Archive for February, 2016

Blog Rewind: “Saying goodbye”

February 14, 2016

As I explained in today’s sermon, last week was a heavy week—not bad, just heavy. Among other things, a clergy acquaintance, a classmate from seminary who is a few years younger than I am, dropped dead of a heart attack. I went to his funeral on Tuesday. This week also marks the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. The following is one of my most widely read blog posts, which I wrote after seeing Mom for the last time.

This post was originally published on February 13, 2012.

Mom and Townshend on her birthday one year ago.

I said goodbye to Mom for what might be the last time on Saturday. She’s dying. She could live days or weeks—no one knows. But I’m about 10 hours away from her now, so when that moment comes, I will likely miss it.

It’s different from when Dad died. He had terminal cancer, but at least he died at home. As the end was approaching I didn’t have to leave his bedside—at least not for long.

So Saturday was the most difficult day of my life. As if someone were scripting an old-fashioned Hollywood tear-jerker, it was also Mom’s 81st birthday. We brought flowers, cake, and balloons. We sang “Happy Birthday.” Or I should say the rest of my family sang. I couldn’t get the words out. In fact, I could hardly speak at all without the waterworks. I had to leave her hospital room a few times to cry in the restroom across the hall.

Mom was mostly lucid on Saturday—at times, painfully so. She asked Lisa, my wife, and me when she was going to die. “No one knows. Only God knows,” we told her. She suspected we were hiding the bad news from her. We weren’t. I was only hiding my grief. Or trying to.

After I said goodbye—and Mom said, “Y’all come back and see me, you hear?”—I didn’t make it to the hallway before breaking down. God bless the nurse who walked by to hand me a box of Kleenex. How many times has she done that?

Damn these tears!

Believe it or not, I went to the hospital on Saturday morning intending to be a pastor to Mom. Her church family and pastor are in northeast Atlanta. So I thought I could fill that role. I brought my Bible. I was going to read some scripture. Maybe gather the family for prayer at her bedside. Yeah, right! I was a wreck.

At least I understand the meaning of that scripture in John 11 when Jesus is overwhelmed with tears. Verse 33 says, “When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.” And again in verse 38, he was “greatly disturbed.” Bible scholars puzzle over the meaning of these words—”What does it mean that Jesus was so bothered?”

If I didn’t know before, I know now. It’s hard to do ministry when tears get in the way. Pastors need pastors when their moms are dying.

But I did sense the love, support, and prayers of friends, especially among my church family. You know who you are. So, thank you. On Friday night, I texted one of my best friends, Andy, who grew up with me and knew Mom well. I wanted him to know. He shared a deeply personal reminiscence of Mom and said, “I will say a prayer for you and your family tonight.”

For some reason, that meant a lot. As Stephy Drury points out, we Christians say the words “I’m praying for you” so often that they can sometimes feel glib. But Andy made an appointment to pray one specific prayer for me that night. And I’m sure he did.

Praying is not nothing. And I was so grief-stricken I couldn’t pray for myself. Not really. We need others to pray for us. Again, thank you.

I saw a World War II movie many years ago called U-571. There’s a scene in which our heroes have to find out if their rusty old submarine is seaworthy. As they go deeper underwater and the pressure builds, rivets start popping off and the sub springs leaks everywhere. It looks bad to me. Submarines aren’t supposed to do that, right? Finally, the captain declares, “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.” And they proceed with their mission.

My Christian faith is like that. “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not happy. I’m probably angry at God that Mom is dying 600 miles away, and I can’t be with her. I can’t find any consolation right now that takes the sting out of death. But I do have a gut-level belief or intuition or feeling that I’ll see Mom in resurrection, even if I don’t see her again in this life. And this belief doesn’t quite feel like wishful thinking or escapism.

I also believe that even now, as Mom makes this transition, Jesus is comforting her, encouraging her, and giving her grace upon grace at every moment. Inasmuch as I am praying, that is my prayer.

When I got home late Saturday night, my two boys were sleeping. I climbed in their bunk bed, hugged them, and told them that I loved them. What else could I do?

The truth is that whenever we say goodbye to anyone, it might be for the last time. We should live our lives like we know that.

Lent is not a season in which we “identify” with Jesus

February 11, 2016

I grew up Baptist, a tradition that spurned Lenten observance as a vain, extra-biblical form of works righteousness. From what I understand, many Baptists are now getting in on the act (which is weird to me). I guess I still have a lot of old Baptist in me, because I’m not sold on abstaining from or “giving up” something for Lent.

