Archive for March, 2013

“We live out our days on Holy Saturday”

March 29, 2013

As I’ve reflected this week on the meaning of resurrection and Christian hope, I’ve been deeply moved by this essay by Philip Yancey in this month’s Christianity Today. As the author of a famous book called Where Is God When It Hurts? Yancey says he often gets called to speak to groups who are struggling with questions of faith in the midst of suffering. Most recently, he spoke to people in Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

As I pondered what to say to the sorrow-drenched community, I felt my faith strangely affirmed, not shattered. Trust me, I know well the nagging questions about a good and powerful God that crop up when suffering strikes, and my writing attempts to address those questions. With Newtown, though, I was drawn back to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s writings on his experience in South Africa. As head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he braced himself for a test of his theology, in part because “good Christians” had carried out so many of the crimes in his country…

Yet after two years of listening to such horrific accounts, Bishop Tutu came away with his faith strengthened. The hearings convinced him that perpetrators are morally accountable, that good and evil are real and that they matter. Despite the relentless accounts of inhumanity, Tutu emerged from the hearings with this conviction: “For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.” As if by negative image, the events at Sandy Hook also affirmed Tutu’s experience.

As a “theological counterpoint,” he said he’d been reading atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, who believes that the universe has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

“Is that what you’ve seen here?” he asked his audience.

As I stood before the group gathered Friday night, Dawkins’s description rang all the more hollow. “I don’t think that’s what you’ve seen,” I said. “I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, and generosity—not blind, pitiless indifference. I’ve seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness: in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in the sympathetic response of a community and a nation. I’ve seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14.”…

Tragedy rightly calls faith into question, but it also affirms faith. It is good news that we are not the random byproducts of a meaningless universe, but rather creations of a loving God who wants to live with us forever. That “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” in order to reconcile with his rebellious creation. That by entering our world, the Son took on our sufferings and temptations, demonstrating in person that nothing—not even death—can separate us from the love of God.

But is the world—even a restored, redeemed, and renewed world in God’s future kingdom—”worth the pain that it encompasses?” Yancey asks.

After talking to parents in Newtown who lost a son or daughter, I have a clue to the answer. If you ask them—”The six or seven years you had with your child, were they worth the pain you feel now?”—you will hear a decisive “Yes.” As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote after the death of a young friend, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Perhaps God feels the same way about us, his fallen creation.

This is a profoundly good point.

Near the end of the essay, Yancey offers a three-part answer to the question, “Where is God when it hurts?” Part of the answer, he says, comes from the holiday we celebrate today, Good Friday, when Christ absorbed all evil and suffering in his own person.

Though God has dealt them a death blow through his death and resurrection, evil and suffering continue for now. It’s as if Creation itself were living on Holy Saturday:

Holy Week offers the template. On Good Friday Jesus absorbed the worst of what Earth has to offer, a convergence of evil and death in an event of profound injustice. Easter Sunday gave a sure and certain sign of contradiction, demonstrating that nothing can withstand the healing force of a loving God. We live out our days, though, on Holy Saturday, aware of the redemptive power of suffering while awaiting the restoration power of creation made new.

Holy Thursday and Good Friday videos

March 29, 2013
Statue of Peter, located outside the house of Caiaphas, depicting his denial of Jesus.

Statue of Peter, located outside the house of Caiaphas, depicting his denial of Jesus. “Non novi illum” means, “I do not know the man.”

The following are videos about Holy Thursday and Good Friday, which I prepared last year for Vinebranch using photos and video from my trip to the Holy Land.

Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have nothing on me! 😉


Sermon 03-24-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 4: Commitment”

March 28, 2013

Fading Footprints in the Sand

When we read Jesus’ Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19:11-27, we easily identify with the third servant and feel guilty: “Why can’t I be a more faithful disciple? I guess I need to try harder!” As I argue in this sermon, however, the third servant’s problem isn’t about “trying harder”; it’s about trusting more. This sermon encourages us to trust more in our King Jesus, who is always loving us, always taking care of us, always working for our good. He proved his love for us by suffering and dying on the cross.

