Archive for April, 2013

“When I’m Sixty-Four”

April 30, 2013

The Vinebranch Band’s performance of “When I’m Sixty-Four” on Sunday put a big smile on my face. It was so convincing that my heart wanted them to keep going. Play “Lovely Rita”! (If you love Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the way I do, you know what I’m talking about.)

This obviously isn’t as good as being there, but it gives you a sense for how great it was. Enjoy!


Tying ourselves to the mast

April 30, 2013
This book is simply one of the best I've ever read.

This book is simply one of the best I’ve ever read.

In my sermon last Sunday, I talked briefly about the surprising good news of marriage’s “no escape clause.” It’s good news, I said, that we’re “stuck” to the person to whom we’re married, at least in the short run. Even with no-fault divorces, divorce remains (thank God) costly and difficult.

How can we make sure we’re “stuck” for a lifetime? Which is another way of asking, “How can we keep our Christian marriage vows? How can we remain true to the covenant into which we enter on our wedding day?”

Well, we certainly don’t do it simply by finding the person with whom we are “compatible”—I don’t care what or eHarmony promise. (Notice how both those companies’ names imply compatibility.) Compatibility doesn’t amount to much, because, at best, it’s only a snapshot. Marriage partners change. Compatibility today doesn’t guarantee compatibility in the future. As Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes pointed out, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed—and each of the five has been me.”[1]

Or as contemporary Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (who coined what’s become known as the “Hauerwas Rule”: “You always marry the wrong person”), wrote: “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it  a while and he or she will change… The primary problem is… learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”[2]

How do we do it? Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage is filled with wisdom and practical guidance. In my sermon, I intended to share some positive statistics about marriage, which Keller cites in his book. One, based on longitudinal peer-reviewed research, says that fully two-thirds of unhappily married couples will get happy again within five years if they wait that long. I love this analogy:

When Ulysses was traveling to the island of the Sirens, he knew that he would go mad when he heard the voices of the women on the rocks. He also learned that the insanity would be temporary, lasting until he could get out of earshot. He didn’t want to do something while temporarily insane that would have permanent bad consequences. So he put wax in the ears of his sailors, tied himself to the mast, and told his men to keep him on course no matter what he yelled…

What can keep marriages together during the rough patches? The vows. A public oath, made to the world, keeps you “tied to the mast” until your mind clears and you begin to understand things better.[3]

Keller explores the power of the promises we make. He quotes Smedes again:

The connecting link with my old self has always been the memory of the name I took on back there: “I am he who will be there with you.” When we slough off that name, lose that identity, we can hardly find ourselves again.[4]

1. Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 92.

2. Ibid., 38.

3. Ibid., 87.

4. Ibid., 38.

God always has a “Plan B”

April 29, 2013

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church tradition that tended to emphasize the importance of discerning and then doing God’s will for the individual believer’s life. “God’s will,” in other words, was one blueprint—inflexible and individualized for each person. If you followed it, you would be blessed; if you failed to follow it—and we used the language of “missing it”—too bad for you. You were “out of” God’s will.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Roger Olson does. He grew up in a different-yet-similar Pentecostal tradition that taught the same thing. As he points out, our theme verse (of course), ripped out of the context in which it referred to Israel in a particular time and place, was Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”

I can totally relate to the fear that he expresses here:

When I was growing up in church, a church that held “testimony time” every Sunday evening (and my dad was the pastor so I had to be there whenever the doors were open for worship, Bible study or prayer meeting!) a sweet little older lady often spoke of how cursed her life had been because she didn’t follow God’s will for her life. That struck terror in my heart. I was taught by my spiritual mentors that that is the result of “missing God’s will.” I formed the impression, as do many young Christians, that God has a blueprint plan for my life and that it’s my job to find out what it is and follow it—to construct my life according to it. Where to go to college was one big issue for me. Whom to marry—another major issue. What profession to pursue. What job to seek and which job offer to take. All these have been major decisions of my life. And let me assure you that God has led me, but not according to an inflexible blueprint such that any deviation from it brought only misery and a cursed life.

What is the better and truer alternative to this kind of individualized blueprint? As Olson says, citing the work of a theologian named Friesen, “God has a general will for every believer’s life and, when God does want a believer to do something, he tells them, they don’t have to struggle to find it out, and even if they disobey God always has a ‘Plan B.'”

God always has a “Plan B.” Exactly!

This discussion relates to my sermon on marriage yesterday. In the sermon, which I’ll post later this week, I severely criticized the idea of a “soulmate”—that out of about 3.5 billion possible candidates there exists one ideal mate just for you, so we all better make sure we’ve found that one person before we get married. As I said, this is a theme in nearly every romantic comedy. This idea tends to make us extremely picky on the front-end of marriage, but, worse, it also makes us second-guess ourselves when we struggle in our marriage: “I married the wrong person. This person obviously isn’t my ‘one true love.’ She’s not my soulmate. If she were, why would marriage be so difficult?”

