Archive for September, 2013

How “putting cans in boxes” relates to ministry

September 26, 2013
I visited one of my alma maters yesterday. Going to seminary and becoming a pastor wasn't such a radical change.

I visited one of my alma maters yesterday. Going to seminary and becoming a pastor wasn’t such a radical change.

I shared a version of this reflection at a United Methodist Men’s dinner on Tuesday night:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12 (NRSV).

Like most United Methodist pastors these days, I chose pastoral ministry (or it chose me) as a second career. I was happily working as an electrical engineer before I uprooted my family, sold our house, went to seminary, and became a pastor. When I tell parishioners this, they usually express surprise at how different being a pastor is from being an engineer. “That’s quite a drastic change!”

I get what they mean, but it doesn’t feel all that different to me.

I think I know why: Throughout those years of studying at Georgia Tech and working as an engineer, God was preparing me for the next stage of my life and ministry, so that by the time I got there, well… I won’t say I was ready for it… Far from it! But I at least had enough courage to take that next step when it was time.

God’s grace often works like that, doesn’t it?

Think about some of the necessary skills or attributes required to be an effective engineer: Working under deadline pressure, thinking clearly and logically, being patient, communicating effectively and concisely, managing people, keeping the “paying customers” happy. Managing stress. Keeping calm in the midst of a crisis. Keeping a sense of humor. Not taking yourself too seriously. Keeping things in perspective.

And most importantly—as an engineer who was also a Christian—putting what little faith I had into action—however imperfectly, however reluctantly.

God knows I didn’t do all these things well (I still don’t). But it’s easy to see that each of these skills or attributes is also useful or necessary for effective pastoral ministry! So I was working on being a pastor long before I answered the call into pastoral ministry.

By the way, I worked for a paper company that made, among other things, soft-drink cartons—like any 12-pack carton you’d find at the grocery store. Specifically, I helped to engineer the large machines that unfolded the cartons, shoved cans in them, and glued them shut—at a rate of about 150 cartons per minute.

Once, a group of us engineers and technicians were working round-the-clock to solve a confounding problem with a high-profile client’s machine. Many of us were feeling stressed out, short-tempered, and irritable. But not Kenny, the field services manager. Although Kenny bore the brunt of the client’s wrath, he put things in perspective nicely: “Guys, all we’re doing here is putting cans in boxes. This ain’t brain surgery! It’s not life-and-death! Relax! We’re just putting cans in boxes.”

We’re just putting cans in boxes. I love that! I would walk by Kenny’s office sometimes, duck my head in, and say, “We’re just putting cans in boxes!” And he’d walk by my cubicle and say, “We’re just putting cans in boxes!”

I believe this applies to ministry, too. At any given time, all any of us are mostly doing is putting “cans in boxes.”

Don’t get me wrong: I realize that the work that we do as a church is the most important work that human beings can do. It’s about spiritual life and death. It’s about eternity. But we’re not responsible for saving people’s souls. None of us has the power to do that. Instead, we each do our part—we “put those cans in boxes”—and let the Holy Spirit take it from there. The Lord does the heavy lifting.

The point is, none of us carries the weight of the world on our shoulders. God can do that just fine without us. So we let him.

You’re only responsible for using the gifts God has given you. I’m only responsible for using the gifts God has given me. Each of us is well-equipped to do this. If we do it well, and faithfully—together as a church—we’ll be successful.

Let this be part of your prayer today and every day:

Lord, make me a faithful steward of the gifts you’ve given me for ministry. Make our church, Hamton UMC, faithful in its stewardship as well. Amen.

It’s hard for secular science textbooks to be neutral

September 25, 2013

Roger Olson puts his finger on the problem with high school science textbooks: in the name of religious neutrality, they too easily err in the opposite direction.

Now I want science textbooks to stick to science. So do many others involved on the “creationist” side of this debate. Neither I nor they are anti-evolutionists. The issue for some of us is not whether life forms evolve; the issue is whether science, as science, can state that all life began with chemical interactions.

The issue is, for some of us, that some scientists like to smuggle philosophy, metaphysical beliefs, into science. The classic case of this, of course, was scientist Carl Sagan’s opening statement in his book and film series, read and shown in thousands of public school classrooms, that “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Few people realized that, at that moment, he was speaking as a philosopher, out of his own life and world view, and not as a scientist. Science cannot establish that metaphysical belief as fact.