Sermon Text: Luke 19:11-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Many of you have seen the movie Argo, which recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie begins at the American embassy in Iran in 1979. A large crowd of Iranian demonstrators are gathered outside the gates of the embassy, protesting that the U.S. has given asylum to their deposed leader, the Shah. The Iranians want the Americans to return the Shah to Iran, where he can be tried, convicted, and probably executed for his many crimes against humanity. The U.S. refuses. From our country’s perspective, the Shah may be a bad man, but he’s our bad man; at least he’s been a loyal ally. We reward loyalty.

The American embassy in Iran in 1979.

The American embassy in Iran in 1979.

In fact, loyalty is one theme in the movie. When the angry mob finally breaches the wall of the embassy, the diplomats inside continue to do their duty: without panicking, knowing they only had a matter of minutes before the Iranians captured or killed them, they began shredding and incinerating all the confidential embassy files. They were loyal to the end. In fact, one of the six diplomats who, at the last moment, escaped the embassy and took refuge at the Canadian ambassador’s house was angry at himself for remaining at his post for the past several months, while the situation got out of control. He wonders why he didn’t take his wife and go home to safety. Instead, he remained faithful and kept serving his country. He was loyal, even in the face of great danger. Read the rest of this entry »

Anything happening in the news this week?

March 27, 2013


Finally, a sensible Facebook meme!

Even if I supported something called “marriage equality,” which I don’t, I couldn’t change my profile picture to say so—unless I backed it up with substantial action. Otherwise, I’d feel like a hypocrite. So I give credit to the pastor of one United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem whose church announced that it will no longer perform weddings until the denomination recognizes same-sex marriage. I strongly disagree with the church’s convictions, but at least they’re taking action. (Apparently, according to this article, such a stance doesn’t violate our Book of Discipline.)

The statement from the church’s pastor, Rev. Kelly Carpenter, regarding this policy change included these words:

It is unconscionable that our denomination denies ministry to some while making it available to others based on the God-given identity of LGBTQ people. The national opinion and political culture is rapidly changing on the issue of gay marriage. Our United Methodist denomination has failed to lead the way in this struggle for equality, and will once again have to catch up to the culture.

Oh, dear.

As for what I think about this mess, allow me to point you to the blog of Dr. Glenn Peoples, a theologian and apologist whose own country, New Zealand, is currently debating the identical issue. I can hardly recommend his most recent post more. Needless to say, my thinking on the subject mirrors his. Since he’s invested time writing his thoughtful post and doesn’t have an Easter sermon to write or Holy Week responsibilities, etc., I’ll excerpt relevant portions. By all means, please read it in its entirety.

Near the beginning of his post, Peoples writes:

As I hope is true of all sincere people, my values and beliefs about life, reality and everything inform the way that I evaluate any law, policy or opinion. I wouldn’t be a very honest person if I held to a range of beliefs that committed me to rejecting a policy but I pretended to agree with it because I felt that the culture expected it of me.

In other words, if I really believe what I say I believe—what the United Methodist Church believes, along with most of the universal Church—about human sexuality and marriage, how could I not think that redefining marriage would be a tragic mistake? I don’t believe that God gives us rules to follow just to spoil our fun. And if I believe, as I sincerely do, that God tells us through scripture (and tradition and reason) that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s intentions for creation, then no one should be surprised that I oppose redefining marriage to say otherwise.

As for Rev. Carpenter’s concerns about our church “once again having to catch up to the culture,” I couldn’t care less. No Christian pastor should! Fretting about where our church stands in relation to our culture’s sexual ethics is laughable!

Peoples continues:

Read the rest of this entry »

Why I’m an evangelical Christian

March 25, 2013

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog for a while, it will come as no surprise that I identify myself as an evangelical Christian. But it does surprise me a little… or at least it would have about six years ago, when I graduated from an old-fashioned liberal mainline Protestant seminary. Back then, I was pretty sure I wasn’t evangelical. 

But I’m not bashing my seminary (the Candler School of Theology at Emory University). In reality, it was my seminary education that dropped little bread crumbs that eventually led me back to the evangelicalism in which I grew up.

My most formative seminary experience in this regard was my systematic theology class. My professor, a brilliant young German Lutheran pastor named Steffen Lösel, emphasized apologetics as a necessary component of our theological task. In modernity (or post-modernity), we can’t simply profess belief without being able to justify that belief. No “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion” here, thank you—even among those of us who accept the authority of scripture.

