Archive for October, 2012

The seductive idea that prayer only changes us

October 30, 2012

Sign from the church in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In this recent blog post, Roger Olson grapples with that harmful bumper-sticker theology that says, “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes us.” [I’ve heard it expressed more often as, “Prayer doesn’t change God (or change God’s mind); it changes us.” The point is the same.] Olson traces the the idea back to the father of liberal Christianity, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who believed that petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do things for us or others, is an immature form of prayer.

In seminary, I studied a sermon by Schleiermacher (which, unlike his dense theological writing, was surprisingly accessible) on Jesus in Gethsemane. Schleiermacher’s point was that prayer was always a matter of aligning our will with God’s will, and that Jesus was trying to teach us as much with his prayer, “Not my will but thine be done.” Answered prayer, he said, was the “happy accident” (his words, as I recall) of our will aligning with God’s.

In other words, prayer teaches us to want what our Father wants. As we do so, we find that our prayers will be answered more frequently—not because God actually intervenes in the world in response to our prayers, but because we’ve learned to ask God for what God is going to give us anyway. And God knows best, not us.

Do you see how appealing this idea is? In one fell swoop, Schleiermacher neatly dispatches the problem of unanswered prayer. He also answers the scientific objections to God’s involvement in the universe. (This was intentional: Schleiermacher was trying to show that Christianity was fully compatible with the Enlightenment’s dual emphasis on science and reason.)

While I totally get the seductive appeal of this idea, I find it contrary to the spirit and letter of scripture. For one quick proof-text, consider James 4:2: “You don’t have because you don’t ask God.” In fact, the Bible is filled with examples of God doing something in response to petitionary prayer—something that God wouldn’t otherwise do. The idea that prayer doesn’t change things sacrifices the authority of scripture on the altar of reason and logic. As Olson writes,

I have trouble even understanding why a person whose worldview and spirituality is shaped by the Bible would ever say that prayer doesn’t change things, it only changes him or her… I am personally opposed to attaching “If it be thy will” to every petitionary prayer. If the Bible says something is God’s will, then we should pray that he do it. What if he doesn’t? Then we live with the tension of that and acknowledge God’s sovereignty and higher wisdom.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should pray for frivolous things. While I won’t speak for everyone, I can know without asking, for example, that God doesn’t want me to have a Bentley. I’m never going to pray for that. We need to learn to pray in a realistic manner. As Olson suggests, we can often use scripture and reason to discern God’s will in a particular situation. As a pastor, when I’m at someone’s bedside in a hospital room, I try to discern what I can realistically pray on this person’s behalf. A prayer for physical healing, for example, would probably be inappropriate for someone dealing with Stage IV cancer, whereas a prayer for physical comfort wouldn’t be. So I pray fervently for that.

Someone might object: “So you don’t really believe that God can heal someone with Stage IV cancer?” I reject the premise of the question. Do I believe that God can heal someone with Stage IV cancer? Yes. Absolutely. But will he? I highly doubt it. This should hardly surprise us: Death has been a problem since Genesis 3. It won’t cease to be a problem until our own resurrection. We must all die of something, unless the Second Coming happens first. I’m with C.S. Lewis: every deathbed represents an unanswered prayer.

That’s life in a fallen world. The good news is that it won’t always be this way.

Cracking the code on a tough parable

October 27, 2012

An etching by Jan Luyken illustrating Luke 16:1-9 in the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I spoke earlier this week about the challenging Parable of the Shrewd Manager, which I’m preaching on tomorrow. One difficulty, among many difficulties, regarding this text is that the “hero” of the parable is a scoundrel. As Helen Debevoise helpfully points out in the Feasting on the Word commentary, however, Jesus, in two other places in Luke’s gospel, uses unsavory characters to illustrate otherwise positive points about God’s kingdom: the Parable of the Friend at Midnight (or the Importunate Neighbor) in 11:5-13 and the Parable of the Unjust Judge in 18:1-8.

In the former, a grouchy man awakened in the middle of the night (who wouldn’t be grouchy?) reluctantly gives his persistent neighbor the bread he needs. In the latter, an unjust judge, who “fears neither God nor man,” reluctantly gives the persistent widow the justice she demands. Jesus compares both the grouchy neighbor and the unjust judge to God himself! It’s a “how much more”-type of comparison. If even the grouchy neighbor and the unjust judge will do this good thing under these circumstances, how much more will God?

