Archive for March, 2014

“Meaning of Marriage” reflection questions, Week 3

March 9, 2014


The following questions are to be completed before the March 9 meeting of HUMC’s “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study. They cover Chapter 3. (Click here to download questions as a separate Word file.)

Chapter 3

What does Keller mean when he refers to the marriage vow as a “test”?

Why is sex is different outside of marriage, and how does that shape our expectations of sex within marriage? Do you agree with him? Why does Keller say it’s important for married couples to have sex even when one (or both) partners is not in the mood?

What are the differences between a “consumer” relationship and a “covenantal” relationship? How does the consumer model apply even to couples who live together before marriage? What makes marriage, by contrast, covenantal? How does the wedding ceremony itself reflect this covenantal view?

Under what circumstances do you believe divorce is permissible? Is this consistent with scripture?

What is the relationship between our identity and the promises we make? Can you relate to this Lewis Smedes quote: “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed—and each of the five has been me.” What does Smedes means when he says that his promises enable him to rise above “all the conditioning that limits me.”

What does Wendy Plump say about her affair and divorce as contrasted with her parents’ 50-year marriage?

What does Keller have against falling in love? Do you agree with him?

Keller discusses the relationship between authentic love and emotion. Jesus commands us to love, and you can’t command a feeling. How is love possible when you’re not feeling it? Do you agree with him that love is sometimes more difficult when our affection interferes?

Do you believe that feelings of love (“likings”) often follow loving actions? How has Keller’s pastoral experience confirmed this for him? How does this principle relate to marriage?

Keller says that he can guarantee that all married couples will sometimes “fall out of like” with one another. Is this true in your experience? How do you sustain a marriage during those times?

Re-read Keller’s words at the end of the chapter about the love that parents have for children. What would happen if we applied this same biblical pattern of love to our marriages?

Re-read the last two paragraphs of this chapter. What does Keller say we ought to speak to our hearts when we’re not feeling love for our spouses?

Marriage Link

Watch this Joni Mitchell performance of her song “My Old Man” from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970. Click here to read the lyrics. What would Tim Keller likely say in response to the sentiments she expresses here?

My favorite moment of “The Office”

March 9, 2014

… because I’m a sucker for anyone reading 1 Corinthians 13 in prime-time TV. And because this climactic scene of “Paper Airplane,” an episode from the ninth and final season of my favorite show, completely rules!

I blogged about it last year. I edited several scenes from that episode and showed the following video during last week’s “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study. Grab a box of Kleenex and enjoy!

God loves you (and he even likes you)

March 6, 2014

“Love is a decision, not a feeling.” You’ve heard this before. I’ve preached it before. Feelings are great, but they’re fickle, and what do you do when you’re not “feeling it”? In order to love his neighbor (who was also his enemy), the Good Samaritan in the parable didn’t have to feel anything for this man left for dead on the side of the highway.

And all that seems true enough, and yet… there’s an often unseen danger in this idea, as Dr. William Lane Craig describes in this podcast of Reasonable Faith. He’s describing an insightful and provocative sermon he recently heard:

It is very often said that when we are commanded to love others—even love our enemy—that this is a decision. It is not some sort of emotional feeling. Thoennes was disagreeing with that, which has become I think sort of the conventional wisdom. He said this can lead to the attitude, “Well, I have to love you but I don’t have to like you.” So, you can regard other people in such a way that you don’t really have any affection or feeling for them, but you treat them in a loving way…

We make a decision to act in a loving way toward them whether we have those feelings or not. And he recognized that. But he said if you think that that is all that love is—that that is the end goal of love—then he says you have fallen short. He says a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person. This is a reflection of the way that God loves us.

He said that he’s afraid that many people may think of God’s love for them as a love that is without affection. They think, “Well, God loves me but he doesn’t really like me.” When you think of what that would do in your relationship to God, I think you can imagine how debilitating that would be if you think that God really doesn’t like you as a person. But he sort of tolerates you and loves you because he has to. It is almost as though if love were not an essential property of God, if he were freed from the necessity of loving you, then he really wouldn’t love you if he didn’t have to.

What do you think?

In last night’s sermon—which I was definitely preaching to myself, too—I said that whatever else we’re “giving up” during Lent, let’s also give up guilt. Whether or not this is easy to do—and I confess that it’s often difficult for me—depends to a large extent on the picture of God and his love that we hold in our minds.

