Archive for August, 2015

Sermon 08-23-15: “The Glitch in our Program”

August 31, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

In the movie “Wreck-It Ralph,” Ralph mistakenly believes that winning a shiny gold medal will prove his worth, and his quest for a medal inadvertently causes a lot of harm. Are we “real life” humans so different from Ralph? Where does our worth and value come from? What “shiny gold medals” do we think we need to be happy? How does the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to this need?

Sermon Text: Mark 2:13-17

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

wir

In the opening clip, Ralph introduces himself at a “Bad Anon” meeting for video-game villains. He confesses to the group that he no longer wants to be a bad guy, over the protests of other villains who say that Ralph must learn to accept his role. As Zangief, the villain from “Street Fighter II” tells him: “Just because you’re a bad guy doesn’t mean that you’re a bad guy.”

The unhappiest I’ve been in life is when I’ve felt like I’m stuck in circumstances over which I have little control. For example, early in my high school career—the summer between my eighth and ninth-grade years—I pulled out my high school yearbook, and I looked at the senior class from that year—including the “senior superlative” section: you know, here is the young man and woman most likely to succeed, or most intelligent, or funniest, or best looking, or most athletic. And I thought, “I’ll never be any of those things.” I mean, already, having just been in high school for one year as an eighth grader—a sub-freshman, they called us—I saw how things were shaping up, and it wasn’t looking great for me. I could make a change here or there, but mostly I was stuck with the body that I had—the brain that I had, the social skills that I had, the athletic ability that I had. And when I thought about these successful seniors in this yearbook—they had so much more going for them. I thought, “I’ll never measure up to them.” Read the rest of this entry »

Men are not defective women

August 31, 2015

Over five years ago, between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2009, my family and I were victims of a stalker. I’ll spare you the details except to say that it culminated late one night when I heard someone on our front porch. (Fortunately, my family was out of town at a family Christmas party in Florida.) I caught a glimpse of the man through our bay window and called 9-1-1. After the man disappeared down the driveway, I saw that he had left several sexually explicit notes and drawings on our garage door and front porch. He had also scattered several unopened condoms on our porch.

After about 10 minutes, sheriff’s deputies arrived. After gathering evidence and taking my statement—they already a “file” on this man, since we had called them after an earlier incident—they tried unsuccessfully to track him with a K-9 unit.

When they left, I was scared—I’ll be honest. But the next morning, despite my fear, I was on a mission: I canvassed the neighborhood. I knocked on doors of neighbors, most of whom I’d never met, informing them about what happened, asking if they saw anything suspicious and would they keep on the lookout for this man?

At one house, a man answered the door who looked like the man I’d glimpsed through the window. I did a double-take. Naturally, he denied knowing anything. But when I left, I called the sheriff’s office. I later identified him in a photo lineup. After a couple of days, they interviewed him, he confessed, and he was arrested. Within a couple of months, the case was adjudicated. He got probation with mandatory therapy. We got a permanent protective order against him.

As I learned from talking to neighbors, my experience with the man was only the latest and most extreme episode in a 20-year history of threatening, and escalating, acts against his neighbors.

Through this experience, I learned something about myself: This is what being a man feels like—this righteous anger, this desire to protect my family, this small measure of courage I summoned. And it felt good. 

Any sympathy I felt at that point toward Stanley Hauerwas’s brand of Christian pacifism evaporated: I would resort to violence—without apology—if it meant protecting people I love. I don’t believe, contrary to years of indoctrination at liberal mainline seminary, that the example or teachings of Jesus preclude justifiable violence. I believe they require it—for individuals, municipalities, and nations.

I thought of this experience a couple of weeks ago, when those three Americans intervened, unarmed, to protect a train-load of passengers bound for Paris from a Moroccan terrorist. It was an inspiring act of heroism that I hope I would emulate if I were in similar circumstances. Regardless, if Hauerwas is right—and there are many Methodist clergy who believe that he is—these three men were wrong to use force to stop this man on the principle that any resort to violence contradicts Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek.” They should instead have let the man shoot up the train and accept their own deaths as a witness to the non-coercive love of God.

I know… this seems incomprehensible to me, too.

Regardless, I appreciate this blog post from Owen Strachan about the men’s courage and its application to contemporary manhood.

Teach a boy that he is an idiot, that he can only ever ascend to Fantasy Football champion, that he cannot ever measure up to his sisters, that he is at base an animal, and watch in wonder as he fulfills all your worst predictions.