I’m not against these practices; I’m only encouraging us to think through why we do them. Ask yourself: “What do I think I’m accomplishing?” Because the moment we think we’re accomplishing something by giving up chocolate or Facebook, or even genuinely fasting (from food), is the moment we’re undone by our pride. Or at least I am.

I think it’s better during Lent to focus instead on what we can’t do—on what we couldn’t do—on what only Jesus could do for us. Maybe Sarah Condon, in this post, agrees with me?

People often talk of Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage, a sort of celestial road trip. We come by this assessment honestly. There are 40 days of Lent because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. And so, the thinking goes, we must be on our own sort of ascetic journey, filled with self-denial and hard earned betterment. So we have Lenten lunches of soup and bread. We give up the modern trinity: chocolate, chardonnay, and Facebook. And then we blog about it.

Hear me clearly. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give up social media or vodka. I’m just suggesting you should go ahead and quit tomorrow in lieu of telling yourself that a Housewives of Atlanta moratorium is Lent-worthy. Because it is not. What Jesus did in the desert and what we attempt to do at Lent are almost wholly unrelated.

I would argue that Lent is not about us giving something up. In fact, it is not about our actions at all. Lent is a moment when we watch Jesus from afar. We are on the other side of the desert, watching him deny himself, bearing witness to his teachings and miracles, observing the disciples failing to stay awake, knowing that the agony of the cross is close at hand. Lent is not sad because we can’t eat carbs. Lent is sad because we are forced to watch the slow, deliberate movement of our Savior from his ministry to his cross. And it reminds us of our sin and our powerlessness over it.

We were not in the desert for 40 days fending off the devil and all manner of temptation. Jesus was. For us. Because we are sinners. And as such, we would have taken all the devil offered.

For what it’s worth, I’m very much sold on praying and reading the Bible more during Lent. Speaking of which, I like this recent tweet from fellow United Methodist pastor Talbot Davis:

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Ash Wednesday 2016 Sermon: “Neither Do I Condemn You”

February 11, 2016

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Sermon Text: John 7:53-8:11

I preached the following sermon at Hampton United Methodist on February 10, 2016.

If you were here on Sunday, you heard me speculate about how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would handle it if he lost yet another Super Bowl. Of course, if you watched or heard about the game, you know than Manning’s team won, so it didn’t matter. He finally got his second Super Bowl ring, so his legacy is secure. Meanwhile, a lot of sports writers and fans have been criticizing the way that the other Super Bowl quarterback, Cam Newton, has dealt with the defeat.

There’s a certain script that losing quarterbacks are supposed to follow in press conferences following losses like this one: you go out and you give credit to the other team for the victory; you accept for you role in the loss; you express great optimism about the future, that you’ll be back next year, etc. You’re supposed to project calm. You’re supposed to be even-keeled. You’re supposed to be a good sport.

More than anything, you’re supposed to lie and deceive… If not through the words you say, then through the words you don’t say—and the manner in which you say anything at all. The postgame press conference, in other words, is like being an actor on stage in which you’re awarded for hiding the fact that you’re angry, heartbroken, bitter—for hiding the fact that this loss is eating you up inside. For acting like you’re O.K. when you’re most assuredly not O.K. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 01-31-16: “Born Again”

February 9, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

In Jesus conversation with Nicodemus, he uses a striking analogy from Numbers 21 to describe the way in which his own atoning death on the cross saves us from our sin. In this sermon, I explore the meaning of this analogy and its relationship to the new life that faith in Christ offers us.

Sermon Text: John 2:23-3:21

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

Recently, as you might have heard, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg became a father for the first time. He and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, had a daughter, Max Chan Zuckerberg. And they’re off to a great start as parents. For one thing, Zuckerberg is taking two months off from his job as Facebook CEO. Two months! Of course, Facebook offers its employees four months of paid leave for parents of newborns. But still… Taking two months paid leave is a lot! Nearly half of all working men in America take less than one week off when they have a child. Fully 97 percent of men are back on the job within two weeks. So Zuckerberg is setting quite an example to fathers everywhere. After all, if I were a new dad, I would worry that I couldn’t afford to be away from work that long—even if I were getting paid, I would worry that it would harm my career, that I would fall too far behind, that other people would get ahead of me.

