Archive for July, 2015

Face it, Reverend: you make prayer mostly about you

July 30, 2015

lewisMy prayer life is incredibly selfish. I’m either proud of myself for doing my “duty” of prayer; or I feel sorry for myself that God expects me to attend to prayer when there are more urgent demands impinging on my time; or I’m obsessed with whether prayer is “working,” by which I mean, is God doing anything in response to my petitions—or worse, is prayer producing the requisite feelings of “love” or “peace” or “holiness” that I’m supposed to feel when I pray? Then there’s the ever-present temptation to look over my shoulder: Is prayer working as well for me as it is for others? Why am I worse at it than others?

Plus, don’t get me started on the public prayers I must do as part of my day job: that devilish voice in the back of my head, praising myself: “You’re really nailing it, Brent—you’re perfectly expressing what the people are feeling!” Or: “You’re performing, Brent. You don’t really mean these words; you’re just trying to sound eloquent.” Or: “People can see through you, Brent. You’re such a phony. If they knew what was really in your heart, they wouldn’t stand to listen to you.”

Or don’t get me started on the prayers I offer for my church. I pray for lives to be changed. I pray for souls to saved. But what’s underneath these prayers? Too often, it’s a selfish concern for professional success. If my church “grows,” after all, I’ll look good to my colleagues, my district superintendent, my bishop; I’ll get ahead; I’ll secure a better appointment in the future! Or, I’ll be able to hold my head high and not be shamed by the success of colleagues whose churches are growing, whose stars seem to shine brightly. What about my star?

So you see I’m a mess. God help me!

All these sinful thoughts turn me away from the Object of prayer. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, this is precisely what our Enemy wants; he’s as skilled as any magician in the art of misdirection. (Please note that when Lewis uses “Enemy,” writing from the perspective of Screwtape, a demon and senior tempter, he’s referring to our heavenly Father.)

Whenever they are attending to Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 195.

Lewis: “All events are equally providential”

July 30, 2015

lewisI wanted to provide an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s Miracles (actually, from Appendix B of that book) as a follow-up to yesterday’s post about prayer and God’s foreknowledge—and I will, perhaps tomorrow.

But first this: I re-read Appendix B just now, and I’m reminded how these few pages dramatically changed my thinking about the doctrines of Providence and God’s sovereignty. In a way, I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that these words changed my life. What I mean is, Lewis’s crystal-clear reflection on how God normally works in the world—providentially, through the (somewhat) predictable course of physical history—enabled me to affirm an idea that my half-baked, vaguely Wesleyan seminary education caused me to resist up to that point: that God, indeed, is in control—of everything. Indeed, that everything happens for a reason.

Let me qualify this immediately: I’m not a determinist. God can be in control without directly controlling everything—without necessarily determining the behavior or overriding the free will of free creatures. But since God foreknows what these free creatures will do under any circumstance—and even what they would do under other circumstances—God can create the world he needs to create in order to get the outcome that he desires: in this case, nothing less than the redemption of the world and the salvation of as many as will place their faith in his Son Jesus.

Granted, we finite human creatures struggle to understand how this is possible. But with God all things are possible.

On this blog I’ve often defended the aphorism, “Everything happens for a reason.” (See this recent post as one example.) I’m reminded that my logic comes directly from Lewis, who begins Appendix B, “On ‘Special Providence,'” talking about two, and only two, kinds of events in the universe: miraculous events and providential events.

But you might object: “To say something is ‘providential’ is to imply that God’s hand is at work in it—for example, when an event is in answer to prayer. I don’t deny that. But what about that third class of events: those things that happen in the ‘normal’ course of physical history, when God simply lets nature run its course? Sure these are neither miraculous nor providential. They’re just normal events.”

No, Lewis says, there are no normal events that aren’t also providential:

Unless we are to abandon the conception of Providence altogether, and with it the belief in efficacious prayer, it follows that all events are equally providential. If God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment; ‘not one sparrow falls to the ground’ without that direction. The ‘naturalness’ of natural events does not consist in being somehow outside God’s providence. It consists in their being interlocked with one another inside a common space-time in accordance with the fixed pattern of the ‘laws’.[†]

Are you still not convinced? Go back and read the post that I mentioned above: everything hinges on what Lewis calls “the belief in efficacious prayer.” If we believe God answers prayer even sometimes, then we are compelled by logic and our firm belief in God’s goodness to also believe, as Lewis says, that “if God directs the course of events at all then he directs the movement of every atom at every moment.”