But teach him that he has immense dignity and worth, that he was made — whatever his chest size, whatever his height — to spend himself for the good of others, and you will form the kind of young men who do not cower when a terrorist stands up, sweating and fevered, to fulfill Allah’s will by mowing down innocents. This kind of young man wakes up from his nap, sees bloodshed on the horizon, and moves with a swiftness he has trained for to sacrifice himself for others. He may die, he knows. But he will die with honor.

With some irony, I post this recent song by singer-songwriter Neko Case. No, she’s not a man, regardless how she was raised. But the song rightly recognizes that there is a difference between women and men. It resonates with me.

I want to “feel God’s pleasure”

August 28, 2015

chariots-of-fire

One thing I took away from Tim Keller’s recent book on prayer, when I read it earlier this year, was to use the Lord’s Prayer as an outline to guide my own praying. Martin Luther, for one, did this. The point is not to recite the Lord’s Prayer by rote, rather, to ensure that my own prayers include these component parts, and in this particular order.

This doesn’t come naturally to me. My natural way of praying is to begin with confession of sin—as if I have to clear the air before I’m “worthy” for God to hear the rest of my prayers. But notice Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray this way. Confession doesn’t occur until nearly the end of the prayer—even after we’ve petitioned God to give us or others what we or they need. So we’re not asking God to do good things for us on the condition of promised future good behavior. Surely this communicates something important about grace! We who are God’s children by faith in his Son are already accepted by God; nothing—not even the sins for which we need to repent—changes that.

Be that as it may, here’s how following the outline of the Lord’s Prayer works out for me: My prayer begins with acknowledging God as Father. I consider the way that I, imperfect parent that I am, love my own kids. If God’s love is like that, but even more so since God loves us perfectly, then God must really love me. I reflect on that for a moment, which leads naturally to the next part of the prayer, praise and adoration.

To assist me with this, I think about things that have happened over the past day or two for which I can or should be grateful. I praise God for those things. Perhaps this is childish—perhaps we should praise God for being God himself, rather than for the things he does for us, but that’s too abstract for a 30-year prayer novice like me. Maybe when I ascend the heights of prayer I’ll be able to pull that off.

Next comes the petition, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What does this mean for my daily prayers?

First, I remind myself daily that Christ will return. I might say, “Father, if Jesus returns today, let me be ready. Let me be found doing the good work of your kingdom.” I next pray that I will be faithful in doing the tasks that God has appointed for me to do.

Finally, I ask God to help me accept that whatever happens to me today happens because God wants it to happen. Yes, this is my unfashionable, renewed belief in God’s sovereignty rearing its (beautiful) head. Indeed, as I’ve blogged about a lot recently, everything does happen for a reason, according to God’s providential timing and will. So I pray that I don’t resist it but accept it as a gift from God.

It is in relation to this part of the Lord’s Prayer, however, that I recently realized something about myself that needs to change: 

Mostly, I don’t believe that anything I can do will please God. Mostly, I believe that all I can do—at best—is to prevent God from being displeased with me. Mostly, I don’t experience God’s pleasure in me so much as the absence of God’s wrath toward me.

Believe me, I see how harmful these beliefs and feelings are. But I had never verbalized them until recently.

One of my favorite movies is Chariots of Fire. In one scene, the Scottish missionary Eric Liddell tries to help his sister understand why running is important to him. She believes that his running career distracts from his “true” purpose. He tells her, “I believe God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

When I run, I feel his pleasure.

Is it possible that I could feel God’s pleasure—in me—despite my past, despite my sin, despite my failures?

In other words, whether I “feel” it or not, is it possible that I can and do please God?

I had to consult scripture. Here are a few verses that convince me that it is possible: 2 Corinthians 5:9, Ephesians 5:10, Colossians 1:10, and 1 Thessalonians 4:1. There are probably a hundred others besides. After all, Jesus and Paul both talk about “treasures in heaven” based on our actions on earth. Why wouldn’t it bring God pleasure to reward us with these?

So how will I apply this to my life today?

Here’s one way: Being a pastor is more satisfying than any job I’ve ever had. But believe it or not, every moment of my job isn’t satisfying. I don’t always want to do everything I have to do. Being a pastor, as good as it is, still feels like a job much of the time.

But here’s some motivation for me: What if, when I’m doing something I don’t want to do but need to do, I tell myself the following: “Doing this thing brings God pleasure. God enjoys when I obey him. He likes to see me do the good work of his kingdom”?

Shame on me, but I’ve never thought of it like that before. Is it just me?

An original song from HUMC: “Here for You”

August 27, 2015

At a prayer and healing service we had last Sunday night at Hampton UMC, Matthew Chitwood and D.J. Carlisle debuted a song they wrote called “Here for You.” The song “Good, Good Father” is by the Housefires. Enjoy!

