Archive for August, 2013

I can trust Jesus to overturn the money-changers’ tables, not myself

August 30, 2013

Unlike most people on the inter-webs this week, I’ve so far avoided commenting on you-know-who. What’s the point? I can’t pretend to feel indignant, or shocked, or offended by the performance. I go to movies. I watch TV. I read books. I have the internet piped into my home. I know what’s out there and what’s in my heart. Who am I to be indignant?

Also, I can’t add anything to the helpful things that have been said, nor can I take away the harmful things that have been said. I liked this post from Christianity Today‘s “Her•meneutics” blog (as I usually like posts from that blog). This Vanity Fair piece is good, too. And this from the Onion A.V. Club.

Everything about the story depresses me when I think about it too much. Hard to believe there was a time 50 years ago when Bob Dylan, out of principle, walked away from performing on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show because the network censors wouldn’t let him perform the satirical “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” Like Miley Cyrus, he was controversial—but the good kind of controversial, related to actual ideas.

Those were the days! Instead we’re stuck with today’s pop culture. We’ve clearly lost something.

I’ll probably say something about the controversy in this Sunday’s sermon, because the response to Miley Cyrus ties into this week’s scripture about specks and planks, etc. In the meantime, I just read these helpful words from Dallas Willard:

Although [Jesus] certainly let his condemnation fall upon self-righteous and deeply corrupted leaders (Matt. 23; Luke 11:29-54), we never see it in other contexts. And we can trust him to express it appropriately toward such people, though we ourselves could rarely if ever do so. Anger and condemnation, like vengeance, are safely left to God. We must beware of believing that it is okay for us to condemn as long as we are condemning the right things. It is not so simple as that. I can trust Jesus to go into the temple and drive out those who were profiting from religion, beating them with a rope. I cannot trust myself to do so.[†]

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 220-1.

Sermon 08-25-13: “Back to School, Part 3: Love Your Enemies”

August 29, 2013
The mountain on which Jesus gave this great sermon.

The mountain on which Jesus gave this great sermon.

This sermon explores the connection between anger and enemy-making. As difficult as Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is, this kind of love gets to the heart of Christ-like love. As I say in this sermon: “Learn to love your enemies, and you learn to love, period.”

Sermon Text: Luke 6:27-38

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I am inspired by the courage of Antoinette Tuff, a bookkeeper at McNair Learning Academy in Decatur. As probably heard, last Tuesday, a mentally disturbed young man wielding an AK-47 style assault rifle burst into her office, held her at gunpoint, while she calmly talked to him. She empathized with him, telling him about her own struggles raising a disabled child and losing a husband. She reassured him, saying that since he hadn’t hurt anyone, he could still surrender peacefully.

In a 911 call, she was overheard telling him, “We’re not gonna hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up.”[1] She also told him that she loved him and that she was praying for him. He finally surrendered. No one was hurt.

Antionette Tuff, a hero who saved the lives of many children last week.

Antionette Tuff, a hero who saved the lives of many children last week.

Can you imagine? Here we have a living, breathing example of a disciple of Jesus Christ loving and praying for the very real enemy that stood before her with an assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. How do you do it? Read the rest of this entry »

“You can’t add one thing to what’s been done for you”

August 28, 2013
adam_ant

Adam Ant, at 58, singing and playing his heart out in Atlanta earlier this month.

I saw a childhood hero of mine, Adam Ant, at Atlanta’s Center Stage Theater earlier this month. Ant (née Stuart Goddard), who struggled for years with bipolar disorder, is healthy again. He and his band have been touring non-stop for the past three years, and they have chops!

The reason I mention this concert is because Adam Ant is just another in a long line of childhood heroes—mostly musicians, in my case—who I thought I had outgrown at some point in my life.

In fact, over the past several years, I’ve returned as a grown-up to every band or artist I ever loved as a child, adolescent, or teenager, and you know what? I still love them: the Beatles, Paul McCartney and/or Wings, Adam Ant, Styx, Asia, Men at Work, the Police, you name it. If I ever loved them, I love them still.

The funny thing is, there was a period of time in my life when I thought I’d outgrown them. Even the Beatles! As hard as it is to imagine now, I went about 15 years without listening to this band that had been one of the most formative influences in my life, not to mention my musical development.

