Archive for February, 2013

Sermon 02-10-13: “Your Work Is Calling, Part 2”

February 14, 2013

Your Work is Calling_VB_SermonSeries_2-3-13

Last week, my main point was that doing good work—no matter what that work may be—is an important part of discipleship. We love our neighbor—and God loves our neighbor—through our good work. In today’s sermon, I say more about our jobs as a “calling”: No matter who our boss is, we work for the Lord. No matter who our customer or client is, we serve the Lord. The Lord has a purpose in our having the jobs we have. If our work is motivated by anything other than pleasing the Lord, then we’re bound to be disappointed and unsatisfied.

Sermon Text: Colossians 3:23-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.


The infamous receipt that went viral. At least this pastor tithes!

Many of you have seen this picture of an Applebee’s receipt that went viral on Facebook and other social media last week. A customer, who is a pastor, was eating with a group of people. She disagreed that the service she received was worth the automatic 18 percent gratuity that the restaurant charged, so she crossed through it and wrote these words: “I give God 10 percent. Why do you get 18?” The waitress showed the receipt to another waitress, who took a picture of it and posted it on the internet. When this pastor got wind of it, she called Applebee’s to complain about this violation of her privacy, and the waitress who posted the picture was fired.

I know… It was an ugly, ugly episode. All I will say in this pastor’s defense is that at least she tithes! A lot of pastors I known don’t do that! More importantly, maybe she was having a really bad day. I’ve certainly done many worse things in my life—and, fortunately, my sins weren’t paraded on the internet for all the world to see.

The tone of much of the commentary surrounding this receipt sounded something like this: “Doesn’t this pastor know what a horrible, thankless job waiting tables is—that waiters and waitresses have to stand on their feet for hours on end, serving a bunch of stingy, ungrateful people like this pastor, working for a small hourly wage and tips that they then have to divide between bussers, bartenders, and hosts.” Much of this commentary suggested that there was something undignified and demeaning about serving the public like this. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon outtake about Sabbath from “Your Work Is Calling, Part 2”

February 13, 2013

I’ll post last Sunday’s sermon by tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a section of my sermon from last week that I cut out in the interest of time and, you know, not boring you.

If you were there, you may remember that I was talking about how our work often kills us in slow motion—we suffer stress-related illnesses for which we take prescription drugs, and we fail to take care of our bodies. Originally, I intended to follow this with the following discussion of the importance of Sabbath rest. I especially like the next to last paragraph.

And the solution that the Bible prescribes for this problem is Sabbath. Remember last week: God designed us to work most of the time—six days on, one day off. This is why so many able-bodied and healthy people have such a hard time with retirement. It goes against our built-in programming. That’s why I’m pleased that so many retired people in our church use retirement as an opportunity to do other kinds of good work—not to stop working; not to live a life devoted to leisure. That’s as unnatural as the being a workaholic!

For us Christians, Sabbath isn’t so much a day of the week that we have to rest and do nothing. It’s more like an attitude toward life. We can enjoy Sabbath rest any time. If we can’t enjoy Sabbath rest, then that’s a symptom that work has gotten out of control.

In his recent book about work, pastor Timothy Keller says the following about Sabbath rest:

Sabbath is… a declaration of our freedom. It means you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities. [“Your own insecurities.” I like that—it’s like Tim Keller knows me!] It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph—otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug.[†]

Do any of us feel guilty leaving work behind and resting?

See, here’s the thing: We don’t enjoy Sabbath rest only after the work is finished, because, if you haven’t noticed, the work is never finished. And we don’t enjoy Sabbath rest only after we’ve tied up every loose end because, if you haven’t noticed, there are always loose ends that need to be tied up. And we don’t enjoy Sabbath rest only after we’ve found other people to handle our work in our absence, because if you haven’t noticed, no one can do your job as good as you can!

Sabbath rest is not a matter of trusting in ourselves or trusting in other people to get all the work done; it’s a matter of trusting in God alone. Remember: the Lord is in charge our work. And the Lord isn’t a slavedriver. He came to set us free.

Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Dutton, 2012), 236.

Vinebranch video: “What is your dream job?”

February 12, 2013

We showed the following video last Sunday as part of our “Your Work Is Calling” series.

A prayer about work

February 11, 2013

The following comes from my pastoral prayer yesterday, as we finished our sermon series on work and vocation.