The Shrewd Manager, Debevoise writes, is similar:

This “how much more…” comparison appears again in Luke 16, where this manager, this person of questionable character, understood something that “children of light” have had difficulty grasping: dishonest or not, this man understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal. Believers, take note. How much more, then, must the children of God understand the riches entrusted to their care?

With that in mind, the manager redeemed whatever he could about his present situation. He understood that, in order to be where he wanted to be in the future, how he handled today counted.[†]

For me, this is a real insight. One important point of the parable is that what we do with the resources God entrusts to us matters, both on this side of eternity and the other. It matters in the sense of our individual salvation, because we have this limited resource of time that God gives us to respond to the gospel. It matters for the salvation of others, since Jesus commissions us to play a role in the work of evangelism. And it matters, as Jesus implies with his words about “eternal tents” in verse 9, because the good work that we do now for God’s kingdom carries forward to the other side of eternity. Indeed, we will even be rewarded (or not) for what we do in the here and now.

Helen Debevoise, “Proper 20” in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4 (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 94.

The end of guaranteed appointments (I hope)

October 26, 2012

This week, the Wall Street Journal, of all things, had an article on possible end of guaranteed appointments for us elders-in-full-connection in the United Methodist Church. I say “possible” because, while General Conference passed the measure to end lifelong tenure last May, its constitutionality is being deliberated by our denomination’s supreme court, the Judicial Council, as I write this. According to the article, the Judicial Council might rule on it as early as today.

For all I know, the Judicial Council might wimp out and rule that the measure is unconstitutional. I hope not. Ending guaranteed appointments is an idea whose time has come. The following seems obviously true to me:

Church leaders say that as they try to re-energize churches and draw more people into the pews, in part by recruiting new, enthusiastic pastors, they are constrained by longstanding tenure rules that give each ordained pastor a place to preach until mandatory retirement at age 72.

“You’ll have someone who is not fully effective, yet they have to have a church,” said Bishop Gary Mueller, a regional leader in Arkansas. “If everyone needs to be placed…that ends up driving the system more than who is the best person to serve a church.”

One counterargument, as the article points out, is that guaranteed appointments are the necessary trade-off for our church’s itinerant system, in which pastors frequently uproot their families and move from one place to another at the will of the bishop. That sounds good, except that tenure wasn’t introduced until the 1950s. John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and Thomas Coke never imagined that the “hardship” of itinerancy needed to be ameliorated by guaranteed appointments. Why do we?

Not to mention the fact that itinerancy today isn’t what it used to be. It simply isn’t the case that pastors automatically move every two or three years. The denomination gives more consideration to the needs of the pastor, his or her family, and the local church than it used to.

Besides, isn’t it a matter of trust? Do I trust the Lord to take care of me, or do I trust the institution of the UMC? Who’s really in charge here? Do I believe the words of the Covenant Prayer that Wesley taught us—”Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee”—or are these just pretty words to say?

Or am I hopelessly naive?

I’m going to strive to be faithful to my calling and let the chips fall where they may.

Dishonest or shrewd or both?

October 25, 2012

For the final Sunday of church stewardship season, I’m preaching the scripture, Luke 16:1-13, from which the word “stewardship” came to characterize the Christian’s relationship to property and money: the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (or Manager), also called the Parable of the Shrewd Steward (or Manager). Trying to decide between emphasizing the the manager’s shrewdness or dishonesty is surprisingly difficult.

There are a few different ways of interpreting what’s happening in the story. The first and most popular interpretation emphasizes the manager’s dishonesty: Reducing the debts that the rich man’s tenants owe him—without the rich man’s knowledge or consent—is dishonest. This isn’t the manager’s money after all, and his master wouldn’t approve of being cheated out of it. Yet the manager pretends that he’s been authorized by his master to reduce these debts.

Moreover, the manager knows that his master would lose face in front of his tenants if he had to go back to them and explain that the manager he employed acted fraudulently. In a shame-honor society of the first century, losing face in this way would be unbearable.

The story hinges on the surprise ending: When the master comes to relieve his manager of his duties, we expect him to be even angrier than before, having found out that the manager deprived him out of money he was owed. Instead, the manager can’t help but be impressed by his shrewdness.

Another interpretation, with which I was unfamiliar until I read N.T. Wright’s For Everyone commentary this week, is that the manager was doubly shrewd: He knew that charging interest was illegal under Jewish law (at least among Israelites; see Deuteronomy 23:19-20) as sinful usury. His master broke this law, charging his tenants 25 percent interest on wheat and a whopping 100 percent interest on olive oil. “If [the manager] reduced the bill in each case to the principal, the simple amount that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master couldn’t lay a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices.”[†]

Again, the punchline in this case is that the rich man responds with admiration, not anger.

