Archive for May, 2014

Pictures from last night’s contemporary worship band rehearsal

May 30, 2014

Our contemporary worship service begins a new era this Sunday. I was at band rehearsal last night, and these guys have some great music for this Sunday. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

My friend, the multi-instrumentalist, singer, and fellow Yellow Jacket Michael Hester, will be joining us for the next several weeks. Mike comes to us from Eastside UMC (formerly Martha Brown UMC) in East Atlanta.

A few years ago, I recorded Mike performing the following original song, “Boy Scout Totem Poles,” at a concert at Martha Brown.

Missing the point

May 30, 2014

Last week, I blogged about a recent episode of The Good Wife in which a philosophical materialist—one who believes that nothing exists beyond the physical universe—was tripped up by his own philosophy. One commenter linked to this YouTube video of celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins rejecting the idea that you need God (or any transcendent being) in order to be a moral person.

On the one hand, of course that’s true: atheists can certainly be—and usually are, I imagine—about as moral as anyone else—religious or otherwise. On the other hand, as I said in my reply, Dawkins’s response misses the point of the question he was asked in the video:

For our purposes in this post only, it hardly matters whether we “agree” on what is right or wrong. It is more important to have a right or wrong on which to agree or disagree. [Dawkins] seems to fail to grasp the question. So he likes modern Western secular values. What is his rational basis for doing so? How does he prove in any scientific way that these values are best? He doesn’t. And that’s the point.

The commenter responded: “Do you feel values in the western world are not superior to others? If you could choose a nation with the best values, or system for us to live by, which would it be? Just curious.” To which I replied: “To a philosophical materialist, words like ‘best’ and ‘superior’ are meaningless except insofar as they express one’s personal tastes, shaped as they are by blind forces…”

In other words, if materialists can agree on what counts as “good,” then they can work out what is better or best, superior or inferior. But a materialist who’s true to his values doesn’t pretend that the “good” means what we human beings usually mean when we use the word, at least insofar as it relates to justice—as in, “This is right, and that is wrong.” We are appealing to a universal standard that transcends opinion and taste.

To the materialist, by contrast, the good is entirely subjective—which is fine, of course, so long as you live among people who agree with you. But if you’re being tortured by people who disagree on the question, there’s no sense saying, “This is wrong. This is evil.” Because based on your own philosophy, your torturers’ sense of right and wrong would be no more or less justified than yours.

In a series of blog posts this week, Roger Olson put the problem with materialism in sharp relief. (He refers to materialists as “naturalists,” but same difference).

He issued this challenge to anyone who wanted to defend naturalism as a worldview:

So let me put it this way. I’m not a naturalist, but here I will adopt the “voice” of one:

I am a young naturalist, having adopted a purely naturalistic worldview, such that I believe nature is all there is and there is no transcendent meaning or purpose to my life or anyone else’s life. I am here by accident and when I die I am simply gone. There is no God or gods, only matter, energy, space and time.

I have decided to live for pleasure; I will do only what pleases me. I happen to find that treating others as means to my end is advantageous to me. I do not find that compassion or empathy or cooperation are of any value to me except insofar as they happen to enhance my own happiness. More often than not they don’t. I use them as tools for my own advantage–to enhance my own pleasure.

However, I have discovered certain ways in which I can mistreat other people, take advantage of them, through deception and manipulation, and not at all be disadvantaged by it. You can’t convince me otherwise. I see other people doing the same and I follow their example and am perfectly happy.

So long as I am not socially or personally disadvantaged, why should I not manipulate, even oppress, others?    My life plan is to live entirely for myself and my own personal pleasure. It brings me satisfaction. I am very smart, smarter than the majority of people, and am confident that I can get away with my chosen path of life. If it leads me to commit crimes, I will do so–so long as I am sure I will not be caught.

Some people tell me that I have some kind of altruistic gene and that I ought to live a life of cooperation and compassion. I do not feel that; if there is such a gene I didn’t inherit it. Don’t tell me I’m not normal; I don’t care about being normal. I care about being happy and I am happy taking advantage of others and living solely for myself.

My life philosophy is “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” I am a hedonist and don’t see any reason not to be. Life is what it is and its only purpose is survival, reproduction, and happiness. Those are my only values.

