Archive for February, 2012

The E-Word: Starting this Sunday

February 28, 2012

When I was asking around last year about preaching a sermon series on evangelism, someone told me, “Well, first, you can’t call it evangelism. That word makes people uncomfortable.” Thus was born the idea for the name of the series, “The E-Word.” In some circles—not to mention most Methodist circles—it’s practically a bad word.

Not that the vast majority of Christians think that some form of evangelism is bad idea, but we tend to be very afraid of actually doing it. Many of us feel guilty. We know that Jesus wants us to share the good news, but we’re not sure how. To make matters worse, we’ve all seen evangelism done poorly, and we don’t want to do it like that!

I’ll bet many of us can relate to these words:

People often say to me some version of the following: “I don’t like to push things on people if they don’t want them. I’m kind of introverted, I’m not good at arguing with people, I avoid conflict, and I hate awkwardness in relationships. So evangelism is not for me. I feel guilty that i don’t share my faith. But I feel inadequate, shut down and even inauthentic about becoming an extroverted crusader for God.”

Such sentiments are widespread and debilitating. We feel like a salesperson selling a product that people mostly don’t want. We are shut down because we are going by a script that doesn’t work for us, and we have pictures and practices that don’t fit us or the people we want to reach out to.1

If you can relate, you’ll want to come to Vinebranch this Sunday and next for our sermon series on this challenging topic.

1 Rick Richardson, Reimagining Evangelism: Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 18.

Smart “Office” episode about marriage

February 27, 2012

Jim and even Dwight choose the path of wisdom in this episode.

Thanks to the magic of Hulu, I invite you to watch this very funny and smart episode of The Office, which I referred to yesterday in my sermon. No one talks in pop culture about being wise, but wisdom is exactly what Jim demonstrates concerning his marriage vows when he finds himself in a potentially compromising situation with The Office’s attractive new brunette, Kathy. Even Dwight, in his own way, does the same.

I need to commend this episode to couples to whom I’m offering premarital counseling.

A chilling note: Stanley, the show’s serial adulterer, walks into Jim’s hotel room and sees Kathy there. “Be careful. It gets easier and easier.” I’m sure Proverbs couldn’t have said it better.

Not bad odds for God’s existence, Dawkins says

February 27, 2012

Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams enjoy a polite conversation at Oxford last week.

It’s clear that this latest wave of “new atheism” is on its last legs when its leading proponent, Richard Dawkins, the symbol of the movement, refuses to self-identify as an atheist. He’s merely an agnostic, he tells the Archbishop of Canterbury in this very polite debate last week.

He would say, I’m sure, that he hasn’t changed positions, and that calling himself an agnostic is in keeping with his commitment to science: no one can prove with certainty that God either does or doesn’t exist, and to be an atheist implies certainty.

That seems reasonable, except wasn’t the whole point of new atheism to get people off the fence about God’s existence? After all, Dawkins didn’t write The God Delusion to convince believers to abandon faith—unless he imagined that telling them on nearly every page that they’re morons was a persuasive tactic.

No, the book was for insiders—for those already convinced but who weren’t out of the closet. “Jump in,” he said. “The water’s fine.” I wouldn’t blame some of his fans for feeling betrayed.

Besides, I thought it was O.K. to self-identify as an atheist if you believed that the odds for God’s existence were vanishingly small. When I read Dawkins’s odds against God, 6.9 out of 7, I now understand why he only calls himself an agnostic. (Although I think it’s only fair to ask what peer-reviewed scientific journal these numbers come from!)

Those really aren’t bad odds… a 1.43 chance out of a hundred that God exists. This is from a man, after all, who by his own argument already believes in a lot of luck.

Here’s what I mean: In The God Delusion, he concedes that while it seems very unlikely that we should live on a planet, Earth, which possesses all the necessary conditions to support life, that’s only because we fail to understand that there are billions and billions of planets in the universe. So if the odds of finding one planet that supports life are one in billions, then the odds really aren’t so bad.

O.K., Prof. Dawkins, but what are the odds that we should find ourselves in a universe that has billions and billions of planets such that one planet has all the conditions necessary to support life? Dawkins anticipates this question in his book when he proposes a multiverse.