The upshot of Lewis’s ruminations on Providence and answered prayer was my realization—better late than never—that God, more than merely being with us, is always and everywhere at work in every part of our lives; through every circumstance—even through our suffering; even through our sin. It’s not that our sins are somehow good—perish the thought! It’s that God has the power to redeem them and use them for good. The universe is alive with God’s grace at every moment if we have the faith to comprehend it.

Without this understanding, how else can we say, alongside St. Paul, “give thanks in all circumstances” and “rejoice in the Lord always”?

And just think: I got all that from reading six pages!

C.S. Lewis, “Miracles” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 456-7.

In order to answer prayers in the future, God often begins in the past

July 28, 2015

In a fascinating two-part series of posts beginning with this one, Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor, grappled with this question: “Does it make sense to pray that God would change something that’s already happened in the past?”

The answer seems obvious: No. But not so fast…

He gives an example of a time that his mother left her purse on top of her car and drove off. Naturally, at some point, the purse fell off. When she arrived at her destination, she realized what happened. She retraced her route, but the purse was gone. Someone had picked it up.

At this point, he said, she gathered some people from her church. They prayed that the purse would have been picked up by a Christian person who would return the purse to her without stealing anything. Even as a child, he said, this prayer made no sense to him: the purse was already picked up at that point—and whether that person was a Christian or not was already settled, even though his mother and her church friends were ignorant of the person’s faith or character. To pray that the person would be a Christian was potentially a prayer to change the past.

He gave an example that hits closer to home for most of us: Suppose someone is awaiting the results of a biopsy. Does it make sense, at that point, to pray that the person’s biopsy would be negative? After all, at that point the person already has or doesn’t have cancer. That we don’t know the results of the biopsy is beside the point. So this kind of petition is potentially asking God to change the past.

Then, in a bit of reductio ad Hitlerum, Olson says if God could change the past in this way, why not pray, for example, that the Holocaust would never have happened?

Many of his readers voiced a conviction that I share: In order for God to answer our prayer petitions in the future, God often has to begin answering them in the past—which requires that God, in his foreknowledge, already knows what we’re going to pray from eternity past. If God has foreknowledge, which he does, this isn’t a problem.

For example, suppose a friend is facing surgery next week. We begin praying today that our friend would have a successful operation. What does it take for that to happen? A skilled surgeon, for one thing. While our prayer is for a future event, in order for God to grant our petition, God would likely have had to begin “answering” it perhaps 20 years earlier—when the surgeon was in medical school sitting in a lecture hall. Or perhaps earlier than that, when a particular author of a medical textbook was writing something that pertained to our friend’s medical problem, which the surgeon, then a medical student, read and understood. Or earlier than that, when that author was himself grappling to understand the intricacies of the human body and this particular disease.

It boggles the mind to imagine how God, in his foreknowledge and omnipotence, can weave an intricate thread of cause-and-effect in the past that leads to a successful surgery next week. From my perspective, however, God would do this sort of thing all the time—unless God’s normal way of intervening in our world is to constantly suspend or override the laws of physics in a miraculous way.


Example of what UMC traditionalists are up against

July 28, 2015

A fellow United Methodist on Facebook linked with approval yesterday to the blog post linked below. Here’s what I wrote in response:

But I hope you’d grant that the vast majority of us Christians—white, southern, or otherwise—who believe that God intends for sex to be practiced within the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman do so in good faith—that this person’s hateful actions against this church don’t represent us (or Franklin Graham or Southern Baptists or any other straw man the blogger mentions).

After all, there is real persecution against Christians in the world. In fact, in 2013 Pope Francis even warned that the increase in persecution against Christians is a possible sign of the end of the world. Needless to say, Francis, no less than Franklin Graham, also believes that homosexual practice opposes God’s intentions for Creation and that marriage is between a man and woman.

So why not pick on Francis? Or why not pick on our black brothers and sisters (in Africa) who have prevented the UMC from following their fellow mainline Protestants in changing church doctrine on sexuality? (Not that I’m assuming the blogger is UM.) What do they have in common with the person who vandalized this church?

