Archive for February, 2013

“I don’t have enough words to give God the glory”

February 28, 2013

Here is a video from last Friday, a “graduation service” for the pastors that the Rev. Dr. Susan Taylor and I taught. The last speaker is Pastor Ososo, a district superintendent from Nairobi. He said, “I don’t know why I was chosen to represent the country to say ‘thank you.’ I was thinking I was the least of all because I am tongue-tied to what God has done for all of us. I am tongue-tied. I don’t have enough words to give God the glory.” What a blessing, as you can see!

By the way, all the pastors I met and taught are apprehensive about the upcoming election in Kenya on March 4. The results of the last election, in 2007, were widely disputed. Thousands of Kenyans were killed in the resulting violence that swept the country. Since that time, Kenya has adopted a new constitution. And churches in Kenya, including some leaders from my class, have worked closely with government officials and others to help ensure peace this time.

If you can, pray for a peaceful election in Kenya this March 4.

Prayer and our “tangled mass of motives”

February 27, 2013
I bought Foster's book from a used bookstore years ago, and look—it's autographed!

I bought Foster’s book from a used bookstore years ago, and look—it’s autographed on the inside cover!

I’m re-reading parts of Richard Foster’s book on prayer in preparation for this Sunday’s Lenten-themed sermon on the subject. Near the beginning, he writes words that speak to my soul. My desire to pray “correctly” is itself one obstacle to my prayer life. Lo and behold: I’m not alone! Foster, an evangelical Quaker (of all things), is very near to my Wesleyan heart when he writes:

I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray, really pray. I would be in some prayer group, for example, and I would examine what I had just prayed and think to myself, “How utterly foolish and self-centered; I can’t pray this way!” And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure. You understand, I did not want to be a hypocrite. I knew that God is holy and righteous. I knew that prayer is no magic incantation. I knew that I must not use God for my own ends. But the practical effect of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray.

The truth of the matter is, we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives—altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live by it as well. And we pray by it.[†]

Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco: 1992), 8.

About Adam Hamilton’s recent Washington Post op-ed

February 27, 2013

Despite my uncanny resemblance to the man (or is it Rob Bell? I can’t remember), I continue to “agree to disagree” with my fellow United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton on his recently revised stance on human sexuality. I only mention my disagreement again because of his recent op-ed in the Washington Post. 

Some prominent United Methodist clergy, including Asbury Seminary president Timothy Tennent and pastor Maxie Dunnam, have weighed in on it here and here. While Hamilton doesn’t add anything to the argument in his sermon last fall, which I wrote about in some depth, his emphasis in this piece is on the analogy to the biblical treatment of slavery (and, he adds parenthetically, “the place of women”). Regarding those many verses in the Bible that seem to condone or justify slavery, Hamilton writes the following:

Abolitionist preachers argued in their sermons that the verses related to slavery in the Bible were a reflection of the cultural context and times in which the Bible was written and did not reflect God’s endorsement of slavery. They argued that there were “weightier” scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery. This was the position that Lincoln himself adopted.

One day soon, he says, most of us Christians will view the church’s stance toward homosexuals the same way.

Both Tennent and Dunnam argue (as I tried to) that this analogy, powerful as it seems at first blush, doesn’t hold water. As Hamilton has surely preached before on numerous occasions, the Bible’s “clear trajectory” moves away from slavery and female subordination. Hamilton knows, for example, that if slaveowner Philemon takes Paul’s words to heart—that Philemon should treat his runaway slave Onesimus as a fully equal brother in Christ, who is master of us all—and all Christian slaveowners do likewise, then the institution of slavery is subverted from within until it no longer exists. This is, in fact, exactly what happened: by the Middle Ages, slavery was illegal in the Christian West. (Yes, it tragically reemerged with African slavery, but those parts of the Church that endorsed it weren’t being faithful, first of all, to scripture itself, not to mention tradition.)

Since Hamilton knows all this—and has surely preached and taught it before—don’t you think it’s disingenuous for him not to say so? In other words, contrary to his argument, it’s not merely “‘weightier’ scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery,” it’s also scripture’s direct words about slavery itself that destroyed the institution—again, my colleagues in ministry have it right when they talk about a clear trajectory.

No such trajectory exists for homosexual behavior. On the contrary, those verses that speak against same-sex sexual behavior (“five or eight depending upon how one counts,” Hamilton writes) move in the opposite direction.

As he did in his sermon last fall, Hamilton continues to stress the relatively few verses related to homosexual behavior, over against the “100 plus verses on slavery.” If the Church can set aside those hundred-plus verses in order to declare that slavery is immoral, he argues, surely it can do the same with those few verses related to homosexuality.