Like… If I’m away from work that long, and the company gets on fine without me, then maybe they’ll decide they don’t need me at all. I’m supposed to be indispensable. I’m supposed to be irreplaceable.

Zuckerberg_baby

And yet here we have Mark Zuckerberg, of all people, proving to the world that being a dad is more important even than being a CEO of one of the world’s largest and most influential companies! It’s remarkable!

What’s even more remarkable is that, last December, he and his wife published a letter they wrote to their newborn daughter, telling her how they want to help create a better world for her and for everyone else’s children. To that end, they say they will donate 99 percent of their Facebook stock—valued at $45 billion—to fight hunger and poverty, to cure diseases, and to promote education around the world. The one percent of the $45 billion that they have left over is still a lot of money, of course, so they’ll do just fine.

But you gotta admit, of all the children born to any family anywhere in the world, Max Chan Zuckerberg could hardly have picked a better one, right? She has devoted, generous, compassionate, and incredibly wealthy parents. She is, by all objective standards, well-born.

But imagine that, when she gets older, Jesus comes to her and says, “You need to be born again. There was something wrong with your first birth. You need to belong to a new and different kind of family.” She might understandably be offended or indignant or confused. “What do you mean I need to be born again! I was born perfectly well—into the best family imaginable—the first time around!” Read the rest of this entry »

“Casting stones” in John 8 means literally casting stones

February 8, 2016

On the eve of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, this blog post from fellow United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter is making the rounds on social media today. Suffice it to say, if I had a post entitled, “40-Day Fast from Being a Jerk,” it would have to reflect on ways in which my own thoughts, words, and behavior are jerk-y. It would be a lengthy post!

Rev. Slaughter doesn’t go that route. At one point he writes, “Yes, we must admit, we who sin are guilty of casting stones. Our self-righteous indignation and critical judgment of others does not honor God or build faith in the lives of people in our networks of influence.”

I only want to focus on this first sentence: “Yes, we must admit, we who sin are guilty of casting stones.”

As far as I know, this is completely wrong. I’ve never heard of Christians in my lifetime casting stones at other people because of their sins.

If you think I sound nuts for raising this objection, it’s because you’re forgetting the context in which Jesus spoke these words in John 8:7. Jesus wasn’t speaking figuratively. When he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he was talking about actual stones, thrown at someone who, under the Law of Moses, was guilty of a capital crime.

It’s not that the woman isn’t guilty of a serious sin, or even that she doesn’t deserve death. She is and does. It’s just that the men who intend to cast stones are also sinners who deserve death for their sins. We all do. As Paul reminds us, “The wages of sin is death” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Thank God, then, that because of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, we don’t get what we deserve! Thank God that God incarnate, Jesus Christ, out of love, willingly chose to receive the death penalty for our sins—in our place. I believe Jesus’ words and actions in John 8 point forward to the cross. No, Jesus doesn’t condemn us, not because our sin isn’t worthy of condemnation, but because he has lain down his life as a propitiation for them.

If the starting point of the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t that we are sinners who deserve death and hell, then how else do we make sense of the gospel? Worse, how can we escape the conclusion that God himself is a “jerk” for judging and condemning people who refuse the saving grace made possible only through his Son’s sacrifice?

For all I know, Slaughter agrees with all of this, but, as always, before we speak of God’s grace, can we please remind people why they need it in the first place?

“I’m not saying we do nothing, but what we do counts for nothing”

February 5, 2016

In the comments section of yesterday’s post, my friend Tom challenged me, as he often does, on the grace-versus-works question. My response is the classic Reformation one: Good works, including the ongoing repentance from sin—at least the desire to change—will naturally follow from saving faith. But this changed behavior and attitude contributes nothing to salvation. This is not to say we do nothing, but what we do counts for nothing.

I appreciate that this answer can seem unsatisfying, even paradoxical, yet I’m happy to live within this tension.

His challenge reminded me of an analogy that I first heard in Mark Galli’s book God Wins, which is also used in the Law and Gospel book I’m currently reading:

Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”

Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin![1]

In this analogy, as the last sentence implies, the good works we do are our way of saying “thank you.” It’s a natural response to being saved. If we don’t respond with changed behavior and thinking, however imperfectly, then we should rightly question whether we were rescued in the first place. As the Book of James says, saving faith is a faith that is lived out through good works. Otherwise, faith is dead.