So, musically speaking, I’ve come back home.

I thought of this just a couple of days ago. While I was running, I was listening to Keith Green’s Ministry Years 1977-1979 on my smartphone. Years ago, I thought I had outgrown Green’s music—along with the other first-generation Christian rock bands or artists I listened to back in high school or college. Never mind that Green’s two-disc compilation Ministry Years helped see me through a very difficult freshman year in college.

I realize now, of course, that I haven’t outgrown Keith Green. In fact, having been to seminary and read and studied a lot of theology over the past nine years, I’m actually impressed that his songs are as theologically rich and orthodox as they are.

When I was running the other day, this Green song brought me to tears—the same way it did 25 years ago when I first heard it. Again, I feel like I’ve come back home. The song, written from God’s first-person perspective, challenges us to imagine how much God loves us, his children, even when we’re tempted to doubt it.

Nearly every line is perfect. I could quibble with the one in the refrain in which our Lord tells us, “To me, you’re only holy.” Well, not quite, the Wesleyan in me would say, but we’re in the process of becoming holy. And we can be confident that through the Holy Spirit we’ll get there eventually—in the resurrection if not before.

As the song reminds us, even when we fall victim to sin, we can always receive a fresh start from our merciful Savior: “Nothing that you’ve done will remain, only what you’ve done for me.”

Last year, when I blogged about Wesley Hill’s profoundly moving book about his struggle, as a homosexual, to remain faithful to Christ, I drew attention to the following grace-filled paragraph that applies to all of us sinners as we struggle to overcome sin—whatever our particular sin or sins happen to be. The words in italics represent my small changes to what Hill wrote:

Christianity’s good news provides—amply so—for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of guilt and the removal of any and all divine wrath through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Seen in this light, the demand that we say no to the sins we struggle with need not seem impossible. If we have failed in the past, we can receive grace—a clean slate, a fresh start. If we fail today or tomorrow in our struggle to be faithful to God’s commands, that, too, may be forgiven. Feeling that the guilt of our past sins or present failures is beyond the scope of God’s grace should never be a barrier preventing anyone from embracing the demands of the gospel. God has already anticipated our objection and extravagantly answered it with the mercy of the cross.[†]

This message of extravagant love and grace comes through in Green’s song. And it’s a message I need to hear—and then hear again!

Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 64.

Does God speak to us “in our hearts”? (Part 3)

August 26, 2013

goodnews1As I’ve written about in two previous blog posts, here and here, Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians challenged me to rethink my understanding of how God speaks to us. Or should I say “speaks” to us in quotation marks? Because I’ve never met a Christian who claims that God spoke in an audible voice, only as a strong intuition in their heart.

And that’s exactly the kind of anxiety to which Cary is addressing his book: How do we know? How do we discern God’s voice from our own? According to people who believe that God has spoken to them, there aren’t many criteria for deciding: One criterion would obviously be, “Does this ‘voice’ contradict what God has revealed in scripture?'” That doesn’t seem especially helpful to me, since many choices we make in life won’t contradict scripture, yet we wouldn’t say, therefore, that “God told me” to do this thing.

Another criterion seems to be that God’s “voice” is a really, really strong intuition. It’s a gut feeling. How else do we interpret, for example, what Baptist pastor Charles Stanley says about “hearing”  God’s voice in this interview from earlier this year in Christianity Today?

You often say in your books and preaching that God speaks to you, tells you things, and gives you messages. What is that like for you? Is it a thought? Is it a voice you hear?

For me, I get this strong sense of feeling that’s so clear, so direct to me. Like this week, something happened and I thought, Well, I could do thus and such, and God said, “Don’t do that.” I don’t hear a voice, but it’s so crystal sharp and clear to me, I know not to disobey that.

I think that comes from early in life as you learn to listen. You make mistakes; after a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.

Did you catch that? “[A]fter a while, you realize as you obey him, it turns out right, and whatever your reason was for not obeying him, it doesn’t turn out right.” So God’s voice is something we discern over time, through trial and error. We make a decision based on an intuition that we think represents “God’s voice.” It turns out poorly. So we decide that wasn’t God’s voice. Then we make another decision based on an intuition. It turns out well. So we decide that must have been God’s voice.

