Archive for July, 2013

What if that voice in our hearts is our own voice—and that’s O.K.?

July 31, 2013

Recently, I was deeply impressed with Phillip Cary’s incisive Brazos commentary on the Book of Jonah. I decided, as a result, to check out other things he’s written. I’m currently reading Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do.

Or maybe what I just wrote isn’t quite right. What if, instead of saying, “I decided to check out another book of his,” I said, “God told me to check out another book of his”? What would you think?

If you think that sounds ridiculous—that I’m reading Cary’s book not merely because I thought it was a good idea, but because I sensed in my heart that God was calling me to read this book—then you and Cary are on the same wavelength. If, however, you thought it was perfectly normal that I heard the voice of God tell me to read it, then you’re apparently like me and most evangelical Christians today. And, in Cary’s view, this is a major problem.

He says that over the past few generations a novel idea has entered the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought: that the primary means by which we hear God speak to us is not through studying the scriptures, reflecting on them, and letting them guide our decisions, but by discerning a “voice” or intuition inside our heart—a process that used to be called “guidance,” but which we now pretend counts as revelation.

The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us… The idea… was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).[1]

Not that listening to your heart is a bad idea, he says: it’s good to discern your own thoughts and feelings when making an important decision, and listening to your heart enables you do that. But listening to our heart is listening to ourselves, not God. To know God, by contrast, “you have to listen to God, not to yourself, and that means listening to a word which comes from outside yourself—the external word of Scripture.”[2]

I’ll be honest: his words feel like a punch in the gut. I have preached about the importance of hearing God’s voice in our hearts. Hearing this voice in our hearts is the “listening” part of prayer, isn’t it? It’s what (we hope) emerges from meditating on scripture, right?

Cary doesn’t think so. He believes that we ought to listen to our own voice—and make scripturally informed decisions on that basis—without having to resort to “God told me to do this.”

He describes a not-very-hypothetical scenario in which a young woman in college is thinking about how unhappy she is dating her overly controlling boyfriend of many years. “I don’t feel right about this relationship,” she thinks to herself. This is no doubt the voice of wisdom speaking to her—urging her to do the right thing and break up with him. And she does so.

Only she can’t trust that she possesses the wisdom to dump this loser. So she credits God with the decision.

The sad thing is not that she listens to this quiet little voice, but that she can’t admit it’s her own. She has to label it God’s voice in order to take it seriously. Apparently she’s never thought of her own voice as something worth listening to… She can’t admit it’s her own voice because that would make it unimportant. Who’s she to say her boyfriend’s not good for her?[3]

So she says, “God told me to do this.” And how often do we say, “God told me to do this”?

What God “told us,” Cary says, is in the Bible. That’s God’s revelation. At the very least, we must all admit (assuming we are in any sense orthodox Christians, not to mention Protestants) that the Bible is far more reliable revelation than anything that we intuit in our hearts.

I don’t quite disagree with Cary. To my surprise and discomfort, I don’t quite disagree. And yet, the extent to which I agree goes against a lot of sloppy United Methodist thinking. After all, I spent about eight years being required to appear before boards and committees defending my “call” into this very specific ministry as an ordained “elder in full connection” in the United Methodist Church.

By Cary’s way of thinking, what I should have told these boards and committees is that, based on what I discern about my own gifts, talents, and aptitudes, here is what I believe would be my best career decision.

If I had said this, however, would I have passed?

I have more to say on the subject. In the meantime, what do you think?

1. Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 2-3.

2. Ibid., 3.

3. Ibid., 5.

Daniel Amos’s “Joel”

July 29, 2013

At my last service in Vinebranch last month, I had the pleasure of performing one of my favorite songs—”Joel” by Daniel Amos—with a group of my favorite musicians. They even let me improvise a guitar solo!

Sermon 07-21-13: “Summer Vacation, Part 4: Camp Meeting”

July 25, 2013
In part 4 of our series, we'll go camping with the Israelites outside the walls of Jericho.

