make engaging with a world in need a really big thing, then it’s kind of like I’m no longer responsible for it.  Which really works for me.”

This Sunday’s scripture doesn’t necessarily prove her point. God did call Gideon to do big things. But as I’ll make clear on Sunday, it certainly wasn’t because he had any special qualifications, talent, or aptitude for the job. He was no conventional hero. In fact, he was kind of a dork.

That should serve as some encouragement, I hope.

Preaching from no one’s favorite Bible book

January 20, 2012

So I’m preaching this Sunday about no one’s favorite Bible hero, Gideon, from no one’s favorite book of the Bible, Judges. J. Clinton McCann Jr. was a master of understatement when he wrote the following in his introduction to the book in The Life with God Bible: “The book of Judges is not a source to which the People of God have readily turned for guidance in spiritual formation or instruction in the Spiritual Disciplines.”

Christians, in general, don’t like the book of Judges. It is at times disturbingly violent. (Judges 19:22-30 would earn any movie version an NC-17. Some of you are like, “I need to read that!”) Years ago, I stumbled upon something at a Christian bookstore called the Precious Moments Bible, whose stories were illustrated with depictions of those sappy, waif-ish figurines that used to be popular nicknacks. I thought, “What are they going to do with Judges?” Nothing about the book says “Precious Moments.”

We’re so squeamish about Judges that it rates exactly one appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary (concerning the prophetess Deborah), giving the lie to the oft-repeated claim that if we preachers follow the Lectionary we’ll somehow preach or at least hear the “whole Bible” in three years. Please! Not even close. The Lectionary, Protestant or Catholic, omits many of the most troublesome passages of scripture.

Preachers, in my opinion, have an obligation to preach these neglected passages from Judges, including Jael and Sisera, Samson, and, indeed, what I’m preaching this Sunday, the call of Gideon in Judges 6.

Not that I’ve ever done it before, lest you think I’m sitting too high in the saddle of my high horse! 😉

J. Clinton McCann Jr., “Judges” in The Life with God Bible, NRSV, ed. Richard J. Foster (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 341.

Worth pondering

January 19, 2012

Given how seldom most Christians read the Old, or “First,” Testament, the following words from John Goldingay in the introduction to his For Everyone Old Testament commentary series is worth pondering:

[The Scriptures] were not “old” in the sense of antiquated or out-of-date; I sometimes like to refer to them as the “First Testament” rather than the Old Testament to make that point. For Jesus and the New Testament writers, they were a living resource for understanding God, God’s ways in the world, and God’s ways with us. They were “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person who belongs to God can be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). They were for everyone, in fact. So it’s strange that Christians don’t read them very much. My aim in these volumes is to help you do that.

Of course the church rightly applies Paul’s oft-quoted words about scripture to the New Testament, but when Paul wrote them, he was, in fact, referring to the Old Testament. Hmm…

Do our actual Bible reading habits (not to mention preaching habits, Brent) reflect Paul’s perspective?

John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 1.