True science, of course, has nothing to say about what happened before the universe was set in motion, or who or what set it in motion. (Although to say it was self-caused is, in my opinion, more of a leap of faith than saying God caused it!) This is the question of existence itself, which is and will always be a metaphysical question. Why something and not nothing? To say that there were chemical interactions begs the question: Why were there there chemicals to interact with one another? Why was there an environment in which chemical interactions could take place?

And this is the problem with the question, Do you believe in evolution? I have to ask, What do you mean by “believe in.” If by “believe in” you mean, Do I believe that strictly natural processes account for how we got here? then, no, I don’t believe in evolution.

Do I believe that life evolved gradually? Sure. Like most of the universal church, I have no theological reason not to believe that. Life evolved gradually, but it was directed and sustained into existence at every moment by God. Which is another way of saying that I fully embrace our United Methodist position on science, from ¶ 160 § F of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church:

We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific. We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues. We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.

“We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues.” Exactly! But in our current political climate, the former mistake is far easier than the latter.

My friend Bill Coble on the attacks in Kenya

September 24, 2013
My friend Bill Coble was interviewed on a local news broadcast in North Carolina.

My friend Bill Coble was interviewed on a local news broadcast in North Carolina.

As I’ve shared on this blog several times, I had a couple of life-changing experiences in Kenya over the past year. Last weekend, Islamic terrorists violently seized control of an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi—a mall that we had visited on our trips. A local TV station in North Carolina interviewed my friend Bill Coble, the United Methodist missionary who heads up Start With One Kenya, which organized the classes I taught there.

Bill posted the following on his Facebook wall on Sunday.


I hope you’ll join me in praying that the standoff will end and the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Pray also for the victims’ families.

The most harmful idea about prayer

September 20, 2013

At least to me. It’s a variation on that tired theme, “Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us.” From Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

And God’s “response” to our prayers is not a charade. He does not pretend that he is answering our prayer when he is only doing what he was going to do anyway. Our requests really do make a difference in what God does or does not do. The idea that everything would happen exactly as it does regardless of whether we pray or not is a specter that haunts the minds of many who sincerely profess belief in God. It makes prayer psychologically impossible, replacing it with dead ritual at best. And of course God does not respond to this. You wouldn’t either.[†]

I like the way Willard says that this belief makes prayer psychologically impossible. I know from experience that this is true. If you don’t think God is going to do anything in response to your prayers—other than “change” you, of course—you can’t go through the motions of prayer for very long. The call of duty never seems quite loud enough.

I wonder if this is why we easily venerate more exotic forms of praying (meditation, lectio divina, prayer beads, prayer labyrinths, etc.), however helpful they may be in and of themselves, above the simpler, humbler form that Jesus himself offers in his model prayer of Matthew 6:7-13 (which we’ll focus on in this Sunday’s sermon).

If you don’t actually ask God to do anything for you or someone else (asking is near the center of all biblical prayer), then you can’t be proven wrong. There’s no danger your faith will be tested. We can easily turn prayer into an exercise to produce within ourselves a warm, vaguely “spiritual” feeling. If that’s what we’re going for, then we won’t be disappointed. And there are plenty of “techniques” to help us accomplish that. They insulate us from both disappointment and God.

Prayer—true prayer in the biblical sense—is something riskier than that. God may not give us what we ask for. But even if he doesn’t, it won’t be because he can’t or won’t out of principle. He always can, and he sometimes will.

At least if we dare to ask.

[†] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 244.

Sermon 09-15-13: “Back to School, Part 6: Love & Marriage”

September 20, 2013
Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

We Christians understand the nature of self-denying, cross-carrying Christ-like love when we choose to love our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field, suffering and sacrificing for the Lord. When we marry, however, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof, sleeps beside us, and makes a life with us. Are the demands and expectations of this kind of love any different?

As I explain in this sermon, the answer is a resounding no.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:31-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[Ask congregation to snap along. Begin by singing:] “Love and marriage, love and marriage/ They go together like a horse and carriage/ This I tell you, brother, you can’t have one without the other… Try, try, and separate them/ It’s an illusion/ Try, try, try and you only come/ To this conclusion.”