Am I misinterpreting what Stanley is saying here? I don’t think so.

If Cary were reading this, he would say that what Stanley is really doing—which is what all of us Christians should do—is learning to make wise decisions. Over time, often through bitter experience, making wise decisions becomes easier (I hope!). Maybe it even becomes automatic, something we’re not even conscious of. The Bible exhorts us not to ask God to tell us what to do in every situation, but to ask God to give us wisdom. With wisdom, we can often make the right decision no matter what life throws our way.

So perhaps Stanley isn’t obeying the voice of God so much as the voice of wisdom? Who knows?

Regardless, I’m guessing that most of the time the difference isn’t that important.

But I believe the way we speak about our decision-making is. Look at the Stanley quote again: for him, making a bad decision means disobeying God. That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of opportunity to feel guilty! Why can’t we just say we made a bad decision, but in good faith, and that making a bad decision isn’t necessarily a character flaw or a sin? That it isn’t necessarily the result of not praying hard enough?

Someone asked me if I (or Cary) wasn’t limiting God’s role in our lives by suggesting that God doesn’t speak to us nearly as often as the “evangelical mystics” among us think. On the contrary: if I’m right, then God will work to bring good out of any decision we make and any circumstance we face. It’s just that some decisions are better than others.

Sermon 08-18-13: “Back to School, Part 2: Salt, Light & Law”

August 22, 2013

morton_salt

“You are the salt of the earth, ” Jesus said. By this he meant that we Christians—we the church—ought to make people’s lives better, to make our communities better, to make our world better. As I say in this sermon, that begins with us—with an inward transformation by the Holy Spirit—just as the elements of sodium and chlorine react with one another to form salt. This sermon also challenges us to be witnesses for Christ, what Jesus means when he says that we’re also the “light of the world.”

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:13-20

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I grew up in a popcorn-eating family. Seriously, we had popcorn several nights a week—nearly every time we sat down to watch TV in the evening. For most of my childhood, we had an electric popcorn popper, which popped the corn in oil. When the popcorn was finished, you inverted the lid, added salt, and—voila!—delicious popcorn. Then some time around 1981 or so, we made the switch to a hot-air popper. Remember these? It was like a blow dryer for popcorn. It didn’t require oil to heat up the kernels. It used hot air. Supposedly, we made the switch for “health reasons”—because this was the early ‘80s, after all, and we didn’t want to undo all the calories we’d burned from our Jane Fonda Workout, so we all ate hot air-popped popcorn, which, without all the oil, is fat-free.

Read the rest of this entry »

Does Jesus mostly teach simple lessons for children?

August 22, 2013

lego_jesus

I don’t follow American politics closely (anymore), much less British politics. But I’m a fan of a blogger who does—a priest in the Church of England who blogs under the name and persona of Thomas Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury who led the Protestant Reformation in England and edited the first Book of Common Prayer).

Often, living as I do on this side of the Atlantic, I don’t know what he’s talking about. But I’m in love with his witty style and tone, which is often deeply sarcastic. As I rediscover time and again on clergy-related social media, we United Methodists pastors are the most earnest people on the planet. Most of my colleagues don’t appreciate sarcasm at all. (Come to think of it, that sounds sarcastic, but I really don’t mean it that way!)

Recently, the British Prime Minister, apparently the most nominal of nominal Anglicans, has been persuaded by his handlers to appease the base of his Conservative Party by talking about his “faith,” such as it is. (As you can see, American and British politicians are all the same.) I’ll let Cranmer describe a recent press conference.

He arrived… and announced with the sincerity we expect from our leaders, “I’m a Christian and an active member of the Church of England.”

As he delivered those rousing words, Dave glanced at the sky, but neither saw nor heard anything. Focus Group clearly felt Dave was on the right track.

And specifically, came the question. What parts of Christianity appeal to you most?

Tricky question. How does one answer it to the satisfaction of those bloody grassroots, but without upsetting one’s friends in W11 and N5? Dave desperately scanned the room looking for Focus Group, but it wasn’t in attendance.

He had to take a bold leap into uncertainty. The Scripture, he explained, is “not a bad handbook” for life.

Encouraged by The Guardian chap’s approving nod, Dave expanded with his usual eloquence. “What I think is so good about Jesus’s teachings is there are lots of things that he said that you can still apply very directly to daily life and to bringing up your children.”