Nothing, of course. Yet from this blogger’s perspective, it’s us white southern rednecks who stand in the way of LGBT equality? I don’t buy it.

This is REAL Christian Persecution: Augusta Church Hit with anti-LGBT Hate Crime.

Sermon 07-12-15: “Running to Win”

July 27, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

There’s an annual 10K road race in Atlanta each year on the fourth of July, the Peachtree Road Race. Most of the 60,000 runners run with one goal: not to win the race but to win the T-shirt. In other words, they’re running to finish. While running to finish is OK for the Peachtree, this kind of attitude won’t suffice for running the race of Christian faith, as Paul’s words in today’s scripture make clear.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27


[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]


I know that some of you ran the Peachtree Road Race this year. Raise your hand if you ran the Peachtree. Did you win? Top ten? Top 50? Top thousand? Top ten thousand?

Did you finish at all? That’s good!

I’ve run it several times myself. Once, when my son Townshend was around four or five years old, I ran the Peachtree. And when I came home, he asked me, in complete sincerity, “Daddy, did you win?” Because it’s a race. And he rightly assumed that if you’re running a race, you should be running to win. The point of most races is to win—or at least it should be.

That particular year, not only didn’t I win, I finished in about 50 minutes—five zero—which would be about 21 minutes slower, for example, than this year’s winner!

So of course I had to explain to Townshend that the vast majority of people who run the Peachtree are not running to win the race. They’re running to finish. They’re running to win the T-shirt. And that’s fine… when it comes to running the Peachtree.

Now I know for many of us amateurs, it takes a lot of training just to finish the Peachtree. But suppose we were running to win the Peachtree. How different would our training look? We’d be up in the morning every day, for one thing. No sleeping in. In fact, we’d probably change our sleeping routine and other habits. We’d probably get ourselves a running coach. We’d probably consult with our doctor. We might invest in better shoes and training equipment. We might do some strength training. We would definitely want to run in other races leading up to the Peachtree. We would definitely watch what we ate and drank—take care of our diets, perhaps consult with a nutritionist.

Doing all these things still wouldn’t guarantee a victory—much less a top ten, top 50, top thousand, or even top ten thousand finish—but at least we could say were running to win.

Not many of us would commit the time, the energy, the money to do that… and that’s perfectly O.K. For the Peachtree.

But suppose we compare living the Christian life to running a race, as Paul does in today’s scripture. When it comes to running the “race” of our Christian life, running just to finish is not O.K. Running just to win the T-shirt is not fine. Read the rest of this entry »

A strange argument against UMC schism: sexual behavior has no bearing on orthodoxy

July 27, 2015

In this post by United Methodist blogger Joel Watts, he describes a Twitter argument that he had with someone who framed the debate about same-sex marriage and homosexual practice in terms of Christian orthodoxy. It would be unorthodox, his dialogue partner said, to embrace any form of sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage, which by definition is between a man and woman.

Watts disagrees that the question pertains to orthodoxy since homosexual practice (or any other ethical question) isn’t mentioned in the Nicene Creed. Only the Creed, he says, identifies what is or isn’t orthodox.

While I disagree with Watts on his overly technical definition of orthodoxy (although I have absolutely zero desire to argue over it), as I asked in his comments section, What does it matter? “Even if everything you say about orthodoxy is spot on,” I said, “how does this pertain to the UMC’s position on homosexuality? Whether ‘orthodoxy’ is or isn’t at stake in the question is beside the point.”

In reply, Watts said that if we only focused on “rebuilding our orthodox doctrinal foundations, beginning with Christ, how easy would it then be to look at the essentials and non-essentials and understand what matters.” He continued:

Let us restore orthodoxy, that of our faith in Christ as has stood for 2000 years, and then begin to speak about the ethical issues that divide us. It may be that in reaching back to orthodoxy and coming to terms with it — as Wesley would have suggested — we find the answer to our other points of division.

Or, to sum up with a question: What is the better reason for schism — the denial of the Creed or a differing believe on an ethical/moral issue?

At this point, I could only conclude that Watts failed to appreciate what United Methodists like me believe is at stake in the question of homosexuality. So I put it out there:



Naturally, Watts, as an “affirming” United Methodist, disagrees with my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and other scriptures. But please notice that we’re still disagreeing over the meaning of scripture, not “orthodoxy.” We may agree completely on what counts as orthodoxy, yet we still need to figure out what these scriptures mean. And our task couldn’t be more urgent, since people’s eternal destiny (if I’m right) hangs in the balance!