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin. Listen: I made this point in last week’s sermon, and I need to make it again and again. We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace! Read the rest of this entry »

We Methodists are “sentimental Arminians”

September 20, 2013
Wesley was a hard-headed Arminian

Wesley was a hard-headed Arminian

In this post, Roger Olson, a Baptist who loves Wesley more than most Methodists, complains about the infiltration of Arminian-oriented denominations (including Wesleyan-Holiness denominations such as the Nazarenes) by “young, restless and reformed”-style Calvinists. (He should probably throw the UMC in there, too, but he’s probably given up on the “mother church”!) As Olson implies, it should be an oxymoron to refer to someone’s being a Calvinist-Methodist.

Regardless, I’ve seen the “young, restless and reformed” up close in United Methodist churches. In the comment section of Olson’s post, I express some sympathy with them. (I should add that they also tend to know their Bibles better than most Methodists, too.)

I’m United Methodist and evangelical. I’ve seen the phenomenon you describe in my churches. (Of course the UMC has itself to blame because for years they were theologically adrift from their Wesleyan roots. I sense that the tide is turning, in least in some parts of the denomination.) Anyway, I think what appeals to the young men (aren’t they always men?) about this extreme Calvinist theology is that, like it or not, it is intellectually rigorous. It takes theology seriously. It takes seriously the tough questions we ask of God and faith and offers comprehensive answers—however unsatisfying those answers may be.

I feel like I’m stepping on my soapbox, but honestly… It’s embarrassing how many of my clergy colleagues act as if theology hardly matters. They are sentimentally Arminian, but they can’t formulate an argument in their favor.

I don’t blame some Methodists for trying to find a less squishy, more tough-minded approach to understanding God and the world.

Holy Land tour: Jesus in Jerusalem, Part 1

September 19, 2013

On Wednesday nights this fall, I’ve taken my congregation on a virtual tour of the Holy Land, using videos and photos from my trip there in 2011. This week, we discussed Jesus’ healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda in John 5 and events related to Christ’s passion, specifically his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane,  his trial before Caiaphas the high priest, and Peter’s denials.

I showed the following videos, which I narrate.



I ❤ Pope Francis

September 19, 2013

This new pope is going to win me over yet! If the New York Times is summarizing this interview accurately, I’m positively excited about some possibilities his words open up.

Here’s the part I like. When asked about the Big Three divisive issues of abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, the pope said:

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“We have to find a new balance,” the pope continued, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

As my regular readers know, I support our United Methodist Church’s doctrinal stance on human sexuality. And I oppose changing our church’s doctrine—as I’m sure the pope opposes changing Catholic doctrine.

But in my haste to argue “my side,” I can easily lose sight of the pope’s point here:

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told Father Spadaro. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

In my defense, the pope says these words in complete confidence that his church won’t change its doctrine, whereas my church nearly followed its mainline sisters over a cliff!

But that’s not my main point here. I’m zeroing in on these words:

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent… We have to find a new balance…

Really? Does he mean it? Because if he does, I hope he brings this same congenial spirit to the Catholic Church’s relationship with us Protestants.

Maybe the Catholic Church’s dogmatic insistence on transubstantiation, for example, need not prevent Catholics and Protestants from celebrating the eucharist together? Or the Marian dogmas? Or papal infallibility? Or contraception?

Honestly, this pope has gone out of his way to reach out to non-believers. How about extending an olive branch to fellow Christians—according to Vatican II, we are fellow Christians—in our various “ecclesial communities”?

Learning to ask, “What is God up to?”

September 18, 2013
Everybody loves Andy Stanley!

Everybody loves Andy Stanley!

I shared the following devotional at last night’s church council meeting.

Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

A few years ago, my birth mother, Linda, who lives in North Carolina, was excited to tell me that she had seen a preacher on TV who was so good. In fact, she said, he was probably the best preacher she had ever heard.

Now, I was confused by this because, after all, I’m not on TV, so who could she possibly be referring to? Then she said that he even pastored a church near me, in Alpharetta, and maybe I’d heard of him: his name is Andy Stanley.