Such as?

“Simple things like do to others as you would be done by; love your neighbour as yourself, the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount.”

Do you see how Cameron’s explanation relates to my post the other day? What did Jesus teach? “Simple things” for children, like the Golden Rule and all those other innocuous bromides from the Sermon on the Mount.

I’d like to ask him which Sermon on the Mount he’d read recently, but whatever. Cranmer continues:

Happiness all around. Except among those whose own faith doesn’t depend on Focus Group.

Four of the ‘simple’ things Dave mentioned are moral dicta appearing in the Old Testament, and the fourth is Jesus’s sermon on morality. These are all crucial to Christianity, no question about that.

But suppose a rank atheist were asked the same question. Wouldn’t he happily give the same answer?

In fact I’ve never met an atheist who’d admit to being comfortable with the idea of hating one’s neighbour, robbing and killing him, having a go at his wife and then lying about the whole thing under oath.

Look at it from a different angle. A tricycle and an aeroplane both have three wheels, are made of metal and are used to transport people. Yet someone giving this explanation to a visiting Martian wouldn’t be partly right or almost right. He’d be mad.

An explanation of anything has to focus on its unique characteristics, in this instance on the fact that aeroplanes fly. A definition must be based not on similarities but on differences.

Thus a real Christian would have answered the same question differently. He’d know that the Scripture ought not to be confused with Debrett’s Etiquette for Girls. And Christianity isn’t just a moral teaching by Christ – mostly it’s the teaching about Christ.

Central to it is His Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christ is the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, and a Christian is someone who believes in His divinity. Christian morality must define life in this earth, but it’s strictly derivative from the essence of the faith.

“Christian morality must define life in this earth, but it’s strictly derivative from the essence of the faith.” Very well said. It’s a point that Dallas Willard also emphasizes in The Divine Conspiracy. Jesus’ moral teaching is profound, but also profoundly difficult apart from the essence of faith, which includes Christ’s identity, his atoning death and resurrection, and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.

I’m sure I’ll explore this more in my sermon series.

Of course Jesus was good, but was he smart?

August 20, 2013

divine_conspiracyWhy do so many of us Christians fail to obey Jesus’ challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount? According to Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy, one reason is that while we trust in him for salvation—as if he were merely the mechanism by which God saves us—we don’t trust the words he says. Instead of being (to say the very least) the moral and ethical genius that he clearly was (and is), we worry that he didn’t really know what he’s talking about.

Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christiains alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart.

Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.

A well-known “scholarly” picture has him wandering the hills of Palestine, deeply confused about who he was and even about crucial points in his basic topic, the kingdom of the heavens. From time to time he perhaps utters disconnected though profound and vaguely radical irrelevancies, now obscurely preserved in our Gospels.

Would you be able to trust your life to such a person? If this is how he seems to you, are you going to be inclined to become his student? Of course not. We all know that action must be based on knowledge, and we grant the right to lead and teach only to those we believe to know what is real and what is best.[†]

What if Jesus is, in fact, the smartest man who ever lived? In addition (obviously) to his being God’s only begotten Son—God from God, light from light, true God from true God? Does that change our willingness to trust him when he tells us how we should live our lives?

In case you doubt that Willard is on to something, remember the scorn that greeted presidential candidate George W. Bush in 1999 when he answered, “Christ,” in response to the question, “Name the political philosopher or thinker with whom you most identify?”

Wasn’t Jesus at least a great “political philosopher or thinker”? Among many other things, he led the most successful (only successful?) revolution in history! Yet many Americans thought the answer was preposterous back in 1999.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 134.

Sympathy for the devil? Nah, just for Jim Standridge

August 19, 2013

I saw this video a couple of months ago on YouTube, in which a Baptist pastor from Oklahoma opens up an industrial-sized can of… well, judge for yourself. Christianity Today has now picked up the story. When I watch this video, I mostly feel sympathy for Standridge. I know I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to think he’s a jerk or a bully or far worse (I’m afraid to read the comments section of the YouTube post). But I don’t. I imagine he’s just having a bad day. Been there, done that. Who hasn’t?

For one thing, are we criticizing Standridge for having these thoughts in the first place or only for being so gauche as to speak them out loud in a sermon? If it’s the latter, well, that’s hardly a major sin.