As I argued (and many nodding heads in the congregation confirmed), marriage is difficult no matter whom you marry. Our spouse, after all, is the only human being who gets to see us at our absolute worst. How can that be easy? We human beings are all such terrible sinners. Therefore, there is no “soulmate” out there with whom marriage won’t be, at times, incredibly difficult.

Fortunately for us, we leave room for God’s all-sufficient grace. Which is another way of saying, there’s always a “Plan B.” By that, I don’t mean, let’s get divorced and start over with God’s new plan for us. Although even divorce—which in the vast majority of cases (I believe strongly) is a tragic mistake—can be redeemed by God. No, I mean two things: First, that once we’re tempted to imagine that we married the “wrong” person and our marriage isn’t working out as we planned, there’s the good news of God’s grace: God shows us Plan B within this existing marriage. Second, even if we did marry “wrong” person—by which I mean a less suitable partner than we might have otherwise chosen—there’s the good news of God’s grace: even this “Plan B spouse” can work out.

I suppose someone might accuse me of being naïve and overly optimistic. I don’t care. It’s only because I believe so strongly in God’s grace and his power to redeem our mistakes.

Besides, as I indicated yesterday, I’m a Plan B husband at best, and God is redeeming me!

“Wanted: novelist/astronaut wife with a background in fashion modeling”

April 26, 2013

In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller says that we have come to expect way too much out of marriage. We think marriage should be our path to self-fulfillment. This is not only unbiblical, it creates an idealism about marriage that few potential marriage partners can live up to. Keller points out the irony:

Older views are considered to be traditional and oppressive, while the newer view of the “me-Marriage” seems so liberating. And yet it is the newer view that has led to a steep decline in marriage and to an oppressive sense of hopelessness with regard to it. To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is—there is almost no one like that out there to marry! The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time…

[Some people] do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation—a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. This will indeed require a woman who is a “novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling” or the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.[†]

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 34-5.

Sermon 04-21-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 2”

April 25, 2013


“All you need is love,” the Beatles famously sang. Were they hopelessly naive and idealistic? In light of events in Boston last week (not to mention the Vietnam War in 1967, when the song was #1 on the charts), we should be forgiven for thinking so. We may rightly ask, “How will love protect us from senseless violence?” And the answer is: It won’t. Ultimately, nothing will—certainly, nothing that money can buy.

We can’t trust in ourselves for true security and peace. Can we trust instead in the One whose very nature, according to 1 John, is love?

Sermon Text: Matthew 19:16-30

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I’m a big fan of roller coasters. A couple of weeks ago on spring break, between Busch Gardens, Legoland, and Disney World, I rode about a dozen of them. Busch Gardens has famously fast and furious roller coasters, with steep hills, free-fall drops, corkscrew turns, and multiple “inversions”—which mean you go upside down. They’re awesome. It’s hard to believe roller coasters used to just go up and down hills! With all of these loops and corkscrews and steep drops, the amusement parks really want their riders to be safe and secure. At Busch Gardens, for instance, nearly all their roller coasters include not merely a seatbelt or a lap bar, not merely a shoulder harness which you pull down over your head and locks securely in place, but also a belt that buckles onto the shoulder harness—just in case the harness comes unlocked. These days, riding a modern roller coaster is like being strapped in for an Apollo moon-launch. Read the rest of this entry »

The comfort of marriage’s “no escape” clause

April 24, 2013

In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller puts his finger on one of the fatal modern myths of marriage: that marriage shouldn’t be based at all on “a piece of paper”—the law, the contract. Law stifles true love. Marriage should always be voluntary, never coerced—or else it cheapens love. As Joni Mitchell sang back in 1971, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true.”

One guest on the most recent Valentine’s Day episode of This American Life, Kurt Braunohler, certainly endorsed this viewpoint. He and his girlfriend, his high school sweetheart, had been together for 13 years, but they had never gotten married. One thing was holding them back, they came to believe: they had never been with anyone else romantically or sexually. What if there was someone better out there for them?

So they decided that they would take a month-long break from their relationship—the secular New York City equivalent of the Amish Rumspringa. And during that month, they would allow themselves to sleep with other people—which they did. One month turned into many months. The couple finally decided to break up entirely.

Read what Kurt took away from this experience. Then read what Ira Glass, the married host of the show, says in response.

KURT: I do have a theory now that if I do get married in the future, what I think I would want to do is have an agreement that at the end of seven years we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years it ends, and we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.

IRA: Why?

KURT: Because you get to choose, and I think it would make the relationship stronger.

IRA: I don’t know what I think of that, because I think that one of the things that’s a comfort in marriage is that there isn’t a door at seven years. And if something is messed up in the short-term, there’s the comfort of knowing, like, we made this commitment, and so we’re going to work this out. And, like, even tonight if we’re not getting along, or there’s something between us that doesn’t feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, like, you’ve got time to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier! Because you do go through times when you hate each other’s guts. And the “no escape” clause is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.

Guess whose side I’m on?