Therefore, contrary to his argument, figuring out what is or isn’t “orthodox” solves nothing at all, which was the point of my original comment.

But what about Watts’s second point—that Paul would disagree that the question is worth dividing over?

He was unimpressed with my bringing up Paul’s response to the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, which I believe is exactly on point when it comes to the current controversy. Watts writes, “Paul doesn’t say split when it comes to immorality but to remove the person. Try reading 1 Co 5.1-13 again.”

Well, yes… Paul doesn’t say “split when it comes to immorality,” but only because Paul expects the church to do what he says! “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Hypothetically, suppose the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul. Suppose they let the man continue to participate fully in the life of the church. Are we to believe that Paul, given the harsh tone of verses 1-13, would shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, it’s better for the church to stay united, even if if this ‘unity’ comes at the expense of disobeying my clear teaching and continuing to condone or overlook sexual immorality.”

Does this seem as incomprehensible to you as it does to me? What am I missing? Because if Watts is right, this is what Paul would do. Read Watts’s post and comments, and let me know.

Why don’t “affirming” UMs simply admit that Jesus and the Bible are wrong?

July 23, 2015

The biggest theological celebrity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson, supports overturning the unanimous verdict of two millennia’s worth of Christian reflection on the subject of homosexuality.

Does he do so because his scholarly research has shown him that St. Paul was referring only to non-consensual, exploitative, and idolatrous homosexual relationships? Or that Jesus’ “silence” on the subject was tacit approval? Or that, when it comes to condemning same-sex sexual relationships, most Christians are guilty of unprincipled picking-and-choosing?

Not at all.

In fact, Dr. Johnson, in a 2007 essay in Commonweal, agrees with people like me that the Bible condemns homosexual practice unambiguously. “The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.”

In other words, Johnson says, the Bible got it wrong. Since “the Bible got it wrong” is the unchallenged presupposition of most theological and biblical education at my alma mater, Johnson’s position is hardly newsworthy. Since Johnson is relatively conservative, however, believing, for example, that Paul is the author even of the disputed Pauline letters and being an outspoken opponent of the “Jesus Seminar” movement, his affirmation of same-sex sexual behavior—at least for the reasons he gives—is surprising.

To his small credit, though, at least he doesn’t perform exegetical gymnastics to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.

And writer Brandon Ambrosino also deserves some credit for making a similar point in his new article: Of course Jesus believed that homosexual practice was a sin!

Revisionist hermeneutics can seem pretty silly when we consider who Jesus was. Jesus, a first-century Jewish theologian, would almost certainly have held the traditional Jewish belief about same-sex relations—that is, he would have believed such sexual activity was sinful. Had Jesus departed significantly from Jewish tradition on this front, we can be sure that his disagreement would have been recorded (just like his reconsideration of divorce or his new interpretation of adultery). None of his biographers include a single instance of Jesus challenging the mainstream Jewish understanding of homosexuality, and Jesus more than once affirmed a male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement; it’s safe to conclude, then, that Christ would have agreed with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin. Any confusion about this seems motivated by contemporary politics, not ancient history.


Ambrosino is happy to concede, however, that Jesus is simply wrong, a product of his first-century Jewish culture and upbringing. This, he says, shouldn’t be a problem for us Christians—after all, as a “devout gay Christian who confesses both the divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” he has no problem with it.

Nevertheless, in a Facebook post this week, Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at the mainline Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts the problem in sharp relief:

Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus’ position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator’s will for the twoness of the sexual bond.

In my experience, I have yet to see one of my fellow UMC clergy who want to change our doctrine take seriously the implications of Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. But few of them would say that Jesus is simply wrong.

But if he’s right, how many would be willing to revise their revisionism?

Sermon 07-05-15: “Love Builds Up”

July 23, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul begins addressing the controversy surrounding food offered to idols. Paul agrees in principle with some Corinthian believers that no harm comes from eating this food in and of itself. The problem is the potential harm done to weaker Christians who fear that eating this food amounts to idolatry. Instead of asserting our “rights,” Paul says we should do everything in the interest of love. Love matters more than anything—even including being “theologically correct.” This sermon explores some ways in which this principle applies to us today.