I think we reduce God down to human size if we imagine that while God loves us, he does so without affection or enthusiasm—he has to love us, after all; he’s God. (Or worse, we imagine that were it not for what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, God would just as soon send us to hell.)

This can’t be right. While I may not always be able to love others while feeling anything for them (although love comes much easier when I do), and my love may look at times like mere tolerance, do I have to state the painfully obvious? I’m not God. My love, even at its best, will fall far short of God’s love.

Besides, I totally understand that Will Rogers aphorism: “I never met a man I didn’t like.” While that’s not literally true for me, don’t most of us tend to like people in whom we invest ourselves emotionally? No one can possibly be more emotionally invested in us than God.

Also, how do we ascribe to God an unfeeling kind of love when Jesus gives us three parables about God’s love in Luke 15 that plainly contradict this idea?

I’ve heard sermons in which I’m told that the Bible’s teaching (and Jesus’ command) to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves” isn’t a command to love both neighbor and ourselves—that we naturally love ourselves by feeding and clothing and merely keeping ourselves alive. (Notice again that we’re emphasizing love as action only.) But this preaching seems inadequate: I don’t know that I do love myself very well, even though I do plenty of things to take care of myself.

I need to remind myself of something Donald Miller describes in his best-selling memoir Blue Like Jazz. It happened when he was cleaning his toilet. An internal voice was telling him (as it had for years) what a loser he was, that he was as disgusting as the bathroom he was cleaning.

As he was listening to that voice, however, a Bible verse popped into his head. It was a powerful sensation: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He didn’t know what it meant at first. Then he realized it was God telling him that he would never talk to his neighbor the way he talked to himself—because the way he talked to himself wasn’t loving. “[S]omehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself.”[†]

If, like me, you have a voice telling you what a loser you are, please don’t mistake it for God’s voice.

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 229-231.

Ash Wednesday sermon: “Failing at Lent”

March 6, 2014


Sermon Text: Matthew 6:25-34

The following is my original manuscript for last night’s Ash Wednesday message.

Matthew McConaughey, who won an Oscar this week for Best Actor, gave an incredibly gracious, sweet, and faith-filled acceptance speech. Among other things, he thanked God, saying, saying, “He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any human hand.” Then he thanked his family in a moving way. Then he said something that was confusing to some people but made perfect sense to me. He said that when he was 15 he was asked by someone who his hero was. He thought about it before answering, “My hero is me… ten years from now.” And that person came back to him ten years later, when he was 25: “So, are you a hero?” and he was like, “No! Not even close! My hero is still me… ten years from now.” So he said that while he’ll never catch up with that hero, he’ll also never stop chasing him.

He was saying this: build your life in such a way that ten years from now you will be worthy of being a hero to your younger self. In other words, if the younger version of yourself could see yourself today, would you be a hero to him or her?

Do you care to take that challenge? Would my 34-year-old version of myself look at me today and think I’m a hero? If not, why not? What about you? Read the rest of this entry »

Arminianism, God’s providence, and suffering

March 5, 2014

In case you haven’t noticed on this blog recently, I have recovered a far more robust view of God’s providence in our lives and world—so much so that I happily say, with a sigh of relief, “God is in control.” My favorite fellow Arminian blogger, Roger Olson, won’t go that far—out of fear that saying so compromises human free will or makes God the author of sin and evil. He says, instead, “God is in charge but not in control.” He says God does not “micromanage” history or human lives.

While I have felt at odds with many of my fellow Methodist clergy over the doctrine of providence, am I also at odds with Arminianism itself? Am I becoming… Calvinist?

Thank heavens, no!

Perhaps Olson himself sensed that his quibble over words like “control” and “micromanage” had caused Arminians like me to wonder if we (or he) were outside the Arminian camp. As he makes clear in this post, however, being Arminian does not imply a weak view of God’s providence. On the contrary!

The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain. One qualification is necessary even here. In relation to creaturely decisions and actions that are sinful, God never designs, foreordains or renders certain individuals’ evil decisions and actions that would cause their condemnation.