Try to convince me, on naturalist presuppositions alone, that I am wrong. Good luck.

Read the comments sections of these posts. Given that his follow-up posts were called “Adventures in Missing the Point” and “Further Adventures in Missing the Point,” you can see that he didn’t get very far.

Sermon 05-18-14: “Patience”

May 28, 2014


“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” someone once said. If only that were an option for us Christians! The Letter of James challenges us in part because its author is constantly “sweating the small stuff”—those so-called “small sins” that we often commit without giving it a second thought. This is one reason his letter is so difficult… and practical. In today’s scripture he turns his attention to that spiritually deadly emotion resentment. Why do we experience it and what do we do about it?

Sermon Text: James 5:7-12

In Sudan, a 27-year-old Christian woman named Mariam Ibrahim, who’s married to an American man, has been sentenced to death by hanging for not renouncing her Christian faith. In Nigeria, Islamic terrorists abducted 276 mostly Christian school girls and threaten to sell them into slavery. In Syria, one thing that the warring Muslim factions in the civil war can agree on is killing Christians: Over a thousand Christians were killed in 2013 simply because they were Christians.

These are the same kinds of life-and-death situations that the apostles and many Christians in the early church faced on a regular basis. Read the Book of Acts. Read Paul’s letters, especially Philippians and 2 Corinthians. Read Peter’s letters. Read the Book of Revelation.

Much of the New Testament encourages us to stand strong in the face of suffering, persecution, and death.

But James—who himself did suffer and die for his faith—mostly doesn’t write about these big threats to Christian faith. Mostly he writes about small threats to faith, stuff to which most of us can easily relate: saying we believe one thing but living as if we believe another; showing favoritism; losing our temper; judging others, gossiping, and putting people down with our words; forgetting about God in the busy-ness of our lives; trusting in money and material things intend of trusting in God. Which is why his letter is so down-to-earth and practical.

James wants us to know that all these so-called little things can ruin our Christian faith and send us to hell as easily as the big things. Read the rest of this entry »

“Heaven, once attained, will work backwards”

May 26, 2014

When we are in heaven, how will we retain our memories and not feel sorrow, guilt, and remorse for genuinely wicked things we do on this side of death and resurrection? After all, in final judgment, we’ll understand perfectly the ways in which we’ve harmed others. Unless God is able to heal and redeem our memories, how will we live with ourselves?

There’s no one who hasn’t done genuinely wicked things, is there? It’s not just me, right?

I’m in a small group at church that is reading and discussing C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (a book I had not previously read). Yesterday, I read this passage from the book, spoken by heavenly citizen George MacDonald to the narrator. While we can’t explain how God redeems our past—as MacDonald says, we only have “some likeness” of eternity in our present state—the redeemed in heaven will surely experience their past something like this:

‘Son,’ he said, ‘ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Anodos looked through the door of the Timeless he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.’[†]

And MacDonald is right: the process begins before death. Even now, I can see how my suffering—which I’ve mostly brought on myself—has shaped me for the better. If events had happened any other way, I would be someone else. And I mostly like who I am—and who I’m becoming.

While I can’t say I don’t feel guilt for the ways in which I’ve hurt others, I also can’t say that I’m not grateful in many cases for the ways in which others have hurt me—because look how God has transformed these experiences for my good!

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1946), 69.

Lessons in leadership, Michael Scott-style

May 24, 2014
Pam (Jenna Fischer) listens to Michael's pep talk.

Pam (Jenna Fischer) listens to Michael’s pep talk.

I happened to re-watch this Season 5 episode of The Office entitled “Dream Team” last week. In the previous episode, Michael Scott quits Dunder-Mifflin and decides to start his own paper company. In a Jerry Maguire moment, he asks for volunteers to join him in his new venture. Impulsively, Pam, bored with being a receptionist, does so.

The clip below takes place the next day. Pam shows up at Michael’s house ready to get to work. Michael, however, is still in his bathrobe—depressed and filled with self-doubt. Pam encourages him. That afternoon, however, after failing to accomplish any of the goals they set for themselves—including convincing Michael’s grandmother to invest in his company—Pam is now the one with second thoughts. And Michael gives her a not-half-bad pep talk. (The acting is terrific. Especially watch Jenna Fischer’s face as Michael talks to her through the window.)

