Archive for July, 2012

How fragile life is

July 21, 2012

The most poignant thing I read in the aftermath of Friday morning’s massacre at a Colorado movie theater was the story of one of its victims, Jessica Ghawi (née Redfield), a sports journalist. Just a month earlier, Jessica narrowly escaped another gunman, who opened fire in a Toronto shopping mall foodcourt minutes after she left the scene. She blogged about that experience. She wrote:

I was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. For one man, it was in the middle of a busy food court on a Saturday evening.

I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.

If there are more fitting words for us in the aftermath of yesterday’s shooting, I can’t think of them: Life is fragile. We don’t know when or where our time on earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath. Every day is a gift. Every second of life is a blessing.

God, I am so sorry, Jessica. May you rest safely in God’s loving care.

“We cannot know in advance what our commitment will cost us”

July 20, 2012

The adorable line art of Annie Vallotton, from my copy of the Good News Bible.

This Sunday in Vinebranch, I’ll be talking about two Sunday school heroes, Esther and Mordecai, both of whom deserve credit because of their faith and courage. Both of them have faith, in the face of long odds, that God will somehow rescue their people from destruction. Oddly, although God’s providence is a major theme of the Book of Esther, it is—as preachers like me often point out—the only book in the Bible in which God is not named or mentioned.

In place of a direct mention of God, we have what theologians sometimes call the “divine passive voice,” as when Mordecai famously says to Esther, in Esther 4:14, “For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Notice: “relief and deliverance will arise.” Mordecai doesn’t have to say from where or whom relief and deliverance will come for us to know that, ultimately, they will come from God. Mordecai implies that they will arise either through Esther or through some other human agency, but God will make sure that they arise.

This is a perfect statement of God’s providence. It’s hard for believers to say how God’s going to work things out, but we trust that he will. As David Firth says,

We only recognize the working of providence by looking back, but we have to commit ourselves to God’s providence and live our lives going forward. Where the Joseph story or the narratives of Daniel and his friends can look back and see how God has worked, the book of Esther shields us from this knowledge. It confronts us, rather, with the important reality that, while there is no room for superficiality, we cannot know in advance what our commitment will cost us.[†]

For you Bible students out there, this excerpt comes from an excellent recent British commentary series published by Inter-Varsity Press called The Bible Speaks Today. A pastor friend who recommended it said it’s his favorite commentary, and, if this volume is any indication, I can see why.

David G. Firth, The Message of Esther: God Present But Unseen (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), 78.

The way I often pray

July 19, 2012

Click to expand. This cartoon reminds me of one of my favorite verses: “In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans” (Romans 8:26 CEB).

“Calling all sin sinful”

July 19, 2012

There is an interesting debate happening at Christianity Today over some recent public remarks made by the president of Exodus International, an organization that supports gay Christians who seek to be faithful in their sex lives. In this thoughtful interview with The Atlantic, the president, Alan Chambers, said that Exodus is not about “curing” homosexuals of their sexual orientation—what the organization’s many secular critics often call “praying away the gay.” He said that “99.9” percent of the time, gay Christians will continue to struggle with same-sex attraction. He said,

We’re here to support people who are in conflict at the place where their attractions meet their faith… Our goal isn’t to snap our fingers and pretend those struggles don’t exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christian sexual ethic. It’s not that we don’t have attractions. It’s just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.

I don’t find these words controversial or surprising, especially given what I read and reflected on after reading Wesley Hill’s beautiful memoir about living as a celibate gay Christian. What landed Chambers in hot water, however, was his response when asked by the interviewer if he believes that a gay person “won’t go to hell, as long as he or she accepts Jesus Christ as personal savior?” He responded [emphasis mine]:

My personal belief is that everyone has the opportunity to know Christ, and that while behavior matters, those things don’t interrupt someone’s relationship with Christ. But that’s a touchy issue in the conservative group I run with. And there are definitely differing opinions on it. I don’t think you could even look at any one denomination and find that everyone believes exactly the same thing.

On the other hand, I do believe there is a right and wrong. I believe there is clarity on the issue of all sexuality in the Bible — on every aspect of it.