Yes, it’s true, he would say, that it seems extremely unlikely that we should live in a universe that has billions and billions of planets such that one planet has all the conditions necessary to support life, but that’s only because we fail to understand that there are billions and billions of universes—a multiverse—and we happen to find ourselves in one of them that has billions and billions of planets such that one planet has all the conditions necessary to support life.

What are the odds, then, that we should find ourselves in a multiverse, which has billions and billions of universes, one of which—our own—has billions and billions of planets, such that one of them has all the conditions necessary to support life.

Do you the problem? Dawkins is just playing with large numbers. He’s begging the question. He’s pushing the extreme unlikeliness of our existence further and further out. He would agree that there’s no way around the fact that we’re just really, really lucky to be here.

In fact, I would love for Dawkins to calculate those odds. In which case, even he might concede that while no one knows for sure, God’s existence is more likely than God’s non-existence.

Avoiding the test

February 24, 2012

Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, offers the following insight into temptation.

In our sophistication, we may find the notion of “testing” primitive. But Christians may take no comfort that this is in the Old Testament. The same issue is clear in the New Testament. Nowhere is it more visible than in the Lord’s prayer. How odd that settled, complacent believers pray regularly, “lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13; Luke 11:4). The prayer commended by Jesus is that God should not put us in a testing situation where we are driven to choose, decide, and risk for our faith. The prayer is the petition that our situation of faith may not be so urgent that we will be found out. The prayer bespeaks fear that we will be found wanting if such testing comes.

Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 190-1.

Where did the binding of Isaac take place?

February 23, 2012

I’m preaching this Sunday on the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19. Abraham offers Isaac for sacrifice on a mountain called Mt. Moriah. This is the same place as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the location of Solomon’s and the Second Temple (or Herod’s Temple, the one standing during Jesus’ lifetime). The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. The present-day Muslim shrine The Dome of the Rock, built many centuries later, stands there today.

Here are a couple of pictures to help you visualize it—of course, in Abraham’s day, the mountain was bare.

Sermon for 02-19-12: “In Good Faith, Part 6: Unanswered Prayer”

February 22, 2012

St. Peter and St. Paul. Notice Paul is wielding the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).

Today’s sermon tackles the difficult question of unanswered prayer. No less a prayer warrior than the Apostle Paul himself prayed three times that the Lord would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” and the Lord said “no.”

Think about that… It wasn’t because God was angry with Paul. It wasn’t because Paul failed to pray sincerely enough. It wasn’t because God was incapable of intervening to solve this problem. The hard truth is that God says “no” out of love. As I say in my sermon, God’s “no” is another way of saying, “I love you.”

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Are you buying into “Linsanity”?

This is a question many sports fans and commentators have been asking in the past ten days or so. I admit that before last week, like most Americans, I had never heard of the guy. Oh… sorry! By “the guy,” I’m referring, of course, to Jeremy Lin, the sensational new starting point guard for the New York Knicks basketball team.

There are a lot reasons to wonder whether he’s for real. Lin is a 23-year-old undrafted player out of Harvard—not exactly a basketball factory—who had already been cut by two NBA teams and had been riding the bench for the Knicks all season. Plus he’s Asian-American, and how many Asians play in the NBA? And it’s not as if Lin has the intimidating physical stature of a Yao Ming. Read the rest of this entry »

Ash Wednesday: between play-acting and being

February 22, 2012

You non-Methodists out there probably know that we Wesleyan Christians are about as middle-of-the-road—doctrinally and temperamentally—as a group of Christians can be. We don’t stick out in the ecumenical crowd. We blend in. The most theologically eccentric doctrine that we share is the belief that by the power of the Holy Spirit it is possible, if extremely unlikely, for us to be “perfected in love” in this lifetime. This is another way of saying that we can become “entirely sanctified.”

Even a couple of years ago, when I was ordained, I stood before the bishop and said that I “expected to be perfected in this lifetime.”

I hope I wasn’t lying. But it’s something to aim for, right? It’s better to aim for perfection and miss, because at least you’d be closer to the target than if you aimed for something closer to average.