To my surprise, as Dr. Lösel argued, two core Christian beliefs pass intellectual muster: The first is the bodily resurrection of Jesus—by which I mean that the resurrection was both physical (Jesus had a body that could eat and drink, touch and be touched), and more than physical as we understand it (Jesus could also disappear and reappear and walk through locked doors). His resurrected body was in continuity with the body he had before his death, but transformed.

The second core belief is the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ. This is not to say that God isn’t revealed at all in other religions: how could he not be, given the pervasiveness of the Holy Spirit’s work? It’s just that, given what God was up to in the plan of salvation that culminated in the cross and resurrection, it makes no sense to talk about multiple paths to God. If human beings are saved, they are saved through faith in Christ.

Obviously, belief in the historicity of the resurrection settles or at least diminishes the importance of many secondary questions—though you may notice that I enjoy arguing about many of these secondary questions on this blog. Nevertheless, if the resurrection of Christ really happened, then it becomes relatively easier to accept other traditional doctrines of the Church. And so I do.

Anyway, that’s a little bit of my journey… I’m pleased that Dr. Roger Olson has described the “hallmarks,” or emphases, of evangelicalism on his blog, which I happily accept. They are as follows:

1. Authority of scripture. He (or the other historians he cites) calls this biblicism, a “general regard for Scripture as the uniquely inspired, written Word of God.” These days, this may be enough in itself to separate evangelicals from many mainline Protestants, but he goes further to say: “It’s not just sola scriptura in a formal sense. It’s a very close, personal relationship with the Bible as God’s message to us, our means of knowing God in a personal, intimate way.”

In my opinion, this automatically excludes Roman Catholics from being evangelicals (despite some loud protests to the contrary) because of the Roman Catholic Church’s dual emphasis on the authority of both scripture and tradition. Catholics usually say it’s both/and equally—except when scripture comes into conflict with tradition, guess which authority always wins? How could it not, unless the authority of scripture were primary?

2. Conversion. “In contrast to sacramental spirituality, evangelicalism, as a spiritual ethos, believes that a right, reconciled, transforming relationship with God begins with a decision of repentance and faith.” Olson points out that evangelicals may disagree about how conversion happens. As a Wesleyan, I emphasize conversion as a process.

3. The cross as God’s objective means of dealing with sin:

Evangelicals cling to the cross of Jesus Christ in faith. We sing about it. We preach it. We celebrate it. We re-enact it. Evangelicals disagree about theories of the atonement, although by far the majority of self-identified evangelicals have historically affirmed something like satisfaction or penal substitution or the governmental theory—all objective views of the atonement as having an effect on God and not just on people.

I view multiple theories of atonement not as contradictory but complementary: the Bible has many pictures of how the cross reconciles us to God. But evangelicals say loudly that God did something objective through the cross to bring us to God. This is not to say that Abelard was all wrong when he gave us his “moral influence” theory—that God’s love, so powerfully demonstrated by the cross, softens our hearts to God and the gospel. But God better have also done something through the cross that doesn’t depend on my subjective response to it, or else I’m in serious trouble!

4. Evangelism and missions.

This fourth emphasis, on spreading the gospel, follows naturally from the first three. Where the first three are underemphasized or disregarded, as is often the case in mainline Protestantism, so is the fourth.

Olson adds a fifth emphasis that I, as a Wesleyan Christian, also strongly endorse:

5. Respect for the tradition of Christian orthodoxy.

The authority of this tradition is subordinate to the Bible but nonetheless important: We stand on the shoulders of the saints who’ve gone before us when we read and interpret the Bible. One problem with recent “Young, Restless and Reformed” evangelicals is that they tend to subordinate the Bible to the tradition of 16th-century Reformers and the five-point Calvinists who followed in their wake. Where the Bible demonstrates that they, too, got it wrong, we should say so. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer would want us to, right?

Olson quotes N.T. Wright from his book Justification in this regard: “God has always more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word. …. [i]f the light comes, and can be shown to come, from the Word, from Scripture itself, there is no tradition so strong, venerable or previously fruitful that it should not be prepared to learn from it.”