Let me say first of all that, if I were him, I wouldn’t have said it like that. (On the other hand, he was speaking extemporaneously to an interviewer who was likely unsympathetic with his views. Cut him some slack!) Of course any sinful behavior potentially “interrupts” our relationship with God. Forgiveness is available, but we need to repent and resolve to change by the Spirit’s power. The consequences of persistently failing to do so are spiritually dangerous. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben Witherington, a fellow Wesleyan and scholar who said this, in response to Chambers:

One cannot save one’s self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one’s relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin. God’s saving grace and forgiveness is not cheap grace, and it does not rule out such a possibility.

As Witherington rightly says, our salvation isn’t complete when we first receive justifying grace and new birth. It’s complete only on the other side of resurrection. Backsliding and falling away from saving faith, as Wesley warned, is a frightening possibility. To say the least, it isn’t pastorally helpful that increasingly loud voices within the church say, contrary to scripture, tradition, and reason, that homosexual behavior isn’t sinful. (I’ve obviously written and said a few things about that over the past several years.)

At the same time, however, I’m sympathetic with Chambers. He was asked, in so many words, if gay Christians who, unlike him, live in a same-sex, monogamous relationship are, as a result, going to hell. And he said, in so many words, no.

How is that not the correct answer? For one thing, we don’t get to say who does or doesn’t go to hell. God makes those decisions—which is fortunate for us. As even the curmudgeon Jonah well knew, God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Also, Chambers is correct to discern, in this followup essay he wrote for CT, that many evangelical critics are singling out homosexual sin.

For anyone to point at one group of people with a certain set of proclivities and condemn them for those things while exonerating (or ignoring) another group with over proclivities is hypocritical and inconsistent. Can a believer persist in willful pride and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful alcoholism and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful gluttony and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful heterosexual pornography and still inherit the kingdom of God? If you aren’t consistently and regularly calling all sin sinful, and calling all people (including yourself) to holy living, then how can you do so for those living homosexually? And, if you are unwilling to pronounce the same eternal sanctions on all willful sinning believers as you do on the gay and lesbian willful sinner, how can you justify that?

His insight about “willful sinning believers” is, I think, on point. None of us Christians, I hope, wants to commit sin. But the fact is that we do sin, willfully or not, consciously or not. And we often excuse our own little sins—even sins like pride, which the Church has always identified as the chief sin. Sin is pervasive and it has great power to deceive us regarding the ways in which we commit it. The fact is that all of us will likely die with unconfessed sin for which we haven’t repented. To believe otherwise is to underestimate sin’s power.

Yet we Christians hope and believe that, in spite of our sin, we have a Savior whose suffering, death, and resurrection provide a way for all of us who call upon him to be saved.

Thanking God for God’s mercy

July 17, 2012

I prayed this pastoral prayer last Sunday to fit with our theme of repentance and mercy. You might recognize the reference to the first two parables in Luke 15.

Almighty God, whose beloved Son gives us strength through the Holy Spirit: we lift up our hearts to you and give you our thanks and praise. We thank you that, although we were lost in our sins, you made a way for us to find forgiveness and grace through the suffering, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus. We thank you that, while we were lost in our sins, you searched for us—as a woman sweeps the house, searching for a lost coin. We thank you that, although we were lost and unable to help ourselves, you found us and carried us safely home—as a shepherd carries a sheep on his shoulders and delivers it safely into the sheepfold. We belong to you. We are yours; you know our name. Enable us to hear you when you call. Enable us to answer you. Enable us to live our lives in grateful response to the grace and love you pour out on us. Forgive us, we pray, for so often failing to hear and answer and live as your beloved children. Give us power to change. Give us strength to endure to the end, when heaven and earth become one, and we feast at your heavenly banquet. Through Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

“It’s your kindness that leads us to repentance”

July 17, 2012

The major theme of last Sunday’s sermon on Samson was sin and forgiveness. With that in mind, Stephanie Newton and I closed the sermon time with a wonderful song by Sam (née Leslie) Phillips from 25 years ago, called “Your Kindness.” The acoustic version that we performed comes from her compilation album Recollection, available on iTunes here.