In part 4 of our series, we’ll go camping with the Israelites outside the walls of Jericho.

Last week, the sports world turned its attention to the latest scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in Major League Baseball. Never mind the harmful effects of PEDs on a player’s health: we don’t like that PED-using athletes achieve records that they didn’t earn and don’t deserve.

Fortunately for us, God isn’t nearly as concerned about our getting what we deserve!

This sermon is about God’s grace, as seen through the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho. We can’t earn God’s love or our salvation, nor should we want to. I also challenge us to imagine ourselves not on “God’s side,” with the Israelites outside the walls of Jericho, but on the other side of the wall—with Rahab, the Gentile convert. Her mission is also our mission.

Sermon Text: Joshua 6:1-5, 15-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was last week. The American League won, unfortunately. But that event was overshadowed by much bigger news in baseball: which is, the most recent scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs. There was a medical clinic down in Miami called Biogenesis, whose doctors, according to one report, are responsible for juicing 20 current Major League players, including one of the highest-paid—Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees.

I heard an interview on sports radio with infamous former Braves closer John Rocker, who said, “Who cares about doping in baseball? Wasn’t the game more exciting back in the ’90s, when PED-using superstars like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds were chasing or breaking homerun records?”

Well, that was exciting back then… before we knew the truth. When we thought, perhaps naively, that these athletes turned into Incredible Hulks by merely sweating it out at the gym. The problem with PEDs is that players like Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, and Babe Ruth earned their records the old-fashioned way, without artificial enhancements. Although Barry Bonds was an amazingly gifted player before drugs, he wouldn’t have achieved his single-season or lifetime homerun record without them. Which is why I support putting an asterisk by his name in the record books. Because he doesn’t deserve it!

Fortunately for us, God isn’t nearly as concerned about our getting what we deserve. Read the rest of this entry »

Theologically insufficient tweets

July 24, 2013

tweet

Some of my fellow United Methodist pastors from Georgia are in class on St. Simons Island this week earning their CEUs. I hope to rejoin them next year. It didn’t work out for me this summer.

Given the enthusiasm with which this quote was retweeted, I assume United Methodist pastor and homiletics professor James Howell got applauded or Amen-ed when he said this. I sympathize. We don’t like saying “God is in control” because, based on the extreme Calvinist interpretation, it ascribes God’s agency to truly horrifying evil.

But… surely neither Howell nor his tweeters deny that God is in control to some extent. Right? Otherwise, let’s not bother with petitionary prayer, for instance—if events are just going to run their course anyway.

My point is, God is sovereign and has the power to stop people from shooting children. Agreed? Like it or not, he chooses not to. We believe he has perfectly good reasons not to intervene—and, by all means, the free will argument is a good one, in this case.

For all I know, Howell went on to say these same things. But this tweet doesn’t say enough. Well, why would it? Almost by definition, tweets, like bumper stickers, don’t say enough.

Prayer for the royal baby

July 24, 2013

BRITAIN-ROYALS-BABY

I’m afflicted with acute Anglophilia whenever a major event, such as the birth of the prince of Cambridge, happens in the British royal family. I find nothing frivolous or ironic about Archbishop Cranmer’s interpretation of the birth.

The Queen must feel a great sense of great joy and fulfilment in witnessing the next three generations of the House of Windsor—the first monarch to do so since Queen Victoria. They are inculcated with a sense of duty and an understanding of consistency. We now have four supreme governors of the Church of England lined up very nicely, to be the guardians of the Church’s authoritative formularies, its polity and its confessional identity of affirmation and restraint. They provide ecclesial continuity, theological identity and doctrinal stability.

It’s a lot to ask of frail and sinful human beings, isn’t it? But I love that they’re duty-bound to try.