Great! So even my own mother likes Andy Stanley better than me![†]

I have to laugh because you can’t be a pastor in Alpharetta, Georgia, and not feel like you’re in the shadow of Andy Stanley and his megachurch, Northpoint Community Church. Everybody loves Andy Stanley.

And who can blame them? He’s great. His church does better at reaching the unchurched than anyone else. And he recently wrote a memoir about his life—growing up as the son of a prominent Baptist pastor, Charles Stanley, and the experiences that led to his starting Northpoint. And the book inspired me in a number of ways. But what inspired me most about the book was something that Andy probably didn’t even think about when he wrote it.

What inspired me most was the fact that Andy’s success seems almost accidental. Seriously!

The way he describes it, he stumbled into ministry. First, he planned on getting a Ph.D. and teaching at a university. But he couldn’t get into the grad school he wanted to get into. So his plans fell through, and he needed money. The youth ministry position at his dad’s church, First Baptist Atlanta, opened up, and he took it—but only on a short-term basis. He wasn’t “called” into ministry. This wasn’t something he would do for very long. But he was good at ministry, and soon he started filling the pulpit for his dad on occasion. And he was good at preaching.

This wasn’t what anyone planned.

Then his dad’s church bought some warehouse property on the north side of town, intending to move there as soon as they sold their midtown Atlanta property. Except the housing market crashed and they couldn’t sell it. So they were stuck with these two properties. So the leaders of the church asked Andy if he wouldn’t mind holding a service in the warehouse up north. It wouldn’t be ideal, they said. It wouldn’t be like a traditional church at all—no choir, no piano, no organ. “Do you think you can make it work—at least until the ‘big church’ moves up there?”

This wasn’t what anyone planned.

Andy was very successful running this satellite campus. Thousands of unchurched people flocked to this warehouse church. The north campus grew so large so quickly that some people in the midtown church suspected that Andy was going force a hostile takeover of the church and kick his dad to the curb. Instead of making a bad situation worse, Andy made the painful decision to resign.

This wasn’t what anyone planned.

So, through a series of personal and professional false starts, and setbacks, and curveballs, and disappointments, Andy started Northpoint—a church that would became a model for reaching unchurched people.

And my point is, it wouldn’t have happened at all, except that nothing seemed to go as planned in Andy’s life!

Isn’t life often like that? Often the best things in life don’t go according to to plan—or at least our plans. Maybe the best things in life happen according to God’s plan, not ours.

A while back I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be a Jew, as well as a Bible scholar. I asked angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.

And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” God’s always doing stuff like that, isn’t he?

What if, whenever we face a disruption in our plans, a setback in our careers, or a crisis of some kind in our lives, we asked ourselves, not “Why is this happening?” but “I wonder what God is up to?”

Because you better believe he’s up to something good! Amen?

I’m exaggerating. I don’t really think she likes Andy Stanley more than me. 🙂

“Two strangers learn to fall in love again”

September 16, 2013

I asked Oscar Smith, worship leader for Hampton UMC’s Transformation service, if he would play Journey’s “Faithfully” to accompany my sermon on love and marriage yesterday. As usual, I don’t get these flashes of inspiration until late, and I figured  that a), he thought I was joking, and b), it was too late to learn the song anyway. As he indicates at the end of this performance, he proved me wrong!

I love the song first because it makes me feel incredibly nostalgic: it puts me right back on the gym floor of my seventh-grade dance. It reminds me of slow-dancing with girls for the first time, which was magical.

Even more, I realize as an adult that it’s a very smart love song. Jonathan Cain, the song’s author, wrote it about being on the road, away from wife and family, and trying to make his marriage work. You don’t have to be a rock star to resonate with these lines:

And being apart ain’t easy on this love affair
Two strangers learn to fall in love again
I get the joy of rediscovering you
Oh, girl, you stand by me
I’m forever yours

Even if married couples aren’t separated from one another by geography, they become separated, at times, by life experience, emotional distance, and neglect. If it’s true, as Hauerwas said, that being married is “learning to love the stranger to whom you find yourself married,” then all married couples will become strangers who must learn to fall in love again. If we don’t give up too easily, we can find joy in rediscovering one another.

When I realized Oscar was playing this song, I grabbed my iPhone. Sorry I missed the beginning.