So… Are you an evangelical?

Sermon 03-17-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 3: Repentance”

March 21, 2013

Fading Footprints in the Sand

In the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a notorious sinner receives God’s mercy while a scrupulously religious person remains unforgiven. The parable illustrates in a powerful way that God’s gift of salvation is completely free. Will we trust God enough to receive it?

Sermon Text: Luke 18:9-14

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

When I was in Kenya last September, there were a few occasions on which I didn’t have access to bottled water. So someone would offer me a glass of water and say, “It’s been filtered, don’t worry.” And I’m thinking, “How do I know it’s been filtered. I didn’t see anyone filter it.” So I would drink and worry about getting sick. Of course I didn’t get sick, but I’ve told you before I tend to worry about these things.

So before my most recent trip to Kenya, someone told me to set my mind at ease and buy a SteriPEN. Do you know what a SteriPEN is? It’s like a magic wand… literally. It’s an electric wand that lights up when you place it in the glass of water. After a minute or so, it kills all living bacteria with ultraviolet light; and when the water’s all clean this little smiley face shows up on the LCD indicator. So this time, on my most recent trip, I would ask, “Has this has been filtered?” “Oh, yes. It’s perfectly safe.” “O.K., good.” Then, when no one was looking, I’m like… [mimic putting the SteriPEN in the water.]

My point is this: based on appearances, you couldn’t tell whether or not this glass of tap water was safe to drink. Judging by appearances, a glass of water teeming with harmful bacteria is indistinguishable from a clean glass of water.

In today’s scripture, Jesus warns us against judging by appearances. If we were going to judge the two men in today’s parable by appearances, we would be very wrong. No one could guess that of these two men, the tax collector would be the one who leaves the temple in a right relationship with God. Read the rest of this entry »

The Beatles at the empty tomb

March 21, 2013
From my collection of knickknacks in my office

From the collection of knickknacks in my office

Why are the Beatles (in Yellow Submarine gear) hanging out by Golgotha and the empty tomb (not to mention the sardine can or the bulldog bobble-head)? Makes you curious, doesn’t it? Hmm…

Hint: It has nothing to do with the sardine can or the bulldog bobble-head.

Who needs a third party to forgive us, anyway?

March 21, 2013

Many years ago, when I was in college, Graham Parker released a decent middle-period record called Struck By Lightning. It included a rootsy love song called “And It Shook Me.” The song includes the following verse, which, as a young Christian, rubbed me the wrong way:

Some believe in a heaven up above
With a God that forgives all with his great love
Well I forgive you if you forgive me, hey!
Who needs the third party anyway?
And it shook me and I’m still shaking now.

Here’s the song from YouTube:

While I deduct a mark for Parker’s insertion of “hey” as a means of rhyming “anyway,” it’s not a bad lyric. And Parker raises an interesting question: If we forgive one another our wrongdoing, “who needs a third party” to forgive us?

Of course, for us Christians, the answer is obvious: While we have sinned against one another—for which, by all means, we should seek forgiveness from one another—we have, more importantly, sinned against God. Our sin has created a rift in our relationship with God, and unless God does something to heal that rift, we are in serious trouble. Thus the cross of Christ and atonement… Christianity 101.

But this “obvious” answer (to us Christians) seems increasingly less obvious to the post-Christian mindset.

I thought of Parker’s question as I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon on Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (which I’ll post online soon). It’s a beautiful story of a notorious sinner being reconciled with God—of justification by faith. Moreover, unlike the real-life story of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Luke 19:1-10, whose repentance includes giving half his possessions to the poor and reimbursing the people he’d defrauded, last Sunday’s parable involves only repentance and forgiveness in the vertical direction: God justifies this sinner, irrespective of the actions he takes in the horizontal direction.

As I said in the sermon, for all we know, the tax collector immediately left the Temple and made amends for his bad behavior. It seems likely that he would have to, if his repentance were sincere. My point in the sermon, however, was that his justification preceded good works.

From Parker’s perspective, however, this parable has no power whatsoever. The only thing that matters is forgiveness in the horizontal direction. Do his words suggest, therefore, that only those of us indoctrinated to believe in God feel a sense of sin and guilt?