In search of greater artistic freedom than the narrow confines of Contemporary Christian Music afforded at the time, Phillips changed labels in the late-’80s and reverted to her childhood nickname, Sam. In doing so, she recorded at least a few of my all-time favorite albums, including this, this, and that. If, like me, you were a fan of Gilmore Girls, you’ll recognize her voice from the show’s interstitial music—i.e., the “la-la-la” parts in between scenes.

She even performed in person in Stars Hollow during the music-heavy last episode of Season 6.

God’s grace from beginning to end

July 16, 2012

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

In my sermon on Noah a couple of Sundays ago, I concluded the sermon, as I usually do, with a word about God’s grace. I wanted to make the point—already made beautifully well by John Goldingay in his Genesis for Everyone commentary—that God’s choice of Noah to carry forward the human project after the flood was a powerful example of God’s grace. Noah “found favor” (i.e., received God’s grace) and this finding of favor is always undeserved. The nature of grace didn’t change between the Old and New Testaments.

In the sermon, I said the following:

God’s love and grace aren’t conditional, based on your good behavior. God’s love and grace just are… a free gift, offered without condition or price.

I thought this was uncontroversial, at least in the Protestant waters in which I swim. I borrowed the phrase, “offered without condition or price,” from United Methodist baptism liturgy, which (without bothering to look it up) is probably also in the liturgies of other Christian traditions.

My friend Tom, a Southern Baptist, very helpfully challenged my assertion about God’s grace and love. I mean this sincerely: I simply take for granted my understanding of God’s grace and love. Tom forced me to think through its implications when he wrote the following:

With respect to “grace is free, not earned,” what I would say is that grace is God’s willingness to accept less than perfection to receive a relationship with him (since Jesus “paid the difference”). I am not sure I can go so far as to say, “grace is free.” We have no claim to have God’s love or relationship extended to us, but that does not mean God requires nothing from us to receive that. In the first instance, we have to have faith to be saved. And James says that faith without works is dead. Also, we have to repent. Neither of these “merits” God’s favor, but they are still indispensable to receiving it. We cannot be saved by “works” because that would require perfection. But we cannot be saved without faith and repentance either, and those are not “nothing.” God’s grace is “freely given,” without compulsion to do so, but it, like (or as a manifestation of) love, is still conditional.

If I’m reading Tom right, he’s saying, among other things, that faith and repentance are prerequisites for receiving God’s justifying grace. They are two necessary conditions by which we are saved. As he says, faith and repentance are “not nothing” (I love that phrase!). Therefore, we can’t assert God’s unconditional love or grace.

Hmm Read the rest of this entry »

The source of Samson’s strength

July 13, 2012

This old comic traded on the image of Samson as muscle-bound behemoth.

Back in the ’80s, some of my high school classmates wore T-shirts that parodied popular products and logos, but with a Christian spin. The letters for Corona beer, for example, were transformed into 1 Corinthians—with a verse warning against drunkenness. You get the idea. It was more than a little, um, preachy.

Still, I remember one for Gold’s Gym… Oh, I’m sorry, God’s Gym. It depicted Samson, this Sunday’s “Sunday school hero,” as a muscle-bound behemoth, breaking the two stone pillars of the temple with his final burst of brute strength.

I’ll be honest: As silly as that depiction of Samson was, it is the image that’s stuck with me. When I think of Samson, I think of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his iron-pumping prime. But I’m starting to reconsider, thanks in part to Lawson Younger Jr.’s words from the NIV Application Commentary.

Samson is most commonly pictured as a hulk, a mammoth of incredible size and strength. While there is obviously in the biblical text a satirical characterization of the Philistines as ignorant, culturally challenged morons, they cannot be so stupid as to not recognize the obvious. If Samson were a Goliath-type behemoth, then obviously the “secret to his strength would be in the size of his muscles! So the Philistines would be foolish to keep trying to overcome him (cf. the experience at Lehi). The Philistine rulers would be even dumber to pay such a price for the obvious and Delilah would be the mother of all dummies if Samson were a man with fifty-inch biceps.