Still another interpretation is that the manager wasn’t cheating his master out of anything: he was merely reducing or eliminating the commission that he himself collected on these debts. The fifty percent of olive oil and eighty percent of wheat is the amount to which he was entitled anyway—and so it’s what he received. If this were the case, however, why would the rich man notice the manager’s shrewdness in the first place? Where’s the punchline?

I like the second interpretation, but I wonder if it assumes too many facts not in evidence. Jesus doesn’t mention interest or principal, and why would the manager charge different interest rates for the different commodities.

What do you think?

Of course, we haven’t even gotten to the fun part of interpreting the parable: What on earth does it mean? I’m not sure I know, but I’ll offer some thoughts on Sunday. Stay tuned…

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 193.

Inspiring Facebook posts, part 8

October 23, 2012

Yes, I used Armstrong in a couple of sermon illustrations over the years. His original story couldn’t have been more inspiring, and his fall from grace more dramatic. But I share the perspective of a pastor friend, who put it like this:

Heaven is hard to imagine, but…

October 22, 2012

Is there a lead-lined umbrella to protect us from prying eyes in heaven?

For the past 17 years, whenever a significant milestone in my life occurred—graduations, the birth of my children, ordination—I could count on my Aunt Mary, who died a couple of weeks ago, telling me how confident she was that her late brother, my dad, was “looking down on me” and feeling pride at my accomplishment.

I would never tell her this, but the thought that Dad had the equivalent of a 50-yard-line club-level seat in heaven, viewing all the significant events in my life, never comforted me. On the contrary, if deceased loved ones can see us at our best, what’s stopping them from seeing us at our worst? Speculating about what the dead in Christ can and can’t see down here makes me think of Superman’s X-ray vision. Will a lead-lined umbrella protect me from prying eyes?

The larger problem, however, isn’t my concern for privacy: It’s that now, when I think of heaven, I’m thinking of comic books and superheroes and X-ray vision. I’m thinking of people who live somewhere up there looking at us down here—as if heaven were a place up in the sky. In other words, this way of speaking of heaven makes it seem unreal, which does not help!

The truth is, I struggle to believe in heaven sometimes. It often feels like pie-in-the-sky. Wishful thinking. Too good to be true. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve known a few Christians—intellectuals, like me—who say that they don’t need heaven; that it’s enough for them to know God now, and enjoy this gift of life now. They don’t exactly deny the afterlife, but if there is one, it’s just the cherry on top. Heaven isn’t essential to their faith. Moreover, they don’t let hope for an afterlife sully their motives for doing good now. Heaven, they say, won’t be a bribe for good behavior.

To which I say, Spare me, please! I don’t believe you. I think that you struggle to believe in heaven for the same reasons I do. You’re worried that it’s not real, and you don’t want to be disappointed (as if you would experience disappointment if this life were all there is). But instead of confronting the difficulty head-on, reasoning your way through it, you side-step it entirely. Then you pretend that it’s the honorable thing to do.

No, I stand with the apostle Paul, the cold-eyed realist on the matter of the afterlife, who said, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Logically speaking, there’s no evading the fact that without heaven, we Christians are—to put it no more strongly—wasting our time and wasting our lives. Needless to say, my vocation as a Christian pastor is laughably absurd.

But see… that’s just the thing. If, like me, you struggle with heaven, then the moment you read the previous paragraph, something in your heart objected: No way! The way of Christ-like love is good. Self-denial and self-sacrifice are good. It’s good to be a peacemaker. It’s good to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and take care of the sick. Something inside of you wants the captives to be released, the blind to have their vision restored, and the oppressed to be liberated. Don’t you feel this in your bones?

If so, then you can also feel in your bones the logic of heaven. While I may entertain doubts about deceased loved ones looking down on us from above, and other popular, self-serving depictions of heaven, I don’t doubt for a moment my strong desire for justice to be fully and finally done (not against me, mind you, but at least for others). So forget about me, my eternal well-being, my survival beyond the grave, my reunion with departed loved ones. Apart from heaven, it’s impossible that the scales of justice can ever be balanced, or that the Good will be vindicated. Therefore, I find a future that doesn’t include heaven intolerable.