Regardless, here’s the official Prayer for the Royal Baby, from the actual archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby:

God our Creator,
who knows each of us by name
and loves us from all eternity:
we give you thanks for new life and human love.
Bless William and Catherine
as they welcome their son into the world.
Give them patience and wisdom
to cherish and love him as he grows.
Surround the family with the light of hope and the warmth of your love today and always; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

On Leviticus and the classic “shellfish” argument

July 22, 2013

Opponents of the United Methodist Church’s traditional stance on homosexuality frequently resort to the following argument, as summarized by Christopher Wright in this helpful sidebar from Christianity Today.

The law in Leviticus prohibiting sexual intercourse between men (18:22) comes in the same book that contains laws prohibiting foods that Israelites were to consider unclean (chapter 11). We eat shellfish today without any moral problems, so why should we treat this sex law as morally binding? Haven’t we outgrown all of that Levitical law anyway? Christians who insist on the sexual laws of the Bible are being inconsistent in not keeping all the other laws too. So goes one line of argument in modern debates about homosexuality.

About this, Wright says we should say three things:

First, as I note in “Learning to Love Leviticus,” we no longer keep the food laws because the separation they symbolized (between Israelites and Gentiles in the Old Testament) is no longer relevant in Christ. But the ethical principles embodied in Old Testament laws on sexual relations (positive and negative) remain constant and are reaffirmed by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.

In other words, contrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.

If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.

We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.

For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.

Continuing with Wright:

Second, the argument would reduce the Bible to absurdity. The Ten Commandments come in the same book that commanded Israel not to climb the mountain. If we are told that we cannot with consistency disapprove of same-sex activity unless we also stop eating shellfish, then we should not condemn theft and murder unless we also ban mountaineering.

Even more, do the people who employ the classic “shellfish” argument not know that the second part of the Great Commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) is also found in Leviticus? Why bother with that one if we also eat shellfish? “Yes, but Jesus reaffirmed that commandment so we know that’s still binding. He didn’t say anything about homosexuality.” This is the classic argument from silence, which is a terrible argument for a number of reasons, the most powerful of which is that homosexual behavior was illegal in first-century Judaism (which put Judaism at odds with surrounding pagan culture, by the way).

It would have been helpful, if our Lord believed that the status quo concerning homosexuality were wrong, that he would have said so. He spoke against Judaism’s status quo concerning divorce, after all. “Yes, but maybe he did and the Evangelists failed to record it.” Yes, well, maybe he said a lot of things. As you can see, this is a swirling black hole of an argument.

Besides, here’s the larger point, according to Wright:

Third, and most important, the biblical discussion of homosexual behaviour begins not in Leviticus, as if the whole argument depends on how we interpret a single Old Testament law. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he would not let the argument get stuck around the interpretation of the law. Instead he took the issue back to Genesis. That is where we find the foundational biblical teaching about God’s purpose in creating human sexual complementarity—and it is very rich. It reflects God—male and female together being made in God’s image—and it provides the necessary togetherness and equality in the task of procreating and ruling the earth. This God-given complementarity is so important that God explains how it is to be joyfully celebrated and exercised—the union of marriage that is heterosexual, monogamous, nonincestuous, socially visible and affirmed, physical, and permanent (Gen. 2:24, endorsed by Jesus).

I love when smart people repeat arguments I’ve made. In my post about Hamilton’s sermon, I commented on his using Genesis 1 as a basis for overturning the Church’s traditional stance against women in ordained ministry. I affirm what I said then—although I would add that Jesus himself endorses Genesis 2:24 in his teaching on divorce in Matthew 19. Why don’t Jesus’ clear words about marriage’s being between a man and woman have more weight in our debate about gay marriage?