But Samson must have been a relatively ordinary-looking man in size and weight. His strength is not even in his long, seven-braided hair. Therefore his strength is not in the obvious; it is in Yahweh, who is working through his special Yahweh-called, Nazirite status.[1]

So maybe we’re not so different from Samson, at least in the sense that his source of strength is the same as ours—even if our strength doesn’t manifest itself in the ability to push down large pillars. It’s not a source of strength that will necessarily be obvious to others, but it’s real nonetheless.

1. K. Lawson Younger Jr., The NIV Application Commentary: Judges/Ruth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 316-7.

Sermon 07-08-12: “Sunday School Heroes, Part 6: Noah”

July 12, 2012

Today’s scripture includes these theologically challenging words from Genesis 6:6: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” To be sorry for something usually implies that something happened that you didn’t expect or anticipate. Does this mean that God didn’t know in advance the kind of trouble that the human beings he created would cause? Doesn’t God know everything? And what does it mean that humanity’s sin “grieved” God’s heart? Our human actions have the power to affect God in such a profound way?

As I discuss in this sermon, however, God’s sorrow and grief each reflect God’s profound love for us sinful humans—a love that motivated God to send his Son as a new and better Ark, not to save a handful of people but everyone who turns to him in faith.

Sermon Text: Genesis 6:5-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

At the risk of not being hip and relevant for a moment, I want to talk briefly about something that people under 40 will fail to appreciate: When I was a kid, there were these people who would make housecalls when something very precious in your home was sick. I’m not talking about doctors—as far as I knew, doctors only made housecalls on black-and-white TV shows. No, I’m talking about those frequent visitors in our home known as television repairmen. Remember the TV repairman? I suppose there are still a few out there, but not like in the old days. In the old days, this guy… It was always a guy… And often when he bent over to fix the TV, he was not wearing a belt, and you would often see more than you wanted to see, if you know what I mean! Anyway, he would come to your house maybe a couple times a year—to work on this large, heavy, expensive piece of furniture known as a console television. Our console TV was always made by Zenith, an American company that has long since bitten the dust.

Remember the console TV? (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The TV repairman would come to your house to fix problems related to things like vertical or horizontal hold. Remember those knobs? Or maybe problems related to picture quality—like, suddenly, when your picture had a sickly greenish tint. Come to think of it, there was also a “Tint” knob, wasn’t there? The worst problem of all, however, was when—heaven forbid—you turned the TV on and there was no picture at all. Just sound. When that happened, that was serious. That meant that the guy would have to go out to his van. It was not good when he went to his van! You hopedyou just hoped—that he would have some magic part in there that would allow him to fix the problem. Otherwise, the TV would have to go in the shop for a few days. And you didn’t want it to go in the shop because it was Tuesday night and Happy Days was on. And it’s not like you had two or three other TVs lying around that you could watch. Read the rest of this entry »

As the story of Samson attests, “God uses people with all their human shortcomings”

July 11, 2012

Samson is our Bible hero in this week’s sermon. He is perhaps my least favorite “Sunday school hero,” in part because he reminds me of bullies who used to pick on me in school! In my mind, he’s not a very heroic hero. On that note, however, John Goldingay once again offers a nice insight, this time into the way God uses badly flawed people to accomplish his purposes. Regarding Samson and the events of Judges 14-15, he writes:

We noted in connection with Judges 3 how the Old Testament is happy to see several levels of explanation in events. Here too there are two levels of significance in what happens. Samson does what he wants to do; God is using that. God wants to end the domination of the Philistines over the Danites and intends to use Samson to that end. God doesn’t insist on having honorable people as agents in bringing things about; we have noted that this might mean waiting forever. God uses people with all their human shortcomings. So when God’s spirit comes on someone, its concern is with doing something powerful, not immediately with doing something moral, though an event such as Samson’s tearing the lion apart does form part of God’s moral purpose in putting down the Philistines. The same is true of his striking down the Philistines in Ashkelon. You could say Samson did something wrong, but that can also contribute to the achieving of God’s intentions with regard to the Philistines.[†]

John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2011), 137-8.