Regardless, this is a hard doctrine. But you know what’s even harder for me right now? That the United Methodist Church settles for ordaining ministers who are so far from perfect—like me, for instance.

I’m half-kidding. But this blog post is about the half of me that isn’t kidding. As I’ve been grieving the loss of my mom this past week, I’m reminded of an experience many years ago at the church I pastored while I was in seminary. I received a phone message one night from a parishioner whose wife’s grandmother died. He asked if I would “remember her in [my] prayers.”

O.K., pastors… be honest. You know how prayers can sometimes fall between the cracks, right? I was preoccupied at the time with papers and books and exams, and ugh… I dropped the ball. When I got the message, I should have let my life be interrupted for a moment in order to call this woman who was hurting. Instead, a couple of days passed before I finally called her.

By then, the damage was done. She was angry and hurt that her pastor didn’t care enough to reach out to her in her time of need. I felt defensive. I offered excuses. She told me she was leaving the church. While I’m not a fan of parishioners leaving churches—churches ought to be so much bigger than their pastors—I now appreciate more fully where she was coming from.

After all, even in that situation, I was less concerned about her pain and more about her perception of me as pastor.

Can you believe it? What threshold of personal tragedy would she have had to cross for me to set aside whatever I was doing and reach out to her in love? Would she have had to lose a parent, a spouse, a child? God forbid!

I realize that the vast majority of us Christians are on a spectrum between play-acting and becoming what God wants us to be. We fake it ’til we make it. But I’m tired of faking. I want to repent of faking. I want to repent of worrying about being perceived as compassionate and actually being a compassionate person.

How do I do that?

This question is a pretty good prayer for the Lenten season, which begins today.

Paul’s “boasts” in 2 Corinthians 11

February 21, 2012

Rembrandt's Paul, looking anguished.

As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, I reacquainted myself with the conflict Paul was addressing in his letter (as best scholars can reconstruct it). Since we never have the other side of Paul’s correspondence with his churches, we’re always guessing what the exact issues are.

In the case of 2 Corinthians, it seems clear, as I said in my sermon, that these so-called “super-apostles” have come into the Corinthian church and questioned Paul’s authority and leadership style. They have boasted about their own credentials, authority, and power.

So, after saying in Chapter 10 that boasting isn’t allowed for Christians, except for “boasting in the Lord,” Paul begins “boasting” about himself in Chapter 11. There he describes the various dangers he’s faced and suffering he’s endured for the sake of the gospel. To be clear: Paul is not truly boasting here. Quite the opposite: the beatings, stonings, hunger, and nakedness Paul suffered are, in the Greco-Roman world, occasions for embarrassment, not boasting.

In other words, Paul is boasting of all the things that make him look not heroic or vainglorious (as would be expected of any Roman hero) but weak.

As if to put an exclamation point on his anti-boasting, he concludes his list of trials with these words: “At Damascus the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to capture me, but I got away from him by being lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall” (vv. 32-33).

In his For Everyone commentary on this passage, N.T. Wright describes the significance of this small but specific detail. The highest military award in the Roman world, he writes, was the corona muralis (“crown of the wall”). It was awarded, often posthumously, to the first soldier who, when laying siege to a city, made it over the enemy’s fortified wall. It was usually a suicide mission, since he would be outnumbered by enemy soldiers down below. (For the sake of comparison, it’s hard not to think of those first soldiers who landed on the beach at Normandy.)

For Paul, the incident described in verses 32-33 was the corona muralis in reverse.

Throughout the two letters to Corinth, Paul has been aware that the young church is in danger of being sucked in to the ordinary cultural life of their city and district. And the teachers who have influenced the church in his absence have been going in exactly that direction. They have commended themselves, they have boasted of their achievements, they have wallowed in a culture of fame and success and showy rhetoric. Now, to answer them, Paul lists his own ‘achievements,’ all of them things that any normal person in the Roman world would be too ashamed even to mention, let alone celebrate. And as the climax of the whole list, he declares with a solemn oath that when the going got really tough he was the first one over the wall—running away, being let down on a rope in a basket. He is claiming an upside-down corona muralis.