These are always my favorite moments in The Office—when Michael, despite his many deficiencies as a leader, rises to the occasion in spite of himself.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a crash course on leadership. I’ve been the pastor in charge at Hampton UMC for nearly a year. Now, with the strong endorsement of our church council, I’m making my first real changes to church life. While I believe these changes are good, necessary—and even exciting—they’re also hard. I’d be lying if said I couldn’t relate to Michael or Pam in this video.

I called an old clergy friend last week and said, “Remember when we were associate pastors and everything was easy?”

Of course, being an associate pastor didn’t seem easy at the time, but you know what I mean: it’s a lot harder when the buck stops with you!

I’ve said, half-jokingly, that while I have faith in the Lord, I’d prefer not to have to use it. Well, I’m now in a season in which I don’t have a choice—which is a great place to be. Thank you, Jesus!

On divorce, remarriage, and the same old question

May 22, 2014

Several times on this blog, people who disagree with the United Methodist Church’s position on homosexuality (and the position of the vast majority of the universal Church) have challenged me to give an account for the church’s alleged laxity on the question of divorce and remarriage. Aren’t we straining out the gnat of homosexual practice while swallowing the camel of heterosexual divorce?

How do I respond? First, I don’t think I’m lax on the question: While couples have biblical grounds for divorcing as a gracious option of last resort, I believe, sadly, that most Christian couples don’t reach this point before calling it quits. The divorce rate among Christians bears witness to this fact. But I’ve counseled couples against divorce. I’ve preached against divorce. Obviously, however, I don’t have the authority to prevent anyone from getting divorced.

Second, even if my critics are right, it only proves we’re hypocrites, not that homosexual practice isn’t sinful. At best it’s a tu quoque argument. Besides, it’s not like any of these critics think that the church is wrong to condone divorce and remarriage in many cases, only that the church should also lighten up when it comes to homosexual practice.

Still, what should the church’s response be to people who divorce and remarry illicitly?

It should be grace-filled, more than anything. In this interview, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore puts it nicely when he says the following:

So I have dealt with this many times where I have had a couple who have come up and they have said you know we both divorced unbiblically other people. We are now married to each other. We were wrong. We were sinning when we divorced our previous spouses. We didn’t have biblical grounds to do that. So what do we do now? I had a couple who said should we divorce and then go and try to reconcile with our spouses? And I said so you are asking me if the way you repent of divorce is by divorcing each other, abandoning each other and going and splitting up the marriages that have now happened with those previous spouses. No. That is not the answer. The answer to that is to confess—If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us of sin and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness—and then to live faithfully from that point forward. But that means having that sense of recognizing my sin against God and repenting of that. I think that has to happen.

The Good Wife on the “problem” of our moral intuition

May 20, 2014

A recent episode of my favorite TV show, The Good Wife, included a couple of scenes that highlight a potential problem with atheism: If there is no God, there is no objective basis for saying something is right or wrong, or good or bad. Is this a problem? Maybe not for some people, but for most—including even professed atheist Alicia Florrick, Julianna Margulies’s character—it is, as you can see in the following scenes. (The first scene also touches on materialism and the illusion free will.)

Tim Keller writes about this problem in his most recent book:

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it show you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[1]

In this recent interview from the New York Times, philosopher Philip Kitcher makes the case for what he calls “soft atheism,” one which recognizes the worthiness of religion insofar as it promotes the humanist values he champions. There’s much to argue about in the piece, but let me focus on these words:

In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.

Let’s be clear: his “thoroughly secular perspective” can’t do everything that religion can do, refined or otherwise. Because it can’t explain our strong intuition that good and evil are things that actually exist. Only God can do that.

Of course, wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. But let’s concede that we all want it to be true—at least the non-sociopaths among us. We want our incredibly strong intuitions about right and wrong to be based on something more substantial than our personal feelings, proclivities, or tastes. Why? A philosophically materialistic answer can’t scratch that itch.

David Bentley Hart deals with the same question in relation to philosopher Joel Marks.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 85.

Is the Church wrong?

May 19, 2014

Owen Strachan and Andrew Walker don’t waste a single sentence in this excellent First Things piece, “The Church Is Wrong,” an assessment of gay Christian advocate Matthew Vines’s new book. 