Regarding ordination of women, he says that it took the church about 1,900 years to “live up to the words” of Genesis 1, which helps us to see that men and women were created equal. He sees something universal in those words. And through these clear words, we should interpret more disputed passages of scripture. I don’t disagree. But why stop there? In Genesis 2, we also have God’s creating male and female for one another. Why isn’t that also universal—that marriage and sexual relationships are, specifically, for a man and woman together? Outside of marriage, celibacy is the rule, whether you’re gay or straight. This has been the teaching of the universal church for 2,000 years.

Lewis on perplexing passages of scripture

July 19, 2013

You can see the front edge of my sneakers in this photo from Jericho, the setting for Sunday's scripture.

You can see the front edge of my sneakers in this picture from Jericho, the setting for Sunday’s scripture.


This Sunday I’m preaching on Joshua and the battle of Jericho from Joshua 6. This is one of those so-called “texts of terror,” in which God ordains the killing of all men and women, and boys and girls (and livestock) in the city. I’ll have to deal with this issue to some extent on Sunday. In the meantime, I’m very sympathetic with these words from C.S. Lewis on the subject. I believe strongly in points (a) and (b) below, and I love the last sentence.

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (in Him there is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is. Behind the shocking passage be sure lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in some ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystic who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents. Would not a revelation that contained nothing that you or I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect?[†]

C.S. Lewis, “Perplexing Passages,” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 239.

Sermon 07-14-13: “Summer Vacation, Part 3: How to Prevent Sunburn”

July 18, 2013
In part 3 of our series, we'll get tips on preventing sunburn from three men who should know!

In part 3 of our series, we’ll get tips on preventing sunburn from three men who should know!

The three friends in today’s scripture exhibited great courage as they faced being thrown into the fiery furnace. Notice that they weren’t completely confident that God would rescue them from their terrible fate: “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

We all face bad situations over which we have little or no control. What do we do? How can we face those situations with faith? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Daniel 3:8-30

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

You probably heard about the Korean airliner that crashed while attempting to land in San Francisco last week. Mercifully, so far, out of 307 people onboard, only three were killed. Not that it isn’t horrible when this sort of thing happens, but the crash obviously could have been much worse. I used to fly frequently when I was an engineer, and I never paid much attention to the flight attendants’ instructions about what to do in the event of an emergency landing. It never really mattered to me that the seat cushion could be used as a flotation device. I figured that unless the seat cushion could also be used as a spare airplane, then I was pretty much toast. Right?

Then you occasionally hear about successful crash landings like last week and think, “Well, maybe there’s a small chance I’d survive a crash.” Who knows? My point is, pay attention to the flight attendants, kids! 

Sometimes in life we face situations at least a little bit like last week’s plane crash: It’s as if we’re strapped in a plane that’s going to crash, and we’re powerless to do anything about it. We have no control over the situation. We didn’t choose this for this to happen—any more than the passengers onboard that airliner chose to crash. They chose to go to San Francisco. They assumed the negligibly small risk that doing so might lead to a crash. So… here we are. Stuck. This bad thing is happening. What do we do now? Read the rest of this entry »

Loving the “stranger to whom you find yourself married”

July 17, 2013

On the heels of yesterday’s post about marriage, I read this post on Christianity Today‘s “Her.meneutics” blog from guest blogger Ashley Moore entitled “A Christian Case Against Early Marriage.” A few years ago, the same magazine published an article advocating early marriage, and as Moore points out, secular publications have also gotten in on the act.

In her popular article in The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior encourages young adults to view marriage, not as the capstone, but as the cornerstone of our lives—an event that will allow us to form with our spouses. Her idea, put simply: Get married and grow up together as you grow old together. A piece in Slate and one in Newsweek similarly argued that we shouldn’t wait until after we’ve “figured it all out” or “lived” before we tie the knot.

From my perspective, who could disagree with this, since none of us ever “has it all figured out”—least of all marriage? No couple, regardless of age or maturity, knows what they’re doing when they get married.