I preached this sermon the day after returning from the Dominican Republic. I’m pleased to say that it’s still delivered at a high energy level!

[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.]

It was February 1985. I had just gotten back from a weekend youth group retreat. On that retreat, my friend Chuck had had a dramatic conversion experience. He repented of his sins, accepted Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, and the following Wednesday night, during youth Bible study, he made an announcement to all of us in the youth group: He said that because of his newfound faith in Christ, as part of his repentance, he was going to get throw away his record collection, which mostly consisted of heavy metal and hard rock bands like Motley Crüe, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC. He believed the messages in those records were unchristian—as I’m sure many of them were. But Chuck went further than that: From here on out, he said, he was only going to listen to Christian music. He even threw away his Beatles records—which broke my heart.

For at least the next year or so, our youth group was embroiled in controversy: should we or shouldn’t we listen to secular music?

I figured that eventually Chuck would mature in his Christian faith and change his mind, which he did. But in the meantime I knew about today’s scripture, including Paul’s words about not being a stumbling block. Would my love and passion for rock music be a stumbling block for Chuck? Read the rest of this entry »

Fighting against the temptation to “comparison-shop and wallow in self-pity”

July 21, 2015

In my June 21 sermon, I made reference to a profound insight that actor Michael J. Fox, who has suffered for many years from early-onset Parkinson’s, shared in an Esquire magazine interview:

My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations. Acceptance is the key to everything.

Of course, from a Christian point of view, acceptance doesn’t mean acquiescing to fate with Stoic courage. It means—and I swallow hard when I say this—appreciating that God’s hand is in this. God has a purpose for allowing this unplanned, often unwanted event to occur. In other words, this experience is, or can be, good for us.

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explores this theme in some depth in this fine post about rearing two autistic children. Having children with special needs, he writes, is like receiving an actual orange for dessert, when the rest of your friends received a chocolate orange.

Special needs, like the orange, are unexpected. We didn’t plan for them, and we didn’t anticipate them. Because our children are such a beautiful gift, we often feel guilty for even saying this, but we might as well admit that we didn’t want our children to have autism, any more than we wanted them to have Down’s, or cerebral palsy, or whatever else. Give or take, we wanted pretty much what our friends had: children who crawled at one, talked at two, potty trained at three, asked questions at four, and went off to mainstream school at five. We could have lived quite happily without knowing what Piedro boots were for, or what stimming was, or how to fill out DLA forms. So there are times, when we’re wiping the citric acid out of our eyes and watching our friends enjoying their chocolate, when it feels spectacularly unfair, and we wish we could retreat to a place where everyone had oranges, so we wouldn’t have to fight so hard against the temptation to comparison-shopping and wallowing in self-pity. We know that oranges are juicy in their own way. We know that they’re good for us, and that we’ll experience many things that others will miss. But we wish we had a chocolate one, all the same.

Wright on “treasure in heaven”

July 17, 2015

More than any other contemporary Christian thinker, N.T. Wright has reminded us that at the center of our Christian hope is future resurrection into God’s renewed, restored, and re-created world on the other side of death, Second Coming, and final judgment. Merely going to “heaven when we die,” he says many times over, pales in comparison and doesn’t do justice to the biblical message.

I agree for the most part, although popular Christian thinkers from previous generations—I’m thinking of Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis, for instance—often had this full-bodied vision even when they used the word “heaven”—as many do today.

Nevertheless, Wright is right that the popular imagination often pictures heaven as an escape from this world—as a place where we’ll float on clouds in some disembodied, ethereal place far, far away. This picture of heaven pervades many 19th century hymns that remain popular today—not to mention many dumb Hollywood movies.

I find these words from Wright about “treasure in heaven” in the story of the Rich Young Ruler helpful:

When Jesus says ‘You will have treasure in heaven’, he doesn’t mean that the young man must go to heaven to get it; he means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed. The reason you have money in the bank is not so that you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else. The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy it in the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last. And ‘eternal life’, as most translations put it, doesn’t mean ‘life in a timeless, otherworldly dimension’, but ‘the life of the Age to Come’ (the word ‘eternal’ translates a word which means ‘belonging to the Age’).

Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 135.