I don’t know why he thinks this is a good argument.

How many times does the Bible have to say, “Do not covet,” for us to know that coveting is wrong? How many times does it have to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for us to know that we really ought to do so? Unless Hamilton believed that those “five to eight” verses were insufficiently clear, then he’s not making his point.

See, he knows what those five to eight verses are clear enough: that’s not his argument. Although I accept that there are eight verses rather than his five, Hamilton is too good a student of the Bible to go on one of those flights of exegetical fancy in which he pretends words no longer mean what they plainly seem to mean, as I described here.

No, his argument is that those verses, though clear enough, are cultural and time-bound and don’t reflect God’s timeless will.

He also offers this:

In my own life, it was both reading the Bible’s passages on same-sex intimacy in the same light as passages on slavery (and violence and the place of women) and coming to know gay and lesbian people that led me to see this issue differently, particularly children who grew up in my church who loved God and sought to serve Christ. As I listened to their stories I saw that they did not fit the stereotypes I had been taught about gay and lesbian people… And their faith was as authentic as that of anyone else in my congregation.

You mean gay and lesbian Christians can also love and serve Christ as well as the rest of us sinners? Their faith is as “authentic” as straight people’s faith? Who said otherwise? A handful of fundamentalists? Westboro Baptist? What kind of straw-man argument is this?

Will the many gay and lesbian Christians who nevertheless accept and abide by the Church’s traditional teaching and remain celibate appreciate that Hamilton realized—rather late in life, apparently—that they, too, are authentically Christian? Of course, Hamilton doesn’t allow for the possibility that such Christians exist—or that celibacy could ever be a viable option for anyone, even though both Jesus and Paul clearly endorsed it!

One final problem with his article occurs in the final paragraph. He conflates the church’s stance regarding homosexual behavior with preachers “decrying the rights of homosexuals today.”

Not so fast! The question of “rights” is strictly a political question. And if you want to talk about political remedies for unjust discrimination against homosexuals, I’m all ears. I stand alongside our Book of Discipline in opposing discrimination. But this is entirely a separate question from whether the church itself should endorse same-sex marriage or ordain non-celibate homosexuals. None of us, gay or straight, has any “rights” before God.

A brief reflection on Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am”

February 25, 2013

I know photos can lie, but Towshend looks great at 67!

I’m back home in the States, having returned yesterday from Kenya. I still want to share one or two more posts related to the trip. In the meantime, I finished Pete Townshend’s brutally candid autobiography Who I Am on the plane yesterday.

It is, at least in small part, about the author’s deep spiritual yearning. In the late-’60s, Townshend became the most famous follower of a 20th-century Indian mystic called Meher Baba, to whom he dedicated the album Tommy (and his first solo album, Who Came First) and about whom he wrote several songs (including one of the Who’s most famous, “Baba O’Riley”) and articles. He even founded an institute in England dedicated to Meher Baba’s teachings.

Unless I’m mistaken, Meher Baba falls within the realm of Hinduism and is considered by some to be a manifestation (or “avatar”) of God.

Who I Am is already a long book, with a lot of ground to cover. Nevertheless, I wish Townshend had said more about his religious journey. He leaves too many questions unexplored. For example, he said he heard the voice of God in a hotel room at a Holiday Inn in the Midwest. What did God say? How did he experience this “voice”? How does he interpret its meaning? He describes having an out-of-body experience during an LSD trip, which was interrupted by an actual angel telling him that it’s not time to go yet. In fact, he makes at least a few references to literal angels and demons.

If Townshend accepts the reality of a spiritual dimension populated by angels and demons, surely their appearances to him deserve further comment and reflection than simply to mention that they were there. He surely knows that many of his readers will think this discussion is bunk. Also, how does this spiritual realm fit within the worldview espoused by Meher Baba—and might such beliefs fit more tidily in another religion, i.e., Christianity?

The main story that Townshend tells in the book is his struggle with and victory over drug and mostly alcohol addiction. Given his many relapses, this “victory,” as Townshend knows better than anyone, is always frighteningly provisional.

Townshend describes a doctor on the West Coast whom he credits with saving his life on more than one occasion. He’s the same doctor, I think, who also helped his friend Eric Clapton. Regardless, he said the doctor had an “infectious Christian faith,” which he shared with Townshend, although Townshend remained committed to Meher Baba. Given that Townshend grew up within a largely Christian culture in postwar England—even though he wasn’t a churchgoer and never professed Christian faith—I wanted to hear about those conversations. What did he learn about this doctor’s faith and what made it compelling to him? How was this doctor’s faith different from other Christians he’d encountered?