Also, getting back to the life preserver analogy, I want to emphasize this: We are always “flailing in the water” in need of rescue—even after we place our faith in Christ and are justified. (Aren’t we? I am.) God is constantly having to extend grace to us because we’re constantly falling short of God’s glory; we’re constantly sinning. The good news is that the cross of God’s Son has made an endless amount of forgiveness and grace available to us. This is why I emphasize that the cross of Christ needs to be at the center of our lives and faith.

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 73.

You can never outgrow the gospel

February 3, 2016

lgcoverOne theme I’ve explored recently on this blog and in sermons is the relationship between justification—that part of salvation during which our sins are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us—and sanctification. When we evangelical Christians talk of being “saved,” we’re really talking about justification. Sanctification, by contrast, is that process of inner transformation that the Holy Spirit works within us.

With some embarrassment, I confess that early in my ministry I preached and taught that justification isn’t the main point of the Christian living: the main point is what happens after justification. Yes, we need to be justified, but we are justified in order to get on with it. And getting on with it, of course, was a self-improvement program that I wrongly called “sanctification.”

See, no matter how much I talked about sanctification being a work of the Spirit rather than something that I do, I could never live it out without becoming enslaved to the Law (after I had already been set free from it)—and with the Law came guilt and condemnation.

All that to say, I now believe that justification actually is the main point; it’s at the very center of the gospel, and it ought to be at the center of our lives. Every day we should be amazed all over again that our God, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” saw fit to send his Son to reconcile us to God through Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Read the rest of this entry »

How does God “speak” to us?

February 2, 2016

In a blog post today, Anne Kennedy tackles a popular idea in evangelical thought: that God speaks to us outside of his Word—so much so that we say, “God told me to do this,” or “I feel that God is leading me to do that” without reference to what God tells us through scripture. She admits she’s tempted to use this language, and she has used this language in the past, but she’s giving it up.

It’s a principled, theological choice, and it’s been very hard to carry forward. First of all, it has forced me to see where I haven’t really believed scripture to be sufficient. Has God spoken? Why, yes he has. In the scriptures. They were written a long time ago, but God uses them to work on the insides of each Christian in an intimate, personal way. I read the bible all the time, and God uses those words to cut open my heart of stone. Often, it feels like he’s leaping out of the page in bodily form. But he isn’t speaking audibly to me. He isn’t using impressions and feelings. He is speaking to me, through the scriptures. I don’t really always enjoy that process. It is often painful and difficult. I would like something extra and something more than the bible. But the bible itself says it is enough. The scriptures are sufficient to make me complete for every good work.

Second, it has forced me to exercise my mind and will in the making of decisions. I pray differently now than I did before. When I could say, ‘God called me’ or ‘God led me’, the onus was on God not to screw up. And when I did something foolish, I was quick to blame him for my error. Conflating my sinful desires with the leading of God himself was the easy comfortable way. But also, dare I say it, the ugly way. God, of course leads and guides me, but it’s not me sitting around waiting for the word. I don’t get a special Holy Spirit download of words and impressions. I have to read the bible, pray, look at my actual circumstances, act, beg God to stop me if I’m doing the wrong thing, and keep inching forward in what feels like the darkness. But all the time, the more mature I become as a Christian, God is building wisdom in my inner parts, opening and closing the vistas that surround me, providentially moving me in the direction he wants me to go. I don’t need that special word. The scripture is sufficient especially with the Holy Spirit wielding it deftly at the mind and heart.

She is making the exact same point that theologian Phillip Cary makes in his book Good News for Anxious ChristiansIn fact, Cary complains that this waiting around for God to tell us, for example, whom to marry, or what school to go to, or what job to take, or what kind of $65 million private jet to purchase, is a recent development in the history of evangelical thought. According to Cary, it never occurred to previous generations of Protestants to think that God gave such explicit instructions. Instead, they believed, God’s guidance came through the Bible as mediated by the Holy Spirit and our own God-given wisdom.

In the church I grew up in (a Southern Baptist one in suburban Atlanta), we would be rightly suspicious of people who said, “God told me…,” yet even we talked in youth group of being “in” or “out of” God’s will. (Have you heard that before?) That God has one (ideal) plan for each person’s life, and it’s up to each person to discover what it is. You’d better not get it wrong, either. Because being “out of” God’s will—sometimes called “missing” God’s will—could mean a lifetime of misery—unless or until you decided to get back on the path of God’s will.