Olson is careful above to say that God isn’t the author of evil, and God doesn’t override an individual’s free will when it comes to their acceptance or rejection of God’s gift of salvation in Christ. These are bedrocks of Arminian doctrine.

But my main concern here, now, is to say that God DOES interfere in free will in guiding and directing our lives as his people. He is not the author of our sins or failures, but he does direct our lives in terms of opening and closing doors.

My point is that for the Arminian God is not a “deist God”—uninvolved and only observing. God is intimately involved in the details of our lives—to the extent that we allow him to be. If we shut him out of our lives and tell him to leave us alone he will, saying, reluctantly, “Okay, thy will, not mine be done.” This, too, of course, is within his will—consequently but not antecedently.

This is how I understand God’s providence in my life when I sing, for example, hymns that talk about God “appointing my pathway, knowing just what is needful and best.” I never think such lyrics mean God designs , foreordains or renders certain my sins or failures. I take them to mean that God has a plan for my life and, insofar as I surrender to his will, whatever happens to me is “needful and best.”

Of course, God does not design, foreordain or render certain OTHERS’ sins that impact my life. In that case he permits me to be impacted by their sins and brings good for me out of them. But I have no problem believing that he foresees their sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that [is] “needful and best” for me.

So he and I are on the same page, even though I see no harm in speaking of God’s being “in control.” I also don’t see how what he’s written above means that God doesn’t micromanage. He would at least concede that God manages very, very closely, right?

Regardless, like me, Olson rightly sees what’s at stake in the question of the doctrine: Is God actively involved in our lives and world—including answering our prayers and guiding our paths—or does God mostly let events run their course?

The liberal mainline Protestant answer, which I now completely reject, leans toward the latter: God hates that we suffer, and God suffers alongside us, but he doesn’t really do all that much about it. To be sure, this safely insulates God from being being responsible for evil in the world, but where does it leave us when bad things happen? “It’s all a mystery,” we say. God can’t possibly be allowing this to happen for a reason—to serve his good purposes. The less said about what God is up to, or even that he’s up to anything, the better.

How many of my fellow Methodist clergy, fresh out of liberal mainline seminary, would agree with the following statement from Olson? “But I have no problem believing that he foresees [other people’s] sinful intentions and allows me to be in the path of their consequences insofar as that is ‘needful and best’ for me.”

From the perspective of too many of us Methodist clergy (which, sadly, used to be my perspective), there can be nothing “needful and best” about God’s allowing us to suffer.

The Grinch who stole Lent

March 4, 2014

Just in time for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, Christianity Today editor Mark Galli reminds us what a lousy program for self-improvement Lent really is.

I know, I know… We’re not exactly “giving up something” or fasting in order to improve ourselves: whatever the reason we practice more intense forms of self-discipline during Lent, it’s supposed to have something to do with God, not us. But, good heavens, suppose we do fast one day a week during Lent, or give up chocolate or beer, shouldn’t there be some payoff on the bathroom scale?

As Galli well knows, it’s hard to avoid these sorts of “what’s-in-it-for-me” thoughts during Lent. Besides, there must be some payoff, right?

Maybe not. Galli would say that I tell myself (and my congregation) “white lies” when I extol a couple of so-called “benefits” of Lenten discipline.

As we discipline ourselves in small things (eating sweets), it will inevitably help us discipline ourselves in large things (like being generous to the poor). We get this from Jesus, of course (Luke 16:10), but it’s theinevitably that’s the problem. You see, when picking the small thing for self-discipline, we sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not all that small. We pick it because it plagues us, and has plagued us for years. This means it’s likely to continue to plague us for years to come. And so instead of helping us to move on to loving others, our life energy is spent trying to not eat little pieces of candy.

Fasting doesn’t even necessarily lead us into deeper prayer, which is the big twofer of fasting for some people: We discipline the body while immersing ourselves in prayer. But when I fast, prayer is the last thing I feel like doing. I’m tired, weak, and thinking about food the whole time I’m praying.

So, instead of the small thing helping me become faithful in the big thing, it just makes me focus more and more on the small thing. Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways. I believe, but O Lord, help the enormity of my unbelief.

Fasting just reminds me how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

That’s pretty much my experience—except when I accomplish a fast I feel really good… as in proud of myself. And that brings me back to Galli’s point: I’m reminded how little I love God and how seldom I live according to his ways.