C’mon, fellow pastors: Haven’t you had church members who you believe—perhaps in your most human moments—”aren’t worth fifteen cents”? Granted, you don’t post their names on Facebook or anything, but don’t you feel that way sometimes? Let’s get real.

Besides, it’s hard to argue with his logic when he calls attention to the poor guy caught sleeping during his sermon: “You say, ‘Well, he may never come back.’ Well, he ain’t here now!

Also, to his credit, Standridge at least knows his flock well enough to call these people by name. He clearly seems to care deeply about them, even as he criticizes them. And in our politically correct age, when we talk so much about cultural sensitivity and context, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that he knows his audience, and he’s speaking to them in a language they understand. I’m not a Baptist from Skiatook, Oklahoma. Are you? I doubt he worried about how his message would play in New York or L.A.

CT asked some prominent pastors and theologians if it’s appropriate for pastors to call out church members by name like this during the sermon time. Everyone said Standridge was wrong—except good ol’ United Methodist bishop Will Willimon.

Prophets such as Amos or Nathan called people to account personally. It’s almost refreshing, in this age of feel-good theology, to see a preacher really get worked up over behavior and get morally indignant in the service of the truth delivered to him to speak.

Learning now to ride “those winged, shining and world-shaking horses”

August 19, 2013

In the last chapter of C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, Lewis faces head-on the challenge of imagining “heaven”—as in our ultimate future life on the other side of resurrection—as physical and bodily. We have many things working against us: naturalism, mysticism, Deism, Platonism—not to mention that the most exalted of our own modest spiritual experiences seems to render our own bodies beside the point.

Each of these challenges to our imagination, he says, is a symptom of the same problem: our bodies and spirits have been estranged from one another since the Fall. “Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us; that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing.”[1]

In resurrection, however, as hard as it is to imagine, the rift between physical and spiritual will be healed. He concludes with this striking analogy of the relationship between our present and future bodies:

These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him?[2]

Twenty-five years ago, as a scientifically-minded young Christian student trying to make my way through Georgia Tech with my faith intact, I fell in love with the music of Keith Green. His Ministry Years Vol. 1  (It’s still in print! Buy it!) was in constant rotation on my portable CD player. Even then, however, I found his song “I Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven,” with its depiction of heaven so down-to-earth—so corporeal, so physical—hopelessly childish and naive.

While it’s hardly my favorite Green song, I now view my rejection of Green’s imagery as childish and naive.

Here’s a pristine-video-quality performance of the song, which according to YouTube, comes from The 700 Club. I’m guessing from around 1980.

1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 259-60.

2. Ibid., 266.

Sermon 08-11-13: “Back to School, Part 1: Being Happy”

August 15, 2013
The mountain on which Jesus delivered his most famous sermon.

The mountain on which Jesus delivered his most famous sermon.

It’s hard for many of us to imagine that God wants us to be happy. We often think of God as giving us rules to prevent us from being happy. We even have a hard time imagining that Jesus was happy—what with his overturning the money-changers’ tables, sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and often saying, “Woe unto you.”

Obviously, these few episodes from Jesus’ life don’t tell most of the story. In fact, since the only true happiness that exists in the universe comes from God, we should as easily imagine that Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived!

Regardless, Jesus describes in today’s scripture the lives of people who are truly happy—although the Greek word usually gets translated as “blessed.” Biblically speaking, to be blessed is to possess a happiness that goes much deeper than the happiness for which we usually strive.

Do you want to be happy? The Sermon on the Mount tells us how.

Sermon Text: Luke 6:17-26

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Have you heard the latest about “Johnny Football”? Johnny Football is the nickname of Johnny Manziel, the quarterback at Texas A&M who won college football’s highest honor last year—the Heisman Trophy. Since Manziel won the Heisman, he has been in the news a lot—but not for doing this thing he’s so good at. Instead, he’s been in the news for his off-the-field behavior—mostly, for being an out-of-control party animal. And last week, things got worse: turns out, the NCAA is investigating allegations that he sold autographed merchandise—for a lot of money. And as both Georgia and Georgia Tech fans know, it doesn’t even take a lot of money to get into big trouble with the NCAA!    Read the rest of this entry »