Almighty God, who blesses us with all the gifts and resources necessary to do good work in this world: Enable us leave this place with the strength, the resolve, the wisdom, and the guidance necessary to do good work for you this week. Remind us that we’re serving you not only when we go to far-flung places like Honduras or Paraguay or Kenya, and nearer faraway places like Birmingham or the Gulf Coast, and places of mission in our local community, but that we serve you all the time. We serve you in a deeply meaningful way through the good work that we do in our jobs and in our homes. Make us faithful in that task. Remind us again and again that we have a reward from you that is so much more satisfying than paychecks or recognition or public acclaim. Help us live so as to win that reward and hear your Son say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It is in his name that we pray. Amen.

Why the church is losing young people

February 11, 2013

Here’s a thought-provoking blog post by “Marc5Solas” called “The Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church.” He says that 70 percent of our youth drop out of church after they graduate high school, and only half of those will ever return. He doesn’t cite a source for these numbers. Are they anecdotal? Regardless, they seem reasonable to me—even a little better than I would imagine! One question I have is, Are these retention numbers worse than before so many evangelical churches adopted this Disney World approach to youth ministry?

I made this point in my mostly positive assessment of Andy Stanley’s book Deep & Wide, but it bears repeating: I worry that Stanley’s approach (and perhaps the approach of many megachurch pastors) is to overemphasize that one moment of decision to follow Christ and to be a bit cavalier about what happens next—the hard work of sanctification, which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in cooperation with us. Stanley concentrates his pastoral efforts on the first part while “outsourcing” the other part. (Yes, I’m aware that United Methodist pastors like me often err in the opposite direction.)

As I’ve said in more than a few sermons, deciding to follow Jesus is the easy part: “becoming a Christian,” however, is a lifelong process. It’s no wonder so many kids drop out!

That being said, to Solas’s point, the church shouldn’t make it so easy to do so!

The post is filled with wisdom, but here are some parts that I especially like:

We’ve taken a historic, 2,000 year old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans and tried to sell it as “cool” to our kids. It’s not cool. It’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world we’re called to evangelize.

Our kids meet the real world and our “look, we’re cool like you” posing is mocked. In our effort to be “like them” we’ve become less of who we actually are. The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn’t relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn’t matter. It’s not relevant, It’s comically cliché. The minute you aim to be “authentic”, you’re no longer authentic!

From a Noah’s Ark themed nursery, to jumbotron summer-campish kids church, to pizza parties and rock concerts, many evangelical youth have been coddled in a not-quite-church, but not-quite-world hothouse. They’ve never sat on a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank. They don’t see the full timeline of the gospel for every season of life. Instead, we’ve dumbed down the message, pumped up the volume and act surprised when…

8. They get smart:

It’s not that our students “got smarter” when they left home, rather someone actually treated them as intelligent. Rather than dumbing down the message, the agnostics and atheists treat our youth as intelligent and challenge their intellect with “deep thoughts” of question and doubt. Many of these “doubts” have been answered, in great depth, over the centuries of our faith. However….

7. You sent them out unarmed:

Let’s just be honest, most of our churches are sending youth into the world embarrassingly ignorant of our faith. How could we not? We’ve jettisoned catechesis, sold them on “deeds not creeds” and encouraged them to start the quest to find “God’s plan for their life”. Yes, I know your church has a “What we believe” page, but is that actually being taught and reinforced from the pulpit?

You’ve tried your best to pass along the internal/subjective faith that you “feel”. You really, really, really want them to “feel” it too. But we’ve never been called to evangelize our feelings. You can’t hand down this type of subjective faith. With nothing solid to hang their faith upon, with no historic creed to tie them to centuries of history, without the physical elements of bread, wine, and water, their faith is in their subjective feelings, and when faced with other ways to “feel” uplifted at college, the church loses out to things with much greater appeal to our human nature.

Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we’ve given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn’t catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals of the faith, we’re simply encouraging them to “be nice” and “love Jesus”. When they leave home, they realize that they can be “spiritually fulfilled” and get the same subjective self-improvement principles (and warm-fuzzies) from the latest life-coach or from spending time with friends or volunteering at a shelter.

We’ve traded a historic, objective, faithful gospel based on God’s graciousness toward us for a modern, subjective, pragmatic gospel based upon achieving our goal by following life strategies. Rather than being faithful to the foolish simplicity of the gospel of the cross we’ve set our goal on being “successful” in growing crowds with this gospel of glory. This new gospel saves no one. Our kids can check all of these boxes with any manner of self-help, life-coach, or simply self-designed spiritualism… and they can do it more pragmatically successfully, and in more relevant community. They leave because given the choice, with the very message we’ve taught them, it’s the smarter choice.