I’ve read Richard Foster on the subject of fasting, in his excellent book Celebration of Discipline, and Foster would nod sympathetically at Galli’s words. He writes about all our temptations to make fasting (which would also apply to its less severe form, “giving something up”) about us. He warns us that it’s not about self-help. He says we don’t even fast in order for God to bestow some blessing on us. He would probably also say that it’s helpful for us to be reminded how little we love God, etc.

But I’ve never heard Foster say anything like what Galli says here:

Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.

To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.

What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march…

So I end this little essay by grabbing two more pieces of candy, for Ash Wednesday comes tomorrow! It will be time to give myself again to disciplines great and small. I do that partly because, in the end, it is probably better to be a little more disciplined or loving and self-righteous than undisciplined, unloving, and merely lazy. And who knows, by God’s grace, I may lose track of what my left hand is doing!

But I do it mostly to prove once again the impossibility of living up to God and the gracious necessity of being down to earth, of remembering that I am dust and weak and desperately in need of a Savior.

And recalling that I have one.

We observe Lent, including Lenten practices of fasting or giving something up, in order to remind us how sinful we are and desperately we need a Savior.


“Cutting little deals with God”

March 3, 2014

In my sermon yesterday, I borrowed an analogy from Tim Keller to speak about our idolatrous impulse to “fill up our spiritual tanks” on some “fuel” other than the things of God. “Everything we need to fill up our tanks,” I said, “comes from God alone—and he doesn’t charge us for it, and we can’t pay him for it, and we don’t have to earn it. It’s all grace.” Continuing:

I’ll be honest: As a man, I have a hard time trusting that my value, my worth, comes from Christ alone by grace, and not from my own strength, my own work ethic, my own intellect—not from anything I can do or accomplish or pay for. It wounds my pride to have a debt that I can’t pay. So I sometimes live my Christian life as if I am earning God’s love, as if I am paying him back.

And then when I fall short and sin, I feel terribly guilty! Like how could God forgive me this time—I mean, sure, I needed God’s grace to forgive my previous 14,326 sins, but I’ve been paying my own way since then, and somehow I’m still in the red with God. Surely God will grow weary of continuing to bail me out, right?

Of course not—the cross of his Son Jesus has covered all my sins, past, present, and future. So when it comes to sin, we repent and move on, confident that God nailed every sin of ours to the cross of his Son Jesus!

Have you noticed I’ve been preaching the cross in nearly every sermon I’ve delivered over the past few years? I confess it feels a bit unfashionable—certainly nothing I learned at mainline Protestant seminary prepared me to do this—but I don’t care: On the cross, God did something objective, once and for all, to pay the debt of our sin for those who accept his gift of forgiveness. I care less for what particular theory of atonement you hold (though I have my strong opinions!) than that you affirm that the cross is the objective means by which we are reconciled to God.

In a series of helpful blog posts, the Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax (a Southern Baptist) has been reflecting on issues pertaining to atonement theology, including this one about propitiation. I’ve heard a few seminary-educated United Methodists argue passionately that Christ was not offered as propitiation for our sins. I guess it gets back to that old “cosmic child abuse” caricature of penal substitution—who knows? The idea of Christ as propitiation seems uncontroversial to me.

I especially liked this part from his blog, which reminds me of what I said in yesterday’s sermon. Indeed, we are not “big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God,” and our sin “isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings.”

One reason it’s so important to grasp what biblical propitiation is, is so that we can make sure our plan is the biblical one rather than one of our own devising.

In daily life there is a constant temptation to ignore Christ as our God-given propitiation, and to seek other ways of cutting little deals with God, to curry his favor and appease his wrath, to give him something he’ll like so he’ll at least refrain from smiting us, and maybe even reward us with various blessings and goodies.

Don’t do this.

To lapse into pagan modes of propitiation is to take way too much onto your own shoulders (you’re not big enough or good enough to propitiate the true God) and attempt to solve it with entirely inappropriate resources (your sin isn’t small enough to be set aside by those little offerings).

Everybody needs a plan for getting on the right side of the gods. But if the true God has made his character known as it is found in the Bible, then there’s only one way of propitiation: the one that God himself put forward in the blood of Jesus, to be received by faith, the one who is his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.