The answer is no—at least according to Robert Tuttle, an evangelism professor  at Asbury Theological Seminary. Tuttle has made it his mission to identify and present a “transcultural gospel,” helping Christians understand some universal interests, needs, or concerns—independent of culture—to which the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks.

One of these universal needs is the following:

[P]eople the world over have a need (whether inherent or by the work of the Holy Spirit) to fulfill some form of law and have become frustrated with their inability to measure up. Whether Kant’s “categorical imperative,” or Calvin’s “common grace” (especially as interpreted by Barth), or Wesley’s “prevenient grace,” the result is the same, the universal oughtness and the subsequent need for power to measure up is transcultural. Thus, this principle is basic to my search for a transcultural gospel.[†]

Everyone is “frustrated  with their inability to measure up.” We Christians happen to call this inability “sin,” and God offers a solution for it through his Son Jesus. Whatever we call it, however, it’s real, and it affects all of us. Christianity (among other religions) doesn’t need to invent the concept, or try to make people feel guilty about it, in order for the gospel to resonate.

Robert G. Tuttle Jr., Can We Talk? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 59.

I’m supposed to care about the new pope because…?

March 16, 2013

I guess I’m supposed to care—given the eruption of Facebook posts from fellow Methodist clergy this week—but I’m in Roger Olson’s camp, and I’m glad he said it: I’m mostly indifferent. What does the bishop of Rome have to do with me and my ministry?

(Actually, Benedict XVI had more influence over me than his long-serving predecessor because I read and thoroughly enjoyed his book on the infancy narratives of Jesus.)

As Olson said, many Protestants look to the pope as “some kind of universal Christian cheerleader and spokesman.” Why? I recognize him as a brother in Christ, but he has no authority over me. If I wanted a Christian leader to have that kind of authority over me, guess what? I’d become Roman Catholic! In the meantime, ask me what I think about papal infallibility—not to mention some of the other doctrines of the church that these supposedly infallible popes dogmatized!

I know it’s politically incorrect for clergy to say something negative about fellow Christians (unless they’re Southern Baptist or run Chick-Fil-A), but have you read John Wesley or the Articles of Religion that he adapted from the Church of England? We’re supposed to disagree with Catholics! I miss the days when we Protestants could actually protest a little bit and not view the Protestant Reformation as an irredeemably tragic event. We don’t have to act like we’re one big happy family. I’m not Roman Catholic because I believe that the Roman Catholic Church gets it wrong in many important ways, especially in regards to the authority of scripture.

By all means, let’s get together as Protestants and Catholics and talk about our differences and work to resolve them, where possible. But for heaven’s sake, theology matters! Let’s not act like it doesn’t.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong about all that, but no one should be surprised that I believe these things, right?

Olson wonders why there has been so much media attention given to the election of the pope over the past two cycles, but that’s easy: there’s a lot more media to give it attention. Cable news has to fill its airwaves with something.

I like this point from Olson:

What I would like to know is why the mass media make so much of the election of a new pope? They say he leads 1.2 billion Catholics. Well, I seriously doubt both “lead” and the number. How do they count Catholics? If it’s anything like the way the Southern Baptist Convention counts Southern Baptists, well, I’m doubtful of the number. (The SBC counts me as a Southern Baptist! I’ve never been one.)

I suspect that millions of Latin Americans are counted as Catholics just because they were baptized into the church even though they attend Pentecostal churches. The same is true, I believe, in places like the Philippines and many other traditionally Catholic  countries.

I offer my congratulations to my Catholic friends, but please don’t expect me to celebrate. I’m emotionally and spiritually indifferent about it—as I should be. I worry about Protestants who invest tremendous emotional and spiritual interest in the papacy.

Beginning with prayer? Doesn’t he know how much work he has to get done?

March 14, 2013



I’ll say this for Pope Francis: he has his priorities in order. Isn’t this just what I was talking about in my sermon last week?

As far as his appointment goes, it reflects the reality that Christianity’s center of gravity has shifted to the global south, where the faith is growing explosively. I can’t wait until the universal church comes north to re-evangelize us and teach us how to be the church again.