These questions probably don’t matter as much to Townshend because he assumes universalism: many paths lead to God; you’ve got Jesus, I’ve got Meher Baba. I just wish someone as intelligent as Townshend would have identified this assumption and at least called it into question.

Townshend describes his relationship with George Harrison, who became the world’s most famous Hindu convert in the ’60s and never looked back. Townshend loved Harrison, but he offers a small but surprising critique of Harrison’s faith. Regarding one long conversation with Harrison, he writes:

George was happy to talk to me about Indian mysticism and music, even his use of cocaine. I found it hard to follow his reasoning that in a world of illusion nothing mattered, not wealth or fame, drug abuse or heavy drinking, nothing but love for God.[†]

I’m glad he said so! I find it hard to follow as well: Christianity utterly rejects this kind of dualism that imagines that how we live our lives has little or no connection with our love for God. We are bodies and souls, inseparable and intertwined, as even our best science understands.

By the way, here’s one of my favorite Townshend songs from one of my all-time favorite albums, (All The Best Cowboys Have) Chinese Eyes, from 1982. The song is about God’s providence. It challenges us to see that that “somebody” who saves us is the One who loves us and is working for our good.

Pete Townshend, Who I Am (New York: Harper, 2012), 265.

“By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving”

February 21, 2013

Watch the following short video and notice what happens following the conclusion of the song: each person begins praying earnestly, out loud, individually, making their supplications to God. This isn’t speaking in tongues, by the way: Many of the pastors are praying in their native language, Swahili. Others are praying in English. Although I only captured a few moments, this type of praying went on for a minute or two. This also happened in worship last Sunday.

What do you make of it?

On the one hand I find it deeply moving—a beautiful cacophony of voices. You can’t see it from the video, but some of these pastors are nearly weeping! On the other hand, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel spiritually dry—like, What’s my problem? When it comes to my own prayers, why don’t I share these pastors’ earnestness and enthusiasm? Why am I so buttoned-up all the time? Why do I have to play it so cool when I worship?

Is it an American thing—or a Western thing? It is cultural? In my prosperity, after all, I usually live so far from worrying about my “daily bread” that I often feel no strong desire to pray, much less with this kind of holy desperation. I find I have everything I think I need without even asking for it.

Someone will object: Yes, but prayer is so much more than just asking for things—especially for ourselves. And, yes, that’s true. But I sense that many of us Christians have been told so often and emphatically that prayer is more than asking for things for ourselves that we begin to think that there’s something unseemly, immature, or childish about it—that if we only could be more spiritual, then we would see that we already have everything we need. In fact, we already have more than enough.

(Come to think of it, I’ve heard some Christians complain about politicians who ask God to “bless” America—as if God has already blessed us enough among the nations, and, by their logic, there are only so many of God’s blessings to go around. Do you see how the logic of this complaint can easily filter down to individual Christians in America? If we buy into it, then we should never ask for anything for ourselves!)

Just this morning I had a few moments of panic. Susan and I have been using missionary Bill Coble’s computer projector for our class. I’ve been responsible for transporting it back and forth from our hotel to the conference center where we’re teaching.

Last night, I realized I didn’t have it. I thought I left it in the van that carried us back to our hotel. No problem: I’ll just get it this morning when we head back to class. It will be in the van where I left it. Only it wasn’t in the van. And it wasn’t at the conference center. In my mind, of course, I’ve practically resigned myself to having lost it. How much does one of those things cost, anyway? Ugh.

Naturally, I fired up flares of desperation: “God, please help me find it!”

Less than 20 minutes later, one of the pastors attending the class showed up to breakfast with my projector in hand. Turns out I had left it on a patio chair outside our conference room. This pastor picked it up for safekeeping.

Needless to say, for the next few minutes, I was so incredibly grateful to God: because in this instance I needed God to help me. I was in a place, for a change, where I couldn’t help myself.

Don’t get me wrong: contrary to Ben Franklin, I know that I never really “help myself.” None of us does. Whatever good that comes our way is by God’s grace, whether we care to pray for it or thank him for it or not. And this experience of losing the projector reminded me of this truth. Isn’t it good to be reminded from time to time that we’re not self-sufficient. It’s good to pray prayers of desperation from time to time.

A while back, in one of my sermons, I complained—slightly—about the recent internet meme known as “first world problems.” I said that I get it: “first world problems” are often very funny. And it’s good to put our problems in perspective, by all means. But this meme also has a way of trivializing our real problems, first-world or otherwise. They make us feel guilty: why are you worrying about whatever trivial thing you’re worried about? Don’t you know that children are starving all over the world?—or whatever. 

For three years, we had this problem at my father-in-law's house! I can totally relate!