Obviously, this just scratches the surface of the topic. I haven’t said a word about the intermediate state versus full-bodied resurrection, our ultimate Christian hope. I haven’t discussed my favorite writing on the subject, which comes from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. But I got to thinking about these things when I read John Koessler’s recent article in Christianity Today, “Why It’s Hard to imagine Heaven is Real.” You might appreciate it, too. He nicely describes the problems that make heaven hard to believe in. I especially liked this part:

Heaven as we have traditionally pictured it is an uninspiring place, a subject of clichés and the butt of jokes. Heaven is the green space where our loved ones go after they die, not unlike the cemetery itself. It is a quiet and comfortable spot from which our deceased parents and grandparents view significant events like graduations, weddings, family reunions, and presumably their own funerals. Like spectators on a hill who watch from a great distance, they “look down upon us” but cannot do much else.

Such affairs are tedious enough for the living. One can only wonder what they would be like for souls who were permitted to watch but not participate. Would they find our small talk about yesterday’s game or our employer’s irritating behavior to be interesting? Would they enjoy knowing that we miss them? Would they be distressed at the sight of our troubles? If this is heaven, then its inhabitants are more like Marley’s ghost than the angels. They might seek to interfere for good, but lack the power to do so.

If heaven is only a distant gallery from which the departed observe affairs as they unfold on earth, then it is a dull place indeed. It is more like that boring relative’s house your parents forced you to visit when you were a kid—the one without Nintendo or any children your own age—than the place where God’s throne dwells. This popular view of heaven pictures a realm so removed that our voice will not carry to its shores. It is close enough for the departed to watch us but too far away to have any real effect on earth. It is too removed from our present experience to sustain our interest and too far in the future to be of help in the present.

Sermon 10-14-12: “Rich Toward God”

October 18, 2012

Today’s scripture has this effect on me.

What follows is what I believe is my best-ever stewardship sermon. As I make clear, there is nothing about today’s scripture, Luke 12:13-21, 32-34, that is easy. Both the man who asks Jesus to settle his financial dispute with his brother and the farmer in the parable are judged harshly by Jesus. Why? What do either of them do that we ourselves wouldn’t also do?

Are we, like them, failing to be “rich toward God”?

Sermon Text: Luke 12:13-21, 32-34

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Not that I would know this from any recent personal experience, but when your football team wins a really big game, it’s customary for the players to pick up the cooler of Gatorade, sneak up behind the head coach on the sidelines, and dump it over his head. Some day, I hope a team that I root for will have some occasion to do this. Oftentimes, the coach sees it coming, and he braces himself for it. But every once in a while, it’s a complete surprise, a total shock to the system. Imagine: being doused in icy cold liquid on a cold winter day.

Today’s scripture feels like that to me! Here I am, minding my own business, not bothering anyone, reading the Gospel of Luke, when out of nowhere… BOOM! Everything about today’s scripture shocks me, slaps me in the face, knocks me upside the head. I can’t find any wiggle room in this text. I can’t find any way to make it easy on myself. I can’t find any way to soften the blow. Read the rest of this entry »

Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Thank God!

October 17, 2012

On This American Life a couple of weeks ago, author Tim Kreider describes the happy year following the near-fatal stabbing that he endured, a period during which he felt a profound sense of “euphoric gratitude” to be alive. The experience “jolted [him] out of a lifelong stupor.”

I like this piece. I’ve never had a personal brush with death. I’ve never (so far) nearly died. Nevertheless, I’ve had experiences with loved ones dying that have had a similar (though obviously far less intense) impact on me. I’ve preached before that we could all use a good funeral to remind us of how precious life is. I’ve experienced at least a few of those.

Still, I was disappointed that this experience didn’t awaken Kreider from his spiritual stupor. After all, the experience made him grateful to be alive, but to whom is he grateful for his gift of life? Not God, as he makes clear. In the following excerpt, he rejects any sense of God’s providence at work in or through the terrifying event:

Not for one passing moment did it occur to me that God must have spared my life for some purpose. Even if I had been the type that was prone to such notions, I would have been disabused of it by the heavy-handed coincidence of the Oklahoma City bombing, occurring on the same day I spent in a recuperative coma. If there is some divine plan that requires my survival and the deaths of all those children in daycare, I respectfully decline to participate. What I had been was not blessed or chosen, but lucky.