Vines’s argument is nothing new. In fact, I’d say it’s the most popular one, especially among my many United Methodist colleagues working to change our church’s traditional stance on sexuality. When Paul and the other biblical authors (not to mention every Christian thinker who lived prior to around 1970) condemn homosexual practice, they couldn’t have imagined two men, or two women, in a consensual, monogamous lifelong partnership (a blindly optimistic goal of today’s Christian revisionists, given how seldom gay men practice monogamy, even in “marriage”). These authors weren’t condemning homosexual practice, per se, only the non-consensual, idolatrous, and pederastic forms of it.

As you probably know, I’ve argued at length on this blog against this stance.

A few times I’ve asked revisionist clergy colleagues this question: Could the Bible say anything to make you change your mind about your understanding of homosexual behavior?

I guess they think I’m being a smart-alec, but I’m not. If the answer is no, then let’s not bother arguing scripture at all. Right? There’s no sense telling me that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with homosexual behavior, that Leviticus equates homosexual practice with eating shellfish, or that Paul was only talking about pederasty, temple prostitution, and sex slaves in Romans 1:26-27. Appeals to scripture are irrelevant if the biblical writers couldn’t have imagined homosexuality as we know it today. The Bible is always ever silent on the issue: because no matter what the Bible says, it’s talking about something else entirely, not what we understand as homosexual practice today.

Do you see the problem?

Suppose the Holy Spirit intended to inspire the biblical authors to make clear that homosexual practice was sinful—which seemed sufficiently clear to the Church for nearly two millennia. How could he have done it, except using these words that we find in the Bible?

If the revisionists were right, however, then I’d worry about trusting the Bible at all: it is, after all, a very obscure book whose ancient words rarely mean what they seem to mean. Why take for granted that we understand the meaning of  “love,” “grace,” “forgiveness,” and all those other words and concepts that we happen to like? Does anyone apply the same exegetical scrutiny to them?

Regardless, here’s much of Strachan and Walker’s post:

Let us be clear, according to Vines, the tradition and reliability of the Church’s teaching throughout the ages on sexuality are both wrong. Not only are the Scriptures and the historic interpretation wrong, they are both active purveyors of injustice meted out towards homosexuals.

As one of us wrote in our review of Vines’s book,

It’s rather appalling that Vines’ organization is called “The Reformation Project,” a title synonymous with the movement of Martin Luther, because there’s a simple, yet glaring error in how he understands the reference to “Reformation.” Luther never believed the church had been in error from its beginning. He wasn’t calling for the rejection of long-held beliefs; instead, Luther was reaffirming the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.”

Vines, in contrast, is calling for Revolution, the type consistent with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Vines believes the church has been wrong for 2,000 years. The early Church Fathers—wrong. Augustine—wrong. The Roman Catholic Church—wrong. Luther, Calvin—all wrong. But I wonder if Vines is willing to accept the alternative—that he’s wrong?

We ask because if Matthew Vines is correct, Jesus is wrong, because Jesus—the Incarnate and Risen Lord—is not aware of his own patriarchal biases in Matthew 19:4-6. One would think that a member of the Trinity who saved sinful humanity would possess sufficient foresight and divine wisdom, but apparently not.

It is a key plank in Vinesian exegesis that the writers of the New Testament lacked a modern comprehension of individuals with a same-sex orientation. But this approach to interpretation defies how the Scripture understands itself and distorts any credible doctrine of inspiration. If the Church—a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim: 3:15)—has been wrong on homosexuality, what else has she been wrong on?…

Yet it is not the theology of the progressive Millennial Protestants that most take our breath away. It is the hubris. Matthew Vines, a young twenty-something with no formal theological training, believes with all starry-eyed optimism that he has the authority to correct the apostle Paul in his doctrinal particulars…

Put it this way: If we’re faced with a choice between a precocious twenty-something with lots of neat new ideas about sexuality and gender untested by the scholarly community on the one hand, and an apostle gored by a Roman sword because the Holy Spirit spoke through him in tones ancient authorities considered hostile to imperial rule on the other, we’re banking on the latter.

Sermon 05-11-14: “One Tough Mama”

May 16, 2014
Rebekah's story shows how God is like this stealthy young woman in a popular recent insurance commercial.

Rebekah’s story shows how God is like this stealthy young woman in a recent insurance commercial.