Deeper meaning of Sabbath rest

February 8, 2013

Timothy Keller’s book on work, Every Good Endeavor, is excellent. He was the one who pointed me to the Tolkien short story that I discussed yesterday, and his book has informed my current sermon series on work and vocation, “Your Work Is Calling.”

I’m sure I’ll get around to this point in Sunday’s sermon, but in the meantime, I’ll include the following excerpt about Sabbath rest, which all of us should take to heart. Keller writes the following in the context of a discussion about the work that many of us do “under the work,” that hidden motivation for work that is a vain attempt to win “redemption” for ourselves: “If I do this good work, then I’ll be the person of worth that I so desperately want to be.” I mentioned my own struggle with this “work under the work” yesterday in my easily frustrated, sinful desire to accomplish significance for myself—which is also a part of Niggle’s frustration.

If our work is motivated by a misplaced desire like this we become slaves to our work—and probably workaholics (if not alcoholics!). Our faith in Christ should liberate us from this slavery. Sabbath rest itself becomes a sign of this liberation:

Sabbath is therefore a declaration of our freedom. It means you are not a slave—not to your culture’s expectations, your family’s hopes, your medical school’s demands, not even to your own insecurities. It is important that you learn to speak this truth to yourself with a note of triumph—otherwise you will feel guilty for taking time off, or you will be unable to truly unplug.[†]

Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor (New York: Dutton, 2012), 236.

Tolkien’s Niggle: “In the Lord, you know that your labor is not in vain”

February 7, 2013


I just read “A Leaf by Niggle,” a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien.[1] I think it must have been anthologized in a high school literature text, because I’m sure I’ve read it before. Regardless, a teenage boy can’t comprehend its significance. A grown man of 43 (next week), however, is in tears.

The story is a parable about a rather average painter named Niggle. Niggle feels unappreciated. His neighbors and acquaintances believe he should stop wasting time on canvases that few will ever see, and fewer still will appreciate, and get on with something useful—they believe his overgrown garden, for example, needs his more urgent attention. Even Niggle himself doubts his calling. He’s been working with passion for a long time on one wall-sized landscape of a tree with birds nesting in it, with a forest and mountains in the background. One problem is that he’s a better painter of leaves than the tree that he imagines, not to mention the other things with which he dreams of populating his picture.

Another problem is that his time is running out. He’ll have to leave on a long journey soon (Tolkien’s metaphor for death), which he’s dreading and for which he’s unprepared, and after which he’ll be unable to work on his painting. Worse, he can’t make much progress on the painting because people are constantly making demands on his time, especially an infirm neighbor, Mr. Parish, who frequently needs him to run errands for him and his wife. (The word “niggle” means to annoy in a slight but persistent way, which other people do to him.)

Niggle resents these interruptions and his own kind heart. “‘I wish I was more strong-minded!’ he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people’s troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable”[2]—in which case he might be able to finish his painting. As it is, he finally has to leave on his journey. His painting remains unfinished, just as he feared it would be.

On the other side of the journey, however, after spending time in a hospital (against his will), Niggle is released to take a short journey by train to a new place. When he arrives at his stop, he finds his bicycle waiting for him. It’s a sunny spring day, and he rides his bike down a path through a meadow.

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful—and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle-style—were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.[3]

You get the idea: This is heaven. Is it possible that, in ways we can’t imagine, the good work that we do now will somehow be preserved for eternity? I hope so—and I believe so.

The work that we do on this side of resurrection—which can often seem fruitless, insignificant, and unappreciated now—will come to fruition on the other side. Like Niggle, we will behold the Tree that we dreamed about and started but could never finish. And even those niggling interruptions will be redeemed.

Paul offers a tantalizing clue to this reality at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. At the conclusion of his lengthiest discussion of resurrection—both Christ’s and our own—he writes: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I’ve said before that I have a sinful need to be someone important. I want my work to matter. want to matter. Like Niggle, I want people to notice, appreciate, and praise me. I’m often frustrated because they can never do so to my satisfaction.

If I could take Paul’s words to heart, however, I would be set free from this desire for significance: only let me be faithful in my work and let God take care of the rest. He will make sure that what I do matters—whether it matters to anyone now or not.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, “A Leaf by Niggle” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966), 100-120.

2. Ibid., 101.

3. Ibid., 113-4.

Sermon 02-03-13: “Your Work Is Calling, Part 1”

February 5, 2013

Your Work is Calling_VB_SermonSeries_2-3-13

Too many of us treat our work as if, at best, it’s a necessary evil—something we have to endure in order to get to that part of our lives that we actually enjoy. Is work really so bad? Is is supposed to be? In this sermon, I talk about how God designed us to do good work—and to find joy and satisfaction in it. I also argue that all good work is the Lord’s work.