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 127-8.

“Get off the bench and get in the game”

February 20, 2012

As of this writing, Jeremy Lin continues to impress. I wrote the following reflection last week for the cover letter of our church’s weekly E-News mailing. Then I borrowed from it for Sunday’s sermon. I’m very resourceful that way. 😉

Are you buying into “Linsanity”?

I admit that before last week, like most Americans, I had never heard of the guy. Oh… sorry! By “the guy,” I’m referring, of course, to Jeremy Lin, the new starting point guard for the New York Knicks.

While I was in the hospital visiting Mom last Friday night, we watched the Knicks play the Los Angeles Lakers. I had only just learned that Lin, a 23-year-old undrafted player from Harvard—not exactly a basketball factory—had already been cut by two NBA teams and had been riding the bench for the Knicks all season. But he made quite a splash when his coach decided to put him in the game a few days earlier.

But tonight was different. It was the Lakers. It was Kobe Bryant. It was prime-time ESPN. It was a sold-out Madison Square Garden. On this side of the Super Bowl, the lights don’t get any brighter. Now we’ll really see what this kid is made of.

He ended up outscoring Kobe himself with 38 points. As of this writing, his team hasn’t lost since. Last night (Tuesday), he hit a game-winning 3-pointer with one second left.

As someone who couldn’t stand the pressure-cooker of church-league basketball, I have no idea how Lin does it.

Or maybe I do… Lin, you see, is also a Christian. He was part of a very active evangelical Christian organization on Harvard’s campus. When asked by a reporter recently if he can believe how dramatically his basketball fortunes had changed, he said with a smile that he believed in a God who works miracles.

And so do we. In fact, the Bible is filled with people who overcome long odds to do extraordinary things for God’s kingdom. The key to understanding how is that we Christians don’t face the pressures of life by ourselves. We have the very Spirit of Jesus Christ himself inside of us, outside of us, and everywhere we go.

Our mission team in Honduras has been experiencing this power this week. If you don’t believe me, ask one of them about it when they get back.

Even if we don’t perform in a spotlight as bright as Lin’s, we have access to his power source.

So what do you say? Maybe the Lord calling usy to get off the bench and get in the game.

“Linsanity” and Christian faith

February 17, 2012

If you receive our church’s weekly E-News mailing, you may have noticed that my cover letter was about new basketball sensation Jeremy Lin. I based some of what I wrote there on this New York Times piece, written by Michael Luo, an Asian-American and Harvard graduate who, like Lin, is also a Christian.

Like Lin, I’m a Harvard graduate, albeit more than a decade ahead of him, and a second-generation Chinese-American. I’m also a fellow believer, one of those every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the-Bible-and-pray types, who agreed with Lin when he said to reporters after the Jazz game, “God works in mysterious and miraculous ways.”

Being a believer can mean different things in different circles. In a lot of the ones Lin and I have traveled, it can mean, essentially, you are a bit of a weirdo, or can make you an object of scorn.

Not that any of you are necessarily Asian-American or Harvard graduates or residents of New York City, but is this true for you? I feel at times that my faith makes me “a bit of a weirdo,” although I doubt I put myself out there enough to be an “object of scorn.” I wonder how willingly I would let myself be an object of scorn.

But I’m glad Luo said it. Because it can happen. After all, we’ve all witnessed Tim Tebow become an object of scorn in the eyes of some (by no means most) Americans. As I’ve written before, I find nothing objectionable or hypocritical about Tebow’s public religiosity.

When this writer makes the inevitable Tebow comparison, he offers this insight:

Some have predicted that Lin, because of his faith, will become the Taiwanese Tebow, a reference to Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, whose outspokenness about his evangelical Christian beliefs has made him extraordinarily popular in some circles and venomously disliked in others. But my gut tells me that Lin will not wind up like Tebow, mainly because Lin’s persona is so strikingly different. From talking to people who knew him through the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Christian Fellowship, and watching his interviews, I have the sense that his is a quieter, potentially less polarizing but no less devout style of faith.

Interesting article. Well worth a read.