Keller contrasts the stick-to-itiveness of marriage that Glass describes (not to mention the Bible) with the consumer mentality that Kurt describes. If Kurt had his way (and I suspect he’ll outgrow this particular conviction), he and his future wife would have to keep selling themselves. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

There is another way in which the legality of marriage augments its personal nature. When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves. We can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don’t have to keep selling ourselves. We can lay the last layer of our defenses down and be completely naked, both physically and in every other way.[†]

While I’m not endorsing the singer’s viewpoint, here’s the beautiful young Joni Mitchell singing what will become the second track on one of my favorite albums, Blue.

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 85.

Do we need to “make sense of” Boston?

April 23, 2013

HuffPost Religion’s Twitter feed thought I would like this article by the Rev. Ian Punnett in response to the Boston Marathon bombings. I don’t.

By all means, if you’re angry at God, tell God about it! We have biblical warrant for complaining to God. Angry prayer is better than no prayer. And it reveals a much deeper faith than the false piety that says we shouldn’t bother God with these very “human” emotions. As Punnett writes, “Learning to pray through our anger, instead of around it, can heal.”

Amen to that.

I’m reminded of this scene in the great Robert Duvall movie The Apostle.

Duvall’s mother, played by June Carter Cash, explains to a neighbor: “Ever since he was a little bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the Lord and sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight he just happens to be  yellin’ at him.” Beautiful!

Nevertheless, I disagree with the author’s premise that something happened in Boston last Monday that we need to make sense of.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to understand what possessed these two men to do this particular evil—let’s learn from it whatever we can. If there’s something we can do that will contribute to greater safety at public events such as this one—far short of turning our country into a police state—by all means let’s do it.

But therein lies part of the “answer” to what happened last Monday. God didn’t create the world as a universal police state in which he continually intervenes to prevent human beings from doing what they freely choose. If God regularly did this, how could we human beings be free in any meaningful sense?

My point is, nothing happened last Monday that we didn’t understand perfectly well on Sunday. We shouldn’t be surprised that there’s evil in the world. Isn’t there plenty of it in our own hearts?

Be angry at God if you like, but be angrier at the sin, evil, and suffering that God sent his Son Jesus to defeat through his death and resurrection.

How God is in control without controlling us

April 23, 2013

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Scot’s science blogger reviews a recent book called Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith by Daniel Harrell. He finds Harrell’s analogy about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom (and the freedom of natural processes) quite helpful, as do I. It helps answer how it’s possible that God is in control while at the same time not controlling us:

What if God is like a grand-master chess player playing with an eight-year-old novice? The game has its rules and regularities (created by God), such that whatever move the eight-year-old makes, the grand master already knows its outcome. There’s no doubt who will win in the end. Likewise, with human freedom and evolutionary processes (the eight-year-old novices in this analogy), God knows what will happen in any scenario with any moves that are made. He can make any of them work for his victory. (p. 80)

I also like this joke. Nature must exist in order for natural processes to run their course:

A scientist tells God that he’s figured out how to create life from the dust of the ground, just like God did in the beginning. Consequently, the scientist says, he’s shown that God is no longer a plausible hypothesis for the origin of life. Impressed, the Lord tells the scientist to do it again; he’d like to watch. So the scientist picks up a handful of dirt. But the Lord stops him right there.

“Uh-uh” God says. “Get your own dirt.”

Another edition of “What C.S. Lewis said”

April 19, 2013

The following Lewis quote is from God in the Dock, excerpted in my C.S. Lewis Bible to go alongside the Rich Young Ruler of Mark 10:17-31. (This Sunday our text is Matthew’s version of the same story.) Because of the danger that money, possessions, and intangible “riches”—like good fortune, health, and popularity—pose to our souls, God may take these things away from us as punishment.

[I]f He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it? But I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble,” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

This Sunday’s Beatles-themed sermon, plus schedule

April 18, 2013
The BBC broadcast this recording session around the world in 1967. (The backing track was prerecorded.)

The BBC broadcast this recording session around the world in 1967. (The backing track was prerecorded.)

“All you need is love,” the Beatles famously sang. Were they hopelessly naive and idealistic? In light of events in Boston this week (not to mention the Vietnam War in 1967, when the song was #1 on the charts), we should be forgiven for thinking so. We may rightly ask, “How will love protect us from senseless violence?” And the answer is: It won’t.

Ultimately, nothing will—certainly, nothing that money can buy. We can’t trust in ourselves for true security and peace. Can we trust instead in the One whose very nature, according to 1 John, is love? In so many words, this is the question the Rich Young Ruler faces in Matthew 19:16-30. “Let go,” Jesus tells him, “of this thing that you trust in for your salvation, and trust instead in me.”

Is this kind of faith all you need? I don’t know, but it’s a good start.

Stephanie Newton and the Vinebranch Band will perform two songs that speak to these issues, “All You Need Is Love” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.”
The rest of the schedule for the series is as follows (click to expand):