Do you believe that your job is a way of serving the Lord and loving your neighbor?

Sermon Text: Genesis 1:24-2:4

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

“Workin’ nine to five/ What a way to make a livin,’” Dolly Parton complains. “Barely gettin’ by/ It’s all takin’ and no givin.’” Some of us may not like our jobs, but that’s O.K.: The singer of another song says that everybody’s working for the weekend, anyway. The weekend, after all, is the only time of the week we have any fun. Nothing’s worse than “just another manic Monday”: when “I wish it was Sunday/ ’Cause that’s my fun day/ My I-don’t-have-to-run day.” Another singer never wants to work at all: he just wants to bang on his drum all day. Then some of us fantasize about that moment when we can tell our boss to “take this job and shove it/ I ain’t workin’ here no more.”

So many messages in our popular culture tell us that work is a problem that needs to be solved, that work is a necessary evil, that work is something we have to endure in order to get to the part of our lives that we enjoy. We’re working for time away from work. We’re working for vacation. We’re working for retirement—when we don’t have to work at all. That’s the ideal—not working at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Do we really have to “get ourselves back to the garden”?

February 4, 2013
Based on the cover, not so much "for everyone" as for the really beautiful people.

Based on the cover, not so much “for everyone” as for the really beautiful people. I’m referring in this post to Goldingay’s volume on Genesis.

In an early draft of yesterday’s sermon, I said something like, “Contrary to popular belief, when God created the world, he didn’t create the world ‘perfect.'” So contrary is this idea to the popular understanding of the Garden of Eden and life before the Fall, I decided that that statement would require more theological unpacking than I felt like doing.

I said, instead, that when God created the world, he deliberately left it unfinished: that God’s intention from the beginning was that we humans would, like God, work in order to share in God’s act of creating. This, I believe, gets at what it means to be made in God’s image, “after God’s likeness.” As I said, we are most “God-like” when we do what God does: in Genesis 1 we see God working and creating. We do likewise as we “have dominion over” and “subdue” (KJV) God’s creation.

One point here is that the sentiment expressed by songwriter Joni Mitchell, among many other thinkers, that the Garden represents some state of bliss to which we have to “get ourselves back to” misses the mark. It’s true that humanity greatly and irreparably (apart from the atoning work of Christ) damaged (but didn’t completely sever) its relationship to God (notice that even in Genesis 4, after expulsion from the Garden, God continues to possess a close relationship with Abel and Cain, as he did with their parents). Nowhere, however, does scripture say that human beings lived in a perfectly harmonious relationship with nature, which we lost through sin. If that were the case, what would be the point of God’s commanding the first humans to “have dominion over” and “subdue” creation? See what I mean?

From the beginning, the world outside the Garden (remember that Adam and Eve lived inside the Garden) might have been as hostile as the natural world is today. There’s no reason to imagine, for example, that earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes didn’t also happen back then—or that had Adam wandered outside the Garden and crossed paths with a lion, he wouldn’t have been eaten!

No, as I read Genesis 3, all that we physically “lost” was the Garden itself (with its access, of course, to “the tree of life”).

I don’t mean to minimize the possible spiritual impact that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had on the natural world. A theologian friend of mine, for example, pointed out that many wild animals sense and respond to human fear. If Adam and Eve, with their perfectly trusting relationship to their Creator, didn’t know fear inside the Garden, then it seems likely that that they would have related to the animal kingdom differently. Who knows?

Regardless, John Goldingay does a nice job exploring these ideas in his For Everyone commentary on Genesis. He believes that the Fall “has become a kind of myth” that sometimes adds to or contradicts scripture. “They did not fall from a state of bliss; they failed to realize a possibility. Human beings ‘fell short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).”[1]

The fall idea goes along with the idea that we live in a fallen world, the idea that originally the world worked in a harmonious way in which there were not earthquakes and lions lay down with lambs. Human sin then spoiled this harmony. But Genesis 3 says only that God cursed the snake and that the ground outside the well-watered garden would henceforth produce thorns and thistles as well as edible plants. Human disobedience (listening to the snake rather than exercising authority over it) meant that the creation was subjected to futility, so that it longs and groans for its redemption (Romans 8:19-22). But Genesis 1, with its commission to humanity, suggests this did not mean the spoiling of its perfection. Rather, whereas humanity was made to move toward a goal, its failure meant it moved away from the goal instead. We do not live in a fallen world; we live in a world that has not reached its destiny.[2]

1. John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 61.

2. Ibid., 62.