One problem with using language of “God told me,” being “in” or “out of” God’s will, or “missing God’s will” is that it underestimates God’s sovereignty and providence. God isn’t “in control” inasmuch as we submit our lives to his will; he’s in control regardless. God’s plan for our lives isn’t sidetracked by our failure to do one thing or another. Why? Because, with his foreknowledge, he’s already accounted for our actions—good and bad, faithful and unfaithful—and worked all of them into his plan for us.

Another problem with this language is that it underestimates God’s grace. Yes, we may feel more confident and courageous knowing that a particular course of action has been sanctioned by a specific “word” from the Lord. But even apart from such a word, we can be confident that God will redeem our actions and use them for good.

Having said all that, while Kennedy’s (and Cary’s) words serve as a helpful warning, I don’t buy in to their argument completely. For one thing, I’ve had those strong intuitions that God is “speaking” to me. Maybe that’s an understatement: I’ve felt as if God has zapped me with lightning sometimes. Maybe that’s not God’s “voice,” but it’s something! So perhaps the language we use to describe these intuitions is imprecise or inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us in some way through them.

Besides, God foreknew that we would have these strong intuitions, including how we would interpret and respond to them. Therefore, it’s no stretch to imagine that he uses them—as he does everything else—for our good. If we’re wrong, he’ll redeem this mistake too.

The cross of Christ in Numbers 21

February 1, 2016

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Allan Bevere, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, has a nice reflection on different theories of atonement in this post. I largely agree with him, except I would make an important distinction between the different theories that he fails to make: between objective and subjective theories of atonement.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I do have a theological axe to grind when it comes to penal substitution: although I’m eager to distinguish the true theory from the caricature, I believe it’s the primary biblical motif of how atonement is accomplished.

But forget the label “penal substitution” for a moment. The main question, in my mind, is, “Do you believe that Christ’s death on the cross does something for us, objectively, to deal with our sins and reconcile us with God?” We can argue about the particulars all we want: if we agree on the answer to that question, we probably don’t have any important disagreement on the matter. As a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness at every moment, I need to know that my saving relationship with God, at least to a very large extent, doesn’t depend on me.

If it mostly depends on me—on my response to the cross, my will, my efforts—I’m doomed. This is why Abelard’s “moral influence theory,” which seems to be the only classical theory that theological progressives are willing to embrace, is, for me, least important. Yes, the cross inspires love within me, but that love itself can’t save me apart from the fact that my sin is imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me.

I talked about penal substitution in yesterday’s sermon, without using the term, when I talked about Jesus’ reference to Numbers 21:4-9 in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I asked how it is that we experience the new birth that Christ talks about. I said:

Jesus gives Nicodemus an illustration from scripture to help him—and us—understand how it is that this new birth is accomplished. In verses 14 and 15, he says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” “Moses’ lifting up this serpent” is a reference to something that happens in Numbers 21, beginning with verse 4. The Israelites have become impatient with Moses while wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And they’re grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They’re referring to manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that God has graciously provided them. They’re literally blaspheming against God.

“Then,” it says in verse 6, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Get the picture? The Israelites would get bitten by these poisonous snakes, and when they did, they would look up at this bronze snake on a pole and their lives would be saved. Similarly, Jesus says, when he is “lifted up”—by which he means lifted up on the cross, on Calvary—it’s like Moses lifting up this bronze snake on a pole. Christ on the cross is like that snake on the pole. I know this sounds like a really strange comparison, but let’s think about it:

Because of their blasphemy, because of their unfaithfulness, because of their sin, Israel was facing God’s judgment and God’s wrath. God was justifiably angry because of his people’s sin. As punishment, he was sending these poisonous snakes to kill them—until the people repented and Moses intervened and prayed to God. The bronze snake, please notice, wasn’t preventative medicine; it was only needed by those who were already snake-bitten. Once they had been snake-bitten, their only hope for rescue was to look upon this image of a snake—a symbol of the very thing that was killing them. That’s how they would be saved.

In a similar way, Jesus is saying, we are all snake-bitten by sin. We’re all dying. Because of our sin, we’re all under God’s judgment, and, unless we’re rescued, we will all face God’s wrath for our sins. And what do we do to save ourselves? Just as the Israelites looked at a symbol for the very thing that was killing them, we, too, look to the symbol of the very thing that’s killing us—not a poisonous snake this time, but our sin. That’s exactly what Christ represents for us on the cross. When we look at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Bible says we are looking at our sin. Remember 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Christ became our sin—it’s as if he took within his own body the deadly venom that was killing us—and died in our place!