Sermon 08-16-15: “Heroic Love”

August 26, 2015

Disney Summer Drive-In

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In the thrilling conclusion of “Big Hero 6,” we see Hiro and Baymax put their lives on the line to save another. In fact, the movie says a lot about “heroic” Christ-like love and other biblical themes, including vocation, prayer, and spiritual warfare. 

Sermon Text: John 15:12-17

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

In the following sermon, I showed a series of four video clips from the movie Big Hero 6. I describe the clips in italics below.

bh601

In this first scene, Hiro, having used his advanced engineering skill to design a killer robot, is caught trying to hustle a mobster in a back-alley “bot-fighting” match. His brother, Tadashi, rescues him on a motorcycle before he gets injured. Tadashi takes Hiro to his engineering college to meet Tadashi’s mentor, Professor Callaghan, whom Hiro recognizes as a world-renown scientist. Hiro decides he wants to go to the college, which he refers to as “nerd school.” He tells Tadashi, “Thank you for not giving up on me.”

Last month, the U.S. women’s soccer team defeated Japan to win the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Surprisingly, there were six players on this world-championship team who, at one time or another, failed to make their youth soccer league teams. At the age of 12, for instance, Morgan Brian, the youngest player, didn’t make Florida’s Olympic Developmental team. She said, “I definitely cried. I was so upset, so embarrassed—I remember just feeling like I must be the worst player on my team.” Carli Lloyd, the star of the final game who scored three goals was cut from her under-21 national team.

Then there’s Meghan Klingenberg, the outside back who played a key role in the U.S. victory over Sweden. She keeps a yellowed letter of rejection from a youth national team taped to her mirror. “It will never come down,” she said. “People said, you’re never going to be able to do it… But that [letter] is my reminder that you can persevere against the world.”

What about you? Do you believe you can “persevere against the world”? Or do you think you’ll never amount to much?

Read the rest of this entry »

“Freedom from the dread of dying”

August 26, 2015

odenI’m afraid of dying. As a Christian, I feel slightly guilty in saying this. But it’s true. I am not yet at the place where the apostle Paul was, in Philippians, when he could look forward to death: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

I am unimpressed, therefore, when I hear atheist apologists, as I often do, accuse us Christians of being weak-minded—that our faith is a psychological crutch to help us cope with the harsh reality of death.

Oh, please! I find the materialistic alternative—that our existence ends in death—much easier to believe! In other words, without examining the evidence, without reasoning it through—relying on gut feeling alone—I find it harder to believe in heaven and future resurrection.

What about you?

I hope and expect, God willing, that this fear of death will diminish over time, that God will give me the grace to deal with my own death when I need it. In the meantime, I take comfort in reading credible testimonies of Christians who have near-death experiences. In saying this, I’m well aware that near-death experiences are controversial—and I’m skeptical of many of them, too.

But I do believe that in some cases, at least, God gives people a spiritual experience when they are close to death, which bolsters their faith when they recover. For them, these experiences are a gift of grace.

One such testimony comes from theologian Thomas Oden, which he describes in his recent memoir, A Change of Heart. He had open-heart surgery back in the ’80s. There were complications after completing the bypass, so the doctors needed to go back in for a second, emergency procedure. He nearly died.

I regained partial consciousness in between those two surgeries and could hear the voices in the operating room and was conscious enough to realize that a serious medical emergency was occurring. During that unforeseen waking moment, I had the clear impression that I had already died. Unexplainably I felt an unexpected sense of relief, joy and entry into a distinctly new world where a bright light was radiating into my soul.

I was bathed in a glorious world of light—stunning, radiant light of a different sort than I had ever seen. The light seemed to be not the light from the operating room ceiling but from somewhere far beyond. I was surprised that I was not at all afraid. After the second surgery, when I woke up I realized that I had not died…

The deeper discovery for me was the lasting realization that I was not afraid of dying. This is not a report of a near-death experience but rather an imagined death experience. After that I felt a freedom from the dread of dying that has offered inexpressible comfort to me in the ensuing years. At my lowest point physically I underwent a peace experience spiritually. It was as real as anything I have ever experienced.[1]

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 182.

“What punishments of God are not gifts?”

August 24, 2015
Colbert-Report-Bart-Ehrman-Stephen-Colbert

Bart Ehrman and Stephen Colbert

As a longtime Letterman fan, I was pleased with CBS’s selection of Stephen Colbert to succeed him. First, Colbert has been one of the sharpest wits on TV—original and fearless. He’s also proven to be a first-rate interviewer. Colbert will ensure that in the area of interviews, at least, there will be continuity between his show and Letterman’s old show—at a time when other late-night comedy shows, such as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, seemingly deemphasize them.