For three years, we had this problem at my father-in-law’s house! I can totally relate!

No, like it or not, our first-world problems are real problems if we experience them that way. And if we experience them that way, why shouldn’t we ask for God’s help to solve them—and be very grateful when he does?

Regardless, filming people at prayer, as I did above, made me feel like a TV documentary-maker for National Geographic. So I put my iPhone down (naturally, this first-world dweller can’t live without his iPhone!) and joined them. I began praying out loud that God would help me solve whatever problems I was currently facing.

And he did. And he continues to do so. Thank you, Jesus!

Teaching in Kenya

February 20, 2013
Here I am teaching about atonement. Don't you wish you were listening?

Here I am teaching about atonement. Don’t you wish you were listening?

I started teaching my theology and doctrine class on Monday. I gave an overview of church history and the history of Christian thought, emphasizing what we United Methodists share in common with the universal church “in all times and in all places.” I’ve also been highlighting our distinctive Wesleyan emphases. (To say the least, we had a lively discussion about our Methodist doctrine of “Christian perfection.”)

I hope you can get a sense from this video of how I’m spending the week. My colleague, Rev. Dr. Susan Taylor, who’s teaching the class with me, filmed me “in action” in the classroom!

A reflection on Sunday’s worship service in Kenya

February 19, 2013
On my second day in Kenya, I preached at a worship service.

On my second day in Kenya, I preached at a worship service.

As you can see in the video below, on our second day in Kenya, we attended a worship service. It was a large gathering representing several churches from the Nakuru West district of the United Methodist Church. We worshiped under a tent. I preached the sermon, and Susan and I served Holy Communion. I was slightly concerned that my sermon would be too long considering it would also have to be translated, but then I remembered that this is Kenya: Worship lasts three hours or more! What’s a few extra minutes?

Toward the end of the service, pastors brought forward four or five parishioners who were in need of healing. They wanted us to do something“O.K.,” I thought. “This is a little new for me. Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.” So we laid our hands on them and prayed for them. I prayed something like the following: “Almighty God, by the power of your Holy Spirit, give your beloved daughter the healing that she needs. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” I then made the sign of the cross on their forehead.

That sounds pretty good, right? I couldn’t be more specific than that, since I didn’t know these people, and I couldn’t speak swahili to ask them what was wrong.

Healing prayers and healing services are, of course, an ancient Christian practice. We have prayers and liturgies for them in our United Methodist Book of Worship. When we wazungu (white people) were debriefing as a group (Susan, me, the missionaries Bill and Chat, and our brothers and sisters from Peachtree Road UMC), a few of us thought that was the most moving part of the service.


Each evening, we debrief, reflect on the day’s experiences, share a devotional, and pray.

Why can’t we make a healing liturgy like this a regular part of worship back home? Would that be weird?

I grew up not exactly watching Ernest Angley on TV on Sunday morning, but his show was often on before the cartoons started—informing his viewers to put their hands on the TV screen in order to receive a healing. I’m aware that faith-healing has a bad name. But that’s not exactly the kind of healing that I’m talking about—although, by all means, I hope and believe that physical healings may result.

But good heavens, I need healing myself sometimes! Don’t you? Shouldn’t church be a place where we seek healing—given that God himself is always the One who heals us?

My own discomfort with participating in a healing liturgy is that it would mean swallowing my pride and confessing to the world that I need help, that I’m not self-sufficient, that I don’t have it all together. I don’t like doing that.

Anyway, enjoy the video.

Kenya Day 1 video

February 18, 2013

A United Methodist church in an IDP camp in Kenya

Greetings from Nakuru, Kenya! I appear to have reliable wi-fi at the conference center where I’m teaching—yay! Today is Day 3 here (Monday). The following is a short movie I prepared summarizing our work on the day we arrived (Saturday). If wi-fi holds up (not to mention electricity, since this is Kenya), I should be able to post more as the week goes on.

In Kenya now!

February 16, 2013


I just arrived in Kenya! I struggle to sleep on airplanes, so I slept a total of one hour over the past 24 hours of flying and airport-laying-over. We will hit the ground running before sleep in Nakuru this evening. (Notice I’m in the same clothes I was in yesterday.)

More later, I hope—depending on wifi reliability. Stay tuned!

On my way to Kenya again

February 15, 2013

Just arrived at the Amsterdam airport on Friday morning. On my way to Kenya.

Once again, I’m on my way to Kenya to teach Wesleyan theology and doctrine, church history, and sacraments, among other things, to a group of 50 indigenous United Methodist lay pastors. I’ll try to post updates over the next 10 days, depending on how reliable my wi-fi will be. If you recall, I also did this last September.