Moore doesn’t see it that way. She continues:

This line of thinking remains risky, presenting marriage as such a positive move for 20somethings when so many of them aren’t ready. Surrounded by proponents of young love and young marriage, I felt a pressure beyond my years to make a commitment, and I am so glad I didn’t give in to those expectations, having grown up and grown closer to God in the years since.

Moore is right when she says that we don’t need marriage to fulfill us. For that, we need Jesus. But being “ready” for marriage can hardly be a prerequisite for marriage, since none of us is!

I’m exaggerating. Obviously, couples can be more or less suited for one another, more or less mature, more or less realistic. But unless you go into marriage with a great deal of humility, it will humble you like nothing else.

She continues:

Sure, plenty of Christian couples marry young and go on to have strong, happy marriages. We can celebrate those well-matched young ones, whether they were especially mature or simply lucky to have found one another. But that doesn’t mean that young marriage should become the biblical model for the church, particularly when we can’t guarantee all will share their fate.

From Moore’s perspective, couples are either mature or lucky enough to find a partner with whom they are “well-matched.” I’m not saying that compatibility is irrelevant, but it’s not nearly as important as the online dating services—whose very names (match.com, eHarmony) exalt it—suggest. Sure, you and your partner may correlate nicely on 538 different character traits (or whatever) and still find the “Hauerwas Rule” (courtesy of Duke Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas) very much in play: “You always marry the wrong person.”

If that sounds too glib or cynical, here’s the “rule” in context:

Destructive marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

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. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is… learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.[†]

The point of the Hauerwas Rule is that there is no “right” person with whom marriage won’t, at times, be incredibly difficult. What we need far more than compatibility is self-giving Christian love.

Stanley Hauerwas in Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 38. The footnote in Keller’s book mistakenly refers to this article, which itself merely refers to the original Hauerwas piece.

You can start by changing yourself

July 16, 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.

One recurring theme in last Sunday’s sermon was how, through faith, we can make the best of a bad situation. I said that sometimes we are at least a little bit like those passengers aboard that Asiana airliner that crashed recently in San Francisco: we’re strapped in, the plane is going to crash, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re stuck. So what now?

I briefly considered applying this idea to marriage, using Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book The Meaning of Marriage—which is also just a good book on life in general. Keller talks about the challenge of feeling stuck in what he calls a “truce-marriage.” This occurs when each partner resents the selfishness of the other and wishes the other would change. Although each recognizes the selfishness within himself or herself, he or she perceives his or her spouse’s selfishness as the bigger problem. “This is especially true if you feel that you’ve had a hard life and have experienced a lot of hurt. You say silently, ‘OK, I shouldn’t do that—but you don’t understand me.'”

What often follows, Keller writes, is

the development of emotional distance and, perhaps, a slowly negotiated kind of détente or ceasefire. There is an unspoken agreement not to talk about some things. There are some things your spouse does that you hate, but you stop talking about them as long as he or she stops bothering you about certain other things. No one changes for the other; there is only tit-for-tat bargaining.[1]

The best alternative to this truce-marriage is for each spouse, though disillusioned by their partner’s self-centeredness, to instead treat their own self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage—and to work on that. After all, Keller writes,

Only you have complete access to your own selfishness, and only you have complete responsibility for it. So each spouse should take the Bible seriously, should make a commitment to ‘give yourself up.’ You should stop making excuses for selfishness, you should begin to root it out as it’s revealed to you, and you should do so regardless of what your spouse is doing.”[2]

Good things happen, Keller says, even if you’re the only partner who decides, “My selfishness is the thing I am going to work on.”

What will happen? Usually there is not much immediate response from the other side. But often, over time, your attitude and behavior will begin to soften your partner. He or she can see the pains you are taking. And it will be easier for your spouse to admit his or her faults because you are no longer always talking about them yourself.[3]

The lesson: Work on changing yourself because it’s the Christian thing to do. One possible fringe benefit is that doing so may inspire change in your spouse.

1. Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 65

2. Ibid., 65-6.

3. Ibid., 66.