In this Mother’s Day themed sermon, I talk about one of my favorite biblical mothers, Rebekah. She’s a hero of faith to me, not because she was a perfect role model—far from it!—but because she was one tough mama, doing her best to trust in the Lord under very difficult circumstances. She teaches us a great deal about what it means to be a disciples of Jesus Christ!

Sermon Text: Genesis 25:19-28; 27:1-17, 41-45

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

On this Mother’s Day, I thought I would preach about a favorite mother of mine in the Bible, Rebekah. Oddly enough, not everyone likes her. Once on Facebook I referred to Rebekah as a “Bible hero,” and a clergy friend Geoff, who’s currently earning his Ph.D. in Old Testament, responded: He said, “Not a fan of the whole family. Isaac: waste of space… Esau: trades his birthright for a bowl of soup. Moron. Rebekah: sells out one son for the sake of another. Jacob: probably the best of the lot (which isn’t saying much)… Sorry, Brent, but I find it hard at times to think about these characters in terms of ‘Bible heroes.’” Far from being heroes, he wrote, they are “object lessons”; they put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

Maybe all that’s true, but, hey… no one’s perfect. And I still love Rebekah.

If you’re of my generation, you remember those early days of Facebook many years ago when we were all getting in touch with old classmates and renewing old friendships online. I was wondering what happened to the person who was probably my best friend from childhood, Geoff—not the Geoff I mentioned earlier; a different one. So about five years ago, I was trying to find him online. I had gotten in touch with other old friends from back then. And I discovered something shocking. Instead of finding his Facebook page, I found his obituary. I did a double-take as you can imagine! I checked the names of his “survivors”: yep, those are his parents’ names; those are his sisters’ names. This is the same Geoff. He died just a month earlier. He was only 39. Read the rest of this entry »

Giving guilt its due

May 14, 2014

spuffordWhen someone says, as my fellow ordained UMC pastor Jason Micheli has said, that God doesn’t care “at all” about our sin, I disagree not simply because the Bible says otherwise—which, granted, is reason enough—but because it doesn’t do justice (literally) to our sin and guilt—my sin and my guilt, thank you very much.

In his most recent book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense, English author (and Anglican Christian) Francis Spufford gives voice to the way that sin and guilt have made him feel, which is exactly the way it makes me feel. And no one, certainly not Jason Micheli or Herbert McCabe or Thomas Aquinas, can convince me that I feel this way without justification—and that from God’s perspective, everything is A-OK. I know everything is not A-OK about me. And the fact that it isn’t matters to God. And by God’s grace he’s working to change me. And it hurts sometimes. And I’m glad it hurts because, like good old Bactine, that’s how you know it’s healing you.

For someone like Micheli to pat me on the head and say, “The way you make yourself right with God is to recognize that things are already right,” is no comfort at all. It doesn’t ring true to my experience.

And I’m obviously not alone in feeling this way.

Regardless, I’ll quote the relevant passage from Spufford. He later includes enlightening illustrations about the lives of penitent slave-trader and “Amazing Grace” author John Newton and British Field Marshal Montgomery. Spufford’s message is that guilt is a good, necessary, and inescapable fact of human existence. It’s not an overreaction on our part: we ought to feel guilty, even as we avail ourselves of the resources of Christian faith that enable us to live with it. (Note: Like it or not, Spufford uses profanity in his book, and in the following excerpt. What we might call “original sin,” he calls the “Human Propensity to F— Things Up,” which he abbreviates as HPtFtU in his book.)

He precedes this quote by talking about the recent popularity of serial killers on TV, in movies, and in novels. These stories appeal to us because they place evil safely outside of ourselves.

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those states of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night—you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there—then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cozy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. The bad news, at those moments, feels like the whole truth about you. It isn’t. It is only truth about you. But the way back to the rediscovery of the rest of what’s true begins with the admission that you really are guilty of the particular bit of HPtFtU which is making you feel like shit. If you don’t give the weight in your chest its true name you can’t even begin. It’s guilt that drags at your steps, it’s guilt that paints the morning black. In my experience, in times of intense misery it’s letting your guilt be guilt that at least stops you needing to accuse yourself; and in better times, in times of more or less cheerful ordinary muddling through, I’ve found that admitting theres’s some black in the color-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.[†]

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 34-5.