Second, I’ve appreciated that Colbert, a Catholic, has never hidden or downplayed his Christian faith. What other TV personality, on Ash Wednesday, appears on air with ashes on his forehead? I also appreciate that he makes skeptics like Bart Ehrman squirm.

Sgt. Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic backstory ever."

Sgt. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

In yesterday morning’s sermon, I used clips from the Disney movie Wreck-It Ralph to illustrate biblical truths. In one clip, for example, we learn that video game character Sgt. Calhoun was “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever.”

I then described Colbert’s recent interview in GQ magazine, in which he talked about his own “tragic backstory”: losing his father and his two closest brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10.

In the interview, Colbert described the time that J.R.R. Tolkien received a letter from a priest complaining that his novels and short stories weren’t theologically correct because they treated death as a gift, rather than a punishment for sin after the Fall:

“Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.”

While we may prefer to speak of the “disciplines of God,” rather than the “punishments,” the fact remains—and scripture loudly affirms—that God uses our tragic backstories for good, to mold us and shape us into the people that he wants us to be.

If this weren’t the case, how do we make sense of Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5? “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Recently, however, I analyzed a sermon by a fellow United Methodist pastor who obviously would disagree.

What do you think? Do you agree with Stephen Colbert? Does God turn our “tragic backstories” into gifts?

Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? 😉

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?

Kathie Lee Gifford and the power of personal testimony

August 18, 2015

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By now, many of you have seen this clip of Kathie Lee Gifford talking about her late husband, Frank, and the strength they received from their Christian faith. I’ve rarely seen a major celebrity speak as forthrightly—and explicitly—about her relationship with Jesus:

[Frank would] want you to know that he died in complete peace. He knew every sin he’d ever committed was forgiven. He had the hope that he’d be with the Lord and that we’d some day be with him as well. That is the foundation of the Christian faith: forgiveness, grace, and hope. And those of you who are hurting today, or feel hopeless, it might be the answer for you. In fact I know it’s the answer for you.

Amen.

I confess that having never watched a moment of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and having mostly known of her from the Kristen Wiig parodies on Saturday Night Live, I’m surprised and deeply moved. She doesn’t strike a false note here.

And as someone who makes his living in part by speaking in public, I admire her eloquence and composure—especially speaking extemporaneously.

Notice she begins her words with Job’s insight in the face of profound personal loss: In context, he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

I’m reminded with shame how I resisted this doctrine of God’s sovereignty, even as recently as a few years ago. Now, like Kathie Lee, I find it immensely comforting.

Is God’s love “unconditional”?

August 17, 2015

odenI’m reading Thomas Oden’s theological memoir A Change of Heart, and I did a double-take when I stumbled across the following passage. Oden describes how, in the ’60s, he spent time integrating the psychotherapeutic ideas of Carl Rogers with his own “demythothologized” version of Christian theology (which he has long since renounced). Here, he describes how successful his efforts were—unfortunately:

At the same time I was writing on the uncharted theme of unconditional acceptance, a theme I found in Carl Rogers. I argued that it was a fitting description of the forgiving God, and that unconditional love corresponded directly with commonly acknowledged assumptions in effective psychotherapy.

Soon I began to hear the phrase unconditional love on the lips of homilists and priests as applied to God… The phrase quickly entered into the common vocabulary of psychological literature, sermons and books, especially for pastoral writers struggling to find ways of making God’s forgiveness plausible…

Carelessly, I had invited pastors and theologians to equate the unconditional positive regard that had proven to be a reliable condition of effective psychotherapy with God’s unconditional forgiving love for humanity.

In doing so, I had absentmindedly and unfortunately disregarded all those powerful biblical admonitions on divine judgment and the need for admonition in pastoral care. Few of these homilists mentioned the wrath of God against sin as Jesus did.

I had drifted toward a Christ without a cross and a conversion without repentance. It still makes me wince to hear sermons today about God’s unconditional love that are not qualified by any admonition concerning the temptation to permissiveness.[1]

While I haven’t preached God’s “unconditional love”-without-qualification in some time, I’ve taken for granted that it still expressed some truth about God’s love for us. But why? The concept isn’t found in scripture. Yet, since my formative years in Southern Baptist youth group, I’ve heard that God loves us unconditionally.

As a first-generation MTV viewer, I’m sure I was even influenced by this 1983 video by Donna Summer and Musical Youth!

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 89-90.