Give Kreider his theological props. In this short paragraph, he puts his finger on the best reason not to be Calvinist. As theologian David Bentley Hart makes clear in his book Doors of the Sea and in an essay from First Things written soon after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2005, one of the most liberating ideas Christianity has given the world is that the world as it is—in its current, fallen state—is not morally comprehensible. God does not require evil and suffering to accomplish his sovereign will. Indeed, God stands opposed to them, and he came to us in Christ to defeat them.

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

I’m hardly surprised that Kreider doesn’t know this much about orthodox Christian theology. Why should he? After all, how many times do I hear Christians recite that damnable bit of bumper-sticker theology, “Everything happens for a reason”? Far too often!

Everything does not happen for a reason! And thank God for that! God does not require, for example, tsunamis, war, and genocide to play a role in history’s turning out the way God planned it. God does not require evil for his glory to unfold in some heretofore unimaginable way. God does not need to override the freedom of earthly agents, human or otherwise, for his sovereign will to be accomplished. God is God. He’s not constrained in the way that this Calvinist bumper-sticker theology implies.

I doubt even many believers who say “everything happens for a reason” mean it in the strongest, most deterministic sense. They’re expressing, very imprecisely, the providential idea that “Nothing happens beyond God’s control, or beyond God’s ability to redeem. And God will bring good even out of this suffering.” For them, “Everything happens for a reason” will do in a pinch. But not for me.

Nitpicky, you say? I hope not. I am paid, in part, to think about stuff like this, and to express what we Christians believe as clearly as possible.

As for Kreider, I hope he continues to reflect deeply on his feeling of gratitude for the goodness of life. When one’s argument against God is rooted in moral indignation at evil and suffering, one is nearer to God than one knows.

“Heaven is real,” says this week’s Newsweek

October 15, 2012

Many people will be talking about this week’s Newsweek cover story, “Heaven Is Real,” and for good reason: It’s a beautifully written first-person account of a near-death experience (NDE), written by a scientifically minded person—a well-respected neurosurgeon—who knows exactly how crazy it will sound to his skeptical colleagues.

His NDE is different from many others that we know of, simply because he experienced it during that time when the part of his brain that controls thoughts and emotions, the neocortex, had been disabled due to an attack of bacterial meningitis. He was, for all practical purposes, brain-dead.

I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.

All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

He writes that during his journey in the heavenly realm, he was accompanied by an angelic being, a woman, whom he describes as follows:

The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

If nothing else, let’s pause a moment to appreciate the author’s literary skill—the man knows how to write! Digging deeper, I find his account credible and consistent with scripture and the message of the gospel. NDEs, while hardly any kind of slam-dunk proof of God or the afterlife, are not nothing, as I’ve written before. 

I’m willing to accept that, for whatever reason, God gave Dr. Alexander this experience. This is no big leap for me: when friends or parishioners tell me that God intervened in their life, or communicated something to them, or worked a miracle of some kind, I tend to believe them. God, I believe, does these sorts of things all the time!

I’m glad that other Christians have also embraced him and his story.

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church. The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the stained-glass windows recalled the luminous beauty of the landscapes I’d seen in the world above. The deep bass notes of the organ reminded me of how thoughts and emotions in that world are like waves that move through you. And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.

Pastoral prayer for the first Sunday of stewardship season

October 14, 2012

The scripture I’m preaching today is Luke 12:13-21, 32-34. The following prayer coincides with this scripture:

Almighty Father,

You delight in giving us your kingdom. You delight in giving us all the good gifts that we need, not merely to survive and endure this life, but to thrive and enjoy life. You made us to be happy, and you show us the only way that true happiness is possible—a happiness that survives the grave and finds its fulfillment in resurrection. How grateful we are for your greatest gift of all, your Son Jesus! Through him, you give us forgiveness of sins, eternal life, security, hope for the future, and grace upon grace. All your gifts are right here, ready for us to receive them by the power of your Spirit.

We confess, however, that too often we don’t trust you when you show us the way to your kingdom. You see, we have our own little kingdoms in our hearts. And trusting you as much as we need to means relinquishing our place on the throne—giving up our puny little kingdom for yours. Of course you’re king anyway, no matter what we do. And one day it will be clear to the whole world, as every knee will bow and every tongue confess that you are king. Enable us to bow our knees and make our confession today, if we haven’t already. Enable us to continue to make you king of our lives. Expose the unvanquished territories of our heart that haven’t yet surrendered to you; that conspire against you; that continue to rebel. Bring every part of us under your gracious Lordship—all our thoughts, all our words, all our deeds. Make our every impulse respond to your gracious will.

We pray this in the name of your Son Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever. Amen.